The missing link from the modern line up of digital cameras is the rangefinder type camera. A camera that offers high degree of flexibility like a DSLR but in a more compact body. Not everyone wants to carry around a DSLR and digital compacts are limited by their very small image sensors. The Olympus E-P1 steps in to fill this gap. Being spiritually based on the old PEN Olympus rangefinder cameras but built employing modern digital technology.
The E-P1 is based on the 4/3 sensor standard but has done away with the mirror in order to have a more compact body. The lens mount has been reduced in size to facilitate smaller lens but maintains compatibility with the standard 4/3 lenses through the use of an adapter.
The E-P1 is feature packed to make it usable for the novice but also comprehensive enough for the serious photographer. It's solidly built and looks designed to last.
The Olympus E-P1 feature packed with enough built in tools to tackle a wide range of situations. The key features are as follows:
- 12.3mp Live MOS image sensor
- TruePic V image processor
- Built-in I.S. with max. 4 EV steps efficiency
- New developed GUI for easiest operation via Live Control
- Twin dials for easier handling
- HD movie with stereo sound
- Art Filters
- Art filters can be applied to previously taken RAW images.
- Level gauge
The E-30 has a very comprehensive custom menu so the camera can be specifically tailored to user requirements.
The E-P1 provides image stabilisation built into the body of the camera rather than having it in each lens. This has the benefit that any lens that is attached to the body can be image stabilised.
There are three operating modes provided for the image stabiliser:
- IS 1 - Image stabiliser on
- IS 2 - Only vertical axis stabilised for panning horizontally
- IS 3 - Only horizontal axis stabilised for panning vertically
For non-4/3 lenses, the focal length can be manually entered.
The E-P1 has 11 defined AF points that covers the central area of the screen. These are all contrast based focusing points (like used in digital compact cameras) and they operate in one of two modes:
- Wide area AF mode - The camera will automatically determine which of the 11 AF points to use based on the subject position distance and position within the screen.
- Single point AF mode - The camera focuses using the pre-selected AF point.
There are three main focus modes provided:
- S-AF (Single AF)
- C-AF (Continuous AF)
Additionally the S-AF and Manual focus can be used together to manually fine adjust the focus after autofocus has taken place.
When manual focusing the focusing area can be magnified up to x10. The arrow pad is used to select the area of the LCD screen to magnify.
Pressing the power button powers up the camera promptly and levels the power button illuminated green as a reminder. The Super Sonic Wave Filter (SSWF) is activated every time the E-P1 is powered on to ensure the image sensor is kept clean. There does not appear to be a way to deactivate the feature but the feature works quickly. The much larger shutter release button neighbours it. Usually, the exposure mode dial on the left hand side of the camera top plate has been recessed which gives the E-P1 a sleek appearance. The Exposure mode dial presents: PASM as well as iAuto, Art Filters, SCN and Movie.
Every photographer whether a relative novice or very experienced have their own preferred way of using a camera. The E-P1 just like Olympus's DSLRs has a very comprehensive set of customisation options. In fact for the casual shooter they might be seen as overkill as Olympus seems to of packed in ever possible option a photographer may require with the result that initially it feels easy to get lost in the options without prior knowledge of the Olympus menu system. Unusual options like the ability to set the rotational direction of focus can come in handy depending on which camera system previously used. The dual dials can be customised for example to set one as a exposure compensation dial. Going through the collection of customisation options shows the potential of the E-P1.
The E-P1 does not have a built in viewfinder and like a digital compact camera it uses it's 3" LCD screen as the main way to view what the camera will capture. The LCD pixel resolution is just 230,000 which is decent enough for most purposes but well below the 900,000 pixels that the leading LCD displays use.
The shooting information displayed is comprehensive and very much follows that presented on the E-series DSLRs in their liveview modes.
Image Aspect Ratio
The standard aspect ratio is of course 4:3 but the E-P1 also has provision for the following aspect ratios:
Although it is straightforward to produce similar aspect ratios during post processing through cropping shooting with a different aspect tends to case the user to reconsider how they should compose their photo.
Full Auto Modes
The Program mode will determine the aperture and shutter speed combination for the required exposure. The program line is not only determined by the brightness faced by the camera but by the type of lens attached. In practise it was found necessary to make use of the program shift in order to get the required aperture/shutter speed combination. However, there are times when there is no time to think about exposure controls and the program mode serves its purpose here. There are a number of program modes design to make life easier or to inject a bit of art to the results. They are: iAuto, Art Filters and Scene modes.
For pure simplicity in shooting the iAuto has been designed to analyse the scene the E-P1 is pointed at and set the appropriate shooting mode. The camera will try to determine whether the scene is one of the following:
- Night Scene
Generally, this mode worked well and is the mode of choice for those who just want to point and shoot.
The scene modes permit the user to specifically select the option that matches the scene that is to be captured. The range of options is extensive and covers just about most type of scenes users will encounter:
The E-P1 features Art Filters to give photos an added dimension. There are six filters provided: Pop Art, Light Tone, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pale and Light Colour, and Pin Hole. These make an interesting variation to the scene modes that are also provided.
The above images originally taken with the Olympus E-30. The results from the E-P1 Art Filters are the same
The Art Filters are saved in JPEG (sRGB) format. If shooting in the RAW format the Art Filters can be applied during post processing using Olympus Studio 2 software.
Advanced Shooting Modes
The usual PASM shooting modes are provided on the E-P1 for the user who wants to take control and determine the exposure.
In the Manual mode Bulb can be set for shutter speeds beyond 60 seconds. Rather than relying on a cable release the E-P1 has a bulb timer which provides speeds of 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 20, 25, and 30 minutes. In the Bulb mode the image stabiliser is forced off. This is a good inclusion as in bulb mode the camera will be set on a tripod or steady surface and an active image stabiliser may introduce some image blur.
There are a number of metering options provided:
- Digital ESP - Evaluative metering using on 324 zones to analyse a scene. This is the standard metering mode of the E-P1.
- Centre Weighted Average
- HI Spot - highlight control
- SH Spot - shadow control
Under most circumstances the ESP performed well not requiring over use of exposure compensation. The E-P1 can happily be used in this mode with the other metering options employed for either specific lighting conditions or artist endeavours.
Exposure compensation adjustment was easily achieved by pressing the exposure compensation button on the top of the camera or, as was preferred, defining one of the dials (in this case the sub dial) in the costume functions for exposure compensation adjustment.
The E-P1 was all the expected white balance presets of:
Each white balance setting can be fine tuned according to requirements with adjustments made between Amber and Blue and between Green and Magenta. Provision has also been made for WB bracketing using the same parameters.
The ISO can be determined automatically by the camera based on lighting conditions but the E-P1 has provision to specify the range over which the ISO can be selected. The minimum ISO can be set as ISO 200 and the maximum up to ISO 6400. In practice it was found the range ISO 200 to 800 keeps results optimal although results up to ISO 1600 can be acceptable depending on the subject matter. Image quality beyond ISO 1600 looks obviously degraded and may be considered for artistic or emergency purposes only. The E-P1's image stabiliser helps to reduce the need for very high ISO settings as long as subject movement does not have to be frozen.
When setting the ISO manually, the ISO can be set either at 1-stop intervals or by finer 1/3-stop intervals.
High contrast scenes are always very challenging for a camera to capture well. Either the highlights burn out or the shadow areas become blocked up. The Gradation feature of the E-P1 has been designed to analyse such scenes and make adjustments to produce a more controlled scene. There are four options available:
- Normal - the standard setting for normal use
- Auto - the gradation is adjusted according to the scene presented
- High Key - emphasis is placed on reproducing bright subjects
- Low Key - emphasis is placed on reproducing dark subjects
Auto Gradation produced very pleasing results in a range of shooting conditions but it has to be used with care. As found with the Olympus E-30 (and with other camera brands) gradation makes most of its adjustment to the mid to shadow areas of an image. This has the unfortunate side effect of boosting any noise deficiencies in the image. The lower the set ISO used the better the results so auto graduation is best avoided when high ISOs are set.
It is worth noting that Gradation adjustments can be applied after the fact during post processing using Olympus Studio 2 software. This software can also be used to under auto gradation. Both these cases are possible as long as the shots where taken in the RAW format.
Keeping horizontals horizontal can be a challenge at times. It is all too easy to end up with a sloping horizon. Through the custom functions it can be activated and if necessary it can also be re-calibrated (should the need arise). Both horizontal and vertical information is presented.
The LCD screen shows two scales with one indicating the horizontal alignment and the other the vertical alignment. The implementation works well but with the alignment information on the screen exposure information as well as the histogram display are not available.
External Flash Unit
The E-P1 does not have it's own internal flash and so is dependant on external flash units. It can shoot with the FL-20, FL-36R and FL-50R flash units but they can unbalance the camera. The FL-14 is more suited the camera with its more compact and low profile design. Unfortunately the E-P1 does not have any wireless flash capabilities.
The Olympus E-P1 was reviewed with the following lenses:
- M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f/2.8 Pancake lens
- M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm f/3.5 - 5.6 lens
More information on these lenses will be provided in separate reviews. The lenses equate to 34mm lens and 28-84mm lens in 35mm format respectively.
Image Noise Analysis
Image noise is always a concern for the modern photographer especially those who intend to make significantly big enlargements. The E-P1 generally copes well in bright daylight conditions (although image noise can be introduced can raised if Auto Gradations is enabled) but when light levels drop things get more interesting. The noise filter can be set to one of the following conditions: off, low, standard and high. All the photos illustrated here were shot with the noise filter set to standard.
ISO 200 - f/4 at 1/4 sec. (100% crop)
ISO 400 - f/4 at 1/8 sec. (100% crop)
ISO 800 - f/4 at 1/15 sec. (100% crop)
ISO 1600 - f/4 at 1/30 sec. (100% crop)
All the above photos were shot handheld relying on the built-in image stabiliser to maintain sharp results. The ISO 200 shot at 1/4 second with the 17mm (34mm equivalent in 35mm format) pancake lens attached seems to of reached the limited of the images stabilisers abilities. Keep in mind the longer the lens focal becomes the more challenging it will be for the image stabiliser to produce sharp results.
ISO 6400 - f/3.5 at 1/125 sec.
ISO 6400 - (100% crop)
ISO 6400 - (100% crop)
ISO 6400 is probably best left for emergency or artistic use. Detail and definition at this setting is severely reduced resulting in photos best printed at a smaller size than expected from a 12mp sensor.
Long Exposure Photography
Long exposures are another situation where image noise can be an issue. The E-P1 provides noise reduction to deal with this situation. The following sequence of photos the typical noise levels at various ISO settings.
ISO 100 - f/20 at 60 sec. (100% crop)
ISO 200 - f/22 at 30 sec. (100% crop)
ISO 400 - f/22 at 15 sec. (100% crop)
ISO 800 - f/22 at 8 sec. (100% crop)
ISO 1600 - f/22 at 4 sec. (100% crop)
ISO 3200 - f/22 at 2 sec. (100% crop)
ISO 6400 - f/22 at 1 sec. (100% crop)
It is worth keeping in mind that for any given exposure the E-P1 can only be used after double the exposure time. For example a 30 second exposure results in another 30 seconds where the shutter is closed and a blank image is take to subtract noise from the main exposure. With this in mind a 30 minute exposure will therefore mean the camera will be ready to shoot again after an hour. This noise reduction feature can be deactivated if required.
Shooting with the E-P1
The E-P1 was used for this review with the camera saving RAW + JPEG together. Images were saved on a SanDisk Extreme III SDHC Card 4GB. The following shooting data was noted:
- In continuous drive mode: RAW+JPEG (SF) - 19.5 sec for 9 frames.
- Continuous drive mode: RAW only - 7.2 sec for 13 frames.
- Continuous AF with continuous drive dropped frame rate from 3fps to 0.5fps.
All photos reproduced here originally shot in RAW and processed to JPEG using Olympus Studio 2 software.
The Plus Points
- Build quality
- Image quality
- In body image stabilisation
- Dual control dials
- Level gauge
- Movie quality
- HDMI output
The Negative Points
- AF performance could be better (but still acceptable)
- Could do with AF aid light for low light conditions
- No built-in flash
- No wireless flash control
- AF motor noise can spoil otherwise great movie recording
- Single AF point too large for some purposes
- Battery and memory card cannot be accessed whilst on a tripod
It is good to see Olympus breathing life back into the missing segment of cameras, the range finder types. The E-P1 is the modern equivalent of the rangefinder. It sits nicely between the digital compacts.
The E-P1 turned out to be a very capable and fun camera to use. Just about all the options a photographer could wish for have been provide. It's image processing seems to be an improvement on that in the E-30.
The lack of built in flash maybe welcomed or seen as a serious omission depending on the users requirements. Those who mainly like to shoot by available light will hardly miss the flash and praise the fact that the E-P1 has an image stabiliser built into it's body. It is possible to shoot down to 1/6 second hand help without recourse to a tripod. However, there are times when a bit of fill flash can help matters and that is where the FL-14 flashgun would come in handy.
The autofocus performance can be seen as one of the weaker aspects of the camera if the intention is to capture action. It is adequate for most purposes. Added flexibility would of been appreciated in terms of being able to adjust the size of the spot focus area because at times it felt too large when wanting to focus on small detail (such as the stamen of a flower). Another useful addition would be to have a focus assist light for dealing with low light or low contrast situations.
All in all the Olympus E-P1 was an enjoyable camera to use under a range of lighting conditions. Although not a true compact with the 17mm pancake lens attached it will be able to slip into any camera bag or jacket/coat pocket. The 14-42mm lens provides the versatility that the modern photographer demands whilst remaining relatively compact when the lens is not in use.
The E-P1 should appeal more to those that enjoy photography especially the serious amateurs and pro photographers who want a compact light weight camera with DSLR image quality. The camera is more geared towards people, landscape, and still life photography. It is a camera that screams to be taken everywhere and therefore makes a great camera to travel with. When inspiration strikes the E-P1 has the necessary features to help 'pen' that photographic classic.