Olympus E-P1 Review

 
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Olympus E-P1 Image Quality


Color

Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Good color and hue accuracy overall, with minor oversaturation of strong reds and blues.

In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located toward the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center.
Saturation. The Olympus E-P1 pushes reds, purple and blues a bit, and dark greens very slightly, while undersaturating some cyans and yellows. With a default saturation of 105.6% (5.6% oversaturated), the E-P1 doesn't oversaturate as much as most consumer cameras. Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life.

Skin tones. Here, the Olympus E-P1 also did well, producing natural-looking skin tones, just slightly on the pinkish side. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.

Hue. The Olympus E-P1 did push cyan toward blue and red toward orange, but shifts were relatively minor to moderate. Overall accuracy was still very good. (The cyan to blue shift is very common among the digital cameras we test; we think it's a deliberate choice by camera engineers to produce better-looking sky colors, though the sky in our far-field shots was still rendered with quite a bit of cyan.) Hue is "what color" the color is.

Saturation Adjustment
The Olympus E-P1 lets you adjust the image saturation, contrast, and sharpness in five steps each. As can be seen below, the saturation adjustment was quite effective, covers a photographically useful range, and does a good job of not impacting contrast.

Saturation Adjustment Examples
Click to see EP1OUTBSAT1.JPG Click to see EP1OUTBSAT3.JPG Click to see EP1OUTBSAT5.JPG
-2 0 +2

The table above shows results with the default as well as the two extreme saturation settings. Click on any thumbnail above, then click again to see the full-sized image.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sensor

Exposure and White Balance

Indoors, incandescent lighting
Very warm cast with Auto, but good color with the Incandescent and Manual settings. Average positive exposure compensation required.

Auto White Balance
+0.3 EV
Incandescent White Balance
+0.3 EV
Manual White Balance
+0.3 EV
2,600 Kelvin
+0.3 EV

Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, color balance was very warm with the Auto white balance setting. Results with the Incandescent setting were quite good, very similar to the Manual setting, which was the most accurate. The 2,600 Kelvin setting was quite cool with a blue-green tint. The Olympus E-P1 required an average amount of positive exposure compensation here, at +0.3 EV. Overall color looks good, though the blue flowers look slightly purplish, probably due to the E-P1's tendency to punch up reds a little. ((Many digital cameras reproduce the blue flowers here with more of a purplish tint, so the Olympus E-P1 actually performs a bit better than average here.) Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.)

Outdoors, daylight
Bright colors overall, though a tendency toward high contrast under harsh lighting. About average exposure accuracy.

Auto White Balance,
+0.7 EV
Auto White Balance,
Auto Exposure

Outdoors, the Olympus E-P1 performed pretty well, with good color but slight overexposure in the outdoor far-field house shot. The Olympus E-P1 required an average amount of positive exposure compensation (+0.7 EV) to keep facial tones bright on the "sunlit" portrait test. That left the model's face a little dark, but there were still a lot of blown highlights in her shirt. Default contrast is on the high side, but fortunately, there's a contrast adjustment to help compensate. Overall, good results here, especially when the contrast setting is turned down (see Extremes section below).

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Resolution
Very high resolution, 1,700 ~ 1,800 lines of strong detail.

Strong detail to
1,800 lines horizontal
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
1,700 lines vertical
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
1,800 lines horizontal
dcraw processed ORF
Strong detail to
1,700 lines vertical
dcraw processed ORF

In camera JPEGs our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,800 lines per picture height horizontally, and about 1,700 lines in the vertical direction. Extinction didn't occur until about 2,600 to 2,700 lines horizontally and vertically. We weren't able to extract much more resolution by processing the E-P1's ORF files using dcraw, and Adobe Camera Raw does not support the E-P1 at the time of writing (late June 2009). Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sharpness & Detail
Good sharpness overall, though edge-enhancement artifacts on high-contrast subjects are visible. Moderate noise suppression visible in the shadows.

Good definition of high-contrast
elements with some visible
sharpening artifacts.
Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast.

Sharpness. The Olympus E-P1 captures fairly sharp images overall, though quite a few edge enhancement artifacts are visible on high-contrast subjects such as the branches, roof and trim in the crop above left. (Most noticeable on edges of white trim against the brick; note light halo there.) Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.

Detail. The crop above right shows some moderate noise suppression artifacts in the darkest areas of the model's hair, smudging individual strands together, though quite a few strands are visible. Overall detail is better than average for a Four-Thirds sensor, and better than quite a few APS-C sensors as well. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.

RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Olympus E-P1 produces fairly sharp in-camera JPEGs. As is almost always the case, though, quite a bit more detail can be obtained from carefully processing RAW files than can be seen in the in-camera JPEGs. The Olympus E-P1's JPEGs are good straight from the camera, but it's surprising how much more detail is visible after processing in a good RAW converter. Take a look below, to see what we mean:

In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above, and clicking on the link will load the full resolution image.

It's often the case that manufacturer's RAW conversion software doesn't manage the level of detail rendition that third-party programs do, but we felt that Olympus Master 2 really stayed too close to the camera's processing to be of much use. The dcraw conversion however contains a lot more fine detail than the camera JPEG, while at the same time showing fewer sharpening artifacts: The Olympus E-P1 rewards RAW shooters with really excellent detail.

ISO & Noise Performance
Low noise up to ISO 400, moderate to high at higher ISOs, but an improvement over previous generation Four-Thirds sensors at high ISOs.

Default High ISO Noise Reduction
ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400
ISO 800 ISO 1,600 ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400

The Olympus E-P1's images are quite clean at ISO 100, and ISO 200 is almost as good. We start to see some bright as well as dark noise pixels at ISO 400, but detail is still very good, with just a hint of chroma noise creeping into the shadows. ISO 800 is quite a bit softer due to more aggressive noise reduction, but detail is not too bad. At ISO 1,600, we see additional detail loss, as well as more obvious purple and yellow blotches in shadow areas. At ISO 3,200, noise grain is coarser and blurring stronger still, as you'd expect. ISO 6,400 is very noisy, having very little fine detail and also a strong purplish color cast, especially in darker areas. All things considered, the Olympus E-P1's high-ISO images are noticeably improved over those of the earlier Olympus Four-Thirds sensor cameras. As always, see the Print Quality section below for maximum recommended print sizes at each ISO.

Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
High resolution with good overall detail, but somewhat high default contrast and limited dynamic range. Good low-light performance, but metering struggled quite a bit at lower light levels.

+0.3 EV +0.7 EV +1.0 EV

Sunlight. The Olympus E-P1 struggled a bit with the deliberately harsh lighting of this test, as its contrast was a little high at its default setting, and the dynamic range was somewhat limited. Shadow detail is pretty good though, albeit a bit noisy. (Compared some other cameras, including earlier Olympus models, we prefer seeing a bit of noise in the shadows to the alternative of lots of detail lost due to noise suppression.) Although we liked the detail in the shirt better at +0.3 EV with the default contrast, we preferred the +0.7 EV exposure overall, because the exposure of the skin tone in the face was better, without blowing out as many highlights as with +1.0 EV. Depending on the photographer, you could lean one way or the other. Pros and advanced users will want to shoot darker, to hold highlight detail. For those E-P1 owners that are going to want to just print an image, the +0.7 image would probably produce the best-looking print with little or no tweaking. The bottom line though, is that the E-P1 had difficulty with the wide dynamic range of this shot, at least with its default settings.

Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)

Contrast Adjustment
As mentioned previously, the camera's contrast adjustment was at least some help in handling the harsh lighting.

Minimum Contrast
Contrast set to lowest,
+0.7 EV
Contrast set to lowest,
Auto Exposure

At its lowest contrast setting, the Olympus E-P1 did a better job of preserving highlight detail, maintaining fairly natural-looking skin tones, and holding more in the shadows, but the limited dynamic range makes it perform a bit below average in this regard.

Contrast Adjustment Examples
-2 0 +2

The shots above show the results of the minimum, default and maximum contrast settings. While you can see the extremes, it's pretty hard to evaluate small differences in contrast on small thumbnails like these, click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image. The Olympus E-P1's contrast adjustment helps a little with the strong highlights here, but we'd really like to see slightly greater range, at the low end. Even with the lowest contrast setting, the dynamic range isn't terribly impressive: While dropping the exposure slightly helps the highlights, and the contrast adjustment opened up the shadows somewhat, the camera still struggles with the deliberately harsh lighting of this test. (Which means it will also have issues with strong, direct sunlight.)


Dynamic Range vs ISO Sensitivity
ISO 100, f/8, 1/100s ISO 200, f/8, 1/250s

It's important to note that for maximum dynamic range, you should really select ISO 200 when shooting with the Olympus E-P1. Although Olympus doesn't say, we think this is the E-P1's native ISO and why Auto ISO starts at ISO 200. While there is a bit more noise at ISO 200 versus 100, dynamic range is slightly better, as can be seen in the highlights and shadows of Far Field shots above. We used Aperture Priority for the above images, and the camera selected faster than double the shutter speed at ISO 200 (1/250s) versus ISO 100 (1/100s). This helped preserve more highlights compared to ISO 100 than if it used 1/200s, but overall dynamic range is still a bit better at ISO 200. The E-P1 also offers four Gradation options (Normal, Auto, High and Low Key). The above shots were taken with Gradation set to Normal.


Face Detection
Off at 0 EV On at 0 EV

Face Detection
Like most Point & Shoot cameras these days (and some DSLRs in Live View mode), the Olympus E-P1 has the ability to detect faces, and adjust exposure and focus accordingly. The E-P1 does it automatically in iAuto mode, when a Portrait scene mode is selected, or when Face Detection AF mode is selected. As you can see from the examples above, it really works, as the image with face detection enabled is much better exposed for the face, an excellent performance under very difficult lighting such as this.

 

  1 fc
11 lux
1/2 fc
5.5 lux
1/4 fc
2.7 lux
1/8 fc
1.3 lux
1/16 fc
0.67 lux
1/16fc
No NR
ISO
100
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1.3 sec
f2.8
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2 sec
f2.8
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3.2 sec
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5 sec
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ISO
200
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f2.8
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f2.8
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f2.8
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3.2 sec
f2.8
ISO
400
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f2.8
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800
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f2.8
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1/4 sec
f2.8
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f2.8
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1 sec
f2.8
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f2.8
ISO
1600
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1/13 sec
f2.8
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f2.8
ISO
3200
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1/25 sec
f2.8
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1/15 sec
f2.8
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1/10 sec
f2.8
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1/6 sec
f2.8
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1/4 sec
f2.8
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f2.8
ISO
6400
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1/50 sec
f2.8
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1/30 sec
f2.8
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1/20 sec
f2.8
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1/13 sec
f2.8
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1/8 sec
f2.8
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1/8 sec
f2.8

Low light. The Olympus E-P1 struggled a bit in our low light test, capturing acceptably bright images only down to about one foot-candle at any ISO in our test. We believe this is a bug or limitation of the autoexposure (AE) metering system. In this case Aperture-priority AE was used, with a reasonably fast (bright) f/2.8 lens. The camera is capable of much longer exposures (up to 60 seconds when using AE), and the E-P1's metering system is rated from 0 to 20 EV, so we're not sure why it produced such dim exposures at 1/2 foot-candle and below as it could have selected slower shutter speeds. We are however sure that bright images can be captured beyond the lowest light levels we test at, if manual exposure mode is used. Noise is low up to ISO 400, though there are a few hot pixels visible at lower light levels. White balance is quite neutral, and there doesn't appear to be any sign of banding at any ISO, an increasingly common issue lately.

The camera's autofocus system was able to focus on the subject down to almost the 1/8 foot-candle light level unassisted with the 14-42mm kit lens, which isn't as good as most DSLRs, but very good for a camera using contrast-detect autofocus. With the faster (brighter) 17mm f/2.8 lens, the E-P1 was able to focus down to just under 1/16 foot-candle. That's a good thing, because the E-P1 does not have a built-in focus assist lamp.

How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.

NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Thanks to their phase-detect AF systems, digital SLRs tend to do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects. The E-P1 uses contrast-detect autofocus, as is found in most point & shoot cameras, so its low-light focusing ability is less than that of most SLRs with phase-detect systems. That said, though, the larger, more sensitive pixels of the E-P1's sensor do better under dim lighting than do the tiny pixels of most point & shoots, (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)

Output Quality

Print Quality
Great print quality, good color, good-looking 16x20 inch prints from camera JPEGs, usable 20x30 inch prints from RAW files.

The Olympus E-P1's printed output looked quite good, but as always, to get the best results, you really need to work from its ORF RAW files. In-camera JPEGs don't look at all bad, but there's a slight heaviness to the finest detail, due to the camera's sharpening algorithm, and noise reduction also blurs subtle details, even at low ISOs. (Mitigated by the option to disable noise reduction, if you so desire.)

As of this writing (in late June/early July 2009), Adobe Camera Raw couldn't handle the E-P1's ORF files yet, but we used the free dcraw conversion software to process the ORF RAW files to low-compression JPEGs, and then applied strong/tight sharpening in Photoshop. The results did show significantly more fine detail, albeit at the cost of considerably worse color rendering. (Most third-party RAW converters will require that a custom ICC profile be applied, either during or after conversion, to achieve good color rendering.) Olympus' own Olympus Master 2 RAW conversion software (version 2.20) produced images very similar to those from the camera itself: We were a little frustrated by it, in that is sharpening control was only a single slider, so there was no way to tighten the radius of the sharpening operator. (Likewise, we found it had little or no ability to recover even slightly blown highlights.) It's often the case that manufacturer's RAW conversion software doesn't manage the level of detail rendition that third-party programs do, but we felt that Olympus Master 2 really stayed too close to the camera's processing to be of much use.

At the lowest ISO settings, we felt that the E-P1's in-camera JPEGs were good for prints up to about 16x20 inches, while images processed from its RAW files made 20x30 inch prints that were acceptably sharp for viewing on a wall. (The 20x30 prints would look a little soft if you really got up on them and squinted, but for any sort of normal viewing distance, they'd be just fine.)

As we increased ISO, there seemed to be something of a transition, going from ISO 800 to 1,600. Shots captured at ISO 800 made very good-looking 13x19 inch prints; just slightly soft and with small amounts of chroma noise visible when using the standard noise reduction setting, but quite acceptable. As we stepped up to ISO 1,600, though, the noise seemed to take an noticeable jump, to the extent that we felt 11x14 inches was really a little marginal for shots at that ISO setting, 8x10 inches being more acceptable. Above that point, shots at ISO 3,200 looked pretty decent as 5x7 inch prints, and shots at 6,400 were a little marginal at that size, better at 4x6 inches.

Two things we liked about the E-P1's noise character were (a) that it was pretty fine-grained, and so pretty well dropped out at reasonable print sizes, and (b) that Olympus evidently opted to leave a bit more noise in the image at a given ISO level, in the process also improving the preservation of subtle detail. As a result, the E-P1's high-ISO images may look rougher than others when pixel-peeped at 100% on-screen, but they print nicely, showing good detail and only modest amounts of noise up to ISO 1,600. (And as noted, shots at ISO 3,200 made pretty good-looking 5x7s.)

When it came to color, we found the Olympus E-P1's pretty appealing. Its hues were generally pretty accurate, and we appreciated that its default color saturation wasn't as overblown as that of many consumer cameras. (If you want it brighter by default, the color saturation adjustment mentioned earlier works well: We suspect that the +1 saturation setting would satisfy most saturation-hungry consumers.)

All in all, very impressive print quality from a nicely compact camera; As we've noted with other recent Micro Four Thirds cameras, you no longer need to carry a full-sized SLR to get great-looking prints.

Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 Mark II studio printer, and on the (older) Canon iP5200 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II review for details on that model.)

 

Olympus E-P1

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