Image: Hugh Threlfall
October 03 2009
You think it’s easy, finding stuff for this page? Well, it can be tough. A small but surprising number of technology companies just don’t want to play – and don’t reply to calls or e-mails. I used to feature a lot of cameras by the venerable, slightly niche, Japanese manufacturer Olympus. My first ever grown-up gadget was an Olympus Pen EE half-frame 35mm camera, and I’ve always had an Olympus film camera. Olympus continued being wonderful in the digital age. I reviewed its E-1 SLR six years ago with much trumpeting and then… never heard from them again. I could have been more proactive, but in a crowded market you need to make some noise. As there wasn’t a peep, I assumed there was nothing to peep about.
Then, last spring, a friend read about a rumoured new Olympus that sounded terrific, and I tried to open diplomatic relations again. It was impossible to make contact. Somebody thought there was a bloke who speaks to the media but he was off, I was put through to customer services and finally hung up on with a big, audible sigh. So I e-mailed the MD to ask what was going on. I pleaded for weeks for someone to speak to me. Silence. Then I suggested I speak to the company in Japan while I was there and, suddenly, I was persona grata again. I have no idea what went on; some companies are just a bit odd.
Anyway, no sooner were we friends again than this, the Olympus Pen E-P1 turned up. It was worth the wait. It is the loveliest camera – the loveliest product, indeed – that I’ve played with in a very long time. I intend to buy one.
In form, the Pen E-P1 is a near-reproduction of a 1960s half frame, the Pen F. Retro looks are one thing – see Leica’s fabulous D-Lux compacts – but a repro in digital form sounds gimmicky. But the Pen E-P1 is far from gimmicky. It is tiny (not too tiny) and sits in the hand like no other digital. I’ve spent two weeks holding it just for pleasure. Its build quality is magnificent. Everything works perfectly; this is Japanese über-ergonomics in action. I can’t praise it enough.
The camera is a hybrid between an SLR and a standard compact, so it takes interchangeable lenses and has a bevy of professional features but, because it doesn’t have a mirror and all the viewing-through-the-lens gubbins of a real SLR, it doesn’t suffer from heffalumpine bulk. It’s eccentric, arty, but practical. Its series of digital art filters can do things such as render pictures in grainy black and white so they look like 1970s album covers. It doesn’t have a flash (I rather approve), but you can buy one, as well as a superb clip-on viewfinder and super-slim, ultra-wide-angle lens, which you may prefer to the zoom it comes with. Oh, it also takes decent video. I love it.