Looking only slightly like the original Micro Four Thirds concept design that Olympus floated last September at Photokina, the company's retro Pen E-P1 with interchangeable lens debuts this year to ride the coat-tails of the 50th anniversary of the company's Pen film camera. From the name, to the design, to the tagline etched on its top -- 'Olympus Pen since 1959' -- it feels like both an homage and a desperate reminder that Olympus was in the camera business long before most digital photographers were born.
That said, the design works, although the company has sacrificed some important features to implement it. The photo quality should satisfy anyone shopping in its price class. Unfortunately, the E-P1's performance fails to live up to the promise of the rest of the camera. Still, the overall shooting experience is probably good enough to deliver Olympus a good-sized niche among style-conscious enthusiasts.
You can buy the E-P1 in various configurations online. The body-only package costs around £600, the 17mm pancake lens kit costs about £750, the 14-42mm (28mm-84mm equivalent) lens kit costs around £700, and the package with both the 17mm and 14-42mm lens costs around £850.
Although all their offerings include a full set of manual and semi-manual exposure modes and other advanced features, Panasonic and Olympus have taken very different approaches to their Micro Four Thirds products, implicitly appealing to two diverse types of shooters. While Panasonic seems to be going for the technology-focused digital SLR shooter looking for a more compact model, Olympus seems to be targeting the more aesthetically driven enthusiast who wants -- and is willing to pay for -- the flexibility of an interchangeable lens system in the more compact design of models like the Canon PowerShot G and Panasonic Lumix LX series.
That explains some of the features that Olympus has sacrificed, including a viewfinder -- electronic or otherwise -- as well as on-camera flash. Olympus is offering an optional, low-profile hot-shoe flash and a hot-shoe direct viewfinder with the 17mm pancake lens. Although the E-P1 offers mini-HDMI out, it doesn't have a mic input or headphone jack for video, as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 does. If those are deal-breaking capabilities for you, you may want to wait for Olympus' subsequent products in the E-P line, although who knows when they'll appear.
Although the E-P1 is retro from the front, it's all digital round the back, with a pretty typical control layout. Along the right side of the LCD run autofocus and auto-exposure lock buttons, as well as playback, delete and menu buttons.
To their right sits a user-definable function button, which you can assign to invoke face-detection mode, provide a depth-of-field preview, set manual white balance, reset the AF area to its home position, use manual focus, override raw settings, take an unsaved test picture, pull up 'mymode' custom settings, toggle the LCD backlight or disable the button entirely. As we've seen with other Olympus models, this method of setting the manual white balance is confusing, especially the first time. Unless you know to program the function button for it first, you'll never figure out how to set the manual white balance.