Review: Olympus PEN E-PL1

A few weeks ago I was contacted by the Olympus representative in SA and was asked if I am interested in reviewing their latest Micro Four ““Thirds camera, the Olympus PEN E-PL1. While I am by no means a pro  photographer, I do prefer the speed and control of a DSLR camera.
I personally use the Nikon D90, which has been treating me very well up until now. But there is one big problem with SLR‘s. They are big and heavy, even a relatively compact SLR is still quite a cumbersome camera to carry around.

So what if you can have a camera with the increased sensor size similar to an SLR and full manual control, while still being similar in size to a compact camera? Surely you cant be thinking of using thatiPhonecamera? You want real image quality. This is where Micro Four thirds comes in. The camera is compact, while still maintaining the ability to interchange lenses. The version I tested came with a relatively compact 14-42mm 3.5-5.6 lens.

Micro Four Thirds is a standard developed by Olympus and Panasonic, which does away with the mirror inside a interchangeable lens camera. By not using a pentaprism and a mirror, it allows for much more compact cameras while still maintaining relatively large sensor sizes compared to similar size cameras.

But lets start with the camera ““ it resembles the classic styling of cameras of old, and feels very sturdy in your hands. It comes in a variety of colours (champagne silver, black, or white silver) ““ mine being the black version, with silver accents.  While it might resemble steel, it is in fact a very sturdy plastic body ““ if you want steel you will have to pay more for the E-P2 model. The camera is comfortable to hold with a decent amount space on the right for your hand to rest ““ while still keeping the controls within thumb‘s reach.
On top you will find a shoe for an external flash or an EVF, but we will get to that later. The flash also pops out on the top ““ but the action looks simply stunning ““ like an old Honda Ballade‘s headlights, the flash pops out on a neck. On the rear you will find a 2.7 inch display which has a very decent resolution so you can still see your pictures with enough detail. The big reason for this excellent display is because the Olympus PEN does away with the optical viewfinder.
Now I know many of the serious photographers will stop reading right about now ““ hear me out. The rear display did an excellent job ““ in fact, the framerate and resolution made it a perfectly acceptable way to frame shots. Focus brackets were lightning quick using the display and it even worked well at night, which I did not expect. Filters and adjustments were also instantly seen. But if you are someone who needs to have a dedicated viewfinder, you can slot an EVF eyepiece into the top of the camera.
Using the camera is as straightforward as you want it to be ““ you can flick the camera in auto mode and just shoot away, or if you want some, or even full control, you just turn the dial that way. The modes include:
iAuto: Might as well be called point and shoot mode. But what makes this mode interesting is that it can guide users into altering settings to get better pictures. For example, instead of setting the aperture, you click on “œBlur Background“ and select the effect you want. Nice way to dumb down camera terms.
Art Filters: The iArt mode I didn‘t bother to look at until my wife saw it ““ I normally ignore such cheesy modes on cameras. I was surprised at how well the effects were done when using this mode. You can select Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole etc. The pinhole mode especially made a few lovely pics. Only disadvantage to this mode is that the processing time for each pic can take a few seconds at a time, but in most cases the results are well worth the processing time.
The rest of the modes are typical ones you might find in a SLR as well:
Program, Aperture, Shutter, Manual,
And then Scene mode which just dumbs down things like saturation and aperture modes based on the “œscenario“ you are shooting. For example, portrait.

Movie mode ““ You can shoot in 720p at 30 frames per second. You can also apply the art filters to these movies which make very interesting clips, although the autofocus noise from the camera was audible during recordings.

So what about the pictures?
OK, after oohing and ah-ing about the hardware, I was very impressed by the pictures. While not always up to par with a SLR, it was a massive step up from compact cameras. The larger sensor meant that night shots were without noise, which I didn‘t expect from such a small camera.  The  autofocus system was definitely slower than a SLR, but still much faster than a compact. But shutter lag was very quick ““ in fact it wasn‘t really noticeable unless I went back to my SLR in between shots.
The continous shooting mode impressed me as well ““ with around 3 frames per second it was good enough. Image stabilization is done inside the camera (similar to how Sony does it) which does away with the need for expensive VR lenses.
Battery life is decent ““ I typically got about 250 pictures per battery charge, which includes about 30% using the flash.
The kit lens was reasonably compact, but had a few issues that a typical user might not be used to ““ if you switch off the camera you have to lock the lens back in place. It‘s a simple twist of the barrel, but its not really common. Also, firing up the camera also requires you to remove the lens cap, and then extending the lens before you can shoot, which might take a few valuable seconds. Images from this lens was very good, with no noticible pincushoining or distortion at the edges. Olympus also makes a 17mm f/2.8 prime lens which is much more compact. I did not have a chance to try this pancake lens out.
Overall the image quality was great. Outside the images were crystal clear with beautiful vibrant colours. Using the iAuto mode meant that someone that doesn‘t understand camera jargon are able to take great pictures. I did not play around with white balance, as the automatic mode seemed to do the job well enough. In low light the camera also performed well, but the built in vibration reduction system could not quite keep up with a SLR. On the other hand, the heft of the SLR might be the reason that its images did not blur“¦ Setting the ISO sensitivity was impressive as well, with the PEN not showing any noise up to around 1600.
I think you are starting to get the picture here. The Olympus PEN is a perfect in-between camera. It addresses the major disadvantages of both SLR‘s (large size) and compacts (poor picture quality) and forms a good hybrid between the two with as little as possible disadvantages.
Now this “œin-between“ approach of Olympus was perhaps difficult to justify with their existing PEN cameras, which was more expensive than many entry level SLR‘s out there, but I think the market these cameras should approach is the high-end point and shoot models from Nikon (P7000) and Canon (G11 or S95).
Compare it to those cameras and the Olympus suddenly starts to shine. Interchangeable lenses, a much larger sensor and impressive image quality makes a very good alternative. Many pros carry these high end point and shoot cameras as backups, and the PEN is ideal for that use.
If you are looking for a small and light camera which takes brilliant pics, you cannot go wrong with the E-PL1.
Brilliant pics for the size
Art mode makes great pics.
Lightweight and small
Large sensor makes for great low light shots
No viewfinder
Autofocus a little slow in the dark
Still no SLR beater
RRP: R7499
Available from: In Gauteng: Etkinds in Sandton, Digital Experience in Fourways, Foto First Clearwater Mall
In Western Cape: Photolens, Foto first in Tygervalley shopping centre.