Review: Olympus E-P1

Author’s note: This is a review of the Olympus E-P1 provided to me for one week to review on Mac-Forums & my personal blog Jetplane Journal. Thanks go to Olympus for the opportunity to take their latest & greatest for a spin.

Introduction

In general, most people choose one of two types of cameras: Simple point & shoot cameras (P&S) that are extremely small, but don’t offer manual adjustment options – or complex & large DSLRs, which offer full control over nearly every aspect of your image. But the size and bulk of traditional DSLR cameras can make them unsuitable for certain occasions and events, where you might not want to lug a large camera bag and equipment around with you. Digital SLRs can also be intimidating for casual users, who worry about making the jump from their tried and trusted P&S.

The Olympus E-P1 ‘PEN’, based on the original Olympus PEN, has essentially created a new category for itself that sits in-between DSLRs such as Olympus’ own E-520 and other “enthusiast” compacts, such as the Panasonic Lumix LX-3 or the Canon G10. Unlike traditional DSLRs, this camera looks similar to most compacts, albeit slightly larger.

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But the interchangeable lenses and much larger sensor it DSLR-like capabilities, making the E-P1 a compelling for photography enthusiasts and “prosumers”.

Camera hardware

The E-P1 is extremely well put together: The aluminum housing gives the cameras a very sturdy, solid feel that reminds me of Apple’s Unibody MacBook design. Like the new MacBooks, there’s not a creak or wobble to be found in this case. Other elements such as the doors that cover battery compartment and USB connector feel very reassuringly solid as well. As it is made of aluminum and fairly large, the camera does have a considerable heft to it, but it’s “the good kind of heavy”, that makes you confident it won’t fall apart the first time you accidently bump it against something.

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Whilst I didn’t have the camera long enough to conduct real battery life tests, I took around 350 pictures and shot 20 minutes or so of video with just one brief recharge in the 4 days I took it out with me. Swapping batteries is really easy as well, so battery life shouldn’t be an issue.

Handling & controls

As the E-P1 is styled like an oversized compact, it fits nicely into your hands and can even be used with just one-hand quite comfortably. The control layout on the back of the camera is well thought out and quite easy to reach whilst shooting. The obligatory mode dial on the top of the camera is nice and grippy, so you won’t have any issues quickly switching between modes. One minor gripe I do have is the clickwheel, which can be a bit too sensitive at times. Something with slightly more tactile feedback would make navigating menus easier. As any optical zoom capability is built-in to your lenses, you grip and twist the barrel to zoom in or out and the live view LCD displays a precise preview without any noticeable lag.

Menus

The menu system on the E-P1 is extremely comprehensive, to say the least. You can tweak nearly every button setting and mode to your heart’s content. But Olympus have also made the basic functionality very easy to discover, so that even an Olympus novice like myself can change settings, modes and options after a few minutes of playing with the camera. Having said that, I did find myself resorting to the manual at one point to figure out to manually move the point of focus.

Features & Functionality

Automatic & Scene modes

The E-P1 has a nice mix of professional and consumer-orientated features. Put the camera in iAuto mode and the E-P1 will figure out which settings to use, switching between macro, scenery, portrait and other non-specific scene modes as needed. Spin the dial to the SCN settting and you can pick from more precise scene settings, including Candlelight, Night portrait, Kids and all the other scenes types you’ll find on most consumer cameras. Unlike some recent cameras, the number of scene modes isn’t overwhelming though, so finding an appropriate setting is easy.

The only issue you may notice with one of the automatic shooting modes is occasional focusing issues. Usually the camera locks on to focus points quite reliably (although sometimes the focus can be a little bit slow) but every so often it seemed to struggle a bit.

Art mode

The Art mode is interesting and quite indicative of the type of audience Olympus seems to be going after with the E-P1: Instead of the usual Sepia, B&W and other effects you see on most cameras, the Art filters attempt to recreate the types of images normally seen in photographic artworks. Whilst you can easily recreate similar effects using most image editors, being able to preview shots with an art filter enabled did help this amateur photographer to take a few ‘arty’ pictures I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. The only drawback to using Art mode is the decreased framerate of the live preview on the LCD and the increased save times. If you have set the camera to record a RAW copy of your images, you can also apply the art effects later using the Olympus software. Art mode is also available whilst shooting movies, but the frame rate is severely limited there as well, limiting its usefulness.

Manual controls

As previously mentioned, the E-P1 offers full P, A, S, and M modes, allowing the photographer full control over the image settings the camera offers. When using the manual focus ring on the front of a lens, the LCD viewfinder will display a 7x or 10x magnification of the area in focus – very handy for making sure your subject is in focus. The AF+M mode is particularly useful for beginners, as you can have the camera auto-focus first and then tweak the focus manually before taking your shot. The camera also offers a dedicated Exposure lock button, bracketing options and the ability to tweak pretty much everything else a photography enthusiast might look for.

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Full view, not in focus

E-P1 hardware - 05Turning the focus ring on the lens switches the camera to a close-up ‘focus-assist’ view

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The silver barrel wheel lets you zoom in even closer to focus

Software

As this was a review unit, the camera didn’t come with any software, so I decided to fire up iPhoto before installing Olympus’ own application. iPhoto recognized the camera right away and was able to import JPEG images and movies just fine. RAW images aren’t supported yet, but since this camera has just come to market, that was expected. But Apple frequently updates the RAW import capabilities built-in to OS X, so I’d expect to see native OS X support for the E-P1′s RAW files soon.

Olympus’ own application, Olympus Master 2, is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it does offer a variety of editing options, including the same Art filters built-in to the camera as well as the ability to import and edit the E-P1 RAW files. I was also pleasantly surprised to see basic video editing and YouTube upload support built-in as well (although the YouTube feature is currently limited to files under 100MB as it hasn’t yet been updated to reflect YouTube’s new 1GB limit). On the other hand, the application does feel a bit sluggish at times and has quite a ‘non-native’ look & feel to it. But kudos to Olympus for providing full functionality to OS X users.

Image quality

Overall I was very impressed by the unedited images out of the camera. Image detail is superb, skin tones are very natural and noise levels are quite acceptable, even at higher ISO levels 640 and above. The built-in image stabilization does a good job in most settings and can even be tweaked to adjust primarily for vertical or horizontal movement. But for shots with longer exposure times you’ll still want to use a tripod. The camera surprisingly lacks an onboard flash, so you’ll need to pick up the optional flash accessory if you plan on taking a lot of pictures in the evening or at night. Low-level performance without a tripod was okay, but not good enough to take acceptable pictures without the flash. I’d imagine the E-P1 would take good enough images of buildings or objects that were sufficiently well lit-up if you had a tripod though.

Here are a few sample shots – there are more in the gallery below (click an image to see a larger version).

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Okay, so the E-P1 didn’t magically turn me into Annie Leibovitz – but, there’s no doubt the the level of image quality it produces places it firmly in entry-level DSLR territory. It handily beat images take with the older Canon D350 I had brief access to and are no comparison to the Panasonic Lumix TZ3 compact I own.

Other reviews will have all the precise details of the luminance curves and pixel-level crops the E-P1 produces, so I’ll just leave it with this: your photos will look great.

Lenses

Experienced photographers will tell you the quality of an image is dictated as much by the lens you use as the camera. The review unit I received came with a 17mm ‘pancake‘ lens as well as the 14-42mm kit lens. The pancake lens has the advantage of making the camera quite compact and as a prime lens also picks up more light, offering better image quality in certain situations. The bulkier zoom does have greater flexibility though for everyday use though and if I had to choose, I’d probably start out with the zoom. Both lenses produce very crisp and clear images and can also produce nice bokeh effect in images, given the right settings. In addition to micro four thirds lenses, E-P1 can also use other lens types via adapters. As the image-stabilization feature is built-in to the camera (and not the lens like on Canon’s DSLRs), it will work regardless of which lens you use.

Switching lenses is quick and easy to do, but won’t want to take too long as the large image sensor is directly exposed once a lens is removed. The E-P1 does have Olympus’ highly-praised anti-dust system, but even so I’d recommend avoiding leaving the sensor exposed too long.

Movie mode

A Video mode on cameras seems to be the “must-have” feature of 2008/2009, with the Canon D500, iPhone 3GS and Nikon D5000 all touting movie modes as one of their major new features. The E-P1 is no exception and can record 720p (1280×720) movies at 30fps. The videos look excellent, very fluid and crisp. Unlike other DSLRs with video modes, the E-P1 doesn’t seem to suffer much (if at all) from the ‘jelly effect’ that causes image distortions during movement. If you’ve selected ‘continual focus’, the camera will keep your image in focus, even whilst you move around. However, in movie mode, the occasional delay in focusing the camera seems to have becomes quite obvious: Whilst you move around, the camera will often need a few attempts to hunt for the ideal focus setting. But even in video mode, you can also choose to use the camera’s manual image controls and adjust the image to your liking. So experienced photographers might want to bypass the continuous focus option and focus manually instead.

The 44Khz audio on the recordings is very clear and audible and the built-in microphone does a great job of picking things up. The E-P1 does lack and external microphone jack though, which is a shame. If you have continuous focus enabled, you’ll be treated to the sound of the very audible autofocus motor every few seconds, which can be a bit distracting. A mic jack would have gone a long way in mitigating that.

Accessories

Olympus included the optical viewfinder, leather camera case and strap accessories with the review unit, so I’ll briefly cover those as well:

Viewfinder

A lot has been made of the fact that the E-P1 lacks a real optical viewfinder. However, as most my photography has only ever been done without one, I can’t say I particularly missed it. The optical viewfinder accessory seems to be designed primarily so salespeople can reassure traditionalists that the E-P1 does have a viewfinder option. Once you clip it into the hot shoe, you basically have a square box through which you can squint at part of your image. Unlike the viewfinder built-in to other DSLRs, it doesn’t actually show you the image coming through the lens, so you might as well just make a circle with your fingers and look through that. Don’t get me wrong: I can see why an eye-level viewfinder with focus and exposure information would be useful, but this isn’t it.

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Leather case & strap

The half-case covers the bottom half of the camera and is made of very nice leather. However if I was after a case, I would be tempted to wait for something that covers more of the camera body than this. The matching leather strap (sold separately) is very nice though and feels quite a bit more secure than the bundled nylon strap.

Conclusion

I’m not a photography expert by any means. But for a while now I have been looking into cameras that offer more control over images and produce better overall results than your average point & shoot. The E-P1 Pen does a great job of bridging the gap between traditional DSLRs and compact cameras, offering very respectable image quality and control in an acceptably compact package. The E-P1 is fun to use, compact enough to take with you to most events and performs really well across the board. Occasional focusing issues and the noisy auto-focus in video mode are minor blemishes on an otherwise superb camera.

Overall: Highly recommended.

Olympus E-P1 with 14-42mm Zuiko zoom lens

Olympus E-P1 with 17mm Pancake lens

Sample gallery