Camera Review: Olympus E-P1

Text & Photos By Diane BerkenfeldOlympusEP1frontweb

Last fall, at the photokina trade fair, the bi-annual photography event held in Cologne, Germany, I had a chance to view what was at that time a non-working concept camera that Olympus had developed. Reminiscent of a Leica Rangefinder camera, the body was small yet elegant in its design. Fast-forward to the Spring of 2009 and the debut of Olympus Imaging America’s E-P1. Olympus touts the camera not as a P&S, not as an SLR, but a PEN.

The first-generation Olympus Pen camera appeared in 1959. The concepts embodied in the Pen Series eventually led to the creation of the legendary Pen F Series half-frame single lens reflex system. Check out the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympus_Pen to get a thorough look at the history of the Olympus Pen series cameras.

Its retro-chic look turns heads, from tech aficionados and camera buffs to the fashion-conscious and everyday point-and-shooter.

The E-P1 is a 12.3 megapixel interchangeable lens system digital. The camera offers the quality and flexibility of a DSLR in a compact (stainless-steel) body. The camera can be described as retro-chic and is available in two versions, silver with black accent or white with tan accent. The E-P1 is the first Olympus camera in the Micro Four Thirds system format. Two lenses were introduced with the camera—the M Zuiko Digital Micro Four Thirds 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 (28-84mm equivalent) and 17mm f/2.8 (34mm equivalent).

OlympusEP1backwebThe camera does not feature a viewfinder—optical or EVF—and that’s the one feature that I truly miss. A 3-inch LCD allows for the composition of images and video as well as playback. For the 17mm lens, an optional accessory viewfinder slips into the camera’s hot shoe. Consumers accustomed to composing and focusing using a P&S camera’s LCD won’t miss the lack of a viewfinder. The camera’s Live Control function allows menu icons to appear on the LCD—over the image you’re composing, for more seamless shooting.

You can shoot Jpeg, Raw, or Jpeg + Raw, which is how I normally shoot. The reason I like the combination of both Raw plus Jpeg is that it offers me the ability to shoot Raw and have access to all that great data, but also Jpegs so I can quickly edit through images. I also like that most cameras that offer Raw + Jpeg recording let you shoot B&W or in the case of the E-P1 by using various Art Filters but if you want to, you can always go back to the Raw file and reprocess the image without the filters or monochrome look. The way I see it, Raw + Jpeg lets you have your cake and eat it too. Images are recorded onto SD/SDHC media cards.

The E-P1 offers four aspect ratios that serve as masks to frame images: the standard 4:3, 16:9, which displays perfectly on a widescreen TV, 3:2 and 6:6.

The camera is fully manual as well as fully automatic, and practically everything in between; offering 19 scene modes, as well as Olympus’ intelligent Auto, program, aperture- and shutter speed-priority modes. One of the more interesting is the ePortrait Mode which enables you to smooth your subject’s face—in-camera and before capture. Additionally, edits can be made post-capture using the ePortrait Fix mode.

I have to hand it to Olympus—the scene modes of the E-P1 were right on the money. When I found myself shooting in tricky lighting situations, I found the scene modes did a better job than the camera set on Program, and faster than if I was shooting completely manual. Considering that this camera was designed for the P&S user that wants to step up to the next level in photography, it makes sense that the scene modes will most likely be used a lot.

The E-P1 offers Face Detection, of up to eight subject’s faces, tracking them within the image area. The Face Detection works well, in fact, I found myself relying on it during portrait shoots, especially with multiple people in the frame.

Images from the E-P1 are as sharp as those of any DSLR I’ve used.

Cropped view - actual pixels, from image on left. Flower is tack sharp.

Cropped view - actual pixels, from image on left. Flower is tack sharp.

Full image, macro shot.

Full image, macro shot.

Instant Gratification

One of the coolest aspects of this camera is the inclusion of the art filters, first introduced in the Olympus E-30 DSLR. The art filters are accessed through the mode dial. Each of the six filters—Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale & Light Color, Light Tone, Grainy Film, and Pin Hole—can be previewed live on the LCD as you’re shooting. For imaging purists who want to shoot without filters, and apply the filters to images inside the camera later, or just edit images back at their computers, the E-P1 provides these options. The art filters can also be used while shooting HD video.

Examples of the Art Filters: (top row l. to r.) Pin Hole, Pop Art, Soft Focus; (bottom row l. to r.) Light Tone & Color, Pale Color, Grainy. Photos by Diane Berkenfeld.

Examples of the Art Filters: (top row l. to r.) Pin Hole, Pop Art, Soft Focus; (bottom row l. to r.) Light Tone & Color, Pale Color, Grainy Film.

In addition to being able to view the Art Filters on the scene while you’re composing, other settings are also WYSIWIG (what you see is what you get). These include white balance and exposure changes.

One feature that is slowly making its way into higher-end digital cameras is the Multiple Exposure mode. The E-P1 allows users to create multiple exposures in camera, in real time, or by capturing both shots separately and combining them in the camera later. This is yet another creative option that photographers using the E-P1 have at their disposal while shooting—which for many folks using digital is ideal, as they don’t want to have to use software to alter images, but create photographs in the camera that can be easily printed out.

E-P1 – Packed with Features

The E-P1 is the first Micro Four Thirds camera introduced by Olympus, however the camera uses the same size Live MOS image sensor as the E-30 and E-620 DSLR models. The camera also utilizes the new TruePic V image processor. Some of the other features of the camera include in-body image stabilization; Olympus’ patented Supersonic Wave Filter for dust reduction; ISO range of 100 to 6400; an internal Digital Level Sensor that detects the camera’s pitch and roll; manual and automatic focusing; as well as a MF Assist Function and magnification display that lets you magnify the image on the LCD by up to 10x. Metering modes include spot, center-weighted and the 18×18, 324-division ESP metering.

The camera includes Olympus Master 2 software, for the Mac and PC. The software allows users to organize images and process Raw files. The software is also used for updating camera and lens firmware. The software is easy to navigate and offers more detailed EXIF data on the image files than does Photoshop or Lightroom.

In addition to video, the camera also has a built-in stereo microphone and can record audio narration. The E-P1 comes with five built-in background music options so users can mix stills and video in-camera to create multimedia slideshows, which can then be viewed on any HDTV via an HDMI cable.

As I mentioned earlier, I had to get used to composing via an LCD instead of a viewfinder, so a photographer who normally only shoots with a DSLR may feel the same way I did when they first pick up the E-P1, but you quickly get used to composing on the LCD.

The beginner or intermediate photographer will have no problem picking up the E-P1 and getting started. This type of user most likely has owned or used a digital P&S camera in the past and will be used to composing on an LCD, as well as using program and scene modes. The manual modes are in the camera so they can step up to the features as they learn how to use them.

For the enthusiast or professional photographer who has used Rangefinder cameras in the past, and want a more compact camera to take with them on vacations [i.e. when not working], the E-P1 would be a great choice.

And if this type of photographer already shoots with Olympus’ E-series digital SLRs, they can utilize their Four Thirds lenses with the E-P1 using the MMF-1 Four Thirds System Lens Adapter. This adapter also allows Four Thirds System lenses from Sigma, Panasonic, and Leica to attach to the E-P1. For photographers who go back further still, and were Olympus film SLR shooters, their OM lenses will work on the E-P1 with the MF-2 OM Lens Adapter.

The other feature that I miss on this camera is a built-in flash. Most compact digital cameras, super zoom digital Point & Shoots and even many DSLRs offer a built-in pop-up flash. The E-P1 does not. The camera does have a hot shoe so you can add the optional FL-14 accessory flash. Without the flash, you may be limited in low-light use.

As I did not have enough time to truly test out the video and audio features of the camera, this review only includes my views on the still capture features.

Overall, I enjoyed using the E-P1. It’s a great little camera. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more Micro Four Thirds format digital cameras from Olympus in the future. Oh, and the E-P1 does turn heads, so be prepared for the attention it will bring you!

Estimated street prices for the E-P1 body only: $749.99; E-P1 body with the ED 14-42mm f/3.5/5.6 Zuiko Digital Zoom Lens: $799.99; and E-P1 Body with ED 17mm f/2.8 lens with the optical viewfinder: $899.99.

For more information about the E-P1, check out the website at www.olympusamerica.com.

[Editor's Note: Read about the new Lark Books Magic Lantern Guide about the Olympus E-P1  on this website.]

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