Olympus E-PL1 Review

Look and Feel

While Olympus gave the E-P1 and E-P2 a distinct, rangefinder-style design, the E-PL1 is a lot more conventional looking (it kind of reminds me of their point-and-shoot cameras). The body is quite compact, and I found it easy to hold with just one hand. While the front and side plates of the body are still metal (aluminum, to be exact), the E-PL1 has more plastic on it than its more expensive siblings, and it doesn't feel quite as solid.

Olympus has done a nice job reducing the number of controls on the E-PL1, so it's not overwhelming to users who are upgrading from point-and-shoot cameras. Combine that with the new "live guide" feature (described later), and the E-PL1 is one of the easiest-to-use cameras in its class.

Images courtesy of Olympus

Olympus produces their compact cameras in a variety of colors, and the E-PL1 is joining the club too. It will be available in black, silver, and the dark blue that you'll be seeing in this article.

How about some side-by-side photos of the PL1 and its Micro Four Thirds friends?

A PEN family portrait, from left to right: E-P1, E-PL1, and E-P2
Images courtesy of Olympus

The E-PL1 and Panasonic DMC-GF1 -- quite similar!

Alright, now let's see how the E-PL1 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 T2i 5.1 x 3.8 x 3.0 in. 58.1 cu in. 475 g
Nikon D5000 5.0 x 4.1 x 3.1 in. 63.6 cu in. 560 g
Olympus E-P1 / E-P2 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 in. 18.4 cu in. 335 g
Olympus E-PL1 4.5 x 2.8 x 1.6 in. 20.2 cu in. 296 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 in. 18.4 cu in. 285 g
Pentax K-x 4.8 x 3.6 x 2.7 in. 46.7 cu in. 516 g
Samsung NX10 4.2 x 3.4 x 1.6 in. 22.8 cu in. 349 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A380 5.0 x 3.8 x 2.8 in. 53.2 cu in. 489 g

While it's not quite as wide as the E-P1/P2 and DMC-GF1, the E-PL1 is actually a bit thicker, given its more substantial grip. As you'd expect, all four of the Micro Four Thirds cameras are substantially smaller than their D-SLR counterparts (since they all have a mirror box).

Ready to start our tour of the camera now? I know I am!

Front of the Olympus E-PL1

Here you can see the front of the E-PL1 with the lens removed. As I mentioned earlier, this is a Micro Four Thirds lens mount, which has a 2X crop factor. I've also already told you about the various lens adapters available, whether its for regular Four Thirds, vintage OM, or Leica M and R-mount lenses. To remove an attached lens, just press the button to the right of the mount.

Inside the lens mount is the E-PL1's 12.3 effective Megapixel Live MOS sensor. Unlike Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds cameras, the E-PL1 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 that you can get up to three stops of correction from their IS system. Here's an example of the IS system in action:

Image stabilization on

Image stabilization off

Both of the photos above were taken with the kit lens at a shutter speed of 1/4 second. It's pretty obvious that the IS system did its job! Do note that you cannot use the sensor-shift IS system while recording videos, though a digital shake reduction system is available. I'll have an example of that when we get to the movie section of the review.

Interchangeable lens cameras essentially require a dust reduction system, since there's no mirror to protect the sensor. The E-PL1 uses the same 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.

One of the most exciting features on the E-PL1 (odd as it may sound) is its pop-up flash, which is released manually. This E-P1 and E-P2 were criticized for not having a flash, and it's one of the main reason why yours truly ended up buying the Panasonic GF1 for my own personal use. Like the GF1, the flash on the E-PL1 isn't super powerful, with a guide number of 7 meters at ISO 100 (about 50% lower than what you'd find on a full-size D-SLR). If you want more flash power, you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe, or use the camera's built-in flash to control up to three sets of wireless flashes.

The only other item of note on the front of the camera is the self-timer lamp, which can be found at the top-left of the above photo. The E-PL1 does not have an AF-assist lamp, unfortunately.

Back of the Olympus E-PL1

The first thing that came to mind when I saw the back of the E-PL1 was "wow, that doesn't look at all like most interchangeable lens / D-SLR cameras". Olympus has definitely simplified things here, keeping the button count low. Most of these buttons serve just one function, as well.

The E-PL1 features a 2.7" LCD display with 230,000 pixels, which is half the resolution of the DMC-GF1. The screen has average sharpness, and offers good outdoor visibility.

As with all Micro Four Thirds cameras, you'll be composing all of your photos on the camera's LCD or optional electronic viewfinder. The live view experience on the E-PL1 is better than on most digital SLRs, though it still lags a bit in the focusing department. Live view on the E-PL1 features contrast detect autofocus (with optional subject tracking), face detection, a live histogram, grid lines, and the ability to enlarge the center of the frame or focus point. The camera uses its Live MOS sensor for the contrast detection AF feature, and while its faster than Olympus' regular D-SLRs (and the E-P1/P2), the Panasonic G-series and some Sony D-SLRs are noticeably faster -- though the new 9-18 and 14-150 mm lenses have narrowed the gap. In low light, the screen brightens automatically, and you can enhance that effect even more by turning on Live View Boost.

Zoomed in 7X in live view

When you're in manual focus mode, you can zoom in by 7X instantly by pressing the button with the magnifying glass on it (you can go even closer by pressing the info button). You can also scroll around the enlarged area using the four-way controller.

Live Guide menu The various things you can adjust in the Live Guide

Another new live view-related feature is called Live Guide. This feature, available only in iAuto mode, displays an easy-to-understand slider on the LCD, which allows you to adjust things like exposure compensation, white balance, color, shutter speed, and aperture, without actually knowing what any of those things are. If you select exposure, you can adjust the overall brightness, or manipulate the dark and bright areas individually. As you might imagine, you can see the results are the changes in real time on the LCD.

Shooting Tips menu, accessible via the Live Guide Tips for pet photos

Something else you'll find in the Live Guide is a Shooting Tips section. Here you'll find advice about taking better people, pet, flower, and food pictures, plus general guidelines about composition.

Multi View, aka Perfect Shot Preview, previewing exposure compensation

At first I thought the Perfect Shot Preview feature from the E-P1/P2 was gone, but it's just had a name change (and is buried in the custom settings menu). If you want to have a quick preview of exposure compensation or white balance, go to the custom menu section D, select thumbnail/info setting, LV-info, and turn on Multi View. You can then hit the info button until you get a screen like the one above.

Live Control menu

When you're in shooting modes other than iAuto, you'll adjust settings via the Live Control menu you can see above. This menu, which is essentially unchanged from the E-P1/P2, allows you to adjust these options:

  • Picture mode
  • Scene mode
  • Art filter mode
  • Movie mode
  • White balance
  • Drive
  • Image stabilizer
  • Aspect ratio
  • Record mode
  • Flash mode
  • Flash intensity control
  • Metering mode
  • AF mode
  • Face detection
  • Movie sound record
  • ISO sensitivity

All of those are shortcuts to other menu items, so I'll describe them in detail elsewhere in this review.

Adjusting settings with the Super Control Panel

There's another way to adjust settings, and that's via the good ol' Super Control Panel (which must be turned on in the setup menu). This shows current camera settings, and you can change any of them by using the four-way controller.

The accessory port on the E-PL1

Back to the tour now -- above the LCD is the E-PL1's accessory port (which is normally protected by the hot shoe cover), which was first seen on the E-P2. This port accepts the VF-2 electronic viewfinder as well as the SEMA-1 external microphone kit, both of which I described earlier.

To the left of the accessory port is the release for the camera's pop-up flash. On the opposite side of things you'll find the Function / zoom out and zoom in / image protect buttons. The Function button can be customized, and by default it turns on face detection and auto shadow adjustment. I'll tell you what else it can do later in the review. Pressing the zoom in button allows you to enlarge the frame for manual focusing, which I described a bit earlier.

Continuing to the right, we find the E-PL1's dedicated movie recording button, which allows you to capture video in any shooting mode. Press it once to start recording, and again to stop. If you want this button to do something else, it too can be customized -- but more on that later.

Now let's talk about all those buttons located just to the right of the LCD. The first three are pretty self-explanatory: they enter playback mode, the menu system, and toggle the information shown on the LCD. To their right is the camera's speaker.

Next we have the four-way controller, which you'll use for menu navigation, adjusting manual exposure settings (the camera lacks a sub-dial, so this is it), and also:

  • Up - Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV) + Program Shift
  • Down - Drive (Single-frame, sequential, 2 or 12 sec self-timer)
  • Left - AF target selection (Multi-area, single-point) - select one of eleven points yourself, or let the camera do it
  • Right - Flash setting (Auto, fill flash, flash off, auto w/redeye reduction, 1st-curtain slow sync, 1st-curtain slow sync w/redeye reduction, 2nd-curtian slow sync, full strength, 1/4, 1/16, 1/64 strength)
  • Center - Start (Live Guide or Live Control menu) + OK

It's time to tell you about the E-PL1's continuous shooting mode, which is the same as the E-P1 and E-P2. Here's how it performed in my tests:

Quality setting Frame rate
RAW + Large/Superfine JPEG 9 shots @ 2.9 fps
RAW 10 shots @ 3.1 fps
Large/Superfine JPEG 17 shots @ 3.0 fps
Performance tested using a Lexar Class 6 SDHC card

A pretty good performance for a relatively inexpensive camera! When you hit those limits in the table, the camera doesn't stop shooting -- it just slows down considerably. The LCD keeps up well with the action, so you should be able to track a moving subject.

The last item on the back of the E-PL1 is the delete photo button, which does just as you'd imagine.

Top of the Olympus E-PL1

Now onto the top of the camera. While there's plenty of room for your left hand when the flash is down, that disappears when it's popped up. Can't have it all, I guess!

At the center of the photo is the E-PL1's hot shoe, with a monaural microphone above it. You'll have the best experience if you pair the E-PL1 with an Olympus-branded flash, as the two can share metering information. The FL-36R and FL-50R also support Super FP (high speed flash sync) and be used wirelessly, with the built-in flash being the controller. If you're not using an Olympus flash, you'll probably have to set the exposure manually. The camera can sync as fast as 1/160 sec with an external flash.

Continuing to the right, we find the camera's mode dial. It has these options:

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 the four-way controller to select from various shutter speed/aperture 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. For the 14 - 42 mm kit lens, the range is F3.5 - F22.
Shutter Priority mode You pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the aperture. The shutter speed range is 60 - 1/2000 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 You can take movies in any mode using the red button, but this is a dedicated mode for video recording.
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, and beach & snow.
Art filter mode Shoot photos with unique effects, including pop art, soft focus, grainy film, pin hole, diorama, and gentle sepia.

The E-PL1 has a pretty standard set of mode dial options, save for the Art Filters. 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 selecting the right scene mode. This is also the only place in which you can use the previously mentioned Live Guide feature. It's worth pointing out that the camera uses a base ISO of 200 in this mode (or anytime Auto ISO is being used). It also defaults to the new iEnhance Picture Mode, which I'll tell you about a bit later in this article.

One of the scene modes on the E-PL1

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 as the photo is taken. The camera actually saves two images -- one retouched, the other untouched. Do note that the retouched image is saved at the medium size. 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.

Art Filter menu

The E-P1 has a slightly different set of art filters than the E-P1 and E-P2, including a new option. The classic art filters are still here, including pop art, soft focus, grainy film, and pin hole. You also get diorama (miniature effect) from the E-P2, plus a new "gentle sepia" filter. Do note that art filters are not applied to RAW images, though you can apply a filter to a RAW image using the RAW data edit feature in playback mode.

Naturally, the E-PL1 has the full suite of manual exposure controls. The fastest shutter speed on the PL1 is 1/2000 sec, unlike the E-P1/P2, which can do 1/4000 sec. There's also a bulb mode, which keeps the shutter open for up to 30 minutes (I think), though you'll need good finger endurance, since there are no remote control accessories available for the E-PL1. You can also use the bulb timer to preset the exposure time.

The last two items on the top of the camera are the somewhat small shutter release button, as well as the power button.

Side of the Olympus E-PL1

Here's the side of the E-PL1, with the 14 - 42 mm lens in its "open" position. There's nothing to see here, other than the unlock button on the lens, which allows you to collapse it back into the travel position.

Side of the Olympus E-P2

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 output, while the one on the bottom is a mini HDMI port (cable not included). A somewhat flimsy plastic cover protects the ports from the elements.

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

Bottom of the Olympus E-PL1

On the bottom of the E-PL1 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.