Back in 2009 Olympus rattled roofs when they unveiled their first mirrorless camera, the Olympus E-P1. Bedecked in a retro-style body that channeled the vibes of the original Olympus Pen, a popular half-frame film camera from the 1960s, the “Digital PEN” was an instant hit that has since led to a growing number of interchangeable lens mirrorless digital cameras from a number of manufacturers. The advantage Olympus has over the “competition” is that while everybody else is playing catch-up, Olympus is already marketing third-generation designs, each of which contains refinements and improvements over previous models.
The baseline advantages of mirrorless camera systems include physically smaller camera bodies and lenses, zero image blackout during image capture, reduced levels of camera vibration, and unlike many video-enabled DSLRs, full-time autofocus when shooting video segments.
There are three current models of Digital PENs that cover the range of downright simple to real-deal serious, the latter for photographers who prefer lots of dials and “stick-shift” functionality. All three Digital PENs—the E-PM1, E-PL3 and E-P3—feature a 12.3MP Four Thirds format CMOS sensor; compatibility with Micro 4/3 optics; TruePic VI image processors; an ISO range of 200 to 12800 (plus Auto); a choice of JPEG (6 levels of compression) or RAW stills; 1080/60i HD video capture with stereo sound (up to 29 minutes per clip); sensor shift image stabilization; and variations of a 3.0-inch LCD. All three PENs can also capture 3D (MPO format) stills.
Other features common to all current Olympus PEN cameras include Face Detection with Eye Detect; the ability to transfer or upload images wirelessly when using the optional Olympus PENPAL Bluetooth Communication Unit or an Eye-Fi memory card; a 35-point FAST (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology) AF system; auto exposure and white balance bracketing; Advanced Shadow Adjustment Technology for maintaining optimal shadow and highlight details; and a shutter range of 60 seconds to 1/4000-second.
Image stabilization is accomplished in camera, which better guarantees sharp images regardless of which lens you’re using. Dust issues are addressed by Olympus’s Dust Reduction System, which is also designed into all Olympus PEN cameras.
Olympus PEN cameras also feature an HDMI output for playing back stills and video on HDTVs; a choice of uncompressed CD-quality 16-bit/48kHz linear PCM stereo recording or AC3 Dolby Digital audio; multiple-exposure capability; a choice of aspect ratios (4:3, 3:2, 16:9, 6:6,and 3:4); a 5x magnification of the center portion of the image area for precise manual focus control; and an image overlay function for up to 3 RAW image files.
In a bid to maintain warm relations between you and your family and close friends, Olympus PEN cameras also feature an ePortrait mode that softens shadows and smoothes wrinkles.
All Olympus Digital PENs are compatible with all Olympus Micro Four Thirds optics as well as optics from other manufacturers via third-party adapters. Since the physical size of a Four Thirds format imaging sensor (17.3 x 13.0mm) is roughly half the physical size of a full-frame imaging sensor (24 x 36mm), calculating the equivalent 35mm focal length of a Four Thirds format lens is simply a matter of doubling the lens’s focal length. (For example: a 14mm Four Thirds format lens displays the equivalent field of view of a 28mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera.)
Regardless of which of these three fine cameras suits your needs, they all record stills and video to a choice of SD, SDHC, or SDXC memory cards. Each features both USB 2.0 and Mini HDMI Type C connectivity, and each can capture anywhere from 300 to 330 exposures per battery charge.
When using optics other than Olympus Micro Four Thirds optics, there will be an inevitable loss, to some extent, of camera/lens functionality including AF control, metering, metadata transmission, recording and other lens/camera functions. The lenses ultimately will work, but you have to work a bit harder in order to capture the picture.
The current entry-level PEN is the Olympus PEN E-PM1, which comes with an M.Zuiko MSC Digital ED 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II zoom lens and is available in a choice of black, pink, silver, brown, purple and white. As with other digital PENs in the current Olympus lineup, the Olympus E-PM1 features a 12.3MP Four Thirds format CMOS sensor and a 3.0-inch 460,000-dot LCD. Like other Olympus PENs, the E-PM1 can capture JPEGs (at burst rates up to 5 frames per second), RAW and MPO (3D) stills as well as full-HD 1080/60i video with stereo sound. As for construction, the Olympus E-PM1 is made of a combination of polymer and metal-alloy materials.
To make the E-PM1 less technically intimidating, Olympus’s engineers stripped away almost all of the camera’s control dials, wheels and buttons, and instead designed an LCD interface that relies heavily on large, friendly typefaces, icons and a “hand-holding” pop-up Live Control and Live Guide feature that not only guides you through color, brightness and other image-enhancing controls, but also allows you to preview your efforts in real time.
To better facilitate successful stills and video, the E-PM1 has an iAuto mode that automatically discerns the parameters of the image you’re trying to capture, be it a portrait, a landscape, sports or macro shot, and automatically configures the optimal lens, shutter and tonal settings for each scenario. Other features found on the Olympus E-PM1 include 6 Art Filters (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama and Dramatic Tone) as well as a creative bracketing mode that captures a bracket of exposures while applying a different filter to each exposure, which allows you to pick and choose the best filter for the job long after you snap the shutter.
Unlike most digital cameras, the Olympus PEN E-PM1 does not have a built-in flash, but it does include an Olympus FL-LM1 accessory flash that clips onto the camera’s hot shoe. For quicker autofocusing in low light, the E-PM1 features an AF Illuminator that uses LED technology to light up subjects up to 10 feet from the camera.
The Olympus E-PL3 takes all of the features found in the Olympus E-PL1 and stirs a few tricks of its own into the mix. In place of a fixed LCD, the E-PL3 features a 460,000-dot LCD that can be tilted upward (80°) and downward (45°) to better facilitate image viewing when shooting from extreme or awkward positions. Like the E-PM1, the E-PL3 can capture JPEGs, RAW and 3D (MPO) stills at burst rates up to 5 frames per second, along with full-HD 1080/60i video clips up to 29 minutes in length with stereo sound.
Other upgrades found in the Olympus E-PL3 include all-metal construction and additional camera-function controls to complement the simplified control functions found on the entry-level Olympus E-PM1. The E-PL3 also features enhanced variations that can be applied to the camera’s 6 Art Filters. As with the Olympus PEN E-PM1, the PEN E-PL3 does not have a built-in flash, but does come with an accessory FL-LM1 accessory flash that mounts on the camera’s hot shoe. The E-PL3 also features an LED lamp for illuminating low-lit subjects up to 10' from the camera, for quicker and more accurate AF response times.
The Olympus E-PL3 is available in black, silver, red and white, and is bundled with an M.Zuiko MSC Digital ED 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II zoom lens (28-84mm equivalent). The E-PL3 is also available (in black only) with a 17mm f/2.8 M.Zuiko MSC Digital ED pancake lens (34mm equivalent).
For its flagship digital PEN, Olympus has pulled out all of the stops. The Olympus PEN E-P3 is (ever-so-slightly) physically larger than the E-PL1 and E-PL3. It also features a fixed, 3.0-inch 614,000-dot OLED touch screen LCD (with anti-fingerprint coatings!) that allows you to choose focus points, navigate the camera’s menus, and fire the shutter with a swipe or touch of a finger. The camera’s LCD is also home for an in camera leveling gauge that enables you to quickly, easily and accurately straighten horizon lines.
Compared to the entry-level simplicity of the controls found on the Olympus E-PL1, the E-P3 features a smörgåsbord of dials, wheels and buttons befitting a camera of this caliber. It also comes with a screw-on grip that fits onto the right hand front panel of the camera for better traction when hand-holding the camera.
Other upgraded features found on the Olympus PEN E-P3 include an additional 4 Art Filters (for a total of 10 Art Filters) with Art Filter bracketing and variations of each filter for fine-tuning your final results. In addition to a built-in flash (the E-P3 is the only Digital PEN with a built-in flash) the E-P3 also offers compatibility with wireless flash when lighting your photographs with Olympus FL-300R, FL-36R or FL-50R electronic flash units.
Like the E-PL1 and E-PL3, the Olympus PEN E-P3 has a Four Thirds format 12.3MP CMOS imaging sensor and can capture JPEG, RAW and 3D (MPO) stills (up to 3 frames per second) and 1080/60i HD video clips, up to 29 minutes in length, with stereo sound.
The Olympus PEN E-P3 is available in a choice of black, white and silver, and with a choice of either a M.Zuiko 14-42mm II R f/3.5-5.6 Zoom Lens or an M.Zuiko 17mm f/2.8 ED pancake lens. In January we also expect to be receiving the first shipment of the new Olympus E-P3 Street Shooter Kit, which will include an Olympus E-P3, a 14-42mm zoom, a 12mm f/2.0 (24mm equivalent) wide-angle lens, a VF-3 electronic viewfinder, a grip and a dedicated gadget bag.
Olympus PEN Lenses
To complement all of the imaging technologies built into Olympus PEN cameras, Olympus has developed an extensive line of dedicated M.Zuiko Digital Four Thirds format lenses, designed to capture the images you see in your mind’s eye.
In addition to the standard 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 ED kit zoom and 17mm f/2.8 ED pancake lens that come bundled with Olympus’s E-PM1, E-PL3 and E-P3, Olympus also offers a fast M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f/2.0 wide-angle (24mm equivalent); an even faster M.Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f/1.8 portrait lens; a wide zoom (M.Zuiko Digital ED 9-18mm f/4.0-5.6); long zooms (M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f/4.0-5.6 and M.Zuiko 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7); and a wide-to-long zoom (M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-150mm f/4-5.6).
In addition to the above-mentioned M.Zuiko lens choices, Olympus also manufactures the EC-14 and EC-20 Teleconverters, which magnify the focal lengths of select Olympus PEN lenses by a factor of 1.4x and 2x, respectively. Teleconverters are an excellent—not to mention a lightweight—and compact way to extend the focal range of your existing lens arsenal.
Olympus also offers an MCON-PO1 Macro Converter, a WCON-PO1 Wide Converter and an FCON-PO1 Fish Eye Converter, which screw onto the front of the 14-42mm kit zoom for taking macro close-ups, fisheye images and wider-than-28mm-equivalent landscapes.
Olympus PEN Accessories
In addition to an extensive selection of lenses and lens accessories, Olympus also manufactures a number of accessories designed to mount on the PEN’s accessory port for enhanced imaging possibilities.
To light up darker environments, Olympus offers a selection of shoe-mounted accessory flash units including the Olympus FL-14 and Olympus FL-300R, both of which were designed specifically for use with Olympus PEN cameras. In addition to these two compact flash units, Olympus PEN cameras can also be used with Olympus’s larger FL-36R and FL-50R TTL flash units.
Flash is not always the best lighting solution, especially for close-ups, and that’s where the Olympus Macro Arm Light comes into play. Featuring dual flexible 6.6-inch arms capped with daylight-balanced LED lamps, the Macro Arm Light, which is powered by your camera’s battery, allows you to carefully model the light falling on your subject for well lit, natural-looking results. Because the light is continuous, you get to pre-visualize the light as it will appear in your final images.
The Olympus PENPAL Bluetooth Communication Unit plugs into the PEN’s accessory port and wirelessly transmits images to Bluetooth-enabled Android or Windows smartphones, certain other Bluetooth-enabled devices, notebook computers—even to another PEN camera. Apple products such as the iPhone or iPad are not supported.
For easier image viewing when shooting under bright lighting conditions, Olympus offers the option of using an electronic viewfinder (EVF) with the Olympus PEN. The Olympus VF-3 enables viewing of 100% of the total image area with a 1.00x magnification ratio, while the Olympus VF-2 provides 100% image viewing with a 1.15x magnification ratio. Both of these EVFs mount on the camera’s accessory port and can be angled 90° upwards for easier viewing at awkward angles.
The audio quality of video captured by Olympus PENs can be further improved via the use of a higher-fidelity external microphone. The Olympus External Microphone Adapter Set meets this goal in the form of an adapter and a stereo microphone that is also designed to mount on the PEN’s accessory port. A 3.5mm mic jack is included.
|Olympus EP-3||Olympus E-PL3||Olympus E-PM1|
|Sensor resolution||12.3 MP Cmos Sensor||12.3 MP Cmos Sensor||12.3 MP Cmos Sensor|
|LCD||3" 614,000 dots, Touch Screen||3" 460,000 dots, Tilting||3" 460,000 dots|
|Stills||RAW, JPEG, RAW+JPEG, MPO||RAW, JPEG, RAW+JPEG, MPO||RAW, JPEG, RAW+JPEG, MPO|
|Video format||MPEG-4 AVCHD - 1080 (60 fps)||AVI, MJPEG, MPEG-4 AVCHD - 1080 (60 fps)||AVI, MJPEG - 1080 (60 fps)|
|Frames per second||3 fps||5 fps||5 fps|
|Flash||Built-in flash||Removeable flash, included in package||Removeable flash, included in package|
|Colors||Black, White, Silver||Black, White, Silver, Red||Black, White, Gray, Brown, Purple, Pink|
If you have any questions about these mirrorless cameras, please post them in the Comments section below. We look forward to hearing from you.
Great article! However, in discussing the EC-20 and EC-14 TCs -- they don't actually work with m.Zuiko lenses. They're compatible with the standard Four-Thirds Zuiko lenses. Those lenses, with the TCs, work on the PEN with an adapter.