Olympus E-P1 Review
|Full model name:||Olympus PEN E-P1|
(17.3mm x 13.0mm)
|Extended ISO:||100 - 6400|
|Shutter:||1/4000 - 60 sec|
|Max Aperture:||3.5 (kit lens)|
4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 in.
(121 x 70 x 35 mm)
|Weight:||11.8 oz (335 g)|
|Full specs:||Olympus E-P1 specifications|
4.0 out of 5.0
Olympus E-P1 Overview
Reviewed by Shawn Barnett, Zig Weidelich, and Dave Etchells
Hands-on Preview: 06/16/09
Initial Test: 07/08/09
Full Review: 09/25/09
Olympus announces a return to an old form factor, and the beginning of a new era of small, interchangeable-lens digital cameras. Panasonic shipped the first Micro Four Thirds cameras, but the Olympus E-P1 wins the prize for the smallest of the new breed of digital camera. The company is aligning the Olympus E-P1 with the old PEN system of film cameras, dating back to 1959, and the camera's style reflects that heritage.
The Olympus E-P1 has a 12.3-megapixel sensor that is capable of both still and HD video capture. Many of the features in the E-P1 can also be found in Olympus's digital SLRs, including face detection, Art Filters, the SuperSonic Wave Filter for dust reduction, sensor-shift image stabilization, multiple exposures, and magnified focus assist. But the Olympus E-P1 introduces a lot of features new to the company as well, including HD video, digital leveling, 324-area matrix metering, onboard music, and in-camera music/still/video integration.
Two new lenses are available in separate kits with the Olympus E-P1: the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6, and the 17mm f/2.8, as well as a small optical viewfinder matched to the 17mm lens. A small flash is also available for the Olympus E-P1.
Partially wrapped in a stainless steel skin, the Olympus E-P1 is available in either silver and black or white and tan.
Shipping as of July 2009, the Olympus E-P1 is available in three configurations. Body-only, the Olympus E-P1 sells for $750. With the ED 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens, the price will be US$800; and with the 17mm f/2.8 and the Olympus optical viewfinder, the price will be US$900.
Olympus E-P1 User Reportby Shawn Barnett
I fell in love. After a few months spent together, I can more firmly say that I'm in love with the Olympus E-P1, not just the idea of the E-P1. There were a few bumps, and a couple of reality checks that woke me from my blissful state, but in the end I'm still quite pleased with this little camera. The Olympus E-P1 still brings back feelings I haven't had for 30 years. There is a flaw that I had to decide whether I could live with; in the end, for me, the answer was yes. But you'll have to ask the question for yourself, "Is it a small thing, like squeezing the tube of toothpaste in the middle? Or more like running up too much debt on the credit card?"
She sits on my desk and stares at me, her 17mm lens glistening in the light of the desk lamp. What is it about form that pulls at us? When is the last time I saw a form like this? It would have to be my first dance with the OM-1 as a teen back in the 1970s. I'm too young and too American to have experienced the Pen F, the half-frame film camera whose size and lines the E-P1 are modeled after. Not many Olympus PEN cameras made it stateside because Kodak refused to support the half-frame SLR; but they were big in Europe and Asia thanks to support from Agfa and Japanese film makers.
Seeing a camera like this on my desk reminds me of freer days, when I was a whim away from dropping my OM-1 into a bag with a change of clothes, and jumping into a friend's VW Bus bound for a weekend in Joshua Tree National Monument.
Here at Imaging Resource, though, we don't care as much about how a camera looks as we do about its image quality, but Olympus must have done something right to stir such emotions in this jaded tech journalist. Producing a camera that makes me want to get out and take pictures with only a glance at its physique is noteworthy indeed.
Back in the PEN F days, Olympus's famous and successful designer Yoshihisa Maitani (one of the few rock stars of camera design) chose the rather unconventional porroprism to eliminate the bump on the top of so many SLRs; something Olympus tried again in this century when they built the EVOLT E-300. Though the Pen F was around the same size as the current E-P1 -- a little wider, actually -- the E-300 was still quite chunky and wide, and had too much of the weight away from the grip thanks to that very porroprism. It was a good idea, but was not executed as well as the PEN F.
Obvious yet elusive. Olympus finally came close with the E-420, a small digital SLR whose form factor I like a lot, but now it's clear that they hadn't fully realized the goal of Four Thirds that today seems so obvious. I still argue in favor of the optical viewfinder in the SLR as the fastest method to compose images, because you're getting the image at the speed of light; but when a smaller form is the design goal, why bother with all those mirrors, focusing screens, and lenses necessary to support this faster method? We now have sensors to gather the light, convert it to electrons, and send an image to an LCD. Though there's a little lag when you do all that, you're getting an even truer through-the-lens image than you can through most SLR viewfinders. Indeed, it's not just coming through the lens, but through the sensor and processor that will ultimately form the final image and save it to a card. It's hard to get truer than that with a digital camera, because the sensor and processor can give you a better indication of how the exposure will turn out, something film cameras and optical viewfinders could never achieve.
But only now, nine years into the Twenty-First Century, someone creates a digital camera that has a good sized sensor, a big LCD, no viewfinder, and interchangeable lenses. What took so long?
I'm not sure, I'm just glad someone finally made it happen. The Olympus E-P1 beats my Rebel and 50 f/1.8 in sheer portability. I could take the lens off the Rebel and the body would still be thicker front-to-back than the Olympus E-P1 with the 17mm lens. And as for weight, the Rebel combo weighs 24.4 ounces (1.5 pounds, 693g) while the Olympus combo, even with its partly stainless-steel clad body, weighs only 16.01 ounces, just a hair over one pound (454g), with battery, card, and 17mm lens. Half a pound is a big difference.
Sizes. Why would I want a camera like an Olympus E-P1? I don't want to carry an SLR everywhere. Most of us who own them would like to, but we gravitate instead to pocket digital cameras or mid-size digital cameras with a moderate zoom range for everywhere use. When I'm carrying a backpack or computer bag I have a small SLR with me for anytime photography -- which requires me to carry a larger bag. Otherwise I carry a pocket digicam for stills and video. Many of us have sprung for cameras like the Panasonic LX2 and LX3 -- those who struck before they became scarce and overpriced in stores and websites -- or the Canon G7, G9, and G10, and of course the Ricoh GR and GRII, among few others. Those more serious about the larger sensor's role in better quality low-light images have opted for the Sigma DP1 and DP2.
A close friend in the business calls me every once in a while looking for news of any camera that will meet his need for high image quality in a pocketable form factor. I've offered the cameras I just mentioned, but none has fit his list quite as well as the Olympus E-P1 will.
It's still not perfect, but the Olympus E-P1 is the closest we've seen to the high-quality take-anywhere digital camera that John and so many others like him keep waiting for. It has a larger sensor, the Micro Four Thirds sensor (which is actually the same size as the original Four Thirds sensor), and the option of choosing the lens type and quality you want. Note that as of this writing Panasonic has also announced the Lumix GF1, which runs about the same size as the E-P1.
Choices in Micro Four Thirds now include five zooms and three primes from Panasonic and Olympus. With adapters, you can mount Four Thirds lenses and old OM lenses with the optional OM adapter, and two additional Panasonic adapters allow you to mount Leica M- and R-mount lenses. More on those options below.
Pocketable? Calling the Olympus E-P1 pocketable is pushing it, especially with the 14-42mm lens attached, compressed though it is. Though they've employed a special twist in this lens to compress the overall size, you'll be more comfortable with this zoom combo over your shoulder or around your neck than in a pocket.
What's interesting is how much thought this well-designed little camera has inspired around here. When it first arrived four of us stood around the table talking about the Olympus E-P1, its functions, and the potential implications, both for us and for the market. That's seldom happened. Just as there are different sizes and types of automobile for different people and purposes -- often more than one for each person -- it's clear that there's a place in quite a few lives for this type of small, interchangeable-lens digital camera.
Look and feel. In person, the look of the Olympus E-P1 is more retro than it seems here. Silver and black on the version we received, white and tan with chrome accents on the white version. From the front, the Olympus E-P1 is simple: a lens lock release on the body, a soft, leather-texture grip, a lamp for the self-timer, and stereo speaker holes left and right of the Olympus logo. From this angle shot, you can see just how close the sensor is to the lens mount; this makes for easier cleaning, but also underscores the extra care you'll need to use when changing lenses.
Most of the remaining controls can be seen from this angle, starting from the left. The mode dial peeks out from its port-hole on the top deck, and is set via the knurl on the back. The focal plane indicator is stamped between that and the flash hot shoe, which has its plastic cover in place. Note that there is no built-in flash on the Olympus E-P1. Getting back to the top deck, the Super Sonic Wave Filter lamp is next, followed by the power switch, whose outer ring glows green when the power is on. The shutter release button is ringed by a smooth bit of metal, and is a pleasure to press. The EV adjustment button is last.
On the small shelf behind the Olympus E-P1's top deck, Olympus has engraved the words, "OLYMPUS PEN Since 1959 E-P1." It's a shame that they didn't just revive the name PEN and call it the PEN F1 or something, because E-P1 is hardly catchy, and also a pain to type.
The 3-inch LCD is unfortunately limited to 230,000 pixels, though it is large, vibrant, and good outdoors thanks to its HyperCrystal technology. The lower resolution makes Manual focus a little more difficult than it was on the just-reviewed Panasonic GH1, even with the 7x or 10x zoom option.
On the back you can see the speaker and the unique horizontal scroll wheel, used for zooming and changing menu items. Four buttons run down the right side of the LCD, and a Function and Info button flank the navigation disk/wheel. The disk and wheel combination is small, but works surprisingly well. The wheel works better than most manufacturers' designs, a pleasant surprise. I'm not crazy about the layout of the rest of the buttons, though. It might be that the Olympus E-P1 is so short that the controls are just harder to reach than I'm used to. In the lower right corner you can see the card write lamp.
Note also the camera strap loops, which unfortunately require the annoying D-rings to work with most strap systems. These have become more of a burden thanks to the Olympus E-P1's movie mode, as every motion of the D-rings is recorded as the sound travels dutifully down the camera's lovely metal skin, quickly arriving at the microphone openings. Perhaps you can sense my irritation with this unnecessary metal-to-metal connection when cloth-to-metal is mostly standard on modern digital cameras and even camcorders. Since I don't like camera straps, I'll likely keep the camera strapless and ringless, and perhaps add a digicam wrist strap with a toggle lock for security.
LCD. As I mentioned, the 3-inch LCD is big, but low-resolution, and its viewing angle is 176 degrees. It's the only way to frame images on the Olympus E-P1, unless you opt for the camera kit with the 17mm lens, which includes the $99 optical viewfinder that slips into the hot shoe.
The Olympus E-P1 has many display screens, which you select by pressing the Info button, but I'm afraid none of them meets my needs all on one screen. Though I like the leveling feature, that screen doesn't tell you what aperture or shutter speed you have set, which is pretty important on a camera like the Olympus E-P1. If you want the histogram or exposure info, you have to lose the leveling feature. I found myself hitting the Info button way too often when using the Olympus E-P1.
And if you shoot in the Art Filters mode and have the center-AF point screen up, you can't zoom in to focus, because the Set button both zooms and changes the Art Filter; guess which wins?
Function. The Olympus E-P1 includes a new Function menu that works a lot like Canon's Function menu, only the E-P1 has two unique dials at its disposal for easy navigation.
Press the OK button in the center, and it brings up a menu matrix that's identical to the translucent screens seen on recent Olympus digital SLRs. It's a good system either way, but I prefer the new system shown above, because it shows more of the available options in each category without having to go to a different screen.
For some reason I accidentally touch the front or rear optic too often, and I lament that the back of the viewfinder has no rubber guard to protect my glasses. Of course, with this big, square, nostalgic novelty mounted, we begin to approach the size and shape limitations found in the smaller SLRs, and the one place to mount a flash is occupied. The advantage, though, is that you get a third point of contact with your body (your face), offering inherently greater stability than you get while holding the Olympus E-P1 out in front of you to see the LCD. Note the white-bodied Olympus E-P1 at right.
Lenses. The primary kit lens designed for the Olympus E-P1 is the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6. It's a shortened version of the standard kit lens shipped with so many digital cameras, equivalent to a 28-84mm zoom in this case. I'm reminded of an old Pirelli tire ad for some reason when I see this lens. It does a neat trick, though, when you twist it from its resting position: it pops out to its full operating length.
There's an unlock switch on the left of the barrel, but this actually unlocks the mechanism that keeps the lens from retracting back to its stowed position, so opening the lens is just a simple twist to the right. See the video at left for a visual demonstration.
Though I appreciated the effort Olympus made to keep this lens from being a gigantic nuisance, making this small camera a lot larger, it took me some time to like this lens; and in the end, I don't like it at all. Our sample was unbearably slow to focus, and still a little too big for me even when tucked away. According to our tests, the 14-42mm took 1.23 seconds to focus and fire at wide angle, and 1.07 seconds at telephoto. That's very slow, and version 1.1 firmware resulted in only a slight improvement (1.19 and 0.98 seconds respectively). Add the motion blur introduced at certain shutter speeds (see below), and the picture is complete.
My favorite of the two lenses is the 17mm f/2.8, the only other Olympus lens made specifically for Micro Four Thirds as of this writing. Its low barrel distortion made shooting with this pancake design a sincere pleasure, and its faster autofocus made me return to it again and again. Chromatic aberration is a little high, unfortunately, but that can be dealt with. While out shooting galleries with the Olympus E-P1, I had to remind myself a few times to get the 14-42mm lens mounted for a few shots; and after I got too frustrated with the autofocus from the prototype camera, I returned to the 17.
The Lumix Four Thirds lens adapter also allowed us to attach some of the more interesting Four Thirds lenses in house, including the 150mm f/2.0 monster lens (comparatively), pictured at right. Olympus's equivalent is the MMF-1, a silver Four Thirds adapter. Focusing is a lot slower with this adapter for most of the lenses we tried, so though it's possible, it's not entirely desirable to use Four Thirds lenses with the Olympus E-P1.
Sweetening the deal for OM-system lens owners like me is the MF-2 OM Adapter, which allows attachment of some really fine lenses. We tested my 50mm f/1.8 lens and posted the results on SLRgear.com. It's not good enough that I recommend everyone go out and snap up OM lenses to use with the E-P1, but it's still usable if you have the time to focus manually, and don't mind limiting yourself to f/4 or higher. Focusing is a little more difficult to do on the E-P1 than on the OM-1, because you have to press the Info button to navigate to the MF screen, then the OK button to zoom in on the scene, and if you're hand-holding the Olympus E-P1, the zoomed view can be shaky.
After spending a little more time with the Olympus E-P1 and both lenses, I was torn about which kit to recommend. My preference for primes is one of discipline, in addition to their reputation for greater image quality. I found long ago that a zoom made me lazy, and my pictures often suffered from a lack of creativity. Mounting a prime makes you work; and if you have to change a lens, you know exactly why, and will work equally hard with that lens to get the shot you've already framed with your mind.
However, as a casual shooter, as apt to take a picture of my kids as some interesting bit of architecture or unfolding human drama, having the 14-42mm (28-84mm equivalent) along is a good practical choice sometimes. With kids especially, the zoom is helpful to quickly cross a room for an impromptu portrait, or back off to get the whole room with all the kids active in some game. Also, the current lack of any other Micro Four Thirds prime lens to mount when needing telephoto makes the zoom more important. (You can, of course, use regular Four Thirds primes with the MMF-1 adapter, but the bulk of such combinations takes you away from the appealing compactness of the E-P1's design.) Finally, the 14-42mm lens is quite sharp, as our SLRgear.com test shows.
The wrench in the works is what I discovered after months of shooting with the 14-42mm lens: the lens elements get quite loose as you move to 35 and 42mm positions, and this can introduce motion blur into your images when you snap the shutter, so I strongly recommend against this lens. (Dave's feeling is that this doesn't bother him as much, because it occurs across a limited range of shutter speeds and focal lengths.) More on this later.
Meanwhile, the good news is that the Micro Four Thirds lens system is getting larger thanks to Panasonic's recent introduction of two prime lenses, the 20mm f/1.7 and the 45mm Macro f/2.8; and the available adapters also broaden the possibilities. 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|
|Panasonic 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6||Olympus M.Zuiko 14-42mm
|Panasonic 20mm f/1.7||Olympus M. Zuiko 17mm f/2.8|
|Panasonic 45-200mm f/4.0-5.6||Panasonic 14-140mm f/4.0-5.8|
|Panasonic 7-14mm f/4.0||Panasonic 45mm f/2.8 Macro|
|Micro Four Thirds Adapters|
|Panasonic Four Thirds DMW-MA1||Panasonic M-Mount DMW-MA2M|
|Panasonic R-Mount DMW-MA3R||Olympus Four Thirds MMF-1|
|Olympus OM Adapter MF-2|
With the 17mm f/2.8 attached, the Olympus E-P1 does indeed fit into the front pocket of my slacks, and with some effort I managed to get it into my back jeans pocket when I didn't want to leave it in the car on a hot day. It's an easy fit into a sportcoat pocket, if you can handle a pound of camera gently tugging at your shoulder. Olympus materials also show someone putting the E-P1 into a cargo pocket on some shorts. That actually works well if the pocket is mounted higher on the hip, but the lower pockets allow the camera to swing a little too much, causing bruising at best, camera damage at worst.
The Olympus FL-14 slips into a soft bag for storage and mounts in a snap. It's also pretty simple to use, defaulting to TTL-Auto mode, which allows the E-P1 to have full through-the-lens exposure control. It has a tendency to overexpose, though, and doesn't back off of exposures when specular highlights are detected, something I'm used to from other flash systems. Hence faces can be a little too bright and shiny in photos, and near objects are too often overexposed. I prefer using the Olympus E-P1 without flash. The Olympus E-P1 does quite well at high ISO, so the lack of a built-in flash is a message from Olympus that you won't need it.
Movie modes. HD movie modes are a new dimension to consider in a camera of this size, especially with the relatively compact lenses available for it. The Olympus E-P1 records AVI movies at 1280 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). You can also use the ART filters to limited effect. Some of the filters slow the frame rate so much that I doubt most would want to use them. These include the Pinhole and Grainy Film modes. See our Video tab for more.
Audio technology. Olympus is also touting the audio technology they've built into the Olympus E-P1's Movie mode, which they say is as good as their best audio recorders. It's described as Wave Format Base Stereo PCM/ 16-bit at 44.1kHz. Unfortunately, that's only for movie recording or for attaching audio to a photograph; there is no audio-only recording mode, as we've seen on some other cameras. That's a shame, because I'd love to take advantage of that kind of high-end audio capability.
Music built in. Also built into the Olympus E-P1 are five ambient tunes to use with slideshows and videos, created by Daishi Dance, a famous Japanese musician.
Metering. Olympus's older ESP metering system has been updated with a new 18 x 18 matrix metering system, sampling 324 separate areas. You can also choose center-weighted and spot metering modes.
Many other features have become so common it's a little much to go on about. Face detection for example: The Olympus E-P1 can recognize up to 8 faces in a scene, even when people are moving; it then sets exposure to ensure sharp, well-exposed pictures. There's also sensor-shift image stabilization, a good feature for a camera without an onboard flash; and Olympus's SuperSonic Wave Filter for dust reduction.
Sensor and processor. Olympus didn't tell us much about the 12.3-megapixel LIVE-MOS sensor, except that it's similar to the ones in the E-30 and E-620. However, image samples that they showed us were significantly better than the latter two cameras, especially in noise processing at low light levels, so we assume that the new TruePic V image processor has something to do with it. According to the image samples you'll see below, the Olympus E-P1's output is significantly improved over the E-30 and E-620.
Multiple exposures. You can also overlay images right in the Olympus E-P1 with the Multiple Exposure tools, first seen on the Olympus E-30 digital SLR.
Aspect ratios. You can choose multiple aspect ratios to shoot with the E-P1, including the sensor's 4:3, but also 3:2 (more common among SLRs), 16:9 (better for HD television display), and 6:6.
Exposure modes. The Olympus E-P1 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 modes, 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.
In-camera editing. Also new to the Olympus E-P1 is the ability to develop RAW images in-camera, including the ability to apply Art Filters to RAW images. JPEGs can have Red-eye fixes, trimming, shadow adjustment, resizing operations, and even sepia and saturation adjustments applied.
Storage and battery. Miraculously, the Olympus E-P1 uses SD cards exclusively for storage, with nary an xD-Picture Card in site. That really was important for this camera to gain widespread acceptance, so it was a good move. As with most digital cameras capable of recording in HD, the Olympus E-P1 requires a Class 6 or better SDHC card to capture 1280 x 720p video.
For a battery, Olympus chose the BLS-1 lithium-ion battery, also used in the Olympus E-620. It's rated at 300 shots per charge in the E-P1. That's not a lot for an SLR, and I was only able to shoot for about a day while on vacation at that rate, so consider a spare.
Shooting with the Olympus E-P1
Thanks to the light weight of the Olympus E-P1, I found myself shooting one-handed a lot more than I normally do. That's of course partly because I had no optical viewfinder to use while shooting, so I already had to hold the camera out in front of me to compose images. Since I shoot mostly vertical, it's more comfortable to shoot with one hand. I don't recommend it, but I do it.
I also kept dropping into black and white mode just for the fun of it. It's a mode I've been locking my Rebel into by default, but shooting in live view lets you compose in black and white, which is something we haven't been able to do until recently. Even when I cranked up my ISO to 6,400, the image quality from the Olympus E-P1 was pretty good in black and white.
I tried the Grainy Film Art filter, too, but it slowed the Live View's refresh rate and produced more plugged shadows and more grain than even the ISO 6,400 setting. I'd rather get the benefit of the high ISO and good detail than play with that particular filter.
Olympus menus have a lot of depth, which can be a little crazy-making. I don't want to see all that when I'm trying to capture my world; I just want simplicity. You'll want to carry the manual around with you and study it to understand some of the menu items at the beginning. But sticking with the new Function menu makes using the Olympus E-P1 a little more straightforward. The new thumbwheel is also great to use, a novel, well-placed control.
In short, I had a hard time putting the Olympus E-P1 down. It was only other deadlines that kept me from using the camera more, and I could see myself spending a lot more of my free time taking pictures with the Olympus E-P1. You know, the kind of time you spend with a camera when all you do is explore its many features, re-read the manual, and try to get a different shot of some subject whose essence you've tried to capture for years.
Dave shot with a production camera at the launch up in New York, and captured these four video samples. Be aware that these files are large, and can take quite some time to download, depending on your connection speed. Also be sure to see our Gallery pictures by clicking here.
Videos I shot with the Olympus E-P1 were pretty good, with a nice, wide view and good image quality. The E-P1 can be set to autofocus while shooting video, but both lenses tend to cycle through a broad range of possibilities with each focus check, and the resulting video is fraught with random blurry moments as the camera tries to follow subject movement. So it's better to shoot short snippets and stick to one focus setting, or else try to pull focus yourself. That's also more difficult with the fly-by-wire nature of manual focus with both Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds lenses when compared to lenses with a physical focus coupling.
Audio quality with the videos is indeed good, as is video quality, so the Olympus E-P1's video mode fun to play with. I use it more as a still camera, though, so I don't have a lot more to say about it. For more on the video mode, check out our Video tab.
Anomalous image blurring. I shot with the Olympus E-P1 for a little over two months before sitting down to finalize this review. I used it as my daily shooter for quite a few events, including a small vacation with the family. I was very pleased with the camera, and pleased with most of the images, which exhibited good color and tonality, especially on cloudy days. There was a little softness here and there in more than a few images, but I just sharpened them, cropped them down to 1,024 pixels wide, and put them up on Facebook for friends and family to see, happy with the results for that size.
When I went through the images for inclusion in our image Gallery, though, I found precious few that were truly razor-sharp. In fact many suffered from motion blur, rather than just a general softness. I'll usually skip such images and post only the good ones, but because so many of my shots were taken between 1/80 and 1/160 second, and most of these were blurry enough that I would have to leave them out of the Gallery, I had to investigate further. (Images in the Gallery are intended to be demonstrations of the best the camera can do, and are expected to be carefully scanned by our more discriminating readers, so including images with obvious motion blur just seems like sloppiness on our part.) What got my attention was the blurring at shutter speeds where little should occur: 1/125 and 1/160 second. I'm generally a fairly steady shooter, so this was an unusual result, and one that left me with some doubts about the camera.
Rabbit hole. Getting to the bottom of this anomaly has taken more than a month of fairly serious investigation, requiring a lot of testing and re-testing with no less than three different cameras. Olympus has also looked at our results, but given us no official response, so we needed to test pretty extensively, in order to be sure of what we were seeing. This writeup is a summary of our findings, but for the whole of our results, please see the Blur Anomaly tab of this review.
We have concluded that:
- The Olympus E-P1's shutter produces a short-lived vibration during exposure, which can produce noticeable blur as the shutter speed gets shorter, moving toward 1/160 and 1/200 second, regardless of whether the image stabilization system is on or off.
- As you reach 1/160 second, the bottom one-third of the frame will be sharp, while the center and top of the frame will have more blur as you move up the frame (when the camera is held horizontally; the blur still occurs when the camera is held vertically, by the way, always offset toward the bottom of the camera).
- This vibration affects some lenses more than others (apparently depending on the internal construction of the lens, and how its elements respond to the vibration), but it is particularly noticeable with the 14-42mm kit lens zoomed to 35 or 42mm.
- Turning on IS sometimes makes the motion blur worse, sometimes better, depending on the camera and the level of vibration, as well as the firmware version installed. With version 1.0 firmware, the IS system fairly consistently overreacted to this vibration, often producing motion blur in the images. Version 1.1 firmware largely fixes this overreaction in the cameras we have tested.
- This vibration does not affect images if the camera is mounted on a heavy tripod, as we use in the lab, but it does affect handheld images. This explains why we did not find this issue until I looked closely at my handheld shots.
- Activating the camera's Anti-Shock shutter mode does nothing to reduce the amount of blur.
So there are two issues caused by the same vibration:
- First, the IS system can overreact to the vibration and cause the image-doubling seen below. Upgrading the firmware to 1.1 makes this error much less likely in our tests.
- Second, the 14-42mm lens, whose front elements are very loose, responds to this vibration, causing blur. Other than mounting the camera on a tripod, we have not found a way to dampen this vibration.
Applying Olympus's recent firmware patch, version 1.1, meant to improve continuous autofocus performance, also significantly improved the IS performance in both our second review unit and the third unit we purchased at retail to verify our results. The firmware patch, though, does not address the larger issue of shutter/lens vibration, so though the patch reduces the image stabilization's reaction to the vibration, it does not make the IS system able to counter the vibration, especially in the 14-42mm lens.
Mounting a different lens and turning IS off produces the sharpest images. I found no perceptible vibration when shooting with the 17mm with IS off, and only a hint of a smudge with IS on, something you'd never notice without straining to look for it, even in large prints. With IS off the 50mm f/2 Macro, a very sharp Four Thirds lens, also produced very sharp photos, as you'd expect. Turning IS1 on, however, did seem to show some minor blurring at 1/125 and 1/160 second, even with the 1.1 firmware loaded. But we don't think this would be noticeable in most situations. As in any macro situation, you'll do better mounting the Olympus E-P1 on a tripod with IS off.
The good news is that there is not an extreme problem with the image stabilization system, which was our first concern. The firmware patch seems to have addressed the issue well enough, even though that wasn't its officially-stated purpose.
The 14-42mm's looseness is the bad news, and we saw this problem to varying degrees in all three of our sample lenses, one of which was purchased at retail. Tests with another Micro Four Thirds camera, the Panasonic GF1 (which does not have IS built in), verify that the 14-42mm lens's looseness causes a good deal of blur on its own, regardless of the firmware loaded.
The cause of this problem may be an engineering one resulting from the aggressively compact design of the 14-42mm lens: In order to build a lens whose elements retract into a small body, they probably had to make the lens barrels taper ever so slightly to make sure that they don't bind when fully retracted. The problem is that because the lens barrels move so far out into their proper position, what would normally be considered a minor taper becomes a larger one, leaving the front elements quite loose when fully extended. We're just speculating on that point, but what's clear is that the act of extending the lens elements that far allows more shake than usual. When zoomed out to 35 and 42mm, the weight of the internal elements, now shifted further out, combine with the looseness to cause the shutter vibration to shake the lens elements during exposure. Pull them back to 14, 18, and 25mm positions, and the vibration is considerably reduced.
As convenient as we found the 14-42mm M.ZUIKO lens, and as well as it tested on SLRgear.com when mounted on a tripod, this tendency to introduce image blur when handheld is an unfortunate liability. It's unfortunate because the 14-42mm lens is otherwise surprisingly good for a kit lens, but we ultimately recommend against it, unless you only print at 8x10-inches or smaller, or can live with using the camera on a tripod in the shutter speed range of 1/80 to 1/200 second.
Our bottom line:
- Definitely update the Olympus E-P1's firmware to version 1.1, as the issue is more significant with the version 1.0 firmware.
- As with any camera, if you really want crisp images, put it on a tripod.
- Handheld shots can be blurred in the range of 1/100 to 1/200 second with the 14-42mm lens, especially at 35 and 42mm focal lengths.
- Other lenses didn't seem nearly as sensitive to the shutter vibration as did the 14-42mm, but we admittedly tested only a couple of other lenses.
For more on this issue, see our Blur Anomaly tab.
Autofocus. Only one other problem came to light with the Olympus E-P1 in my shooting, and that was a tendency for the AF system to miss focusing on smaller foreground objects in favor of the background. This also happened in the lab, where the Olympus E-P1 chose to focus on the back wall of our Indoor shot (INB) rather than our one-inch by one-inch focusing target that is sufficient for almost all cameras we test, both digicam and digital SLR.
In the bird shot that appears at right, I'd have preferred the bird to be in focus, to showcase the insect clamped like a trophy in his beak, but the AF system chose the background instead, despite my best efforts to make the camera focus on the bird. It did this consistently in two shots, both of which I carefully focused using the center point, recomposing to make the shot, just like I do with an SLR.
Olympus E-P1 Image Quality
Olympus has come a long way in image quality. The Olympus E-P1's technology compares quite well to other similarly priced digital SLRs, and also to some that are more expensive and higher resolution. They seem to have done quite well with noise suppression, and their system also distinguishes between low-contrast and high-contrast areas well enough to know when to apply sharpening and when to keep the image soft. No camera handles all the image areas perfectly, and Olympus's method does create a slightly artificial look at times at full magnification. What's important, though, is how well the results look when printed. All the crops are shot at the camera's default noise reduction setting.
Olympus E-P1 versus E-30 at ISO 1,600
Olympus E-30 at ISO 1,600
This comparison represents the most dramatic difference I saw among SLRs we've tested. I was surprised to see the E-P1 so easily best the E-30. There's far more chroma noise in E-30's bottle shot at the top, as well has heavy luminance noise. The Mosaic shot from the E-P1 shows better detail than the E-30; and even the red leaf fabric pattern is better defined. Impressive. Both are 12.3-megapixel sensors. I would put up the latest Olympus SLR, the E-620, but it's essentially the same performance as the E-30.
Olympus E-P1 versus Panasonic GH1 at ISO 1,600
Panasonic GH1 at ISO 1,600
Olympus E-P1 versus Canon T1i at ISO 1,600
Canon T1i at ISO 1,600
Olympus E-P1 versus Nikon D5000 at ISO 1,600
Nikon D5000 at ISO 1,600
Detail: Olympus E-P1 vs E-30, Panasonic GH1, Canon T1i, and Nikon D5000
Dynamic range. As I mentioned earlier, most of my shooting was done in cloudy weather, or indoors. So I didn't have occasion to notice the Olympus E-P1's reduced dynamic range, especially noticeable in JPEG images. It scores very low in Imatest, which you can see on our Imatest Results tab; below six stops at the highest quality level. We think this result is skewed a little due to the increased noise in the shadows; we're also happy to report that in addition to noise, you'll find detail in these shadows, which we think was the smart choice. What it means, unfortunately, is that you'll have slightly darker shadows, or more frequently blown sunlit skies than you'd get with other cameras when shooting JPEGs. You'll also only get the best dynamic range if you set the Olympus E-P1 to ISO 200 instead of 100, because we suspect that this is the sensor's true optimum ISO setting. The dynamic range numbers at 100 are a little lower.
The good news, though, is that you'll be able to resurrect quite a bit of detail from those shadows (not often from the skies, of course, as what's lost at the high end is usually lost). The better news is that if you shoot RAW, the Imatest dynamic range numbers improve significantly. Most of those who care about excellent image quality will have no problem shooting RAW with the Olympus E-P1.
Note that I also didn't have the trouble I did with the E-410's tone curve a few years ago. The Olympus E-P1 takes pleasing images that respond well to editing in Adobe Photoshop.
Analysis. I see a lot of cameras, and many of them are excellent and inspire my creativity. But the Olympus E-P1 captured my imagination even when it was first announced in wood-block form. Olympus has made a tradition of creating cameras that defy the trends, even with their E-series of modern digital SLRs, a camera system with a digital-specific lens design. But those cameras ended up looking the same as the cameras they intended to turn on their ear, with large lenses and bulky bodies.
What Olympus needed was to find a new niche. I think the Micro Four Thirds Olympus E-P1 has found that niche. First, the Olympus E-P1's image quality won't be held to the standard of bigger, heavier digital SLRs; even when it is compared people will make allowances for any shortcomings they see -- if they need to. Second, there are so many advantages to a camera of this size that Olympus can't help but attract new users on that fact alone. Finally, there is so much pent up demand for this form factor that Olympus's biggest problem will be meeting that demand, and introducing a sufficient number of new lenses to keep up with the inevitable demand for more optics to enhance this promising camera format.
It's clear from the image analysis of our test shots that the Olympus E-P1 has more to its appeal than good looks and a fine form. Indeed, it holds its own, and excels among its digital SLR peers. I'm disappointed that I can't use the otherwise excellent 14-42mm lens due to its loose front elements, but with the better-performing lens and its clearly excellent image quality, my level of enthusiasm for the Olympus E-P1 is still strong.
The gauntlet has been thrown: A new digital camera format as radical as the PENs that preceded it threatens to change the landscape, besting small sensor digicams, while capable of greater portability and familiar convenience over digital SLRs. How long before Nikon, Canon, Pentax, and Sony respond? Are any of them prepared to create a new lens mount to achieve the smaller lens sizes we see here? Will it be sufficient to build the body and mount their 35mm lenses to them? Sigma is well positioned to make the DP3 a Micro Four Thirds camera. Samsung's non-SLR system is also coming. Just when we thought it was all going to go SLR, Olympus makes an introduction that changes everything.
Exciting times in photography often begin with Olympus. The PEN, the M-1 (OM-1), the OM-10, OM-4, XA, Stylus, all shook the market with smaller sizes than anyone thought possible at the time, with innovative features and solid performance, and most of them sold extremely well. Even their micro-pulse flash system introduced focal plane flash sync to the world of photography, now allowing flash sync at shutter speeds of up to 1/8,000 second. Olympus has worked very hard on their current line of SLRs, with fine optics to match, and created competent cameras that are feature-rich and do impress; but against the might of Nikon and Canon's brand recognition alone, they remain a smaller player in the market. This latest flash of brilliance is a new opportunity I believe they can use to their advantage.
In the Box
The Olympus E-P1 ships with the following items in the box:
- E-P1 body
- 14-42mm or 17mm lens (if purchased as a kit)
- Body cap
- Lens caps
- Lithium-ion battery BLS-1
- Battery charger BCS-1
- Shoulder strap
- Olympus Master CD-ROM
- Instruction manual
- Warranty card
Olympus E-P1 Conclusion
Not only did it introduce a new and much needed form factor to the digital camera market, the Olympus E-P1 is a great camera in its own right. (In fact, its detail rendering at moderate to high ISOs really marks a new level of performance for Four Thirds format cameras.) The small size and low weight mean you're more likely to have it along all the time, and its high image quality means you won't often regret leaving your digital SLR at home. As the Micro Four Thirds lens collection continues to grow, we'll be able to add small, lightweight lenses to our bags without exceeding the capacity of most briefcases and notebook bags. Small cameras like the Olympus E-P1 are also natural companions to netbooks, which, just like the E-P1, fit a lot of capability into a small space and usually have a built-in SD card slot.
As in any relationship, I ran into a snag or two in my romance with the Olympus E-P1. Despite the excellent image quality, fine form, and easy workflow, the Olympus E-P1's IS system and zoom lens tended to hiccup at inopportune moments, introducing blur into my images. But the version 1.1 firmware update from Olympus and a lesson to avoid the 14-42mm lens (at least within the focal length and shutter speed range where the vibration issue exists) has allowed our romance to continue with hope for a long future together.
Its good quality at high ISO makes the Olympus E-P1 a very good available-light camera, which includes liberal use indoors. Street photography is also a great way to use the Olympus E-P1, thanks to its 17mm f/2.8 lens and relatively unassuming presence, and it's also well suited for museum lovers, since there will be no flash automatically popping up just as the guard is watching.
A higher-resolution LCD should go on the checklist for the next PEN, as well as faster autofocus and an option for smaller, finer AF points to better simulate SLR focus systems. Better continuous autofocus during video recording would also be good, as well as longer battery life. Fresh from discovering the 14-42mm's vibration issue, I'm inclined to avoid it and stick with the 17mm. On the other hand, if I'm shooting snapshots that won't go larger than 8 x 10, the 14-42mm's images will do fine. Still, kit lenses usually have some compromise, including soft corners and audible noise, none of which appear in this lens, so some might just praise the 14-42mm's excellent image quality and be happy with 8x10-inch prints from hand-held shots. When it isn't affected by the vibration (at higher shutter speeds or mounted on a tripod), it is a very nice little lens, so you be the judge.
But the Olympus E-P1 with the 17mm lens hits the right spots for this photographer: great still image performance, very usable high ISO images, good optical quality, a prime lens with more to come, easy portability, and a certain charm that makes you want to take pictures. Hard to beat that. The Olympus E-P1 is a revolutionary design, and a Dave's Pick.
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