Olympus E-P1 Review

Olympus E-P1 Digital PEN: Twin lens kit, with 17mm Pancake and 14-42mm Zoom

Have you watched the latest Kevin Spacey movie? You know the arty, high key, shallow focus one that's about catching a feeling? ...it's the new Olympus advert!

The Olympus E-P1 is a beautiful piece of kit; it's not all about the tech at all. It looks and feels like a treasured 35mm film camera from the '60s. It's easy to make new stuff sort-of-space-age (black plastic?) which usually works for a month or two, but capturing a timeless but nostalgic look is much tougher. Olympus has struck the same kind of clever balance that the new Fiat 500 has. It's the kind of aesthetic which produces jewel like objects people want whether they need them or not :-)

The E-P1 is a new species of camera. It uses the same sensor as an SLR but without the mirrors or prisms which dictate that traditional SLR shape and size. This allows lenses to get much closer to those large sensors (which means that they can be smaller), simply because they don't have to control and project light across the void where the mirror box would have been.

The E-P1 blends right in with it's relatives

As well as being cute and new, the Olympus E-P1 is also part of a family. Its Micro Four Thirds lens system is shared by four other cameras now and there's a range of lenses too. On top of that it is also part of the full size Four Thirds family, able to pick up their existing lenses and many of the accessories. It actually goes even deeper, because as the gap between the lens and the sensor is much smaller than usual, it is possible to adapt almost all film lenses to fit... including the amazing ones made for the legendary rangefinder cameras carrying the Leica Red Dot.

Memory Maker

As the nice Mr Spacey suggests, the EP-1 is a camera for thoughtful people not gadget monkeys. Nothing suggests that you'll be seeing these camped around football pitches or Jordan's front door. It's all about feelings; Kevin implies the E-P1 is an emotional tool.

To start the tour of the body at the front is to approach a camera which could easily be 40 years old... in a good, George Clooney-esque, way. The brushed stainless steel and castings are perfect retro; if you look closely you'll notice there's no window for a viewfinder. Around the back the obligatory digital furniture is handled with subtlety. There are three dials, an unusual vertical inset thumbwheel, one round the cursor pad and what looks like a film advance – the first acts as you would expect, as does the cursor surround. The third operates the mode dial which is beautifully trenched in and viewed from the top. One of my few ergonomic dislikes is the cramped cursor pad dial arrangement. The surround is both button and dial so it is very easy to nudge one of the direct access functions AF, ISO, WB or drive and then brush the dial around by a click or two. I'm still deciding whether to turn that off or just learn to carry it more carefully!

The EP-1 is smaller than a classic SLR, much smaller than a modern one

On the top you're back to a very simple plateau of scoops and curves with just three buttons - shutter, power and exposure joined by a hotshoe and the mode dial for company. There's nothing apart from a strap ring on the left side. The right has a strap ring and a hatch which conceals oh-so-modern USB/AV and HDMI ports. Underneath, the battery door also covers the SD/SDHC card slot and a wayward tripod mount which has unfortunately strayed from the lens centre line.

Although it's quite small the Olympus E-P1 isn't too light, it feels amazing, without a hint of creak or flex. Holding it takes you back to an age where there wasn't a menu in sight and you thought only of the scene and not how many stops of shadow and burnt highlight you'd have to recover pulling an all night-er of RAW processing. The curious thing about it is that you feel each shutter click is somewhat more portentous than the rapid firing we're all used to now. You (try to) become a photographer, not a point and shooter; not capturing digital files but composing photographs.

The Olympus E-P1 and its companions don't jostle for attention with other compacts on price. In fact they aren't even gunning for the cheap SLRs. They set themselves apart as the choice of the discerning. The enthusiast niche between compacts and SLRs is seeing some heavyweight competition. The excellent Panasonic LX3 and Canon G11 are now the lower echelon of this small market and large sensor 'compacts' are moving in. The Micro Four Thirds models have made an enormous impact in gadget mad Japan, briefly taking up to a quarter of the SLR market.

The PEN wearing the collapsible 14-42mm zoom

Retro Rocket?

So is retro good? The super stylish outside of the E-P1 divides opinion. The well heeled love it. Several people have come over and asked about 'the PEN'. It's a fetish object and has got the cues so perfectly judged that you can happily set it down beside a classic film camera. To my mind bare metal is timeless, though you can have a white E-P1 too. The recently released E-P2 is available in black.

The original PEN series was a range of half frame 35mm film cameras Olympus produced between 1959 and 1983. The idea behind the name was that the camera would be as portable and ready to use as an actual pen. This series included the PEN F SLR from which the E-P1 or Digital PEN takes many of its key styling cues. The PENs were designed for people who wanted image quality without the weight, bulk or complication of a traditional SLR (which wasn't traditional then!) or a twin lens reflex camera. The current target audience is the same. The marketing suggests that like a pen this something for you to be personally creative with – not a soulless digital tool.

Hands on

The Olympus E-P1 isn't as small as a typical compact. The body is wide and sleek but the chosen lens sets the tone when you're out and about. Wearing the 17mm 1:2.8 pancake (35mm film equivalent view 34mm, 65 degrees) it can be mistaken for a normal compact. For an interchangeable lens the 17mm is tiny, weighing only 71 grams and protruding less than an inch from the body. Of course it lacks the utility of a zoom but it really suits the nostalgic vibe.

The pancake 17mm is tiny and the optional OVF is even smaller - ISO1600

The twin lens kit also includes the 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 zoom lens. Its numbers match those of the popular kit zoom for the Four Thirds SLR range but my new visitor wasn't just a scaled down version - it has a party trick. To make it less of a burden the 150g lens packs down to just 40mm to travel, a twist pops it up ready for use. The Olympus E-P1 will warn you if you try to shoot with it compressed. There is a little play when all four telescopic sections have popped out but nothing unusual. The last segment turns as the lens focuses – unlike the 17mm – not great for use with a polariser even if you set it to manual focus. Manual focus uses the outer knurled ring on the main body of the lens.

Although they aren't as cool as the body both lenses feel good and work well. Focusing and other reactions seem pretty much on par with a really good compact. As there's no SLR style focusing path it can't use phase detection but it's no slouch. Try one if you've been discouraged by anyone muttering that it's no sports SLR. Screen based cameras are great for scene composition and the 3" display on the PEN is perfect for that but a conventional optical viewfinder is superior for following action. Along with compacts and many SLRs the PEN isn't really for the touchline shooter, at least there's no pretence about that. The kit comes with an eye level finder which slips on to the hotshoe for days when you feel more Cartier Besson than 21st century boy, but I didn't fall in love with it. The big screen gives you a window into the scene and although the finder is bright and exciting it's not as accurate close up.

The hotshoe is an important feature as the PEN has no built in flash, at all. It's a very bold move. There is a very small accessory flash but the clear intention is that you'll be above artificial lighting. Natural light photography has been almost wiped out by built in flashes and there's a generation of people who are convinced party memories are all rabbit in headlight style. To allow natural light the E-P1 has to be good at high ISO settings - thankfully it is. Any of the Olympus (or Panasonic) flashes will nest happily on the hotshoe. If they support FP mode they'll sync up to 1/4000th second.

Tasteful Teezle

The 3" screen is one of the few LCDs which is any use for manual focus, not because of its quality but because one touch of the 'fly by wire' focus ring activates 7x or 10x enlargement of the picture centre so you can actually see what's sharp. It is far better than the fiddly button option on compacts and in fact more practical than most SLRs – you're looking at a 3” section of your scene virtually blown up to 21" or 30" across. As the focus ring is 'fly-by-wire' rather than mechanical you can choose which direction focuses in or out – to match anything else you might have.

I did wonder if the PEN might not be quite as fast as an SLR shot to shot, AF aside, but it's pretty competitive. You can rapid fire a burst of 11 RAW shots at around 3fps before it slows. Adding simultaneous big JPEGs knock a couple off , but just shooting normal JPEGs it'll hold full speed for 20 odd and then continue at half speed until your fingers drop off.

Any good?

None of the arty, thoughtful stuff would count for snuff if the PEN wasn't any good. There's a few misguided types who assume the loss of the mirror would have an impact on image quality, why would it? The simple unobstructed optical path is the same as found in rangefinders, often lauded for their performance. The underlying electronics of the PEN are very similar to the latest generation of SLRs, not the same but similar. Olympus has worked hard with Panasonic on the sensors they use and their high ISO performance has improved quickly. I've recently had plenty of time with the E-620 and was very impressed with its behaviour up to ISO 1600 but have to say that the PEN is actually markedly better.

Olympus-E-P1-micro-four-thirds-cameraSpot on - spot metering

As with all the Olympus interchangeable lens cameras you can play with the noise management settings if you wish but the defaults seem to be very well tuned. Like you I'm used to review illustrations showing progressively more aggressive softening as ISO increases, by ISO 1600 there's not usually very much detail left. In truth this isn't as a big a deal as they make out, as at normal sizes prints conceal this kind of thing. Not that the PEN needs to worry, it holds detail at the same time as colour without getting the knitted, noisy look until past ISO 3200. In fact the pictures are actually still good at 1600 making natural light photography easily viable indoors and around dusk. As well as its excellent manners in low light the sensor based stabilisation allows hand holding at low shutter speeds too. How effective the sensor based IS depends on the lens used and other conditions but adds a realistic 2-3 stops of help to steady your hands – you can choose whether to keep the shutter speed up, the ISO down or aperture closed. That help is on hand for every lens you use whether new Olympus and Panasonic or legacy Leica. The Micro Four- thirds cameras are the most adaptable digital cameras yet produced. Great news for film enthusiasts with stacks of beloved old lenses. They can add a single body and adaptor to their collection and now use them digitally. The Olympus E-P1 won't even look out of place.

Using manual lenses isn't for everyone of course, but recycling is all the rage these days. Equally E-Series SLR bods can use all their lenses via the Olympus MMF-1 adaptor, which makes it a perfect second body option for travel. Although all the lenses fit, not all will focus as rapidly on the PEN and some aren't suitable for auto focus at all. That's an issue which is being addressed with a program of firmware updates for the lens range. Exposure automation remains of course and the same focus assistance will work for full size Four Thirds lenses.

In-camera (or in-RAW-processing-software) lens correction is an integral part of the design and simply uses the processing packed into the camera to correct lens geometry and give you a better, less distorted picture. It certainly works but I did find that the RAW lens correction wasn't included in some free image processing software – Picasa for example.

A good egg... the PEN begs to be played with

 

Making Movies

Of course any compact should shoot video... shouldn't it? Olympus thought so but it's not as easy as it looks. Compact camera videos have been pretty ropey for a long while and this poster child for cool wasn't going to have anything under par to jar its sleek owners. This meant that the new lenses have to be dual purpose. Video lenses play an important and constant role in exposure and focus. Normal SLR lenses don't have step-less iris control and don't track focus smoothly – they don't have to. Interestingly the zoom lens appears to be par focal, which is ideal for a video lens – it stays focused at the same distance as you zoom in.

That said the PEN doesn't shoot like a camcorder. Its focus tracking is slower than the exemplary GH1 and definitely more circumspect than my HF-200. This is probably a good thing for considered shooting as the reduced depth of field of a large sensor system does give the option of diving so severely out of focus that a full range search might be required. The joy of the system is that you can choose to shoot with a large aperture and pull focus yourself with the responsive manual focus ring – movie style, not video style. The stereo microphone picks up the lens focusing very distinctly, another nudge towards manual focus. The PEN will have slightly more depth of field than a 35mm movie camera, cinema shoots landscape across the reel, not along like stills.

The PEN shoots HD in 720P using MJPEG, a higher bit rate, older school compression format. Shooting video eats through your cards fast, so a 16GB card is a must and would give you around an hour's shooting. There's no HDMI cable in the box, boo! It's a mini version of the connector which unlocks an excellent slideshow mode as well as full res, full rate video play back.

Don't be a tourist

Shooting with the Olympus E-P1 was a change for me. When you have lots of cameras around you tend to pick them up to do a particular job. The PEN begs you to find an excuse to use it and even to take it along when it's not the best choice. It's like a favourite jumper that you wear because you want to, not because it keeps you warm.

Woolly jumpers - 'I thought we were supposed to be white!'

Beyond the retro appeal it's a great camera, scan the enthusiast forums and you'll find people raving about theirs and the photos they are taking with them. It's a real relief from fretting about button blindness, pixel envy and technical traumas in the online groups for black plastic SLRs. Even the art filters make sense on the PEN; it puts you in the mood for playing with pictures. It's cool to spend time trying something different and the idea which seemed so off the wall on a modern SLR like the E-620 fits the mood totally here.

Art Filters, top left to bottom right - Pop art, Soft focus, Pale and light, Light tone, Grainy film, Pin hole

Buying a PEN should be ruled by the heart more than the head... Is it a compact, is it an SLR, nope it's more fun! The Micro Four Thirds revolution is a breakthrough for the market, a lot of people will be charmed by the idea. At the moment the models available are for enthusiasts and the E-P1 (and 2) are literally the most polished nostalgic treats.

Ratings

How did it do? Heart Head Comments
Build - body 10 9 Gorgeous to have and hold
Build - lenses 8 7 Cute and clever but not as solid as the body
Handling 10 7 Great to touch, fun to use, no focus group ergonomics
Performance 9 8 Great photos, ordinary AF
Value 9.5 8 Price getting keen, a very cheap Leica accessory!

Overall Heart score: 9.5
Overall Head score: 8

It could be better but it's a treat, not a tool. You have to try one, follow your heart.