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„In 1959, Olympus changed the face of photography by pursuing one simple idea: create a camera as easy to use and carry as a pen. “, states Olympus on their webpage and presents 50 years later their first micro-four-thirds camera in a stylish retro body of the ancient pen. Nevertheless, the combination of digital technology with the appearance of bygone days looks quite cool and gives the Olympus E-P1 something special. It is a piece of solid workmanship without creaks or rattles and with a high-quality impression.
The grip is sufficiently rubberized but there is no rubber for the thumb-rest, even worse the thumb lies directly on the speaker and you have to raise your finger before you can hear the sound of your movies. However, average-sized hands should have no problems to find a comfortable position on the about 65mm high grip.
The Olympus E-P1 (including battery plus SD card) and the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 14-42mm kit lens have an overall weight of almost 534g thus the weight of average DSLRs bodies without lenses and this is, considering the solid workmanship of the camera, really lightweight. Let’s have a closer look at the body and the button layout...
(1)Exposure compensation button (2)Shutter button (3)On/Off button (4)SSWF Indicator (5)Microphone (6)Mode dial (7)Self timer lamp (8)lens release button
(9)Mode dial (10)AEL/AFL button (11)Speaker (12)Sub dial (13)Fn button (14)Playback button (15)Main dial (16)Arrow pad (17)Card access lamp (18)OK button (19)Info button (20)Menu button (21)Erase button
At the first glance you will realize the high number of buttons at the back of the compact body counting not less than eleven buttons and one main as well as sub dial. This is a quite impressive number of buttons and dials on a small surface of almost fifteen square centimetres. However, the control concept is generally convincing and sophisticated.
On the right side of the display there is the [AE-lock/AF-lock]-button followed by the [Playback]-, the [Erase] – and the [Menu]-button. To the right of these buttons you can find the [Fn]-button which can be configured e.g. for depth of field preview or one touch white balance. In addition you can reverse the roles of the [Fn]- and the [AE-lock/AF-lock]-button in the menu which is quite useless in my humble opinion.
Just below the [Fn]-button is the arrow pad including a button for ISO, drive mode, white balance as well as AF-mode. Only the later can be reconfigured in the menu to access e.g. metering- or flash mode faster. This is a useful option as I don’t need a direct access button for the AF mode but for metering instead. However, I can’t understand why Olympus marked the “left arrow function”-button with “AF” as this makes no sense anymore when you reconfigure this button.
In the centre of the arrow pad there is the [OK]-button for confirming changed settings. Additionally you can access all important camera functions also by just pressing the [OK]-button and navigating with the arrow pad. This is quite cool but somewhat redundant as you can also set up ISO, white balance, drive and AF-mode although there are direct access buttons available.
The main dial of the Olympus E-P1 is a nice gimmick because it is almost imperceptibly located around the arrow pad and still user-friendly. However, I can’t understand why this inconspicuous button is the main dial while the big silver adjuster integrated in the grip is the sub dial but this is only an Olympus naming issue and doesn’t affect the functionality.
Last but not least is the [Info]-button for changing the information on the display in shooting as well as playback mode.
The top of the Olympus E-P1 shows three more buttons and one dial. The later is the mode dial located in the left corner of the top. Besides the general modes like aperture and shutter priority, full automatic, program as well as manual mode you will find a movie recording mode along with an art and scene mode where the camera sets up all parameters for the selected filter or scene automatically. Right to the hot shoe lies the [On/Off]-, the [Shutter release] and finally the [Exposure compensation]-button.
Regarding the number of direct access buttons, manufactures of bigger DSLRS with less buttons could follow the Olympus E-P1 example. Furthermore, the Olympus handling concept can be controlled with just one hand and is convincing overall. Other than that, from my point of view the menu feels more like a first draft than a sophisticated arrangement of camera functionalities. The structure of the first two tabs is not clear to me and above all I wonder about the priority of some menu items as I wouldn’t accept unimportant actions like “Custom reset” on tab one. The same applies to tab two and I wouldn’t search for the noise reduction functionality in the “Colour/WB” menu item. Would you? However, that’s nothing and I don’t want to nitpick that much.
The viewfinder is definitely a major weakness of the Olympus E-P1. I often complain about the dark and small viewfinder or the bad coverage of today’s DSLRs but the Olympus E-P1 doesn’t have a viewfinder - not even a bad one. Well, that is only half the truth because there is the Olympus VF-1; an optional Viewfinder dedicated only for the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 17mm 1:2.8 Pancake with a magnification of 0.47x that you can plug on the hot shoe. However, I can’t see the use of an optical viewfinder for fixed focal length especially in this camera segment. An external Live View Finder like the Panasonic DMW-LVF1 for the Panasonic DMC-GF1 makes more sense to me.
Like almost all DSLRs with Live View the HyperCrystal LCD of the Olympus has a field of view of 100% but unfortunately no bigger display despite the missing viewfinder. Furthermore, the 3-inch screen doesn’t even have a higher resolution compared to DSLRs with viewfinder – and I thought 230k dots are threatened with extinction as both G Micro System cameras from Panasonic already offer twice the resolution.
Nevertheless, the Live View of the Olympus E-P1 comes with face detection preview, displayable gridlines as well as a histogram. In manual focus mode it is possible to zoom in the subject by rotating the focus ring to enlarge the scene in two steps up to 10 times in combination with the main dial. This is a cool feature that makes Live View even more intuitive. Unluckily, there are two drawbacks compared to the implementation already seen on Panasonic cameras. The Pen offers only two magnification steps - 7x as well as 10x – and the magnification ends about five millimetres from the edge of the screen so you can’t evaluate the picture margin.
Additionally, Live View generally shows its weakness in sports photography as the refresh rate after a shot is too slow to track the target and not forgetting that today’s displays still have a disadvantage at the most favourite shooting condition – sunny weather. In some places my trans-alps trek shooting was more guessing rather than framing the image composition. Finally, keep always in mind that all electronic things reduce battery life and especially Live View is very power hungry.
Olympus states that the included BLS-1 Li-Ion battery provides sufficient energy for approximately 300 images with 100% Live View. This value is based on CIPA standards and doesn’t reflect reality. The first charge was already empty on the second day of my trek after only 230 shots and the same happened two days later after 220 shots. This is really annoying in regions without power supply. However, the supplied battery charger BCS-1 takes approx 2.5 hours for charging which is about average.
Unfortunately, the Olympus E-P1 has no built-in flash but at least it has a hot shoe for optional flashes with an X-sync speed of 1/180s. The external flash control offers 3 different types, including TTL, automatic and manual, for light measuring as well as synchronisation modes like automatic, red-eye reduction, slow sync, 2nd curtain slow sync and fill-in for exclusive flash.
However, I can’t understand the decision to deliver a camera for a segment between compact digital cameras and DSLRs without a build-in flash and it seems that Panasonic is of the same opinion because their DMC-GF1 comes with a corresponding flash.
The operational speed of the Olympus E-P1 is moderate. Admittedly there are no noticeable delays during operations most of the time but the camera needs about 3 seconds to power up and this reminds me of the first digital camera days. However, the Pen can shoot continuously up to three pictures per second. This is not fast enough for supersonic action photography, but sufficient for all other applications.
The single AF of the Olympus is reliable although the speed is only about average. Unfortunately this doesn't apply to continuous AF. Once you have pressed the shutter release button the camera starts to focus and it doesn’t stop until you finish pressing the release button. Well, that’s generally the idea of continuous AF but comparing to other DSLRS the Pen keeps on focusing the lens continuously to and fro although focusing was already successful with the consequence that the image won’t be taken immediately after pressing the release button but when AF is in right position. With other words, the continuous AF of the Olympus E-P1 is useless as every image taken in C-AF mode is a gamble.
Another minor drawback is the big AF area of the PEN which unfortunately can't be adjusted and makes it almost impossible to focus on small objects. This drove me nuts several times and manual focusing was the only answer.
The metering system doesn't offer anything special beyond what we are used to from other cameras. Besides ESP light (multiple)-, spot-, and centre weighted metering, highlight as well as shadow metering is available. The latter metering modes shift the camera to over- and under-exposure allowing accurate white and black reproduction, respectively. Altogether the Olympus E-P1 provides a reliable metering system without rude surprises.
It's difficult to evaluate the performance of the AWB (Auto-White-Balancing) in studio scenes. The results can vary greatly dependending on the setup so we don't really look into a standardized process here. In field conditions the AWB system did a relatively decent job but like the rest of the bunch it struggles in artificial light conditions so it's advisable to go for a manual WB approach here (unless you take advantage of a flash unit of course). Alternatively WB bracketing is also provided.
Following the Olympus tradition the PEN has an in-body image stabilization system which compensates camera shake by shifting the camera sensor. Compared to the lens-based IS systems a la Canon or Nikon this has an obvious cost advantage because it works for all lenses and there's no need for an extra aka alien IS group in the lens. The system has a claimed efficiency of up to 4 f-stops. As usual you should take this with a grain of salt. This value may be reached in optimal conditions but in our experience it was reliable up to 3 f-stops which is pretty great.
Dust Removal System
DSLR sensors are very prone to collecting dust so an important feature is some sort of anti-sensor-dust system. Olympus seems to have a leading edge here thanks to its proven "Supersonic Wave Filter". It uses ultrasonic vibrations to shake dust off the filter in front of the sensor. This solution is very reliable and showed its strength again during my trans-alps trek. Despite several lens changes there is not a single dust particle on hundreds of shots from the mountains.
However, to play it safe you should check the sensor condition every once in a while by taking a test image of a uniform scene (sky, white paper) at -say- f/22.
The Olympus E-P1 comes with movie functionality and shows a user friendly implementation of this feature. The AVI Motion JPEG can be recorded in two different sizes, SD 640 x 480 (4:3) and HD 1280 x 720 (16:9) with a frame rate of 30 frames per second. Taking videos with a digital still camera may feel a bit strange but the results are well-above avarage and not comparable to the small, low quality movies from digital compact cameras. However, just like most other digital still cameras the PEN is no real substitution for a digital video camera - there are problems with fast moving objects (slight stuttering) and rather poor sound quality. Even worse the continuous AF during recording is quite bad and you can hear the pumping of the lens which makes the video almost unusable.
At the first glance the Olympus E-P1 is nothing more than a moderate digital interchangeable lens camera in the ancient body of the Olympus Pen from 1959. Nevertheless, let's check the technical skills of the Olympus E-P1 now...