The Olympus E-PL1 is the latest and most affordable digital camera donning the "PEN" Micro Four Thirds nameplate, priced at $599 with the 14-42mm kit lens. Alongside its older siblings, the higher priced E-P1 and E-P2, the E-PL1 jumps into the game with many of the same specs, including a 12.3-megapixel LiveMOS sensor, sensor-shift image stabilization and full manual control.
The E-PL1 also has some new features that previous PEN models lack, including a pop-up flash, dedicated direct HD video button on the back of the camera and Live Guide controls for beginners. The Live Guide function allows you to use sliders to control in-camera settings like color saturation and brightness, as well as create shortcuts for blurring the background or capturing fast-moving action.
Like all Olympus PEN and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras, the E-PL1 uses a live view LCD screen instead of a dedicated optical viewfinder, though fortunately the E-PL1 has an add-on EVF (electronic view finder) that can be slid into the hot shoe (we did not use one for our review).
Olympus's E-PL1 has a similar retro look as the E-P1 and E-P2, with a classic rangefinder body that is unassuming, compact and stylish, though not as retro-chic as the first two digital PENs. The E-P1 starts at $799 and the E-P2, the most expensive of the Olympus line, costs $1,099. So besides price, what are the other major differences among three seemingly-similar cameras? Keep reading our in-depth review of the E-PL1 to find out.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The original Olympus PEN film cameras featured a half-frame 18x24mm film plane and were the answer to bulky 35mm film SLRs. In the 1960s, manufacturers wanted to create a more compact camera, which was possible because of the decreased size of the film plane needed, allowing twice as many exposures to be captured on smaller cameras. Today, Micro Four Thirds Digital PENs, which are much smaller cameras with interchangeable lenses, act as an answer to bulkier APS and full-frame digital SLRs.
Olympus's PEN Digital cameras are stylish and reminiscent of a classic rangefinder. Though it lacks solid metal construction like the E-P1 and E-P2, the E-PL1 is a finely-crafted machine that just coos "just take me with you." Like the original half-frame PENs, the E-PL1 varies from average entry-level DSLRs. The design, the size of the sensor, and the technology are all different (mainly due to the lack of mirror and means of achieving phase detection AF).
The Olympus E-PL1 is a combination of a manual control DSLR and an automatic point-and-shoot camera. The E-PL1, like a DSLR, has interchangeable lenses, a larger sensor than a point-and-shoot and the ability to control settings like aperture, shutter speed, etc. Don't let the price and look of the camera deceive you; this little bad boy blends a DSLR's power with the ease of a point-and-shoot, which adds to its appeal for both markets.
Ergonomics and Controls
The E-PL1 feels great in the hand and it has almost identical dimensions and weight as the E-P1 and E-P2. It also has more hand real estate than its predecessors, with a larger handle grip on the front right of the camera. The camera is built with hard plastic and an outer rim alloy, which gives the camera a sturdy feel. It also has something both of the first digital PENs lack: a pop-up flash. However, it doesn't have a dedicated dial that allows you to quickly dial in aperture and shutter speed, a feature of its predecessors.
I don't miss the dial because you can use the four-way controller to change those settings quite easily. Just press upward on the four-way dial and then use the directional controls to dial in your settings.
The basic setup of the buttons is pretty standard: it includes a mode dial with scene modes, aperture priority, manual, shutter priority, and art filters. The shutter button is reminiscent of an old-school film shutter, and the power button and the pop-up flash are also on the top of the camera.
A 2.7-inch LCD, which is used for framing and playback, has 230,000 dots of resolution and is located on the back. The E-PL1 has a four-way controller grid and an OK button in the menu that can also be used as a quick menu trigger for changing white balance, ISO, auto focus and other functions. The camera back also sports an info button, playback button, trash can for deleting images and a Fn button that can be assigned different functions or used to zoom in and out in playback mode.
Menus and Modes
The menu system is pretty standardized across the board for Olympus SLR cameras; the E-PL1's menu system is very similar to the high-end E-3. The easiest way to adjust settings is through the quick menu that is enacted when you press the Start/OK button in the middle of the four-way dial. Then you can access features like aspect ratio, AF settings, WB, ISO, face detection, color modes like i-Enhance, Vivid or natural (the default camera setting), and image stabilization modes.
When you press the Menu button, which takes you to a four-tabbed sub menu, you can change settings from assigning the Fn button to RC mode for an external flash through the hot hotshoe.
The Mode Dial on top of the camera is the real meat and potatoes for shooting; it gives you a range of options, from total manual control (M) to iAuto for more amateur photographers.
Here is a description of the shooting modes available on the Mode Dial:
The E-PL1 uses the LCD as its primary viewfinder, since it lacks a mirror system and an optical viewfinder. Although you can purchase a hot shoe mount Electronic Viewfinder VF-2, I shot without it, so I can't comment on its effectiveness.
The 2.7-inch LCD has a 100% field of view, like most point-and-shoot screens, and gives you accurate color reproduction on-screen for framing and playback. I had some trouble shooting on a sunny day during one of my field tests because the screen was hard to read when framing.
The monitor is also very prone to smudges, and needs to be cleaned constantly when shooting. This is just something you have to deal without a viewfinder, but it is not a deal breaker. Overall, using the LCD monitor for everything is easy, and easily adaptable if you're a DSLR user.
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