Olympus's new E-PL1 fixes the three biggest problems with the revolutionary first-generation compact interchangeble-lens camera, the E-P1. Is the third time a charm?
Olympus E-PL1 camera with 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens:
- 12.3-megapixel resolution
- In-body image stabilization (3 modes)
- 6 built-in Art filters
- HD Video capture
- Double exposure capability
- Shadow adjustment technology
- Face Detection
- Dust Reduction
- Live View
- Micro Four Thirds lensmount
- Four Thirds sensor
- 2.7-inch LCD monitor
- Built-in, pop-up flash
- Adapter for non-Olympus and standard Four Thirds Mount lenses
Best suited for:
- General photography
- Low and available light
- Special effects
- People photography
- Travel Photography
- Plastic body instead of metal
- Shake reduction not as effective
- Can’t use EVF and external flash at same time
- Harder to access manual exposure modes
Cost: $599.99 with 14-42mm kit lens
To really understand the importance of the Olympus Pen E-PL1 and how far Olympus has come in this, its third generation digital Pen, all you have to do is look back at Joe Farace’s review of the original E-P1 and note what that camera lacked: a built-in flash, an electronic eye-level viewfinder, and a reasonable price tag. The E-PL1, at $599.99, is $200 more reasonably priced than its first-gen predecessor. It has—oh, joyous day!—a built-in flash. And like its predecessor the E-P2, you can get an additional electronic viewfinder for eye-level viewing. Check, check, and check!
Olympus had to make some compromises to bring the price down. The stainless steel surface is gone, replaced by polycarbonate plastic material. The thumbwheel controls on both the left and right are missing, the LCD monitor is reduced from 3 to 2.7 inches, and the functions they controlled are now accessed via menu options, a slight inconvenience.
But some other things are gone to which I say, good riddance! The slow, indecisive focusing that plagued the E-P1 was solved by the time Olympus announced the E-P2, and I found the E-PL1’s focusing to be somewhere in between but much closer in speed to the E-P2 than the E-P1. Also gone is the E-P1’s relatively hidden video control button; a simple red button on the back of the E-PL1 lets you shoot video no matter what other modes or settings you’ve selected, and that can lead to some creative filmmaking possibilities.
One thing remains unchanged, which is the sensor. It is the same 12MP sensor found on the two earlier Pen cameras and is also the same sensor found on the Olympus E-620 DSLR. The camera records 720p HD Video, retains the digital level indicator
Welcome additions include a pop-up flash, and an intuitive set of exposure controls specifically designed for snapshooters that debut with this camera.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In the hands
The E-PL1 is a pleasing amalgam of point-and-shoot control and feel and DSLR features. It feels similar to a high-end point-and-shoot such as a Canon G11, and is noticeably lighter than either of its predecessors. I did miss the two thumbwheel controls on the back, but quickly got used to the button-operation of the camera’s features. The layout is reasonable with ample room to rest one’s thumb on the back of the camera without accidentally pressing a button.
The flash pops up when you push a switch on the camera back and rises over an inch above the axis of the lens, which will help reduce red-eye in some situations. Although the camera is plastic, the lens mount remains metal even though some lenses, especially the 14-42mm kit lens, have plastic rear mounts. The camera uses the same optional electronic viewfinder, the VF-2, but it does add $250 to the cost of the camera. For eye-level viewing, consider a less expensive route by investing in the Hoodman Professional 3-inch LCD Screen Loupe, which is $80 and along with the E-PL1’s Live View will give you effectively a form of eye-level viewing.
Command and control
The E-PL1 has been designed to make it easy for point-and-shooters to transition to a camera with interchangeable lenses. If you fall into this category, the iAuto function offers intuitive control. With the control dial turned to iAuto, hit the “OK” button on the back of the camera, and six icons appear on the right side of the screen. Each of these, when selected, reveals a slider that lets you individually control color hue or intensity, contrast, image brightness, stop-motion or selective focus. (More advanced shooters refer to these as exposure compensation, aperture- or shutter-priority auto exposure, and color temperature adjustment.)
While visually adjusting these may not sit well with anyone who is concerned with calibration and exact results, they make it easy for non-technical people to quickly and intuitively change and improve their images. This is a new feature unique to the E-PL1, and I think it’s a winner.
This Hula figure was shaking and moving, but was frozen when the iAuto mode was in the “Blurred Background” mode.
Express Motions mode emphasizes and exaggerates subject movement (use a tripod for this one).
Getting to the more technical features that more advanced shooters understand requires users to select any other exposure mode—program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, or manual. You can read my Guided Tour for specific details but suffice to say that, as with so many other Olympus DSLRs and interchangeable-lens compacts, there are several ways to access most modes. The easiest way to access exposure adjustments and modes is by using the circular array of control buttons on the back of the camera; the Menu button can also access these controls, but it requires more button clicks.
Art Filter Gallery
The Art filters are essentially the same as those found on the previous Pens. The main difference is that the red Video button on the back of the camera can be used in conjunction with any other combination of exposure control. Want to shoot an HD video in high-contrast film mode? Select the appropriate art filter and hit the red button. How about choosing the “Fireworks” scene mode? Just select the mode, and hit the red button. There are plenty of intriguing possibilities here for creativity.
The Diorama Art Filter make images look like they were shot with a view camera or a tilt-shift lens (such as this still shot at the entrance to Disneyland).
Gentle Sepia gives your photos an old-fashioned warm toned look.
Grainy Film art filter renders images as if they were being printed on high-contrast paper.
Pinhole art filter applies heavy vignetting to the edges and corners of the frame, suggesting the effect one can get shooting with a pinhole or toy camera.
The PopArt filter pumps up the color saturation and contrast for intense, graphical images. This can also be done in the iAuto menu by adjusting color intensity and contrast.
Dig deep into the camera’s menu structure and you’ll find ways to reprogram any external button to handle different chores (some quality time with the manual will be required for this).
The downside to the menu structure is that some features that more advanced shooters might be tempted to use, such as Multiple Exposure, are buried. Olympus was clearly trying to strike a balance here between the number of easily-accessed controls and not wanting to overwhelm its intended main audience—newbies—with choices and confusing technology.
Using more advanced controls, I was able to easily set color intensity and adjust exposure when shooting this tricky scene through an airplane window at 30,000 feet. But I had to figure out where those controls were in the menu structure first!
Unlike the first generation E-P1, the E-PL1’s performance is fast and doesn’t get in the way of obtaining great photos. The start-up time, at under a second, is an improvement. The E-PL1’s focusing, while not instantaneous, is relatively fast and decisive and certainly much faster than the first generation. I also found manual focus to be relatively easy, although I think a focus confirmation audio signal would be a nice future addition for those of us who prefer the manual method. Video recording was a cinch—the camera responds instantly to the press of the red Video button—and the ability to shoot stills while also shooting videos at the same time is nifty.
Olympus tells us that in order to cut costs, the anti-shake technology is not quite as robust as in other E-Ps, and that will result in a claimed 2-3 stop improvement with the strongest level of anti-shake on, instead of 4-5 stops. But as far as quality goes, the results I got were outstanding and when shooting in low light on a plane ride during mild turbulance, my 1/20 second shots with the 17mm pancake lens came out nice and sharp.
While we eagerly await DxoMark’s test results, I expect they won’t be much different from the results for the E-P1, which were within the average range for a Micro Four Thirds sensor camera. Field images were sharp and contrasty, and held up well under 100% magnification. Digital noise doesn’t become apparent (when shooting in JPEG with moderate noise reduction on) until around ISO 800-1,000. That’s not bad.
When Olympus introduced the E-P1, it started what is quickly turning into a revolution in the world of camera design. For the first time, the DSLR form factor was abandoned in a camera with interchangeable lenses, creating a new category. The buzz surrounding the E-P1’s introduction was phenomenal, although many were disappointed with the reality. In the intervening months, Panasonic joined the fray with the GF-1, and less than a month ago, Sony showed a concept camera that brings similar design ideas to APS sensor cameras. What started as a single camera is now a legitimate, fast-growing category.
Now, a year later, Olympus has addressed the concerns raised by the first generation model and created a compact interchangeable lens camera that is accessible to a wide swath of photography enthusiasts, prosumers and snapshooters at a more affordable price. Image quality remains unchanged, performance is better (although there’s room for improvement), and the camera’s operation can be intuitive or advanced at the user’s discretion.
If you are looking to enter this exciting new world of compact camera interchangeable lens photography but balked at the high price and missing flash, Olympus has just knocked down your excuses.
And now, here's Mark Walace's AdoramaTV review of the E-PL1's key features: