Folks, it turns out we have less time than we thought, so there is no weekly digest or similar. But still, there are things worth discussing, one of them being the ergonomics of cameras and the grip in particular. I find that people have mixed feelings with the grip: some hate it, some could not live without it. Some find it bulky and unnecessary, some think that no real camera should be without it. Are any of these opinions wrong? No, they just come from different user, and when you think about getting a grip, you should consider that.
Grips come in two flavours, the one around the release and another, "portrait" grip "below" the camera. The first type is found on almost all DSLRs, the second mostly on professional ones. The Olympus E-System offers an entire camera line without any of these and have no built-in "portrait" grip in the pro series (which I consider series 1.5, by the way, but that's another story). This gives us some ground for discussing the topic.
We see that no 1 series pro DSLR is without a "portrait" grip, and almost no DSLR is without a "normal" one (and many get the latter type for Leicas, DP-1s, G9s and so on). This is no wonder, as the series 1 monsters not only eat juice and are therefore in the need of a hefty batter pack, but are usually coupled with large lenses. And this is the point: the grip gives you stability and, well, grip on the cam. Remember that up to a point, weight is on your side: the larger is the mass of the camera, the less likely is that you or the flipping mirror in particular introduces camera shake. You, of course, have to be able to hold the weight. Because of this, there is an optimum weight for every photographer. In any case, the grip aids stability, no matter where it is fitted.
Note that the above applies to both vertical and horizontal grips. Olympus decided to have a detachable grip on the pro line and this is a wise decision. They seem to know their user base: serious amateurs and some professionals. Neither of them really need the vertical grip all the time, so I think that debating the need for a fixed grip or the lack of it is moot. If you use pro (in the case of Olympus: top-pro or Super High Grade) optics, you need a grip, full stop (my recent experience with the 35-100, coming soon, only reinforced this feeling). But to fully exploit the portability of the system, you should be able to detach the grip for occasions you prefer a more compact package.
(Open bracket: By the way, I am looking at the grip of the E-1 and the E-3 on my desk as I write this. Man, how much better the former is built! The HLD-4 appears to come from a similar Chinese willage as the grip of the 30D I used a couple of weeks ago, although it is more solid and does not creek as much. But just knock on it and you'll hear the sound of the partially hollow interior. Do the same to the HLD-1! You knock on solid material. Man, we really are in need of a HLD-4pro with a BLL slot! Close bracket.)
But how about the "normal" grip, found on almost all cameras, except the really small ones? Well, that is not strictly necessary either. But you have to be aware what it does to you. I had an E-400 for some time, and I did an experiment, using the 14-54 @ around 50mm f3.5 in a not so well lit room. Using iso400 (on the E-1! huhhh), I found that in the case of the E-400, I needed a 1/60 second exposure for acceptably sharp images, whereas with the E-1 (with its wonderful grip) I needed 1/20 second. Clearly, it is not only the grip that affected the results, but also the mechanics of the shutter and the mirror. Oddly enough, the best damped mechanics are found on the pro-level cameras, which also have the largest grips. The E-400 slams!
Do not get me wrong, I have no problem with the E-4xx series. They are nice little cameras and all that, and I do like their ergonomics as much as I loved my old OM-1 and OM-2n. If you have enough light, this is no problem. But they are often advertised by enthusiasts as great low-light candid cameras. This might be true if you look at size only. But you have to consider the final outcome and the effect griplessness (along with the lack of image stabilisation) has on it.
PS: Detachable grips have a side effect: they cost money (well, at least now that the promotion run out on the E-3). There are always rumbles about the price of the grip, people complaining about an apparent gap between the price and the "value" or manufacturing cost of the item. This is of course understandable from a purely psychologic point of view. You do not like to buy an apple for $100. But consider that pricing in the real world has nothing to do (or at least: does not have to do) anything with manufacturing cost. But it has a lot to do with value! Among others, the price is efficient device to tell apart different types of consumers, professionals from amateurs in our case. The grip of the E-1 was marketed at around $500, if I my memory serves me well. This is ridiculous, no matter how fine the item is crafted. But this way Olympus could sell the E-1 to two different type of consumers at different prices. And this strategy worked: the pros bought it, because they needed it and earn the extra price in no time. The grip of the E-3 is much cheaper and you can imagine what signal this sells to consumers (or producers, if you consider the D300 for instance).