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Olympus E-P1 Review
by JerryJ -  8/11/2009

If you've ever wondered what would happen if you took the high quality image sensor and interchangeable lenses from a DSLR and packed them into a pocket-sized camera, you can stop wondering. The new Olympus E-P1 does just that, promising DSLR image quality in a compact camera for well under $1000. Is it possible to pack a professional photographic tool into a camera that fits inside the palm of your hand? Let's find out.

Olympus EP-1


With a variety of entry level and enthusiast DSLRs already on the market priced below $1000, it might seem odd for Olympus to push the E-P1 out on to store shelves. Nevertheless, the E-P1 offers something no other DSLR currently on the market does: simplicity combined with retro style in a camera that fits in your pocket or a small purse. A glance at the E-P1 instantly brings back memories of using the old Leica M-series rangefinders or other classic cameras like the original Olympus Pen - the camera that put the "P" in E-P1.


BUILD AND DESIGN
The Micro Four Thirds (MFT) standard is a relatively new camera form factor, but it's quickly becoming popular with photo-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) but allows for a camera that uses interchangeable lenses and an SLR sensor (with the superior image quality that a DSLR offers) in an extremely compact camera body.

Olympus is the second manufacturer to launch a camera using the Micro Four Thirds standard (which the company jointly developed with Panasonic), and the most obvious difference between current MFT cameras (Panasonic's G1 and GH1) and the new "Digital Pen" is size. Taking advantage of the size reductions allowed by MFT, the E-P1 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.

Olympus EP-1

The stainless steel body with aluminum top and bottom plates offers an impressively solid and retro look. 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. Placing the E-P1 next to two older Olympus cameras, the C-5050 and E-330 shows just how impressively small the E-P1 is compared to an old point-and-shoot and an old DSLR.

Olympus EP-1

Olympus EP-1

The high quality construction and classic styling were an instant win in our office. The most pleasant surprise was how nice the E-P1 felt while we were using it. 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 (particularly with the 17mm pancake lens) and with the new interface and simple camera controls firing off snaps one-handed is no problem.

In terms of carry-overs from the E-30 and E-620, the new E-P1 covers the essentials. A 12.3 megapixel Live MOS sensor and TruePic V processor? Check. An 11-point auto focus system? Check. Art Filters, multiple aspect ratio shooting, and mechanical image stabilization? Check, check, and hell yes! The bottom line here is that the E-P1 offers a lot of camera in a tiny package. After spending several weeks with the E-P1 it's clear that this camera is a true photographic tool for shutterbugs to unleash their inner creativity. If you've always wanted a DSLR but have been afraid to purchase something so big and inconvenient then the "Digital Pen" might be the perfect solution for you.

Olympus EP-1

Externally, build quality is impressive as well, with brushed metal surfaces providing a nice feeling under hand on the camera's working surfaces. Buttons, knobs, and doors all feel like they've been engineered with tight tolerances, as does the camera's top-mounted mode wheel. For a sub-$900 camera kit, the E-P1 feels like a premium product.

The E-P1 gets its power from a proprietary lithium-ion battery - the same BLS-1 battery used in the E-420 and E-620 - and stores images to an SDHC memory card. We're just glad Olympus has finally abandoned the use of xD memory cards.

Olympus EP-1

Ergonomics and Controls
With its striking similarity to the original "Pen" 35mm film camera - and basically no similarity to any current Olympus models, the control layout on the E-P1 is like no other camera Olympus has produced. As someone who shoots with an E-330 and E-3 with some frequency, it took me a day or two to become completely comfortable with the controls on the E-P1. Sure, you can just put the camera in "Auto" mode and start taking pictures, but if you want to be able to quickly change manual settings or adjust in-camera image processing then you can expect to spend some time learning the camera's complex menu options and multi-function buttons.

Those with big hands may also find the overall ergonomic experience here unrewarding: moving the control wheel to adjust shutter speed or aperture requires you to adjust your grip in order to move the thumb into position.

Olympus EP-1

For those familiar with the already diminutive E-420, the E-P1's small size and even smaller buttons might be easier to come to terms with, but migrating from a larger camera like the E-3 is no walk in the park.

Menus and Modes
In our previous reviews of Olympus cameras we've called Olympus menus an "acquired taste." The same can be said for the E-P1 and its menu system. Those unfamiliar with Olympus menus will probably find it a bit difficult to locate settings in some spots: things aren't always where you might expect to find them. Between the cluttered menu structure, visually ambiguous icons and sometimes illogical placement of settings in an "A" through "I" settings menu, it's easy to get frustrated when you want to do something as simple as switch from auto focus to manual focus mode.

On a much happier note, Olympus has done a good job with the E-P1's shooting status display, which uses the LCD to provide a wealth of information about the camera's settings. If you don't want to get lost in the main menus you can simply use the shooting status screen to adjust everything from ISO and image size to noise reduction and metering simply by using the d-pad to move around within this interface and change settings as desired. The quantity of information on this screen can still be overwhelming, but it's less complex than navigating the full menu.

Like most consumer DSLRs, the E-P1 offers a mix of novice-friendly auto exposure options and full manual control for enthusiasts - with the added twist of Olympus's Art Filters technology. Olympus's latest in-camera processing and emulation system, Art Filters serve up six photo effects, including filters mirroring the look of shooting with a pinhole camera, a soft-focus filter, or on high-speed monochrome film. A complete list of the camera's shooting options is as follows:

Unlike most DSLRs, if you're looking to do some fun things with your images in playback then you can make a huge variety of changes in playback mode on the E-P1. Transform a regular image to a sepia tone, adjust saturation, resize the image in camera, correct underexposed shadows, fix redeye, crop the images, change the aspect ratio, or even convert to standard black and white.

Display/Viewfinder
Comparing the E-P1's 3.0 inch LCD to the E-30's 2.7 inch, you might think you're getting an impressive step up in quality. In fact, both displays feature the same resolution (230,000 dots) and compared to cameras like the D90 (which sports an LCD with 920,000 dots) the screen on the E-P1 looks downright unimpressive. True, the E-P1's HyperCrystal II LCD is on par with entry-level DSLRs like the Nikon D5000 or Canon T1i, so we can't complain too much here.

Olympus EP-1

As with several previous Olympus cameras, we noted a few color reproduction inaccuracies on the display compared to our final results. Colors look slightly cool on the camera's LCD and that can leave you with some unnaturally warm shots if you try to compensate when shooting the images. Still, images on the LCD look crisp and the 3.0 inch size is a nice step up from last year's entry-level DSLRs.

As for the viewfinder ... well ... there is none. Olympus took a bold step in the design of the first digital "Pen" camera by providing no optical viewfinder. You have to use the LCD on the back of the camera to compose your images. True, Olympus does offer an optional external optical viewfinder that fits into the camera's hot shoe, but then that leaves you with no option for connecting an external flash.

Olympus EP-1

HD Video
And then there's all of that video technology to consider. The E-P1 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 (previously published in our first thoughts review) 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, we had better results setting the camera up for a more forgiving depth of field and focusing manually. 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.


PERFORMANCE
At first glance, the E-P1 looks like a fantastic solution to the problem of designing a compact DSLR: get rid of the bulky mirror box and viewfinder and use a retro, rangefinder-esque body design. Package all that up at a price well under $1,000 and you've got a guaranteed winner on your hands ... or so everyone thought. While this amazing pocket-sized DSLR has a lot to offer, Olympus had to make a few sacrifices to create an interchangeable lens camera this small.

Shooting Performance
If the Olympus E-P1 suffers from a single Achilles Heel it has to be slow auto focus. In fact, to explain just how lethargic the auto focus performance is I'll use the two older Olympus cameras shown earlier in this review: the Olympus C-5050 (manufactured in 2002) and E-330 (manufactured in 2006). You would expect this brand new camera from 2009 to outperform these older cameras ... and you'd be wrong. In fact, the E-330 only takes 0.37 seconds for auto focus acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus) and the C-5050 takes 0.93 seconds for auto focus. The brand new E-P1 requires almost a second and a half to lock auto focus. That's almost a full second more than a typical entry-level DSLR. Describing the E-P1 as a "slow" camera is an understatement. On the bright side, shutter lag when pre-focused is minimal with performance similar to what we expect from an entry-level DSLR.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon D5000
0.02
Olympus E-620 0.02
Pentax K2000 0.04
Olympus EP-1 0.06
Panasonic Lumix G1
0.10

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon D5000 0.19
Olympus E-620 0.32
Pentax K2000
0.32
Panasonic Lumix G1
0.38
Olympus EP-1
1.22

The 11-area contrast detection auto focus system inside the E-P1 uses the image sensor to determine auto focus (similar to a point-and-shoot compact digital camera) rather than a separate phase detection auto focus system such as the ones used inside DSLR cameras. The contrast detection AF system is generally reliable, but not particularly fast (per my earlier comments). You can generally obtain a correctly focused image under bright outdoor or indoor lighting, but AF performance is definitely less reliable in low light environments and when shooting low contrast subjects.

Similarly, continuous focus mode is suitable for slow moving subjects under bright light if the subject has enough contrast for accurate subject tracking, but low contrast, low light, or high speeds can all make the E-P1 fail to obtain a focus lock. Considering what a similarly priced DSLR can do, this is rather disappointing.

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames* Framerate*
Olympus E-620 6 4.1 fps
Nikon D5000
30
3.9 fps
Pentax K2000
5 3.4 fps
Panasonic Lumix G1 2.9 fps
Olympus EP-1
22 2.7 fps

* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

Continuous shooting is pretty good when compared to a point-and-shoot digital camera, but compared to similarly priced DSLRs the burst shooting performance is a little flat. The top continuous shooting speed in our lab came in at 2.7 frames per second (slower than the advertised 3 frames per second) with a fast class 6 SDHC memory card.

The bigger problem facing continuous shooting with the E-P1 is the reliance on live view via the camera's LCD. While the LCD looks fantastic, the processing lag between what is happening and what is being shown on the LCD is enough to make you miss a shot or two. If you want to use one of the art filters at the same time as using the continuous shooting mode, forget about it. Several of the art filters severely reduce the refresh rate on the LCD ... making it impossible to track moving subjects.

Flash

Built-in flash performance on the E-P1 is lacking ... because the E-P1 lacks a built-in flash. You can argue that the lack of a flash is part of the "retro style" of this camera, but the absence of a flash probably has more to do with the fact Olympus was trying to squeeze a DSLR into the smallest shape possible. If you want to brighten your images with flash then you'll need to use an external flash mounted in the camera's hot shoe.

Olympus EP-1
*Editor's Note: The FL-14 external flash accessory is available for purchase with the E-P1 and has been designed in the same retro style as the camera. 

On that note, we don't recommend the use of the Olympus FL-50 or FL-50R with this camera since the E-P1 is too small to offer proper balance with such a large flash.



Olympus EP-1

The E-P1's hot shoe provides full TTL communication with Olympus's current flashguns. Unlike the latest Olympus DSLRs, the E-P1 doesn't offer wireless flash control, but that's a feature that likely won't be essential for this camera's target audience.

As noted, an in-body sensor shift mechanism provides image stabilization for the E-P1 - a welcome surprise for an Olympus model this small. The IS menu (which is buried among the clutter of the rest of the camera's menu options) can be used to engage or disengage IS, and select from one of three (normal, plus two panning mode) options for the system.

Finally, the E-P1 runs on the same relatively small 1150 mAh lithium-ion battery pack used in the E-420 and E-620. The pack's slim form and low weight prove to be a perfect match for the size of the E-P1. Unfortunately, because the E-P1 relies on the LCD for shooting, the battery in the E-P1 is rated at only 300 shots while the same battery in the E-620 can deliver enough power for 500 shots.

In real world testing, with heavy use of the art filters, reviewing images after capture and changing menu settings we were only able to capture around 200 or so shots before the battery drain became an issue. We hope that Olympus either comes out with a higher capacity battery for the E-P1 or they make an external battery grip that attaches to the bottom of the camera similar to an old 35mm film external "motor drive."

Lens Mount/Kit Lens

Of course, all of our testing 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. The metal body of the E-P1 practically demands a metal-bodied lens.

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.

Olympus E-P1

The availability of moderately priced glass - especially wide-angle glass - is a particular concern for all Four Thirds cameras. If you are looking for a wide angle alternative to the kit lens you will need to invest in the adapter for full-size Four Thirds lenses and attach one of the various wide angle lenses for the larger cameras. On that note, Olympus builds some of the very best zoom lenses on the market, so adding the adapter to use standard Four Thirds lenses means you can use lenses that produce super-sharp results.

Like all Four Thirds models, the E-P1 registers a 2x crop factor, meaning the 14-42mm kit lens performs like a 28-84mm zoom in familiar 35mm terms.

Speaking of the kit lens, the new MFT 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens is obviously a piece of consumer glass, and although the results are far superior than what you can expect from a compact point-and-shoot camera, the kit lens doesn't produce images with the same contrast and sharpness that we've come to expect from so many Olympus zoom lenses. The 17mm prime lens, on the other hand, is a fantastic lens and probably should be packaged as the only available kit lens since it's noticeably better than the 14-42mm lens in terms of image quality straight out of the camera.

Image Quality
When we reviewed the E-30 and E-620, which sport the same processor and 12.3 megapixel sensor, we were generally very pleased with the shots it produced. Sure, you can expect to see more high ISO noise and less dynamic range compared to physically larger image sensors, but the E-P1 and its big brothers are capable of producing pleasing, colorful high-res images that look great on-screen and in print.

Olympus EP-1

It's not surprising, then, that the E-P1's test shots show the same basic package of default processing choices that we commented on in looking at the E-30 and E-620. Color reproduction is accurate under default settings, and strikes a nice balance between saturation and neutrality. The E-P1 tends to slightly overexpose when using the default multi-area metering if left to its own devices; which leads to occasional highlight clipping, but considering the "point and shoot" crowd that Olympus is targeting with the E-P1 it makes sense that Olympus wants the images to be bright and colorful.

If you don't like the look of your images you can also manually tweak parameters including saturation, contrast, and sharpness straight from the status screen in shooting mode. Olympus's standard array of "gradation" options also allow users to customize highlight-to-shadow balance (with both high-key and low-key presets, as well as normal and automatic settings) to better account for outside-the-norm subjects. That said, all these controls may prove to be confusing for novices.

If the E-P1's overwhelming processing options aren't particularly user-friendly, the same can't be said of its Art Filters options. Occupying its own space on the mode dial, the Art Filters processing options provide several unique image looks without the need for post-processing. Dial the camera into Art Filters mode and you get a list of preset options, complete with sample images that give a visual description of how each preset operates.

Shooting in Art Filters modes is about as straightforward as DSLR operation comes. One gripe with the E-P1 implementation of this option is that you can't use advanced exposure control settings when capturing shots with Art Filters engaged: it's auto-exposure only in this mode, so forget dialing in your aperture or working in full manual mode.

The following samples highlight the differences between each of the Art Filters modes.

Olympus EP-1
Pinhole filter

Olympus EP-1
Grainy Film filter

Olympus EP-1
Light Tone filter

Olympus EP-1
Pale Light filter

Olympus EP-1
Soft Focus filter

Olympus EP-1
Pop Art filter

I think it's safe to assume that the Art Filters package will be very popular with the E-P1's target audience - perhaps even in a way that it might not with more advanced Photoshop-savvy shooters who would consider the E-620 or E-30. I'm not a fan of every filter, but the Grainy film, Pop Art, and Pin Hole filters are surprisingly addictive and fun. As a creative tool, the art filters prove to be a fantastic value in this camera. That said, the single biggest problem I have with the art filters is that using them makes the E-P1 even slower than it already is ... because the camera has to process the art filter before recording the image to the memory card.

Auto white balance under incandescent light is about as expected with the E-P1.

Olympus EP-1
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

As is somewhat common with Olympus digital cameras, the tungsten preset takes the correction too far for typical indoor light, resulting in an unnaturally cool cast.

Olympus EP-1
Tungsten White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

Both measured and Kelvin temp custom white balance options are available, and in this case, I found the user-set modes more accurate than the presets for getting natural looking white balance.

When it comes to Olympus cameras using the Four Thirds image sensors, one of the biggest questions our readers have is about ISO noise. Smaller sensors generally suffer from a worse signal-to-noise ratio than digital cameras with physically larger image sensors ... meaning that there's more "grain" in the image and less fine details and high ISO settings.

Olympus EP-1
ISO 100
Olympus EP-1
ISO 100, 100% crop
Olympus EP-1
ISO 200
Olympus EP-1
ISO 200, 100% crop
Olympus EP-1
ISO 400
Olympus EP-1
ISO 400, 100% crop
Olympus EP-1
ISO 800
Olympus EP-1
ISO 800, 100% crop
Olympus EP-1
ISO 1600
Olympus EP-1
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Olympus EP-1
ISO 3200
Olympus EP-1
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Olympus EP-1
ISO 6400
Olympus EP-1
ISO 6400, 100% crop

Shots are surprisingly clean through ISO 800. There is some detail smoothing and image softening showing up at ISO 1600, and detail gives way to some appreciably noticeable noise at ISO 3200 and 6400. The image quality is actually quite similar to what we see in the Olympus E-620, and I wouldn't hesitate to shoot with the E-P1 all the way up to ISO 800. ISO 1600 is still very usable in a pinch, but ISO 3200 should be reserved for those situations where you must choose between ISO 3200 or no photo at all.

Sure, the pixel peepers out there can spot some obvious differences at around ISO 400 between shots from the Four Thirds sensor in this model and larger APS-C sensors in many of its competitors. But our lab and test shooting experience with the images from the E-P1 suggests that the final prints look just as good as any DSLR with an APS-C image sensor ... unless you're planning to make wall-sized prints at ISO 1600.

Additional Sample Images
Olympus EP-1 Olympus EP-1
Olympus EP-1 Olympus EP-1
Olympus EP-1 Olympus EP-1


CONCLUSIONS
As soon as we saw the Olympus E-P1 we fell in love. Unfortunately, that initial feeling quickly gave way to a love-hate relationship. The E-P1 is as close as anyone has come to developing a "pocket-sized DSLR" ... a camera that delivers exceptional image quality and the flexibility of interchangeable lenses in a package that's small enough to fit in your pocket. This alone makes the E-P1 an instant winner. The single biggest problem with the E-P1 is that it is unacceptably slow. I didn't expect the E-P1 to be faster than Olympus's top-of-the-line E-3 camera, but I certainly expected it to be faster than a camera from 2006 or 2002. It's not.


On one hand I can't tell you how happy I am to see the return of the Olympus "Pen" series to the world of digital photography. On the other, I can't tell you how frustratingly slow this camera is if you're used to the speed of a DSLR. Despite this fundamental flaw, the E-P1 makes a superb photographic tool for photographers who are willing to take their time with photography. If you're not trying to grab snapshots of running children or motor sports then the E-P1 proves to be a capable camera. The lack of built-in flash and optical viewfinder are two other issues that might prove troublesome to some photographers, but if you know what to expect, this camera can produce some fantastic photos.

Pros:

Cons: