Olympus E-P1 Review

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor

Originally Posted: June 15, 2009

Last Updated: November 2, 2009

Fifty years ago, Olympus came up with the Pen-series of half-frame film cameras. These cameras were well known for their design, compact size, and photo quality, and ended up selling over 17 million units. The most significant of these models was the PenF, released in 1963. The PenF was the world's first and only interchangeable lens half-frame camera, with twenty F. Zuiko lenses to choose from. In case you're wondering why they were called "Pen", Olympus says it was because "it was small enough to carry with you at all times, with the ability to easily record the events of daily life". Sounds good to me.

The Olympus Pen is back in 2009, this time in digital form. The new E-P1 (starting at $750) has a lot of common with the PenF: it's compact, stylish, and there's a growing selection of lenses to choose from. As you probably figured out by now, the E-P1 uses the Micro Four Thirds standard, which is also used by Panasonic on their Lumix DMC-G1 and DMC-GH1. The Panasonic models aren't a whole lot smaller than a compact D-SLR, but that's not the case with the E-P1: it's not much bigger than say, the Canon PowerShot G10. The two main reasons for the difference in size are the EP-1's much smaller grip and lack of a viewfinder.

Other features on the E-P1 include a 12.3 Megapixel Live MOS sensor, sensor-shift image stabilization, live view on a 3-inch LCD, full manual controls, art filters (gotta have those), a digital level gauge, and a 720p movie mode. It uses a brand new image processor (which improves color rendition, fine detail, and noise suppression) and its metering system has been greatly improved (it's now 324-zone), as well.

The Olympus EP-1 with its lenses

The E-P1 will initially be available with two lenses, which Olympus is branding as "M. Zuiko". There's an F2.8, 17 mm "pancake" lens, plus a more traditional F3.5-5.6, 14 - 42 mm zoom lens. The 14 - 42 is rather unique in that it can "collapse", to reduce its size when not in use.

Is this the portable interchangeable lens camera that everyone's been waiting for? Find out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

The E-P1 will be available in three kits: body only ($750), the body plus the 14 - 42 mm lens ($800), and the body plus the 17 mm pancake lens and its optical viewfinder ($900). The camera will come in two colors (brushed metal and matte white), and the lenses come in two colors (silver and black), as well. Here's what you'll find in the box for each of those kits:

  • The 12.3 effective Megapixel Olympus E-P1 camera body
  • F2.8, 17 mm M. Zuiko lens [17 mm kit only]
  • F3.5-5.6, 14 - 42 mm M. Zuiko lens [14-42 kit only]
  • BLS-1 lithium-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • Optical viewfinder [17 mm kit only]
  • Body cap
  • Shoulder strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Olympus Master software
  • 158 page camera manual (printed)

Olympus E-P1 with optical viewfinder
E-P1 in white with its 17mm lens and optical viewfinder
Image courtesy of Olympus

As I mentioned, there are two new Micro Four Thirds lenses being launched with the E-P1. The 17 mm pancake lens looks fantastic on the body, and I have no complaints about the photos I took with it. The pancake lens also comes with an optical viewfinder that attaches to the camera's hot shoe. Do note that there's no focus synchronization on it -- it's like a rangefinder. The 14 - 42 mm kit lens isn't as good as the "regular" Olympus kit lens with the same focal range (probably because it collapses). The main complaint I have with that lens is corner softness. I'll have more on image quality later in the review.

The E-P1 also works with the four other Micro Four Thirds lenses on the market, all of which are made by Panasonic. They include:

  • F4.0, 7 - 14 mm Lumix G Vario
  • F4.0-5.8, 14 - 140 mm Lumix G Vario HD IS
  • F3.5-5.6, 14 - 45 mm Lumix G Vario IS
  • F4.0-5.6, 45 - 200 mm Lumix G Vario IS

Do note that you'll need to turn off the image stabilizers on those lenses, as the E-P1 already has that built-in!

Olympus E-P1 with lens adapters
E-P1 shown with OM and Four Thirds lens adapters
Image courtesy of Olympus

The E-P1 also works with "legacy" Four Thirds lenses, via the optional MMF-1 adapter. Some older Four Thirds lenses may not support autofocus, though. But wait -- there's more. You can also use classic Olympus OM lenses via another optional adapter (MF-2), and 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-P1, there will be a 2X focal length conversion ratio. Thus, a 50mm lens has a 100mm field-of-view.

Digital SLRs and now interchangeable lens cameras never include memory cards, so you'll need to pick one up right away. Much to my amazement, the E-P1 doesn't use xD memory cards (huge sigh of relief), instead opting for the much more common (not to mention faster) SD and SDHC format. I'd recommend picking up a 4GB SDHC card, and perhaps a larger one if you'll be taking a lot of video clips. It's worth spending a little extra for a high speed card (Class 4 or higher). I did notice that my handy Eye-Fi wireless SD card did not work reliably with the E-P1, so consider yourself warned.

The E-P1 uses the same BLS-1 lithium-ion battery as several of Olympus's digital SLRs. 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:

Camera Battery life w/live view
(CIPA standard)
Battery used
Canon EOS Rebel T1i * 170 shots LP-E5
Nikon D5000 * N/A EN-EL9a
Olympus E-450 N/A BLS-1
Olympus E-P1 * 300 shots BLS-1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 330 shots DMW-BLB13
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 * 300 shots DMW-BLB13
Pentax K-7 * N/A D-LI90
Sony Alpha DSLR-A380 230 shots NP-FH50

* Records HD movies

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

It's hard to draw conclusions about how the E-P1's battery life compares to other interchangeable lens cameras, since most manufacturers don't publish live view battery life numbers. The E-P1's battery life is comparable to the two Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras on the market, and quite a bit better than the two D-SLRs for which I have numbers.

I should point out a few things about the proprietary batteries used by the E-P1 and every other camera on the above list. For one, they're pretty expensive -- you'll spend at least $42 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.

This may be pretty obvious, but Olympus won't be offering a battery grip for the E-P1.

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 charges that plugs directly into the wall - you must use a power cable.

The silver E-P1 with the optional FL-14 flash
Image courtesy of Olympus

There are a decent number of accessories available for the E-P1. The two most notable include the optical viewfinder (which works only with the 17 mm lens) and the FL-14 external flash. Do note that 1) you can't use both of these at the same time (for obvious reasons) and 2) the FL-14 is awfully pricey for a relatively weak flash that can't bounce. That said, here are the most interesting of the E-P1's available accessories:

Accessory Model # Price * Description
Lenses Varies Varies The E-P1 supports all Micro Four Thirds lenses, with a 2X focal length conversion ratio.
Optical viewfinder VF-1 $100 Only works with the 17mm pancake lens; attaches to the hot shoe, which means that you can't use a flash
MC protector PRF-D37
Protects the front elements of the 17 mm and 14 - 42 mm lenses, respectively
Four Thirds Adapter MMF-1 $180 Lets you use "regular" Four Thirds lenses on the E-P1; do note that not all lenses will support autofocus
OM Adapter MF-2 From $169 Lets you use vintage Olympus OM lenses, which will be manual focus only
External flash

FL-14 **

From $199
From $207
From $409
The first flash (pictured above) was designed for the EP-1; the other two have been around for a while and can control other flashes wirelessly
Remote shutter release RM-UC1 From $45 Take pictures without touching the camera
* Prices were accurate at time of publication
** A $100 instant rebate is available when the flash is purchased with the E-P1, through Sep 09

There may be some other accessories available outside of the U.S., such as retro-styled body jackets. One thing you won't find anywhere for the E-P1 is an AC adapter, as it doesn't support one.

Olympus Master 2 in Mac OS X

Olympus includes version 2 of their familiar Olympus Master software with the E-P1. Olympus Master is pretty snappy, the interface is simple, and it can do just about anything you can imagine.

After you've transferred photos over from the camera (either into albums or folders on your hard drive) you'll arrive at the usual thumbnail screen that is standard in all photo viewing software these days. The thumbnail sizes are adjustable, and you can see shooting data and a histogram on the right side of the thumbnails. There's even a built-in RSS reader for subscribing to Olympus-related news feeds (or the DCRP feed, if you're so inclined).

From this screen you can organize photos, e-mail or print them, or display them in a slideshow. If you have a sequence of photos that you want to stitch into a panorama, you can do that with a few clicks of your mouse.

You can also use Olympus Master to update the firmware on the camera and any attached lens or flash, which is one of the nice benefits of the Micro (and regular) Four Thirds format.

Editing JPEGs in Olympus Master 2

Above you can see the edit window, which you access by either double-clicking on a thumbnail or by clicking the Edit button in the toolbar. Functions here include resizing, cropping, brightness/contrast/sharpness adjustments, redeye reduction, distortion correction, and much more. When you're performing one of these edits, the software does a side-by-side before and after comparison, so you can see exactly what changes you've made.

Editing RAW images in Olympus Master 2

Olympus Master also features a pretty comprehensive RAW editor. It lets you adjust exposure, white balance, picture mode (color, b&w, sepia), contrast, sharpness, saturation, gradation, the noise filter, and more. When you adjust any of the settings, Olympus Master shows you the results after a few seconds of grinding away. Do note that you don't get the before and after view like you do when you're editing JPEGs.

Edit screen in Olympus Studio 2

If you want more advanced RAW editing tools then you might want to consider buying Olympus Studio 2 ($100). This adds tone curve adjustment, false color suppression, aberration compensation, distortion correction, batch processing, and much more.

Another tool for editing RAW images is Adobe Photoshop. Well, not yet, as their Camera Raw plug-in didn't support the E-P1's RAW files when this review was written.

Oh, and if you have no idea what the heck RAW is, I'll tell you. Basically, it's a file containing 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 detailed manual with the E-P1. It starts off with a "basics" section to get you up and running, and then delves into a lot more detail. The manual's not remotely user-friendly, with small type and lots of "notes" on each page, but more than likely you'll find the answer to whatever question you may have inside its pages. Documentation for the included software is installed directly onto your computer.