Olympus E-PL1 Review

 
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Olympus E-PL1 Operation

The Olympus E-PL1 packs a lot of features into a very compact body. This of course means that many features are accessed via menus shown on the LCD instead of dedicated buttons. Still, Olympus has crammed a lot of controls into what little space is available, and they've given a lot of flexibility on how many of them function, via an extensive set of Custom and Setup menu options. (See our Modes & Menus page for details.)

Most major functions are accessible via the 12 buttons on the back and two on the top deck. The Start / OK button activates an L-shaped menu that offers access to major functions, like White balance, Drive mode, Image stabilization, Aspect ratio, Compression, AF mode, Face detection, and AF point, which can then be switched to a Super Control Panel menu by pressing the Info button, and summarizes most common settings in a single interactive screen. The most recently used menu type becomes the default for future use.

Menus can be navigated using the four arrow buttons. The arrow buttons are also used to adjust shutter speed and aperture in Manual exposure modes, by first pressing the Up arrow button to adjust exposure variables, and then using all four arrow buttons to make the necessary changes. In Program or Art Filter modes, the vertical arrows adjust the program shift amount, and the horizontal arrows adjust exposure compensation.. In the Priority modes, the vertical arrows adjust the available exposure variable, and the horizontal arrows adjust exposure compensation. In Manual mode, the vertical arrows adjust shutter speed, while the horizontal arrows adjust aperture. Finally, in Movie mode, only exposure compensation is available using the horizontal arrows.

 

Record Mode Displays

Full-time Live View
The information display in record mode includes the shutter speed and aperture settings, exposure mode, flash mode, ISO sensitivity setting, metering mode, AF mode, number of available images, resolution, aspect ratio, image stabilizer mode, drive mode, white balance, picture mode, focus confirmation, battery status, etc. You can also enable a live histogram. Through the Custom menu, you can select one of four styles of grid displays. See the illustration below (courtesy of Olympus America) for information callouts in record mode.

As you change exposure settings, the display changes to reflect what the captured image will look like, also known as "exposure simulation."

1
Card Write Indicator
16
Record Mode
2
Internal Temperature Warning
17
Number of storable still images
3
Super FP Flash
Available Recording Time
4
RC Mode
18
Top: Flash Intensity Control
5
Home Position
Bottom: Exposure Compensation Indicator
6
Auto Bracket
19
Exposure Compensation Value
7
Multiple Exposure
20
Aperture Value
8
Flash
21
Shutter Speed
9
Battery Check
22
Shooting Mode
10
AF Confirmation Mark
23
AE Lock
11
Art Filter
24
Flash Intensity Control
Scene Mode
25
ISO Sensitivity
Picture Mode
26
Face Detection
12
White Balance
27
AF Mode
13
Sequential Shooting
28
Metering Mode
Self-Timer
29
Flash Mode
14
Image Stabilizer Mode
30
My Mode
15
Aspect Ratio
31
Picture Mode

 

Super Control Panel
In record mode, the LCD monitor displays the "Super Control Panel" when you press the Info button with the Live Control menu active, or when you press the OK button thereafter. You can navigate around in and make changes to a number of menu options (ISO, White Balance, etc.). See the illustration below (courtesy of Olympus America) for callouts of the various settings that are shown and adjustable from this screen.


1
Currently Selected Option
8
Sharpness
2
ISO Sensitivity
Contrast
3
Sequential Shooting
Saturation
Self-Timer
Gradation
4
Flash Mode
B&W Filter
5
Flash Intensity Control
Picture Tone
6
White Balance
9
Color Space
White Balance Compensation
10
Face Detection
7
Picture Mode
11
Metering Mode
12
Aspect Ratio
13
Record Mode
14
AF Mode
AF Target
15
Image Stabilizer

 

Live Control
The Olympus E-PL1 features a menu display type reminiscent of the Function menu found on Canon PowerShots, called Live Control, and available in all but iAuto, Art Filter and Scene modes. It's accessed by pressing the "OK" button, unless the Super Control Panel has been used more recently, in which case you simply press the Info button with that panel active. The Live Control display overlays commonly used functions along the right hand side, while options for the currently selected setting are displayed along the bottom. Menu options in this mode include Movie AE mode (when in Movie mode), Picture mode (in all but Movie mode), White Balance, Sequential shooting/self-timer, Image Stabilizer, Aspect Ratio, Record Mode (image size and quality, in all but Movie mode), Flash mode, Flash exposure compensation, Metering mode, AF mode, Movie Quality (in Movie mode), Movie sound record (in Movie mode), Face detection, and ISO sensitivity.

 

Live Guide
In addition to its Live Control menu, the Olympus E-PL1 features a similar menu display that's available only in the camera's iAuto mode, and aims to make things even friendlier. The Live Guide display overlays commonly used functions along the right hand side, with -- by and large -- friendly names that let beginners better understand the purpose of each function. It also contains a brief Shooting Tips section with advice on how to obtain better pictures. It's accessed by pressing the "OK" button, and allows only one variable to be changed at any one time. To return to the Live Guide, one must first cancel any existing adjustment by pressing the Menu button, then press the OK button to re-enter the menu. Options in this menu display include Change Color Saturation (Clear & Vivid to Flat & Muted), Change Color Image (Warm to Cool), Change Brightness (Bright to Dark), Blur Background (Blur to Sharp), Express Motions (Blurred Motion to Stop Motion), and Shooting Tips. This last option contains advice for child photos, pet photos, flower photos, cuisine photos, and framing.

Unfortunately, the entire Live Guide function feels somewhat confusing and inconsistent, for a number of reasons. For starters, some of the functions have slightly awkwardly phrased names -- for example, "Change Color Image" for hue adjustment. Some of the shooting tips language contains typos or use archaic and stilted language, such as the advice for shooting flower photos that "Shade of cloud or parasol makes shadow of flowers softer."

Perhaps more confusing is the limitation that only one variable can be adjusted for any specific picture. The effect of the changed variable must then be cancelled by pressing the Menu button before you can return to the Live Guide menu, even if you only want to read the shooting tips. This limitation seems very artificial and arbitrary. Even once one realizes that only a single variable can be controlled at once, the natural tendency upon cancelling a changed variable is to want to return to the Live Guide by then pressing the menu button a second time, since your thumb is already on the button -- but this calls up the camera's main menu system.

Two of the Live Guide variables have extra features which might easily be missed. Pressing the Info button from the Blur Background slider calls up two pages of advice on how to blur the background of a shot, but none of the other variables have similar advice screens. Even more likely to be missed by most users is that brightness can be adjusted not only for the overall image, but for highlights or shadows specifically. This is accomplished by pressing the Left arrow button from the Brightness slider, and the only indication that it is possible without reading the manual is a tiny, easily overlooked green arrow, located just to the left of the Live Guide panel.

The net result is that while the Live Guide menu initially shows promise as a friendly, approachable way of controlling the camera, it ends up feeling like somewhat of an afterthought. A few simple changes could make the feature significantly more intuitive and helpful -- allowing multiple variable adjustments, promoting shadow and highlight brightness to their own Live Guide icons (or making them more visible in the existing Brightness screen), expanding the advice screens to cover all sliders, and cleaning up the translations.

 

Playback Mode Displays

Information Screens
In Playback mode, the default image display shows the most recently captured image. Pressing the Info button cycles through the main display (with no information), a simplified display with basic information overlay, a detailed thumbnail display with RGBY histogram, shooting info and highlight/shadow display, a luminance histogram overlay display, and a blinking highlight/shadow display (overexposed areas are shown in red, underexposed in blue, and the threshold level for each can be adjusted separately through the Custom menu), and a comparison display mode called Light Box. The most recent display type will be stored and shown the next time by default. Pressing the Right or Left arrow displays the next or previous frame, while pressing the Up or Down arrow jumps 10 frames forward or backward.

The Light Box display mode is -- rather arbitrarily -- only available when Custom menu tab D's Close-Up mode is set to Mode 2, and shows two images side by side. Initially both images are scaled to fit the screen vertically, but they can be zoomed together by pressing the Info button then using the arrow keys to select a zoom level. Both images can be panned either together at the same time, or separately, allowing comparison of subjects when the framing has changed slightly between shots.

Index and Calendar Views
Pressing the thumbnail and zoom buttons steps in our out through a four, nine,, 25, or 100-image index display, and finally a Calendar display. (Any or all of these thumbnail displays can be disabled through the Custom menu.) The arrow pad keys are used to select a particular frame in an index view. In Calendar view, you can display images arranged by date, and you can select a date by using the arrow keys, then pressing OK. If more that one shot was taken on a single date, the first shot on that date is displayed.

Magnified View
Repeatedly pressing the zoom button enlarges the captured image as much as 14x, while pressing the thumbnail steps the zoom back outwards. You use the four arrow keys to move around the zoomed image, and the Start / OK button immediately returns to a view of the whole image.

If the Close Up mode option in Custom Menu tab D is changed to "Mode 2", this behavior changes somewhat. Pressing the zoom button overlays a green frame on the image, which can be panned around with the arrow buttons. The frame defaults to the center of the image, unless one or more faces are detected -- in which case the frame is overlaid on the first detected face, and can be switched to other faces by pressing the Start / OK button. Pressing the Info button then switches from pan to zoom mode, so that the up and down arrows adjust the size of the green frame (and hence the strength of the zoom), with the Start / OK button confirming the selected zoom level. Finally, pressing the zoom button a second time enables the preselected zoom at the panned location. The image can still be panned after the zoom is enabled, if desired, and the Info button continues to switch between the arrow pad controlling pan or zoom. A third press of the zoom button retains the same zoom and pan settings, but reenables the face detection function, so that presses of the Start / OK button will automatically jump to detected faces with the current zoom level. Finally, a fourth press of the zoom button returns to the full image view with green frame overlay. Pressing the thumbnail button at any point cancels the zoom altogether.

 

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