by Ian Burley
Olympus lays down its compact system camera marker with three new Pen Micro Four Thirds bodies and a pair of new lenses
Now with an OLED touch screen, built in flash, and interchangeable hand grip, the new Olympus Pen flagship - the Pen E-P3
It's fair to say that Olympus has been playing catch-up with its Micro Four Thirds partner and competitor, Panasonic Lumix. Lumix cameras already offer touch screens, full 1080 video, very fast autofocus, articulating screens, and Panasonic has also been ahead in bringing fast prime (fixed focal length) lenses to market. But today Olympus has, largely, caught up. A new, faster and higher sensitivity 12MP LiveMOS sensor, combined with a new dual-core TruePic VI image processing engine, is featured in three new Olympus Pen models revealed today. These ingredients serve up what Olympus claims is the world's fastest (single action) autofocus for a mirrorless camera, full HD video capability, better image quality and a better live view experience. The new flagship Pen E-P3 also gets an OLED touch screen, the mid-range Pen Lite E-PL3 has a tilting LCD screen, and the entry level Pen Mini E-PM1 is a very slim, compact and light weight design. And we have full details of the two new fast prime lenses (12mm f/2.0 and 45mm f/1.8) lenses, plus a new FL-300R flash unit.
Feature obvious cues from the highly successful Sony NEX, this is the new Olympus Pen Lite E-PL3
We're reporting from Vienna, the venue for the European launch of Olympus' latest Pen line up. Later today we'll be let loose in the city with the new E-P3 and we're told that we will be able to post original camera image samples from these cameras. The E-P3 will be the first to ship, followed later in the year by the Pen Lite E-PL3 and, in early autumn, the Pen Mini E-PM1.
The new ultra-slim, compact and light entry-level Olympus Pen Mini E-PM1
Features common to all the new models
All three new cameras share the same uprated 12MP LiveMOS sensor manufactured by Panasonic, dispelling rumours that Olympus had found a new sensor supplier. This has been mated to a next-generation TruePic VI image processing engine.
I'm told that the new sensor offers an improvement in sensitivity of around 1EV, which should deliver a noticeable improvement in noise and dynamic range performance. 12800 ISO speed setting is now available. The frame read-out speed of the new sensor has been doubled to 120 frames per second. This has enabled Olympus to re-engineer its contrast detect autofocus system and cancel a perceived weakness in AF speed that has dogged earlier Pen models. Olympus now says its AF, in single focus action mode at least, is now faster than anyone else's, including Panasonic. It's so confident about its new AF performance it calls it FAST (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology). There is also a better quality live view experience and reduced black out time inbetween shots.
Apart from basic speed improvements, the AF system now uses 35 focus points instead of 11, and the points cover a greater area of the frame and are smaller for more precise focus targeting. Olympus also claims to have improved its continuous AF tracking system, which can now cope with subjects momentarily disappearing off the frame. Eye-detection, including a user-selectable preference for the left or right eye, is now featured to supplement the familiar face detection facility. You can also choose to let the AF system check focus continuously without pressing the shutter release. There is also a return to favour of an AF-assist light using a super-bright LED. Different preferred AF modes can be set for still and video shooting
Other party tricks made possible by the new dual-core TruePic VI image processing engine include a pseudo 3D shooting mode and playback capability when connected to a compatible 3D TV. There is much emphasis on image detail extraction based on experience with the Olympus E-5 DSLR which manages to produce images with more detail than your average 12MP camera. There has also been some work done on automatic tone control to improve highlight and shadow detail performance in high contrast situations. With two cores, TruePic VI uses one for processing the image and one for serving the live view system, results in better live view quality and faster shot to shot performance. Art Filter processing speeds have been improved significantly with TruePic VI, too .Art filter intensity is adjustable and can also be bracketed. And how about a 2x digital 'tele converter' mode?
The welcome upgrade to full HD video means you can now record 1080 60i AVCHD clips up to 29 minutes long. All the new Pens have built in stereo microphones, and of course external microphones can be used via an Accessory Port adapter. MJPEG 720 30p capability has also bee retained. There is improved control of the shutter speed during video shooting, and improved image stabilisation for movie recording.
New fast prime lenses
The new retro-style m.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 portrait telephoto lens
Apart from the 17mm pancake lens, Olympus has until now not produced any other single focal length m.Zuiko lenses for Micro Four Thirds photographers. Fast prime lenses have been at the top of many users' wish lists. Today Olympus unveiled two such lenses; a 12mm (24mm equivalent) wide angle with a maximum aperture of f/2.0, and a 45mm (90mm equivalent) f/1.8 portrait lens, the fastest (brightest) interchangeable lens Olympus has yet produced since it entered the digital system camera market in 2003.
The 12mm f/2.0 with the focus ring in the up position for auto focus operation.
Here the focus ring has been snapped down to reveal the distance scale for manual focus mode. Also note the aperture depth of field scale.
The 45mm lens is also competitively priced at around £300. The 12mm lens weighs in at a not inconsiderable expected selling price of £700, but in partial compensation it has a neat feature called snap focus, which lets you switch from autofocus mode to manual focus by pulling back the focus ring on the lens. This also reveals the distance scale so you can estimate focus when using the lens for candid photography, for example. And another feature that traditionalists will welcome is the return of a depth of field/aperture scale.
New FL-300R flash
Olympus has introduced a new extra compact wirelessly-controllable flash unit, the FL-300R. Its novel design allows it to be tilted at the hot-shoe base for bounce configuration. It has a guide number of 28 at ISO 200.
While there are many common features to all three new Pens, there are also very specific features for each model and these will be covered in more detail in your illustrated product tour pages that follow this page.
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