Olympus E-PL1 Review
How Does it Compare?
With the E-PL1, Olympus has created a compact, user-friendly interchangeable lens camera that is -- dare I say -- better than its more expensive siblings (the E-P1 and E-P2) in most respects. Sure, it doesn't have the eye-catching retro design, but the E-PL1 produces better looking photos (especially at high ISOs), has faster AF and continuous shooting speeds, and a built-in flash. Add in an easy-to-use interface, sensor-shift image stabilization, full manual controls, and an HD movie mode, and Olympus definitely has a winner on their hands. Best of all, the E-PL1 is inexpensive, selling for $599 with a decent quality 14 - 42 mm kit lens. The camera isn't perfect -- it tends to clip highlights, the autofocus is still slower than I'd like, and a control dial would be nice -- but for the money, the E-PL1 is definitely worth a close look.
While Olympus calls the E-PL1 a "Pen", it doesn't share the rangefinder-style design that made last year's E-P1 such a hit. In fact, the E-PL1 has more in common with Olympus' point-and-shoot cameras, so folks stepping up from those cameras will feel right at home. The body is well built considering its price, with aluminum panels over a composite frame. The camera can be held with one hand, and Olympus has kept button clutter to a minimum (though watch your thumb -- it's easy to bump something accidentally). If I was to change add one thing to the E-PL1's body, it would be a control dial -- using the four-way controller to adjust exposure is cumbersome. Like the E-P1 and E-P2, the E-PL1 pairs a 12 Megapixel Live MOS sensor (with dust reduction, of course) with a sensor-shift image stabilization system. That means that every lens you attach -- whether it's Micro Four Thirds or "classic" Four Thirds -- will have shake reduction (for stills, at least). This may sound strange, but one of the most exciting features on the E-PL1 is a built-in flash, which the E-P1/P2 twins were sorely lacking. The flash isn't very strong, but it's better than nothing, and it can act as a wireless controller, as well. On the back of the camera is a rather unremarkable 2.7" LCD display with 230,000 pixels. I found the screen to be easy to see outdoors and in low light (assuming that live view boost is turned on). Something else you'll find on the back of the E-PL1 is its accessory port, which currently supports an electronic viewfinder or external microphone adapter.
While the E-PL1 is clearly targeted at entry-level users, Olympus didn't forget about enthusiasts, either. On the point-and-shoot side of things, the E-PL1 has an iAuto mode which will select a scene mode for you, detect faces, and enhance colors. It also is where you'll find the "live guide" menu, which lets you adjust things like exposure compensation, aperture, shutter speed, and color saturation, without having to know what any of those things actually are. There's also a Shooting Tips feature that explains how to take better pictures in various situations. You also get all the benefits of a live view system, such as a live histogram, real-time previews of exposure, white balance, and color, and the ability to zoom into the frame for precise manual focusing. If it's manual controls you're after, the E-PL1 has a full set. They include manual control of shutter speed and aperture, white balance (including color temperature and fine-tuning), noise reduction, and support for the RAW image format. The camera also lets you bracket for exposure, white balance, flash exposure, and ISO sensitivity. You can define the functions of two buttons on the back of the camera, and you can store up to two sets of camera settings via the My Menu feature. Other fun features include multiple exposures, Art Filters, and of course, the HD movie mode. The movie mode lets you record about 7 minutes of continuous 720p video with monaural sound, though you can't use the image stabilizer, continuous AF is sluggish, and there aren't any editing tools in the otherwise well-equipped playback mode.
Camera performance was average in most respects. The E-PL1 takes about 1.3 seconds to start up, due mostly to its dust reduction cycle running. Focusing speeds have improved since the E-P1/P2, and are even more impressive with the new 9 - 18 and 14 - 150 mm lenses. That said, don't expect focusing times to rival traditional D-SLRs (when using their optical viewfinders) or the Panasonic Lumix G-series models. At the very least, you'll wait for 0,6 seconds for the camera to lock focus, with focus times of 1 or 2 seconds not unheard of. The E-PL1 struggles to focus in low light conditions -- an AF-assist lamp would've really helped in this regard. On a brighter note, shutter lag wasn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays are fairly brief. The PL1 has a nice continuous shooting mode for an inexpensive camera, able to take 10 RAW or 17 JPEGs at 3 frames per second. Battery life was average compared to other D-SLRs (with live view turned on) and interchangeable lens cameras.
Photo quality was very good -- better than I expected, in fact. The E-PL1 exposes photos accurately, though like other Four Thirds cameras (Micro or regular), it does like to clip highlights. Colors are pleasing, and are especially vibrant if you're using the iEnhance Picture Mode. Images have the "smooth" look that you come to expect from a camera like this, with plenty of detail captured, save for minor corner blurriness with the kit lens. Olympus has done a nice job keeping noise levels down on the E-PL1. You can shoot at sensitivities as high as ISO 800 in low light and ISO 1600 in good light without having to worry about noise or significant detail loss. While there's not a huge advantage to shooting RAW, it may be worth the trouble if you're at the highest sensitivities and plan on making large prints. Purple fringing is going to depend a lot on what lens you're using. While I experienced moderate fringing with a Panasonic Micro Four Thirds lens that I used, it wasn't much of an issue with both the 17 mm and 14 - 42 mm lenses from Olympus. Something you may not escape quite so easily is redeye, which showed up in my flash test photos. Thankfully, there's a tool to remove the red in playback mode.
There are just a few other minor things to mention before I wrap things up. The E-PL1 does not support an AC adapter, nor can you use a wired or wireless remote control. You won't be able to access the memory card slot while the camera is on a tripod. And finally, there's no Mac software included, though you can still download and use Olympus Master, though it's unclear how long that will continue to be supported.
Those of you who remember my review of the E-P1 will recall that I wasn't entirely thrilled with it, mainly due to its sluggish autofocus and lack of a built-in flash. Olympus has addressed both of those issues on the E-PL1 (though there's still work to be done), and improved camera performance, image quality, and usability -- for $200 less. While I don't think it's a great choice for sports photographers, the E-PL1 is a great choice for everyone else. It offers a lot of features for both beginners and enthusiasts alike, and it does so without putting a hole in your wallet. Whether you're upgrading from a point-and-shoot or want a go-anywhere interchangeable lens camera, the E-PL1 is a camera I can easily recommend.
What I liked:
- Very good photo quality; impressive high ISO performance
- Good value for the money
- Compact, well designed body; comes in three colors
- Sensor-shift image stabilization
- Built-in flash, with wireless support
- Full manual controls, with lots of white balance options and four kinds of bracketing; RAW format supported
- iAuto mode picks a scene mode for you, finds and tracks faces, and enhances colors
- Faster autofocus than its more expensive siblings
- Live Guide, Shooting Tips, and the (well hidden) Perfect Shot Preview make the camera easy to use
- Good outdoor / low light visibility on otherwise unremarkable 2.7" LCD display
- Entertaining art filter feature
- Records HD video at 1280 x 720 (30 fps) with sound
- Nice playback mode for this type of camera
- Optional electronic viewfinder, external microphone adapter, and (pricey) underwater case
- HDMI output
What I didn't care for:
- Highlight clipping is fairly common
- Redeye a problem, though it can be removed in playback mode
- While better than before, autofocus is still too slow for serious action photography; camera struggles to focus in low light
- Flash (while certainly a welcome addition) is on the weak side
- Movie mode issues: limited recording time, sensor-shift image stabilization unavailable (electronic version is no substitute), sluggish continuous AF, no editing tools
- A control dial would've been nice
- Can't access memory card slot while camera is on a tripod
- Does not support an AC adapter or wired/wireless remote control
- No Mac software included; documentation could be more user-friendly
The E-PL1's closest competitors are its big brothers (the E-P1 and E-P2), plus the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 and Samsung NX10. Some compact D-SLRs worth considering include the Canon EOS Rebel T2i, Nikon D5000, Pentax K-x, and the Sony Alpha DSLR-A380.
As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Olympus E-PL1 and its competitors before you buy!
Check out our photo gallery to see how the E-PL1's image quality looks!