Olympus E-PL1 Review

 
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Olympus E-PL1 Video Recording

by Dave Etchells and Mike Tomkins

Video recording in SLRs and other removable-lens digital cameras is an increasingly common and important feature, a trend the Olympus E-PL1 continues. In common with its competitors, it offers the ability to use a variety of lenses for video recording, and offers greater control over depth of field than do typical camcorders or digicams. In a welcome change since the previous P1 model, Olympus now allows fully manual control of both shutter speed and aperture for video recording. The internal microphone's only monaural, but there's provision for external stereo microphones via an adapter that connects to the new accessory port beneath the camera's hot shoe, whereas the original P1 allowed only its internal stereo mic. There's also a new dedicated movie recording button, a first for an Olympus PEN-series camera. The E-PL1 provides video capability in a smaller package than most other interchangeable-lens cameras, particularly when fitted with Olympus' M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 17mm f2.8 lens. We found the Olympus E-PL1 to be a competent video platform compared to competing cameras, falling towards the higher end of the range in terms of capability and features. Let's take a quick look at its overall specs, and then dive a little deeper into its features and options:

Olympus E-PL1 Basic Video Specs

  • 720p (1,280 x 720), 30 fps HD recording
  • 640 x 480, 30 fps SD recording
  • Motion JPEG encoding, AVI file format
  • Autofocus is possible during recording, but we don't recommend it (highly visible/audible)
  • In Program and Aperture Priority AE, camera adjusts shutter speed / ISO sensitivity during recording to maintain metered exposure
  • In Manual AE, full control of shutter speed, aperture and ISO sensitivity is possible, but only before recording starts
  • EV adjustment is available in Program and Aperture Priority AE prior to recording, but not during
  • "Art Filters" can be applied to video, but most adversely affect framerate, sometimes drastically
  • Video recorded with Diorama filter plays back at ~15x normal speed, and has audio disabled
  • Monaural audio recording via built-in microphone, plus external stereo input via optional accessory port adapter
  • Dedicated Movie recording button
  • Shutter button captures still image during movie (with brief interruption)
  • Still + Video mode snaps still image at the end of video recording

Olympus E-PL1 Video Resolutions & Recording Formats

The Olympus E-PL1 records either 720p (1,280 x 720 pixel) High-Definition or 640 x 480 pixel Standard-Definition video with Motion-JPEG compression, using the AVI file format. Frame rate is always 30 fps, but bit rates may vary somewhat, depending on the resolution being recorded and complexity of the subject. Audio is monaural from the internal microphone, or stereo when using the optional external microphone adapter, and is recorded as 44.1 KHz PCM data, embedded in the AVI files. Here's a run-down of the Olympus E-PL1's video specs:

Olympus E-PL1 Video Options
Motion JPEG Format (.AVI files)
Menu Designation
Resolution
Frame Rate
Card Capacity
(Approximate)

HD

720p
1,280 x 720

30p recording*
~30-35 Mbps

~250 MB/minute
(4 minutes
on 1GB card**)

SD

640p
640 x 480

30p recording*
~15-18 Mbps

~120 MB/minute
(8 minutes
on 1GB card**)

* Most Art Filters reduce frame rate, some (Pinhole, Grainy Film) to as little as 2 fps, reducing bit rates accordingly.
** On cards larger than 2 GB, individual files are limited to 2 GB each.

The Olympus E-PL1 offers just two video settings, either HD (high definition), recording at a resolution of 1,280 x 720 pixels and 30 frames/second, or SD (standard definition), recording 640x480 pixels, also at 30 frames/second. Its HD mode conforms to the "720p" spec, but doesn't offer the higher-resolution "1080i" mode HD option. This may not be much of a sacrifice, as 1080i recording in digicams and SLRs often brings with it either unacceptable levels of compression artifacts when faced with even modest amounts of movement in the video frame, reduced frame rates, or both. Likewise, the E-PL1's 30 fps frame rate is faster than some cameras that are limited to the 24 frames/second "cinema" standard (although depending on your intended use, this may actually be a disadvantage), but it doesn't reach the level of smoothness and motion-capture ability offered by models sporting 60 frames/second recording. In both frame rate and resolution, it ranks roughly in the middle of the pack of current interchangeable-lens video-capable cameras.

The Olympus E-PL1 records using Motion JPEG compression, saving its files in the AVI format. This is a somewhat more computer- and edit-friendly compression technology than MPEG4 or AVCHD, but at the expense of noticeably larger files: Expect to burn about 250 megabytes of card space for each minute of HD recording, and about 120 megabytes for each minute of standard-definition video. Interestingly, while the Olympus E-PL1 uses Motion JPEG compression, it does vary the compression level used, depending on the complexity of the subject or amount of motion in the frame, to result in relatively fixed bit rates. That is, the megabytes/minute of video don't vary much, regardless of whether you're filming a blank white wall or highly detailed scene with lots of change from frame to frame. On higher-capacity cards, individual files are limited to 2 gigabytes in size, corresponding to a bit over 8 minutes of HD video, or 16-17 minutes of SD.

Here are some examples of video from the Olympus E-PL1, showing typical results under daylight conditions.

Olympus E-PL1 Video Samples

Olympus E-PL1 Video-Mode Focusing

The bugaboo of video with interchangeable-lens still cameras has been (and in most cases continues to be) focusing; specifically, the lack of autofocus capability during movie recording. In this area, the Olympus E-PL1 once again places about midway in the range of current models. It does permit autofocus cycles during video recording, but the AF operation will be quite evident, both visibly and audibly in your recordings. At least, that will be the case when using the internal microphone and the Micro Four Thirds format lenses that Olympus currently offers. Using an external microphone should help at least somewhat, by increasing the distance between lens motors and camera, as well as allowing the use of mechanisms to isolate vibrations between the two. We've also heard that using the "video rated" 14-140mm zoom lens that Panasonic ships with their DMC-GH1 camera greatly improves the AF behavior of Olympus P-series cameras during recording, but haven't had the opportunity to test the GH1's lens on the E-PL1 ourselves. Likewise, Olympus own upcoming MSC (Motion & Still Picture capable) lenses are intended to focus faster and more quietly, but we've yet to test a production-level version of an MSC lens.

In its Movie mode, the Olympus E-PL1 by default performs an autofocus cycle if you half-press the shutter button, while the dedicated Movie button starts or stops the recording. There's also a continuous AF mode that will update the focus setting whenever the camera detects a change in the image. With either of the current Micro Four Thirds lenses Olympus offers with the E-PL1, the autofocus cycle is a pretty obvious affair: The image very visibly changes size as the camera adjusts the focus back and forth, and the sound of the focus activation is quite audible on the audio track in all but the loudest surroundings. As a result, we generally tried to avoid focusing during recording.

The Olympus E-PL1's focus adjustment is of the "fly by wire" type, meaning that the focus ring on the lens isn't directly coupled to the lens elements, but instead simply commands the camera to move the lens elements. What this means in practice is that you can't avoid AF noise in your soundtrack by using manual focus and making only slow adjustments: The camera moves the lens in small, discrete steps, so slow adjustment of the focus ring in MF mode only means that the steps occur less frequently, not that they're any smaller or quieter. Rather than a continuous rattle, you'll hear individual ticking noises when the focus ring is adjusted slowly. One solution to this would be to simply mount an old mechanically-coupled manual-focus lens on the E-PL1 via an adapter, but for most people, the solution will be to simply avoid adjusting focus while recording.

If you're using an external microphone that doesn't pick up lens noise as much, or you're not recording audio through the camera, then you may find the bobble in image size acceptable enough that it's useful to have the camera autofocus during recording. There is a continuous-AF option available in video mode that provides for exactly this. As noted, it isn't terribly quick (at least with the kit lens), but it will for the most part keep the camera focused as the framing changes. In either AF mode, you can manually specify which AF point to use for determining focus. In single-area-AF, you also have the option of  a multi-area mode, in which the camera focuses on the closest high-contrast object in the scene. Unlike its predecessor, the E-PL1 also offers tracking AF capability in continuous mode, allowing the camera to follow a moving subject anywhere within the frame during video recording.

In continuous-AF mode, the camera does a pretty good (if not infallible) job of figuring out when the scene has changed. It wasn't clear to us whether it was choosing when to run a new AF cycle based on a change in brightness, color, or (most likely) simply change in the contrast-detect focus signal itself. Some subtle changes seemed to lull it into complacency, so it sometimes let changes in subject distance get a bit ahead of it. Fairly significant changes produced an immediate and generally accurate response, but we also encountered some situations (most often under indoor lighting) where the lens could "hunt" over a fairly wide range. Overall, our strong preference was to use the single-AF mode, and just let the camera focus before the recording of each clip began.

One piece of good news relative to focusing, though: If you shoot in aperture-priority or manual mode with the lens stopped down, depth of field when recording videos can be pretty deep indeed. If you have a lot of light to work with (eg, outdoors in bright daylight), you can stop down to f/16 or even f/22 and the lens will effectively be hyperfocal from a few feet to infinity. The lower resolution of video recording helps a lot here too: With only a third to a quarter of the linear resolution of the camera's still images, the image can be quite a bit more out of focus on the sensor than would be tolerable for still images before you'll be able to discern the softness in the resulting videos. (The lens is quite soft at f/22 for still image shooting, due to diffraction limiting, but the lower resolution of video mode again renders this somewhat moot: Videos at HD resolution will be somewhat less crisp at f/22 than at the lens' sweet spot (around f/4 at wide angle, f/8 at tele), but we'd put the results well within the "acceptable" range.)

Olympus E-PL1 Video Exposure Control

Some video-capable cameras offer only fully automatic exposure in movie mode, but the Olympus E-PL1 gives you a choice of either Programmed, Aperture-Priority, or Manual exposure modes -- and even better, you can choose not only the shutter speed and aperture, but also the ISO sensitivity which the camera will use. All three exposure variables are fixed from the start of video recording in manual mode, while in the other modes the camera will adjust sensitivity and shutter speed during recording so as to retain the metered exposure. In Programmed and Aperture Priority modes, 3.0EV of exposure compensation is available in 0.3 EV steps.

The E-PL1 doesn't report  the aperture it's selected in Programmed Auto mode, but very much tends toward larger apertures: It'll stop down some in full sunlight, but for any lighting that's much less intense than that, it tends to shoot wide open. We personally didn't mind this at all, as for most subjects we like the shallower depth of field that comes from shooting wide open. (Although the lower resolution of video vs still images means that DOF will be a good bit deeper at any given aperture than you might expect.) Still, the issues with focusing during recording mentioned just above meant that we did find ourselves using Aperture Priority metering sometimes when the subject distance was likely to change a fair bit during the recording of a clip.

Like most video-capable SLRs, the Olympus E-PL1 lets you choose from the camera's full range of White Balance settings, including manual white balance and a "Custom" (Kelvin temperature) mode that spans an unusually wide range from 2,000 - 14,000K.

Like the P1 before it, the Olympic E-PL1 is very unusual in allowing use of the self-timer in video mode. The self-timer feature seems less useful for video recording than it is for still images, since you'll presumably still need to trim the end of the clip, to cut out the part where you walk back to the camera stop the recording. Still, it at will at least save you from editing the beginning of the clip, so does offer some utility.

It's not strictly an exposure control feature, but this seems as good a place as any to mention the Olympus E-PL1's Movie + Still recording mode. Selected via the second Record Menu screen, this option snaps a still image at the end of each movie clip: When you press the shutter button the second time, to stop movie recording, the shutter actuates, and the camera captures a full-resolution still frame. We suppose this is could be useful at times, but in our own movies, the action is usually over by the time we're ending a clip, so that's perhaps not the ideal place to capture a still frame. Thankfully, with its separate shutter and Movie buttons, it's also possible to capture a still image during movie recording simply by pressing the shutter button. This does yield a brief interruption to the movie, on the order of around four seconds, and results in the movie being split across two separate files. The delay also means that you rather need to anticipate the moment at which you'll want to capture the still image, with the moment of capture actually coming a short time after you press the shutter button. Still, there are times when we'd like to have a high-resolution still image of a video subject available, and these modes make it much easier than with many cameras where movie recording must be stopped and the operating mode changed.

Olympus E-PL1 Image Stabilization During Video Recording

The Olympus E-PL1 incorporates Olympus' body-based image stabilization, so any lens attached to it effectively becomes an image-stabilized model. (Note, though, that when using a lens that has its own image stabilization, you have to choose either the camera's IS or that in the lens; they won't work together.) All three IS modes the E-PL1 offers are also available while recording movies. The four modes are IS 1 (stabilizer on), IS 2 (horizontal panning), and IS 3 (vertical panning). As in still-capture mode, you can also set the focal length of the lens explicitly, from 8-1,000mm, for use with non-Micro Four Thirds/Four Thirds system lenses that don't communicate their focal length to the camera.

We somewhat expected to be able to hear the operation of the IS system during video recording, but instead found it to be completely silent. (At least, we weren't able to hear any trace of it in the audio track, even in very quiet surroundings.) It worked quite well, lending a good bit of added stability to our hand-held movie recordings, particularly when the kit lens was set toward the telephoto end of its zoom range.

We did notice that the IS system produced significantly more motion artifacts when it was active than when it was not. With its 30 fps frame rate, the Olympus E-PL1's "rolling shutter" artifacts (see below) generally aren't quite as noticeable as those from some cameras with slower frame rates. When the IS system is active, though, the image jiggling effect we commonly associate with the rolling shutter image capture approach becomes much more prominent with the IS system in IS 1 mode. Switching to either IS 2 or IS 3 (horizontal or vertical panning mode) seemed to help this considerably, even for camera motion in the stabilized direction.

Digital and Body-Based Stabilization: Slightly longer effective focal lengths with video IS
Perhaps explaining both its silence and its impact on rolling shutter artifacts, we also noted that video-mode IS on the E-PL1 appears to involve at least some amount of digital IS, of the type that stabilizes the video image by changing how the image data is clocked from the array. The key here is that the E-PL1's sensor has a lot more pixels than required to generate even its 1,280 x 720 high-definition video, let alone its 640 x 480 standard definition output. In the HD case, there are 3.15x more sensor pixels than video pixels horizontally and 4.2x more vertically. This means you can compensate for camera shake pretty precisely, simply by changing which rows or column of pixels you're reading from to construct a given video frame: If camera movement shifted the image up by (for instance) an amount corresponding to a quarter of a video pixel, just shift your data readout up one row of sensor pixels to compensate.

To get a useful amount of image stabilization with this approach, you need to leave a band of "spare" pixels around the periphery of the sensor, so you can follow the image across the sensor array without running out of pixels at one edge. This in fact is exactly what the Olympus E-PL1 does when you enable image stabilization in its movie mode: It crops the image slightly, then compensates for camera shake by changing the portion of the sensor it uses for the video frame. The net result is roughly a 30% increase in effective focal length: With the 14-42mm kit lens, maximum wide angle in video mode with IS active is roughly a 36mm equivalent (18mm on the lens barrel) vs the 28mm equivalent (14mm actual focal length) in still-capture mode.

Olympus E-PL1 Audio Capabilities

Audio recording in movies is optional with the Olympus E-PL1. Audio can be turned on or off via the Live Menu, accessible by pressing the OK button on the camera's rear panel. Audio is recorded as 16-bit, 44.1 KHz PCM, and is either monaural when using the internal microphone, or stereo when using the external microphone adapter. Olympus advertises the PL1's audio as being equal to the best quality provided by any of their popular handheld audio recorders. Monaural recording is done via a single microphone on the camera's top face, appearing as two small black holes in front of the hot shoe.

Stereo audio can be recorded via the EMA-1 adapter that connects to the accessory port and offers an external microphone jack (shown at right mounted on the PL1's sibling, the P2, with the ME-51S stereo mic and extension cable attached). We didn't receive the EMA-1 adapter in our review kit, and so can't comment on its operation. The internal mic did a pretty decent job, bearing in mind that it doesn't offer stereo recording. Per their advertising, sound fidelity was indeed quite good; voices sounded natural, and sound outdoors was recorded clearly and in considerable detail.

Our one criticism of the E-PL1's sound was that there seemed to be a bit more background noise in its audio tracks than we've noticed on some other cameras we've tested. There's no manual volume or input level control, so audio levels are set entirely automatically by the camera. (This is quite typical of video-capable SLRs that also record audio.) The combination of the auto-gain circuitry and the camera's somewhat "bright" sound quality tended to emphasize background noise, though, particularly in the upper midrange of the frequency spectrum. The result was a tendency toward noticeable hiss in the background of the E-PL1's audio tracks. Also, the sensitivity to nearby background noises tended to limit the amount of gain increase when responding to reduced subject volume, so distant subjects were generally more difficult to hear clearly than closer ones. (This obviously will always be the case, what we're trying to say here is that the audibility of subjects fell off more rapidly with distance than we sometimes expected.) Ultimately the camera recorded any audio we were interested in hearing, but the hiss was more prominent than we'd have liked, and it would be nice if the mic's response pattern better suppressed sounds from behind and around the camera, favoring sound from in front of the camera more strongly.

In common with most other built-in mics on SLR-style cameras, the Olympus E-PL1's internal mic was also very sensitive to hand movements on the body and operating noise from the camera itself. We mentioned the noise associated with focusing of the kit lens above, and found that adjustments of the zoom setting could also be heard in the audio track in quiet surroundings. Another source of noise in the previous P1 and P2 models has been fixed in the PL1, though. Both previous cameras featured metallic D-rings (which are actually triangular) that attach the neckstrap to the body. These had a tendency to produce odd clicking noises in sound tracks from both cameras. Thankfully, the PL1 instead uses more modern rectangular body-mounted lugs that the strap passes through directly, and the metal-on-fabric interface greatly reduces the likelihood of untoward noises as the strap moves.

All of the quibbles with the internal microphone are at least somewhat mitigated by the provision of an external microphone connection. As well as allowing a higher-fidelity, stereo mic to be used, the optional EMA-1 accessory port adapter's microphone jack allows the mic itself to be distanced from the camera, reducing the likelihood of noises from body handling or the AF motor being picked up. Note that use of this adapter (which we didn't receive in our test kit) precludes use of the electronic viewfinder accessory, meaning that movies using an external microphone must be framed on the PL1's LCD display. The EMA-1 adapter also doesn't provide any means of mounting the microphone should its weight not be supported by the 3.5mm microphone jack itself, so most external mics will need to be held separately, or attached to the camera via a bracket connected to the tripod socket. Even if a small external mic is mounted directly on the microphone jack, it will still likely provide somewhat better isolation than the internal microphone, though.

Olympus E-PL1 Movie Recording User Interface

The Olympus E-PL1's movie mode is available in all operating modes, thanks to the camera's dedicated Movie button. In most modes, movies are recorded using Program autoexposure, regardless of the operating mode selected on the camera's Mode dial, or in the Custom menu's Movie Mode setting. The sole exceptions are the Art Filter and Movie mode positions on the Mode dial. In the Art Filter mode, the movie will be recorded with the same art filter type as used for still images, overriding the Custom menu Movie Mode setting. In Movie mode, the custom menu setting -- which can also be adjusted from the Live Control panel -- will determine which exposure mode to use. Pressing the dedicated Movie button starts recording, and pressing it again stops it. Half-pressing the shutter button triggers an AF cycle, just as in still-picture mode. Fully pressing the shutter button during Movie recording will stop and finalize the current movie, capture a still image, then resume movie recording in a new file about four seconds after the first file ended.

Setting adjustments in movie mode are made via a Live Control panel, which appears down the right side of the LCD when you press the OK button on the camera's back. Options on the Live Menu for video recording are:

Video Live Menu Options:
Top-Level
Selection
Second-Level
Notes
Exposure Mode
- Program Auto
- Aperture Priority
- Manual
- Pop Art
- Soft Focus
- Grainy Film
- Pin Hole
- Diorama
- Gentle Sepia
Pop Art through Gentle Sepia are the six Art Filter modes. Some affect frame rate, see discussion under "In-Camera Image Adjustment" further down in the text.
White Balance
- Auto
- Sunny
- Shadow
- Cloudy
- Incandescent
- Fluorescent (3 settings)
- Flash
- Custom
(Kelvin 2,000 - 14,000)
Obviously, there's no flash in video mode, but Flash white balance may give you a slightly different "look" than Sunny.
Self-Timer
- Off
- 12 second
- 2 second
Unusual to find a self-timer in a movie mode. Starts recording after the delay, but you have to press the shutter button yourself to stop recording when done.
IS Mode
- Off
- IS1 (Normal IS)
- IS2 (Horizontal panning)
- IS3 (Vertical Panning)
- (Select focal length)
Focal length setting option is for use with non-system lenses.
Focus
- Single
- Continuous
- Manual
- Single plus manual focus
- Continuous + Tracking
Single+manual lets you adjust focus manually after camera has run its AF cycle
Recording Quality
- HD (1,280x720)
- SD (640x480)
AF Area
- Multiple
- Single
Audio
- Off
- On

Olympus E-PL1 In-Camera Image Adjustment for Movies

Olympus has for some time now made a big deal of their Art Filters in marketing their DSLRs. We know people that like these effects a lot, but confess that we've personally never found them very compelling. With the E-PL1, Olympus has carried the full set of Art Filters over into Movie Mode, so those users who are into such things can take advantage of the same effects in their videos.

As usual, though, there's no free lunch, and the processing required for some of the Art Filter effects can significantly slow the frame rates. Here's a summary of what we found when shooting video using the various Art Filter effects:

Frame Rate Limits with Art Filters Applied
Art Filter
HD Frame Rate
SD Frame Rate
None
30 fps
30 fps
Pop Art
30 fps
30 fps
Soft Focus
30 fps in file,
Seems much slower
30 fps in file,
Seems slower
Grainy Film
30 fps in file,
Seems slower
30 fps in file,
Seems slower
Pin Hole
2 fps
30 fps in file,
Seems slower
Diorama
Records at 2fps but file is encoded at 30fps, so plays back greatly accelerated. Audio is disabled.
Records at 2fps but file is encoded at 30fps, so plays back greatly accelerated. Audio is disabled.
Gentle Sepia
30 fps
30 fps

As the above table shows, the only time that the actual frame rate changed in the movie file itself was with the Pin Hole filter in HD mode. For the Diorama filter, frame rate is equally slow, but the file is encoded as 30 fps - so playback appears accelerated by ~15x. For this reason, audio recording is disabled in Diorama mode. For the Soft Focus and Grainy Film modes, the frame rate in the AVI file remained at 30 frames/second, but the apparent frame rate (based on the visual jerkiness of motion in the scene) dropped noticeably. In the case of Soft Focus, the drop in apparent frame rate was pretty significant. The two other filters (Pop Art, and Gentle Sepia) had no apparent impact on frame rate.

Computer Requirements for Viewing HD Video

A typical computer these days has little trouble dealing with still images, but high-definition video can be another matter. Depending on the file format involved, it can take a pretty beefy computer to handle HD-resolution video playback without stuttering or dropping frames. The Motion JPEG image compression used by the Olympus E-PL1 is one of the less compute-intensive formats, though, and its 1,280 x 720 resolution means there's a good bit less data in each frame to deal with than in videos with 1,920 x 1,080 resolution. The net result is that you should have no problem playing video files from the E-PL1 on your computer, as long as it's a relatively recent and reasonably powerful model. We don't have a specific benchmark for this, but if your computer is less than 3 years or so old, it should have no problem with the E-PL1's video streams. (By contrast, to play AVCHD or other keyframe-encoded video formats at full 1,920 x 1,080 resolution can demand a very powerful CPU and video card, to keep up.)

Olympus E-PL1 Video Mode: The Bottom Line

Overall, the Olympus E-PL1's video mode worked pretty well: It wasn't the most capable that we've tested to date, but neither was it the least. For some uses, the replacement of the P1's stereo microphone with a monaural type may seem a downgrade, but for many movies the stereo effect can prove unnecessary or even distracting, so the importance of this change will depend on the subject matter. The addition of AF tracking and an adapter for external stereo microphone support make it more versatile than the video mode of its predecessor, the E-P1. The PL1 should be reasonably competent at handling the bulk of the movie recording most consumers will care about, further enhancing the E-PL1's appeal as a compact SLR-grade camera for travel and day to day portability: For the vast majority of consumers, it will eliminate the need to lug along a digicam, just for the sake of capturing video snapshots.

 

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