The Olympus E-PL1 is the latest in the line of PEN cameras, which prior models include the original E-P1 and the E-P2. The E-PL1 is the first PEN camera targeted at and priced toward the consumer market. As with the other PEN models, the E-PL1 is a Micro Four Thirds format camera and features a 2x crop factor over traditional 35mm sensors. That means that the 14-42mm lens feels like a 28-84mm lens on a full frame camera.
One of the biggest problems I experienced with the first generation PEN, the E-P1, was slow autofocus tracking, which spoiled the solid image quality the camera otherwise delivered. Overall, I gave the E-P1 rather poor marks in usability for all but a rather niche group. Time heals all wounds though – and the new E-PL1 provides a better overall experience even if it still has less-than-perfect autofocus.
To see where the Olympus E-PL1 shines and shames, read on.
Olympus E-PL1 Key Features
- 12.3MP Live MOS Sensor
- In-Body Image Stabilization
- ISO 100-3200
- 2.7-inch LCD
- 720p HD Video
- 3 fps
- In-Camera Art Filters
Olympus E-PL1 Handling, Ergonomics and Control
The E-PL1 has a more basic feel to it than the original E-P1. Olympus has made a move more toward a point and shoot “feel” with the E-PL1, which may appeal to folks looking at bridge cameras.
One addition that I really like about the E-PL1 is larger grip area along the front of the camera for the right hand. With the E-P1, I never felt like I had it secure enough in my hand. The E-PL1′s grip just feels more substantial – and better. Grips are largely a personal preference kind of thing though, so your mileage may vary.
The button layout is quite simple and intuitive. There’s a big mode dial atop the camera for switching between primary shooting modes. As with the E-P1 and E-P2, you get your four main control modes – program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual mode. These are accompanied by iAuto, Art and Scene modes.
iAuto is your “Intelligent Auto” mode where the camera does all the heavy lifting for those who don’t want to or just don’t know how to use the other exposure modes. Art mode allows you to select a number of Olympus’ Art Filters, which include Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, and Gentle Sepia. Finally, the Scene selection affords you 19 different scenes to choose from to fit the given situation at hand, including Portrait, Landscape, Fireworks and many more.
Rounding out the mode dial is Movie mode, which will likely not see much use thanks to a “quick record” button on the rear of the camera in easy range of your right thumb. The quick record button allows you to start recording a movie from any of the standard modes and even apply Art Filters directly to your video.
Aside from the mode dial, changing the settings on the E-PL1 calls for a little more menu-diving than DSLR users might be accustomed to. However, the settings are logically assembled and done so in a very point and shoot fashion. That is, point and shoot users should feel right at home with the way that the menu system and camera settings are accessed.
The controls on the back of the camera make sense and get you where you need to go fairly quickly. The key to the most common settings is the Start/OK button in the center of the 4-way controller. This brings up a quick menu that allows you to quick navigate and control things like ISO settings, metering modes, resolution and image formats, and focus modes. While those of you who are used to scroll wheels and info in your viewfinder may be frustrated by the multi-step process, once you get used to where these are at, it is a fairly quick task to make a couple of changes.
Finally, the flash is activated by manually flipping a switch on the back of the camera. Unfortunately, for those who ask the camera to do everything for them in iAuto mode, flash is not something the camera will fire unless it is raised by the user. Once raised, however, there are an abundance of controls available for it – from full auto, to slow sych, to manual power (down to 1/64 power). Heck, it will even serve as a trigger for Olympus R-series flashes like the FL-36R.
I think Olympus has done a solid job with the ergonomics and control layout of the E-PL1. While it is obviously slated toward a consumer audience, there is plenty of power under hood for users to grow with the camera – but it doesn’t have to throw everything at the new user right out of the box.
Shooting with the Olympus E-PL1
My feelings about the ergonomics carried over to my shooting experience with the E-PL1. I just like this camera a lot better than the E-P1. The on-camera pop-up flash made it painless to add a little fill-flash to candid outdoor portraits. And, the grip gave me a little more confidence in carrying the camera around without worrying about it slipping out of my hands.
Autofocus was my key concern coming into this review. And, while it’s definitely faster, it’s still less than perfect. Single AF mode generally works great – indoors or outdoors. I consider it quite reliable. However, continuous tracking AF still leaves a lot to be desired. Depending on what you are shooting, this may or may not be a major concern. If you are taking the camera on vacation for scenic vistas and and architecture shots, you’ll likely never have any autofocus deficiencies with your E-PL1. However, if you are trying to capture a 2-year-old running about, then you will probably be better served by an entry-level DSLR, which has a more reliable AF tracking system.
If you are shooting movies with the E-PL1, I would recommend using manual focus because of the somewhat unpredictable and jerky results from autofocus. You can pre-focus with the camera and make any necessary focus adjustments on the fly using the focus ring on the lens. The good thing about the included 14-42mm lens is that it has a rather smooth focus ring that allows you to smoothly perform manual focus adjustments. Again though, if you are chasing kids, you will be better off with a dedicated video camera that has an effective autofocus system.
For me, I found the E-PL1 to be a great walk-around camera. It handled a couple of family barbecues and outings just fine. I made use of the on-camera pop-up flash on a number of occasions – and used the flash compensation to boost it up to +3 and compensate for harsh sunlight in some cases.
I enjoyed several of the Art Filters, like Grainy Film, Pop Art and Diorama; however, you should take not that using some of the Art Filters in movie mode or when tracking moving subjects is difficult due to an extreme lag or stutter on the LCD. In video capture, this will result in a serious slow down in the frame rate, which makes the video unusable for most purposes. Considering the amount of information that is being processed on the fly, however, it doesn’t surprise me that it occurs. I do hope that Olympus will up the processing power to allow for a smoother frame rates with Art Filters in future installments, as I would have enjoyed capturing a bit of video using the Diorama Art Filter.
Speaking of the Diorama Art Filter, I probably had more fun with it than any of the other Art Filters. While the tilt-shift effect that it produces can be mimicked in Photoshop or other post-processing software, being able to capture and view such images instantly is quite fun. I imagine that many consumers looking at the E-PL1 are not as accustomed to processing images in Photoshop, and will appreciate being able to print images from their memory cards with these effects already applied.
Olympus E-PL1 Image Quality
The E-PL1 produces great images for its size and price. If you are looking at some of the more serious point and shoot cameras like the Canon G11 or Panasonic LX3, the E-PL1 deserves a little consideration purely due to the jump in image quality that you’ll get.
It has the same 12.3 image sensor that is found in the E-P1 and E-P2, which produces the same quality in this camera as it did those. You are basically getting DSLR image quality out of a more compact design with full-time live view. The sensor is the same physical size that is found in Olympus’ DSLRs like the E-620 and E-30. So, I mean it when I say “DSLR image quality.”
Below you will find a sample of images captured across the ISO range from the Olympus E-PL1, along with a number of images captured in various settings and environments during my review of the E-PL1. All images were captured in JPEG format. I have noted the basic shot info below each image. Feel free to download any of these sample images for your personal inspection (not for republication). You can get the original files by right-clicking on any of the images and choosing “Save link as…”
Olympus E-PL1 Accessories
Olympus PS-BLS1 Battery – The E-PL1 comes with one of these rechargeable lithium-ion batteries; however, if you’re going to be away from power for an extended period, you can pick up spares.
Olympus FL-14 Flash – If you are looking for a little more flash power on the E-PL1, the FL-14 flash is made for the Olympus PEN cameras and is relatively affordable at around $150.
VF-2 Electronic Viewfinder – The VF-2 is an electronic viewfinder that attaches to the hot shoe and accessory port on the E-PL1. It allows you to view what you would otherwise see on the LCD inside a bright viewfinder, which can be helpful if you are shooting outdoors in bright light.
Memory Cards – I generally kept a SanDisk Extreme III card in the E-PL1 in order to make sure I had enough speed to cover the video throughput. You should have a Class 6 or better SD card for the E-PL1 if you want to make use of the 720p video capture. The E-PL1 is compatible with all SD and SDHC cards – but not SDXC cards.
Memory Card Reader – If you don’t own a memory card reader, they make transferring images to your computer a world faster. I highly recommend picking one up with the E-PL1. They’re cheap and big time saver. Lexar makes a good card reader for about $8.
All in all, the Olympus E-PL1 is a nice offering for the Micro Four Thirds format. Given the target of where we thought manufacturers were heading with this format to begin with (i.e., a true bridge between DSLRs and point and shoot cameras), it seems like Olympus is finally off to a good start in terms of features and price point.
While there are entry-level DSLRs that are still priced considerably less than the $600 E-PL1, this camera will make a lot of sense to some consumers. The compact size, more traditional grip and modern-yet-retro styling serve the camera well. By adding a pop-up flash and a more beginner-oriented control and menu system, Olympus should be attracting the audience we expected it to capture when the prototypes were first unveiled.
For those of you who use a point and shoot camera now, I would caution you to consider what sort of images you want to capture before jumping in head first with the E-PL1. As noted earlier, if chasing wild and wooly kids is your camera’s goal, consider moving to an entry-level DSLR that will offer faster autofocus tracking. If, however, your subjects are stationary or otherwise tend to pose for you, then the E-PL1 could be a lot of fun for beginners and more advanced shooters alike.
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