Olympus E-PL1 Review

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Olympus E-PL1 Optics

Olympus M.ZUIKO Lenses

The Olympus E-PL1 is compatible with any Micro Four Thirds lens, with Olympus and Panasonic together having shipped a total of eight lens models at the time of writing (April 2010). Three further Micro Four Thirds have been announced, but have not yet reached the market. Olympus has dubbed their Micro Four Thirds lenses "M.ZUIKO," and only two M.ZUIKO lenses have been released. The Olympus 17mm f/2.8 M.ZUIKO Digital is a sharp, fairly fast (f/2.8), and compact prime lens with an equivalent focal length of 34mm. Also offered is the Olympus 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 ED M.ZUIKO Digital zoom lens offers a fairly typical 3x zoom ratio, with a 35mm equivalent focal range of 28-82mm. Two Olympus E-PL1 kits are available, either body-only for US$549, or with the 14-42mm lens  for US$599. The kit version of the 14-42mm lens is not identical to the retail version, featuring a polycarbonate lens mount rather than the original metal, for a slight saving in cost and weight.

One interesting feature of the 14-42mm lens is that it "collapses" for a smaller footprint when not in use. Shown unmounted to the right of the E-PL1 above, it's in its collapsed position in this photograph. The  design does seem to be somewhat of a compromise, however. In our review of the Olympus P1 we discovered some issues with vertical blurring in images shot with this lens at shutter speeds of between around 1/100 and 1/200 second. The problem is caused by vibrations induced from the shutter mechanism, and is still apparent when the 14-42mm lens is used in concert with the PL1. For that reason, discriminating users planning to make prints above 8 x 10 inches may want to avoid this lens, or bear the problem in mind when selecting shutter speeds.

Olympus has two further lenses in the pipeline, both announced alongside the previous E-P2 camera. Due sometime in the first half of 2010, these are the Olympus M. ZUIKO Digital ED 9-18mm f4.0-5.6 (super wide angle zoom, 18-36mm equivalent), and the Olympus M. ZUIKO Digital ED 14-150mm f4.0-5.6 (high-power wide to telephoto zoom, 28-300mm equivalent). Further options are available from Panasonic, Olympus' partner in the Micro Four Thirds format, which currently offers six Micro Four Thirds-mount lenses - two primes, and four zooms. One third party -- a new startup company called Noktor -- has also announced a completely manual, Micro Four Thirds compatible 50mm F0.95 prime lens which seems to be based on a design intended for CCTV security cameras.

In addition, no less than nine different adapters make it possible to mount a wide selection of current and historic glass on a Micro Four Thirds camera. Lenses that can be adapted include certain standard Four Thirds, Olympus OM, Leica M / R, Voigtlander VM / Ai-S / PK-A/R / KA, and Carl Zeiss ZM / ZF / ZK types. These adapters generally have some limitations as to compatibility and available features, which will depend on the specific model being used.

Because the E-PL1 features in-body image stabilization, Olympus' M.ZUIKO lenses do not themselves incorporate optical image stabilization. Some Panasonic Micro Four Thirds lenses offer image stabilization and work with the Olympus E-PL1, but note that you have to disable one or the other image stabilization system.

Olympus E-PL1 Autofocus

11-Area AF. Default focus areas are bit large, making it difficult to autofocus on small objects. The E-PL1 however offers a small AF area option when Live View is magnified.

The Olympus E-PL1 has an 11-area contrast-detect autofocus system, using the main imaging-sensor to determine focus, similar to how most Point & Shoot cameras work. There are two AF Area options: "All Target" mode, where the camera automatically selects the active area(s) for you, or "Single Target" mode, where you specify the active area by selecting it with the 4-way controller.

You can register a "Home" position for the active AF by through the Set Home option in Custom menu tab A. The function button can then be configured to toggle back and forth between the current AF position and your Home position, useful for quickly retrieving your favorite AF area position. For the first time in a Pen-series camera, there's an option to adjust the size of the autofocus point, an important feature if you're wanting to focus on a smaller subject, such as the small AF target in our Indoor Portrait series. 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.

In addition, the E-PL1 offers a Face Detection function, capable of simultaneously locating up to eight individual faces. Each face the camera finds is indicated on the display or electronic viewfinder with a white frame, and is then taken into account when focusing and metering. There's no advance indication of which individual face the camera will focus on, nor any way to manually select which face to prioritize. The face that was selected for AF operation is only momentarily indicated with a green frame, once AF lock has already been achieved. On the plus side, you're not limited to the PL1's 11 autofocus points - the camera will lock focus on a face anywhere within the frame.

Of course, the Olympus E-PL1 also offers a manual focus mode. In MF mode, an option called MF assist causes the camera to optionally magnify the preview image by 7x, 10x, or 14x whenever the focus ring is adjusted, to help determine critical focus. Like the P2 before it, the MF assist preview is now centered around the user-selected focus point, helpful when trying to manually focus on an off-center subject. For use with old manual-focus lenses (which lack the communication that would tell the body when the focus ring was being adjusted), or perhaps to simply check the focus that the AF system has achieved, you can also enable the magnifiied mode manually by using the Zoom (Magnifying Glass) button to select the Zoom display screen mode (with the green AF square in the middle); then the Arrow pad to move freely around the entire image frame, and the Info button to select the magnification amount. A second press of the Zoom button will enable the programmed zoom level, and the Arrow pad will still pan around the magnified image. (The magnified area can also be moved around in other display modes while manually focusing, but after a brief pause without focus operation will reset to the active AF point location, making it rather less useful than in the Zoom display mode.)

As we note elsewhere, the LCD on the E-PL1 isn't one of the newer-generation high-resolution designs, as it has only 230K dots. It's also smaller than average, with a 2.7" diagonal. For precise manual focusing, the optional higher-resolution articulating electronic viewfinder proves a better choice, thanks to its high resolution of 1,440K dots (800 x 600 pixels x three dots per color). That said, we found that we could still produce sharp images when focusing manually using the LCD, at least under ideal conditions. Ideal conditions mean the camera mounted on a solid tripod, and a subject with strongly contrasting fine detail to examine while focusing. Under such conditions, we could consistently produce results as sharp as those delivered by the AF system, but we always felt like we were guessing somewhat as to where optimum focus really was. The excellent EVF certainly mitigates our issues with manual focusing on the PL1, but does rely on your buying it, and then bringing it everywhere you go, so we'd still be happier if the E-PL1's LCD screen was larger and had more resolution.

Autofocus servo modes consist of S-AF (single shot autofocus), C-AF (continuous autofocus), MF (manual focus), S-AF+MF (single shot autofocus with manual focus tweaking), and C-AF+TR (continuous autofocus with tracking). By default in S-AF or S-AF+MF modes, focus is locked when the shutter button is half-pressed, although this behaviour can be changed through the Custom menu. When AF tracking is enabled, the E-PL1 can follow the subject as it moves around the field of view, tracking it anywhere within the image frame to keep it in focus.

In both C-AF modes, the camera continuously cycles its AF system, which helps it track moving objects, keeping the current lens focal distance setting closer to the current subject distance than it might otherwise be. This can reduce AF "hunting" when it comes time to snap the actual shot. Because contrast-detect AF systems have to perturb the focus in order to tell whether the image is actually in focus or not, the E-PL1's Continuous-AF mode disturbs the viewfinder display on the LCD while it's operating. That is, the viewfinder image continuously shifts in and out of focus when C-AF is active, as the camera constantly re-checks its focus setting. This is a necessity for any contrast-detect AF system, but the amount of defocusing required by the E-PL1 to check focus is greater than we've seen in some other systems.

AF in Movie mode

In Movie mode, you have the same focusing options available as when shooting stills, with the exception of face detection autofocus, which is not available. There are a few differences from their still image counterparts though -- the most obvious being the absence of the beep that serves to confirm AF lock. In C-AF mode, there's also a green frame to indicate the focus point, which is absent in still image mode. Finally, both C-AF and C-AF+TR modes don't hunt around the focus point -- which means they make less objectionable sound on the audio track, but also means they take longer to detect and react to a change in subject distance. Since AF operation is picked up by the camera's internal microphone, you may want to choose either S-AF, S-AF+MF or MF modes to minimize the impact of the focus motor noises.

Olympus E-PL1 Sensor Cleaning

The Olympus E-PL1 features an ultrasonic dust-reduction system, especially important since the E-PL1's shutter is normally open for full-time Live View. The system automatically runs at power-up, and unfortunately, there is no option to disable it or run it manually, as it does contribute to startup time.

We have found that in-camera dust-removal systems are less than perfectly effective. You're still going to need to use a sensor-cleaning kit fairly often, so the advantage of in-body dust removal is perhaps less than it might seem. If you've got dust specks on your sensor (and sooner or later you will), you're going to need to clean it. There are a lot of products out there intended to address this need, but a distressing number of them work poorly (if at all), and many are grossly overpriced. Advertising hype is rampant, with bogus pseudo-scientific jargon and absurd product claims. And prices -- Did I mention prices? How about $100 for a simple synthetic-bristle brush?

So how do you know what product to use?

We don't pretend to have used everything currently on the market, but we can tell you about one solution that worked very well for us. The "Copper Hill" cleaning method is straightforward and safe, and in our routine usage here at Imaging Resource, highly effective. Better yet, the products sold by Copper Hill Imaging are very reasonably priced. Best of all, Nicholas R (proprietor of Copper Hill) has put together an amazingly detailed tutorial on sensor cleaning, free for all.

Sensor cleaning is one of the last things people think about when buying a d-SLR, but it's vital to capturing the best possible images. Take our advice and order a cleaning kit from Copper Hill right along with your d-SLR, so you'll have it close at hand when you need it: You'll be glad you did!

(While they've advertised on our sister site SLRgear.com from time to time, we receive no promotional consideration from Copper Hill for this note. We just think their sensor cleaning products are among the best on the market, and like their way of doing business. -- We think you will too. Click here to check them out.)


Kit Lens Test Results

Excellent performance with the 14-42mm kit lens.

14mm 42mm

The Olympus E-PL1 is available bundled with a cost reduced version of the Olympus 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 ED M.Zuiko Digital Micro Four Thirds lens. The only major difference we found was the polycarbonate bayonet mount and black rear bezel, where the older lens's mount is metal and the bezel is silver. Optically, it appears to be identical. The kit lens possesses a very typical optical zoom range of 3x, and the 35mm equivalent focal range is about 28-84mm, because of the E-PL1's 2x "crop factor." Results were very good at 14mm, with only slightly soft corners and strong detail throughout the frame. Coma distortion in the trees was low; however, chromatic aberration in the corners was moderate. Results were excellent at the 42mm setting, with sharp corners and just a a hint of chromatic aberration. Overall, an excellent result for a kit lens. The Olympus E-PL1 does not offer a digital zoom mode.

A smaller than average area (for an SLD* kit lens), with excellent detail. Flash did a good job throttling down.

Macro with
14-42mm kit lens
Macro with Flash

As with zoom performance, the Olympus E-PL1's macro performance will depend entirely on the lens in use. However, with the 14-42mm kit lens set to 42mm, the Olympus E-PL1 captured a smaller than average minimum area measuring 2.11 x 1.58 inches (54 x 40 millimeters). Resolution and detail were excellent, with only minor softening in the corners. (Most lenses have some softening in the corners at macro distances, the Olympus E-PL1's kit lens has much less than most.) The built-in flash did a good job throttling down at such a close distance, resulting in a well-exposed image. Excellent performance here as well.

*SLD = Single Lens Direct-view

Geometric Distortion
Low to moderate geometric distortion with the 14-42mm kit lens in JPEGs, much higher than average distortion in uncorrected RAW files.

In-Camera JPEG: Barrel distortion at 14mm is 0.8 percent
In-Camera JPEG: Pincushion distortion at 42mm is practically nonexistent
Uncorrected RAW: Barrel distortion at 14mm is 2.3 percent
Uncorrected RAW: Pincushion distortion at 42mm is 1.0 percent

When shooting JPEGs, the Olympus E-PL1's 14-42mm kit lens produced about 0.8 percent barrel distortion at wide-angle, which is about average and slightly noticeable in some of its images. At the telephoto end, there's almost no distortion, practically imperceptible. This is the tendency for the lens to bend straight lines outward (like a barrel -- usually at wide-angle) or inward (like a pincushion -- usually at telephoto).

To see how much correction is taking place in the camera, we converted RAW files from the above shots with dcraw, which does not correct for distortion. As you can see, at wide-angle, the barrel distortion is very high at about 2.3%, and pincushion distortion at telephoto is also fairly high at about 1.0%. We expect this for smaller interchangeable lenses though, so it's nothing to be concerned about unless you are using a RAW converter which does not understand the embedded "opcodes" to perform distortion corrections automatically. Most RAW converters these days are capable of applying distortion correction automatically, as specified by the manufacturer. (There's going to be some loss of resolution as a result of such correction, because pixels in the corners of the frame are being "stretched" to correct for the distortion. Obviously, a lens that doesn't require such correction, and is also sharp in the corners to begin with would be preferable, but relaxing constraints on barrel and pincushion distortion likely brings other benefits in the lens design, such as cost, size and weight.)

Chromatic Aberration and Corner Sharpness
Moderate and bright chromatic aberration at wide-angle with the 14-42mm kit lens, much lower levels at full telephoto. Some soft corners.

Wide: upper right
C.A.: Moderately high and bright
Softness: Moderate blurring
Wide: center
C.A.: Very low
Softness: Very Sharp
Tele: upper left
C.A.: Low
Softness: Moderate blurring
Tele: center
C.A.: Very low
Softness: Sharp

Chromatic Aberration. Chromatic aberration in the corners with the E-PL1's 14-42mm kit lens is moderate and noticeable at wide-angle (14mm). At full telephoto (42mm), C.A. is low, and not as noticeable.  In both cases, the color fringing gradually reduces in brightness and width as it approaches the center of the image, where it is almost nonexistent.

Corner Softness. The Olympus E-PL1's 14-42mm kit lens produced some soft corners in a few shots. At full wide-angle, the upper corners were softer than the lower, with the top right corner being the softest. Blurring extended fairly far into the frame. The other corners, however, showed almost no softening, and the center of the image was a quite sharp. At full telephoto, the upper left corner was soft, but the others were fairly sharp, and the center was sharp. A better than average performance for a kit lens here, especially considering the lens was wide-open for these shots. (Corner sharpness generally improves when a lens is "stopped-down" a couple of f-stops below full aperture.)


The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Olympus PEN E-PL1 Photo Gallery.

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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.

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