Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Olympus E-P3 — Too little, too late

E-P3 body with new M.Zuiko 12mm 1:2 lens
Which camera system you buy and use doesn't matter. Don't get sucked into the religion surrounding camera brands as that will only blind you to a camera's true purpose of being your tool for creating interesting photographs.

That's a hard lesson to learn, and an even harder lesson to remember. I've fallen into the religious brand trap  more than once over the decades, starting with my first camera from Yashica and moving on to Minolta and Olympus OM film cameras. I fell into the trap yet again with Olympus' E-Volt DSLR system. I stayed in the trap with the Digital Pens (my current E-P2). But I'm finally out of the trap. For good. Not just for Olympus, but for all the brands for all time.

Over the decades I have spent thousands of dollars on camera equipment. To be fair I've gotten considerable enjoyment out of the investment. I've even had the opportunity from time to time to earn a bit of cash for my photographic endeavours, which has added to the enjoyment. I've never tried to skimp on camera equipment, knowing from personal experience you get what you pay for. If I couldn't afford a piece of gear, then I went without rather than go down-market. I'm not afraid to spend the cash when circumstances allow.

Investing in the Olympus DSLR system was the biggest initial monetary outlay for camera gear I've ever spent. Starting in late 2008 I purchased a system that included an E-3 with 12-60mm lens, 50-200mm lens, and FL-50R flash. I later picked up a Sigma 30mm, a Zuiko Digital 50mm, and a Zuiko Digital 9-18mm. Because I still had access to the older OM film lenses, I picked up a few MF-1 adapters. I even dropped a few hundred on Hoya Pro filters to go over the front of the lenses (something that Kirk Tuck finally convinced me was pointless). I continued burning up cash paying full price for the E-P2 kit that contained the 14-42mm kit zoom and the VF-2 in late 2009. I even wrote a positive review of the E-P2 and a few more reviews of additional µ4/3rds gear.

All that's changed over the last 12 months. I've documented the reasons in this blog; I won't go over them again. The upshot is I'm far more critical of Olympus camera equipment than I've ever been, and that critical attitude has carried over to every other manufacturer.

The primary change driver is cost. Buying good digital photography equipment is costly far beyond what I spent in years past on film equipment. The reason for the cost is the body and the lenses that make up a given system. With film cameras the method for recording an image, the film itself, is separate from the camera body. If you didn't like the results with one type of film you switch to another until you found the right combination of film and camera that met your needs. Digital is radically different because the method for recording the image, the sensor, is built into the camera body and can't be removed or replaced with different or more capable sensors. If you want to take advantage of the latest sensor technology with digital then you pony up additional cash for the latest and greatest camera body in the system you're currently invested in.

And the lenses need to be designed to work with digital to get the best performance from both. Olympus proved this with their telecentric regular 4/3rds lenses that focus light to be as perpendicular as possible across the entire sensor. All the majors have been producing designed-for-digital lenses recently, and they've all been costing a pretty penny. Combine the high cost of digital lenses with digital bodies and the overall system cost is far higher than film gear even taking into consideration inflation. I'm not interested in repeatedly purchasing the same gear on a periodic basis so I can enjoy the incremental fruits of advancement. Not when it's costing so much.

I focus (no pun intended) on the sensor because it is vital to the overall quality of the images that a digital camera will produce. If the sensor is of lagging quality then no lens or special post processing tools will compensate for that lagging quality. No other special features, such as super-fast auto focus or spiffy art filters will compensate for a poor sensor design.

And that's what bothers me the most about the E-P3. Olympus touts all the advances of the E-P3 over the E-P2, such as super-fast auto focus, nifty art filters, a built-in flash, even a higher resolution touch enabled rear OLED screen. But it's still a 12 MP sensor. The same resolution as my E-P2. Other manufacturers, such as Sony, have met that already with their 16MP APS-C sensors that are being used in the Sony SLT and NEX cameras, and by other manufacturers such as Nikon in the D3x00/5x00 DSLRs. Canon has exceeded that with their 18MP sensor used in their current DSLR lineup from the T3i through the 60D and up to the 7D. An equivalent 4/3rds sensor to the Canon sensor (using the same pixel pitch) would be 14MP. And in case Olympus missed the memo, Panasonic has already released two cameras with 16MP 4/3rds sensors, the GH2 and the G3. And they have super fast auto focus as well.

Speaking of the new fast auto focus. According to the press releases, and based on some comments on the forums that seem to support my understanding of said press releases, it appears that if you want to take advantage of the super fast auto focus then you need the latest and greatest µ4/3rds lenses, some of them new, and some of them re-re-re-releases (such as the 14-42mm kit and 40-150mm zooms). And don't talk to me about the very poor auto focus support for the regular 4/3rds lenses.

That's a tidy little racket to be in; manufacture a new body with new focusing features and make it so that your existing customers, if they want full capabilities, have to purchase the latest spin on the lenses. The kit lens in particular has been released three times already in µ4/3rds format, and if you consider that the 40-150mm was first introduced as a kit built from the all-plastic MMF-2 adapter and the regular 4/3rds 40-150mm lens, then it's been released three times as well. (This part may not be true. See update below)

The two truly new lenses, the 12mm 1:2 and the 45mm 1:1.8, are pretty pricey little things; $800 and $400 respectively. My two regular 4/3rds lenses, the 12-60mm and 50-200mm, were in the 12mm price range. More importantly they were High Grade lenses, and High Grade lenses are environmentally sealed. That was a key feature for me and a feature I've taken full advantage of more than once or twice here in central Florida. The 12mm µ4/3rds is labeled as High Grade, but I've yet to hear if it's environmentally sealed or not. Which really doesn't matter much right now anyway; if the 12mm were sealed, the E-P3 isn't.

Which leads me to another complaint. My E-1 and E-3 are environmentally sealed to match the lenses. I like that a lot and was willing to pay for it. But the E-P3, at $800, is a fair amount of cash to invest in a camera that isn't. Life outside of an air-conditioned office or home is crazy. You get hot and sweaty, and moving from a cool air-conditioned area out into a hot humid exterior results in condensation on any surface. I literally see this on my glasses, and I've seen it too many times on my lenses and camera bodies. I've had to be overly careful with my E-P2, more so than with the E-1 and E-3 in this regard.

Disassembled E-P1 via PhotoRumors.com
And that E-P3 metal body that everybody is enthusing over? I remember that same enthusiasm with the launch of the E-P1 and E-P2, until someone decided to take one apart and discovered that the metal was just a skin over a mostly-plastic interior. $800 for a plastic camera is getting to be a bit much. Especially when I think back to my experiences with the regular 4/3rds 9-18mm plastic-bodied lens and the M.Zuiko 17mm µ4/3rds pancake. The 9-18mm broke completely requiring a replacement ($640 originally plus $135 to fix/replace it), while I'm living with the way the 17mm looks since it's 'merely' a cosmetic issue. I suppose we're going to have to wait until someone pulls an E-P3 apart to see how its built.

I've reached my own personal inflection point with regards to gear. I've got plenty right now, it all functions correctly, so I'm going to continue to use it. To put it on the shelf or try to sell it at a big loss would be cutting off my nose to spite my face. But I do know this; when it comes time to pick new gear, it won't be Olympus. Maybe Sony's rumored α77 or high-end NEX, or Canon's 60D, or maybe Panasonic's µ4/3rds offerings. At least I can walk into a local camera or big-box store and actually handle the equipment. And some of the camera stores will actually let me run some exposures through the demo cameras in the case so I can take them home and see how they look after post processing with LR.

I'm no longer part of the target demographic that Olympus is apparently aiming for. And that's a real shame. I still appreciate the regular 4/3rds system I currently have, especially the lenses. But Olympus has its corporate eyes on µ4/3rds, and they want it to go a particular direction that's not for me. They've left me as much as I've left them. I wish them best of luck.

Update 7/1

Kirk Tuck has a more positive response to the E-P3, "Olympus EP3 is announced. I want one. Available in August."

There are reports now that all lenses, 4/3rds and µ4/3rds, will show some focusing speed improvement with the E-P3. For older MSC (Movie Stills Compatible) µ4/3rds lenses such as the M.Zuiko 9-18mm, it appears that a firmware update to the lenses will bring them up to full capability. That's a good thing to hear, especially if you've gone and invested in the very expensive M.Zuiko 75-300mm zoom lens.

Here's a YouTube video showing the Zuiko Digital 12-60mm being used with the E-P3. The focusing is very, very fast. Perhaps not as fast as the E-3/12-60mm combination, but blazingly fast when compared to the 12-60mm on my E-P2.



These are early days still for E-P3 information. Once again, however, this is a concern that many current Olympus owners have, and Olympus marketing should have anticipated this kind of concern and made absolutely sure it was made very clear from the get-go. Once again I find Olympus marketing absolutely worthless.

Update 7/2

Still on the subject of the E-P3's autofocus abilities comes this review from Robin Wong. Note that Robin was using the µ4/3rds M.Zuiko 40-150mm and 75-300mm MSC lenses. To quote a portion of the review:
I hate to admit this, but the E-P3 is actually faster than the E-5. No, I am not kidding. Nonetheless, do take note that E-5 is only the world’s fastest DSLR if it is used together with SWD lenses such as the 12-60mm F2.8-4.0. All my lenses do not have SWD, but I have never had any issue with the focusing speed, and I seldom miss my focus. E-P3 focusing speed was just on another entirely different level, and it just works so efficiently it was actually scary. Now the scarier question, is the E-P3 faster than the high-performance DSLR like Canon 1DsMK4 and Nikon D3s? That is not for me to answer, but based on what I feel while using the E-P3, it is almost impossible to believe that currently there is anything faster than the E-P3.
This is only one blog, of course, but it fits a pattern of observations from a number of sources that speak highly of the improved, speedy, autofocus implementation on the E-P3.

Update 7/6

I've been reading the responses of those fortunate enough to handle the E-P3 and new lenses. I've responded accordingly based on what would ostensibly be good news. But cynic that I am I have to take it all with the typical grains of salt until I can actually hold and use the gear. You should too.

Update 9/27

Nearly 90 days going in, I've decided that I will purchase an E-P3 along with several primes, a Panasonic 20mm 1:1.7 and the new Olympus 45mm 1:1.8. I've dug enough and handled the camera and looked at the output of the sensor. Why did I change my mind? I'll cover that one day in a new post.

Update 12/12

Strike that, I won't, at least not at current prices. I read Thom Hogan's review of the E-P3. Two observations he made, one about the sensor, and the other about the body being metal skinned, not metal framed. Both those comments as well as the luke-warm theme of the entire review have pushed me quite firmly back over the "do not buy" line. If I'm going to get another Pen, I might as well get a second E-P2 body, which has dropped considerably in price.

12 comments:

  1. That's a tidy little racket to be in; manufacture a new body with new focusing features and make it so that your existing customers, if they want full capabilities, have to purchase the latest spin on the lenses.

    My personal impression of the Olympus m4/3 cameras, as well as the Panasonic GF line, is that they haven't yet released a successor model to any of them. Each new camera is just an attempt to snag the people who own P&S cameras. Smaller, simpler, touch screens: the driving idea seems to be that they just haven't gotten it right yet.

    Never mind that the early adopters of these cameras were SLR owners from other brands who wanted something smaller. For some reason m4/3 has decided that they need to chase Sony, whose lineup of three lenses hardly seems like a challenge.

    But when it comes to neglecting its established base in favour of chasing new customers, Olympus is in good company. Canon and especially Nikon make their new cameras available in kits long before the bodies are available separately. How many 18-to-whatever f/5.6 lenses do they think people need?

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  2. hey, if they can sucker people into it then its worth as much as the Panasonic 20mm is. People still argue that somehow its a good price for an ultra wide angle

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  3. Nice perspective, Bill. I added your blog link to the end of my little piece about the EP3. Made me think. And my wife says that's good.

    All the best, Kirk

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  4. That is a good point about the weather sealing. All of my lenses are weather sealed except for the 2 micro four thirds ones I have and only have DSLR's that are weather sealed. I most likely won't replace the E-P1 with a new model unless it's weather sealed. Yeah all the new bells and whistles on the newer models are nice but not nice enough to spend the cash on replacing what I've already got.

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  5. Bravo!

    I never intend to buy any x4/3 system for above mentioned reasons and others.

    Let's be conservative and keep using old system. My Nikon lines don't suck my money except for a body I replace each 4/5 years period.

    I am not against the economy but changing cameras periodically is like changing wives. It's too complicated to adapt in a short time. At the end of the day, we will end up as gadget slave.

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  6. Bill.... excellent insights, and hard to dispute.

    Since weather sealing is important for you, you might want to consider the Pentax K5 whenever you are ready to jump back in.

    I'm not sure if the Sony A77 will be weather sealed, but if it is then it becomes a good choice too.

    Like you, I am a longtime 4/3 user who is starting to finally get the hint that Olympus has lost all interest in this format. And while M4/3 is nice as a second camera, or for use with legacy lenses, it's just not going to be a primary system for a high end user any time soon.

    Tom Hogan was right when he said Olympus is repackaging the same camera over and over again with minor tweaks. Except now we have nine variants rather than the six we had when Hogan wrote that.

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  7. I've managed to avoid most of the upgrade treadmill's pitfalls by sticking to buying used equipment.

    My first DSLR, the E-520, was bought as part of the two-lens kit, with the 14-42 and 40-150 lenses. But, everything else I've added has been used, and I've paid significantly less than new prices for everything.

    Now, I have a very complete and capable kit, including two weather-sealed bodies (and E-3 and an E-1), and HG/SHG lenses covering all of my focal-length needs. I still have a bit of GAS, in that I still lust after the 14-35mm f/2 lens, but unless I can find one for an absolute steal, I've got no intention to ever buy one.

    In a few more years, after the E-7 comes out, I'll probably pick up an E-5 on the used market. It's a darn good camera, and it'll still be one after its successor is released. I've made great 16x20 prints from E-1 (5 megapickle) files; I don't really see any pressing need for more than 10 or 12 megapickles.

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  8. Hi Bill,

    What you say is true to some degree, and I suppose a rational approach to advanced digital photography might be to buy the cheapest Canon or Nikon body as they make improvements, and the lenses you want. I still haven't moved from 4/3 to m4/3 since I'm being cheap, but might have to eventually spring for the EPL3. I guess some might say the "film" contained in digital cameras is mostly in the computer and your skill with that end of it. Still, technical advances are frustrating at the high end. Not many people buying very fancy stereo set-ups these days except for a very small, elite group. Perhaps that will happen to cameras too.

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  9. Hi Bill,

    I agree with your comments in principle. I too have the 12-60 and 50mm Macro and have been disappointed that those lenses have not been supported better on previous Pens. But now the EP3 with much faster focus is just such a leap forward, I can't resist.

    Just as soon as I have one of those beautiful EP3's I will then agree with you whole-heatedly! :)

    Mal

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  10. So, Bill, have you bought one yet????

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  11. No, not yet. To stubborn and too cheap (thank my Scottish ancestry).

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  12. Bill,

    Why don't you at least borrow one so you can put to rest all those lingering doubts about whether it really is better or not. You can still be true to your Scottish ancestry and not buy it because something "all new and improved" will pop up next year.

    Cheers

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