Looking only slightly like the original Micro Four Thirds concept design that Olympus floated last September at Photokina, the company's retro Pen E-P1 with interchangeable lens debuts this year to ride the coat-tails of the 50th anniversary of the company's Pen film camera. From the name, to the design, to the tagline etched on its top -- 'Olympus Pen since 1959' -- it feels like both an homage and a desperate reminder that Olympus was in the camera business long before most digital photographers were born.
That said, the design works, although the company has sacrificed some important features to implement it. The photo quality should satisfy anyone shopping in its price class. Unfortunately, the E-P1's performance fails to live up to the promise of the rest of the camera. Still, the overall shooting experience is probably good enough to deliver Olympus a good-sized niche among style-conscious enthusiasts.
You can buy the E-P1 in various configurations online. The body-only package costs around £600, the 17mm pancake lens kit costs about £750, the 14-42mm (28mm-84mm equivalent) lens kit costs around £700, and the package with both the 17mm and 14-42mm lens costs around £850.
Although all their offerings include a full set of manual and semi-manual exposure modes and other advanced features, Panasonic and Olympus have taken very different approaches to their Micro Four Thirds products, implicitly appealing to two diverse types of shooters. While Panasonic seems to be going for the technology-focused digital SLR shooter looking for a more compact model, Olympus seems to be targeting the more aesthetically driven enthusiast who wants -- and is willing to pay for -- the flexibility of an interchangeable lens system in the more compact design of models like the Canon PowerShot G and Panasonic Lumix LX series.
That explains some of the features that Olympus has sacrificed, including a viewfinder -- electronic or otherwise -- as well as on-camera flash. Olympus is offering an optional, low-profile hot-shoe flash and a hot-shoe direct viewfinder with the 17mm pancake lens. Although the E-P1 offers mini-HDMI out, it doesn't have a mic input or headphone jack for video, as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 does. If those are deal-breaking capabilities for you, you may want to wait for Olympus' subsequent products in the E-P line, although who knows when they'll appear.
Although the E-P1 is retro from the front, it's all digital round the back, with a pretty typical control layout. Along the right side of the LCD run autofocus and auto-exposure lock buttons, as well as playback, delete and menu buttons.
To their right sits a user-definable function button, which you can assign to invoke face-detection mode, provide a depth-of-field preview, set manual white balance, reset the AF area to its home position, use manual focus, override raw settings, take an unsaved test picture, pull up 'mymode' custom settings, toggle the LCD backlight or disable the button entirely. As we've seen with other Olympus models, this method of setting the manual white balance is confusing, especially the first time. Unless you know to program the function button for it first, you'll never figure out how to set the manual white balance.
A back dial includes direct-access buttons for ISO sensitivity, white balance, focus mode and drive mode. There's also a vertical subdial. The combination of the two dials is pleasing, and both feel relatively responsive and comfortable to operate.
The prettily inset mode dial atop the left side of the camera offers the standard manual and semi-manual PASM modes, plus movie capture, a variety of scene modes, intelligent auto and access to the six art filters. Next to the shutter is a dedicated exposure-compensation button.
An info button at the bottom right cycles through numerous (some might say too many) display choices: a two-axis digital level, detailed current settings, basic settings plus a histogram or AF area, selectable thumbnail previews of exposure or white-balance compensation, scale/grid display or image only.
You can also pull up Olympus' typical 'super control panel', an overstuffed display where you can adjust the most frequently needed shooting settings plus some not-so-frequently used ones, like white-balance compensation, sharpness, contrast, saturation, gradation, black and white filter and 'picture tone'. There's a much more useful, simplified version in which you cycle around the outer edge of the display to adjust shutter speed, aperture, white balance, drive mode, image stabilisation mode, aspect ratio, image size and quality, flash options, ISO sensitivity, metering, autofocus, face detection and AF target.
For such a compact model, the 14-42mm (28mm-84mm equivalent) kit lens can be pretty sharp. It does much better at macro distances than at traditional ones, however. Overall, it delivers about the same shooting experience as the 18-55mm lenses from Canon and Nikon, with the exception of manual focus.
Although the manual focus rings on those lenses don't feel particularly fluid, they at least use a traditional geared mechanical operation. Like its Micro Four Thirds counterparts from Panasonic, the Olympus uses a servo-electronic ring, resulting in the infinite-rotation experience -- it's not bad, just relatively loose and imprecise, and it takes some getting used to. The way you can retract the lens into itself when not in use is quite ingenious, however, and makes the difference between being able to slip the camera into a large jacket pocket and requiring a carrying case. Of course, if you're looking for the most compact solution, you'll have to opt for the aforementioned 17mm lens, which also has the advantage of a wider maximum aperture.
Olympus offers optional adaptors for Four Thirds mount lenses (MMF-1) and for the older film OM lenses (MF-2). Surprisingly, shooting with the relatively big and heavy (and pricy) 12-60mm f2.8-4 lens via the adaptor felt surprisingly well balanced -- usually solutions like these feel clunky -- although one-handed shooting is out of the question.
Unfortunately, the E-P1 seems to suffer from a sluggish AF system and is crying out for a firmware upgrade. It powers on and shoots in about 2.2 seconds, a reasonable duration. But in our performance tests, shot lag (the time it takes to focus and shoot) with the kit lens in good light ran at about 1.3 seconds and rose to 1.6 seconds in dim light. While it doesn't feel quite that slow in practice -- if it were, it'd be close to unusable for all but landscapes and still lifes -- it still feels slower than it ought to.
The lens even keeps moving briefly after the focus-lock beep and indicator signal that it's done. The continuous AF really is continuous -- it never stops and locks, even when pointing at a stationary subject. And, although the E-P1's typical JPEG shot-to-shot time isn't the slowest among the competition -- the Canon PowerShot G10 retains its crown -- it's still more than twice as slow as most, and its raw shooting is slowest.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Raw shot-to-shot time||Typical shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim)||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
While the continuous-shooting speed is pretty good, at about 3.3 frames per second, as with most LCD- and EVF-based cameras, you can only see what you've shot, not what you'd like to shoot. The low-resolution LCD just passes muster. It seems good enough for manual focusing in conjunction with the automatic magnification, but not as useful for judging sharpness for photos you've shot.
Also, the short rated battery life (which Olympus erroneously lists as calculated with 50 per cent flash usage, although the camera doesn't have a built-in flash), doesn't factor in shooting any video, a notorious battery drainer and something that will probably be a frequently used feature on this camera. The battery simply didn't seem to last very long. All together, it adds up to a pretty poor showing in terms of performance.
That's a shame, because we were quite impressed with the photo quality. Metering and exposures are very good -- right in the middle, rather than the typical overexposed consumer or underexposed pro defaults. Its dynamic range seems solid, capturing detail in both highlights and shadows without clipping overly. Colours render accurately, and the automatic white balance is much better than many models of any class, indoors and out.
Olympus' TruePic V image processor delivers excellent noise performance for this price class, with clean photos up to and including ISO 400, and good, only slightly degraded photos at ISO 800 and ISO 1,600. While its high ISO performance is better than compact competitors like the G10 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, as well as Micro Four Thirds models like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 and GH1, it's still not up to dSLR competitors like the Canon EOS 500D or Nikon D5000.
Video isn't great, but it's pretty typical for the E-P1's class. It displays many of the same problems that we saw with models like the 500D and D5000. It has serious moiré problems, haloing on edges, shimmering and noise in even the faintest of shadow areas, and JPEG compression artefacts from the use of the inefficient Motion JPEG codec. The continuous AF frequently got confused while shooting video as well, dropping focus and hunting unnecessarily, which complicates the issue. The video from the GH1 is better, although that's a far more expensive camera. The sound is good, as long as you're shooting indoors or on a calm day -- as with most of these models, the E-P1 lacks a wind filter.
Olympus is targeting three types of shooters with the Pen E-P1: dSLR owners looking for a compact complement, enthusiast photographers who like the rangefinder feel of compact models like the G10 but who want interchangeable lenses, and snapshooters looking to step up from a point-and-shoot model but who are averse to the bulk of a dSLR.
We can't really recommend the E-P1 to folks upgrading from a point-and-shoot camera, since the biggest motivation in that case, in addition to wanting better low-light photos, tends to be a desire for better performance to shoot kids, pets and sports. On the latter count, unfortunately, the E-P1 simply doesn't deliver. But, we think the first two groups would be more forgiving of the E-P1's performance -- either because they have tricks to compensate or because they have a faster camera somewhere for shooting action -- and most appreciative of the design and photo quality.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet