Olympus E-P1 Review

Using the Olympus E-P1

Record Mode

It takes the E-P1 about 1.3 seconds to run through its dust reduction cycle and prepare for shooting. That's on the slow side for an interchangeable lens camera (which includes digital SLRs).

In case you missed it, there's a live histogram displayed on the LCD

Autofocus performance is by far the E-P1's weak spot. Unless you'll be using manual focus, you can forget about using the E-P1 for any kind of action shooting. That's because focus times start at just under one second (wide-angle and telephoto speeds didn't vary by much). If the camera has a more challenging subject to deal with, focus time can be two or three seconds long. For shooting still life and landscapes, I didn't mind. But when I was trying to capture my 18 month-old niece "in action", the AF system was so slow that I usually got poor results. In low light the camera has a lot trouble as well, as it has no AF-assist lamp to illuminate your subject. Olympus doesn't say whether the E-P1 can use the AF illuminator on the FL-36R and FL-50R flashes, but I would imagine so.

Something else focusing-related that I hadn't even thought of was discovered by the always astute Digital Photography Review. They pointed out that the E-P1 does a full re-focus on every shot, which makes the camera feel even slower in everyday use. The author does note that you can reassign focusing to the AE/AF Lock button, which can speed things up if your subject isn't going anywhere.

One thing that wasn't an issue was shutter lag -- I certainly didn't notice any. Shot-to-shot delays were also brief, regardless of the image quality setting.

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.

Paragraph above updated 8/10/09

Now, here are the various image size and quality options on the E-P1:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 2GB SD card (optional)
4032 x 3024
RAW 14.0 MB 108
4032 x 3024
Super fine 8.4 MB 202
Fine 5.9 MB 290
Normal 2.7 MB 640
Basic 1.8 MB 954
3200 x 2400
Super fine 5.6 MB 308
Fine 3.4 MB 510
Normal 1.7 MB 1008
Basic 1.2 MB 1494
2560 x 1920
Super fine 3.2 MB 538
Fine 2.2 MB 790
Normal 1.1 MB 1552
Basic 800 KB 2286
1600 x 1200
Super fine 1.3 MB 1346
Fine 900 KB 1986
Normal 500 KB 3786
Basic 400 KB 5506
1280 x 960
Super fine 900 KB 2088
Fine 600 KB 3028
Normal 300 KB 3786
Basic 300 KB 5506
1024 x 768
Super fine 600 KB 3188
Fine 400 KB 4486
Normal 300 KB 8078
Basic 200 KB 11014
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! You can take a RAW image alone, or with a JPEG at the size of your choosing.

The E-P1 has a regular menu, in addition to the Live Control and Super Control Panel features that I showed you earlier. The main menu is the same as on Olympus' digital SLRs. It's divided up into several tabs, covering shooting, playback, custom, and setup options. Two things to note: the custom menu isn't shown by default (you have to turn it on), and many of these menu options will be unavailable in the auto and scene modes. I also found some commonly used options to be buried way too deep in the custom settings, though many of them are available in the Live Control menu. And with that, here's the full list of menu options:

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 (Vivid, natural, muted, portrait, monotone, custom) - more below
  • Gradation (Auto, normal, high key, low key) - see below
  • Image quality
    • Still picture (RAW, Large/Fine, Large/Normal, Medium/Normal, Small/Normal, RAW+L/F, RAW+L/N, RAW+M/N, RAW + S/N) - 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
  • Movie AE mode (Program, aperture priority, art filters 1-6)
  • Movie+Still (on/off) - if this is on, it will save the last frame of the movie as a full resolution photo
  • Drive (Single shot, sequential, 2 or 12 sec self-timer)
  • Image stabilizer (Off, mode 1, 2, 3) - see below
  • Multiple exposure - see below
    • Frame (Off, 2 frame)
    • Auto gain (on/off)
    • Overlay (on/off)
Playback Menu
  • Slideshow
    • Start
    • Background music (Off, cool, joy, love, nostalgic, melancholy)
    • Slide (All, still picture, movie)
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - rotates images taken in the portrait orientation
  • Edit
    • Select image
      • RAW data edit
      • JPEG edit
      • Voice caption
    • Image overlay (2 - 4 image merge)
  • DPOF print marking (One, all)
  • Reset protect (on/off)
Custom Menu
  • AF/MF
    • AF mode (S-AF, C-AF, MF, S-AF+MF) - you can set this separately for stills and movies
    • AF area (All target, single target) - let the camera choose from 11-points, or pick one yourself
    • Focus point setup (Off, loop, spiral) - how you move through the camera's focus points
    • 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) - center-frame enlargement in manual focus mode
  • Button/Dial
    • Dial function - select what the command dials control
      • Program mode (Program shift, exposure compensation, flash exposure compensation)
      • Aperture priority mode (Aperture, exposure compensation, flash exposure compensation)
      • Shutter priority mode (Shutter speed, exposure compensation, flash exposure compensation)
      • Manual mode
        • Main dial (Shutter speed, aperture)
        • Sub dial (Shutter speed, aperture)
      • Menu
        • Main dial (Left/right, up/down, value)
        • Sub dial (Left/right, up/down, value)
    • Dial direction (Dial 1, 2) - for adjusting shutter speed and aperture
    • 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, test picture, My Mode, backlit LCD, off) - define what this button does
    • Left button (AF mode, metering, flash mode, backlit LCD, image stabilizer) - this is the left directional button on the four-way controller
    • 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
    • AE/AF lock <--> Function swap (on/off) - swap the functions of these two buttons
    • Arrow pad function (Off, on, focus point selection) - whether the four-way controller has those added functions, or is used to select a focus point
  • Release/Continuous
    • 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 (1080i, 720p, 480p, 576p)
    • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
    • Beep (on/off)
    • Sleep (Off, 1, 3, 5, 10 mins)
    • USB mode (Auto, storage, MTP, print)
    • Live view boost (on/off) - boosts low light visibility in live view, but slows refresh rate
    • Face detection (on/off)
    • Info setting
      • Playback info
        • Image only (on/off)
        • Overall (on/off)
        • Histogram (on/off)
        • Highlight & shadow (on/off)
      • Live view info
        • Histogram (on/off)
        • Zoom (on/off)
        • Multi view (on/off) - Perfect Shot Preview
        • Image only (on/off)
        • Complex grid lines (on/off)
        • Rule of thirds grid lines (on/off)
        • Axis grid lines (on/off)
    • Volume (0-5)
    • Slideshow setup
      • Slide interval (2 - 10 secs)
      • Movie interval (Full, short) - whether movies are shown in their entirety when viewing a slideshow
    • Level gauge (on/off)
    • Movie sound recording (on/off)
  • 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 - 6400)
    • ISO step (1/3, 1 EV)
    • ISO Auto set
      • High limit (200 - 6400) - max it will go up to
      • Default (200 - 6400) - 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
    • Bracketing
      • AE bracketing (Off, 3 frames/0.3EV, 3 frames/0.7EV, 3 frames/1.0EV)
      • WB bracketing (Off, 3 frames/2 step, 3 frames/4 step, 3 frames/6 step) - you can go in both the amber-blue and green-magenta directions
      • Flash bracketing (Off, 3 frames/0.3EV, 3 frames/0.7EV, 3 frames/1.0EV)
      • ISO bracketing (Off, 3 frames/0.3EV, 3 frames/0.7EV, 3 frames/1.0EV)
  • Flash custom
    • Flash mode (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, fill flash w/redeye reduction, fill flash, flash off, slow sync w/redeye reduction, slow sync, 2nd-curtain slow sync)
    • Flash exposure compensation (-3EV to +3EV, in 1/3EV increments)
    • X-sync (1/60 - 1/180 sec)
    • Slow limit (1/30 - 1/180 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) - described earlier
    • All white balance compensation
      • All set (-7 to +7) - in either the amber or green 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 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
  • 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
    • Level adjust (Reset, adjust) - calibrate the level meter



Setup Menu
  • Date/time (set)
  • Language
  • LCD brightness (Auto, manual)
    • 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 custom picture mode

Picture Modes contain sets of color, sharpness, and exposure settings. The preset Picture Modes are fairly obvious: vivid, natural, or muted colors, plus portrait for smooth skin tones. For each of those, you can tweak the contrast, sharpness, and saturation. For black and white shooting, there's a monotone mode. There you can apply 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.

The gradation feature takes advantage of Olympus' Shadow Adjustment Technology. The normal option is your standard automatic contrast feature. Auto gradation breaks the image down into smaller segments, and adjusts the contrast for each of those areas. This should result in more shadow detail. You can also use the high and low key options for subjects that are mostly highlighted and shadowed, respectively. You can see an example of this feature in action in my E-620 review.

There are three different image stabilizer modes to choose from on the E-P1. 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.

The E-P1 has the same multiple exposure feature as the E-620. 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 four RAW photos that you've already taken into one, in much the same way.

There are a whopping four types of bracketing on the E-P1. You can bracket for exposure, flash exposure, white balance, and even ISO sensitivity. For each of those, the camera produces anywhere from three to six photos, each with a different exposure/WB setting/ISO. White balance can be bracketing in both the amber/blue and green/magenta directions.

Alright, enough about photos -- let's do the photo tests now!

Lens used: Olympus F2.8, 17 mm M. Zuiko

The E-P1 did a great job with our standard macro test subject. Colors are vibrant, the subject is sharp, and I don't see anything resembling noise. The only thing I want to mention is that I had to overexpose the photo more than I do with a typical camera that I'm reviewing.

The minimum distance to your subject will depend on what lens you have attached to the camera. For the two Olympus lenses (17 and 14 - 42) the minimum distances are 20 and 25 cm, respectively. If you want a dedicated macro lens, you'll have to use a classic Four Thirds with the adapter, at least for now.

Lens used: Olympus F4.0-5.6, 40 - 150 mm (with Four Thirds adapter)

Normally I reach for my "classic" F3.5-4.5 40 - 150 mm Zuiko lens when I test a Four Thirds camera, but since it doesn't support autofocus on the E-P1, I used the newer F4.0-5.6, 40 - 150 mm model that does. Much to my surprise, the new lens performed nearly as well as the old (higher grade) one. The buildings are sharp from one edge of the frame to the other. With full manual controls at your disposal, bringing in enough light was a piece of cake. Noise levels are very low, as you'd expect, and purple fringing was minimal. About the only thing to complain about is the noticeable highlight clipping, which I'll touch on again in a minute.

Now, let's use that same night scene to see how the E-P1 performs at higher sensitivities:

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

There's a tiny increase in noise when you go from ISO 100 to 200. Noise becomes more noticeable at ISO 400, though it won't keep you from making a large print. You start losing detail at ISO 800, reducing print sizes slightly, so now's a good time to start thinking about shooting RAW. That trend continues at ISO 1600, so this is probably as high as I'd take the E-P1 in low light conditions (unless you're post-processing). You can see that the edges of the buildings have vanished at ISO 3200, and you don't want to even bother with ISO 6400.

You can shoot RAW and post-process to get better results out of the E-P1, at least up to a point. I took the RAW versions of the ISO 1600 and 3200 images above, converted them with Olympus Studio, and then did some clean-up work in Photoshop. See for yourself:

ISO 1600

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Olympus Studio)

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

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Olympus Studio)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

This is a great time to point out that if you don't turn off the Noise Filter in Olympus Master or Studio, the image you've converted from a RAW file will look just like the JPEG, which may not be desirable. With the noise filter off, you get a lot more noise, but it also gives you more detail to work with. You can clearly see an improvement in the ISO 1600 image, though once you get to ISO 3200 the change isn't quite as dramatic.

I'll have the studio ISO test for you in a moment.

Yes, I know that the E-P1 doesn't have a built-in flash, but since I figure a lot of people will be buying the FL-14 that I should do the redeye test anyway. Unfortunately, redeye was a problem here, as the flash isn't that far from the lens (the larger external flashes shouldn't have this issue). There is a redeye removal tool in playback mode, so let's see if it helped:

Well, it fixed one eye. Your results may vary!

17 mm lens 14 - 42 mm lens

There's minimal barrel distortion on the F2.8, 17 mm pancake lens and mild-to-moderate distortion at the wide end of the 14 - 42 mm zoom. The camera actually corrects for barrel distortion automatically, though not for RAW images (but the included software can remove it), so things are actually worse in reality than you see here. While I didn't see much in the line of corner blurriness with the pancake lens, it's definitely there on the 14 - 42 mm zoom. You didn't expect a collapsible zoom lens to have perfect sharpness across the frame, did you? Vignetting (dark corners) wasn't a problem with either lens.

Now it's time for our studio ISO test. Since the lighting is always the same, you can compare these images between those from other cameras. While viewing the small images is a quick way to compare the noise levels at each sensitivity, opening up the full size image is always a good idea.

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

The first three crops are very clean, as one would expect on a D-SLR or interchangeable lens camera. The image gets noticeably softer at ISO 800, though noise is kept in check. While noise is easily visible at ISO 1600, there's not enough to keep you from making a large print at this setting. Noise doesn't really become an issue until ISO 3200, which is an improvement over the Olympus D-SLRs that I've tested recently. At this point you'll be making small prints, though you can salvage things by shooting RAW, as you'll see below. ISO 6400 is probably worth skipping, as there's quite a bit of detail loss as well as a drop in color saturation.

Speaking of RAW, here's another example showing the benefit of using the format:

ISO 3200

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Olympus Studio)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

The benefit of using RAW and post-processing is pretty obvious at ISO 3200, and is well worth doing if you're shooting at higher ISOs. You can also play around with the noise filter option on the camera to reduce the amount of detail lost.

Overall I was very pleased with the E-P1's image quality. Exposure was generally accurate, though the E-P1 has considerable highlight clipping for a camera with a relatively large sensor. Colors were pleasing, and subjects were sharp by interchangeable lens camera standards. The one exception is in the corners on the 14 - 42 mm kit lens, which can be blurry at times. As the tests above illustrated, noise levels are low through ISO 800 in low light, and ISO 1600 in good light (which is better than on previous Olympus cameras). Purple fringing levels were fairly low.

Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at our photo gallery, print a few of them if you're interested, and then decide if the E-P1's photo quality meets your expectations!

Movie Mode

One of the biggest features on the E-P1 is its ability to record HD movies. That makes it the first Olympus interchangeable lens camera (which includes D-SLRs) to support video recording. The E-P1 can record video at 1280 x 720 at 30 frames/second (with stereo sound) until the file size reaches 2GB. That takes around 7 minutes at the HD resolution, since the Motion JPEG codec used here isn't terribly efficient. 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 higher SD/SDHC card for recording movies.

The E-P1 has the ability to focus continuously while recording a movie. The problem is, the noise from that slow contract detect AF system will be picked up by the microphone. I could even hear it with music blaring in the background. The optical image stabilizer is not available in movie mode, though an electronic version tries to substitute for it.

The camera doesn't give you much in the line of manual controls in movie mode, though you can adjust the aperture manually by adjusting the Movie AE mode option. You can also apply any of the six art filters to a movie, though some of them significantly reduce the video's frame rate.

The Movie+Still image will save a full resolution still image of the last frame of your movie, automatically. There's no way to take a still image in the middle of video recording.

Ready for a sample movie? The video below was taken at the 720p resolution, but has been compressed for easier web viewing (be sure to click the expand icon at the top right for HD viewing). If you want to view the original movie, click the link underneath the video. Be warned -- it's a BIG download.

Download original video file (85MB, AVI format)

Playback Mode

While the playback options may look a lot like those on Olympus' digital SLRs, there have been some changes under the hood. Basic features include slideshows, DPOF print marking, image rotation, image protection, voice captions, and zoom & scroll (playback zoom). The slideshow feature has been greatly enhanced -- it now has background music (by some well-known Japanese musician) 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).

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 downsize 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 between from 2 to 4 images and then combine them into one photo. You can adjust the gain for each of the photos.

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-P1 between photos without delay in playback mode.