New Olympus Pen Cameras: Smaller, Faster, and More Powerful

Compact interchangeable-lens cameras are shrinking. Somehow, at the same time, they're getting more and more powerful.

Olympus today announced an overhaul of its Pen interchangeable-lens camera lineup, with three new models slated for release in the coming months. Along with the new high-end Pen E-P3, Olympus introduced the Pen Lite E-PL3 and Pen Mini E-PM1, which are significantly smaller and lighter than anything in previous generations of Pen cameras.

Video: Hands On With the Olympus PEN E-P3

The three new models address one of the previous Pen cameras' notable shortcomings, as they all feature a new high-speed autofocus system, which Olympus claims is the fastest in the Digital SLR and interchangeable-lens class. Though previous-generation Pen cameras such as the Pen E-P2 and Pen E-PL2 fared well in our tests of image quality and usability, their autofocus features lagged a bit in macro settings and in low light. In the new cameras, those focus features have become a core strength rather than a drawback.

In addition to the three new camera models, Olympus also unveiled two new Pen-system lenses and a wireless flash. All of the announced items are due to be available starting in August.

Olympus Pen E-P3

The new flagship Pen camera, the Olympus Pen E-P3 replaces the Pen E-P2 at the top end of the Pen lineup. It offers a similar aesthetic style and in-body image stabilization to its predecessor.

The E-P3 introduces a 3-inch OLED touchscreen, a revamped 12-megapixel Live MOS sensor, and a new imaging engine. The new "Fast AF System" supports 35 individual focus points and touch-to-focus controls while shooting still images; Olympus claims that the camera's focus speeds are faster than those on any other compact interchangeable-lens camera on the current market.

After a few days of hands-on time with the Pen E-P3, I can confirm that the autofocus system works as advertised: It's very fast, rarely searches in and out before locking focus, and works well with the camera's touch-to-focus OLED screen. Autofocus feels much snappier than it did on previous Pen cameras, such as the E-P2 and the E-PL2. The E-P3's autofocus performs at least as well as the focus system in Panasonic's Lumix G-series cameras, which is the fastest one I had seen before the Pen E-P3's.

The E-P3's touch-to-focus controls are a great addition, but they work only with still shots (the Lumix G-series cameras support dynamic focus adjustments while shooting video). All in all, I prefer Olympus's touchscreen implementation to the one on the comparable-size Panasonic Lumix GF2, as it provides traditional buttons and controls for settings in addition to offering touchscreen options. In other words, the E-P3's touchscreen augments rather than replaces the camera's traditional controls.

The new imaging engine speeds up individual shot-to-shot times, even outside of the camera's 3-frame-per-second burst mode, as the camera writes and readies itself for the next shot much more quickly than previous Pen models did. Video capture and ISO sensitivity have also been upgraded with the Pen E-P3: The new camera records 1080i AVCHD video at 60 fields per second (with stereo mics), and ISO settings range up to a whopping ISO 12800.

The E-P3 offers RAW shooting, full manual controls, and aperture- and shutter-priority modes in addition to its Auto, Art Filter, and scene mode selections. The new camera also has a redesigned, streamlined pop-up flash that lies flush with the top of the camera when it's closed. The Pen E-P3 also has a detachable handgrip, which you can screw on or remove to suit your preference. Olympus includes a basic textured grip with the camera; other grips (sold separately) will be available, too.

New in-camera features include automatic exposure adjustment to bring out foreground details in backlit images, the ability to adjust light and dark tones independently while shooting, a handful of new Art Filter modes, and single-lens 3D image capture with the ability to add Art Filters to three-dimensional shots. To record the stereo images needed for the 3D effect, you pan the camera from side to side, much as with Sony's 3D Sweep Panorama feature. Afterward, you'll need a 3D TV setup with the appropriate glasses to see the three-dimensional effect properly.

The camera's ten Art Filters are a lot of fun to play around with, allowing casual users to capture tilt-shift-lens style shots, pinhole-camera effects, and a "Dramatic Tone" effect that does exactly what it says it does. The camera also has an "Art Filter Bracketing" mode that applies all 10 filters to your image as its being taken, as well as saving a standard, unaltered JPEG. This comes in handy for reviewing how good your shot looks with the different filters enabled, then keeping the best of the lot.

At 1.35 inches deep, 4.8 inches wide, and 2.7 inches tall, the Pen E-P3 is the largest of the three new Olympus cameras, but it's still considerably smaller than a DSLR. Pound-for-pound, it competes with the Panasonic Lumix GF3 (1.28 by 4.24 by 2.64 inches), the Sony Alpha NEX-C3 (1.31 by 4.38 by 2.38 inches), and the much smaller-sensored Pentax Q (1.2 by 3.9 by 2.3 inches).

Due in August 2011, the Olympus Pen E-P3 will sell for $900 as a kit with either a 14-42mm (28 to 84mm in 35mm film equivalent) zoom lens or a 17mm (34mm equivalent) F2.8 pancake lens. After using the camera, I expect it to be a serious contender in the compact interchangeable-lens class, thanks to its lightning-fast autofocus system, useful balance of touchscreen- and button-based controls, wide array of creative shooting modes, and travel-friendly size.

Olympus Pen Lite E-PL3

The latest addition to Olympus's relatively beginner-friendly Pen E-PL series is the rebranded Pen Lite E-PL3. The E-PL3 features the same 12-megapixel sensor, fast autofocus system, and image-processor combo as the higher-end E-P3, and it even adds a few things to its feature set: a tilting 3-inch LCD screen to aid with odd-angle shots, and a faster burst mode that maxes out at 5.5 frames per second with the camera's stabilization system turned off (or 4.1 fps with stabilization active).

Key limitations include the lack of an onboard flash (one is included with the camera, but you need to attach it via the camera's hotshoe) and the lack of touchscreen controls. The E-PL3 also offers six Art Filter modes instead of the E-P3's ten, but most of the other in-camera options (manual controls, RAW shooting, 1080i video, and Art Filter bracketing) remain the same.

According to Olympus, the E-PL3 is 25 percent smaller than its predecessor, the Pen E-PL2. However, due to its tilting LCD, the Pen Lite E-PL3 is a bit thicker than the EP-3, measuring 1.46 inches deep. In the other two dimensions, however, it's smaller at 4.3 inches wide and 2.5 inches tall.

No pricing or release date has been announced for the Olympus Pen Lite E-PL3.

Olympus Pen Mini E-PM1

The most diminutive new addition to the Pen line is the aptly named Olympus Pen Mini E-PM1, which does away with the other new cameras' physical buttons in order to stay trim. Despite its smaller size, the Olympus Mini E-PM1 has the same guts as the other two cameras (the new 12-megapixel sensor, image-processing engine, 1080i/60fps video, manual and automated modes), but it lacks a physical mode dial and built-in flash.

The Pen Mini E-PM1 truly looks like a point-and-shoot camera with DSLR-like plumbing, as most of the camera's controls are handled by a back-mounted scrollwheel and just a few dedicated buttons. Olympus says that the in-camera menu system for the Pen Mini E-PM1 was redesigned from the ground up to enable users to access the camera's settings easily on its fixed 3-inch LCD screen with minimal hardware controls.

Aimed at casual shooters looking to step up from a point-and-shoot, the Pen Mini E-PM1 will be available in six colors: black, brown, silver, white, pink, and purple. Pricing and release date are still to be determined.

New Pen-Compatible Lenses and Wireless Flash

Rounding out today's mountain of Olympus announcements are two new Pen-series lenses and a wireless flash. The M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm/F2.0 prime lens (24mm in 35mm equivalent) is geared toward street shooters and carries an $800 price tag; it's available immediately. The even-faster M.Zuiko Digital ED 45mm/F1.8 prime lens (90mm in 35mm equivalent) is billed as a "Family Portrait" lens; it's priced at $400 and will be available in September. The Electronic Flash FL-300R is an adjustable bounce flash that you can attach to a camera's hot shoe or use disconnected from camera, thanks to its wireless sync capabilities. It's available now for $170.

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