The Olympus E-P1 is the first Micro Four Thirds camera from Olympus. The new E-P1 features a 12.3 megapixel sensor and offers users the ability to switch lenses. It has no mirror box between the lens and the image sensor, so it is effectively a full time live view camera. Because of the sensor size in Micro Four Thirds cameras, the Olympus E-P1 has a 2x crop factor applied to lens focal lengths. As a result, a 14mm focal length on the E-P1 is effectively equivalent to the angle of view of a 28mm lens on a 35mm or full frame camera. The Olympus E-P1 carries an initial retail price of $749 (body only), $799 (w/ 14-42mm lens), and $899 (w/ 17mm lens and external viewfinder).
The Olympus E-P1 is a throwback to the old Olympus Pen cameras of yesteryear. The absence of the mirror box in the camera body has afforded Olympus the opportunity to put a DSLR-size sensor in a more compact body. Additionally, the E-P1 captures a sort of retro look with its metallic finish and leather grip.
So, does this camera perform as well as it looks? Read on to find out what I think of this retro-esque shooter.
Olympus E-P1 Key Features and Specs
- Compact size w/ interchangeable lenses
- 12.3 megapixel sensor
- HD video at 720p
- ISO 100-6400
- Sensor-based image stabilization
- 11-area multiple AF
- 3″ LCD
- External flash hotshoe
- 3 frames per second shooting speed
- Olympus’ popular Art Filters
- SD card compatibility
Olympus E-P1 Functionality and Performance
As I was opening the box of the Olympus E-P1, I got really excited about how cool the camera looked. I really haven’t thought that a camera looked this cool before. Fortunately, there was a bit of a charge in the battery and I powered it on to see the brilliant LCD with an awesome Live View display of my dining room. It looked like I could just reach through the screen and touch my a chair. Things were really looking up.
I took a few sample pics and, although there was no flash on board, it handled the available light ok – so far as I could tell on the LCD. Next was a trip to the back yard. And there, I was disappointed with just a few shots on a rather sunny afternoon.
Fill flash . . . I was doomed by the lack of fill flash from snapping a few pics of the kiddos in the middle of the day. Harsh shadows, backlit subjects and bears, oh my. (Ok, no bears.) I should have asked for the kit with the hotshoe flash.
The more I used the E-P1, the more disappointed I became. While I’m used to shooting with a Canon 5D Mark II, I had no such qualms with the Canon Rebel T1i or Nikon D5000. Additionally, from what I had read of others’ review of this camera, I was expecting cool and functionality. Unfortunately, I felt like I was only left with cool.
Don’t get me wrong though, it’s cool. On the many occasions that I’ve been out in public with the camera, I’ve had several people stop and comment on it or ask me about it. “Is that an old film camera?” or “That is a really cool camera.” were typical comments. Smiling and nodding, I felt a bit betrayed by the lack of (1) a fill flash and (2) a viewfinder.
As for battery life . . . well, get a spare. While the camera didn’t die on me, I got the red blinking battery indicator suggesting that either the battery was going to imminently die or the camera would explode. As I was nearing the end of my day of only 172 photos after a full charge, neither tragedy occurred. I can understand that the E-P1 would have some battery life issue though, since it has some many components that are draining the juice – the bright LCD, image stabilization, fancy Art Modes and so on. For comparison purposes, I frequently get several hundred images from a single charge in Canon, Nikon and Sony DSLRs.
After griping about the features of this camera for a few days/weeks, I really have tried to decide who this camera is for. I honestly can’t say that I know. Unless you just want an expensive camera to point and click with, you don’t need a flash, and you want it to look cool – then I could probably find another camera to recommend for your needs. I’ll take a Canon Rebel series camera over the E-P1 any day.
Maybe I have been spoiled by DSLRs with the fast phase difference AF; however, the autofocus of the Olympus E-P1 is a little on the slow side. While it’s not unbearable in single AF mode, switch over to continuous AF and the focus literally pulsates in and out of focus while you are holding the shutter halfway down. If you need to snap a pic while tracking in continuous AF mode, then get ready for a ridiculous shutter delay.
In short, autofocus works ok for static subjects but not so great with kids running about.
As I said earlier, the Live View display is beautiful. It is crisp and bright – everything you want out of display on a camera. The refresh rate is fantastic with no detectable lag. That is, until you switch over to one of Olympus’ built-in Art Modes. Apparently, Olympus is using the SD card to buffer the image when you’re in an Art Mode because some of the Art Modes are unusable when you have a standard speed SD card in the camera. Even with a SanDisk Extreme III card, I experienced lag on the LCD in the grainy black and white mode, as well as the pinhole effect mode.
The Art Modes are cool in concept for those of you wanting to skip the post processing and get some cool effects out of the camera. However, these seemed to work much better on the Olympus E-620 that I spent a short time with at the PMA Sneak Peek this year.
I really like the grainy black and white effect, as well as the pinhole effect. Unfortunately, these seemed to hog the most memory and result in the most lag, which made everything but static subjects difficult to capture. In most cases, panning was completely out of the question.
The movie mode on the E-P1 suffers from many of the same limitations that the new DSLRs with movies modes have. While you can achieve continuous autofocus in the E-P1’s movie mode (it must be set to C-AF), the focusing is slow and LOUD. See the following video for an example of the AF speed and noisy autofocus. That noise that sounds like a typewriter . . . that’s the autofocus motor.
As a result of the loud and slow AF, you are pretty much left with manual focusing for video – the same as we have to do in current DSLRs. (See Canon Rebel T1i vs. Nikon D5000 Video Comparison) Fortunately, the manual focus ring on the kit 14-42mm lens is very smooth and quiet itself. Additionally, if you are doing video regularly with a DSLR or the E-P1, you probably want to be more precise than autofocus.
Built-in Image Stabilization Performance
The Olympus E-P1 uses a sensor-based image stabilization system, which works by moving the sensor inside the camera body to effectively allow the use of image stabilization on all lenses attached to the camera. DSLRs from the likes of Canon and Nikon use a lens-based image stabilization system, which moves the glass inside the lens to counter camera shake blur in your photos. The image stabilized lenses are more expensive – and not all lenses from Canon and Nikon come with an image stabilization device built in.
If you aren’t familiar with image stabilization and what it does, it allows you to use a slower shutter speed than you would normally be able use. While it doesn’t offer assistance to freeze a moving subject (you have to have a fast shutter speed to do so), it will tolerate a little bit of camera shake from your hands and shift the sensor or glass within the lens (depending on the system you are using).
To see how well the E-P1’s built-in image stabilization works, take a look that the two photos below. The first image was taken without image stabilization enabled. In the second image, I turned it on. In both cases I used the same shutter speed of 1/4 of second, f/5.6 & ISO 800, hand held and was zoomed out to 42mm using the included 14-42mm lens.
I don’t have any major problems with image quality; however, I won’t go so far as to say that it is on par with the Canon Rebel T1i and Nikon D5000. The Olympus E-P1 produces solid images for the most part. My main issues with image quality lie in the picture taking process, which goes back to the lack of an optical viewfinder and built-in flash.
Because there is no viewfinder on the camera, it effectively means that most images are shot at arm’s length, which I don’t find to be as steady as holding a camera up to your eye. If you are looking through a viewfinder of a DSLR, you get 3 points of contact with the camera to help stabilize it with your body – 2 hands and the eyecup against your eye. I simply can’t get comfortable with the E-P1. And, it’s not like the Sony A330, which gives me the option of shooting through an optical viewfinder or the LCD if the situation calls for it. If you want to use a viewfinder on the E-P1, then it will cost you an extra $100 – and it is built for the 17mm pancake lens – so you are pretty much out of luck when the 14-42mm lens is attached.
Here’s a handful of pics that I captured around Charleston, South Carolina with the E-P1. Just right click any of the images and choose “Save as…” to inspect the full size version on your computer.
One component of image quality that has increasingly grown as a concern among digital camera users is how cameras handle low light shooting and what kind of image noise is produced at higher ISO settings. ISO on digital cameras is equivalent to the ratings given to film and is based on sensitivity of the image sensor. So, ISO 400 on a digital camera should have the same sensitivity of ISO 400 speed film.
Again, the E-P1 is no slouch in ISO performance; however, it isn’t quite up to par with the cutting edge and similarly priced, entry-level DSLRs. Below is an image that shows the range of ISO performance for the E-P1. As you’ll see, the image is a bit underexposed; however, I let the camera meter it’s own exposure settings rather the forcing it into what I think is right.
I cropped the center portion of the top photo at 100% zoom so that you can see it close up. For those of you who want to inspect the entire image, I’ve included links to those full size images below. Just right-click on the links and choose “Save as…”.
Olympus E-P1 Reference Shot at ISO 100
Olympus E-P1 ISO Comparison Chart
Olympus E-P1 Accessories
Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens – This 17mm lens is ultra compact and produces the same angle of view as a 34mm lens on a full frame camera. Its initial retail price is $300.
Olympus VF-1 – This viewfinder is made for the 17mm lens above. It attaches to the hotshoe, which means no flash when it’s in use. Its initial retail price is $100.
Olympus FL-14 hotshoe flash – If you plan on using flash with the E-P1, you’re going to need to spring for this accessory. Its initial retail price is $200.
Olympus PS-BLS1 battery – This is the replacement battery for the E-P1. Given the battery life that I experience with the E-P1, I would recommend picking one of these up with the E-P1.
Olympus E-P1 Books and Guides
Unfortunately, the Olympus E-P1 has not yet garnered the attention that the Nikon and Canon cameras get from publishers. As a result, I am not currently aware of any books available that are specific to the E-P1. I think the camera’s manual can get you a long way to learning the E-P1 and it’s operation is not overly difficult anyway. Additionally, to the extent you need further guidance on your photographic endeavors, I highly recommend Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure. At around $15, it’ll be the best bang for your buck that you ever spend on photography.
As noted earlier, I have seen other sites review the Olympus E-P1 and give boisterous recommendations to readers. I said before that I have had a hard time figuring out who this camera is for – I am still unsure. I’ve read that photo geeks are all about it; however, I think most photo geeks would really miss some the crucial functionality that we are accustomed to in modern digital cameras. The Olympus E-P1 is not a photographer’s camera. It’s also not a soccer mom’s camera. Forget it as a point and shoot replacement. The compact frame is compromised by the lack of a built-in flash.
Yes, it handles noise decently and produces solid images; however, there’s a lot more that goes into the process. We need a competent and reliable autofocus system in order to make sure we capture the moment. If you aren’t going to take photos of living subjects, I suppose you could make the Olympus E-P1 work for you. Alternatively, if you want to look cool and have people compliment you on how cool your camera is, you should check this camera out.
I would suggest that if you took the guts of the Olympus E-P1 and put them in a plastic, common DSLR body, the reviews for this über-cool camera would not be so glowing. Consider the functionality of the camera. Pretty cameras don’t necessarily make pretty pictures.
If you want a camera to capture family moments, shoot the kids’ soccer games or any other event involving moving subjects, then look elsewhere. My current recommendations would be the Canon Rebel T1i and Nikon D5000. If the Live View display is a necessity, go with the Sony A330.
Where to Buy the Olympus E-P1
I recommend B&H Photo as a trusted online source for cameras like the Olympus E-P1, along with a broad range of lenses and accessories to go with it.