DCRP

Olympus E-PL1 Review

Using the Olympus E-PL1

Record Mode

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:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 2GB SD card (optional)
RAW
4032 x 3024
RAW 14.0 MB 108
Large
4032 x 3024
Super fine 8.4 MB 202
Fine 5.9 MB 290
Normal 2.7 MB 640
Basic 1.8 MB 954
Middle
3200 x 2400
Super fine 5.6 MB 308
Fine 3.4 MB 510
Normal 1.7 MB 1008
Basic 1.2 MB 1494
Middle
2560 x 1920
Super fine 3.2 MB 538
Fine 2.2 MB 790
Normal 1.1 MB 1552
Basic 800 KB 2286
Middle
1600 x 1200
Super fine 1.3 MB 1346
Fine 900 KB 1986
Normal 500 KB 3786
Basic 400 KB 5506
Small
1280 x 960
Super fine 900 KB 2088
Fine 600 KB 3028
Normal 300 KB 3786
Basic 300 KB 5506
Small
1024 x 768
Super fine 600 KB 3188
Fine 400 KB 4486
Normal 300 KB 8078
Basic 200 KB 11014
Small
640 x 480
Super fine 300 KB 7126
Fine 200 KB 10096
Normal 200 KB 17308
Basic 100 KB 20192

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
  • Card setup (All erase, format)
  • Custom reset setting (Reset, reset 1, reset 2) - reset to defaults or to the settings of your choice
  • Picture mode (iEnhance, vivid, natural, muted, portrait, monotone, custom) - more below
  • Image quality
    • Still picture (RAW, Large/Superfine, Large/Fine, Medium/Normal, Small/Normal, RAW + Large/Superfine, RAW + Large/Fine, RAW + Medium/Normal, RAW + Small/Normal) - you can customize what JPEG sizes/qualities are on this list
    • Movie (HD, SD)
  • Image aspect (4:3, 16:9, 3:2, 6:6)
Shooting menu 2
  • Drive (Single shot, sequential, 2 or 12 sec self-timer)
  • Image stabilizer (Off, mode 1, 2, 3) - see below
  • Bracketing - see below
    • AE bracket (Off, 3 frames/0.3EV, 3 frames/0.7EV, 3 frames/1.0 EV)
    • WB bracket
      • Amber-blue (Off, 3 frames/2 step, 3 frames/4 step, 3 frames/6 step)
      • Green-magenta (Off, 3 frames/2 step, 3 frames/4 step, 3 frames/6 step)
    • Flash bracket (Off, 3 frames/0.3EV, 3 frames/0.7EV, 3 frames/1.0 EV)
    • ISO bracket (Off, 3 frames/0.3EV, 3 frames/0.7EV, 3 frames/1.0 EV)
  • Multiple exposure - see below
    • Frame (Off, 2 frame)
    • Auto gain (on/off)
    • Overlay (on/off)
  • Flash exposure compensation (-3EV to +3EV, 1/3EV increments)
  • Flash RC mode (on/off) - for wireless flash control
Playback Menu
  • Slideshow
    • Start
    • Background music (Off, cool, joy, melancholy)
    • Slide (All, still picture, movie)
    • Slide interval (2 - 10 sec)
    • Movie interval (Short, full)
  • Edit
    • Select image
      • RAW data edit
      • JPEG edit
      • Voice caption
    • Image overlay (2 - 3 image merge)
  • DPOF print marking (One, all)
  • Reset protect (on/off)
Custom Menu - must be turned on via the setup menu
  • AF/MF
    • AF mode
      • Still picture (S-AF, C-AF, MF, S-AF+MF, C-AF+TR)
      • Movie (S-AF, C-AF, MF, S-AF+MF, C-AF+TR)
    • AF area (All target, single target) - let the camera choose from 11-points, or pick one yourself
    • Reset lens (on/off) - sets focus to infinity when camera is turned off
    • Bulb focusing (on/off) - whether you can adjust the focus during a bulb exposure
    • Focus ring (Clockwise, counterclockwise) - since the focus ring is electronic, you can pull this off
    • MF assist (on/off) - automatic center-frame enlargement in manual focus mode
    • Set home - select a default focus point; you can jump to it quickly by redefining the Function button
  • Button/Dial
    • AE/AF lock - how this button works; I'll save the details for the camera manual
      • S-AF (Mode 1, 2, 3)
      • C-AF (Mode 1, 2, 3, 4)
      • MF (Mode 1, 2, 3)
    • AE/AF lock memory (on/off) - whether the lock "sticks" when you let go of the button
    • Function button (Face detection, preview, one-touch WB, home focus point, manual focus, RAW + JPEG, test picture, My Mode, swap underwater scene mode, AE/AF lock, LCD power off, disabled) - define what this button does
    • Movie recording button (Face detection, preview, one-touch WB, home focus point, manual focus, RAW + JPEG, test picture, My Mode, swap underwater scene mode, AE/AF lock, start/stop movie recording, LCD power off, off) - and this one too
    • My Mode setup (My Mode 1, 2) - save your favorite camera settings here
    • Button timer (Off, 3, 5, 8 sec, hold) - how long the "direct buttons" are active
  • Release
    • Release priority S (on/off) - whether focus lock is required for shutter release
    • Release priority C (on/off) - same as above, but for continuous AF mode
  • Display/Sound/PC
    • HDMI
      • HDMI out (1080i, 720p, 480p/576p)
      • HDMI control - lets you control the camera from your TV remote, assuming your TV supports such a thing
    • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
    • Sleep (Off, 1, 3, 5, 10 mins)
    • Live view boost (on/off) - boosts low light visibility in live view, but slows refresh rate
    • Face detection (on/off)
    • Info setting
      • Playback setting
        • Image only (on/off)
        • Overall (on/off)
        • Histogram (on/off)
        • Highlight & shadow (on/off)
        • Lightbox (on/off)
      • Live view setting
        • Displayed grid (Off, complex, rule-of-thirds, crosshairs, diagonal)
        • Histogram (on/off)
        • Highlight & shadow (on/off)
        • Multi view (on/off) - Perfect Shot Preview
        • Image only (on/off)
      • Thumbnail setting
        • 4 images/screen (on/off)
        • 9 images/screen (on/off)
        • 25 images/screen (on/off)
        • 100 images/screen (on/off)
        • Calendar (on/off)
    • Record control setting
      • iAuto mode
        • Live guide (on/off)
        • Live control (on/off)
        • Super control panel (on/off)
      • P/A/S/M mode
        • Live control (on/off)
        • Super control panel (on/off)
      • Art/scene mode
        • Live control (on/off)
        • Super control panel (on/off)
    • Histogram setting - set the point at which the histogram shows over or underexposure
      • Highlight (245-255)
      • Shadow (0-10)
    • EVF adjust - assuming you bought it
      • Color temperature
      • Brightness
    • Backlit LCD (8, 30, 60 secs, hold) - how long the LCD backlight stays on
    • Mode guide (on/off) - whether a description of the shooting mode is displayed when you rotate the mode dial
    • Playback close-up mode (Mode 1, 2) - how the playback zoom function works
    • Beep (on/off)
    • Volume (0-5)
    • USB mode (Auto, storage, MTP, print)
  • Exposure/Metering/ISO
    • EV step (1/3, 1/2, 1 EV)
    • Metering (Digital ESP, center-weighted, spot, spot w/highlight control, spot w/shadow control)
    • AE Lock metering (Auto, center-weighted, spot, spot w/highlight control, spot w/shadow control)
    • ISO (Auto, 100 - 3200)
    • ISO step (1/3, 1 EV)
    • ISO Auto set
      • High limit (200 - 3200) - max it will go up to
      • Default (200 - 3200) - starting point
    • ISO Auto (P/A/S, all modes) - when auto ISO is available
    • Bulb timer (1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 20, 25, 30 mins) - preset a time for bulb mode
    • Anti-shock (Off, 1/8 - 30 secs) - adds a delay before a photo is taken, to reduce risk of blur
  • Flash custom
    • X-sync (1/60 - 1/160 sec)
    • Slow limit (30 - 1/160 sec)
    • Flash exp comp + exp comp (on/off) - links flash exposure compensation with exposure compensation
  • Quality/Color/WB
    • Noise reduction (Off, on, auto) - for long exposures
    • Noise filter (Off, low, standard, high) - for everything else
    • White balance (Auto, daylight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent x 3, flash, one-touch, color temperature) - see below
    • All white balance compensation
      • All set (-7 to +7) - in either the amber/blue or green/magenta directions
      • All reset
    • Color space (sRGB, AdobeRGB)
    • Shading compensation (on/off) - supposed to help reduce vignetting
    • Image quality set (Large/Medium/Small, Superfine/fine/normal/basic) - select the size and quality of the four JPEG image quality slots
    • Pixel count - select the resolution for these two sizes
      • Middle (3200 x 2400, 2560 x 1920, 1600 x 1200)
      • Small (1280 x 960, 1024 x 768, 640 x 480)
  • Record/Erase
    • Quick erase (on/off) - whether camera prompts you to delete a photo
    • RAW+JPEG erase (JPEG, RAW, RAW+JPEG) - what's removed when you delete a RAW+JPEG photo
    • File name (Auto, reset)
    • Edit file name - you can change the first few characters of the file name, for each color space
    • Priority set (No, yes) - initial position of the cursor when All Erase or Card Format is selected
    • dpi setting (Auto, custom) - the latter lets you select the dpi of your choosing
  • Movie
    • Movie mode (P, A, M, Art filter 1-6) - select the shooting mode for movies
    • Movie + Still (on/off) - whether the last frame of the movie is saved as a still image
    • Movie sound recording (on/off)
  • Utility
    • Pixel mapping - gets rid of bad pixels
    • Exposure shift (ESP, center-weighted, spot) - lets you fine-tune the exposure metering from -1EV to +1EV, in 1/6EV increments
    • Battery warning level (-2 to +2) - how quickly the low battery warning comes on

 

 

Setup Menu
  • Date/time (set)
  • Language
  • LCD adjust
    • Brightness (-7 to +7)
    • Color balance (-7 to +7)
  • Rec View (Off, auto play, 1 - 20 secs) - post-shot review; the auto play option enters playback mode after a photo is taken
  • Custom menu display (on/off) - whether the custom settings tab is shown
  • Firmware - displays the firmware version of the body and attached lens

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:


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

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:

ISO 800

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Olympus Master)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
 
ISO 1600

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Olympus Master)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

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).


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400


ISO 800


ISO 1600

ISO 3200

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:

ISO 1600

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Olympus Master)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
 
ISO 3200

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Olympus Master)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

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!

Movie Mode

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!


Click to view original movie (56.4 MB, 1280 x 720, 30 fps, AVI format)
Click to view compressed movie (10.3 MB, 1280 x 720, 30 fps, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Playback Mode

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.


Calendar view

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.

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