Guided Tour: Olympus E-PL1

Take the tour and master the camera

Olympus has simplified its ground-breaking Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens (EVIL) Micro Four Thirds format camera. Let's take a close look at all of its nooks and crannies.



Executive Summary

In the early 2009, Olympus rocked the world of photography when it introduced the E-P1, nicknamed the Digital Pen after Olympus's legacy half-frame 35mm SLR of 60s and 70s vintage. Never before had there been such a small camera with interchangeable lenses and such a large sensor. While smaller than APS and half the size of a full 35mm-sized sensor, Four Thirds has been happily adapted by many Olympus and Panasonic DSLR users. Micro Four Thirds cameras, such as the E-P1 and the new E-PL1, use the same sensor, but with the reflex prism and mirrors removed. Lenses were redesigned for a shorter Flangeback (the distance between the back of the lens and the sensor surface). This allows camera makers to build cameras that are dramatically smaller and thinner than DSLRs.

The problem with the E-P1 and E-P2 that followed it eight months later was the cost: The price of entry was similar to an enthusiast-level DSLR, in the $1,000 range. The camera was indeed meant for enthusiasts, but what about those who like the idea of DSLR-like quality but have point-and-shoot abilities and don't wish to spend a grand for a camera? Enter the E-PL1, a camera which Olympus is positioning as the Digital Pen for the masses.

Be sure to read our full review of the E-PL1 as we put it through its paces; if you've already purchased this camera, follow along with your camera in hand as we go through each of the camera's controls, menu items, and features.

External controls

Let's start with the lens. To attach any Micro Four Thirds mount lens, simply match the red dot on the side of the lens to the red dot on the lens mount ring on the camera. Gently turn the lens clockwise until it locks into place.

The control layout is simple and is reminiscent more of a point-and-shoot camera than an SLR. The on-off button is located to the far right of the top plate, and glows blue when the camera is on.

Gently press the shutter release to pre-focus and set auto exposure. Keep it partly pressed to lock in these settings and recompose if you wish. Press  the shutter release all the way down to take a picture.



The top control dial accesses the camera's key exposure features:

P (Program) automatically sets aperture and shutter speed.
A (Aperture Priority) lets you adjust the aperture by pressing the up/down arrows on the four-way control button array on the back of the camera.
S (Shutter Priority) lets you adjust the shutter speed by pressing the up/down arrows on the four-way control button array on the back of the camera.

Tip: You can use Exposure control (right-left arrows) to adjust shutter release in aperture priority, or aperture when in shutter priority.

M (Manual Exposure) lets you fully control aperture and shutter speed. To adjust the shutter speed, press the up/down arrows on the four-way control button array; to adjust aperture, press the right and left buttons. An indicator on the lower right side of the LCD monitor (or EVF if you are using the EVF accessory) will tell you if your exposure is accurate and if not, how many stops off you are.

Movie Mode lets you record 720p HD videos. Note that the built-in microphone records low-quality mono sound; for stereo sound, you need to buy the TK accessory microphone.

SCN (Scene Mode) accesses 19 scene modes; the camera chooses the optimum set of exposure, flash and image quality settings to match the selected scene. The scene modes are:
Portrait, E-Portrait, Landscape, Landscape + Portrait, Sport, Night Scene, Night+Portrait, Children, Hi-Key, Low-Key, Dis Mode, Macro, Nature Macro, Candle, Sunset, Documents, Panorama, Fireworks, Beach & Snow.

Tip: If you're not sure what any of these scene modes do, press the right arrow on the circular control array and a brief description will appear in plain language. For example, if you choose Candle mode, the explanation is “For shooting under candlelight. Warm colors are reproduced.”

Art (Art Filters) is where much of this camera's creativity and fun lies. These six filters are: Pop Art (intense color and contrast), soft focus (muted colors and slight blur, well-suited for flattering portraits), Grainy Film (high-contrast black-and-white), Pin Hole (soft focus and exaggerated vignetting looks like an old-fashioned pinhole camera photo.  Diorama (sharp center of image, rapid focus fall-off along the corners and edges of the frame looks gives images a view-camera type look), and Gentle Sepia (captures images as old-fashioned black-and-white photos with a slight brown tint).

Tip: Art images tend to take longer to process. Expect a delay of up to several seconds while the camera processes the image. Also, keep in mind that the resulting images will be somewhat smaller than images where art filters were not applied.

iAuto (Intelligent auto exposure) is the camera's smart exposure mode. The camera reads a scene and determines which of the 19 scene modes described above should be applied, then makes all of the camera adjustments automatically. Pretty nifty, and well suited for those who are stepping up from point-and-shoot cameras.

Tip: You can fine-tune iAuto by pressing the Start/OK button on the back of the camera. We'll get into how this intuitive adjustment feature works in the Menus section of this guided tour.


To the left of the mode dial is the flash hot shoe, but it is also a media port: In addition to attaching a FL 14 or FL-36R Wireless Flash, you can plug in the accessory stereo microphone, which can in turn accommodate other external microphones for higher-quality sound to match your high-definition videos.  The Electronic eye-level FV-2 Viewfinder electronic viewfinder can also be mounted here for eye-level viewing.

Note: The Electronic eye-level FV-2 Viewfinder is the same one that is used for the E-P2.

Camera back controls

Above the LCD viewfinder towards the left side is a switch that flips up the built-in electronic flash unit.

Tip: Unlike many on-camera flash units, this one extends farther than usual above the lens. While this won't eliminate red-eye, the flash's higher position reduces its likelyhood.

The Fn switch can be programmed to handle any number of functions via the camera's custom programming controlls, which we'll discuss later. In display mode, the two side by side buttons let you resize images from tiny thumbnails to full-frame or slightly larger.

The red button on the upper right corner is the direct video record button. Press it while the camera is in any exposure setting and it will record HD Video, a vast improvement over previous versions, which required more than one button press to access video recording.

Tip: You can record videos in any Art Filter mode. Simply set up the art filter mode, then press the red button and it will record with the Art Filter effect applied to the video. Try it!

Tip: You can record a still image while simultaneously shooting videos. Simply press the shutter release while video is being recorded and a still image will be captured without interrupting the video.

Next to the monitor are three vertical buttons: The green arrow is the preview, or image playback, button. View images this way.

Next is the Menu button. This accesses all of the camera set-up, playback, and custom control options deep in the camera. The typical intended user will have little need for this button.

The info button controls what data is displayed on screen as you're taking pictures or in playback mode. The most extensive choice displays focus mode, exposure mode, ISO setting, aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation (or over- or underexposure indicator in manual exposure mode), number of exposures left, image size, and image stabilization on/off. A second press shows a live histogram, while a third press of the info button clears the screen so all you see is the image.

The four-button array surrounding the Start OK button represent an important part of the E-PL1's control menu navigation and operation, so we're going to spend some time with it. The buttons are used to navigate around the camera's most important functions and make it easy to access frequently-changed settings. The choice of settings changes contextually, depending on which shooting mode you've set using the dial on the top of the camera.

When in iAuto, press the Start OK button and a “Shooting Tips” menu appears on the right side. Actually, “Shooting Tips” is a misleading label. This menu should be called “Fine Tuning” or something like that. Each icon represents a different set of image quality controls: Change Color Saturation, Change Color Image, Change Brightness, Blur Background, Express Motions, and Shooting Tips.  Use the up and down buttons to navigate and the Start OK button again to select a control. A slider will appear; use the up/down buttons to move it, OK to select, and Menu to quit out of the menu.

Let's look at each of the iAuto options, because they are a new feature that provides a lot of powerful choices in a very intuitive fashion.

Change Color Saturation: This lets you control color intensity from very intense to almost pastel in range.

Tip: Move the slider to the bottom “Flat & Muted” option when you want to shoot flattering portraits, and to the top “Clear & Vivid” for more colorful landscapes.

Change Color Image: This control lets you adjust the image's overall color cast in 14 steps from warm orange to deep blue.

Tip: When shooting in open shade on a sunny day, make the image two steps warmer for more natural, less overall tones. Do the same when shooting snow.

Change Brightness: For the more technical among us, this control gives the same effect as exposure compensation, but the numeric value is not shown. For snapshooters who simply want to lighten or darken a photo, this is a better choice because you simply see the effect on the monitor.

Note: The Change Brightness control is the same as exposure compensation; to access this, use Program, A or S modes. If you don't trust the information on the monitor, exposure compensation (along with displaying the histogram) is the way to go.

Blur Background: Changes aperture size so the background appears more blurred in relation to an in-focus foreground subject. It is similar to Aperture priority.

Tip: As the on-camera tutorial states, use a longer focal length lens or get closer to your subject, and make sure there is plenty of distance between your subject and the backround to get the maximum blur.

Express Motions: This controls shutter speed, just like Shutter priority mode. “Blurred Motion” instructs the camera to take a longer exposure, allowing moving subject to become blurred. “Stop Motion” chooses a faster shutter speed to freeze moving objects.

Tip: If you choose “blurred motion,” make sure shake reduction is turned on; otherwise, keep the camera on a tripod or some other steady support, so the camera itself doesn't cause a shaky shot.

Shooting Tips: This accesses quick shooting tips to help you get better pictures of specific subjects: Children, pets, flowers, cuisine, and good, succinct compositional tips called “tips for framing.”

What if you want to control your images in P, A, S or M?  Press the Start/OK button to access a dozen controls that appear on the right side of the LCD monitor:

Color palate (paint brush icon): Lets you choose Vivid, Natural, Muted, Portrait (pastel colors), Monotone (black & white), custom, or i-Enhance (selectively lightens shadows).

White Balance: Auto, Sunny, Shadow, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Flash, Capture White balance (takes a reading off a white card to establish a custom white balance), Kelvin (manually select by pressing Info then the right-left arrows to adjust the color temperature, from 2000 to 14,000K).

Drive mode: Shoot one exposure at a time (single), 3fps burst mode (sequential), 2- and 12-second delay self-timer.

Image stabilizer (IS): Gives you three stabilization possibilities; choose the strongest for video to avoid jumpiness, and IS-1 or IS-2 for hand-held shots. Turn IS off when shooting with the camera on a tripod.

Note: If you already have an Olympus E-P1 or E-P2, Olympus tells us the IS is roughly one stop less effective on the E-PL1.

Aspect Ratio: Controls the shape of the image: 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 (movie aspect ratio) and 6:6 (square).

Tip: If you plan on making 8x10-inch prints with no cropping, choose 4:3. For 5x7 prints, choose 3:2.

Image size (in pixels) lets you choose RAW, or different Super-fine or fine image quality in 4032x3024 pixel size, Medium-sized 2560x1920, small 1280x960 pixel JPEG images, or combinations of RAW plus JPEG.

Flash: Controls red-eye reduction pre-flash, as well as flash output from full output down to 1/64 power. You may not need such fine control with the tiny on-camera flash, but this lets you control TTL flash units that are added, and in some cases, lower power will lead to improved lighting.

Flash exposure compensation is another way to control flash output, increasing or decreasing it in 1/3-stop intervals to plus or minus three stops.

Tip: When using the on-camera flash, boost output to +3 stops to light up subjects that are 10-20 feet away from the camera.
Metering pattern: The E-PL1 divides the frame into 324 exposure areas, and offers five metering patterns: ESP (camera automatically chooses exposure based on overall light and local light intensity within the frame, showing preference to face exposure), traditional Center-Weighted metering, spot metering measures 2% of the scene. Spot metering-highlight control lightens spot metered area for a high-key look, while Spot metering-shadow control darkens the metered area for a low-key effect.

Tip: Use ESP along with face recognition and the camera will automatically choose the best exposure for the main faces in the picture.

Tip: Use spot metering-highlight control when photographing a heavily backlit subject in order to get as much shadow detail as possible.

Focus control: Single, continuous and manual focus are all possible here, are as combinations such as single AF + manual focus. In this mode, the user can override the camera's focus choice simply by turning the focusing ring on any compatible AF lens.

Face detection (smiley face icon): Turn face detection on or off at will. Most people will keep this on, but it does slow down the camera's reaction time slightly.

ISO Auto lets you choose the ISO setting, from 100-3200. The Auto ISO leaves ISO decisions up to the camera. I don't recommend this option because you could end up with a grainy high ISO setting and not even know it. Better to set ISO manually.

Menu items

Many of the items we discussed above can also be accessed by simply pressing the camera's “Menu” button.

The menus are divided into five sections: Picture-taking modes (2 screens worth), Image Preview, Custom, and Camera Settings.
Shooting modes

Card Setup: Lets you erase or reformat the memory card in the camera.

Custom Reset: Lets you lock in the current camera settings as a Custom set of settings. You can lock in two sets of settings. For example, if you like shooting a lot in M and sepia mode with face recognition off, you can set that as RESET 1, then all you have to do to access these settings is to hit RESET 1 and the OK button. The third simple “Reset” option brings the camera back to its original factory defaults.

Picture Mode: Lets you change the color pallate as described earlier.

Image Quality: Lets you adjust image compression, and whether to shoot in JPEG, RAW, or both, as described earlier. It also lets you choose between HD and SD video resolution.

Image Aspect: Lets you choose the size and dimensions of the recorded images 4:3, 3:2, 6:6, or 16:9.

Drive: Same single, multi-shot or time delayed exposure options as described above.

Image Stabilizer: Lets you turn stabilization on or off, and the degree of stabilization, which may depend on the focal length of the lens.

Tip: Use the higher stabilization for longer focal length lenses and when shooting in lower light; use lower stabilization when shooting with wide-angle lenses, or in bright light, as you won't need it quite as much.

Bracketing: Allows you to shoot sequential exposures with different settings. The E-PL1 lets you bracket auto exposure, white balance, flash, and ISO separately or together.

Multiple Exposure: Lets you combine up to three previously exposed images into a single shot. Auto Gain, one of the two choices, underexposes both images enough so the result will not be too bright. Gain lets you set the brightness of each image manually.

Tip: Set the gain on each image to ½ its normal amount, otherwise the combined image may be too bright.

Flash exposure compensation lets you vary flash output to +/- 3 stops in 1/3-stop intervals.

Image Preview

Slide Show lets you select images and play them back as a slide show, with four canned musical themes running in the background. You can choose to view only the stills, only the movies, or all, and control time on screen.

Edit lets you select multiple images, overlay them and combine them into a single image file. The original images are retained.

Print accesses the camera's DPOF printing options.

Reset Protect lets you tag images that you don't want erased.

Custom settings


This area of the menu lets you customize the camera's default settings for a number of features:

A: AF/MF mode lets you choose which Autofocus (or manual focus) mode you wish to be the camera's default.

B: Button lets you assign new functions to the different buttons on the camera. For instance, the red dot button that lets you record videos when you press it can be changed to automatically switch the camera from AF to manual focus mode, or to lock in focus and exposure.

C: Release lets you tell the camera if it's OK to snap the shutter even if the image is not in focus.

D: DISP/PC accesses a variety of settings, such as the histogram, LCD backlighting controls, turning the Mode guide on or off, activating remote control, adjusting volume, and choosing a mode for connecting the camera to a printer or computer.

E: EXP/ISO controls exposure related features. For instance, EV Step lets you change the exposure compensation steps from 1/3 step to ½ or 1. Several metering and ISO modes shown here are also more readily accessed by simply using the OK button in P, A, S and M modes. In this menu, users can change ISO so it can be selected in either 1/3 EV increments or one-stop increments, and you can control the high and low ISO limits when in ISO Auto. Bulb timer lets you set long exposures up to 30 minutes, while Anti-Shock actually increases shutter lag time to two seconds.

Tip: To minimize camera shake from pressing the shutter release while the camera is on a tripod during longer exposures, set Exp/ISO>Anti-Shock to a 2-second delay.

F: Custom lets you change the flash sync speed from 1/60 sec to 1/160 sec; you can also control slow shutter speed when shooting with flash so the shutter will be open anywhere from 1/160 sec to 30 sec. You can also set the camera to simultaneously vary flash output and exposure compensation.

G: Color/WB lets you adjust the amount of automatic noise filtering is done when the camera processes JPEG images, or you can turn noise reduction off. You can also control White Balance, set the color space, turn shading compensation, which compensates for slight lens vignetting, off or on. You can also adjust pixel count.

H: Record/Erase lets you choose which images to keep, lets you name or edit file names, set priority to images, selectively erase RAW or JPEG files, and choose print resolution via dpi SETTING when printing directly to a printer from the camera.

I: Movie lets you combine P, A, M, or any art filter with video recording. This can also be more simply done by setting the mode dial, choosing an art filter, then pressing the red Video record button. You can also disable the camera's ability to shoot stills while also shooting video, and you can disable sound recording during movies.

J: Utility enables and disables pixel mapping, controls Exposure Shift, allows for subtle exposure changes, and lets you control the batter warning symbol. 

Camera settings

This controls the camera's “set-'em-and-forget-'em” settings.

Clock: Set the time, date and year

Language: Choose the menu language. The default is English.

Monitor brightness: Lets you adjust the monitor's brightness level. Choose the brightest level when shooting outside, but remember this uses up the batter faster.

Rec View: Determines how long the just-recorded images appears on screen after you've taken a picture, for up to 20 seconds. You can also disable this feature here.

Menu Display adjusts how the menu appears on screen.

Firmware shows you which firmware version is running in the camera.

That concludes our guided tour of the Olympus E-PL1. Now go out there and take some great photos!

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