I have to take my hat off to Olympus.
The Olympus E-P1 Pen camera was launched only about half a year ago, taking the photographic world by storm with its classic design, great image quality and realizing the big potential of the Micro Four Thirds standard.
It carved out a niche that pro photographers have been begging Nikon and Canon to do so for years, and basically bumped up the Olympus E-series from struggling SLR brand to a leader in a new market niche.
Panasonic quickly followed up with the GF-1 but in this crazy camera market, first mover advantage is critical – tens of thousands of consumers were locked down by Olympus by the time the GF-1 appeared. I’ve written plenty about the Pen (Review Part 1, Part 2, Using it with the 25mm, and plenty of images here and here). Oly later announced the mildly upgraded E-P2, which didn’t really warrant any existing owners to upgrade.
Now I was stunned last week to learn of the upcoming E-PL1, or what I’d call the Pen Junior. Now that was fast! Olympus has shown its cards on how it really intends to own the consumer market with this new segment.
I won’t go into the technical specifics here, but here’s what I know
It’s cheaper (USD$599 for a 14-42mm zoom kit, which translates to an SRP of S$845. When the E-P1 was launched in Singapore, the street price for the zoom kit was about S$1200).
It’s more plasticky, compared to the rock-solid metal housing of the original Pen. But then again, so are most digicams below S$1,000. It’s obviously not as retro-sexy too.
It comes with a flash. This is something photographers have all complained about not having in the original Pen, but it’s usually too weak to match with bigger lenses or large area subjects. Still, it’ll satisfy many consumers who don’t know much about manual photography.
It has no rear dials for manual operation, requiring you to press many buttons to adjust aperture and shutter speeds. This is a big downer for photography enthusiasts or pros, but we have to remember this camera is not marketed at us. The rear view (above) looks just like any ordinary digicam these days, which is a good thing for the average Joe.
Weaker optical stabilization (3 stops instead of 4 stops), but this is a small issue.
Smaller LCD (2.7” instead of 3”, but same number of pixels at 230,000 dots)
Lighter weight of 298g versus 335g for the E-P2.
Read more comparisons here from dpreview.com.
I have many friends who are very interested in the Pen but balk at the high price, for which they can buy an entry-level dSLR with better image quality and range of lenses. That’s missing the point, because the Pen and its brethren are not meant to compete directly with dSLRs, but provide a complementary alternative when you don’t feel like lugging around a lot of heavy gear.
For parents of young babies and toddlers, the Pen also provides image quality far better than those from normal digicams. In the past six months, I’ve almost stopped using my Canon EOS 5D for family photos, only because the Pen is so convenient to carry around in a small Domke bag with an additional lens and flash.
With the E-PL1, “near-dSLR” convenience and image quality is now within reach of many more consumers. In recent years, I’ve considered prosumer digicams (big and bulky digicams like the Canon G-series) that had tiny image sensors (as small as your pinky fingernail) a waste of money.
No amount of noise-reduction processing or fat zoom lenses could mask the fact that these prosumer digicams weren’t much better than a S$400 digicam. For S$800, you were better off saving a bit more for a dSLR or Pen. That is, until the E-PL1 came along.
If marketed right, the E-PL1 and upcoming peers can easily kill off prosumer digicams within the next few years. Photographers jumped onto the original Pen, but Olympus had difficulty convincing many consumers why they should get a Pen despite all the lifestyle advertising.
(Oly, you should have spent your money marketing the original Pen on existing dSLR owners, not women)
Now that Oly has dumbed down the features, removed the manual dials to lesser intimidate users, thrown in a flash, and most importantly, brought the price down to an affordable price point, I won’t be surprised if the E-PL1 becomes a big hit.
Dear Oly, here’s wishing you all the best, just don’t mess up the marketing please. And do release more pancake lenses!
PS: For those who think I’ve defected from Canon, you’re off the mark. If Canon ever releases a similar camera like the Pen, I’d buy it in a second because I’m a Canon fanboy. Unfortunately, Canon looks like it’s still monitoring the market and protecting its current 35mm/APS dSLR space. Seriously guys, this is a no brainer. Your G-series’ days are numbered and ought to have been replaced years ago. The only G-series camera I bought was the G3, and that was in 2003! The later G-cameras were all a letdown with unimpressive specifications.