Olympus E-PL1 Hands-On Review

Olympus E-PL1

The Olympus E-PL1 is a 12.3MP Micro Four Thirds camera that follows the original Olympus E-P1 and E-P2.  The former cameras were geared more toward enthusiast photographers, and the new E-PL1 is aimed squarely at consumers graduating from point and shoot cameras.

The E-PL1 is smaller than both the E-P1 and E-P2.  Additionally, the new camera features a pop-up flash, which is a feature that was missed by many on the previously released Olympus cameras.  The big kicker, however, is a reduced price point of $599 for the body and kit lens.  These factors combine to create a solid offering over the previous E-P1 and E-P2 cameras, and a serious option for consumers shopping for a powerful point and shoot camera.

Olympus E-PL1 (left) and E-P2 (right)

Big kudos to Olympus for adding a big red record button in easy reach of your thumb on the back of the camera for quick access to start video recording.  This way, there’s no need to switch between modes – just grab a video whenever you’re ready by hitting record with your thumb.

In addition to the pop-up flash that I praised above, the E-PL1 also includes a hotshoe for those who want to add an external flash for more power and/or the ability to bounce the flash off the ceiling.  The hotshoe also works with Micro Four Thirds accessories like the VF-2 electronic viewfinder.

Another solid feature found in all of the Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras to date is the built-in image stabilization.  This feature is based on compensation for camera shake at the sensor level, rather than individual lenses.  As a result, all lenses benefit from the stabilized sensor and prices stay lower on lenses across the board.

Like most point and shoot cameras out there, the E-PL1 offers several “Scene-Select Modes” to help guide new users to appropriate settings for the intended subject.  One cool feature is an ePortrait Mode, which smooths people’s complexion in-camera.  Of course, the E-PL1 also has a full auto mode, dubbed Intelligent Auto, where the camera attempts to determine which Scene mode is appropriate and take the thinking out of taking photos.  While these modes may give too much control back to the camera for experienced shooters, users more accustomed to point and shoot cameras will likely find comfort in knowing that the E-PL1 works much like their previous pocket cameras.

The iEnhance feature allows you to make real-time color adjustments to your images before you take the shot.  You can see the results in the Live View display as you make the adjustments.  In practice, I thought this feature was very well executed.

Additionally, the E-PL1 offers the typical P, A, S and M modes found on DSLRs.  These modes provide the control that experienced shooters demand and provide plenty of room for casual users to grown into their camera over time, all the while having the safety blanket of iAuto and Scene-Select Modes.

One of the big complaints I had with the E-P1 was it autofocusing speed.  The problem is that without a mirror in between the lens and the image sensor to direct the light to a dedicated AF sensor, the camera has to calculate autofocus data based on what the sensor sees.  Shortly after the release of the E-P1, Olympus provided a firmware update that was intended to aid in AF performance.  Many E-P1 users were satisfied that this update resolved their major concerns.  While I didn’t have the chance to use the new firmware in the E-P1, I was, for the most part, satisfied with the AF performance in the new E-PL1 when shooting still images.

My major quibbles with the AF performance of the E-PL1 arise when using continuous autofocus for both still image tracking and when shooting movies.  When used with the kit lens, this continuous AF mode tends to cause a pulsating action as the camera hunts for accurate focusing.  The E-PL1 never goes too far out of focus; however, the action is annoying when shooting still images and intolerable when shooting video.  As a result, I recommend manually focusing with the kit lens when shooting video.  It has a smooth focus ring with solid response.

While I did not get the opportunity to try the E-PL1 with the new 14–150mm F4.0–5.6 zoom lens, an Olympus rep informed me that the AF motor with this new lens is both quieter and should yield more accurate response for continuous AF for video recording, much like the Panasonic GH1 equipped with the 14-140mm HD lens.

Again, unlike the E-P1 and E-P2, Olympus is targeting casual users with the E-PL1.  As a result, the tolerances in AF performance should probably be relaxed a bit, particularly when compared to DSLRs.

Olympus E-PL1 (left) and E-P2 (right)

I’ll hit on one other quirk about the E-PL1, which arises when using the Art Filters.  The six Art Filter effects are as follows: Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, and Gentle Sepia.

To Olympus’ credit, the Art Filters are a lot of fun, particularly for the casual user.  I’m a big fan of the Diorama filter, which gives you a tilt-shift effect on a scene so that cars, buildings and people all look like they’re part of a toy display.  It’s great to get the preview of your shot using Pop Art, Grainy Film, or any of the other Art Filters.  However, the E-PL1’s ability to process these preview effects is not quite up to par.

When you select an Art Filter, you can see the effect on the Live View display as you frame your scene.  For Pop Art, Soft Focus and Gentle Sepia, these effects work fine and are generally ‘cool’.  When using any of the Art Filters on the E-PL1, you can a serious slow down in the Live View frame rate, meaning:  What you see is not always what you get.  As a result, it is very difficult to frame any scene other than a static scene.

Want to chase your moving 2-year-old with the Pin Hole effect applied to your image?  Too bad.  It’s all but impossible due to the stuttering frame rate from what you see on the back of the camera.  Likewise, video capture does not fare well with many of the Art Filters.

The problem with using these Art Filters in conjunction with a real time display is that the camera is bogging down with all the image processing between when the light hits the image sensor and when the processed live image is displayed on the E-PL1’s LCD. That said, I don’t consider the Art Filter issue a deal killer on the E-PL1 because you can always apply those effects after you’ve captured your normal image.

Olympus E-PL1 (left) and E-P2 (right)

Aside from the two issues noted above, there’s not much to dislike about the E-PL1.  It’s great to have the solid image quality in such a compact design. Assuming that the new 14-150mm lens is up to snuff, that combo could prove to be a great little walkaround package for casual users stepping up from a point and shoot camera or DSLR shooters looking to go a little lighter.  The Panasonic GH1 and 14-140mm lens combo might finally have some serious competition on its hands.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Photos

During my short time with the E-PL1 at PMA 2010, I managed to grab a few sample images to demonstrate the image quality at various ISO settings, as well as the in-camera Art Filters.

The following image shows the scene captured throughout the ISO range.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Photos

For your convenience, I’ve taken 100% crops from near the center portion of the image in order to show what the noise (or lack thereof) looks like close up.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Photos

You can download these full resolution images for personal inspection by using the following links. To save the file, right-click on the link and choose “Save link as…”

E-PL1 ISO 100 Full Resolution Image
E-PL1 ISO 200 Full Resolution Image
E-PL1 ISO 400 Full Resolution Image
E-PL1 ISO 800 Full Resolution Image
E-PL1 ISO 1600 Full Resolution Image
E-PL1 ISO 3200 Full Resolution Image

The following images were captured using the E-PL1’s Art Filters.

Pop Art

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Photos - Pop Art

Soft Focus

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Photos - Soft Focus

Grainy Film

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Photos - Grainy Film

Pin Hole

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Photos - Pin Hole

Diorama

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Photos - Diorama

Gentle Sepia

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Photos - Gentle Sepia

Conclusion

Olympus E-PL1 (left) and SP800UZ (right)

I walked away from my short time with the E-PL1 satisfied that it is a more capable camera than the E-P1 that I previously reviewed.  Again, the smaller size, built-in flash and lower price point are huge benefits for the Olympus E-PL1.

Aside from the minor quibbles noted above, I fully expect the E-PL1 to be a big hit this year.  Consumers looking to upgrade their point and shoot cameras should seriously consider picking up the E-PL1 given the flexibility of the system and the cost as compared to higher-end point and shoot cameras.

You can support Photography Bay by ordering your Olympus E-PL1, accessories and other photo gear at trusted retail partner B&H Photo.

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Comments

  1. Albert says

    Interesting preview Eric.

    I’d just like to point out that the “smaller size” you refer to doesn’t appear to be *that* small, whether it be in your comparative pictures, or the specs on paper.

    The EP1/2’s specs: 121mm (W) x 70mm (H) x 36mm (D)

    The E-PL1’s specs: 115mm (W) x 72mm (H) x 42mm (D)

    As such, I hardly believe that 2-6mm (about 0.2″ or less) of difference in one axis or another can be considered a “huge benefit”.

    Quality wise, the images seem smudgy and lack much detail. This seems true at any ISO. Any idea if or when you’ll be able to test the gear in a true controlled environment?

    Cheers,

    Albert

    • says

      @Albert – Your point is well taken; however, the E-PL1 definitely has a smaller feel to it in my opinion. The E-P2 just feels like I’m hefting more camera. I hadn’t looked at the actual spec measurements side by side until you pointed them out, and I’m a little surprised that the E-PL1 is only about quarter inch narrower than the others.

      Hopefully, I’ll get some quality time with the E-PL1 soon; however, I can’t give you a specific date when the review will be published.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Albert says

    Nice to hear back from you Eric. Looking forward to reading/discovering more on the topic.

    By the way, is there anyway for you to implement an automated reply notification typ’a system in the comment zone? That’d be tremendous.

    Albert

  3. Dan Carruthers says

    Eric, thanks for the review.

    I’m looking to upgrade from a regular point and shoot, I like the combination of image quality that approaches that of DSLR, along with HD video and relatively compact size. However I am concerned by the references here and elsewhere to the slow focus speed, I have a two year old! Can you clarify whether its slow generally or slow compared to DSLR, I think I could live with it provided that its better than a regular middle of the road compact?