Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Olympus E-P3 — A Second Response

E-P3 body with new M.Zuiko 12mm 1:2 lens
After my initial harsh response to the E-P3 announcement I've had some time to reflect on details about the latest digital Pens that have since become available. I want to comment on two key aspects of the E-P3; the sensor system and several of the lenses.

That Sensor

The E-P3's sensor suite (which includes the physical sensor and the dual-core processor) has apparently managed to overcome a key deficiency of all the other Olympus µ4/3rds bodies up to this point in time; autofocus performance. Based on comments from everyone who's managed to hold and use the E-P3, the camera with the latest lenses (which includes the 12mm 1:2, 45mm 1:1.8, and 14-42 3.5-5.6 IIR) autofocuses as fast as contemporary DSLRs.

How fast? Apparently as fast as the Olympus E-3 and E-5, The Nikon D7000 and lower, and the Canon 7D, 60D, and lower DSLRs. That's pretty fast. What's more autofocus appears to be equally accurate. If you're going to have autofocus, then it needs to be fast and accurate autofocus. Unlike image quality, you can live with bad autofocus simply by not using it and manually focusing, or if possible, using a film-era adapted manual lens with hyperfocal focusing.

Doug Brown wrote on Luminous Landscape about the E-P3's automatic focusing:
From far to near, near to far, across middle distances, focusing on faces, round shiny objects, glass windows, over and over these new cameras just lock on immediately. I didn’t experience any hunting or hesitation. The responsiveness of the E-P3 and E-PL3 is in a whole other league from previous Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras. Very high end DSLR-like.

The lighting in the room was not exactly advantageous to testing AF, a toxic mix of incandescent, florescent and natural lighting. In many instances the faces I was trying to focus on were partially in shadow. Never a hiccup. The PEN's just locked on.
That's high praise, especially from one of the Luminous Landscape crowd. I read a question asked in another article if the E-P3's continuous autofocus would match a "real" DSLR. Not having held an E-P3 yet, I would hazard to guess yes. If the regular autofocus is as improved as it appears to be, then there's no reason why continuous tracking also wouldn't be improved, since it's using the same software routines and the same physical sensor and processor. Continuous autofocus, while great for tracking active subjects for still photography, is even more essential for video. So I would have to assume that continuous tracking autofocus will show the same leap of capability.

The processor is a key part of this focusing revolution. A dual-core device, it's rate of sensor sampling was doubled from 60 to 120Hz. The software drivers and algorithms themselves were probably re-written to take full advantage of the new sensor design. The processor and the sensor are finely tuned to work together. I wouldn't expect to see anything from this design trickle down to the E-P2 or E-P1 cameras as a firmware-only update. The hardware support's not there.

From an engineering perspective the sensor suite looks very sweet. I'd love to sit down (as an engineer) and go over the new design. It appears the team that worked on this did an excellent job. I would hazard to say that the new sensor suite is the new baseline for all Olympus cameras moving forward, both regular and µ4/3rds. They used it for all three of the newly introduced Pens, there's no reason why they should stop.

The only regular 4/3rds body at the moment is the E-5. The E-5's successor, if there is one, will move to this baseline sensor suite just like the E-5 itself moved to the E-PL2's sensor suite, with suitable tweaks for the pro end. The greatest benefit to an E-x camera would be focusing in live-view mode. With this sensor suite in an E-x class camera there should be no difference in focusing speed and accuracy with either PDAF or CDAF (live-view) modes.

I for one would be willing to pay the price premium being asked right now for an E-5 if the E-5's successor has the E-P3's sensor suite in the body. But history shows that Olympus is slow and capricious about releasing updates to its top-tier body; I have no idea if, or even when, Olympus would release a follow-on to the E-5.

M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12mm 1:2.0 ring down
M.Zuiko ED 12mm 1:2.0 ring down
Those Lenses

The two lenses that caught me by surprise were the 12mm 1:2 and the 45mm 1:1.8. Both lenses are primes. Both lenses are fast. And most importantly both lenses are metal-made.

I have grown tired of the parade of plastic lenses from Olympus (and the other camera manufacturers). It started out with heavy use of plastic (industrial plastic, perhaps, but plastic) in the bodies, with the bayonet machined metal. Now the entire lens (with the notable exception of the glass lens elements) is plastic. And it shows and not very well.

My own personal experience shows that even with reasonable regular use the plastic and general construction is not as good as 30- and 40-year old metal lenses, such as the old Olympus OM lenses. That's what made me do a "double take" as it were when I read more reports about these two lenses. Metal lenses, especially primes, would be a welcome addition to either the regular or µ4/3rds camera system. Since by all measures Olympus has end-of-lifed regular 4/3rds, that leaves on the micro platform to add these lenses to.

Of the two lenses I believe the 12mm is the better of the two because it's more in line with the "old style" film era lenses, complete with focusing scale. Once again, not having held these lenses, I can only speculate about the quality and the fit and finish of these lenses, but I would believe (I would hope!) they stand head-and-shoulders above many of the current lenses in the µ4/3rds lens stable from both Olympus and Panasonic. If they're as good in the flesh as they appear in their carefully prepared photographs then the two new primes are worth considering investing in µ4/3rds, and possibly staying with the brand. And that's assuming everything else being equal, such as image quality.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, those lenses Bill. If they're really optically that good, then they are worth a nod. And with those focal lengths of 12mm, 25mm (with that new PannyLeica 1.4 prime), and 45mm it would make a very Leica-esque dream system for older guys like me.

    But - like you wrote later - with that same old sensor, that's probably not gonna happen. And sum it up:

    900€ for an E-P3 with kit lens (don't have a price without yet),
    200€ for the VF-2 viewfinder,
    800€ for the 12mm,
    600€ for the 25mm, and
    300€ for the 45mm,

    makes 2.800€, which easily would buy into fullframe territory (with just one lens, but...).

    Maybe I'll get that 45mm for my wife's E-PL1 tho. She has the 20mm Panny already, and this one could be nice for taking portraits of our small one, just like my macro (which is on my camera most of the time).

    Cheers,
    Wolfgang

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