Olympus Pen: Portraits of a Camera
I've never been infatuated with a camera - or any other piece of gear. That doesn't mean I'm not a gear hound - I am. And I like to think that my purchase decision starts with the practicalities of features + function. But with the Olympus Pen E-P5, I was smitten at first fondling. Lucky for me, turns out it's also a pro-level work horse. Because by the time I twist-locked the 17mm f/1.7 lens on and snapped the EVF to the top, I didn't care: I had to have this camera.
You can't buy time
That's one of my favorite marketing maxims. I think it applies to design as well. The Olympus Pen has over 50 years of history as a minimalist, multi-lens camera. This latest incarnation calls on that lineage.
Cameras are like cars
Cars are extremely functional but they are also an emotional purchase. When someone knocks on your door, you may not know how they arrived, but they will. It may have been in a Yellow Cab, a Zip car, or perhaps even an Uber town car. Or maybe it was in that Mini Cooper Clubman S, like mine. The one that handles so nimbly on mountain roads. The one that gets me from Seattle to California on one tank of gas. The one that squeezes into impossible parking places in the city. The one that makes me feel so good when I'm driving it - so good that I wave to other Mini drivers - complete strangers with whom and I share smiles of knowing contentment.
Technical comment: this photo was taken at ISO 2500 without noise reduction. The E-P5 and E-M1 have pretty much the same low light capabilities and can easily shoot at ISO 3200. For low light photography, I suggest shooting in RAW then, if necessary, use the excellent noise reduction of Adobe Lightroom - judiciously.
Happiness is a Beautiful Camera
Likewise, when you look at a photograph, you probably won’t know what camera was used to capture that moment in time - but more than likely, it was a memorable experience for the photographer. And more than likely, that experience was affected by the camera that was used. While there is definitely a technical aspect to camera choice - megapixels, frames per second, weather-proofing, high ISO, HDR, blah blah - chances are, your real decision is being made at an emotionally intuitive level. How does the camera feel when you cradle it in your hand? Is there a tactile sensuality that makes you want to caress it in-between photos, that makes you never want to let it go? Does it ‘just feel right’ to you?’ Or is it a cold instrument that merely responds to your calculated bidding?
When I hold you in my arms And I feel my finger on your trigger I know nobody can do me no harm Because, happiness is a warm gun…
- John Lennon
Moving away from emotional and back towards technical, it’s also important that your camera be easy to operate. Let me rephrase that: easy for you to operate.
Tell me how does it feel?
Part of the purchase decision is based on how the camera feels in your hand, and how comfortable it is to use. And if that camera feels good in your hand - if you develop an emotional attachment to that camera - guess what? You’ll take better pictures, because the camera puts you in a better frame of mind, and because the camera is there with you, always. You won't miss any photo opportunity. Of course, it helps if that camera is in your coat pocket. Or sitting next to you in your Cooper Clubman S.
Most cameras are designed to have easy controls. But what I love about the Pen series is that they are designed flush with the surface - nothing sticks out, controls are discreet yet articulated. Nothing gets caught on your camera as you pull it out of your pocket. And it presents a nonintimidating facade to those whom you photograph. I've noticed complete strangers smile at me in my Mini. I get the same result when I go out with the Olympus Pen. Life is good.
The Pen is easy to hold with one hand - even without a strap - and has a surprising number of buttons and dials that allow for both customization and quick access for changing situations. Actually, thanks to a handy flip lever, the E-P5 has almost as many controls as my Nikon D800. Almost. And did I mention, it fits in my pocket?
Unlike other cameras with 'pro' features, there are no grips or grab bars on the Pen. Yet, it is easy to hold, even with a large lens attached. I took it out into the crowds of a parade with two relatively heavy glass lenses, the 12-40 Pro and the 75mm f/1.8, with no problems. Two articulated tabs, one on the front and one on the back, ensure that the camera will never slip from your hands. (Having said that, you'd be remiss not to use a camera strap; for mirror-less cameras, you can flip open the viewfinder and use the strap as a kind of upside-down tripod for added stability.)
Form and Function
So my infatuation with this camera was fairly instantaneous. After spending a day taking photos of the camera, I decided to take some photos with the camera. In part two of this three-part series, I take the camera for a spin - and notice a few interesting things about the function side of things.
credits: all photos taken with the Olympus OM-D E-M1.