We rarely see the kind of buzz that led up to the launch of the Olympus E-P1.
A digital reincarnation of the legendary half-frame 35mm Pen SLR camera, the E-P1 has the retro look and feel of its 50-year-old ancestor. But is it fast and nimble enough to produce high-quality images in demanding situations? We’ll find out.
A growing number of digital cameras look like they would fit comfortably in the hands of Garry Winogrand or Cartier-Bresson, leading you to expect that they’d perform like a classic rangefinder camera. But I’ve discovered that once I’ve gotten these cameras into the kinds of situations like those lengendary street shooters encountered, the cameras’ performance fell short. Typically, image quality is excellent, but focus is slow and shutter lag time is unacceptably long. Can the Olympus E-P1, the world's first interchangeable-lens compact digital camera, break out of this pattern?
With so many raised expectations about this camera, I decided to conduct a Street Photography Stress test to learn about its responsiveness and operation. (Learn more about the Street Photography Stress Test.)
I took the E-P1 to the streets of New York City, pumped the ISO to 800 (my normal street shooting speed), and shot away, trying it in both autofocus and autoexposure modes. I also switched to manual focus and exposure to determine if disabling its automation might speed up its responsiveness.
Unfortunately the configuration I was hoping to test—the 17mm f/2.8 “pancake” lens with matching finder—was not available in time to meet this story's deadline. So, ever resourceful, I borrowed the old Kobolux 28mm viewfinder that I usually keep on my Leica M3 and set the 14-42mm kit lens to 14mm (which covers a 28mm view with the Four Thirds Sensor factored in). With this street-ready setup in hand, I went shooting.
Here’s what I learned.
In the hand, the E-P1 is well-proportioned and comfortable to hold, with a slightly raised thumb rest in back and hand grip in front. With its metal chasis, the camera feels solid. However, the lack of any eye-level viewfinder is a big minus, especially when trying to manually focus on a crowded street and the sun is hitting the LCD monitor.
Manual operation itself is straightforward, with shutter speed controlled via the circular dial surrounding the ISO, WB, AF and Drive buttons and aperture controlled via the unique and handy “sub dial,” which is placed right where your thumb can comfortably land. To focus, simply turn the lens’s front ring.
However, focusing was a major drawback. In autofocus, no matter which mode, focus was slow, and I missed many shots while the camera was searching for focus. In manual mode, there was no focus distance setting indicator either in the LCD information screen or on the lens barrel itself. You had to check manual focus visually—fine in the shade, but a challenge in bright sunlight.
The focus assist mode (which enlarges a center detail that you can focus on) helped somewhat, but when the camera is in focus assist the overall view is blocked, and all you see is the cropped center section of the image. Changing focus from minimum focus to infinity required a more than 360-degree rotation of the focus ring. That’s a significant twist of the wrist!
For street shooting, the fact that the camera is so small and unobtrusive is a huge point in the E-P1's favor.
I shot mainly JPEGs (I will post DxOMark RAW test results as soon as they are available, as part of an upcoming full camera report) and have no complaints about image quality at my main street shooting ISO, 800. In fact, at ISOs 200 and 100, image quality is excellent, certainly better than I’ve seen from any camera this size. Olympus has been producing DSLRs that have milked impressive image quality out of their Four Thirds sensors, and this non-SLR’s no exception, despite the camera’s diminutive dimensions.
Slide Show: E-P1 Successes
I’ll talk more about the Art filters in the upcoming full test report, but for now suffice to say that this feature will capture the minds and imaginations of many photo enthusiasts, no matter how the camera performs on the street. And speaking of that…
The Olympus E-P1’s shutter lag was very noticeable in all of its various autoexposure and autofocus settings. I was hoping that, by setting exposure and focus manually, that the shutter lag would be eliminated. It wasn’t. In manual focus mode, the shutter lag was approximately halved, which was fine for less fluid, active scenes but messed up precision timing when photographing people walking by on the street.
Slide show: EP-1 Failures
While the lag time in manual (perhaps ¼ of a second) may seem fast under most circumstances, even this slight delay can be the margin of error between getting the moment and missing it. This is especially true when shooting in close quarters, or when walking in one direction trying to photograph people walking towards you, when a quarter-second delay can seem like an eternity.
I did discover a slightly awkward workaround that bought me that precious fraction of a second: In manual focus mode, I started walking around with the shutter release depressed halfway. Thus primed, when I brought the camera to my eye and pressed the shutter release the rest of the way down, there was virtually no lag time, and I was able to catch the decisive moment with greater precision. The problem with this is that I had to remember to keep the shutter release pressed halfway, which isn't easy when you're walking around the city. I also noticed that after about 15 seconds of constantly pressing the shutter release, the technique was no longer effective and the shutter locked up.
For photojournalists and sports shooters—and, of course, street shooters—this pokey performance and awkward workaround should be kept in mind when shooting fast-changing, active scenes, and for these reasons I am giving the E-P1 a “C” in the Street Photography Stress Test.
The E-P1 is a game-changing camera with many benefits and unique features, but instant, responsive performance is, disappointingly, not one of them. The lack of an eye-level finder and awkward manual focusing are two significant strikes against it for street shooters. It is not well suited for certain kinds of action photography unless you jump through hoops, and I hope the E-P2 (or whatever comes next) will address these slow performance issues.
The Olympus E-P1 has many truly exciting features that work well (such as the Art Filters, full HD Video, panorama stitch, and in-camera double exposure), which I’ll be reporting on soon in a full report. Although less than stellar in the Street Photography Stress Test, it may prove to be a winner in many other ways.