Olympus Pen E-PL-1 Review

Little brother's little brother

I didn't think that more than a year on, the Micro Four Thirds posse would still have such a dominant position in the new market space they created. The move seems to have genuinely caught the camera world off-guard and now we're beginning to see some really impressive offshoots – notably Panasonic's announcement of a very Pro MFT camcorder and a steady flow of new lenses amongst a stream of regular news. Only Samsung have tried to follow suit and their NX10 looks very lonely at the moment.

The E-PL1 and P1 are actually a pretty similar size

That's all to the good but many people have thought what was needed was a more affordable entry into MFT. An undeniable charm of the current models is their premium nature, and I have a friend who thinks it should stay that way... as treasures can only be devalued by letting the hoi polloi get their hands on them. Olympus seem to have recognised both points of view with the new E-PL1. The L stands for Light, not just in weight, but also in cost and concept.

The new model has a lot of the E-P1's features but what you notice first is that the retro bling and show off engineering have been turned down a notch or two. That might well help it sell to those who found the E-P1 a little too much; but it's as much a product of cost reduction as restyling. It's also an evolution model and lowers its morals a little on Kevin Spacey's anti 'point and shoot' sentiments by including both a built-in flash and the option of an electronic eyepiece viewfinder. Very little has been left out and in some ways it even trumps the range toppers.

olympus-e-pl1-micro-four-thirds-cameraThe rear is a clearly laid out, dial free, button only zone

Meet the new boss, not quite the same as the old boss

A lone E-PL1 looks a little smaller than the P1, but with the two side by side or in the hand it feels a very similar size. It isn't quite as heavy and doesn't have the delicious cold metal feel of the P1. It's still pleasantly dense with a champagne satin aluminium clad front but a more simply painted plastic rear panel. It's not flimsy like some entry level SLR's, but it can't match the build and finish of the P1, but not much does. While there's a much larger right-hand grip than the P1/2, it has lost the rear thumb roller and dial and has to make do with buttons.

olympus-e-pl1-micro-four-thirds-cameraWhat it loses in looks it gains back with it's pop-up flash

A quick tour soon finds a few things you won't discover on the P1; there's a pop up flash for a start – less hardcore more handy – and just to the right of that you'll find a connector below the hotshoe for a slide on electronic viewfinder (like the P2). The hotshoe cover keeps dust out of this too... and in a suspiciously non-accidental way also looks rather like a viewfinder itself.

The rectangular body sports built in strap loops on each side, rather than the rattly, retro rings the P1 has. This is great news for the video shooting it has been built for – less background handling noise. The PL1 has a dedicated video record button which cuts out the need to search round the dial when you want to swap from stills to video. Direct access movies are simpler affairs than those via the video mode on the dial which allow you full control. The mic has become just a mono pick up but you can fit a hotshoe mounted stereo input port - which anyone serious about audio would use rather than the onboard microphone.

I missed the rather nice green glow around the P1's power button, the Olympus E-PL1 has a blue light and the power and record buttons both live very near the back right corner. I found myself occasionally squeezing 'record' as I was putting it down. The record button can be redefined in photographic modes and I'd be inclined to do that if I couldn't quickly wean myself off making mini-films unintentionally.

olympus-e-pl1-micro-four-thirds-cameraThe pop-up can remote control Olympus and Metz flash units

The eagerly awaited pop-up flash is on a cute little cantilever mechanism, which gives it all the height that you could reasonably hope for. Because of the way it's hinged it can even be angled up (pointing down turns it off) to do light bouncing duty if the ceiling isn't too far away. It flies up with some enthusiasm and although the burner looks very small – I haven't found a guide number yet – it can be used to control wireless flashes in Olympus RC mode or be set manually to trigger simple slave strobes to provide all the power you could need. Although this is the range baby, it packs some real enthusiast features.

The power source is the same BLM-1 battery as the E-P1/2 (and E-4xx and E-6xx SLRs) and takes an SDHC card – compatible with cool, fun stuff like most Eye-Fi wireless memory cards. Battery life was highly impressive reeling off well over 500 stills and numerous short video clips before throwing in the towel, a stellar performance for a camera with a screen for a viewfinder, in-body image stabiliser and nice big SLR sensor to keep running. The excellent battery life may be helped by the display moving one size down, to 2.7" rather than 3.0". It's another cost reduction over the P1 but not one I really noticed and holds up well outdoors, but admittedly we haven't had much sun recently. The optional EVF (which I haven't seen yet) is rated excellent by the bloggers and reviewers who've tried it, as the best electronic viewfinder, and is bound to be the best choice for a blazing day.

olympus-e-pl1-micro-four-thirds-cameraBelow the hotshoe there's a connect for the same eye level electronic viewfinder as the P2

À la carte

In the 'compact owner friendly' iAuto mode, a jab on the OK/Start button brings up a selection of simple plain English controls for depth of field, shutter speed etc. which no one should find either confusing or patronising – it’s a very good idea. In other modes you don't get that hand holding and can show off your experience... it's a well balanced choice which will tempt those who don't know what's going on into more adventurous photography and lets those of us who think we know everything (!) to play or cut straight to the chase. Very diplomatic!

Although I'm not usually a fan of smartarse modes, the iAuto does a fairly good job of picking the bones out of a scene and even face detection looks to be helping rather than hindering the process. These things often slow down compact camera decision making but here the compressed SLR horsepower shrugs it off. In fact the E-PL1 actually seems a bit faster than the P1 out of the box – although the new firmware (v1.3) for all the Pens promises to bring them all up to the same level.

Stop press: the new firmware makes a big improvement – elevating the Olympus models to match the nippy Panasonic's according to DPReview.

olympus-e-pl1-micro-four-thirds-cameraYork train station is a photo nerd magnet

Full disclosure

If you like your cameras simple the Olympus E-PL1 can do that, and better than most since it doesn't dress up what it does... you can even watch it selecting ISO, WB and faces. Freshly unpacked its menus are slimmed down to avoid scaring the horses, but if you're curious, interested or ambitious you can unlock more options than most SLRs have, so there's no room for complaint. You can have all the control you might need and lock it away if you don't.

A similar scheme applies to the top or shooting level menu. You can choose a very compact style 2 axis arrangement or a click on 'info' will give you the 'super control panel' from the E-Series SLRs. Both are easy and there's no room for complaint as they leave the crippled config options of certain beginner SLRs looking pretty sad. You can have your cake and eat it, or not even know the cake is there.

olympus-e-pl1-micro-four-thirds-cameraTime I was at that meeting I'm walking to!

Prime time

It may appear that the cool collapsible kit lens is the same as the regular item but this too has been on a diet... though not the kind that any insensitive boyfriend would notice. The mount is plastic rather than metal but in pretty much every other respect it is the same. The only telltale sign once fitted is a tiny 'L' after the aperture information written on the lens. I still find the collapsing aspect really fun (yes, I know I should get out more) and it allowed me to slip it into a favourite small camera bag I hadn't used for years. I would however trade any amount of that amusement if it worked at its unexpanded size – that would be utterly superb.

There's no point denying it really, with a zoom lens fitted the Pens are a bit big to easily pocket, but fit the tiny 17mm pancake and you are liberated. There's a real step back in time to use these little cameras with a small prime lens and it's hard to suppress the urge for an espresso, vespa and ration book. This is a strongly mimetic experience and just so much more intense when you look at your hands and they seem to have strayed into another, earlier decade – the P1 and 2 do this time travel even better, of course.

olympus-e-pl1-micro-four-thirds-cameraOur new cat pumpkin love watching tropical fish - he even takes food for bait

The Olympus EPL1 isn't as cute and darn right irresistible as the P1 but it still gets jealous glances and in a modern society where only big black cameras have interchangeable lenses there's stunned disbelief from bystanders as you apparently tear one lens off and twist another back on.

Like the other Pens the metal tripod mount is offset from the centre line of the lens but like the reduction of the upper shutter speed to 1/2000th second and ISO to 3200 (from 1/4000th and 6400 respectively), this is unlikely to be felt at all. The only thing that irked was the strange omission of an orientation sensor which means a bit of fiddling is needed after downloading to make sure up really is up.

olympus-e-pl1-micro-four-thirds-cameraOlympus folk love blue skies (trail free due to volcanic ash!)

Picture this

As I often say, all this stuff would count for nothing if it didn't work. Pictures are the pudding's proof and again, as with the P1, it's a strength. The unmolested output of the camera is just superb, maybe tuned towards normal people rather than the cognoscenti but they can have it anyway they want. If you don't want the standard settings you can go to town with adjusting everything under the sun... noise reduction, colour strength and bias, sharpness, contrast and gradation. In fact I thought the default was pretty well judged.

One feature I particularly liked was the option to change the filenames generated by the camera; whether you want to know which pictures were taken by Ted's camera, or to highlight those taken by the E-PL1 rather than anything else.

Conclusion

On pure feature count a level headed person couldn't help but favour this new Pen compared to the Olympus E-P1 or E-P2, but many eyes will still be stuck like toffees to those glamour pusses. If you are after the fun, functionality and most of the Pen style then the E-PL1 is a great buy. The savings are mostly in superficial issues rather than substance. The addition of pop-up flash and the option to slide on an eye level viewfinder are a big deal for a lot of people and eliminate a couple of objections to the high concept P1.

olympus-e-pl1-micro-four-thirds-cameraSunset in Suffolk

Those 'extras' put it head to head with the Panasonic GF1 and that's not a comparison that does it any harm. Both are versatile, look good and share a lot of DNA. The in-body IS of the EPL1 might be the decider.

Pros – Pen size and SLR functionality, bonus flash and viewfinder options, faster
Cons - Record button vulnerable to accidental nudges, no orientation sensor

Ratings

Build 7.5/10 Better than most entry level SLRs, but not a patch on the P1
Handling 8/10 Generally very good, hides its teeth, shares its talents
Performance 8/10 Doesn't stand on ceremony, loves taking good pictures
Value 9/10 Brings Micro Four Thirds closer to the masses

Overall score: 85

Nice little package, a starter camera with few limits.

View the Olympus E-PL1 at Wex Photographic.