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Olympus E-PL1 Review
by Adam Crawford -  3/8/2010

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.

Olympus E-PL1


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 E-PL1

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 E-PL1

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.

Olympus E-PL1 Olympus E-PL1

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.

Olympus E-PL1

Olympus E-PL1

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:

Display/Viewfinder
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.

Olympus E-PL1

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.

PERFORMANCE
The E-PL1 is probably among the most mobile cameras I have come across in a while, simply because it is small, lightweight and doesn't call attention to the photographer. This is a boon when considering you are getting the efficiency of a point-and-shoot with a somewhat larger sensor. The E-PL1 is a good street camera, making it an accessible shooter that's on par with stronger point-and-shoots that have manual controls.

Shooting Performance
Shooting with the E-PL1 proved to be a pleasurable experience, and there were no major issues while field testing. But in a more controlled environment like our studio, the limits of the camera became clear. Although the E-PL1 is the lowest-end model of the Digital PEN series, it has the same AF system as the E-P2, along with Continuous AF with Tracking. Some differences include a slower shutter speed: it goes up to 1/2000th while the E-P1 and E-P2 max out at 1/4000th. ISO speed held to 3200 max, while the other two go up to 6400.

It seems like cameras that use a contrast-based AF are inherently slower achieving focus. Although the Olympus E-PL1 is slower than a DSLR, the MFT cameras can achieve focus as quickly as the higher-end point-and-shoot models. That said, the E-PL1 has some average marks in our studio testing.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 0.02
Canon PowerShot G11 0.03
Pentax K-x 0.03
Olympus E-PL1 0.03

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Pentax K-x 0.25
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 0.32
Canon PowerShot G11 0.38
Olympus E-PL1 0.84

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Pentax K-x 17 4.4 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 10 3.1 fps
Olympus E-PL1 14 3.1 fps
Canon PowerShot G11 1.1 fps

During our tests, the E-PL1 came in at the middle of the pack, including shutter lag, AF Acquisition and continuous shooting. With a shutter lag of 0.03 seconds, the E-PL1 tied the point-and-shoot Canon G11, while the higher-end MFT Panasonic GF1 beat it by a slight margin. For AF acquisition, it's the slowest; ringing in at 0.84 seconds. And for continuous shooting, the E-PL1 finished second to last. With a maximum of 3.1 fps for 14 frames, the E-PL1 falls in the middle with burst shooting, matching the GF1, and beating the Canon G11.

While shooting outdoors, so long as you are in a brightly lit area, the AF works great. But in low light, even with the supplied 17mm f/2.8 lens, the AF is slow. Finding contrast in a darkly lit scene is hard for a contrast-based AF, and it's a slight setback for the E-PL1 user. But then again, this isn't a professional camera, so shooting in low light may not be an issue.

If you are shooting in low light, some of the slow AF pain can be alleviated with the pop-up flash, which is only found on the Olympus E-PL1. There are seven different fill options with the flash, including Fill In, Red-Eye + Fill In, 2nd Curtain, Full, 1/4, 1/16 and 1/64. After testing all the settings, the pop-up flash seemed very capable. The Full is the most powerful setting and part of the manual flash settings, which also include 1/4, 1/16 and 1/64. The flash can also trigger a set of external flashes optically, which is a professional feature found on the E-3 and other Olympus DSLRs.

The E-PL1 uses internal sensor-shift image stabilization technology that works great. There are two panning options: IS off and the general IS on that works for most situations. You can gain a stop of light if you enact the IS at night, allowing you to use a faster shutter speed.

The E-PL1's battery life is good and has a CIPA rating of 290 shots. I used the camera for more than two weeks and only had to change the battery after one day of heavy use. As long as you're not shooting with flash and capturing video, you should be able to shoot more than 290.

Lens Mount/Kit Lens
The E-PL1 comes standard with the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 variable aperture lens. It is a zoom lens that is collapsible when not in use. By twisting the zoom wheel, you can either pop it out or push it back down, making it a very small lens that's easily portable. We were also provided with a 17mm prime f/2.8 lens, which is small and good in low light. The E-PL1 has a 2x crop factor, so the 14-42mm is more like 28-84mm, and the 17mm is 34mm.

The 17mm offers a nice wide angle and was sharp throughout the entire frame. Corners were softer when using the 14-42mm, but there weren't any pincushioning, barrel distortion or chromatic aberrations. In some high contrast images that I captured, there was some purple fringing. Though overall, both lenses worked great.

Video Quality
The E-PL1 captures HD video at 1280 x 720 at 30 fps, and also SD video at 640 x 480, also at 30 fps. The video quality was great, capturing solid video and sound with the monaural microphone. I shot video in low light with the 17mm lens at the golden hour and got some really good video with the sound of waves crashing. I also shot video in good lighting with great results. Overall, video quality was above average.

Image Quality
The strength of the Olympus E-PL1 is its image quality. The default processing setting is Natural. Other options are i-Enhance, Vivid, Muted, Portrait, Monotone and Custom. Natural provides realism to pictures, but if you are looking for more punchy color, jump to Vivid for subtle saturation. I like the different color modes because they aren't overbearing; they each capture a great image that isn't too strong, with subtle differences. The settings can be adjusted by using the sliders in the i-Auto mode, which allows you to "punch up" color when needed.

Olympus E-PL1 Test Image
Vivid
Olympus E-PL1 Test Image
Portrait
Olympus E-PL1 Test Image
Natural
Olympus E-PL1 Test Image
Muted
Olympus E-PL1 Test Image
Monotone
Olympus E-PL1 Test Image
iEnhance
Olympus E-PL1 Test Image
Custom

Default images are strong and crisp, with great detail and edge-to-edge sharpness. In great light, the image quality is top notch. In low light images, which I tested at dusk at the beach, detail was still above average.

White Balance is also very manageable because of the amount of options available: Auto, Sunny, Shadow, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, WB Flash, Capture WB and Kelvin 5400. They work well depending on lighting situations and whether you are indoors or outdoors.

Olympus E-PL1
Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light

With indoor shooting, the E-PL1 performed well in our studio incandescent test, producing an image without too much warmth. The image's colors were mostly accurate, including the contrast of white from the teddy bear to the white background. Auto white balance works well for most situations, and the E-PL1 does a good job of finding the right exposure with its metering system.

The ISO sensitivity studio test is where the Olympus E-PL1 really shines, with workable images all the way from 100-800. At 800, it's a pretty grain-free image, but once the ISO is bumped to 1250, 1600 and the maximum of 3200, noise starts to creep in.

Olympus E-PL1
ISO 100

ISO 100, 100% crop
Olympus E-PL1
ISO 200
Olympus E-PL1
ISO 200, 100% crop
Olympus E-PL1
ISO 400
Olympus E-PL1
ISO 400, 100% crop
Olympus E-PL1
ISO 640
Olympus E-PL1
ISO 640, 100% crop
Olympus E-PL1
ISO 800
Olympus E-PL1
ISO 800, 100% crop
Olympus E-PL1
ISO 1600
Olympus E-PL1
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Olympus E-PL1
ISO 2500
Olympus E-PL1
ISO 2500, 100% crop
Olympus E-PL1
ISO 3200
Olympus E-PL1
ISO 3200, 100% crop

Even at 3200, you'll get a workable image that is fine for email or for the Web, but 800 is the magic number on the ISO chart for the E-PL1.

Additional Sample Images
Olympus E-PL1 Test Image Olympus E-PL1 Test Image
Olympus E-PL1 Test Image Olympus E-PL1 Test Image
Olympus E-PL1 Test Image Olympus E-PL1 Test Image
Olympus E-PL1 Test Image Olympus E-PL1 Test Image

CONCLUSION
The Olympus E-PL1 is the cheapest of the Olympus Digital PEN cameras, rolling onto the scene with a 14-42mm kit lens and body for $599. The E-PL1 is compact, stylish and well-priced for its features. It has an image sensor that is larger than a point-and-shoot, and offers the ability to change different lenses. It also comes with most of the same specs as its two predecessors, the E-P1 and E-P2.

Minus a few functions like higher ISOs and shutter speeds, the E-PL1 is a worthy successor to both those cameras, if not an improved one. With a pop-up flash, superior image quality, a size just slightly larger than a point-and-shoot and its powerful processor, the camera earns its niche between advanced point-and-shoots and entry-level DSLRs.


The E-PL1 is the first affordable Micro Four Thirds camera that has HD video and DSLR-like features for about $600. It's a worthy investment for people who want to step up from their advanced point-and-shoots and for shutterbugs who want a back-up camera for street shooting. Although it lacks a viewfinder and has a slower AF, you can't beat the camera's price for what it delivers - great images and versatility. Look at the E-PL1 closely, regardless of shooting skills. Many photographers are going to find something they like about it.

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