Olympus Micro Four Thirds E-P1 questions answered

Key questions answered on the Olympus E-P1

Official E-P1 press release and pictures

Olympus has finally launched its much-awaited Micro Four Thirds system camera, the E-P1, or unofficially the 'Digital Pen' after the half frame single lens reflex camera that Olympus was famous for in the 1960s. There is much detailed information in the official E-P1 press release, but in this article I'm going to cover some of the key questions that I expect many of you, as Four Thirds users and interested parties, might be asking. Please note that although I have spent an evening at the launch party handling several E-P1 samples, I haven't - at the time of writing - taken any pictures. I'm writing this in the early hours of Tuesday, 16th June after the official launch party in Berlin. I'm expecting that I will be able to post samples for you to download later on this evening as we will be handed pre production E-P1s to use later today:

Q. How small is the E-P1?
A. It's especially slim compared to even an Olympus E-400 DSLR and the new 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens helps preserve that asset. But the E-P1 is not as small as, say, a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, or Sigma DP1. Without the extended grip or pop-up flash 'hump' of the other Micro Four Thirds camera from Panasonic, the Lumix DMC-G1, nor an articulating screen, the E-P1 does feel noticeably more compact than the G1.

Q. How pretty is the E-P1 'in the hand'?
A. I have asked a lot of people who have handled an E-P1 and opinion seems to be clearly divided between those that think the E-P1 is incredibly cool with its mix of retro design and cutting edge technology, and those that are concerned that the E-P1 - from the front, at least - looks, well, old fashioned. I'm reminded of opinions concerning the re-born VW Beatle. Personally, I'm one of the former, and think the E-P1 looks great.

The E-P1 is available in white and silver, with a choice of white or black lens

Q. How does the E-P1 feel?
A. The E-P1 does not feel feather light; it has some solidity and substance to it. This is because the body is largely made of metal. But on the other hand, the E-P1 tips the scales below an Olympus E-400 DSLR, so it's not going to weigh you down. It's a good compromise.

Q. What about shutter lag?
A. The E-P1 incorporates a completely new shutter mechanism. In Olympus's DSLR models, one motor had to both cock the shutter and return the mirror to its resting position. Now, without a mirror any more, the shutter action can be optimised. I haven't yet confirmed that there is a big improvement, but I'm expecting a significant reduction in shutter lag compared to E-System DSLRs in live view mode.

Q. What type of memory card does the E-P1 use?
A. SD and SDHC - at last, I hear some exclaim! xD had to go because of it's 2GB capacity limit and because of performance demands of the built-in HD video recording mode. Compact Flash was ruled out because of space limitations.

Q. Is there really no built in flash?
A. That's right. There is an FL-compatible dedicated hot shoe, but no built in flash at all. I'm told that there was no room to accommodate a meaningful built in flash. To compensate for this Olympus has endowed the E-P1 with an ISO 6400 mode, and there is also a compact, horizontal style, flash unit for the E-P1. Broad hints were given that future Micro Four Thirds models from Olympus will have built in flash.

Q. What is the autofocus like?
A. The E-P1's contrast detect AF feels noticeably nippier than, say, the original 14-42 kit lens from the Four Thirds stable when used in live view mode. Is the AF as impressive as Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds implementation - it's difficult to say at this point.

Q. Can older Four Thirds lenses be auto focused using the Four Thirds mount adapter?
A. I'm assured that, unlike on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1, most - maybe even all - Four Thirds lenses will autofocus on the E-P1, though I haven't actually tried this so far. Based on the 'hybrid' live view AF mode that Olympus developed for later E-System DSLR models, the E-P1 will auto focus older lenses that are not optimised for live view AF, but the AF action may be slower than ideal and perfect focus isn't guaranteed with such lenses. It's recommended that the user checks and fine-adjusts focus after the AF action has been completed.

Q. Is there an eye-level viewfinder?
A. No, though the 17mm pancake lens can be supplied with a matching add-on optical finder that attaches to the flash hot shoe. This works well, but there is no equivalent at this stage for the 14-42mm standard zoom. Unfortunately, if you use the shoe for the finder, the camera has no avenue for flash use at all as there is no external flash port.

Q. What is the E-P1 LCD screen like?
A. It's a large and bright 3 inch screen, but has no more dots than previous recent E-Systems DSLRs, so Panasonic's G1 has a higher resolution screen (230,000 dots versus 460,000). One thing that is particularly impressive is the viewing angle range of the new screen, both vertically and horizontally. Even at almost 180 degrees, the brightness and clarity is virtually un-diminished, which goes some way to compensating for the lack of an articulating screen.

Q. Can the E-P1 HD shoot video?
A. Yes. I'm told that motion JPEG 720p at 30 frames per second is supported, although I wonder if the European model will be 25fps - I will check later. 1080 resolution 'full HD' is not supported. I hope to provide sample movies for download soon.

Q. Is stereo sound recorded?
A. Yes.

Q. Does autofocus work continuously in video mode?
A. Yes, though there is an option to switch this off if you are concerned about picking up the noise of the autofocus motor in the lens. I'm told that the AF motors in the lenses have been sound-proofed to an extent, but they are not silent like the specialist Panasonic Vario G 14-140mm video kit lens. It's not yet known if the video AF mode of the 14-140 Panasonic is supported.

Q. Does the E-P1 use the latest multi-aspect ratio Four Thirds sensor as used in the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1?
A. No, the 12MP sensor is basically the same as that used in the E-30 and E-620 DSLRs, and the Panasonic G1. However, Olympus has upgraded its TruePic image processor for the E-P1 and this appears to enable higher performance live view autofocus and a higher maximum ISO setting of 6400. Initial impressions of 6400 ISO are that it's grainy, but relatively free of chroma noise. I'll post samples throughout the ISO range, assuming I'm permitted by Olympus, as soon as possible. Multi-aspect ratio frame modes are available in the same way as featured in the E-30 and E-620.

Q. What is the fastest continuous still shooting rate?
A. 3 frames per second.

Q. What does the Olympus Micro Four Thirds lens road map look like?
A. So far there are only two lenses declared by Olympus; the 17mm pancake and the 14-42 standard zoom. Adapters for Four Thirds and OM lenses have been produced.

The unusual extending 14-42mm standard zoom

Q. The 14-42mm standard zoom looks like it physically extends a long way?
A. Yes, to use the lens it has to be extended from its compact 'stowed' configuration. To do this you move a switch on the side of the lens and turn a collar on the lens barrel. Think of it as a compact camera lens extending when you turn the power on, except that it's not powered.

Q. What other interesting features can be found in the E-P1?
A. Both Art Filters and the digital level features from the E-30 DSLR are included in the E-P1. Art Filter effects can also be used in the movie mode. There is a 'clear skin' portrait mode. A mini HDMI port is provided for connection direct to a HD TV with the appropriate cable.

There is much yet to discover about the E-P1. If you have any other questions about the E-P1, post them here and I'll do my best to find some answers. In the mean time, look out for our downloadable samples gallery coming soon!

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