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Olympus' shrinking ILC lineup

The number of models isn't dwindling--on the contrary, Olympus is adding another model to the group. But the cameras are getting a lot smaller.

Before you can say "holiday shopping," Olympus will unleash three new interchangeable-lens models into its PEN lineup. Of the three models, only one is truly real at the moment: the top-of-the-line replacement for the E-P2, the just-reviewed E-P3, which is scheduled to ship in August. The other two are what Olympus refers to as "concept" announcements, although Olympus' concepts tend to be a lot further along than most. What it usually means is that they lack complete specifications, pricing, and ship dates, and that any actual models tend to be hand-built samples for photography. They are expected to ship this year, however, and we do know that they'll both have the same sensor, autofocus system, TruePic VI imaging engine, and support for AVCHD video that are in the E-P3.

The E-PL3, slated to replace the E-PL2, will be 25 percent smaller than its predecessor and sport a tilting, non-touch-screen 3-inch LCD. Ironically, Olympus will be jettisoning the flash--the E-PL series' flash was a response to the lack of one on the original E-P1--following Sony's lead and including an add-on flash in the box. I don't really mind that approach. It will have a smaller set of art filters than the E-P3. Despite the updated AF system, Olympus says the E-PL3 will have a slightly slower response time, likely because of less processing power, but will burst at up to 5 frames per second. It will come in red, black, chrome, and white.

The E-PM1 looks like it might be the closest thing to a compact point-and-shoot that any of the manufacturers has rolled out yet, and that includes the tiny Pentax Q. It will come in an array of snapshooter-friendly colors--purple, pink, brown, white, silver, and black--and have a stripped-down interface. It will still have a fixed 3-inch, 460,000-pixel LCD, but no mode dial. And, perhaps most importantly, no flash. On one hand, it looks like it will have a full hot shoe, which competitors like the NEX models and Panasonic GF3 lack, but it won't even ship with an add-on flash. I'm not sure how that will fly.

While both of these cameras sound like they have potential to appeal to more of a mass market than the interchangeable-lens models have thus far, so much depends upon price, at least here in the U.S. If the PM1 could hit $400 I think it might take off. But I doubt it will be that cheap.

As well as new cameras, Olympus also announced a couple of new lenses and an intriguing add-on flash, plus cosmetic redesigns of its current lens lineup. For the enthusiast, the company rolls out its first high-end Micro Four Thirds lens, a 12mm f2 (24mm equivalent) model with a metal body. When you pull down the focus ring it enters a fixed-distance zone focus mode. Though it can only focus as close as about 7.9 inches--I'm a nut for close focus--I really enjoyed shooting with it. (I wish I'd thought to try it on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 before I returned the camera.) On the upside, it's available now; however, it will set you back $799.99.

A more consumer-grade lens, the 45mm f1.8 (90mm equivalent) has the more typical build of the company's MFT lenses. Though prime it's not a pancake, but it incorporates the same seven-blade aperture as the 12mm and will focus only as close as about 20 inches. That one won't be available until September, and will run $399.99.

FL-300R flash unit Olympus America

And finally, Olympus is introducing a new compact flash to go with the PEN lineup and supplement the old FL-14 that's the same vintage as the E-P1. The FL-300R is more powerful, with a Guide Number of 28 at ISO 200 compared with GN 20 for the older model, and can tilt back to bounce or flatten down when not in use (much like the mini flash on Sony's NEX models). It supports wireless operation as well, and runs off two AA batteries. It's available now for $169.99.