Vintage Digital: Olympus Pen E-P1

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If you are a fan of mirrorless cameras, then you should probably know a few things about the Olympus Pen E-P1 and its importance in the success of the mirrorless story.

If not, then you should.

The Olympus Pen E-P1 was released in 2009 and, while not being the first Micro Four Thirds camera, it was the catalyst that triggered the mirrorless revolution.

A bit of history

Back in 2009, most serious photographers would take a DSLR as the weapon of choice. A small camera offering both portability and good image quality was a concept still unknown to most. As a matter of fact, small cameras were bullied by DSLR owners.

Yes, there was the Leica M8 released in 2006, but it was a niche product with a stratospheric price tag that most people didn’t care about. Ditto for the oddball Sigma DP1 (remember that one?..).

Things were about to change though, as soon as Panasonic and Olympus started developing Micro Four Thirds.

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Panasonic Lumix G1, 2008. (Source: DP Review)

The Lumix G1 released in 2008 was the first camera from this new system, but it was in 2009 that things really started to stir-up with both companies rolling out models one after the other.

In 2009, a total of four Micro Four Thirds cameras were launched by Panasonic and Olympus: the Lumix GH1 and GF1 (Panasonic); and the Pen E-P1 and E-P2 (Olympus).

While both Panasonics were technically competent — even superior to the Olympus, to some extent — their design was nothing to brag about. Panasonic adopted the same concept from their previous Lumix line of cameras, which is to say they looked pedestrian.

Olympus took a whole different approach though, and fortunately so.

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With the Pen E-P1, Olympus designed a camera with gorgeous classic lines, making an emotional reference to their Pen cameras from the film days.

This classic design concept adopted by Olympus was crucial for its success in the Micro Four Thirds venture and, dare I say, to the overall success of mirrorless cameras.

Aesthetic exercise?

Before you start criticizing Olympus for going retro with the Pen E-P1 as form over substance and just a pretty face, perhaps this piece of information will help you reshape that judgement.

The first Olympus Pen camera was released in 1959 and was meant to be small and portable like a pen — hence its name.

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The first Olympus Pen, 1959. (Source: Wikipedia)

This was achieved by ingeniously designing the camera to use popular 35mm film, but exposing only half-frame in each photo. In other words, a 24 exposure film roll would produce 48 photos.

By using a smaller image frame, Olympus was able to shrink the lens size and everything else, resulting in an overall smaller camera while delivering good image quality at the same time.

Sounds familiar? Yes, the essential concept behind the original Pen is no different from Micro Four Thirds — small sensor, small lens and camera, good image quality.

Then why not continue the tradition and develop a new line of digital Pen cameras based on this legacy?

The catalyst

Released in 2009, the Olympus Pen E-P1 with its signature classic design immediately caught the attention of the worldwide photo community. It certainly did not go unnoticed like the Panasonics, raising everybody’s eyebrows with its charming looks.

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Most importantly, the Micro Four Thirds story would probably get less exposure if it was not for the Olympus Pen E-P1‘s attractive looks. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall paying any attention whatsoever to the Lumix G1, the first Micro Four Thirds camera released a year before in 2008.

The Olympus Pen E-P1 though, it caught everybody’s attention and interest on Micro Four Thirds. I myself became a mirrorless supporter in no time, rapidly converting to this new religion after decades of loyalty towards SLRs.

The retro-chic movement

Definitely worth mentioning, it was the Olympus Pen E-P1 that started the retro-chic movement soon followed by other brands.

With the release of the Olympus Pen E-P1 and its classic design, all of a sudden camera manufacturers realized there was huge market acceptance for retro-styled cameras.

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Fujifilm decided to dedicate its entire line of X cameras to this retro theme. Pentax launched their tiny Q camera, also classically inspired. Even Nikon couldn’t stop itself releasing the Df, a full-frame DSLR shaped like their film SLRs from decades past.

Then there were the retro-themed accessories that started appearing from everywhere. All classically inspired: leather half-cases, old-school looking camera straps and bags, soft release screw-in shutter buttons, you name it.

And the mount adapters. The retro-chic movement was also exacerbated by the fact that you could now couple old manual lenses to Micro Four Thirds cameras through mount adapters.

The Olympus Pen E-P1 started all this, and was the perfect camera for all this. Now, at affordable prices, one could pimp-up a camera to look good and shoot with style, the camera becoming a conversation starter, a fashion statement.

The E-P1 looked particularly good with Leica M mount lenses and produced interesting images with a nonclinical, classic touch — whether from Leica, Zeiss or Voigtlander.

And you could find those in eBay at ridiculously low prices, in case you didn’t already have them in a drawer somewhere at home.

So how good a camera was it?

Surprisingly good for 2009 standards.

Under good lighting conditions, the quality of the pixel was exceptionally good for such a small camera, with rich details. In low light, the performance was impressive as well.

The thing is, at first one would be inclined to compare the output of the Olympus Pen E-P1 to similar sized point & shoots that were, effectively, far inferior due to their smaller sensors.

But, in reality, here was a small camera the size of a point & shoot that was able to match the performance of DSLRs — quite an achievement and clearly punching above its weight.

Furthermore, while the Olympus Pen E-P1 was small, it was nevertheless a system camera — it had interchangeable lenses and a focal plane shutter. Pressing the shutter button, you could hear the click-clack of the shutter and feel its mild vibration in the body.  Together with its direct controls and overall excellent build, it felt like a proper camera.

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The Olympus Pen E-P1 was released with an ingenious 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 collapsible zoom lens that reduced its size when not in use. This kit lens was very good, as good as any kit lens bundled with DSLRs.

For the ultimate portability though, one could get the 17mm f/2.8 pancake that transformed the combo into a real pocketable camera. And oh, for the full classic experience, there was even a hotshoe mounted optical viewfinder to be used with this lens!

Still, the Olympus Pen E-P1 was certainly not a mature product. Focusing was slow and it was often compared to the Lumix GF1, its main Micro Four Thirds rival that had better AF performance and extras like a built-in flash and the ability to attach an external EVF.

To address these shortcomings, soon after — five months later! — Olympus released the much improved Pen E-P2, with faster AF and an accessory port to receive a newly released external EVF.

This was a bit odd and certainly not appreciated by customers (myself included…) who felt cheated for having to upgrade to a new model in such a short time. If anything, it just shows the Olympus Pen E-P1 was an unfinished product rushed out by Olympus, probably to beat the Lumix GF1 in the release timeline.

In other words, the E-P2 is what the original E-P1 should have been in the first place.

The legacy

Olympus further capitalized on the success of the Pen E-P1 with the creation of two additional branches of Pen cameras, the E-PL and E-PM lines, which were lower grade and cheaper.

And they kept rolling out Pen cameras along the years, with newer products bringing upgrades reflecting the progressive maturation of the Micro Four Thirds system and the mirrorless innovations.

All combined, as of today, a total of 17 Pen cameras were released — the E-PL10 being the last one dated 2019.

But the cherry on top of the cake is the Pen-F, launched in 2016.

This one is no doubt the ultimate Olympus Pen camera, the best of the best in all fronts, the king of the hill.

The Pen-F is the one that combines all the know-how acquired by Olympus developing Micro Four Thirds over the years. All the best available technology, all put together in a gorgeously designed camera body which is still praised by enthusiasts to this day, 4 years following its release. It’s a beautiful camera, a true classic.

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Olympus Pen-F, 2016. (Source: Olympus)

In a nutshell, the Pen-F sports the highest resolution Micro Four Thirds sensor so far (20MP), super fast AF up to the best current standards, a built-in EVF — the only Pen camera with this luxury — and in-body stabilization from Olympus which is known to be among the best in the industry.

And did I mention that the Pen-F looks absolutely gorgeous?

For some reason though, Olympus discontinued the Pen-F without a successor. Perhaps they are playing dramatic, planning for a grand return of a new Pen-F somewhere down the line?

Whatever the case, these days Olympus seem to be busier with their OM-D line of cameras.

Key takeaway

The Olympus Pen E-P1 was a key product in the success of the mirrorless revolution. Yes, you can positively argue that without the E-P1 this revolution would take place anyway, and I’d agree with you.

However, I have no doubts the Olympus Pen E-P1 helped speed up the process and bring interest to a wider audience from the very start due to its signature design that sparked everybody’s interest.

Image quality played a part as well, of course, but this was a Micro Four Thirds attribute that you could also find in Panasonic cameras. Thus what made the Olympus Pen E-P1 stand out was obviously its looks.

The retro movement it initiated paved the way for a variety of classically inspired cameras and, as so, made jumping ship from DSLR an easier decision.

All in all, the Olympus Pen E-P1 not only contributed to the overall success of mirrorless cameras: it changed the way camera manufacturers approached the design of their cameras, that went from boring, function driven black boxes to stylish and fashionable objects of desire.

Considering all these, the Olympus Pen E-P1 is certainly a digital classic worth celebrating.

 

 

 

 

 

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