On Assignment: The Olympus PEN E-PL1 goes to the U.S. Open
by Theano Nikitas -  10/25/2010

The Olympus PEN E-PL1 is the third model to join the company's Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens family. Although less expensive than its older siblings-and competitively priced with entry level DSLRs-the 12 megapixel E-PL1 shares many of the same features as the E-P1 and E-P2 including manual and automatic exposure controls, HD video and a set of creative Art filters.

Olympus E-PL1

Interestingly, the E-PL1 offers a few extras that the other two PEN cameras do not: a built-in flash, a dedicated movie record button and a new Live Guide. The latter is a nod towards making picture-taking easier for those stepping up from point-and-shoot cameras or photographers who want a handy educational tool to expand their photographic knowledge.

While the E-PL1 isn't quite as sexy looking as its siblings (the E-P1 and E-P2 resemble retro rangefinder cameras), it's compact and easy to handle. The camera is bundled with a 14-42mm lens but Olympus has been expanding its line of Micro Four Thirds lenses. The E-PL1 is compatible with Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds lenses and standard Four Thirds lenses can be used with an adapter.

Overall, the E-PL1 is a good choice for photographers who want a highly portable interchangeable lens camera with plenty of features and really good image quality. Aside from some user interface quirks and somewhat sluggish contrast-detect AF performance (which has been improved slightly with a firmware update-see DCR tests with the BETA firmware here), the E-PL1 is a cool little camera. It's a good choice for photographers who want a highly portable interchangeable lens camera with plenty of features and really good image quality. Still, I had my doubts when I was invited to shoot the U.S. Open with the E-PL1-it just didn't seem like the camera was going to be up to the task.

It had been two years since I last attended the U.S. Open as a guest of Olympus when, this September, they generously hosted another outing for a small group of journalists/photographers. Given that tennis is such a fast-moving game, I was hoping that we'd be shooting with a new DSLR, but the E-5 hadn't yet been announced at the time and the E-3 (which I used to photograph the 2008 U.S. Open) was a little long in the tooth to be of interest.

Images from 2008 U.S. Open captured with Olympus E-3 DSLR:

Olympus E-3 Sample Image Olympus E-3 Sample Image

I thought about bringing the E-30, one of my favorite Olympus DSLRs, but the company had other plans. I was told that we'd be shooting with the E-PL1 along with the small and lightweight Zuiko Digital ED 9-18mm f/4.0-5.6 and 14-150mm f/4.0-5.6 Micro Four Thirds lenses. This would be quite a contrast to the gorilla lenses and high end DSLRs used by the pros at the Open but, if Olympus felt comfortable giving us these little PEN cameras to shoot with, I was up for the challenge.

Thanks to the E-PL1's 2x crop factor, the focal range of both the 9-18mm and 14-150mm zoom lenses seemed sufficient to grab most, if not all, of the types of photos we wanted. The 9-18mm lens with its 18-36mm equivalent range was perfect for wide-angle stadium shots while the 14-150mm gave us 28-300mm capabilities. Granted, the latter wasn't quite as powerful as the 50-200mm I shot with two years ago with its maximum 400mm reach, but still, 300mm telephoto is decent, especially given the compact size and weight of the lens.

The firmware update mentioned earlier was specifically applicable to three lenses, including the two we were shooting with (along with the 17mm pancake), so I was hoping to see an increase in autofocus and tracking performance. There are plenty of opportunities to photograph the players when they're getting ready to serve or, if the player is particularly emotional, to capture their reactions after they missed a shot or made a particularly good play. Unfortunately, there were no emotional outbursts while I was photographing the games but Venus Williams' tennis outfits-including this black and white number-always generates interest among fans and the press as well.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image

First Steps
After getting equipment and relaxing in Olympus' suite at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, New York, we were treated to a slideshow and some tips from Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist and Olympus Visionary, Larry C. Price.

A few of the key points included using a fast shutter speed. Tennis balls travel fast-reaching speeds of 120mph (possibly more)-so you'll want to set your shutter speed at a minimum of 1/500th of a second; 1/1000th of a second works even better when shooting at telephoto. Another tip was to manually pre-focus the camera at mid-court if you want to catch players when they rushed the net. Simplify the background and don't chimp (other than to check your exposure) while you're shooting. And, said Price in closing, have fun!

Small and Lightweight: Size Matters
The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is huge, with its multiple courts and dual stadiums. We spent our time in the Arthur Ashe Stadium, which is enormous as well so it was especially nice to have nothing more to carry than a tiny camera bag, the diminutive E-PL1, two compact lenses and a bottle of water-a far cry from the gear the pros lugged around all day.

Equipped with press passes and a special escort, we took the elevator up to the roof for a birds-eye view. It was the perfect opportunity to use the 9-18mm lens to capture some wide-angle shots of the stadium in color and in grainy black and white using one of the E-PL1's Art Filters. Blazing sunlight meant that I could drop the ISO to its lowest setting of 200 and shoot at anywhere between 1/250th and 1/320th of a second or higher with f/stops of f/9 and higher for the best depth-of-field.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image

The opposite side of the roof gave me a chance to grab shots of some non-stadium courts with the 9-18mm lens zoomed to its maximum. After switching to the 14-150mm lens, I captured some close-ups of the Unisphere from the 1964 World's Fair. As you can see, I have a soft spot for the grainy black and white film Art Filter.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image
Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image

The next stop was the racket stringing room. These guys are amazing-they're fast, accurate and work in a very small space, meaning that photographers don't have much room to move and have to be hyper-aware of staying out of the way. Again, having a small camera with a compact lens was a real benefit. I didn't have time to change lenses, so I shot with the 14-150mm, which was wide enough to shoot in tight quarters. I was especially glad that the E-PL1 had a pop-up flash since I could keep the ISO at 200, leave white balance on Auto and still have a well-lit scene. Most of these indoor images were shot at 1/60th of a second at about f/4 with center-weighted metering. Depth-of-field was a little shallow but I was happy with most of my shots-they were well-exposed and showed excellent detail.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image

Even though they weren't the most aesthetically pleasing, they showed an important behind-the-scenes component of the U.S. Open. Although we saw some players while walking to and from the racket stringing room, we were instructed not to take pictures in the hallways so if you ever get a chance to be credentialed for the U.S. Open, keep that in mind. There are a few rules that must be adhered to and that's one of them.

To the Courts
If you have a press pass, you're allowed to shoot from the dungeon, which gives you one of the most interesting perspectives from which to shoot a tennis match. Essentially you're sitting (or standing) in a basement-like structure with a long, rectangular opening in the cement wall that puts your lens at about ground level.

There are some folding chairs and benches at each of the openings and protocol dictates first-come, first-served so you may have to wait for a seat. In 2008, I spent most of one match in the dungeon with another photographer sitting comfortably on a bench and got some good shots of the opposing player and the player closest to the window when he turned was walking back from the net. I also got hit in the shoulder by one of a handful of balls that came flying through the opening-even after bouncing on the court, it still packed quite a punch and it's really hard to see it coming when you have your eye pressed up against the viewfinder. Fortunately, the other photographer deflected a couple of the balls or I'd have been really bruised or injured more severely. But even after getting hit, you're not allowed to keep any of the balls.

This year, the dungeon was super crowded and I only managed to get a few shots of the player at the far end of the court by shooting in between the other photographers with the lens zoomed to 150mm (300mm equivalent). Wide-angle shots aren't bad from this perspective either although, in hindsight, I should have zoomed in more than the 22mm (44mm equivalent) I shot at for the image below.

Of course, all this has to be done in absolute silence so be careful not to drop anything or scrape one of the metal folding chairs while the ball is in play.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image
Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image

I have to admit that unlike in 2008, I didn't take full advantage of my press pass and decided not to shoot from the press pit on the sideline of the court. First, it was blazingly hot (probably mid-90's) and sunny and once you're seated on the benches in the press photographer's area along the side of the court, you're required to stay there-in complete silence-until there's a break in the match. Second, I thought it would be more interesting, and more of a challenge for me and the E-PL1, to shoot from the stands. So I returned to the air conditioned suite, relaxed for a few minutes with an ice cold soda and headed out into the stands.

There are two levels of suites located between the first and second sections of seating, so I was relatively close to the court. If you're up in the nosebleed section, you're going to need a more powerful lens than a 300mm-equivalent. But from where I was and given the camera's 2x crop factor, the 14-150mm (28-300mm equivalent) was sufficient. I wasn't able to get real close-ups as I did with the E-3 and the 50-200mm (100-400mm equivalent lens) from the press pit in 2008 but I was pretty happy with my images.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image

When shooting from the stands, I pushed the ISO to 400-even in bright daylight-to get a really fast shutter speed. Since I was handholding the camera and using the LCD to compose instead of the optional electronic viewfinder, I wanted all the shutter speed I could get. When shooting on aperture-priority, I opened the aperture to about f/5.6, which generally gave me a shutter speed of about 1/1600th of a second.

On Auto, I was getting a shutter speed of about 1/800th of a second and an aperture reading of f/8.0-f/10. The shutter speed was, for the most part, fast enough to stop action and I didn't mind having the extra depth-of-field with the f/8.0-f/10.0 aperture since I was able to get Venus Williams and some of the photographers in the background in focus.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image

I often shot wider than I could have (100mm/200mm equivalent) for two reasons. First, I wanted to try to capture images with the player, the racket and the ball in one frame. It didn't work out as well as I had hoped, probably due to my timing being off or the ball being served out of the frame.

Second, I used continuous shooting for a number of captures and it was next to impossible to accurately frame the shot since the LCD blacked out between captures. If I had been shooting with a digital SLR, I wouldn't have had that problem but I was pleasantly surprised by the E-PL1's performance. Even at a mere 3.3 frames per second, about 95% of my shots were keepers. By that I mean: 1) the subject was in the frame; 2) the subject was in focus; 3) the subject was well-exposed.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image
Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image
Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image
Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image

Tighter shots would have been easier to capture with a digital SLR with its TTL (through-the-lens) viewfinder and faster continuous shooting speed and AF but the E-PL1's performance exceeded my expectations.

Granted, I have some continuous shots where the player is missing from the frame, but those are few and far between simply because I couldn't follow the action. Back-focus or camera shake caused a handful of shots to be out of focus but, overall, autofocus (regardless of mode used) was definitely speedier and more accurate than I assumed it would be.

Exposures were impressively spot on, despite the occasional clipped highlights (no surprise there given the harsh sunlight). Faint purple fringing along high contrast edges were only visible when images were enlarged to 100% on screen but certainly didn't detract from printed photos.

I wish that I could have shot with the new M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 lens but it wasn't ready during the Open. Having that extra focal length would have made it easier to get those tight shots from up in the stands. Although the lens isn't terribly fast, there was enough sunlight to keep the shutter speed fast enough to stop the action on the court.

In a number of ways, the Olympus PEN E-PL1 exceeded my expectations. Even though I had tested the camera when it first came out and quickly realized its benefits: compact design, with small, lightweight lenses and surprisingly good image quality, I hadn't really challenged the camera as I did at the U.S. Open.

Would I shoot the U.S. Open again with the E-PL1? Should you shoot tennis tournaments with this compact camera? Maybe. On a practical level, the size of the camera and lenses address a couple of important issues: it's easy to carry around and since venues like the U.S. Open have tight security and restrictions on attendees bringing in "professional" cameras, the E-PL1 is a perfect fit.

Image quality is quite good and the lenses I used produced sharp, crisp images. If you're shooting night games (which I have not), you might run into trouble with image noise at higher ISOs, but the E-PL1 manages low and mid-range ISOs well.

The latest firmware update seems to have increased autofocus and tracking speed enough to make the E-PL1 a viable option for shooting sports like tennis. A DSLR, with its optical viewfinder and faster continuous shooting speeds will still beat the capabilities of compact interchangeable lens cameras and their contrast detect autofocus but with a little practice and knowing how to anticipate the players' moves, you'll be able to bring home some great shots with the E-PL1.