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Photography and Art

Review: Olympus PEN E-PL1 - September 2010

Introduction

The Olympus PEN E-PL1 has effectively replaced the older and first of the digital PEN cameras, the E-P1. The E-PL1 does not have the full feature set of the E-P1 but introduces some nice additions for the market segment it is aimed at.

It has a 12 megapixel image sensor (four thirds) using Olympus's latest image processing engine, TruePic V. Like the other PEN cameras there has been provision made to shoot in other than the standard 4:3 aspect ratios (3:2, 16:9 and 6:6). HD movie recording is in 16:9 and SD in 4:3.

This review is based on the E-PL1 along with the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 and 40-150mm f/4-5.6 Zuiko Digital lenses. Note that the 40-150mm lens has the standard 4/3 lens mount fitting and was provided with an adapter for use with micro 4/3 cameras.

Features

The Olympus PEN E-PL1 comes packed with features to keep the serious photography satisfied with low complexity for the novice. The key features are as follows:

  • 12 megapixel TruePic V image sensor
  • HD Movie Recording (1280x720 at 30fps)
  • HDMI connection
  • Dedicated movie record button
  • Built in flash with wireless flash control
  • 3fps continuous shooting
  • In body image stabiliser
  • Dust reduction filter (SSWF)
  • iAuto for easy camera control
  • Art Filters
  • Real time effects monitoring

The E-PL1 has many of the features found on the E-P1 but there are some omissions and this shall be discussed in the full review.

Image Stabilisation

The E-PL1 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.

Autofocus

The E-PL1 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)
  • Manual

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.

Performance

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-PL1 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 and well. There was no issue of dust spots on the image sensor during the course of this review despite a number of lens changes. The Exposure mode dial presents: PASM as well as iAuto, Art Filters, SCN and Movie.

Customisation

Every photographer whether a relative novice or very experienced have their own preferred way of using a camera. The E-PL1 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.

LCD Screen

The E-PL1 does not have a built in viewfinder and like a digital compact camera it uses it's 2.7" 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-PL1 also has provision for the following aspect ratios:

  • 3:2
  • 16:9
  • 6:6

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.

Image Sharpness

Both the Zuiko digital lenses, the 14-42mm and 40-150mm, produced images with decent levels of sharpness and detail across the frame. The contrast levels were also decent but not high enough to really challenge the 12 megapixel  image sensor of the E-PL1.

Olympus PEN E-PL1
ISO 200, f/9 @ 1/400s, focal length: 18mm

Olympus PEN E-PL1
100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
ISO 200, f/9 @ 1/200s, focal length: 42mm

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Central area - 100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Bottom left edge area - 100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
ISO 200, f/9 @ 1/800s, focal length 150mm

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Central area - 100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Left edge area - 100% crop

 

All the images presented in this review were shot in the RAW format and processed to JPEG using Olympus Studio 2 software. No adjustments were applied but in practice images would be adjusted to improve sharpness, contrast etc. Results with Adobe Lightroom 3 proved particularly impressing.

Image Stabilisation

The in body image stabilisation was left active apart from when the E-PL1 was placed on a tripod. With it active it helped to ensure that handheld photography could be done even when the light levels began to drop.

Olympus PEN E-PL1
ISO 800, f/4.5 @ 1/25s, lens focal length: 14mm

Olympus PEN E-PL1
100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
100% crop

It is possible to comfortable do handheld street photography with the E-PL1 but care has to be taken to hold the camera steady as possible and avoid using telephoto focal lengths.

Spot AF and Manual Focus

The E-PL1 was happy to work with the wide area AF active but there are times when it is necessary to be more selective where the point of focus was. With 11 AF areas to choose from there was usually one of the focusing areas in the position I required. Selecting the focusing area was just a matter of pressing the AF Target button to activate AF area selection and the using the relevant buttons the select the required target.

In more difficult lighting conditions focus can be problematic. A single focus area is relatively large which made it great for general photo taking but troublesome at times when wanting to focus on small objects and keep the background and/or foreground out of focus.

Olympus PEN E-PL1
ISO 200, f/6.3 @ 1/250s, +0.7EV, lens focal length: 42mm
Manual focus used to focus on the flowers when AF failed

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Point of manual focus - 100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Other area in focal plane - 100% crop

When such problems occurred manual focus was employed. With the E-PL1 set to manual focus the area under focus would be automatically magnified (x7) to aid focusing. The process was straightforward and quick to use although it the subject is relatively close extra care needs to be taken to hold the camera steady otherwise any forward or backwards movement could easily through the subject out of focus again.

Face Detection

If people are the main subjects then it is worthwhile just leaving the face detection mode active. It did a competent job and ensured that the exposure system was adjusted accordingly.

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Face detection ensures no false focusing on the background

 

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 practice 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.

iAuto

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:

  • Portrait
  • Landscape
  • Sports
  • Macro
  • Night Scene

Generally, this mode worked well and is the mode of choice for those who just want to point and shoot.

Scene mode

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:

Art Filters

The E-P1 features Art Filters to give photos an added dimension. There are six filters provided: Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, and Gentle Sepia. These make an interesting variation to the scene modes that are also provided.

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Grainy Film

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Pin Hole

Olympus PEN E-PL1

Soft Focus

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Diorama

Within iAuto provides some creative adjustments are provided and they proved straightforward to use. There is the facility to adjust motion blur or control the amount of background blur.

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Motion blur adjustment

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Background blur adjustment

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-PL1 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-PL1 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.

Exposure Metering

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-PL1.
  • Centre Weighted Average
  • Spot
  • HI Spot - highlight control
  • SH Spot - shadow control

Under most circumstances the ESP performed well not requiring over use of exposure compensation. The E-PL1 can happily be used in this mode with the other metering options employed for either specific lighting conditions or artist endeavours. Night photography tended to look a little underexposed at times but this was easily compensated for. Bright white subjects in sunlight were handed quite well was severe highlight clipping was avoided. The histogram helped to determine how the camera what metering the scene.

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.

White Balance

The E-PL1 was all the expected white balance presets of:

  • Auto
  • Daylight
  • Shadow
  • Tungsten
  • Flourescent
  • Flash
  • Custom

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.

Auto ISO

The ISO can be determined automatically by the camera based on lighting conditions but the E-PL1 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 1600. 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 looked obviously degraded and may be considered for artistic or emergency purposes only. The E-PL1'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 to a minimum of ISO 100 and a maximum of ISO 3200 with adjustments being made in the intervals in whole stops or a 1/3 stops.

Gradation

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-PL1 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, E-PL1 (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.

Long Exposure Photography

Long exposures are another situation where image noise can be an issue. The E-PL1 provides noise reduction to deal with this situation. The following sequence of photos the typical noise levels at various ISO settings.

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Asian Good Fortune Statues - Image Noise Test
Olympus PEN E-PL1

ISO 100, f/16 @ 30s (100% crop)

Olympus PEN E-PL1
ISO 200, f/16 @ 30s (100% crop)

Olympus PEN E-PL1
ISO 400, f/16 @ 8s (100% crop)

Olympus PEN E-PL1
ISO 800, f/16 @ 4s (100% crop)

Olympus PEN E-PL1
ISO 1600, f/16 @ 2s (100% crop)

Olympus PEN E-PL1
ISO 3200, f/16 @ 1s (100% crop)

The E-PL1 sample reviewed unfortunately was showed excessive hot pixels at ISO 800 and some at ISO 1600. This issues was later also noted as being present in the field shots but to a lesser extent (probably due to the faster shutter speeds). This is no doubt a fault with the sample model rather than an intrinsic problem with the E-PL1. Note that the Gradation mode was set at its default of Auto.

HD Movie Capture

The E-PL1 comes packed with 720p HD movie capture (1280 x 720) capability that was easily activated via the dedicated red record button on the back of the camera. It was certainly good that the camera did not have to be set to the movie capture mode on the mode dial for instant movie recording.

The AF during movie seemed to be improved compared to the E-P1 with less motor noise appearing on the sound track. However it was felt better to manually set the focus than have the camera try to automatically track subjects as the end results were often better.

The flexibility provided with the movie capture was appreciated. The ability to make exposure adjustments as well as the ability to apply the art filters made for some interesting and creative results. Experimentation was certainly the order of the day.

Extensive use of the movie capture mode at HD resolution will quickly consume a memory cards storage and so the higher the capacity card used the better.

Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm Lens

The Zuiko Digital 40-150mm lens has was originally introduced for the standard 4/3 DSLRs. With the use of an adapter it is usable on the micro 4/3 camera. The lens weighs in at only 220g with a dimension of 65.5 x 72mm. It has a filter thread of 58mm. The lenses construction is all plastic including its mount but this ensures the E-PL1 remains comfortable to handhold.  The lens operated smoothly but did not have the feel of the bigger and more sturdy 4/3 telephoto zoom lenses. No lens hood was supplied with the review sample but luckily there was no serious issues with flare encountered.

Olympus PEN E-PL1
ISO 200, f/7.1 @ 1/1000s, focal length: 40mm

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Central area - 100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Bottom left edge area - 100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
ISO 200, f/7.1 @ 1/1250s, focal length: 150mm

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Central area -100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Top right edge area - 100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
ISO 200, f/6.3 @ 1/320s, 300mm

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Subject area - 100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
ISO 200, f/7.1 @ 1/800s, 150mm

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Central area - 100% crop

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Top right edge area - 100% crop

 

Olympus PEN E-PL1
The E-PL1 fitted with 40-150mm Zuiko lens

Olympus PEN E-PL1

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Olympus PEN E-PL1 twin lens kit

Conclusions

The Plus Points

  • Build quality
  • Image quality
  • In body image stabilisation
  • Acceptable AF performance
  • Straightforward UI
  • Built-in flash
  • Movie quality
  • HDMI output
  • Customisation

The Negative Points

  • Could do with AF aid light for low light conditions
  • No control dials
  • No Level gauge
  • No wireless flash control
  • Mono sound recording with movies
  • Single AF point too large for some purposes
  • Battery and memory card cannot be accessed whilst on a tripod

Summing Up

The Olympus PEN E-PL1 packs in all the essential features in its dimensions. It's menu system has been adjusted (compared to the E-P1) to make it more user friendly for its intended market. As always it is worth spending a bit of time getting use to any cameras user interface but the E-PL1 is easy to use straight out of the box.

The E-PL1 has a very capable intelligent auto which optimise shots based on the scene in front of the camera. The face detection on the whole worked well but seemed a little slow to react at times compared to similar cameras. Face recognition is a feature found on a growing number of cameras but it is omitted on the E-PL1.

The twin lens kit of the 14-42mm and 40-150mm Zuiko Digital lenses made for a light weight kit to travel with that took up very little space. Surprisingly none of the lenses were provided with lens hoods.

The LCD screen did its job but became difficult to view in bright sunlit conditions. This is where the optional electronic viewfinder (VF-2) would be very useful. An articulating LCD screen was missed but this is a feature so far missing from the PEN series of cameras so far.

Just like the typical digital compact the LCD screen is always in use which in this case resulted in a full charged battery never lasting a full days serious photo shoot. A fully charged spare battery was necessary to keep things going. A single battery was sufficient for my casual photo taking and movie capture.

The Zuiko 14-42mm put in a very reasonable performance overall. Its 35mm equivalent focal length of 28-84mm made it suitable for many purposes but the wide end never seemed quite wide enough. A starting point of 12mm (24mm) would of been better. It would be nice to see a pro version of this lens with higher sharpness and contrast and wider optical range. The image sensor of the E-PL1 needs to be challenged by great optics to see it at its full potential.

The 40-150mm (80-300mm 35mm equiv.) telephoto zoom lens spent less time on the E-PL1 but it came in useful when the situation demanded. In common with many telephoto lenses image quality suffered towards 150mm with the aperture fully open. The aperture has to stopped down at least a stop to improve image sharpness.

Shooting with the telephoto zoom lens attached resulted in an interesting situation. As expected with a longer lens there is great chance of camera shake. Unlike a DSLR, the E-PL1 is held away from the body in order to seem the scene composed on the LCD screen. Unfortunately this method of holding resulted in camera shake being more obvious. The built in IS has to work that much harder to keep things steady. No doubt a different hand holding technique maybe necessary to improve matters.

AF performance seemed improved compared to that experienced with the E-P1. The AF seemed a bit faster and more assured on the E-PL1 but it was still not really quick enough to track sports action in a reliable manner.

At the end of the day it all comes down to image quality. All the images shot during the review were mainly captured in the RAW format with the Gradation mode left at it default 'Auto' mode. The Gradation mode has a habit of raising image noise in dark or shaded areas of an image but the E-PL1 was definitely an improvement on the E-30 in this regard and maybe better than the E-P1 too. 'Auto' can be left engaged without worry for most users but preference should be to have Gradations set to "Normal' and use it when required especially when shooting RAW. The combination of the E-PL1's good JPEG image processing engine and Auto Gradation makes for a good combination.

The E-PL1 is a scaled down E-P1 (smaller LCD screen (although same resolution), lower capacity battery, no control dials, mono instead of stereo mics) but it has sufficient features to still appeal to the more advanced user as well as the entry level. Olympus just needs to broaden the range of lenses to include pro quality models further extend that appeal. EA

 

Specification

Mini News

22 November 2012: Sigma 18-250mm now available in Sony's A-Mount

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17 October 2012: Firmware update for Sony NEX 7 v1.01

Sony NEX firmware update provides the following;

  • Addition of capability to enable or disable the MOVIE button
  • Addition of exposure settings of bracket shooting (three frames /1.0EV,2.0EV, 3.0EV)
  • Improvement of response for showing auto review image.
  • Improvement of image quality when using a wide angle lens
  • Improvement of indication when setting “Flexible Spot”.

Visit the link: http://www.sony.co.uk/support/en/product/NEX-7/updates

Firmware updates are also available for the a77, a65, and a57.

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