Originally Posted: February 2, 2010
Last Updated: April 7, 2010
Olympus caused quite a stir in the digital camera world when they introduced their E-P1 Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens camera in 2009. It featured all the bells and whistles of a digital SLR in a small, retro-styled body. Olympus says that the E-P1 (and its slightly more upscale sibling, the E-P2) were aimed toward enthusiasts.
Enter the E-PL1 ($599 with lens), which Olympus is targeting toward everyday consumers, rather than enthusiasts. To make it more consumer friendly, Olympus designed a lighter, more conventional body that's easier to use -- and there's finally a built-in flash, too. They've improved the autofocus speeds, added a new "live guide" feature, an additional art filter, and a dedicated movie recording button. That's on top of the features that are the same as the E-P1 and E-P2, including a 12 Megapixel Live MOS sensor, sensor-shift image stabilization, full manual controls, support for an electronic viewfinder, and more. Why do I think that current E-P1 owners are a little envious right now?
This chart summarizes the similarities and differences between the E-P1, E-P2, and the new E-PL1:
The E-PL1 certainly sounds like a good buy, at least based on that chart! How does it perform? Find out now in our review!
|The review originally stated that the E-PL1's continuous shooting mode was faster than it is on the E-P1 and E-P2. That is incorrect; all three cameras shoot at 3 frames/second.|
What's in the Box?
The E-PL1 will be available in just one kit, which includes the body and a 14 - 42 mm lens. Here's what you'll find in the box:
- The 12.3 effective Megapixel Olympus E-PL1 camera body
- F3.5-5.6, 14 - 42 mm M. Zuiko zoom lens
- BLS-1 lithium-ion battery
- Battery charger
- Body cap
- Shoulder strap
- USB cable
- A/V cable
- CD-ROM featuring Olympus [ib] software
- 121 page camera manual (printed)
The E-PL1 comes with an F3.5-5.6, 14 - 42 mm lens, similar to the one that was introduced with the E-P1. The difference between that lens (which you can also buy in stores) and the E-PL1's kit lens is that the lens mont is plastic, instead of metal. This lens can collapse into a travel position, making the camera a bit easier to transport. The lens is pretty much all plastic (save for the lens elements themselves, of course), which makes it light, but not terribly rugged. In terms of image quality, the 14-42 is pretty good, with corner blurring being the only real issue that stands out.
In addition to the kit lens, there's a growing collection of Micro Four Thirds lenses available from Olympus and Panasonic. Lenses from Olympus include the "old" 17mm pancake lens (which has an available optical viewfinder), plus two new models: an F4.0-5.6, 9 - 18 mm wide zoom, and an F4.0-5.6, 14 - 150 mm lens that'll cover nearly any shooting scenario you can imagine (they focus a lot faster than Olympus' other lenses, too). Panasonic has an even better collection of lenses, which you can view here. Since the E-PL1 has built-in image stabilization, every lens you attach will have shake reduction built in.
The E-PL1 also works with "legacy" Four Thirds lenses, via the optional MMF-1 or MMF-2 adapters (the former is discontinued, but it still works). Some older Four Thirds lenses may not support autofocus, though. You can also use classic Olympus OM lenses via another optional adapter (MF-2), though all of these lenses will be manual focus only. If that's still not enough, I don't see any reason why you can't use Panasonic's Leica R and M-mount adapters, as well.
Regardless of what lens you have attached to the E-PL1, there will be a 2X focal length conversion ratio. Therefore, the 14 - 42 mm kit lens has a field-of-view of 28 - 84 mm.
Digital SLRs and interchangeable lens cameras like the E-PL1 never come with memory cards. So, if you don't have an SD or SDHC card already, you'll need to pick one up. I'd recommend a 2GB or 4GB card as a good place to start, though avid movie mode users may want something larger. Spending a little extra for a fast card (Class 6) is probably a good idea, especially if you'll be recording a lot of movies.
Not surprisingly, the E-PL1 uses the same BLS-1 lithium-ion battery as the E-P1 and E-P2. This battery packs 8.3 Wh of energy into its plastic shell, which is pretty good for a camera this size. Here's how that translates into battery life -- live view only, of course:
For whatever reason, the E-PL1's battery life is just a tiny bit below that of the E-P1/P2. Not all manufacturers publish live view battery life numbers, but for the data I do have, the E-PL1 is right on the middle.
I should point out a few things about the proprietary batteries used by the E-PL1 and every other camera on the above list, except for the Pentax. For one, they're pretty expensive -- you'll spend at least $43 for a spare battery. Also, should your rechargeable battery run out of juice, you can't use an off-the-shelf battery to get you through the day.
When it's time to charge the BLS-1 battery, just pop it into the included charger. This is one of the slower chargers out there, taking 3.5 hours to power up the battery. This isn't one of those chargers that plugs directly into the wall, either - you must use a power cable.
The E-PL1 with the optional VF-2 electronic viewfinder
Image courtesy of Olympus
The E-PL1 can use the same accessories as the E-P2, including the electronic viewfinder and external microphone adapter (both described here). Here's a list of the most interesting accessories:
There are a few other accessories available, mostly camera bags and straps. One accessory that Olympus doesn't seem to ever offer for their interchangeable lens cameras (including D-SLRs) is an AC adapter. There are no remote controls (wired or wireless) available for the E-PL1, either.
Olympus [ib] software in Windows
Olympus includes their brand new (not to mention strangely named) [ib] software with the E-PL1. This software is for Windows only, so Mac users will want to use iPhoto, or download Olympus Master, which is still available (though I wonder if it will continue to be updated).
Anyhow, the [ib] software has a very flashy interface, with nearly everything animated (to the point where it was a bit annoying). The photo import process involves naming events (just like iPhoto), tagging any faces, and selecting the location in which a photo was taken. One thing I couldn't figure out how to do is select which photos were imported!
Once you get to the main screen, you'll find the usual thumbnail view, which is broken down by event. Over on the right side of the frame are windows for faces the software has identified, as well as a map showing the locations you've tagged (I have to wonder if an GPS-equipped Olympus camera isn't far away). You can also print photos, stitch together panoramas, and update the firmware on your camera from the main page.
Editing JPEGs in Olympus [ib]
The [ib] software has a nice set of image editing tools. You can rotate or level images, correct for distortion and redeye, smooth skin tones and remove blemishes, or add special effects to your photos. Of course, basics like brightness, contrast, saturation, and sharpness can be adjusted as well.
Editing a RAW image in Olympus [ib]
In addition to its JPEG editing duties, the [ib] software can also edit and export RAW images. RAW properties that can be adjusted include exposure, white balance, Picture Mode, contrast, sharpness, saturation, gradation, and the noise filter.
Edit screen in Olympus Studio 2
If you want more advanced RAW editing tools then you might want to consider buying Olympus Studio ($100). This adds tone curve adjustment, false color suppression, aberration compensation, distortion correction, batch processing, and much more.
At some point, Adobe will update their Camera Raw plug-in to support the E-PL1, giving you another option for editing RAW images from the camera.
And what is this RAW thing all about, anyway? RAW files contain unprocessed image data direct from the camera's sensor. You'll need to process it on your computer first (or on the camera -- more on this later), but this allows you to adjust things like white balance, exposure, and noise reduction without reducing the quality of the original image. It's almost like taking the photo again. Be warned that RAW images are considerably larger than JPEGs, which means that they take up more space on your memory card and decrease camera performance.
Olympus includes a fairly thick manual with the E-PL1. While I appreciate the large font size, the manual is not what I'd call user-friendly, with lots of confusing tables and a generally cluttered layout. It's not quite as detailed as I would've liked, either, though answers to most questions can be found inside its pages. Documentation for the included software is installed onto your computer's hard disk.
Look and Feel
While Olympus gave the E-P1 and E-P2 a distinct, rangefinder-style design, the E-PL1 is a lot more conventional looking (it kind of reminds me of their point-and-shoot cameras). The body is quite compact, and I found it easy to hold with just one hand. While the front and side plates of the body are still metal (aluminum, to be exact), the E-PL1 has more plastic on it than its more expensive siblings, and it doesn't feel quite as solid.
Olympus has done a nice job reducing the number of controls on the E-PL1, so it's not overwhelming to users who are upgrading from point-and-shoot cameras. Combine that with the new "live guide" feature (described later), and the E-PL1 is one of the easiest-to-use cameras in its class.
Images courtesy of Olympus
Olympus produces their compact cameras in a variety of colors, and the E-PL1 is joining the club too. It will be available in black, silver, and the dark blue that you'll be seeing in this article.
How about some side-by-side photos of the PL1 and its Micro Four Thirds friends?
The E-PL1 and Panasonic DMC-GF1 -- quite similar!
Alright, now let's see how the E-PL1 compares against other interchangeable lens cameras (that includes D-SLRs) in terms of size and weight. As before, I'm only listing cameras with live view support.
While it's not quite as wide as the E-P1/P2 and DMC-GF1, the E-PL1 is actually a bit thicker, given its more substantial grip. As you'd expect, all four of the Micro Four Thirds cameras are substantially smaller than their D-SLR counterparts (since they all have a mirror box).
Ready to start our tour of the camera now? I know I am!
Here you can see the front of the E-PL1 with the lens removed. As I mentioned earlier, this is a Micro Four Thirds lens mount, which has a 2X crop factor. I've also already told you about the various lens adapters available, whether its for regular Four Thirds, vintage OM, or Leica M and R-mount lenses. To remove an attached lens, just press the button to the right of the mount.
Inside the lens mount is the E-PL1's 12.3 effective Megapixel Live MOS sensor. Unlike Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds cameras, the E-PL1 has sensor-shift image stabilization built in, so every lens you attach will have shake reduction. The IS system detects the tiny movements of your hands that can blur your photos, and it shifts the sensor to compensate for it. Olympus says that you can get up to three stops of correction from their IS system. Here's an example of the IS system in action:
Image stabilization on
Image stabilization off
Both of the photos above were taken with the kit lens at a shutter speed of 1/4 second. It's pretty obvious that the IS system did its job! Do note that you cannot use the sensor-shift IS system while recording videos, though a digital shake reduction system is available. I'll have an example of that when we get to the movie section of the review.
Interchangeable lens cameras essentially require a dust reduction system, since there's no mirror to protect the sensor. The E-PL1 uses the same Supersonic Wave Filter that Olympus pioneered several years ago. When the camera is turned on, ultrasonic waves are sent through the low-pass filter, which literally shakes dust off the sensor.
One of the most exciting features on the E-PL1 (odd as it may sound) is its pop-up flash, which is released manually. This E-P1 and E-P2 were criticized for not having a flash, and it's one of the main reason why yours truly ended up buying the Panasonic GF1 for my own personal use. Like the GF1, the flash on the E-PL1 isn't super powerful, with a guide number of 7 meters at ISO 100 (about 50% lower than what you'd find on a full-size D-SLR). If you want more flash power, you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe, or use the camera's built-in flash to control up to three sets of wireless flashes.
The only other item of note on the front of the camera is the self-timer lamp, which can be found at the top-left of the above photo. The E-PL1 does not have an AF-assist lamp, unfortunately.
The first thing that came to mind when I saw the back of the E-PL1 was "wow, that doesn't look at all like most interchangeable lens / D-SLR cameras". Olympus has definitely simplified things here, keeping the button count low. Most of these buttons serve just one function, as well.
The E-PL1 features a 2.7" LCD display with 230,000 pixels, which is half the resolution of the DMC-GF1. The screen has average sharpness, and offers good outdoor visibility.
As with all Micro Four Thirds cameras, you'll be composing all of your photos on the camera's LCD or optional electronic viewfinder. The live view experience on the E-PL1 is better than on most digital SLRs, though it still lags a bit in the focusing department. Live view on the E-PL1 features contrast detect autofocus (with optional subject tracking), face detection, a live histogram, grid lines, and the ability to enlarge the center of the frame or focus point. The camera uses its Live MOS sensor for the contrast detection AF feature, and while its faster than Olympus' regular D-SLRs (and the E-P1/P2), the Panasonic G-series and some Sony D-SLRs are noticeably faster -- though the new 9-18 and 14-150 mm lenses have narrowed the gap. In low light, the screen brightens automatically, and you can enhance that effect even more by turning on Live View Boost.
Zoomed in 7X in live view
When you're in manual focus mode, you can zoom in by 7X instantly by pressing the button with the magnifying glass on it (you can go even closer by pressing the info button). You can also scroll around the enlarged area using the four-way controller.
|Live Guide menu||The various things you can adjust in the Live Guide|
Another new live view-related feature is called Live Guide. This feature, available only in iAuto mode, displays an easy-to-understand slider on the LCD, which allows you to adjust things like exposure compensation, white balance, color, shutter speed, and aperture, without actually knowing what any of those things are. If you select exposure, you can adjust the overall brightness, or manipulate the dark and bright areas individually. As you might imagine, you can see the results are the changes in real time on the LCD.
|Shooting Tips menu, accessible via the Live Guide||Tips for pet photos|
Something else you'll find in the Live Guide is a Shooting Tips section. Here you'll find advice about taking better people, pet, flower, and food pictures, plus general guidelines about composition.
Multi View, aka Perfect Shot Preview, previewing exposure compensation
At first I thought the Perfect Shot Preview feature from the E-P1/P2 was gone, but it's just had a name change (and is buried in the custom settings menu). If you want to have a quick preview of exposure compensation or white balance, go to the custom menu section D, select thumbnail/info setting, LV-info, and turn on Multi View. You can then hit the info button until you get a screen like the one above.
Live Control menu
When you're in shooting modes other than iAuto, you'll adjust settings via the Live Control menu you can see above. This menu, which is essentially unchanged from the E-P1/P2, allows you to adjust these options:
- Picture mode
- Scene mode
- Art filter mode
- Movie mode
- White balance
- Image stabilizer
- Aspect ratio
- Record mode
- Flash mode
- Flash intensity control
- Metering mode
- AF mode
- Face detection
- Movie sound record
- ISO sensitivity
All of those are shortcuts to other menu items, so I'll describe them in detail elsewhere in this review.
Adjusting settings with the Super Control Panel
There's another way to adjust settings, and that's via the good ol' Super Control Panel (which must be turned on in the setup menu). This shows current camera settings, and you can change any of them by using the four-way controller.
Back to the tour now -- above the LCD is the E-PL1's accessory port (which is normally protected by the hot shoe cover), which was first seen on the E-P2. This port accepts the VF-2 electronic viewfinder as well as the SEMA-1 external microphone kit, both of which I described earlier.
To the left of the accessory port is the release for the camera's pop-up flash. On the opposite side of things you'll find the Function / zoom out and zoom in / image protect buttons. The Function button can be customized, and by default it turns on face detection and auto shadow adjustment. I'll tell you what else it can do later in the review. Pressing the zoom in button allows you to enlarge the frame for manual focusing, which I described a bit earlier.
Continuing to the right, we find the E-PL1's dedicated movie recording button, which allows you to capture video in any shooting mode. Press it once to start recording, and again to stop. If you want this button to do something else, it too can be customized -- but more on that later.
Now let's talk about all those buttons located just to the right of the LCD. The first three are pretty self-explanatory: they enter playback mode, the menu system, and toggle the information shown on the LCD. To their right is the camera's speaker.
Next we have the four-way controller, which you'll use for menu navigation, adjusting manual exposure settings (the camera lacks a sub-dial, so this is it), and also:
- Up - Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV) + Program Shift
- Down - Drive (Single-frame, sequential, 2 or 12 sec self-timer)
- Left - AF target selection (Multi-area, single-point) - select one of eleven points yourself, or let the camera do it
- Right - Flash setting (Auto, fill flash, flash off, auto w/redeye reduction, 1st-curtain slow sync, 1st-curtain slow sync w/redeye reduction, 2nd-curtian slow sync, full strength, 1/4, 1/16, 1/64 strength)
- Center - Start (Live Guide or Live Control menu) + OK
It's time to tell you about the E-PL1's continuous shooting mode, which is the same as the E-P1 and E-P2. Here's how it performed in my tests:
A pretty good performance for a relatively inexpensive camera! When you hit those limits in the table, the camera doesn't stop shooting -- it just slows down considerably. The LCD keeps up well with the action, so you should be able to track a moving subject.
The last item on the back of the E-PL1 is the delete photo button, which does just as you'd imagine.
Now onto the top of the camera. While there's plenty of room for your left hand when the flash is down, that disappears when it's popped up. Can't have it all, I guess!
At the center of the photo is the E-PL1's hot shoe, with a monaural microphone above it. You'll have the best experience if you pair the E-PL1 with an Olympus-branded flash, as the two can share metering information. The FL-36R and FL-50R also support Super FP (high speed flash sync) and be used wirelessly, with the built-in flash being the controller. If you're not using an Olympus flash, you'll probably have to set the exposure manually. The camera can sync as fast as 1/160 sec with an external flash.
Continuing to the right, we find the camera's mode dial. It has these options:
The E-PL1 has a pretty standard set of mode dial options, save for the Art Filters. If you want a point-and-shoot experience, just set the dial to the iAuto position. The camera will take care of everything for you, including selecting the right scene mode. This is also the only place in which you can use the previously mentioned Live Guide feature. It's worth pointing out that the camera uses a base ISO of 200 in this mode (or anytime Auto ISO is being used). It also defaults to the new iEnhance Picture Mode, which I'll tell you about a bit later in this article.
One of the scene modes on the E-PL1
If you want to pick a scene mode yourself, you'll find plenty to choose from in the SCN menu. Two of the notable scene modes include e-Portrait and panorama. The e-Portrait feature is a new one, and similar to the "beauty" mode on some other Olympus models. In a nutshell, e-Portrait removes wrinkles and other skin blemishes from your subject, right as the photo is taken. The camera actually saves two images -- one retouched, the other untouched. Do note that the retouched image is saved at the medium size. You can also apply this feature in playback mode, if you want. The panorama feature helps you line up photos side-by-side, for later stitching into a single image.
Art Filter menu
The E-P1 has a slightly different set of art filters than the E-P1 and E-P2, including a new option. The classic art filters are still here, including pop art, soft focus, grainy film, and pin hole. You also get diorama (miniature effect) from the E-P2, plus a new "gentle sepia" filter. Do note that art filters are not applied to RAW images, though you can apply a filter to a RAW image using the RAW data edit feature in playback mode.
Naturally, the E-PL1 has the full suite of manual exposure controls. The fastest shutter speed on the PL1 is 1/2000 sec, unlike the E-P1/P2, which can do 1/4000 sec. There's also a bulb mode, which keeps the shutter open for up to 30 minutes (I think), though you'll need good finger endurance, since there are no remote control accessories available for the E-PL1. You can also use the bulb timer to preset the exposure time.
The last two items on the top of the camera are the somewhat small shutter release button, as well as the power button.
Here's the side of the E-PL1, with the 14 - 42 mm lens in its "open" position. There's nothing to see here, other than the unlock button on the lens, which allows you to collapse it back into the travel position.
On the other side of the camera you'll find its two I/O ports. The top one is for both USB and A/V output, while the one on the bottom is a mini HDMI port (cable not included). A somewhat flimsy plastic cover protects the ports from the elements.
The 14 - 42 mm lens is at the telephoto position in this shot.
On the bottom of the E-PL1 you'll find an off-center, metal tripod mount, plus the battery and memory card compartment. The plastic door over the memory card slot is of average quality and, as you can see, you won't be able to access the card when the camera is on a tripod.
The included BLS-1 battery can be seen on the right side of the photo.
Using the Olympus E-PL1
It takes the E-PL1 about 1.3 seconds to run through its dust reduction cycle and prepare for shooting, which is exactly the same as on the E-P1/P2. There are some other cameras (D-SLRs specifically) which start up a bit faster.
The E-PL1 is definitely faster in the focusing department than its two more expensive siblings, though it's still noticeably slower than some D-SLRs and most compact cameras. With the kit lens, you can expect "best case scenario" focus times of 0.6 - 1.0 seconds, with delays of 1-2 seconds very possible. I didn't get a chance to use the new 9 - 18 or 14 - 150 mm lenses with my camera, but I did do a comparison during a meeting with Olympus, and they were noticeably faster than the kit lens, which is good news. When light levels get low, the E-PL1 starts to struggle to lock focus. If your subject has some light on it, the camera will probably lock focus in a second or two. If it doesn't, forget about it -- the camera won't be able to focus on anything -- here's where an AF-assist lamp of some sort would've come in handy.
Shutter lag wasn't an issue here, as you'd expect.
Shot-to-shot delays ranged from two seconds without the flash, to around three seconds with it.
There is no quick way to delete a photo immediately after it is taken -- you'll have to enter playback mode for that. To save you a button-press, you can set Auto Review to "Auto Playback" and the camera will go there after a picture is taken.
Now, here's a look at the numerous image size and quality options that are available on the E-PL1:
Whew! That's a long list... and that's only at the default 4:3 aspect ratio, too (there are three more to choose from). You can take a RAW image alone, or with a JPEG at the size of your choosing.
The E-PL1 has a "regular" menu, in addition to the Live Control and Super Control Panel features that I showed you earlier. This regular menu is the same as on Olympus' digital SLRs. It's divided up into several tabs, covering shooting, playback, custom, and setup options. Do note that the custom tab isn't shown by default (you have to turn it on), and many of the menu options will be unavailable in the auto, art filter, and scene modes. And with that, here's the full list:
|Shooting Menu 1
|Shooting menu 2
|Custom Menu - must be turned on via the
While I covered most of the menu options up there, I want to describe a few in some more detail for you.
|Picture Mode menu||Editing the Natural picture mode|
Picture Modes contain sets of color, sharpness, and exposure settings. There are several presets, including vivid, natural, or muted colors, portrait for smooth skin tones, and monotone for black and white shooting. There's also the iEnhance option (which is used in iAuto mode), which finds the primary color in a photo and boosts the saturation and contrast of just that color. For each of the presets you can tweak the contrast, sharpness, saturation, and gradation (which improves shadow detail -- see here for an example). Monotone mode also lets you use virtual color filters, or add a color tint to the image. Finally, a custom option lets you select a Picture Mode as a starting point, and you can then adjust the settings I just mentioned, plus gradation.
There are three different image stabilizer modes to choose from on the E-PL1. Mode 1 is for everyday shooting. Mode 2 is for horizontal panning, while mode 3 is for vertical panning. You can also turn the IS system off entirely, which is a good idea if you have the camera on a tripod.
There are a whopping four types of bracketing on the E-PL1. You can bracket for exposure, flash exposure, white balance, and even ISO sensitivity. For each of those, the camera produces three photos (nine in WB bracketing mode), each with a different exposure/WB setting/ISO. White balance can be bracketing in both the amber/blue and green/magenta directions.
The E-PL1 has the same multiple exposure feature as the E-P1. This lets you take two exposure and combine them into a single image. You can also overlay new images onto an existing one. You can leave the brightness of each image untouched, or you can turn on the "auto gain" feature to make things blend in better. In playback mode, you can use the image overlay feature to combine up to three RAW photos that you've already taken into one, in much the same way.
The PL1 has a ton of white balance options, including the bracketing feature that I just mentioned. You have the usual presets like sunlight and cloudy, and you can also use a white or gray card to get accurate color in more unusual lighting. If any of those need further tweaking, you can fine-tune things in the amber-blue and/or green-magenta directions (for one WB setting or all of them at once, if you wish). You can also set the white balance by color temperature, with an impressive range of 2000 - 14000 Kelvin. If that's still not enough, you can adjust all of the white balance settings at once.
The last thing I want to mention here is that you can save two sets of your favorite camera settings into memory, using the My Mode feature. You can quickly switch between them by setting the Function or movie record button to My Mode.
Alright, that does it for menus -- let's do our photo tests now. With the exception of the night shot, all of these were taken with the 14 - 42 mm kit lens. The night photos were taken with the Panasonic F4.0-5.6, 50 - 200 mm Micro Four Thirds lens.
The E-PL1 did a great job with our macro test subject. Colors look very nice, and the subject has the "smooth" appearance that one comes to expect from a D-SLR or interchangeable lens camera. Despite the smooth look, plenty of detail is still captured. I searched around for noise and couldn't find any, which is good news. About the only negative I can come up with is that I had to overexpose this photo more than normal, which isn't a big deal, since the camera's metering system was otherwise very good).
The minimum distance to your subject depends on what lens is attached to the E-PL1. The 14 - 42 mm kit lens allows you to be as close as 25 cm. If you want a dedicated macro lens, the only one available for the Micro Four Thirds format is the F2.8, 45 mm Leica DG Macro-Elmarit, which will set you back $900. Olympus should have their own macro lens sometime next year. You can, of course, use one of the many "regular" Four Thirds macro lenses via the MMF-1/MMF-2 adapters.
Now onto the night shot, which was taken with a Panasonic Micro Four Thirds lens that I own. The results here are very good, with sharp buildings and low noise levels -- and some nice reflections on the water, which have nothing to do with the camera, by the way. Bringing in enough light was a piece of cake, as the E-PL1 has manual control of the shutter speed. Two things that do stand out here are excessive highlight clipping (which is an issue on this camera) and some fairly strong purple fringing. It's hard to know whether it's the lens or the camera causing the fringing (I'd say the lens is mostly responsible), but there you go. Since Olympus cameras don't automatically remove purple fringing like their Panasonic counterparts, you'll want to try closing down the aperture a bit to reduce this annoyance.
Now let's use that same night scene and see how the E-PL1 performed at higher sensitivities:
The ISO 100 and 200 shots look a whole lot alike, which is good news. At ISO 400 we start to see a tiny bit of noise reduction artifacting, which you'll only notice on very large prints or if you're inspecting things on your computer screen. You'll see more detail loss at ISO 800, but it's still quite usable for small and midsize prints. Things really start to soften up at ISO 1600, so I'd probably stop at this point, and shoot RAW so you can do some noise reduction (see below). I would pass on the ISO 3200 setting in low light situations.
I always like to see if there's any benefit to shooting RAW (there usually is), so here are the ISO 800 and 1600 photos after they've gone through some simple post-processing. While I usually use Photoshop's Camera Raw plug-in for the RAW conversions, a compatible version was not available when this review was written, so I used Olympus Master instead. You'll want to lower or turn off the noise filter setting when doing your RAW conversions in order to get some of that detail back. And with that, here we go:
There's a definite improvement in sharpness and detail at ISO 800. Even the US Bank sign is a little more readable, so you're getting a bit of highlight detail back. The ISO 1600 conversion is also better than the original JPEG image, though not by much.
Look for another noise comparison -- this one in normal lighting -- in a moment.
Straight out of the camera
After using Redeye Fix in playback mode
The bad news is that the E-PL1 has a bit of a redeye problem, even with the flash set to redeye reduction. The good news is that there's a tool in playback mode which does an effective job of ridding your photos of this annoyance. If you want to avoid redeye altogether, you may want to consider attaching an external flash to the PL1's hot shoe.
There's mild-to-moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the 14 - 42 mm kit lens. To see what this looks like in real life, look no further than the building on the right side of this photo. I did not find vignetting (dark corners) to be a problem, though I did spot small amounts of corner blurriness in a few photos.
Now it's time for our studio ISO test. Since the lighting is always the same, you can compare these photos with those in other reviews I've written over the years. So, now's a good time to open up the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 and maybe the Olympus E-P1 reviews to see how the E-PL1 compares. Remember that the crops below only show you a portion of the test scene, so view the full size images to get the complete picture (no pun intended).
Everything is buttery smooth through ISO 800, with the E-PL1's photo at that sensitivity looking better than the E-P1 and quite similar to what the DMC-GF1 produced. The ISO 1600 photo is still remarkably clean, with detail loss not becoming a real issue until ISO 3200 (which I'd save for small prints only). At these two highest sensitivities, I'd put the E-PL1 ahead of its Olympus and Panasonic cohorts, at least in my opinion. All-in-all, Olympus did an impressive job keeping noise levels under control on the E-PL1.
Now let's do another "is there a benefit to shooting RAW" comparison, this time at ISO 1600 and 3200:
At ISO 1600, the difference between the original JPEG and the post-processed RAW are subtle. The difference is more noticeable at ISO 3200, which is why I recommended going this route if you're using this sensitivity.
Overall, I was very happy with the photos produced by the Olympus E-PL1. They were well-exposed, though the camera definitely likes to clip highlights (example), which is the case with other Micro Four Thirds cameras as well. Photos have have the smooth D-SLR/interchangeable lens camera look to them, with plenty of detail captured (if you want more sharpness, use the Picture Mode feature to crank it up). Colors were accurate, and if you're using the iEnhance Picture Mode (which is the default in iAuto mode), they're quite vibrant. If you look in areas of low contrast (sky, shadows) you will see some smudged or mottled details, but for most people's purposes, this won't be an issue. As for the more traditional grain-style noise, you won't see much of it, unless you're at the highest ISOs, or if you've turned the noise filter down (or off).
Now I invite you to have a look at our extensive gallery of photos taken with the E-PL1. View the full size images, maybe printing a few if you can, and then decide for yourself about the E-PL1's image quality!
The E-PL1's movie mode is the same as the E-P2, with the only changes being the dedicated recording button on the back of the camera, and monaural (instead of stereo) sound recording. You can record video at 1280 x 720 (720p) at 30 frames/second until you hit the 2GB file size limit (thank you, AVI format). That takes just 7 minutes at the HD resolution, though you can have multiple clips of that length on a large memory card. For longer movies, you can lower the resolution to 640 x 480, which allows for continuous video recording for up to 14 minutes. Olympus recommends a Class 6 or faster SD/SDHC card for recording movies.
The E-PL1 has the ability to focus continuously while recording a movie. So, if your subject is moving toward or away from you, of if you operate the zoom, the camera will refocus (albeit slowly). If you've got subject tracking turned on, it'll follow the "target" as they move around the frame. The noise from the contrast detect AF system will be picked up by the microphone, so keep that in mind. If you want stereo (or just higher quality) sound, you may want to purchase the external microphone kit that I mentioned earlier in this review. Unfortunately, the sensor-shift image stabilization system is not available in movie mode. While a digital IS system is available, please note that 1) the image is zoomed in a bit and 2) it doesn't work terribly well (see example).
Like the E-P2, you have full control over exposure settings on the E-PL1's movie mode. You can adjust the shutter speed, aperture, or ISO manually. You can also apply any of the six art filters to a movie, though some of them will significantly reduce the frame rate.
The Movie+Still image will save a full resolution still image of the last frame of your movie, automatically. You can take a still photo as you're recording, but the current clip will stop and a new one will begin after the image is saved.
Below is a sample movie taken at the HD (1280 x 720) setting. Since the M-JPEG codec used by the camera makes for large file sizes, I've also created a smaller version using the efficient H.264 codec. Enjoy!
The playback mode on the E-PL1 appears to be identical to the one on the E-P1 and E-P2. Basic features include slideshows, DPOF print marking, image rotation, image protection, voice captions, and zoom & scroll (playback zoom). The slideshow feature has background music (with the default being "melancholy", strangely enough) and transitions.
Photos can be viewing one-at-a-time or as thumbnails of varying sizes (some of which are tiny). You can also navigate to photos that were taken on a certain date by using the calendar view (pictured). There seems to be some kind of side-by-side comparison tool (called lightbox here), but I could never seem to activate it.
|JPEG edit menu||Shadow adjustment technology in action|
The camera offers two edit modes -- one for JPEGs, another for RAW images. The JPEG editing feature lets you resize an image, apply shadow adjustment technology (see above right), remove redeye, crop a photo, change the aspect ratio, apply the e-Portrait filter, or convert it to black and white or sepia.
The RAW data edit feature is handy, but not as easy to use as it could be. Instead of just adjusting the RAW properties right there in playback mode, you first need to set the desired settings in the record menu, and then return to playback mode to use the RAW edit function. The resulting image is saved as a JPEG. This is how you can apply art filters to RAW images that you've already taken.
Something else you can do in playback mode is overlay RAW images. You can select two or three images and combine them into one photo. You can adjust the gain for each of the photos.
One thing that's sorely missing from the E-PL1's playback mode is any sort of movie editing feature. You can't even trim unwanted footage off the beginning or end of a clip, which sure comes in handy.
By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but press the info button a few times and you'll get a lot more, including histograms and a display of over and underexposed areas.
The E-PL1 between photos without delay in playback mode.
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!