For want of a better term to describe the micro four thirds camera (the world's third production model), is that the E-P1 is exciting. Not so much in the technology sense, but it's the first time that we can remember a manufacturer taking such a risk with the design and marketing of a new camera.
The E-P1 is an interchangeable lens camera but has no mirror or pentaprism arrangement, which is characteristic of the micro four thirds specification. It certainly looks a lot different from cameras that have come before from Panasonic, the Lumix DMC-G1 and DMC-GH1. It's designed for the style-conscious consumer, someone who has considered upgrading to an SLR from a compact body but is not quite ready to sacrifice the lightweight and easy-to-use interface.
The E-P1 with the 17mm lens attached, and the 14-42mm lens. (Credit: Olympus)
More so than any of the other cameras on the market that take inspiration from times of old, the E-P1 epitomises a classic design that has a distinctly nostalgic air to it. The clues are all there, from the brushed stainless steel exterior, faux-leather grip, and compact yet sturdy form factor. Weighing in at 335g it also feels like an old camera. The LCD at the back of the camera gives the game away, and though Olympus firmly has its feet in the present, it's still wistfully looking back at its heritage. Buttons, dials and the general configuration at the rear indicate this is very much a camera of 2009.
At the top, alongside the mode dial, which is nicely recessed into the top panel, sits a hotshoe for mounting the (optional) viewfinder or flash unit, as well as the power button outlined in a green glow, and the shutter and exposure compensation buttons. The company's heritage is again highlighted with the caption "Olympus Pen since 1959" inscribed next to the model name.
Continuing on our tour of the E-P1, the 3-inch 230,000 dot LCD at the back is flanked by four buttons to the right, and further along sit the control wheel and directional pad with ISO, timer, auto focus and white balance settings. A nicely textured zoom control switch (for reviewing photos and changing aperture or shutter) is moulded gently into the slight bulbous curve to the far right, just along the edge of the camera.
Shooting modes are all standard (Program, Aperture/Shutter priority, Manual) along with intelligent automatic, scene modes (which includes e-Portrait, the reincarnation of Olympus' beauty mode), art filters (which we first saw on the E-30 and E-620) as well as movie mode (in 720p at 30fps). Aspect ratios allow for shooting in 3:2, widescreen 16:9, 4:3, and to complete the retro specs, 6:6 for square shots reminiscent of medium format film. The E-P1 also inherits the multiple exposure setting from other E-series cameras. As an aside, we also really like how the E-P1 has done away with the frustrating xD format and now offers full SDHC compatibility.
Adapters for the E-P1
Any micro four thirds lens can be mounted on the camera body, and adapters are also available from Olympus to allow older OM lenses and E-series digital lenses to work as well, at AU$249 and AU$349 respectively. So if the 17mm or 14-42mm kit lenses don't appeal to you then there are plenty of other options. The add-on viewfinder (that comes with the dual-lens kit) is a quirky addition, making you feel like you're using a rangefinder or spy camera. It won't be exactly as the camera sees thanks to parallax error and it sitting a fair distance from the lens.
Affectionately known as the "pancake" lens, the 17mm that comes as part of the dual-lens kit is one of the cutest lenses we've come across, sitting at a diminutive 2cm deep, just protruding from the camera body. The 14-42mm is just as interesting, featuring a folding design that expands as the focal length changes, and retracts into itself as you move it below the 14mm marker to store the lens. Do be aware that the lens cap, at least on the 17mm, is very small and only just covers the glass itself rather than the entirety of the lens front, which means it's easy to lose.
You certainly won't want to be using the E-P1 for critical shooting situations. Starting up in just under two seconds was an acceptable time for a camera of its class, but it fell incredibly behind in the rest of the performance stakes. Shot-to-shot time was also just under two seconds, and the shutter lag was generally over one second, which put it distinctly behind a lot of the digital SLRs it's being pitted against.
Using art filters and e-Portrait mode also add significantly to image processing times, but this is to be expected. Also note that if you decide to use art filters during filming, the resulting videos will more than likely be jerky because of the extra effects.
Getting accustomed to the Olympus interface will take some time as well, as a lot of the controls and menu options will take some delving into or manual-reading before they become second nature. Fortunately, it's better than what we've seen on the company's dSLR range, instead looking more like Olympus' menu system on its compact line-up.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Raw shot-to-shot time||Typical shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim)||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
One of the big points that Panasonic and Olympus are marketing these micro four thirds cameras on is the SLR-like quality of the images. So, despite the E-P1 looking like a compact, the images it delivers should stand up, theoretically, to an equivalent-level SLR. The physical size of the sensor, however, is smaller on a micro four thirds camera than with most SLRs, which does play into image quality. How does the E-P1 fare then?
Generally, in standard shooting conditions we were incredibly pleased with the quality of images that the E-P1 turned out: bright, nicely saturated colours with a particular emphasis on greens and purples (a colour that Olympus cameras have been known to struggle with in the past). Automatic white balance is very good, and as we've experienced before with the E-30 and E-620, shooting in art filter mode is a lot of fun, but the E-P1 goes one better by allowing you to shoot HD videos while using the art filters (plus you also get program mode or aperture priority when filming, too).
Flicking between shooting modes is done by selecting the relevant option from the control dial at the top, but we found that the wheel was a little resistive and cumbersome to allow for quick changes to shooting settings.
One of the stumbling blocks a lot of users will face is the lack of on-board flash. This means the camera will be rendered mostly useless in dim or night-time situations without a tripod, despite Olympus claiming that its strong high-ISO performance will compensate.
However, we have to award points for the good noise control that the E-P1 demonstrates. Even at ISO 1600, which is where a lot of compact cameras and some entry-level dSLRs will stumble, proved acceptable. Any higher and noise does begin to get noticeable even in reduced magnifications. The maximum ISO level that the E-P1 can reach is 6400.
Auto focusing with the 17mm in particular is not a quiet measure, as it makes quite audible focusing noises. On the topic of noise, the stereo microphones on the E-P1 picked up pretty much every sound that could be heard, and amplified much of it without muffling or becoming susceptible to much wind or actual camera body noise. We love how the E-P1 allows you to switch into program, aperture priority or art filter mode before filming.
The video mode is also fairly reasonable for a camera of its class, though in situations with glare and bright lights we found that the resulting movie had a slight blue cast and flaring in it. There are also the usual moire issues that plague many of these cameras with HD video.
Though it's rather expensive, we can't help our feelings of adoration towards the E-P1. This is the only current digital camera we can think of that will elicit extreme reactions from people wanting to hold it and use it, to see what it can do. Fortunately, it's not just all about looks, as the pictures it takes with the included lenses are mostly great, and the extra expandability with adapters is excellent. There's a small learning curve to get used to the interface but generally, those looking from a step up from a compact will love the E-P1. Just don't expect compact-like features such as a viewfinder and flash to be included.