Olympus E-P1 Review

Look and Feel

Old and new; Image courtesy of Olympus

As I mentioned at the start of this article, the E-P1's design is inspired by the original Olympus "Pen" cameras, specifically the Pen-F shown above. Like the Pen-F, the EP-1 is compact, stylish, and built like a tank. It's one of the few cameras where I can safely say that it feels like it was carved from a solid block of metal, even if it has a fair amount of plastic inside it. The body doesn't have much of a grip, but that didn't bother me; in fact, the lack of a grip makes the camera very easy to operate with just one hand.

Nearly all of the camera's controls can be found on the back of the camera, to the right of its LCD. The E-P1 has a four-way controller with a scroll wheel around it, plus a unique vertically oriented main dial. You'll use both of these dials for menu navigation, adjusting manual settings, and more. I found the four-way controller to be too small, and the wheel around it way too easy to accidentally turn. The mode dial on the E-P1 is set into the top of the body, and you access it with a plastic dial that sticks out of the back. I found that dial to be a bit small for my large fingers.

How about some comparison shots? Here's how the E-P1 looks next to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1, another Micro Four Thirds camera:

I think a lot of people will agree with this sentiment: the E-P1 is the camera we were waiting for when the Micro Four Thirds system was first announced -- at least in terms of size.

Another comparison I thought was interesting was the E-P1 versus the Canon PowerShot G10, which is a fixed-lens prosumer camera. While I didn't have a G10 to photograph, I did come up with this comparison of their sizes and weights:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot G10
(lens retracted)
4.3 x 3.1 x 1.8 in. 24.0 cu in. 350 g
Canon PowerShot G10
(lens extended)
4.3 x 3.1 x 3.0 in. 40.0 cu in.
Olympus EP-1 (body only) 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 in. 18.4 cu in. 335 g
Olympus EP-1 w/17 mm lens 4.7 x 2.8 x 2.3 in. 30.3 cu in. 406 g
Olympus EP-1 w/14-42 mm lens
(closed position)
4.7 x 2.8 x 3.1 in. 40.8 cu in. 485 g
Olympus EP-1 w/14-42 mm lens
(open position)
4.7 x 2.8 x 4.4 in. 57.9 cu in.

Well isn't that interesting... if you compare the body size only, the E-P1 is both smaller and lighter than the PowerShot G10! With the 17 mm lens, it's still smaller, though the size advantage vanishes if you use the 14-42. Of course, the G10 can't swap lenses, so the slight increase in size may be worth it!

By the way, about those open and closed positions for the 14 - 42 mm lens. It has a closed position for traveling around, and an open position for when you actually want to take photos. If you're not in the open position when the camera is turned on, it will let you know. There are comparison photos of the lens in each position later in this article.

Alright, now let's see how the E-P1 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.

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon EOS Rebel T1i 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.4 in. 46.5 cu in. 480 g
NIkon D5000 5.0 x 4.1 x 3.1 in. 63.6 cu in. 560 g
Olympus E-450 5.1 x 3.1 x 2.1 in. 38.6 cu in. 380 g
Olympus E-P1 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.3 in. 17.1 cu in. 335 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1/GH1 4.9 x 3.3 x 1.8 in. 29.1 cu in. 385 g
Pentax K-7 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.9 in. 56.2 cu in. 649 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A380 5.0 x 3.8 x 2.8 in. 53.2 cu in. 489 g

No big surprises here -- the E-P1 is the smallest and lightest camera in the group! It's not quite small enough to fit into your jeans pocket, but it travels easily in a small bag or purse.

Alright, let's start our tour of the camera now!

Front of the Olympus E-P1

Here you can see the front of the E-P1 with the lens removed. The camera uses the same Micro Four Thirds lens mount as the Panasonic DMC-G1/GH1 twins, with a 2X focal length conversion ratio. I listed the available lens and adapter options earlier in this article.

Inside the lens mount is the E-P1's 12.3 effective Megapixel Live MOS sensor. Unlike Panasonic's two Micro Four Thirds camera, the P1 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 you'll get up to four stops worth of shake reduction on the E-P1. Keep in mind that IS cannot freeze a moving subject, nor will it permit multi-second handheld photos -- but it's way better than nothing at all! Here's an example of the IS system in action, with the 14 - 42 mm kit lens:

Image stabilization off

Image stabilization on

Both of the photos you see above were taken at a shutter speed of 1/10 second. As you can see, the photo with IS turned on is noticeably sharper. That blurriness at the bottom is a depth-of-field issue, unrelated to camera shake. One other thing to note: you cannot use image stabilization in movie mode, though an electronic version is available.

Interchangeable lens cameras really benefit from dust reduction systems (especially when there's no mirror to protect the sensor), and the E-P1 uses a more compact version of the 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. Since the sensor doesn't have a mirror to protect it, this feature is more important than ever.

By now you probably notice that that E-P1 doesn't have a built-in flash. So, unless you take photos strictly outdoors, you're going to have to pony up for one of the flashes I listed earlier. The camera also lacks an AF-assist lamp (that's a self-timer lamp at the top-right of the photo), and I'm not sure if you can use the one on an external flash at this point (I assume so).

Back of the Olympus E-P1

The first thing to see on the back of the E-P1 is its large 3-inch LCD display. One thing that disappointed me was that Olympus skimped on the resolution here -- this is the same 230,000 pixel display that you could find on any $300 compact camera. For the price of the E-P1, a 460,000 or 920,000 pixel screen would've been more appropriate, in my opinion. While not the best I've seen, the LCD is fairly easy-to-see outdoors.

As you've probably figured out by now, the E-P1 is a live view only camera. The live view experience is better than on most digital SLRs, but not as good as I've seen. The camera uses the Live MOS sensor to focus (using contrast detection), and it's faster than on Olympus' D-SLRs, but the Panasonic G-series twins and the Sony A3xx series are all noticeably faster. The EP-1 features face detection, a live histogram, and your choice of composition grids. You can also enlarge the frame when in manual focus mode, which allows you to make precise adjustments to the focus distance. In low light, the screen brightens automatically, and you can enhance that effect even more by turning on Live View Boost.

Perfect Shot Preview for white balance

The E-P1 inherits the Perfect Shot Preview feature that's been on Olympus cameras for a year or two now. This allows you to see the effects of different exposure compensation or white balance settings in real time. The views are kind of small, but I still think it's a handy feature to have.

The levels turn green when you hit the magic spot

Another neat feature on the E-P1 is an electronic level, which was inherited from the Olympus E-30. If you're like me and can't take a level shot to save your life, then you'll love this option. The level works both horizontally and for pitch (forward/backward), as well.

As you can see, the E-P1 lacks a viewfinder of any kind. However, Olympus will be offering at least one as an accessory (the VF-1) -- which is meant to be used with the 17 mm pancake lens. The viewfinder clips onto the hot shoe, which means that you cannot use it and an external flash at the same time.

At the top-left of the photo is the plastic dial that's used to operate the mode dial, which you'll have a better view of in a moment. Over on the right side of the LCD is where you'll find the rest of the E-P1's controls. Let's start with the four buttons to the immediate right of the screen:

  • AE/AF lock
  • Playback
  • Delete photo
  • Menu

The next two buttons are Function and Info. The function button is customizable, and by default turns on face detection, multi-point AF, and shadow adjustment (you may want to disable this one, since it can affect photo quality and camera performance). Other options for this button include DOF preview, custom white balance, home AF position, manual focus, RAW on/off, test picture, My Mode, LCD on/off, or nothing at all. The info button moves through the various displays on the LCD.

In between the Function and Info buttons is the small four-way controller, which has a scroll wheel surrounding it. The four-way controller is used for menu navigation, reviewing photos, and also:

  • Up - ISO (Auto, 100 - 6400)
  • Down - Drive (Single-shot, sequential, 2 or 12 sec self-timer)
  • Left - AF (Single AF, continuous AF, manual focus, single AF + manual) - this button is customizable
  • Right - White balance (Auto, sunlight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, white fluorescent, neutral white fluorescent, daylight fluorescent, flash, one-touch, color temperature)
  • Center - Live control menu + OK

As you can see, the E-P1 has a pretty expansive ISO range, going all the way up to ISO 6400. You can set how high it goes in Auto mode in the menu system.

Now let's talk about the E-P1's continuous shooting performance. Olympus says that the camera can shoot as fast as 3 fraesm/second -- here's how things turned out in the real world:

Quality Burst rate
RAW + Large/Fine JPEG 9 shots @ 3.0 frames/sec,
then unlimited @ 0.6 fps

13 shots @ 3.0 frames/sec,
then unlimited @ 1.4 fps

Large/Fine JPEG 17 shots @ 2.9 frames/sec,
then unlimited @ 1.9 fps
Tested using a Class 6 SanDisk Extreme III SDHC card

While it's burst rate isn't the fastest out there, the E-P1 has a decent amount of buffer memory, so you can take quite a few photos in a sequence. Once the buffer fills up, the camera keeps shooting, just at a slower rate. The image on the LCD has just a brief blackout between each shot, so you should be able to track a moving subject.

There are plenty of white balance to choose from on the camera. You've got the usual presets, plus you can use a white or gray card as a reference, for accurate color in mixed or unusual lighting. You can also set the white balance by color temperature, with a range of 2000K - 14000K. If that's still not enough, you can fine-tune the WB (in the amber-blue and/or green-magenta directions) and you can bracket for it, as well.

Frame enlargement in manual focus

What are those AF modes all about? Single AF locks the focus when you halfway-press the shutter release button. Continuous AF keeps focusing, even when the shutter is halfway-pressed, which comes in handy if you're shooting a moving subject. Manual focus allows you to set the focus distance yourself, though that can be difficult, since there are no distance markings on the lens, nor are any displayed on the LCD. As you'd expect, the camera enlarges the frame so you can verify proper focus, and you can move around when you're zoomed in by using the four-way controller.

Live Control Menu

Pressing the center button in the four-way controller opens up the E-P1's new Live Control Menu. This allows you to get at the camera's most commonly used settings without having to enter the regular menu system. You use the scroll wheel to go up and down (though I think the direction of movement is backwards) and the silver thumb dial to go left and right. By the way, you can use the four-way controller for all of this. Functions that can be set in the Live Control Menu include:

  • Scene mode
  • Art filter mode
  • Movie AE mode
  • White balance
  • Drive
  • Image stabilizer
  • Aspect ratio
  • Record mode
  • ISO sensitivity
  • Flash mode
  • Metering mode
  • AF mode
  • Face detection
  • AF target selection
  • Movie sound record

I'll give you more details about many of those options later on.

The Super Control Panel is alive and well

By the way, fans of the Super Control Panel need not worry -- it's still here. To get to it, press the OK button to show the Live Control Menu, then hit Info, and viola -- the Super Control Panel appears. You can adjust settings here in the same way that you can on Olympus' D-SLRs.

I've touched on it already, but the last thing to see on the back of the E-P1 is that silver thumb wheel. It's used to navigate through the regular and Live Control menus, and it also lets you operate the playback zoom feature.

Top of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1

First up on the top of the E-P1 is its mode dial, which is actually recessed into the body a little bit (which is why you turn it with that black plastic dial below it). Here are the eight options available on the mode dial:

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection
Program mode Automatic, but with full menu access; a Program Shift option lets you use either of the dials to move through various sets of aperture/shutter speed combos
Aperture Priority mode You set the aperture, and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The available apertures will depend on what lens is attached.
Shutter Priority mode You pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the aperture. The shutter speed range is 60 - 1/4000 sec.
Full manual (M) mode You select both the aperture and the shutter speed. Same ranges as above. A bulb mode is also available, which keeps the shutter open for as long as the shutter release is pressed
Movie mode More on this later
Scene mode You pick the scene, and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Select from portrait, e-portrait, landscape, landscape+portrait, sport, night scene, night+portrait, children, high key, low key, digital image stabilization, macro, nature macro, candle, sunset, documents, panorama, fireworks, beach & snow
Art filter mode Shoot photos with unique effects, including pop art, soft focus, pale & light color, light tone, grainy film, and pin hole.

The E-P1 has a pretty typical set of mode dial options. 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 picking a scene mode (selecting from portrait, landscape, night scene, sport, or macro). It's worth pointing out that the camera uses a base ISO of 200 in this mode, or anytime Auto ISO is being used.

One of the scene modes on the E-P1

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 the photo is taken. The camera actually saves two images -- one retouched, the other untouched. 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. Since the EP-1 doesn't use xD cards, there's none of that "you must use an Olympus-branded card to use this feature" stuff, either.

Art Filter menu

The E-P1 also features Olympus' much-hyped art filters, which debuted on the E-30. You can select from pop art, soft focus, pale & light color, light tone, grainy film (my personal favorite), and pin hole. If you're shooting in RAW+JPEG mode, the filter is applied to the JPEG, but not the RAW. In playback mode, you now have the ability to apply art filters to RAW images that you've already taken. There are a couple of images in the gallery taken using the Art Filters for you to see.

Naturally, the E-P1 has the full suite of manual exposure controls. There's also a bulb mode, which keeps the shutter open for as long as you'd like (though I think it will stop after 30 minutes). Since there's no remote shutter release available for the camera, you'll want to use the bulb timer for longer exposures.

Getting back to the tour, let's talk about the E-P1's hot shoe. Here you'll attach an external flash (which you'll probably be doing frequently) or the optional optical viewfinder. The E-P1 works best with recent Olympus flashes (including its own matching flash, the FL-14), which will sync with the cameras TTL metering system. The FL-36R and FL-50R can also take advantage of the "Super FP" function, which lets you use them at any shutter speed. Otherwise, the fastest shutter speed you can use is 1/180 sec. You can use third party external flashes with the E-P1, though you'll probably need to adjust their settings manually.

Continuing to the right. we find the indicator for the Supersonic Wave Filter (dust reduction system), and the power, shutter release, and exposure compensation buttons. The exposure compensation range is -3EV to +3EV, in 1/3EV increments.

Side of the Olympus E-P1, lens closed

There's nothing to see on this side of the camera. In this photo, the 14 - 42 mm lens is in its "travel" position. Let's open up this bad boy now:

Side of the Olympus E-P1

And here's the lens at the wide-angle position. As you can see, it nearly doubles in size when you open it up.

Side of the Olympus E-P1

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 out, while the one on the bottom is a mini HDMI port (cable not included). A plastic door of average quality protects these two ports.

The 14 - 42 mm lens is at the telephoto position in this shot.

Bottom of the Olympus E-P1

On the bottom of the E-P1 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.