Olympus E-PL1 Review
|Full model name:||Olympus PEN E-PL1|
(17.3mm x 13.0mm)
|Extended ISO:||100 - 3200|
|Shutter:||1/2000 - 60 seconds|
|Max Aperture:||3.5 (kit lens)|
4.5 x 2.8 x 1.6 in.
(115 x 72 x 42 mm)
includes batteries, kit lens
|Full specs:||Olympus E-PL1 specifications|
4.5 out of 5.0
Olympus E-PL1 Overview
Reviewed by Shawn Barnett, Mike Tomkins, and Zig Weidelich
Review date: 06/01/2010
Just over seven months after announcing the Olympus E-P1 Digital Pen, and three months after announcing the E-P2, Olympus unveiled the first consumer model in their rapidly expanding Micro Four Thirds digital camera line. Dubbed the Olympus E-PL1, the new model leans more modern in design, moving away from its predecessors' retro designs.
The Olympus E-PL1's basic specs are quite similar to the P2, with a few omissions and a few additions to make the camera better suited for the consumer market. First, the Olympus E-PL1 has the same excellent 12-megapixel LiveMOS sensor and the same TruePic V image processor, a combo we found quite compelling on the previous models. Two kits are available -- either body-only, or with a less expensive version of the collapsible 14-42mm zoom lens, featuring a polycarbonate mount instead of metal. Most menu items are the same, although some of the menu layout has been restructured, but the physical user interface and body design are noticeably different.
New to the line is the one common element left out of previous Digital Pen cameras: a pop-up flash. Another addition is the dedicated Record button to activate movie recording in any mode. Place the Olympus E-PL1 into iAuto mode, and you can also activate the camera's new Live Guide mode, designed to make complex decisions about image quality as easy as moving an onscreen slider.
The Olympus E-PL1 will work with the two accessories announced with the E-P2, namely the VF-2 electronic viewfinder and the EMA-1 Microphone adapter, which allows use of an external stereo microphone when recording audio.
A few key items left out of the Olympus E-PL1 include any kind of dial for adjusting exposure, the Leveling feature, and the built-in stereo mic (there's a mic, but it's mono). The top shutter speed is 1/2,000 second, reduced from 1/4,000 second; and the highest ISO is 3,200, down from the E-PL1's predecessors, which top out at 6,400.
The Olympus E-PL1 uses an SD/SDHC card and ships with the same BLS-1 7.2v 1,150mAh lithium-ion battery.
Retailing at $599, the Olympus E-PL1 and its 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 L ED lens are available in three colors: Black, Champagne Gold, and Dark Blue. A body-only version is also available for $549 in the US, with the only body color choice being black.
Olympus E-PL1 User Report
by Shawn Barnett and Mike Tomkins
Designed with the consumer photographer in mind, the Olympus E-PL1 is a simpler version of the Micro Four Thirds digital camera, yet it still has most of what enthusiast photographers would want in terms of high quality from a small camera, wrapped in a more modern body. In many ways, the Olympus E-P1 could be more appealing for the purpose of a high-quality "anywhere" digital camera with interchangeable lenses thanks to its slightly lighter weight, good grip, and more straightforward interface.
Look and feel. Though it's really about the same size as the E-P1, the Olympus E-PL1 is more ergonomically appealing, despite its less organic appearance. The grip is more substantial, just right for the pads of the fingers to get a good hold; and it's countered on the back by a nice thumb ridge for a very natural, one-handed grip. The front body panel is aluminum, while the others are polycarbonate. If you hold the camera and turn it over and get picky about it, tapping here and there, the body panels can feel a bit cheap, but you could say that about most cameras in this category. The fact is, though, when you're using the Olympus E-PL1, it doesn't feel cheap at all, and the heft is substantial, excellent for handheld photography.
Weight is a little lower than the E-P1, with the Olympus E-PL1 coming in at 1.06 pounds (17.0 oz, 482g) with card, battery, and the new 14-42mm L lens, or 0.76 pounds (12.2 oz, 345g) without the lens. The E-P1 weighs 1.18 pounds (18.9 oz, 535g) with card, battery, and lens, and 0.84 pounds (13.4 oz, 381g) without the original lens. Part of the weight reduction can be found in the polycarbonate lens mount on the new lens, which has the L designation. The new lens weighs just 4.8 ounces (136g) compared to 5.4 ounces (154g) for the original 14-42mm M.Zuiko lens.
Looking at the Olympus E-PL1's new body from the front, you can see the self-timer lamp just beneath the shutter release button, and the lens release button to the right of the lens mount plate. The plate itself also looks different from the plate on the E-P1 and P2, appearing to be cast aluminum rather than machined steel. As with other Micro Four Thirds cameras, there is no mirror, and the shutter is open by default, so the sensor is right there.
Controls on the top and back of the Olympus E-PL1 are completely reshuffled from the other two Micro Four Thirds cameras. On the left is the new pop-up flash, activated by a sliding mechanical switch on the back. Just right of that is the hot shoe and accessory port combo with the cover removed. A little further right finds the new mode dial, which is well placed for easy thumb activation. It's stiff enough that it won't likely turn without permission, but doesn't easily get stuck between positions.
The shutter release button isn't quite as nice as the E-P1, but I like it just fine. The E-P1 has two clear breaks when you press it, one to activate autofocus, and another when you commit to capture. The Olympus E-PL1's shutter release is feather soft at first, such that you're not sure you've touched its small, smooth surface, but then the shutter release is quite firm, breaking only after a clear effort, which is conducive to the surprise you want from any trigger.
Right of that is the very small power button, lit with a blue LED inside. The P1 and P2's blue LED that indicated activity of the SuperSonic Wave Filter is absent, replaced by an icon on the upper left of the LCD display.
Just in front of the hot shoe are two holes for the monaural microphone. On the left and right, note the Olympus E-PL1's more modern camera strap lugs, which require no rattling D-ring. This cloth-to-metal interface is better on a camera that can record video, because otherwise that D-ring noise can enter your videos as one of their more prominent features. The E-P1 and E-P2 use D-rings, so I'm happy to see the Olympus E-PL1 adopt these practical lugs.
From the Olympus E-PL1's back you see the Flash release switch just above the left corner of the 2.7-inch LCD screen. The LCD panel is the same HyperCrystal design, just smaller than the 3-inch screens on the E-P1 and P2, and it has the same 230,000-pixel resolution. Right of that is the hot shoe/accessory port (with cover in place), then the Zoom-in and Zoom-out buttons. The Movie Record button is marked with a traditional red dot, and protected on the lower left quadrant by a raised ridge that serves as the thumbgrip.
Then we have Playback, Menu, and Info buttons, followed by the trashcan button. These are in completely different order from the buttons on the E-P1 and E-P2. The Olympus E-PL1's four-way navigator is also different, with the exception of the AF point button that occupies the left arrow position, and the Drive mode button in the down arrow position. Note that there are no dials at all for quick aperture or shutter speed changes when in Aperture or Shutter priority modes, or Manual. That's not a bad thing, but many enthusiasts will miss them, so they're important to notice.
Instead, you adjust aperture and shutter speed by following onscreen instructions, activated by pressing the EV Compensation button (the up arrow), then pressing the nav buttons as indicated on the screen. It's not uncommon for consumer cameras to have this kind of activation for these modes, because most consumers are going to leave the camera in Program or Auto modes. Unfortunately the arrow buttons don't respond to being constantly depressed by automatically scrolling through the available values, so if you want to make a significant change to a setting, it can require a significant number of button presses.
The connectivity port door on the right is plastic with a rubber hinge. It feels flimsy, and is difficult to open and close, but does at least seems to stay tightly closed. It conceals a combined USB/AV Out port, and an HDMI Out port.
The Olympus E-PL1's battery and card door is redesigned from the other two cameras, making its hinge a little stiffer, meaning it stays open better. Like the other two, the door is also removable, though I'm not sure why you'd want to do so.
Flash options. The Olympus E-PL1's pop-up flash is right for the consumer market, and I'm sure many users wish the other models had a flash as well. Of course, the flash is extremely small, and it doesn't auto-deploy, preventing the camera from activating it when in full Auto mode. Given the space available, it does raise about as high as could reasonably be expected -- around an inch above the camera's top deck -- but it still vignettes even on the tiny 17mm f/2.8 lens. Attaching the optional FL-14 flash gives you a little more power, and I managed to take some interesting self-portraits using an older FL-36 flash, bouncing the light off a wall in my office.
While the FL-14 is small and simple to use, I continue to get overexposed shots with this unit, something I don't experience with the FL-36, so if you want a good quality flash for your E-PL1, consider the FL-36R (the latest model).
Surprisingly, the "consumer" Olympus E-PL1 supports wireless TTL control of up to three R-series flashes, with the pop-up flash serving as master. It seems unusual that this feature would appear on Olympus's first consumer-grade Micro Four Thirds camera, but it is also the first with a built-in flash. The higher-end Pen cameras won't allow RC, even if you mount an R-series flash. Olympus's two current RC flashes cannot themselves serve as a master flash, as we see with most other manufacturer's systems; instead, the on-camera flash serves as the only master.
Incidentally, the camera won't fall forward with the FL-36 flash and 14-42mm lens mounted, but it is more precarious with the 17mm lens.
Accessory port. Just behind the flash hotshoe is a port similar to that first seen on the Panasonic GF1, a competing Micro Four Thirds design. Last November's E-P2 included this port, and Olympus has two accessories for it: the VF-2 electronic viewfinder and the EMA-1, a special microphone adapter for video mode. Naturally, because there's only one hot shoe and one port, you can only use one accessory at a time. If you need a powerful flash, you can't use the electronic viewfinder or the stereo mic, for example.
The VF-2 electronic viewfinder is noticeably larger than the one available for the Panasonic GF1, and it's also higher resolution. It also looks more like it was made for the E-PL1 than the other two. It's a friction fit, unfortunately, which means that you can accidentally nudge it off if you're not careful. There's a springloaded pin that slips into the hot shoe's locking hole for some security, but it still manages to loosen a bit in a bag if I'm not careful. I'd prefer a more positive locking mechanism.
Functionally, though, it's really nice. The rubber ring around the viewfinder optic protects your glasses, unlike the back of the VF-1 with its hard plastic. Better yet, the rubber ring is also the diopter adjustment mechanism, which you can turn to focus the viewfinder. It manages to accommodate my -3 vision just fine.
The view is really large, offering a 100% view of the scene, with 1.15x magnification. The mechanism tilts up, too, which allows for composing images from overhead, which could be good for macro or other low-angle work. It's a nice view to be sure. I enjoy shooting with the VF-2, especially out in sunlight, but I'm still in the habit of pulling the camera from my eye to see the playback, like I do with an SLR. With the original firmware, this doesn't work, because the Playback image appears in the electronic viewfinder until I turn it off. The latest firmware updates, though, add an Auto mode to the Record View menu option. In this mode, when the camera is set to use the VF-2 as the main viewfinder, the camera shows the playback image first in the viewfinder for about three seconds, then switches the image to the rear LCD.
Also, regardless of the Record View menu item, and perhaps more importantly, pressing the Playback and Menu buttons activates the rear LCD, where it's much easier to view images and make menu adjustments.
The only drawbacks are the fact that you can't use the EVF in combination with other accessories (such as a flash or the microphone jack adapter), and how much bigger it makes the E-PL1 -- which is the same reason I generally leave the VF-1 optical viewfinder off the E-P1. At least the VF-2 is more versatile, able to show the true image even with a zoom lens. It's also a little better for manual focusing, given the higher resolution. The EVF's brightness and hue can also be adjusted independently via a menu item that shows the last image captured as a sample.
Lens. The lens that ships in the Olympus E-PL1 kit is a modified version of the original 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6. It has the letter "L" wedged into the name before the "ED" designation. On Canon optics, L stands for Low-dispersion, which indicates a quality, more expensive lens with one or more low-dispersion lens elements integrated into the design. But ED fills that function on Olympus lenses, standing for Extra-low Dispersion. So L in this case must stand for Low-cost, or just match the L in "E-PL1." The only major difference I found was the polycarbonate bayonet mount and black rear bezel, where the older lens is metal with a silver bezel.
My shots with the E-PL1 and its kit lens look pretty good, showing the same high optical quality we saw in its predecessor, especially when mounted on a tripod. It's just as loose, though, when the focal length is set to its longer settings of 35 and 42mm, which can result in the front lens element shaking when the shutter is tripped; this, in turn, results in blurring at shutter speeds between 1/100 and 1/200 second. Another criticism of the first two lenses available from Olympus for the E-P-series cameras is that they're very slow to autofocus, which is true. Olympus has improved focusing speed somewhat via a firmware update that appeared in April 2010. Autofocus speed is indeed improved noticeably.
A growing family. The Olympus E-PL1 will work with a widening array of dedicated lenses from Olympus and Panasonic, and several adapters avail it of even old OM-series lenses, Leica's M and R-mount lenses, and of course Four Thirds lenses made for Olympus and Panasonic's larger cameras. Panasonic has recently introduced two new lenses, the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 and 8mm f/3.5 Fisheye. Olympus also has two new Micro Four Thirds zooms -- the 9-18mm f/4-5.6 and 14-150mm f/4-5.6. The first third-party Micro Four Thirds lens has also been announced by a new startup, albeit a repurposed, fully manual CCTV lens design: the Noktor 50mm f/0.95.
Below are photos of the lenses, with links to their respective pages on SLRgear.com, where we have already reviewed many of these lenses.
|Micro Four Thirds lenses|
|Olympus M.Zuiko 14-42mm
|Panasonic Lumix G 14-42mm
|Olympus M. Zuiko 17mm f/2.8||Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7|
|Panasonic Lumix G 7-14mm
Olympus M.Zuiko 14-150mm
|Panasonic Lumix G 14-140mm
|Panasonic Lumix G 45-200mm
|Panasonic Lumix G 14-45mm
|Panasonic Leica DG 45mm
|Panasonic Lumix G 8mm
|Noktor 50mm f/0.95|
|Micro Four Thirds Adapters|
|Olympus Four Thirds MMF-1||Panasonic Four Thirds DMW-MA1|
|Olympus Four Thirds MMF-2||Panasonic M-Mount DMW-MA2M|
|Olympus OM Adapter MF-2||Panasonic R-Mount DMW-MA3R|
|Cosina Voigtlander VM mount||Cosina Voigtlander F mount|
|Cosina Voigtlander K mount|
Two of the lenses mentioned above have yet to ship as of this writing, the Olympus 14-150mm f/4-5.6 and Panasonic 8mm f/3.5 Fisheye. The Olympus 9-18mm and 14-150mm lenses are both quite small, for what they are, and the pre-release version we saw of the 9-18mm focused much faster than the first two lenses. Both focus internally. Four more Olympus lenses are planned for release in Spring 2011, including a super telephoto zoom, and one each in the macro, fisheye, and wide-angle prime lens categories.
Metering. The Olympus E-PL1 uses the same 18 x 18 matrix metering system, sampling 324 separate areas. You can also choose center-weighted and spot metering modes.
Exposure modes. The Olympus E-PL1 includes the four standard modes, Program, Aperture, Shutter, and Manual exposure modes, but also includes an Intelligent Auto mode that analyses the scene and chooses among Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene, Sport, and Macro modes. Movie mode is of course for movies, and Scene mode avails you of 19 Scene types, including Portrait, e-Portrait, Landscape, Landscape + Portrait, Sport, Night Scene, Night + Portrait, Children, High Key, Low Key, DIS Mode, Macro, Nature Macro, Candle, Sunset, Documents, Panorama, Fireworks, and Beach & Snow.
Live Guide mode. Also new to the Olympus E-PL1 is the Live Guide mode, which comes up when you shoot in iAuto mode. The mode uses simple sliders, allowing you to increase or decrease a given aspect of your next photo. Only one aspect can be modified, to keep it simple, and those include Change Color Saturation, Change Color Image (changes color temperature), Change Brightness, Blur Background (controls aperture for more or less depth-of-field), and Express Motions (controls shutter speed to freeze or blur motion). A final menu item lists a few very basic tips for different photographic subjects. Topics include how to photograph children, pets, flowers, food, and a few good framing tips.
My concern about the Live Guide mode is that people will stumble into it and not know how to get out. The limitation on not allowing multiple sliders to be adjusted also feels somewhat artificial and counterintuitive, and a couple of the Live Guide types have functions that are easily missed. Thankfully, each setting resets when you either leave the iAuto mode or turn off the camera.
iEnhance. A new picture mode brought over from the E-P2, called iEnhance, picks out a dominant color in a scene, and enhances that one color so it stands out more. It should enhance scenes like sunsets, fall foliage, etc.
In-camera editing. Also carried over to the Olympus E-PL1 is the ability to develop RAW images in-camera, including the ability to apply Art Filters to RAW images. In fact, you have to convert the RAW images into JPEGs before you can use the camera's JPEG Edit feature. JPEGs can have Red-eye fixes, trimming, shadow adjustment, resizing operations, and even sepia and saturation adjustments applied.
Movie mode. The Olympus E-PL1 records AVI movies at 1,280 x 720 and 640 x 480 both at 30 frames per second. Maximum file size is 2GB, and the maximum recording time is 7 minutes in HD mode, or 14 minutes in Standard Def (VGA). Optionally you can capture stills while recording a movie, made easier because of the separate shutter release and Record mode buttons. This does interrupt movie recording, however, with the camera first finalizing the current movie, taking the still image, and then starting a new movie clip recording about four seconds after the end of the first clip.
You can also use the ART filters to limited effect. Some of the filters slow the movie frame rate so much that I doubt most would want to use them. These include the Pinhole and Grainy Film modes. The Diorama filter goes as far as to disable audio recording and plays back at roughly 15x realtime speed. See our Video tab for more.
Like the E-P2, the Olympus E-PL1 offers complete Manual control over exposure while recording movies, while the E-P1 only offered Program or Aperture priority control modes. Shutter speed ranges from 1/60 to 1/2,000 second (the E-P1 and P2 range from 1/30 to 1/4,000 second). Available ISOs range from 200 to 1,600. Auto ISO is not available in Manual mode. When in Program or Aperture-priority modes, the only option for ISO sensitivity is Auto control, however.
A new autofocus mode also applies to Movie mode, called C-AF+TR, which means continuous AF and tracking. Lock the autofocus system on the main subject and the autofocus target will follow the subject as it moves around the frame.
Audio technology. The Olympus E-PL1's audio technology is the same as its predecessors, though the body only has a mono mic built in. When you attach the stereo audio adapter, though, Olympus claims the recording quality is good as their best audio recorders. It's described as Wave Format Base Stereo PCM/ 16-bit at 44.1kHz. We didn't receive the microphone adapter in our review kit, and hence can't comment from personal experience.
HDMI plus CEC. The HDMI port allows CEC control, though the manual doesn't call it that. That's where you can remote control the camera through your television remote control, provided the TV offers CEC control. Usually there are four colored buttons on the bottom of the remote.
Aspect ratios. You can choose multiple aspect ratios to shoot with the E-PL1, including the sensor's 4:3, but also 3:2 (more common among SLRs), 16:9 (better for HD television display), and 6:6 (which is of course the same as 1:1 -- a square image).
Art filters. Though I'm not big on the Art filters, some folks rave about them, and this level of consumer camera will certainly find more devotees. I actually made good use of the Pop Art filter last Fall, using the E-P1 to turn a rather ordinary autumn display into an explosion of extreme yet believable color, and it's the Pop Art filter that I continue to use on occasion. One new filter appears on the Olympus E-PL1, while three are dropped. The list now includes Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, and Gentle Sepia. The new Gentle Sepia mode is expected to have a warmer hue and darker blacks. Dropped when compared to the E-P2 are Pale & Light Color, Light Tone, and Cross Process.
With the exception of Pop Art, all of the Art filters slow the live view noticeably. Two filters -- Pin Hole and Diorama -- do so to such an extent as to make accurate framing difficult unless using a tripod, especially at telephoto focal lengths. Manual focusing is still a simple matter, though, even though the filter effect appears in the zoomed preview. Presumably, the camera only needs process the zoomed area of the image, using less processor power, as the frame rate is high in all Art Filter types while adjusting focus.
Art filters can also be used in Movie mode, but many of the modes, especially
Pinhole and Grainy Film, significantly slow the frame rate, transforming what should be a movie mode into something that looks like stop-motion movies. That could be desirable from an artistic standpoint, it's just important to know that it's supposed to work that way.
The Diorama mode goes even further, disabling audio altogether and
playing back at around 15x realtime speed.
Storage and battery. It's important to note that the Olympus E-PL1 uses SD cards exclusively for storage rather than the company's own xD-Picture Card memory standard. That was important for the Olympus Digital Pen to gain widespread acceptance, so it was a good move. As with most digital cameras capable of recording in HD, the Olympus E-PL1 requires a Class 6 or better SDHC card to capture 1280 x 720p video. The E-PL1 does not support SDXC cards.
Olympus chose the BLS-1 lithium-ion battery, also used in the Olympus E-620, the E-P1, and the E-P2. While the battery is rated at 300 shots per charge in the other two cameras, Olympus rates the E-PL1 for about 290 shots with image stabilization turned on. That's not a lot for an SLR type camera, and I was only able to shoot for about a day before recharging, so consider buying a spare battery for day-long outings (if you take as many pictures as I do).
Underwater Housing. Olympus also makes an underwater housing for the E-PL1, model number PT-EP01 (Click here to shop for the PT-EP01). It's a black polycarbonate shell with a one-buckle rotary locking mechanism. The non-removable port fits the 14-42mm M.Zuiko kit lens and the coming 9-18mm M.Zuiko lens. Two fiber optic cable ports are included. Price is around $599.99. See the video we made at PMA 2010 for more on this case, designed just for the E-PL1.
Major differences. Enthusiasts looking at the E-PL1 as an alternate to the E-P1 and E-P2 should know about a few additional differences between this consumer model and the two enthusiast cameras. These items should not necessarily discourage consumer users, though, as the E-PL1 is a pretty complete offering.
LCD. Given that the PL1 and P2 both include the ability to mount an external electronic viewfinder, the importance of their LCD displays is perhaps slightly lessened. Still, it's significant to note that the PL1 has a somewhat smaller 2.7-inch display, versus the three-inch displays of both the P1 and P2. Total resolution is identical on all three cameras, so it's possible to discern just as much detail on all three models' LCD panels. The best option for manual focusing is certainly to use the electronic viewfinder, however, as it offers significantly higher resolution. Beyond the size and pixel pitch, the technologies used in the PL1's LCD display are similar to those in its siblings.
Shutter. The Shutter speed range is reduced at the high end, from 60 seconds to 1/2,000 second, while the enthusiast models go up to 1/4,000 second. Faster shutter speeds offer more aperture options in bright light.
ISO. In low-light situations, it's important to know that the Olympus E-PL1's ISO tops out at 3,200, while the E-P1 and E-P2 go all the way to 6,400.
Flash. X-sync is also 1/160 second, down from the E-P2's 1/180 second. It's still adjustable, though, between 1/60 and 1/160 second in 1/3 stop increments. Of course, the PL1 also has the advantage of a built-in flash, something its siblings lack. As noted, the Olympus E-PL1 can also remote control up to three R-series flashes for complex creative lighting.
Noise suppression. By default, the Olympus E-PL1 also performs more noise suppression than its predecessors, but the good news is that you can turn this down or off, and of course you can shoot RAW and do your noise suppression on the computer after capture.
Zoom. A new magnification level is available in Record mode (as well as in Playback), taking the view in to 14x in addition to the existing 7x and 10x, and the magnification area also determines the size of the AF area. First you have to zoom in with the zoom buttons, then hit the Info button to select the desired zoom level with the up and down arrows. From there, pressing the Zoom-in button toggles the small AF area on, then switches between zoom and regular views. It's a little complicated, but it's very good to have a fine autofocus mode.
Levels. Leveling indicators are not included in the Olympus E-PL1, something more important for enthusiast photographers who might want to level the camera for panoramic shots.
Movie mode. Although the Olympus E-PL1's Movie mode is essentially the same as the E-P2's -- with the exception of the dedicated Movie Record button on the PL1, and the P2's built-in stereo mic -- it's a key benefit to the E-PL1 over the E-P1. Anyone looking for a good quality still camera that can also capture good HD videos would get quite a bargain in the E-PL1, especially if they're looking for full manual control over exposure. To get that from the E-P2 would cost $1,100, while it's available here for $600. Remember, of course, that like almost all interchangeable lens cameras that do video, the E-PL1 won't autofocus gracefully while shooting, so it's best to focus first, then start recording.
Software. The bundled software is unfortunately PC-only, so Mac users should take note that if they want the usual Olympus Master software for processing RAW images, they'll need to download it from the Olympus America website. It's free.
Shooting with the Olympus E-PL1
by Mike Tomkins
With Micro Four Thirds still being a relatively young format, I found myself caught between a rock and a hard place, simultaneously shooting with the Olympus E-PL1 and its more expensive sibling, the P2. Although Olympus has another pair of Micro Four Thirds lenses nearing release, I only received its two current Micro Four Thirds lens models with my test kit. I also didn't have the opportunity to try any of Panasonic's lenses. While I appreciated the quality of Olympus' 17mm f/2.8 lens, I generally don't find myself reaching for prime lenses very often. My personal style is to shoot with a zoom, framing with the lens rather than my feet -- and my only option was hence Olympus' 14-42mm lens, whose issues with blurring we covered in-depth in our E-P1 review. The problem still remains when used in concert with the Olympus E-PL1. The good news is that with the selection of Micro Four Thirds lens offerings fast expanding, alternate choices will soon be available covering similar focal lengths. In the meantime, I just had to try to remember to shoot around the shortcomings of the 14-42mm lens, avoiding shutter speeds between 1/100 and 1/200 second.
Wandering around downtown Knoxville shooting gallery photos, I definitely appreciated the compact size of the E-PL1's body, which was barely distinguishable from that of the P2. I found that I preferred to use the PL1 without the neck strap that I'd ordinarily consider a must when shooting with an SLR. With the prime lens attached I could easily slip the camera in my coat pocket between shots, and even with the 14-42mm lens attached it was fairly comfortable to just carry the PL1 in one hand for extended periods, using a wrist strap for a feeling of security. As mentioned, I've been reviewing the Olympus E-PL1 alongside the P2, and with my large hands -- I'm over six feet tall -- I found the E-PL1's body to be the more comfortable of the pair for single-handed shooting, by a significant margin. Its rather more prominent grip made it much less tiring to shoot with, and noticeably easier to hold steady. That said, I'd still prefer a deeper, more sculpted grip to give better purchase, and I generally found myself shooting with both hands for added stability.
The E-PL1 doesn't include Olympus' external electronic viewfinder accessory, but since it was in my P2 kit, I tried it on both cameras. It doesn't look as ungainly on the E-PL1's slightly boxier body, and its functioning is basically identical on both cameras. It's a pleasure to shoot with, thanks to its high resolution, generous 1.15x magnification and 100% field of view. I found myself using it a lot more than I'd thought I would, on both cameras. Given that it's relatively bulky, I initially thought I'd end up leaving it in the camera bag (or at home), but instead I frequently ended up using it when shooting with the Olympus E-PL1 as well. That said, if the E-PL1's LCD display was larger and offered higher resolution, I'd probably have used the electronic viewfinder rather less often -- if only to save a little bulk and weight. The LCD proved easy to see in a good range of conditions, even on a sunny spring afternoon in Tennessee. I've just grown somewhat spoiled by larger, higher-res displays, and find it a little uncomfortable returning to a smaller, lower-res type.
I did find Olympus' menu design a little clumsy, although by and large I was able to avoid it thanks to the comprehensive Super Control Panel display. Most of the common adjustments I wanted to make could be found and adjusted in this one display. When I wanted something that couldn't be found in the Super Control Panel, though, it sometimes took a little digging, although Olympus has made some improvements to its menu design since the P2 -- for example, creating a separate menu item related to movie settings. Some options are still curiously placed though. As one example, face detection -- which affects the camera's focusing and metering systems -- is nowhere to be found in the tabs related to focus or exposure. Instead, it's rather bizarrely located in a tab related to Display, Sound, and PC settings, none of which seem to have anything to do with face detection. There are also rather too many menu options which have vague names like "Mode 1" or "Mode 2," requiring experimentation (or digging in the manual) to determine their function.
As noted in my P2 user report, I was surprised by a feature of the Exposure Shift function on that camera (different from EV Compensation). I didn't run into the obstacle in reviewing the Olympus E-PL1, but since it functions identically, I very easily could have -- hence I think it's important to mention. Exposure Shift is a great feature, which allows one to fine-tune the different metering modes to your tastes in terms of exposure level, but it isn't reset by the Custom Reset function. This caused me to have to discard much of a day's gallery shooting from the P2 solely because all of the shots were underexposed by a setting I'd accidentally left behind while transcribing the camera's menu layout. (The shots could fairly easily have been salvaged, but our gallery shots are always published just as created by the camera, so this wasn't an option for me). Exposure Shift is a very useful function if one sets it intentionally, and as something that is omitted even by many semi-pro DSLRs, its presence in the Olympus E-PL1 is impressive. It's just a shame that nowhere does the camera or manual warn one that a Custom Reset leaves certain settings like this one untouched. Perhaps a more complete reset function is called for as an extended option, safely positioned behind a warning. At the least, the manual should clearly state which functions aren't reset.
I much preferred the Olympus E-PL1's traditional four-way arrow pad to the combined control dial / pad found in the P2. Even if it required more button-pressing, that was more than made up for by the fact that I never accidentally jumped around menus, something that frequently happened with the P2's design. I definitely do prefer cameras with at least one control dial (and preferably two), but only if they're separated from the arrow pad. Perhaps with smaller hands, I wouldn't have found the P2's control dial so problematic -- Shawn seemed to rather like the design, so it may just come down to personal taste (or my own clumsiness!). Having no control dials definitely has its disadvantages, especially when you're making a significant change to a setting with many steps, such as adjusting shutter speeds in fine increments, or manually entering a color temperature for white balance. Situations like these can lead to a lot of repetitive button pressing, something that could be avoided if Olympus followed the common convention of holding the button down to rapidly increment or decrement the value being adjusted. On balance though, the positives of not having the combined dial / pad are enough to sway me towards preferring the Olympus E-PL1's design, outweighing the negatives.
It's likely given the form factor that photographers considering the P2 may also be considering the Olympus E-PL1. We've covered the main differences between the cameras elsewhere in this review, but only a few stood out to me as significant in my own shooting. Perhaps the most important point was the inclusion of a built-in flash. I've not had the opportunity to try Olympus' dedicated flash strobes with the PEN-series cameras, but given that portability is a major selling point of their designs, the decision not to offer an internal flash always seemed rather illogical to me. Even a relatively small external flash is going to be bulky enough to greatly detract from the portability of these cameras, so if one was to really take advantage of their small size, the lack of an internal flash has to some extent meant treating them as available-light cameras. Having a built-in flash changed all that for me. The Olympus E-PL1 became a camera whose diminutive size could be taken advantage of not only for daytime shooting, but in more dubious light as well.
Obviously a small onboard flash will never match an external strobe for capability, with limited power and no way to bounce flash. The onboard flash can function as a stopgap when you decide to leave the external flash at home, though, giving you peace of mind that you might still get usable shots if available light becomes insufficient. As an added bonus for the strobist types, the internal flash brings possibilities for off-camera flash that aren't offered in the other PEN-series cameras, since it can function as a master to control remote slaves. One disadvantage of the PL1 for flash usage is its maximum X-sync of 1/160 second, down from 1/180 second in its siblings. If your external strobe supports Super FP mode, then sync is possible at all shutter speeds, albeit with reduced flash power.
The extra magnification in both Record and Playback modes is a very welcome addition in the Olympus E-PL1, making it easier to judge manual focus before you press the shutter button, and to confirm whether your shot is tack-sharp after capture. Perhaps even more useful when dealing with smaller subjects is the ability to reduce the AF point size. I also liked the Light Box feature, which allows you to compare images side by side. It's similar to a display mode which Pentax offers on its current DSLRs, and one I've found myself using quite often when deciding which images to discard while still in the field. The user interface for both the AF point size control and the Light Box mode is convoluted, to say the least, though. It took me a while to discover I could change the AF point size at all, and I also found myself browsing the manual to discover why the Light Box display mode wasn't available for selection. (It turned out to rely on the Close Up mode setting being switched to Mode 2.)
The other changes in the Olympus E-PL1, I found myself fairly happy to live with. Certainly I'd have appreciated a larger LCD panel, and faster shutter speeds might have been useful in some situations. Neither point felt like a show-stopper, though. Some of the other changes I barely noticed -- for example, I so seldom used ISO 6,400 on the P2, that the PL1's ISO 3,200 max. didn't feel restrictive. Nor did I miss the level function much, as I found myself avoiding it on the P2 so I could see other more pertinent information on the LCD instead.
Given that I was able to test both cameras side-by-side at the same time, I had an excellent opportunity to see which I preferred for day to day shooting, and I have to say the Olympus E-PL1 was the camera that really grabbed me. It was more comfortable to shoot with, included the built-in flash whose presence I missed in the earlier PEN cameras, and it certainly doesn't hurt that it's the more affordable of the pair as well. Were I in shopping for one of Olympus' Micro Four Thirds cameras today, I think I'd almost certainly opt for the Olympus E-PL1, and spend the difference on that lovely, high-res electronic viewfinder.
Analysis. Olympus has reinforced its commitment to the Micro Four Thirds platform beyond the enthusiast photographer, with its first model aimed at consumers. The Olympus E-PL1 is the first Micro Four Thirds model to come in under-$600. Although Panasonic has since announced its competing Lumix G10 model, soon to ship at the same price point, that camera is rather bigger, and doesn't offer the same level of portability. The Olympus E-PL1 spars with SLRs like the Rebel XS, Nikon D3000, Pentax K-x, and Sony A230. It also takes on the Canon G11 and Panasonic LX3, among others, as a small camera with potential use as a quality street, or everywhere camera.
While it's not quite as small as the latter two cameras, it does take up less space than the other interchangeable lens cameras. We enjoy slipping these little cameras with the 14-42mm lens attached into the pockets reserved for smaller SLR lenses. There's little difference in size among the three Olympus cameras, though, so size won't do much to determine which you choose. However the grip on the Olympus E-PL1 is a lot more comfortable. It's also nice that the Olympus E-PL1 will work with the two add-on accessories available for the E-P2, as well as the 17mm lens and viewfinder compatible with all three.
The slower top shutter speed and reduced ISO might give some enthusiasts pause, but consumers probably won't notice. It is worth mentioning that most SLRs in this price range go to 1/4,000 second, though. For the consumer market, the zoom lens is the natural choice, but we're still bothered by the loose lens elements at 35mm and 42mm positions. If they bundled the Olympus E-PL1 with a 17mm lens and no optical viewfinder, it might make a killer street-photography package for a respectably low price.
Finally, the lens and shutter issues won't mean much to the aspiring videographer on a budget searching for a complete 720p video solution with SLR-quality optics and built-in image stabilization, but we have found the video quality in low light to be noisier than we'd like.
Ultimately, though the price is lower, Olympus seems to have left the quality sensor and processor performance intact. They intensified the noise processing in still images at the expense of detail, but a few quick menu changes should fix that. And most of the fun Art filters and more useful Picture modes are still in place. Amateur photographers can just leave the Olympus E-PL1 in iAuto mode and let the camera do the rest; and video recording is just a button away at any time. Overall, I'd call the Olympus E-PL1 a unique choice in a market filled with me-too SLRs, one that could be very popular.
Olympus E-PL1 versus E-P2 at ISO 1,600
Olympus E-PL1 versus Panasonic GF1 at ISO 1,600
Panasonic GF1 at ISO 1,600
Olympus E-PL1 versus Canon T1i at ISO 1,600
Canon T1i at ISO 1,600
Olympus E-PL1 versus Nikon D5000 at ISO 1,600
Nikon D5000 at ISO 1,600
Detail: Olympus E-PL1 vs. E-P2, Panasonic GF1, Canon T1i, and Nikon D5000
Olympus E-PL1 Print Quality
ISO 100 JPEG shots look great printed at 20x30 inches, with enough softness that printing at 16x20 looks a little better; still, 20x30 inches looks fine for wall display, and even better with a little sharpening.
ISO 200 and 400 shots are also usable at 20x30 inches, but ISO 400 shots tighten up a bit more to what we'd call tack sharp at 16x20.
ISO 800 shots are still reasonably good at 16x20, with only minor luminance noise. Shadows are a little soft thanks to noise suppression, but most high and low-contrast detail remains strong.
ISO 1,600 shots are usable at 13x19 inches, great for wall display.
ISO 3,200 shots look surprisingly good at 11x14, though 8x10 looks a little better. Color fades a bit at this sensitivity as well.
A very impressive performance from the Olympus E-PL1.
In the Box
The Olympus E-PL1 ships with the following items in the box:
- E-PL1 body
- 14-42mm lens (if purchased as a kit)
- Body cap
- Lens cap (if purchased as a kit)
- Lithium-ion battery BLS-1
- Battery charger BCS-1
- Shoulder strap
- Olympus [ib] CD-ROM
- Instruction manual
- Warranty card
Olympus E-PL1 Conclusion
Departing from the retro direction of the first two Pen cameras, the Olympus E-PL1 aims at a decidedly broader market. In addition to the modern design, the E-PL1 includes a pop-up flash, something Olympus knew the consumer market would expect. The inclusion of the flash also adds the ability to remote-control Olympus strobes for creative lighting, something enthusiast photographers are likely to appreciate.
The other main changes in the Olympus E-PL1 are largely about reducing cost and complexity, and providing enough differentiation between models that the E-PL1 doesn't erode sales of the previous, more expensive PEN cameras. Gone is the nifty level indicator function, and the stereo microphone is replaced by a monaural type. Neither change feels like a big drawback. Olympus' own optional microphone adapter can resurrect stereo audio recording for the E-PL1. The LCD display has dropped a little in size as well, but with the relatively low resolution of all the PEN-series LCDs, the drop in LCD size doesn't make all that much difference for framing images.
In some situations, the reduction in maximum shutter speed and ISO sensitivity might prove more limiting. In my own shooting with the camera I didn't really think this was the case, but then I wasn't shooting sports, nor a large amount of low-light photos. The maximum shutter speed reduction is likely the most important of these, because a wider shutter speed range allows you to take advantage of apertures that wouldn't otherwise be available in bright sunlight. The good news in low light is that the Olympus E-PL1 retains detail very well at ISO 1,600 and 3,200, both quite useful sensitivity settings when shooting indoors.
In other areas, the PL1 actually feels like an upgrade when compared to its more expensive siblings. The body is more comfortable to hold for extended periods, thanks to its more angled grip. The dedicated Movie button brings new possibilities, allowing photographers to capture still images during movie recording, or grab an impromptu video clip without having to fiddle with the Mode dial first. And image quality is actually improved, from a camera-to-printer perspective, over the earlier models.
It's a shame that issues with image blur from the 14-42mm kit lens are still present, because when mounted on a sturdy tripod to dampen the vibration, it's an excellent lens. But you can work around the defect by avoiding certain shutter speeds when using this lens. And with the rapidly expanding Micro Four Thirds lens line, enthusiasts can just buy the body (only available in black without the lens) and choose another lens. Or just buy the color you want, since the lens only adds a $50 premium to the price.
All things considered, the Olympus E-PL1 is not only a great photographic tool (especially for the money), but a fun camera to shoot with as well. It doesn't feel like a budget camera -- in many ways it feels like an improvement on previous models, sacrificing the retro styling and some relatively minor features for a more cohesive interface with better handling. It was important that Olympus get the design of its first mass-market PEN camera right, and it seems that's just what they've done. We think enthusiasts will like it too, as both lens and body fit right into the space normally used by an SLR lens. With that in mind, we think it's a Dave's Pick.