by Ian Burley
First hands-on impressions of the Olympus Pen E-P1
This article takes a thorough look at the E-P1 in use
Yesterday, I aimed to answer all the obvious questions that were likely to be asked about the new E-P1. My knowledge was based on the study of the camera's specifications, some time discussing the E-P1 with Olympus people at the launch event the night before, and some limited time handling the camera, though not having taken any pictures.
Today, I have the benefit of having used the E-P1 for the best part of a day, having shot 400 stills and 20 movie clips. You can see selected images in an E-P1 sample download gallery and E-P1 HD movie clip samples, too. So the objective of this article is to convey a basic feel for how the camera works and performs. The Q&A format of the earlier article worked well, so I'll continue in the same style:
Q. What is the shutter lag like, especially compared to an E-System DSLR in live view mode, or a Panasonic DMC-G1 Micro Four Thirds camera?
A. With the proviso that I haven't done a technical back to back comparison of an E-P1 and a G1, I can say that their shutter lag characteristics feel quite similar, which is not very surprising as both operate in a very similar way. Like all live view cameras, the shutter needs to be closed before it can be re-opened to expose the sensor. Both Olympus and Panasonic have engineered the shutter mechanism to minimise the delay, and compared to a DSLR working in live view, as there is no mirror to flap about, the shutter lag is not generally noticeable.
An E-P1 fitted with the Olympus Four Thirds mount adapter and a Zuiko Digital 70-300 zoom
Q. How does the E-P1 autofocus perform?
A. Overall, quite well. On paper, live view AF should struggle compared to the phase detect systems used in SLRs, but Panasonic proved that some solid engineering can really make the Micro Four Thirds live view AF experience quite similar to SLR AF. I think Olympus has done a good job with its two new Micro Four Thirds m.Zuiko Digital Zuiko lenses and their focus speed is definitely better than, say, the original Four Thirds 14-42 standard zoom. The focus motors in the new lenses are relatively quiet to the ear, though the front-facing stereo microphones of the E-P1 (the dots either side of 'Olympus' on the front of the camera) are ideally placed to pick up the motor noise during movie recording, and, alas, they do. Continuous AF during movie recording wasn't very good, certainly not as good as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1, so there is some work to be done there. When using lenses not optimised for Live View use, via the Four Thirds mount adapter, thankfully (and unlike Panasonics at the moment) you can use autofocus, but it sometimes struggles to find perfect focus. Olympus recommends using single action AF with manual over ride (S-AF + MF) mode, and I'd concur. Press the shutter button let the lens focus, then turn the focus ring slightly, triggering the magnified critical focus mode, make your slight adjustment for correct focus, and then shoot. But in general, I have few concerns about AF on the E-P1.
The E-P1 can autofocus all Four Thirds lenses, including this 12-60 SWD
Q. What is the E-P1 screen like?
A. I was disappointed that Olympus hadn't matched the increase in dimensions of the screen to a 3 inch panel with an increase in the dot resolution. It's still only 230,000 dots, or around 77,000 colour pixels. But it has to be said that the screen is not at all bad in use. Its viewing angle capability is excellent - there is hardly any change in colour or brightness up to very acute viewing angles, both vertically and horizontally, which is just as well because the screen doesn't tilt or swing out. I had no problems using the screen for critical focus, and the screen coped well in the bright midday sunlight we were bathed in on the day. Yes, I'd like more pixels, but again, the screen is not an Achilles heel of the E-P1 by any means.
Q. How much noise does the E-P1 make?
A. Although not as quiet as a typical compact camera with a leaf shutter, the E-P1 is commendably quiet, and much more so than any DSLR. Although I haven't compared them side by side, I'd even stick my neck out and suggest that the E-P1 is quieter than a Panasonic G1, which has a slight high pitched twang it its shutter mechanism action. The E-P1's shutter is well muffled by comparison. Both the 17mm and 41-42mm m.Zuiko Digital lenses are much quieter than comparable Four Thirds lenses. So overall, the E-P1 scores well in the quietness category.
Q. How does the E-P1 handle?
A. Olympus has come up with a novel design for the E-P1. The mode selector is a sunken dial that rotates via thumb wheel near the top left of the camera, as viewed from behind. The wheel is recessed in the step where the top plate descends to the back of the camera, which is not ideal. Initially, it can be difficult to get a firm grip to turn the wheel, but you adapt and get used to it. On the far right of the back of the camera is a cylindrical thumb wheel that serves as the mode adjustment control. A knurled wheel would have sufficed, so I put this design cue down to styling over function, but it does work fine. Particularly impressive is the four way controller. Not only does it have four compass switch actions, it's actually a knurled ring that also rotates and serves as a second mode adjustment control. An OK button resides in the centre.
One potential avenue for confusion is the Fn button. Although seasoned E-system user, I started by subconsciously treating the E-P1 as a compact camera and expected the Fn button to bring up a set of frequently accessed mode settings. But the E-P1 Fn button works just like on an E-System DSLR, so it's programmable, and on my camera was set by default to check depth of field. I have no complaints about this, but I would expect users moving up from a compact to find the Fn confusing at first. The shutter button is on the top plate, next to the power button, which glows green when on. Although there is no grip, in the conventional sense, there is a slightly raised areas where a grip would be that is finished in leatherette. I have, personally, never had problems using cameras without a substantial grip, though I know that I'm not representative of everyone on this preference. The right hand strap eyelet, and strap, do get in the way when turning the camera to and from portrait orientation, and I feel the more modern strap loop arrangement is better, but I can live with it.
There is, initially, a definite behavioural barrier to overcome when using the E-P1; putting the camera to one's eye - only to discover there is no viewfinder! Again, you get used to it. I, personally, feel that a G1-style high resolution electronic viewfinder and a fully articulating screen represent the ideal, but I can understand Olympus' design considerations to keep the body as small as possible and so these features could not be accommodated. For me, they aren't a deal-breaker for the E-P1, but I'm sure some others will disagree.
Q. What's with the expanding and collapsing 14-42mm lens?
A. I'm not sure if this highly unusual aspect of design for an interchangeable lens is simply a gimmick, or a cunning way for Olympus to optimise the working arrangement of its optics, while minimising the size of the lens when it's not in use. To expand the lens into working mode, you need to grip the zoom ring, with one finger on the locking switch and then rotate. The lens telescopes out and you're ready to shoot. This doubles the length of the lens, making it longer than the original Four Thirds 14-42 standard zoom. Compared to the diminutive 17mm pancake, the 14-42 does look rather large, but it is significantly smaller in volume and slightly lighter than the original 14-42 when compacted. The front element is narrow and 40.5mm filter thread is incorporated, compared with 58mm for the Four Thirds 14-42. A petal style lens hood is not provided, indeed - nobody used a lens hood with either lens during our shooting tour.
Q. What is the E-P1 battery life like?
A. The E-P1 uses the same BLS-1 battery as the E-400 series and the E-620. With the camera switched on for most of the time and having taken almost 300 shots and a dozen video clips in about three hours of use, the battery warning reached danger zone. I think that's a reasonable performance, but there would be no harm in investing in a spare battery.
Q. How do the menus differ from the current E-System DSLR generation?
A. Olympus has blended features of its compact camera user interface and that of E-System DSLRs. For example, the super control panel does not appear by default. This is the display that lets you navigate to the mode you want to adjust, without resorting to menus, and then by pressing OK, the mode highlighted becomes adjustable. I wish this could be the default, but as far as I know you always need to press INFO and OK to show this screen. Instead, the E-P1 uses an mode mode icon column on the right hand margin of the screen and you navigate up and down, adjusting whatever you need as you pass over its icon. Actual system menus are very similar to current E-System DSLRs. Most of the display modes and aids are similar to those in E-System DSLRs.
Q. How well does the video function work?
A. This is covered in more detail in an article already dedicated to the subject, complete with some sample movies to view. But to summarise, the 720p 30fps MJPEG HD movie mode works well, retaining fine details with aplomb. You can see some moiré and aliasing in fine hard edged details. MJPEG is not as space efficient as some other movie formats, so you will only be able to record 7 minutes of video per 2GB of card space. Clips are limited to 2GB by the AVI file format used in the E-P1. Alternative HD formats, like AVCHD, can squeeze almost double the movie length in the same space and are not limited to 2GB. Continuous AF is possible, but is not as reliable or effective as Panasonic's AF system in their Lumix GH1.
The 17mm pancake and matching VF-1 hot-shoe finder - they look great but are they any good?
Q. How does the 17mm pancake compare to the 14-42 kit zoom?
A. I really need more time, and more controlled conditions, to study and compare results between these two lenses. But from what I have seen so far, the 14-42 looks like an excellent performer, while the 17mm doesn't quite have the bite that I was hoping for. But I stress that this observation is based on limited use of the 17mm; I used the 14-42 in far more of my sample images. There is a big difference in the size of the 17mm pancake compared to the 14-42, even when the zoom is in compacted mode. I was slightly disappointed by the performance of the original 25mm Zuiko Digital Pancake, expecting more of a prime lens, but the fact is that compromises have to be made in order to flatten the optical design in pancake lenses. You can form your own opinion by examining our E-P1 image samples gallery.
Q. Is the ISO 6400 setting just a gimmick?
A. I must admit I winced when I first saw that the E-P1 had ISO 6400. But to my relief, although definitely grainy, ISO 6400 on the E-P1 is not a waste of time. The grain does not obliterate detail and chroma noise blotchiness is practically absent. There is a reduction in contrast and saturation at ISO 6400, but nothing some post processing can't improve. ISO 6400 for mono photography would be particularly effective, I feel, certainly if you like the graininess of fast black and white films. It appears that Olympus has worked hard to improve the noise processing power of its new TruePic V generation image processor, which debuts in the E-P1. And dreaded banding, found in earlier Panasonic sensor E-System models, is absent.
Side by side, different takes on the Micro Four Thirds platform. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 is fitted with the G Vario 14-140mm video optimised zoom
One looks like a compact camera and the other looks like DSLR
There isn't much to choose when it comes to the widths of these to Micro Four Thirds cameras, but the E-P1s lack of an extended grip and DSLR-style hump makes a big visual difference. The E-P1 has a slimmer and less tall body overall.
Q. What about the size, form and styling of the E-P1?
A. Of course this is wholly subjective and opinions will vary. I asked about a dozen people, randomly, what the they thought about the styling of the E-P1. Around half were extremely enthusiastic about the blend of retro simplicity and high-tech finish, but a significant other half felt that the camera was too simplistic and even old fashioned. A lot of people were disappointed that only white and silver finish bodies will be available, stating that they felt black would have been much better. Lenses are available in either silver or black. I confess that I thought the E-P1 would be smaller than it is, but it does compare positively in size when placed next to a Panasonic G-series camera. Personally, I love the design, finish and detailing. Its an iconic design and while it may not be to everyone's taste, this is no anonymous me-too design; it makes waves.
Some issues not covered above include the lack of built in flash, the effectiveness of the external hot-shoe mounted optical viewfinder dedicated to the 17mm pancake lens, and the lack of support for FL-R wireless flash. Olympus say that there just wasn't enough space to include a built in flash. This seems odd when you consider that quite a few phone cameras now incorporate a Xeon flash unit. If you use the VF-1 hot shoe finder for the 17mm pancake lens, you can't use flash at all as there is no support for a cable-connected flash unit. On a relatively minor note, the E-P1 specifications indicate there is no support for a wireless infra red remote release, like the RM-1. I am disappointed by that, as it can be a genuinely useful accessory, even for this kind of camera. The existing RM-UC1 cable release can be used, however. The VF-1 hot shoe finder has its fans - it works well even in low light and has enabled the E-P1 design to be as small as it is by omitting a built in eye-level finder. Personally, I don't think it's worth the extra - I'd be happy using the screen, but I'm pleased that Olympus has provided one for those that do value its use. The lack of wireless flash support is strange and disappointing. I can only guess that Olympus is not ready to provide a live-view only camera with wireless flash support as it's tricky to manage from an TTL exposure metering point of view when a dedicated exposure sensor is not available. I, perhaps optimistically, hope that a firmware upgrade in the future will put this omission right.
Yes, there are niggles and the E-P1 is not the most practical of cameras, but it is undoubtedly a cool and stylish object to own and use, as well as being an effective and capable photographic, and video, tool. I complement Olympus, again, for being daring and different. Undoubtedly there will be more practical, affordable and less daring Olympus Micro Four Thirds models to come, but what a splendid standard bearer the E-P1 is for Olympus Micro Four Thirds ambitions.
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