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Old 7th July 2011
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This Changes Everything

Tuesday 5th July was not a life changing day for me but it was certainly opinion changing, a true watershed in terms of my photographic beliefs. I had an invitation to an Olympus event in London, promoting the new Pen E-P3 and 12mm and 45mm lenses in particular. Iíve always been receptive to the concept of the Pen and indeed have an E-PL1, but have until now regarded it as an alternative to my E-3 when a small, light camera was preferable, not a replacement. Indeed, I prefer the E-3 for its speed of use and handling unless going lightweight is absolutely paramount.

I bought a photo magazine to read on the train and inside was an account of a Peruvian trek by a wedding pro who took her Nikon D700 and a couple of lenses. She found the weight too much to bear on her neck and shoulders and the camera spent most the time in her pack, only coming out at rest stops. Her phone became her main camera; if only sheíd taken a Pen! I suppose that was a good omen for the event that was to follow.

To be honest the specs of the E-P3 had left me a little unimpressed, no built in EVF, no articulated screen, just a theoretical improvement in focus speed, a tweaked sensor and a rather gimmicky touch screen. Plus a (to me) continued over-reliance on thumb wheels and dials, which I find difficult on small cameras because I suffer from Parkinsonís. I was excited about the two new primes, though, a 12mm f2 and a 45mm f1.8.

Upon my arrival Ian placed his E-P3 complete with 12mm in my hands and I monopolized it for the whole event. Initially I found the controls awkward, as I expected, but as the evening wore on I started to adapt, which was a pleasant surprise. The dial around the 4 way button cluster remained a difficulty but the thumbwheel (for which I had the most use) proved remarkably positive.

The optional larger grip made a big difference for me, too, and there was no denying the quality of the screen. I had previously looked through the shoe mounted EVF on several occasions but this was the most extended use I had of it and after a while I simply stopped being conscious that it was an electronic and not an optical finder, in a way I never have with the Panasonic G1 (which I also have). The ability to hinge the finder vertically negated some of the disappointment over the lack of an articulating screen. The overall build quality of the camera and lens was superb and I became quite attached to the combination during my relatively short time with it.

What really sold it to me as a viable alternative to the E-3 (or E-5 for that matter) was the improvement in focusing speed. Weíve all experienced ďimprovementsĒ from manufacturers, including Olympus it has to be said, which turn out to be rather incremental with little real impact on performance. This is different, a game changer. Up until now Iíve viewed the Pen as best suited to static subjects but limited for action shots. Not anymore, itís game on!

Faster focusing was an obvious improvement to look for but what I hadnít appreciated was the contribution that a touch screen can make to the overall speed of capturing an image. Itís all very well having rapid AF but what if your focus point needs changing? With the touch screen you simply, well, touch where in the image you want to focus, with the added bonus that this can also be enabled to release the shutter. Whilst this may be a recipe for camera shake in some situations, there will be many occasions when it proves the difference between nailing the shot and almost getting it.

All these positive changes in the Penís performance only increase the impatience for the answer to a fundamental and often asked question; when are we going to get a larger body with integral EVF? This is often seen as the key to making larger FT lenses, particularly the Pro and SHG ranges, usable on MFT. The answer, Iíve concluded, is we might not.

My reason for this conclusion is that we have now had, or about to get, a total of eight incarnations of the Pen. All are broadly similar in shape, size and style. Olympus has not once shown any inclination to stray from this form to incorporate an integral EVF and doing so would undermine the whole concept of the Pen. Forget any ideas that an EVF can somehow be squeezed into the existing body, it canít, and can we realistically envisage Olympus building a bigger Pen when the whole ethos is to be smaller?

If Iím right that leaves two possible scenarios; Olympus intends to continue supporting the Pro and Top Pro FT lenses with a pro spec FT body or the only option to use these lenses will be on a Pen. I realize the second option Iíve suggested would result in outrage, howls of anguish and much hand wringing, but wait.

I briefly mentioned earlier that the optional grip made a big difference to me. Now think about it, whatís the main difference between holding a Pen with a large lens and an E-5 with the same lens? The flippant answer is about two pounds in weight but what Iím alluding to is the grip. If you are holding the camera correctly it is only the right hand which comes into contact with the E-5 at the time of taking a picture, holding the grip and releasing the shutter. The left hand is supporting the lens. Why couldnít an even larger optional grip, akin to the proportions of that on the E-5, be fitted to a Pen for large lens use?

Now, about the EVF; many of us, me included, have somehow come to regard an integral EVF as some sort of Holy Grail, but why? What could one of those do that the existing hotshoe mounted finder doesnít? Only free up the hotshoe, of course. That has limited value as fitting a large flashgun like the FL50R on the shoe of a Pen is hardly conducive to comfortable handling anyway. A better solution might be to have a secondary accessory shoe on top of the large grip I just mentioned. It wouldnít need any connectivity with the electronics of the body because the flash could be triggered wirelessly by the pop-up unit. Alternatively, a separate flash bracket could be mounted to the tripod socket on the base plate.

This is now starting to sound like a truly modular system with great flexibility. Stripped down to its basic form and fitted with a pancake lens the Pro Pen would be a small and inconspicuous go-anywhere camera. Kitted out with EVF and grip it suddenly becomes a serious alternative to a traditional DSLR for using large lenses and flash. Maybe we can have our cake and eat it!
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"A hundredth of a second here, a hundredth of a second there ó even if you put them end to end, they still only add up to one, two, perhaps three seconds, snatched from eternity." ~ Robert Doisneau
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Andrew Riddell (7th July 2011), cinders (10th July 2011), Doug H (7th July 2011), Greytop (7th July 2011), IainMacD (7th July 2011), StephenL (7th July 2011)