The Olympus Pen E-P1 is without a doubt one of the most technologically and stylistically aggressive new camera offerings to hit the market in 2009, and as we reported last week, Olympus gave us early hands-on access to a pre-production sample of the digital update to the manufacturer's classic Pen series of portable, interchangeable-lens cameras.
This week, we're back with a detailed initial shooting report from some time I spent with a production-level review unit of the E-P1 during and after a press event in New York last week. With a fair amount of new or updated technology to cover – this is, after all, a completely new type of camera for Olympus – it's taken several days just to begin sorting out the real-world performance potential of Olympus's most heavily hyped product launch in recent memory.
What follows is a summary of my notes, as well as a selection of sample images and videos, from two days of shooting with the E-P1, and while it's far from a comprehensive assessment of what the new Pen has to offer, some generalizations about the new model's performance are beginning to come into focus.
Back to basics
At this point, the technology behind Micro Four Thirds (MFT) is well understood by most photos-savvy shoppers. By eliminating the mirror box and optical viewfinder of an SLR-style camera, the idea goes, MFT provides an uninterrupted image path from its lens to its full-size Four Thirds format sensor. The resulting device functions like a point-and-shoot, with all shot composition taking place on the LCD – and, as the E-P1 demonstrates – allows for a camera that uses interchangeable lenses and an SLR sensor (which, presumably, means SLR image quality) but is sized closer to a point-and-shoot.
Olympus is the second manufacturer to launch a camera using the Micro Four Thirds standard (which the company jointly developed with Panasonic), and the primary, obvious difference between current MFT cams (Panasonic's G1 and GH1) and the new Pen is size. Taking advantage of the size reductions allowed by MFT, the EP-1 with the new, tiny 17mm lens attached is only slightly larger than a Canon G10 – or roughly the same size as Sigma's DP series of large-sensor compacts.
I've said it already about this camera, but it certainly bears repeating: Olympus got both styling and construction details about as close to perfect as it gets with the new Pen. Built in a stainless steel body with aluminum top and bottom plates and a smattering of plastic out back, the camera is pleasantly heavy, impressively solid, and – in my opinion at least – truly stunning to look at. In this case, sticking close to the original, rangefinder-inspired concept for this camera was a smart move, imparting a timeless look to the new Pen – equal parts vintage and modern. As one of Olympus's product managers put it at yesterday's press conference, the E-P1 looks like a classic without looking like an intentional clone of your dad's old 35mm.
Superb construction and styling we knew about from our encounter with a pre-production E-P1: what has impressed me more in the last two days is what an excellent shooting experience the new Pen provides in the field. In spite of its fairly old-school and "un-ergonomic" body shape, as well as its considerable weight for its size, the E-P1 remains comfortable in hand during day-long shoots. Balance is excellent, and with the new two-axis interface controls and reworked heads up display arrangement that we've raved about already, firing off snaps one-handed is no problem.
Solving the AF problem
For the first MFT cameras, the open question revolved around whether the technology's necessitation of contrast-detection auto focus (using the image sensor, versus a DSLR-style secondary AF sensor, to establish focus) would be a limiting factor. Contrast-detection systems, like those used in point-and-shoots, typically don't compare favorably in terms of speed or low-light accuracy to the phase-detection technology used in SLRs. But the first MFT design – Panasonic's G1 – showed what was possible with contrast-detection AF and purpose-designed lenses, setting a high bar for all followers in this area.
In outdoor light at the wide end of the kit zoom, the E-P1's focusing generally felt as fast as a decent point-and-shoot, and at times maybe faster. There was some definite lag and hunt when shooting indoors, though – more than you'd expect from a DSLR. If action shooting, especially indoor sports photography, is a primary interest, the E-P1 (or any other MFT camera, to be honest) probably isn't the best choice.
On balance, my admittedly unscientific "in hand" performance evaluation suggests that the E-P1 doesn't seem to match the very speedy Panasonic G1, even under best-case conditions. That said, in more than a day of shooting with the E-P1, I have yet to encounter a shooting situation where its focusing speed became a limiting factor, and some of its advantages over most DSLRs (a great quick-shift AF to MF transition with instantaneous zoom preview, and seemingly unflappable face detection technology) help offset the E-P1's slightly-less-than-stellar performance with features that should appeal to gadget fans and shooters transitioning from point-and-shoots.
Of course, all of our testing to this point has been with Olympus's two newly announced Micro Four Thirds lenses – the 17mm f/2.8 "pancake" prime, and the folding-style kit zoom. As expected from Olympus, both optics seem well designed, and the kit zoom's collapsibility is a nifty twist that lets the lens travel smaller. That said, neither plastic-cased optic feels as robust as the E-P1 itself: for the 17mm especially, it would have been nice to see something more along the lines of Pentax's DA Limited series in terms of style and build quality.
Beyond these two MFT options from Olympus, as well as partner Panasonic's stable of glass for the new format, the E-P1's lens mount gives you half a dozen or so options to choose from and decent telephoto coverage as well – not bad for a relatively new system. With its small image circle and short flangeback distance, though, the options that can be adapted to fit this mount are, in theory, nearly limitless: Olympus is already providing adapters to mount up full-size Four Thirds (most supporting AF) and classic OM mount lenses, and in keeping with the rangefinder aesthetic, at least, Leica M glass can be adapted to mount to the E-P1 as well. We'll dive into some performance specifics on these alternative optical options in the full review, but my initial impression is that many shooters will be very happy with the new Pen's current lens options – especially the sharp, space-saving 17mm.
Features like Olympus's Art Filters technology and multiple exposure mode are hardly new, but the fact that the Pen forces you (unless you have the optional hot-shoe mounted viewfinder, that is) to compose shots "point-and-shoot style" on the LCD gives both Art Filters (which I liked already) and the multi-exposure function (which I didn't find as alluring in the full-size DSLRs) new relevancy. The E-P1's small and straightforward concept emphasizes convenience, and in this vein, Art Filters give you the option to get your processing – bumping up saturation, bringing out shadow detail, or mimicking classic black-and-white film – in place in-camera, and to see the effects of these choices before the shot is even taken.
Likewise, post-processing purists will scoff at the importance of creating in-camera double exposures. But with full-time live view making the multi-exposure function a lot more intuitive this time around, I spent some time yesterday exploring this mode at length and came away impressed. While you're limited to compositing just two exposures in the E-P1 (unlike the more expansive implementation in the E-30), the ability to pull previously captured RAW images in for compositing as well remains.
The multi-exposure tool probably won't see a lot of use with family snapshooters, but if dabbling in art photography interests you, the ability to composite multiple subjects or, my new-found favorite, overlay textures in real time really can be a creative aid – if only in helping you create a reference for producing a more carefully tweaked final composite from RAW files in Photoshop.
Used carefully (and, some would argue, sparingly), double exposures can also be another tool for dealing creatively with less-than-ideal lighting or routine photographic subjects, and works especially well for abstract compositions. Still not a life-changing or decision-making feature for most users, but multi-exposure mode definitely shines more in its Pen implementation.
An HD powerhouse
And then there's all of that video technology to consider. The EP-1 shoots 720p HD video, and the use of AVI-format video capture and an onboard HDMI out makes getting this video to your preferred playback source comparatively easy. To get a handle on baseline video quality, we shot several samples yesterday using the default program auto video capture settings, and found the quality to be quite good – smooth, crisp, and highly detailed.
Shooters looking for more video control will easily find it here. There's an aperture priority video mode for depth of field control; in the same vein, Olympus allows AF with its MFT mount lenses when shooting video. Our initial results on the latter, however, were about as expected, with the camera doing an awful lot of hunting to deal with even minor distance-to-subject changes.
In general, I had better results setting the camera up for a more forgiving depth of field and focusing manually. We've yet to try more involved moving subject tracking, but at this point I'm not feeling overly optimistic about the performance. The E-P1 may surprise us yet, but as always, a dedicated video camera is probably still the best choice for fast action filming.
What you can't do with most camcorders, though, is add complex digital filters to your footage in camera – which is exactly what the E-P1 lets you do. Video can be shot using any of the camera's six Art Filters, meaning you can get film-esque black-and-white or high-saturation video straight from the camera. As seen in the sample above, you get lower framerates when using certain effects on video, but the two frames-per-second look actually creates an interesting effect when shooting in Grainy Film mode.
Still samples gallery
Olympus is seeking broad appeal with the E-P1, but a few days of initial testing are already telling me that this is a camera that will really find its home with enthusiast shooters: the classic styling, flexible lens mounting options, and the implications of certain functional decisions (the choice to not include a built-in flash in favor of having shooters use a hot-shoe mounted variant, for instance) all add up to a camera that serious photographers looking for DSLR image quality without DSLR size will appreciate.
Of course, gaining favor with discerning shooters depends, more than anything else, on providing them with a tool for making great images. We haven't spent enough time in enough situations yet to make any general pronouncements on the E-P1's overall image quality. I was, however, able to snap a gallery of samples over the last few days that show off some of this new model's capabilities.
Until we can get the E-P1 out in the field more, and into the lab, we'll stick to our usual practice of reserving judgment on image quality. That said, the camera certainly exhibits an overall image "look" that will be familiar to anyone working with a current Olympus SLR. And everything we've seen from the new MFT kit lenses suggests that in spite of some unconventional design choices, Olympus appears to be living up to its reputation as a first-rate optics maker – especially where zooms are concerned.
More to come...
At the time of this publication, we're busy putting our production-level Pen through its paces. We'll be back to fill in the gaps in our analysis with lab data, studio shots, and more hands-on impressions of this interesting evolution within Olympus's interchangeable-lens lineup in coming weeks. Stay tuned!