Will the real photographers please stand up?

E-P1 14-42mmSlv_Front_Wh The Second Coming Of Digicams? Surely I jest.

As my faithful readers would know, I’ve been a big fan of the Olympus E-P1 Pen camera since it was first released in Singapore early last month. It’s an amazing camera for what it is, and for its target market (which most people will never figure out, and more on that later.) Never mind that I’ve been promoting Canon gear for the last decade, one can always love more than one brand of camera. I still use my Canons whenever I need absolute quality though (eg. morning landscapes or portraits of my kids). 

Now I’ve been reading an endless stream of online reviews or articles that not only praise the Pen, but keep bringing up two missing hardware features as huge downsides or even deal-breakers.

Namely, the lack of an optical viewfinder and an in-built flash. And just about everyone whines about the slow autofocus using the kit zoom lens.

Let me just grab a few quick quotes for you…

The Olympus E-P1 is an otherwise excellent enthusiast compact camera hampered by some performance problems and the lack of a viewfinder and built-in flash. – CNET

In summary the Olympus E-P1 is a refreshingly different, easy to use, fairly compact camera with the obvious advantages of interchangeable lenses and a DSLR sensor. The main negatives are the lack of a built-in flash and optical viewfinder, plus the slow auto-focus system. – PhotographyBlog.com

You were so dazzled, for example, that you didn’t notice at first that there’s no flash. No flash?

“Oh, come on, you don’t need a flash,” the camera seems to say. “You have my gigantic sensor! Use natural light! Besides, if you’re such a wuss, you can always buy the optional $200 external flash.” You murmur, “Yes, dear.” But in your head, you’re bummed about the hassle of packing and attaching another piece of equipment. Wasn’t the E-P1’s slender, svelte body part of the initial attraction?

You also suspect you’ll miss the convenience of a quick fill flash when your subject’s face is in shadow. Maybe you decide you can live with that — but then you realize there’s no optical viewfinder to peer through, either. You have to frame your shots using the 3-inch screen. And it’s not a great screen, at that. It’s hard to see in sunlight.

“Viewfinder, schmiewfinder,” the camera chides you. “If it makes you happy to hold something up to your eye, buy the snap-on external viewfinder for $100!” Now you’re getting annoyed. The snap-on viewfinder is just a piece of glass. It doesn’t show any status indicators, and your view doesn’t change as you zoom or adjust focus. You may as well make an O with your fingers and peer through that. – New York Times

If you read all this from an editorial point of view, whose target market is the everyday consumer who’s looking to blow some cash on a new gadget, yes, their points are absolutely valid. If you are looking for an all-in-one camera, the Pen does come across as missing a few vital organs.

But does somebody realize that the Pen was not really created for the Average Joe?

It was created for photographers who know what they’re shooting, not people who just want a nice camera that makes them look like real photographers. It’s all very elitist-sounding, yes, but I speak for my brethren who used to, or continue to make a decent living out of photography, and we are a rather small population.

(Also, let me populate this post with some of my latest Pen photos just for fun.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Is this picture worth the price of the Pen? Only if you keep getting the same great results, which I do, and it’s only because I force the camera to take what I want, not the other way around.

The Unholy Price Tag

A big hint is the price tag – SGD$1,400 for the Pen with a 17mm pancake lens. That’s awfully expensive ain’t it? You could buy an entry-level SLR and have money leftover for an additional lens at that price!

If you just had that thought, this camera is not for you.

No Viewfinder

It doesn’t have a viewfinder! How can you compare it to dSLRs when it has no viewfinder? I can’t see the LCD screen in broad daylight, especially during lunch time!

Here’s what I know about viewfinders:

  1. If you put in an optical viewfinder, you’ll need a through-the-lens system which would bring the Pen back to the size of a normal dSLR.
  2. If you put in an electronic viewfinder (ie. a very small LCD screen that you peek into), you’ll realize how much they suck since it’s not an optical viewfinder.

And if you’re shooting people under a noon sun, you need to know that that’s the worst possible time to take anyone’s photo outside of the shade. People squint, the shadows cast are unflattering and generally people look less happy than if they’re in the shade.

Despite all that, I’ve not had a problem nailing exposures using the offending LCD. Any photographer worth his salt will be able to compensate for the lower brightness of the screen and adjust the manual exposure properly on screen to ensure that there are no overblown highlights or massive shadows.

If you desperately need a viewfinder, yes, this camera is not for you. But yes, the viewfinder could be brighter in the day.

No In-built Flash

This is something I’m personally ambivalent about, but seems to drive other people crazy. I personally don’t use the in-build flash on any camera very much, because it produces deer-in-the-headlight kind of photos and I’d never frame up those kind of shots. If I do use a flash, it’ll be with an external flash unit that can swivel and bounce light off the ceiling or walls for more natural looking shots.

E-P1 14-42mmBlk FL14_Front_SlThe Pen with the FL-14 flash accessory. Buy the camera, but avoid the expensive flash like the plague. 

And here’s a real stinker – I bought the cute silver SGD$250 FL-14 flash accessory for the Pen, and it’s downright horrible. Bet you didn’t read that in any review.

50% of the time, it blasts out the wrong flash exposure and my shots are either terribly over- or under-exposed. Yes, by writing this, I’d guarantee that I’ll never be able to sell that awful product off to some sucker but this is for the greater good.

You’ll probably be better off with a third party flash like the Metz but then, wouldn’t it make your Pen too heavy?

If you need a flash…oh you get the message by now.

Slow Autofocus

This is the general complaint that really annoys me.

Here’s the CNET technical assessment as an example:

Unfortunately, the E-P1’s performance, which seems to suffer from a sluggish AF system, cries out for a firmware upgrade. It powers on and shoots in about 2.2 seconds, a reasonable duration. But on CNET’s performance tests, shot lag (the time it takes to focus and shoot) with the kit lens in good light runs about 1.3 seconds and rises to 1.6 seconds in dim light.

E-P1 17mm VF1_Left_14-42mmBlk_SlThe Pen not only works faster with the 17mm pancake fixed lens (affixed in picture above) over the zoom lens, it looks a lot prettier too. 

Now I think Oly made a massive mistake globally by passing review units with the zoom lens affixed to mainstream press reviewers. Even before the product was available, I knew it would be a waste of time getting the zoom lens over the fixed pancake lens. The slow aperture of the kit zoom ensures poor intake of light and AF speed is often a factor of how much light the camera is taking in. Naturally, everyone would review the zoom lens kit as being slow and sluggish.

With the 17mm lens, I find the focus speed to be more than acceptable and on par with the best digicam on the market today – the Panasonic LX-3. Yes, it could be more accurate (there’s some backfocusing with the Pen), but even top SLRs can suffer from backfocusing.

And the Pen is obviously not fast enough to take many action shots without pre-focusing. It’s not marketed as an action camera either, folks.

But egads, you mean one should shoot without a zoom lens? But every digicam today has some sort of zoom! How do you expect me to zoom in on a scene without a zoom lens?

Sorry, this camera really isn’t for you.

So who on earth is the Pen really for?

Good question, glad you made it to this portion.

One target market is obviously women who love pretty products, but they’d be stumped when they bring this into a nightclub and realize the camera needs a flash (duh).

Another market is gadget freaks who can afford anything.

But the biggest market, arguably, are professional shooters.

Why?

The Pen is one of the few camera products in a long long time to really answer the needs of experienced photographers who are strong in their photography fundamentals and are sick of the weight a full dSLR system entails.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ask any good photographer today using a dSLR for work and he’ll show you a backup digicam inside his bag. It’s probably something like a Ricoh wide-angle, a Canon G10 or a Panasonic LX-3 grade camera. Some also like to use Fujifilm digicams which produce great results. Or more likely, it’s an entry-level, smaller version of the dSLR he’s currently using, so all the lenses can be reused on the backup. (Eg. an EOS 500D backup body for a EOS 5D body)

The need for a backup is important, because all cameras can die on you suddenly by choice or by dumb luck during a real shoot.

But digicams make terrible backup cameras and the photographer just doesn’t want to bring his professional gear on a vacation. The first thing that kills your vacation is an aching shoulder, and trust me, I’ve carried my Domke with loads of dSLR gear throughout trips in Oz, US and Italy and I’ll never do it again.

Most importantly, digicams just don’t cut it when it comes to image quality once you’re used to a dSLR.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         The Red and Blue goblins at Toa Payoh North

For us photogs, the Pen immediately ticks every critical box. It combines great image quality, small lenses and a small, beautiful body all in one package. And it does video too, which is a nice, but unnecessary bonus in my opinion. The price is not really an issue considering we don’t blink very much when we spend several thousands on single lens and blow the toy budget for several years at one go.

Sure, the Pen’s image sensor is smaller and noisier than an EOS 5D, the lenses aren’t super tack-sharp like my Canon EF lenses and the body could be a bit lighter. But that’s missing the forest for the trees folks.

The moderate AF speed of the Pen demands careful shooting, but all good photographers shoot carefully, don’t they?

Whatever happened to waiting for that Kodak moment, or the decisive shot? Why do people think that shooting dozens of photos of the same scene will promise a great shot? (Caveat – I blast the camera shutter away at my kids because the two goblins change expressions endlessly).

P8011146Isabel at Bugis Junction food court

If you missed the money shot, it’s not the camera’s fault, but yours. People have shot great iconic stuff with nothing more than a simple manual film camera like the Nikon FM-2, and if you’ve used that very basic camera, you’d quit complaining about any digicam today because the latter feels like a magic upgrade.

Real photography demands absolute commitment and years of practice, as well as a dash of aesthetic sense. And the ability to “feel” or predict when the decisive moment is coming. Sounds like the X-Files, but it’s true. Experienced photographers are able to sense when the money shot is coming, and switch on their cameras in advance. Only because they are observing the scene with far greater scrutiny than the non-photographer, not because they have telepathy.

Most people will never invest in the time needed because they think it’s only something for “enthusiasts” or professionals. That means any camera they own will produce more or less the same results, image sensor quality notwithstanding.

What I’m really saying

Yet am I here to make an absolute case for the Pen? I’m not an Olympus “blogger enthusiast” nor spokesperson, and I can tell you the camera is far from perfect:

  • Outdoors, it constantly underexposes by about 1/3 to 2/3 stop as it gets confused by certain colors and the exposure needed.
  • As mentioned, the flash accessory is an absolute waste of money. A firmware upgrade is really needed here.
  • The battery life is too short – about 250 to 350 shots on average.
  • Face-detection doesn’t work most of the time in auto mode.
  • The paucity of lenses is keeping many people away from investing at this point of time.
  • It’s overpriced even for prosumers. Should be at SGD1,200 or less for a kit given current economic conditions and given the fact it’s using existing Four-Third-sized sensors found in other Olympus dSLRs.

These are the downsides you’ll probably not read about because most gadget reviews are done by non-photographers. It’s too much to expect them to be anyway, since they have to review everything from cameras to printers to mobile phones.

But the point I’m making here is that the real photographers need to stand up and be counted.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Caleb and Isaac at Jacob Ballas Garden, late evening. 

For too long, since the advent of digital photography, we’ve allowed any Tom Dick and Harry writer to assume the mantle of “an photography expert” and write articles that claim to teach everyone and anyone how to shoot well and which gear allows you to do that. Amazing, considering they might have never been employed as a photographer before to prove their worth on the market.

And so many amateurs who think that just because they can afford a decent camera system or even professional f2.8 zooms, they’re good enough to start charging for photography sessions.

The net effect is that the market value of many hardworking, talented photography professionals have plummeted over the past decade. From the wedding albums I’ve seen put on public display, the average Singaporean is quite happy with mediocre, Photoshopped images that are tilted at 45 degrees most of the time. And the average photographer is more than happy to keep churning those out.

Real photography starts from learning the fundamentals of exposure, than moving on to creating what is universally accepted as an aesthetic piece of work. Today, more than ever, people need to know that it’s not the camera that takes the photo, but the person. Flickr, Facebook or even YouTube will not make your visuals famous if they are mediocre to begin with.

Good photographers can squeeze the best out of every imaging machine, and the great news is that we can squeeze far more out of the Pen than many cameras today. So if you don’t know what constitutes a useful photographic tool, please don’t knock a great tool like the Pen. What it lacks may be what the camera needed to exist in the first place. If you don’t want to buy it, you don’t have to write it off like I’ve seen some people do.

From a photographer and tech writer’s point of view, I consider the Pen to mark a whole new era in the camera market. Mark my words, this kicks off the beginning of the Prosumer Camera Wars.

I can’t wait for the competition to arrive.

12 Replies to “Will the real photographers please stand up?”

  1. Ian,

    I basically agree with the principle of your article. People need to realize that different tools are needed for various situations.

    In the future, I am considering a camera that is more compact than a DSLR but has a bigger sensor like the DSLRs. The Olympus E-P1 Pen camera also has a feature that I think is great in that it offers a variety of aspect ratios, 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, and 6:6.

    I especially love the fact that they thought of offering photographers the square! Can someone shoot in the 6:6 format and as a RAW file?

    Wonderful writing, I enjoy hearing how another photographer sees and approaches the medium.

    Thank you.

    Mark

  2. I think Panasonic got this genre right with the GH1 – the right combination of size and performance. As for the Pen – i suspect it has had features and performance crippled to create demand for a future successor model. Camera companies are famous for doing that. I agree, you don’t need a viewfinder or flash, but slow focus with a zoom lens is inexcusable. You buy this to save bulk – so a zoom lens should be its ideal companion.

  3. Woot! You mentioned Ricoh in your post! Yeh, most pro photogs carry around a GX100/GX200/GRD with them (or so I read in the forums).

    Nice photo of the HDB point block with the sky and clouds. For some reason, I like taking these sort of pictures, and I’m always challenging myself (and the camera) to ensure that the sky comes out blue and not white-saturated. And it has to do with the time of day I think…

    For hot-shoe flash, I have a Metz 20-C (or is it C-20) flash and it’s the neatest piece of gear. The swivel works brilliantly, and even without TTL, I still get quite accurate EV with the flash after one, maximum two tries.

    Lastly, I think the competition may arrive in the Panasonic Lumix GF-1. The leaked photos look promising! For one, it has a playback button, not a playback switch (which, on the LX3, doesn’t allow you to quickly switch to record mode by half-pressing the shutter).

  4. I read you article alot on the PEN and i appreciate all those information had help me a lot on consider on PEN as my wish list…. but somehow is it possible to show how bad was when you took the picture with your PEN + FL 14 flash ? I would love to see those especially in slow light flashing setting and also with the TTL setting on the flash itself….

  5. Word! Thank you for this lucid description of a fundamental problem with most “camera talk” on the Web. The problem is that with the rise of digital cameras, they are now lumped into the “techno” and “gadget” departments. Most P&S cameras are, in fact, “gadgets that take photos.” Most experienced photographers, on the other hand, are more interested in talking about *cameras.*

    The EP-1 is all about being a camera, not a gadget.

    I had the same frustration a couple of years ago when the Sigma DP1 was announced. In the months leading up to its release there was endless misinformation and complaining about the lack of a flash, the lack of a zoom, and the lack of an optical or EVF viewfinder. People also complained about the price, saying you could get an entry level DSLR for the same amount (and I would always scream to myself “THAT’S NOT THE POINT!”). I ended up starting a blog just about the DP1 (http://myDP1.wordpress.com) where I could counter all that silliness. Sadly, when the DP1 finally came out I was so disappointed by the performance issues that I ended up not getting one. (As I said in one of my last posts, “getting the shot on a 1/1.7 sensor is better than missing the shot on an APS-C Foveon.”)

    I’m really interested in the EP-1 for all of the reasons you talk about. I never use flash, and I’ve managed without an optical viewfinder for years. I’m holding off for now, however, until I hear more about the Lumix GF1 (I’m currently an LX3 user, so I’m partial to the Panasonics.)

    Again, thanks for writing from the point of view of a photographer and not just a tech/gadget guy!

  6. Personally, i think it is quite the ‘looker’ of a camera. I love the retro look and feel of it all.

    However, i wouldn’t opt for this camera as i require more detail which comes in handy for potentially larger prints which this camera cannot adequately deliver given the sensor size.

    But i wouldn’t call it an ‘enthusiast’ or ‘semi-pro’ or ‘prosumer’ camera. Such terms are nonsensical as it does not take into consideration that it is the goodness-of-fit between what a photographer needs and what a camera can produce that determines if it is good enough. It’s really quite pointless totting a boulder of a camera if all one is going to do is shoot for the newspaper. And high FPS is overkills if one shoots architecture or still lemons.

    I’ve gone through, within a couple of years, the Canon 300d, Nikon FA, Nikon F4, Ricoh GX100, Nikon F6, the Mamiya 7II medium format camera, and finally, the Nikon D700. I realised that at the end of the day, every type of camera delivers particular results. It is the final output and the intentions of the photographer that determines the best camera out there, and not the best camera out there that determines if one has what it takes.

  7. I used to own a Pen-F, but sold it off to a relative and bought the OM-1. But hold the E-P1 in your hands, and you know it’s special, it’s downright sensual. Like the KFC ad says, it’s better than the original. The metal in the camera body puts my E-450 to shame. I can live without a built-in flash, but I wish they put in a view finder like the one in the Camedia C3030 Zoom. A contrast detect autofocus will be faster than the phase detect in liveview, but that may not be achievable in the compact body. Although Olympus pioneered the liveview, I always use the viewfinder in my E-450 for faster response.

  8. I am still contemplating between the D-LUX 4 or the PEN after reading your recent posts. I know they are different creatures altogether but heck, one of them is gonna be inside the same bag with my 5D as a light “back-up”.

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