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Olympus E-PL1

June 27th, 2010
Olympus brings Micro Four Thirds to a lower price with many features.

About 47 years ago, Olympus went out on a limb to introduce a half-frame camera that featured interchangeable lenses and an image that measured 18x24mm rather than the movie film-derived 36x24mm film size. We are beyond film at this point, favoring digital image capture instead, but Olympus is still holding fast to its legacy, with their new, impossibly compact, E-PL1 interchangeable lens camera (ILC). At $600 with a lens, it may be both one of the cheapest and the smallest ways to get into serious photography – we’ll find in our review if it’s the best. The body: build quality, controls and ports

Based on the other Olympus PEN cameras, the E-PL1 is a Micro Four Thirds camera, measuring in at 12 megapixels. As with most mirrorless cameras, it somewhat defies logic; it’s a digital compact capable of shooting a bus-wrap-sized image if need be.

Build quality is jewel-like in its precision. That has always been one of Olympus’s strong suits. Being a simplified ILC causes the “Oly” to have a minimal number of buttons, which help to keep the top and back deck clean and functional, without a bunch of tiny, unnecessary controls that would only crowd the surface. That’s also what bothers us about the E-PL1, though. We are used to pro cameras with all the controls imaginable, but when we pick up one that is, well, button-lacking, we find ourselves out of control.

On the top deck is a mode dial controlling advanced shooting modes (P, A, S, M), Movie mode, and Easy shooting modes including iAuto, Art Filter and Scene. They are pretty much self-explanatory, and reveal a new set of directions on the LCD monitor depending on which setting is on the dial. The P, A, S, & M modes are as standard on virtually every other camera. iAuto is a do-it-all setting that evaluates the scene and decides what the best solution to a situation is. Art offers pinhole settings, Soft Focus, Film Grain, and other options to give a user some unusual images.

Connection ports include the typical mini USB for syncing as well asmini HDMI for viewing still and video on a nearby TV.

With a backside that’s nearly as clean as a baby’s bottom, that means Olympus has gone into software controls for adjustment of camera functions. Hold the Start button for a few seconds and the special effects menu appears offering options that increase saturation, change colors, image brightness, blurring of backgrounds, and blurring of motions. A function even exists that gives brief, and simplistic tutorials on how to get the best images when photographing kids and pets (aren’t they essentially the same?), cuisine, close-ups, and framing.

The battery is approximately the size of a matchbox. Its life isn’t epic, but it’s well suited to the weekend warrior, the type who pulls the camera out for the three or four major holidays a year. It shares space in a bottom-accessed compartment that also yields the SDHC memory card slot.

The viewfinder and displays

With a 2.7-inch LCD screen as the only viewer, as there’s no built-in optical viewfinder, it is one of those arms-length cameras. Especially if your eyes are “mature,” you’ll find yourself holding the camera at arm’s length to view what you are about to photograph. It’s a fixed monitor, too, without the ability to swing and tilt for extended viewing possibilities. An available electronic viewfinder (EVF) can be purchased which makes an electronic connection with an accessory port just below the camera’s hotshoe.

By itself that lack of a viewfinder isn’t such a big deal, but when tracking a moving object, could be the cause of some missed shots. We weren’t able to try the electronic add-on finder but it’s certain to aid with image tracking.

Among the other features we enjoyed was the in-camera image stabilization, which allowed us to handhold the E-PL1 for existing light close-ups that otherwise would have been consigned to the digital trashcan. Other ILCs, like Panasonic’s GF-1, can rely on the lens to do the work and may hurt shots when using pancake lenses, which can’t usually fit stabilization into their own bodies.

Image quality: the lens

Being a Micro Four Thirds camera gives the E-PL1 a high crop factor: if you’re a fan of telephoto lenses, you can effectively double the focal length of lenses on the E-PL1. We were impressed by the excellent optical quality of the M.Zuiko 14-42mm (28-85mm equivalent) f3.5-5.6 kit lens; many of our shots with ideal light were sharp and with very little fringing or similar chromatic effects. Other available lenses include a 17mm f2.8 (35mm equivalent) pancake lens, and a 40mm-150mm f4-5.6 (80-300mm equivalent). We didn’t have the luxury of testing all three, but the pancake may be ideal for shooting video as it will let in a lot of light and is easier to keep balanced.

But wait, there’s more. Unlike its bigger PEN brothers, the E-PL1 is flash-equipped in the body, not just through an adapter. It’s not too effective beyond 15 feet, but it is nice to have for party snaps, family get-togethers and the like. Adapters are available for those of you who still have lenses from the days of the old Olympus OM-series cameras, or Leica rangefinder optics.

A glaring omission is the lack of an AF illuminator and the resulting questionably slow autofocus, which prevented capture of several situations that potentially could have yielded nice images. A recent firmware update in late May helped a bit, but the truth is that you’ll still want a DSLR if speed is the main issue. Image quality in good light is exceptional; it’s just where the light is not so good that issues start occurring. Read on.

Image quality: the sensor

The Olympus camera line has long been known for excellent image quality. The E-PL1 will easily continue this legacy. Within reason, though. In the mid-level ISO range, we saw good results at ISO 200, less so when speeds climbed. We were able to get some nice images at Philadelphia’s Franklin Museum but as close examination will show, digital noise is prevalent at ISO 1,600. That still trumps many point-and-shoot cameras, but if clean images in low light are essential, you may want to pay the extra for an entry-to-mid SLR like the Canon Rebel T2i or Nikon D5000.

Special modes: HD video capture and Art Filters

The E-PL1 like its predecessors shoots video in 720p, but thankfully the cost cutting hasn’t had an effect on the output. The actual video quality was exceptional for this type of camera, and offered little in the way of “leaning tower of Jell-O” artifacts while panning as it tries to keep up. The camera also has a dedicated movie button on the back; it’s clearly designed for amateur videographers. Should the spirit move you to make a snap in the middle of the video, squeezing the shutter button will get it. Audio quality is good in still moments, but as you’ll see in our video below, it’s not quite ready to handle significant wind noise; admittedly, we pushed it past where it would be acceptable for most cameras without a protected mic.

Art Filters, as always, are most suited to newcomers. An experienced photographer can usually produce the effects after the fact in Photoshop or a similar editing tool. And while you might want to save some time, there are some frame rate issues in the preview when using the more aggressive filters, so it’s also only useful for situations where you have full control over the position of the subject.

Wrapping up

The Olympus E-PL1 is a worthy entry to the ILC ranks for those ready to step beyond the constraints of a typical point and shoot camera. Made for the type of person who chooses to go to the next step, but most likely not further, it offers great image capturing ability without all the bells and whistles that are part and parcel of DSLRs available today.

We almost find the E-PL1 too simplified for our comfort level. Don’t get us wrong: it’s great for what it does, but we like buttons and other such things hanging off the sides of our cameras. It’s still more sophisticated than a point-and-shoot, however, and at $600 you’re very much getting what you pay for, and then some. Again, the inclusion of a good (though not spectacular) lens is important as you can start shooting without having to immediately think of getting a replacement.

As for the competition, there are numerous offerings to choose from; the Panasonic GF-1 has often been touted as the go-to Micro Four Thirds camera, and certain Canon PowerShots or Fujifilm EXR cameras may produce the intended result. We’d still give the nod to the E-PL1 for speed, and of course flexibility, but a Canon G11 could be a better pick if you simply want cleaner low-light images and better-than-usual manual controls.

The camera is very capable despite its lack of buttons; that Olympus saw fit to shoot a TV ad that used the camera itself is high praise. Still, think carefully about the choice. The E-PL1 is great for merging SLR features with a compact body, but we could see situations where a Nikon D3000, Pentax K-x or even the aging Canon Rebel XS may do the trick.

- Good image quality for the price.

- Solid kit lens.

- High quality video.

- Built-in flash.

- Possibly over-simplified control.

- No built-in viewfinder.

- Art Filters of limited use.

- Not as quick as it could be.