Olympus E-PL7 Announced

E-PL7 SLV front selfie 1442EZ SLV

First thing in the press release for this new camera: promotion of the new “selfie” mode, which is basically the touchscreen LCD swiveled downward 180° so you can take pictures of yourself via touch. The marketing tag line: “photography for the smartphone user.” Otherwise, the E-PL7 is basically an E-M10 without the built-in EVF. (Camera data page with full details on the camera)

No question that Olympus is targeting the smartphone user with this camera. They’ve moved the swivel function so that it swivels less up and more down (opposite of before) which enables that selfie mode, plus they’ve upped their smartphone app connection capabilities a bit and are promoting them more. They really want this to be the camera the iPhone user buys, apparently.

The question is whether Olympus did enough. I’d say no. For selfies you don’t need 16mp ;~). Smartphones will do just fine for that. And for the rest…well, the E-M10 is a better choice, given the built-in EVF and nearly identical feature set and performance. Moreover, there’s the very small Panasonic GM1 to contend with, which fits the “no neck strap” mantra of the modern smartphone user better and has equivalent smartphone connectivity and image quality in a far smaller m4/3 package. 

Olympus seems a bit lost. The early Pens sold reasonably well because they were amongst the first mirrorless cameras, and much more competent for the times compared to compact cameras. But each succeeding generation seems to net fewer sales and be a bit less compelling compared to what else you can buy in the price points. The notion that you can make a EVF and non-EVF version of the same camera and find takers for each without another major differentiating factor (e.g. the GM1’s smallness) seems unproven at best, failed at worst. 

The problem is that the E-PL7 was a planned upgrade made back at a time when Olympus thought they were going to dominate mirrorless. They didn’t manage to hold their market lead, and the lack of differentiation is now further hurting them across their lineup. Olympus has three DSLR-like OM-D’s that have small differentiation at different price points, only one of which seems to be selling well, and three Pens with small differentiation at different price points, none of which are selling well. That the E-PL7 seems to be Olympus’ big Photokina announcement marks the problem even more: there’s little momentum in the Olympus m4/3 lineup right now, and very little that’s actually “new.”

One has to consider whether or not Olympus has played out all their cards at this point. The fraud scandal of a few years back decimated upper management, crippled the company in terms of capitalization, and coincided with the peak of digital camera sales. What we’ve seen from Olympus since then are the “planned” cameras of the time. It’s unclear if anything truly new is brewing in the downsized Imaging group, or whether the E-M10 and E-PL7 (and likely E-PM3) were just the last shells in the clip. 

What we’re seeing may be a repeat of the film days. Olympus was one of the first to abandon SLRs for a “new” type of camera (ZSLR: non-interchangeable lens SLR). Their popularity lasted a brief while and was followed by a rather fallow time. Olympus was one of the first to abandon DSLRs for a “new” type of camera (mirrorless). Their popularity peaked for them very early, and now sales have been flat for two consecutive years, and dare I say will remain flat or in decline if a E-PL7 is their best shot at a new camera. 

That said, there’s nothing really wrong with the E-PL7 from a technical aspect: it represents some of Olympus' best engineering. But again, so does the E-M10, which includes the EVF. I suspect that we’ll see something similar happen with Olympus that we saw with Panasonic: a considerable downsizing of the models offered. 

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