Olympus E-P1 Review

How Does it Compare?

Olympus has never been one to shy away from trying something new. In 2006, they introduced the first digital SLR with live view support: the E-330. Back then I wrote that it was a great first effort, though there were important tradeoffs to consider. That couldn't be more true here in 2009 with the Micro Four Thirds based E-P1. It does so many things very well: it takes great pictures, has plenty of features for both the point-and-shoot and enthusiast crowds, and can record HD movies. And let's not forget the incredible retro styling. The trade-offs are many: the autofocus is painfully slow, there's no viewfinder or flash (and those accessories have their own issues), and highlight clipping is a problem -- just to name a few things. The E-P1's biggest issue is the first one I mentioned: the AF performance. If you're taking photos of things that aren't moving (or aren't moving very fast), then you should be able to deal with it. But if you're shooting sports or trying to capture an active toddler in action, forget about it. Repeating what I said three years ago: if you can live with the E-P1's tradeoffs, then it's absolutely worth a look. If capturing fast action is important to you, you'll want to check out something else instead.

Undoubtedly, the thing that has caused the E-P1 to turn so many heads is its design. Based on the old film-based "Pen", the E-P1 has a retro look, complete with a metal outer shell, faux leather grip, and (of course) interchangeable lenses. The camera is well built and easy to operate with just one hand, though some of the controls are on the small side. While it's not going to fit into your jeans pockets, it's small enough to travel in a purse or small camera bag. The camera is available in brushed metal and matte white, and the lenses are available in silver and black.

The E-P1 uses the same Micro Four Thirds standard as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 and GH1. That means that there's no mirror box, allowing for more compact bodies and lenses. Olympus has two lenses that support the MFT standard: an F2.8, 17 mm pancake, and an F3.5-5.6, 14 - 42 mm lens that can "collapse" when not in use. The first lens seemed pretty good from my experiences, while the zoom has some issues with corner blurriness. You can also use Panasonic's MFT lenses, and most classic Four Thirds lenses will work just fine if you have the appropriate adapter. Since the camera has built-in image stabilization, every lens you attach will have shake reduction. On the back of the camera is a large 3-inch LCD display with 230,000 pixels (yeah, a sharper screen would've been nice). Outdoor visibility was decent, and the screen brightens automatically in low light, especially with "live view boost" turned on.

Speaking of live view, that's how you'll be composing photos on the E-P1, as it has no built-in viewfinder. You'll see a bright, fluid image on the LCD, with all kinds of useful tools, including a live histogram, the ability to enlarge the frame, a digital "level", and a handy Perfect Shot Preview feature, which allows you to see the effects of various white balance and exposure compensation settings. Olympus does offer an optical viewfinder, which is mated to the 17 mm pancake lens. Want a viewfinder for the 14 - 42 mm lens? You're out of luck, at least for now. The viewfinder attaches to the E-P1's hot shoe, which normally isn't a big deal, but since the camera doesn't have a built-in flash, it's a problem. I figure that most people will give up their viewfinder briefly to use the flash, but having a flash built into the camera would've made life a lot easier. The external flash that Olympus has designed to go along with the E-P1 is pricey, not terribly powerful, unable to bounce, and seems to bring out the "red" in people's eyes. Two other things missing from the E-P1 are support for an AC adapter and remote camera control (Olympus' digital SLRs all have that feature).

The E-P1 has a nice combination of features, that'll make beginners and enthusiasts happy. Those of you seeking a point-and-shoot experience can just put the camera into iAuto mode and let the E-P1 do the rest of the work. That means it'll pick a scene mode for you, find any faces, and boost the ISO as high as it needs to in order to ensure a sharp photo. Naturally, there's a dedicated scene mode position on the mode dial, where you can select from a ton of different shooting situations. If you want more controls, you'll find the usual P/A/S/M modes, with shutter speeds ranging from 60 to 1/4000 sec. In addition, there's a bulb mode, allowing for ultra-long exposures. The E-P1 has numerous other manual controls, including white balance fine-tuning, four types of bracketing, and more custom functions than I can count. Regardless of your skill level, you'll have fun with the camera's art filters and movie mode. The movie mode can record video at 1280 x 720 (30 fps) with sound for up to 7 minutes. While the camera supports continuous autofocus during recording, it's slow and noisy. The image stabilizer is disabled during movie recording, unfortunately. The camera's playback mode has a fancy slideshow feature and handy JPEG and RAW editing tools.

Camera performance is very much a mixed bag. The E-P1 takes about 1.3 seconds to start up (due mostly to the dust reduction system), which is on the slow side for cameras with interchangeable lenses. Autofocus performance is the E-P1's achilles heel: it ranges from bad to worse. In the best case scenarios, the camera will lock focus in about a second. Some times it takes two or three seconds. Other times (most notably in low light situations) it just gives up entirely. These delays make the E-P1 a poor choice for photographing moving subjects. On a more positive note, shutter lag isn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays are minimal. While the camera won't win any awards for its continuous shooting rate, it does have a sizable amount of buffer memory, allowing you to take quite a few photos in a row before things start to slow down. It's hard to compare battery life with other interchangeable lens cameras, since they usually don't have live view only numbers available. You can take 300 shots per charge, which is good for a full-time live view camera, though picking up a spare battery may not be a bad idea.

I was very pleased with the photo quality on the E-P1. In fact, the only issues I could find were the camera's tendency to clip highlights and some corner blurriness with the 14 - 42 mm lens. Otherwise, the news is good. Exposure was accurate, colors looked good to my eyes, and sharpness was just how I like it -- not too sharp, not too soft. Olympus has done a nice job with the high ISO performance of the E-P1. You can safely use ISO 800 in low light and ISO 1600 in good light, and you can take things a little higher if you shoot RAW and do a little post-processing. If you're using the FL-14 flash (which is designed to go along with the E-P1), you can expect some redeye, though there is a removal tool in playback mode. I did not find purple fringing to be a problem.

I have two final things I want to bring up before wrapping things. First, it's worth noting that there aren't many Micro Four Thirds on the market right now. Olympus has two, and Panasonic has four, though I expect that to change over the next year. You can, of course, use classic Four Thirds lenses with the MMF-1 adapter. The other issue is that you can't access the memory card while the camera is on a tripod. Some folks may also be bothered by the fact that the tripod mount is not inline with the lens.

Here's the easiest way for me to summarize my thoughts on the Olympus E-P1: If you're taking action shots, consider something else. If you're not, then it's absolutely worth a look. The combination of size, style, photo quality, and features is hard to beat. Just like with the pioneering E-330 three years ago, if you can live with the E-P1's tradeoffs then you'll find that it's a fun and capable interchangeable lens camera.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality; better high ISO performance than previous Olympus D-SLRs
  • Compact, retro-styled, well-built body; both body and lenses available in two colors
  • Sensor-shift image stabilization
  • 3-inch LCD with decent outdoor and low light visibility
  • Live view with face detection, frame enlargement, horizontal and pitch levels, and the handy Perfect Shot Preview feature
  • Dust reduction system
  • Full manual controls, with four types of bracketing
  • RAW image format supported, with good editor included
  • Decent amount of buffer memory allows for long continuous shooting sequences
  • Fun art filter and multiple exposure options
  • Records movies at 720p with sound and continuous AF (though see issues below)
  • Support for classic Four Thirds, OM, and Leica lenses via optional adapters
  • Well-equipped playback mode
  • HDMI port

What I didn't care for:

  • Very slow autofocus performance makes action shots nearly impossible
  • Clips highlights more than I'd like
  • No onboard flash; optional FL-14 flash is pricey, not terribly powerful, doesn't bounce and causes redeye
  • No built-in viewfinder; optional viewfinder only works with 17 mm pancake lens and takes up the hot shoe, so you can't use a flash at the same time
  • Some corner blurring with 14 - 42 mm lens
  • Movie mode issues: limited recording time, no IS available, noisy continuous AF
  • Can't access memory card while camera is on a tripod
  • Higher resolution LCD would've been nice
  • No AC adapter available
  • Doesn't support remote control from a computer, unlike Olympus D-SLRs

The only other Micro Four Thirds available right now are the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 and DMC-GH1. Other compact D-SLRs worth considering include the Canon EOS Rebel T1i, Nikon D5000, Olympus E-450, Pentax K-7, and the Sony Alpha DSLR-A380.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Olympus E-P1 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

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