Olympus E-PL1 Review

 
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Olympus E-PL1 Image Quality


Color

Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Good color and hue accuracy overall, with less oversaturation than most.

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-PL1 pushes reds, dark blues and dark brown a bit, while undersaturating aqua, cyan and yellow. Default saturation is only 103.4% (3.4% oversaturated), which is quite accurate. The E-PL1 doesn't oversaturate nearly 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-PL1 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-PL1 did push cyan toward blue, red toward orange and yellow toward green, 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.) Hue is "what color" the color is.

Saturation Adjustment
The Olympus E-PL1 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 useful range, and does a good job of not impacting contrast.

Saturation Adjustment Examples
Click to see EPL1OUTBSAT1.JPG Click to see EPL1OUTBSAT3D.JPG Click to see EPL1OUTBSAT5.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-PL1 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-PL1'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-PL1 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-PL1 performed pretty well, with good color but slight overexposure in the outdoor far-field house shot. The Olympus E-PL1 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, 1,600 lines of strong detail in JPEGs, a bit more from processed RAW files.

Strong detail to
1,600 lines horizontal
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
1,600 lines vertical
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
1,800 lines horizontal
ACR processed ORF
Strong detail to
1,600 lines vertical
ACR processed ORF

In camera JPEGs our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,600 lines per picture height in both the horizontal and vertical direction. Complete extinction of the pattern didn't occur until about 2,700 to 2,800 lines. We were able to extract a bit more resolution by processing the E-PL1's ORF files using Adobe Camera Raw 5.7 beta, but it produced some strong color moire and maze patterns (see the full image by clicking on the crops above), so Adobe still has some work to bring Camera Raw's E-PL1 support to released status. (Note: we've since tried the released version of ACR 5.7, and got results identical to the beta version.) 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-PL1 captures fairly sharp images overall, though 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-PL1 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-PL1'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.

As you can see, the Olympus Master 2 conversion resulted in an image very similar to the in-camera JPEG in terms of detail. The Adobe Camera Raw conversion however contains more fine detail than the camera JPEG, while at the same time showing fewer sharpening artifacts. The ACR version does show quite a bit more noise. We had to use ACR 5.7 beta since the previous version did not support the E-PL1, so conversion results may improve with future versions. (Note: we've since tried the released version of ACR 5.7, and got results identical to the beta version.) Also, this image was taken at ISO 200 (the ISO 100 version showed too many clipped highlights), so keep that in mind when comparing to other cameras at ISO 100. Like previous Olympus PEN cameras, the E-PL1 rewards RAW shooters with really excellent detail.

ISO & Noise Performance
Low noise and very good detail up to ISO 400, moderate to high noise at higher ISOs, but very good performance from a Four-Thirds sensor.

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

The Olympus E-PL1'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 with more smudging due to stronger noise reduction, but detail is still pretty good though not quite as good as the E-P1/E-P2. At ISO 1,600, we see additional detail loss, as well as more obvious purple and yellow blotches in shadow areas. Again, the E-PL1's default noise reduction appears to be stronger than its siblings. At ISO 3,200, noise grain is coarser and blurring stronger still, as you'd expect. All things considered, the Olympus E-PL1's high-ISO images are noticeably improved over those of the earlier Olympus Four-Thirds cameras, though as mentioned above, default noise reduction is a bit stronger than the E-P1 and E-P2. As always, see the Print Quality section below for maximum recommended print sizes at each ISO.

A note about focus for this shot: We shoot this image at f/4, using one of three very sharp reference lenses (70mm Sigma f/2.8 macro for most cameras, 60mm f/2.8 Nikkor macro for Nikon bodies without a drive motor, and Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/2.0 for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds bodies). To insure that the hair detail we use for making critical judgements about camera noise processing and detail rendering is in sharp focus at the relatively wide aperture we're shooting at, the focus target at the center of the scene is on a movable stand. This lets us compensate for front- or back-focus by different camera bodies, even those that lack micro-focus adjustments. This does mean, though, that the focus target itself may appear soft or slightly out of focus for bodies that front- or back-focused with the reference lens. If you click to view the full-size image for one of these shots and notice that the focus target is fuzzy, you don't need to email and tell us about it; we already know it. :-) The focus target position will simply have been adjusted to insure that the rest of the scene is focused properly.

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-PL1 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 tones 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-PL1 owners that are going to want to just print an image, the +1.0 image would probably produce the best-looking print with little or no tweaking. The bottom line though, is that the E-PL1 had difficulty with the wide dynamic range of this shot, at least with its default settings at ISO 100.

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. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)

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-PL1 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 still 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-PL1'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, 1/250s ISO 200, f/8, 1/640s

As was true for the E-P1 and E-P2, it's important to note that for maximum dynamic range, you should select ISO 200 when shooting with the Olympus E-PL1. While there is a bit more noise at ISO 200 versus 100, dynamic range is better at ISO 200 as can be seen in the above Far Field shots. The ISO 200 shot has much better highlight retention, while shadow detail is very similar. The E-PL1 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-PL1 has the ability to detect faces, and adjust exposure and focus accordingly. The E-PL1 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 without having to use exposure compensation. An excellent performance under very difficult lighting such as this.

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.)

  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
Click to see EPL1LL01003.JPG
1.6 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL01004.JPG
3.2 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL01005.JPG
6 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL01006.JPG
13 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL01007.JPG
25 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL01007XNR.JPG
25 sec
f2.8
ISO
200
Click to see EPL1LL02003.JPG
0.8 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL02004.JPG
1.6 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL02005.JPG
3.2 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL02006.JPG
6 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL02007.JPG
13 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL02007XNR.JPG
13 sec
f2.8
ISO
400
Click to see EPL1LL04003.JPG
0.4 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL04004.JPG
0.8 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL04005.JPG
1.6 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL04006.JPG
3.2 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL04007.JPG
6 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL04007XNR.JPG
6 sec
f2.8
ISO
800
Click to see EPL1LL08003.JPG
1/5 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL08004.JPG
0.4 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL08005.JPG
0.8 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL08006.JPG
1.6 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL08007.JPG
3.2 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL08007XNR.JPG
3.2 sec
f2.8
ISO
1600
Click to see EPL1LL16003.JPG
1/10 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL16004.JPG
1/5 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL16005.JPG
0.4 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL16006.JPG
0.8 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL16007.JPG
1.6 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL16007XNR.JPG
1.6 sec
f2.8
ISO
3200
Click to see EPL1LL32003.JPG
1/20 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL32004.JPG
1/10 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL32005.JPG
1/5 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL32006.JPG
0.4 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL32007.JPG
0.8 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL1LL32007XNR.JPG
0.8 sec
f2.8

Low light. The Olympus E-PL1 exposure metering struggled in our low light test. We had to resort to trial and error in manual mode to get the exposure right at the dimmest light level, then adjusted shutter speed to match the increase in light at successively higher levels. Noise is well controlled up to ISO 800, though there are a few hot pixels visible at lower light levels. White balance is fairly neutral, with a slightly warm, reddish cast. 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 between the 1/4 and 1/8 foot-candle light level unassisted with the 14-42mm kit lens. That isn't as good as most DSLRs, but very good for a camera using contrast-detect autofocus. The E-PL1 unfortunately 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-PL1 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-PL1'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

Excellent print quality, good color, good-looking 20x30-inch prints from camera JPEGs. RAW files can access even more detail.

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.

 

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 the Canon Pixma MP610 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II review for details on that model.)

 

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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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