The Lightweight Photographer:
Olympus PEN E-P1 Real World Camera Review

by Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen on July 9, 2010

UPDATE: This article refers to an older model. Check used E-P1 prices on eBay or learn about the brand new Olympus PEN E-P3 here.

Looking for a small camera that’s easy to carry around? How about one that takes great pictures even at ISO 800? Interchangeable lenses would be a plus. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could figure out a way to cram all of these features into one compact camera? Meet the Olympus PEN E-P1 compact digital camera. The remarkable E-P1 does it all!

The Search for a Pro-Quality Compact Camera

Olympus PEN E-P1 Camera with Zuiko 14-42mm Zoom Lens

When I first began investigating the compact digital camera scene, I developed a list of criteria. You can see the entire list in my article, The Lightweight Photographer: Four Compact Cameras for the Pro or Serious Amateur, but here are the most important:

  1. The ability to capture raw images.
  2. Excellent image quality that is good enough for publication.
  3. Low noise at high ISO settings.
  4. Small, pocket-sized body.
  5. Price under $500.

As I tried different cameras, I stuck to my guns on the first three points, but had to waver a bit on the last two. I found that there is no pocket-sized camera that meets all of my photographic needs. The Panasonic Lumix LX3 comes close. The Canon Powershot G11 was my first choice, but it’s is not pocket-sized.

So, I decided that if I was going to buy a camera that had to hang from my shoulder rather that fit into my pocket, I’d try one more: the Olympus PEN E-P1. Slightly larger than the G11, I was blown away by it’s image quality and professional demeanor. At $600, it’s a bit over my self-imposed spending limit, but well worth the price. Read on to find out why.

Related Articles

To find all of my articles about traveling light with a camera, see The Lightweight Photographer or click on any of the titles below to read the review:


Click on any image to view it larger with a caption.

Olympus E-P1 First Impressions

Olympus PEN E-P1 and it's distant ancestor the Olympus PEN-F

Two members of the Olympus PEN family.

The Olympus PEN E-P1 is a beautiful camera. Its silver color and classic styling has prompted more that one person to ask me, “Is that a film camera?” And why not? Olympus began using the PEN name on their rangefinder film cameras in 1959.

Thanks to its metal body, it has a hefty, high-quality feel yet it weighs less than a pound-and-a-half fully loaded with lens, battery, SD card and strap.

The E-P1′s beauty is more than skin deep. The controls and menu system are thoughtfully designed for quick access and it has all the features any pro or photo enthusiast could ask for in a camera this size.

Olympus E-P1 Controls

E-P1 Buttons & Controls

The camera uses a Micro Four-Thirds image sensor. It’s smaller than the sensor on a DSLR, but larger than most compacts. If you’re used to the 3:2 aspect ratio of most cameras, you’ll find the E-P1′s native 4:3 aspect ratio adds another creative tool to your photo arsenal.

With the 2x crop factor inherent in all Four-Thirds sensors, the standard Zuiko 14-42mm lens has the equivalent field-of-view of a 28-84mm lens on a camera with 35mm full-frame sensor.

Unlike the rangefinder cameras it resembles – which operate nearly silently – the E-P1 makes a definite sound as it captures an image. It’s similar to the sound of an SLR’s mirror moving up out of the way, but in the E-P1′s case, it’s caused by the shutter assembly swinging down into position over the sensor.

Picture Quality and Low-Light Performance

ISO 400 image from the Olympus E-P1.

ISO 400. Click to see full size.

The Olympus E-P1 has superb image quality even at high ISO settings – even better than the Canon G11.  ISO 400 and below shows no objectionable noise. Even at ISO 800, just a touch of post-processing noise reduction eliminates the little bit of noise. Above 800, images are going to need some attention in the computer.

ISO 800 image taken with Olympus E-P1 camera.

ISO 800 Before/After. Click for full-size.

In previous reviews, I’ve criticized other small cameras for problems with color aberration – specifically, purple fringing. For the E-P1, fringing is rare: you’ll see it in only very high-contrast images.

Interchangeable Lenses

I tested the E-P1 with the Olympus 14-42mm f/3.5 to f/5.6 lens. This is a great lens for everyday use. It’s light and compact, but still has a nice 3X zoom range. At the wide end, you get the equivalent of 28mm at a maximum aperture of f/3.5. At the long end the E-P1 gives you 84mm at f/5.6. The smallest aperture is f/22 for lots of depth-of-field.

I like the old-school feel of turning the lens to zoom it. There is no zoom dial or motor on this camera. The result is instant manual zooming from wide to long; no waiting for the camera’s zoom motor to chug from one end to the other. You can even zoom while shooting video.

Olympus and Panasonic make a handful of zoom lenses to fit this camera ranging from 7mm (14mm equivalent) to 200mm (400mm equivalent). There is also a fixed length 20mm pancake lens that is very compact and fast at f/1.7.

Lumix 20mm Micro Four Thirds Lens for Olympus E-P1 Panasonic Vario 7-14mm Micro Four Thirds Lens for Olympus E-P1
Buy the Panasonic Lumix 20mm f/1.7 Aspheric G- Series Lens Buy the Panasonic Lumix G Vario 7-14mm Lens Buy the Panasonic 45-200mm f/4-5.6 G Vario MEGA O.I.S. Lens for Micro Four Thirds SLR
Adorama Adorama  Adorama

Even more intriguing is the ability to use lens adapters to mount lenses designed for larger cameras. I used a Fotodiox Pro Nikon Lens Adapter to mount my old Nikon 105mm macro lens and captured some frame-filling macros with the E-P1. Auto-exposure works, but focusing is manual. And whichever lens you use, it needs to have an aperture ring to adjust the f-stop.

One feature missing from almost all compact cameras is the ability to attach filters. The E-P1 is the first small camera I’ve used that will accept my beloved polarizing filter. The 14-42mm lens uses 40.5mm filters which, despite the odd dimension, are more plentiful that I expected. Apparently, this size has been used on camcorders for a long time and you’ll find a variety of polarizing, haze and other filters available from many sources.

The lens does rotate during focusing, so the polarizer does too. I’ve found the best technique is to set the polarizer, take notice of its position (look at the text etched around the edges), and focus. Now, turn the polarizer back to where it was before focusing and shoot. Yes, it’s a bit cumbersome, but worth the effort.

Handling and Performance

Olympus E-P1 action photo

Action at the Faire

The E-P1 shoots rapidly. Using a fast SD card (San Disk Extreme 4GB rated at 30MB/s) and manual focus, I am able to shoot nine raw images in about 5 seconds before the camera bogs down writing the images.

In auto-focus mode, the camera focuses quickly enough to capture action. There also a usable sports scene-mode that you can get to quickly with a turn of the top mode dial.

The E-P1 has a flash hot shoe, but no built-in flash. I’ve tried my Nikon SB-800 and some smaller pocket-sized flash units in the hot shoe. With the flash set to AUTO, I’m able to get some good flash exposures.

Olympus PEN E-P1 and Fl-14 flash

E-P1 with FL-14 flash. Photo by Olympus.

Eventually, I’ll break down and buy a dedicated Olympus flash. I use flash mainly as fill on bright days and the E-P1′s fill-flash mode only works with Olympus flash units. The low-slung and silver-toned Olympus FL-14 was made for this camera.

All frequently-used settings, such as ISO, white balance, auto/manual focus, self-timer, frame rate and exposure compensation, have their own dedicated buttons, so I use the menu only occasionally.

Olympus E-P1 Super Control Panel

Super Control Panel

When I do need to access the menu, I prefer the Quick Menu: click the OK button and turning the dial to adjust almost everything. In the rare case where I need to access the full menu, it’s simple: each of four menu tabs consists of one page that fits on the LCD screen without scrolling. The  hidden fifth-tab of the Custom menu is a different story that I’ll talk about in a bit.

There’s also a Super Control Panel that shows all shooting options on one screen. Change them with a combination of buttons and dial.

Art Mode and Scene Modes

Grainy Black and White photo taken with Olympus E-P1 digital camera in Art mode

Grainy B&W

On most cameras, I don’t bother with scene modes. But the Olympus E-P1 has some good ones such as the sports and macro modes. It’s sometimes easier to turn to one of these modes than to manually set up the camera for one quick image.

To get the creative juices flowing, I’ve been using the E-P1′s Art modes. There are six of them, but the most fun are called grainy black-and-white and soft focus.

On the other small cameras I’ve tried, raw shooting is disabled when using artistic modes. With the E-P1 in Art mode, you can shoot raw plus a large jpeg. Of course, the effect is applied only to the jpeg. Having a jpeg and an unaffected raw file gives you much more flexibility: you get an artsy fartsy image and a straight image with one click.

Customization And The Hidden Menu

The Olympus E-P1 offers plenty of customization options. Some are buried deep in the Custom menu which, for some reason known only to Olympus, is disabled by default.

To activate the Custom menu, go to the Tools menu (the wrench icon) and set Menu Display to ON. A new Custom menu tab appears just above the Tools menu. Its icon looks like two mechanical gears.

Enable the Olympus E-P1 Custom Menu

Enable the Custom Menu

Now, you have access to dozens of options not previously available such as exposures up to 30 minutes in bulb mode (the default is 8 minutes) and superfine jpeg capture with less compression – and larger file size – than the fine setting.

The E-P1 has two Custom Reset settings that allow you to set your camera the way you like it, record the setting and return to those settings later by doing a custom reset from the menu.

My Mode on the Olympus E-P1 camera

My Mode

Similar custom settings are available via something Olympus calls My Mode. With My Mode, two sets of camera settings can be stored. There are a few differences between My Mode and the Custom Reset:

  1. My Mode is more difficult to set up initially – it relies on digging deep into the Custom Menu which, by default, is turned off.
  2. Custom Reset offers more choices as to which settings can be stored, but most of the commonly used shooting settings are available in both Custom Reset and My Mode.
  3. Function Fn button location on Olympus E-P1 camera

    Function (Fn) Button

    My Mode relies on the Function (Fn) button: it must be set to activate My Mode. This precludes programming the Fn button for any of its nine other functions such as depth-of-field preview.

  4. Once set up, My Mode, is a lot easier to use: you merely hold the Fn button while you shoot the photograph.

Between the two My Modes and the two Custom Resets, you can store four sets of shooting data. I’ve found it most handy to set Custom Reset 1 to my most common shooting settings (ISO 100, Adobe 1998 color space, 4:3 aspect ratio, and the like) and My Menu 1 to record black-and-white. I can be shooting color images and instantly switch to black-and-white for one image by pressing the Fn button while I shoot. As soon as I release the Fn button, I’m back to shooting color. Easy!

Movies

The Olympus E-P1 records movies that Olympus refers to as High Definition. Unfortunately, like most other compact cameras, these movies are so overly-compressed – using Motion JPEG AVI format compressed to 1/12 of their original size – that any gains in resolution during recording are lost via the in-camera processing. The movies look blocky and blurry during playback. These low-quality images are still useful for small web shows, but you won’t want to play them full-screen.

On a positive note, unlike most still cameras that shoot video, you can zoom in during shooting. But you cannot re-focus during a scene.

High-quality audio is captured via two front-mounted stereo microphones. Because they’re built into the camera, they record camera noises caused by zooming or button pushing as well as the sound of your finger brushing across the camera body. There is no option to plug in an external microphone.

Thanks to a relatively large built-in speaker with adjustable volume, the in-camera playback sounds good.

Other Notable Features and Specifications

    • 12.3 megapixels (maximum image size is 4032 x 3024 pixels).
    • Captures raw images (in Olympus’ ORF format) and/or 12 variations of jpeg files (small to large, basic compression to superfine).
    • Three-inch fixed LCD. It doesn’t tilt or swivel.
    • Shutter speeds from1/4000 to 60 seconds plus bulb (up to 30 minutes). For bulb use, preserve your shutter finger by buying the Olympus RM-UC1 Remote Cable Release.
    • Five metering modes including an evaluative mode called ESF, center-weighted and three spot metering modes (normal, preserve highlights, preserve shadows).
    • Anti-shock is similar to mirror lockup. Adjust the delay between the time the shutter mechanism snaps into place (when you push the shutter button) and image capture. Nine increments from 1/8 to 30 seconds. Anti-shock does not self-cancel, so you can take a series of photos without accessing the menu for each one. Makes a good substitute for a remote release.
    • Self-timer can be set for a two- or 12-second delay. It’s not self-cancelling.
    • 11-point auto-focus with selectable focus point.
    • Manual focus with option to use entire LCD as an enlarged viewfinder image. Zoom in 7X or 10X to see what’s in focus.
    • Exposure compensation: plus-or-minus 3 EV in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 step. (You choose). Has it’s own dedicated button.
    • Shooting modes include full auto, program, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, art filter, scene and movie.
    • ISO from 100 to 6400 in 1/3 or 1 step intervals.
    • Records to an SD or SDHC media card.
    • Records compressed 30-fps video at resolution of either 1280×720 (16:9) or 640×480 (4:3).
Add audio to still images on the Olympus E-P1

Add audio to still images

    • Add audio to still images: add up to 30 seconds of audio to a still photo during playback. Great for note-taking or capturing ambient sound. Records a high-quality (1411 kbps) WAV file with the same file name as the photo.
    • Three built-in image stabilization modes: one for normal use and two for panning.
    • Configurable auto ISO. Set minimum (200 or higher) and maximum ISO (up to 6400). I suggest setting it to 200 and 800.
    • Capture images with sRGB or Adobe color profile.
    • Easy firmware upgrades via Olympus’ free Digital Camera Updater software.
Tripod mount does not interfere with battery/card compartment on  Olympus E-P1 camera.

Tripod mount

    • Four aspect ratios for still photos: 4:3 (default), 16:9, 3:2, and 6:6 (square). You get the highest resolution at 4:3.
    • Formatting or erasing a card is easy: Card Setup menu is the first item on the menu.
    • Well-positioned tripod mount. A small quick-release plate does not prevent access to the battery/card compartment.
Electronic level on the Olympus E-P1

Electronic level

  • Ultrasonic sensor dust reduction activates each time the camera is turned on and only takes an instant.
  • Built-in two-axis electronic level shows tilt of camera forward-to-back (lens pointing up or down) and side-to-side.

Pros and Cons

Pro: excellent image quality.

Con: lousy movie quality.

Pro: record audio notes with still images.

Con: it’s easy to damage the lens when changing lenses. Beware of a little pin on the camera’s lens mount that will scratch the heck out of the non-recessed lens if you accidentally drag the lens across it when mounting. (This is the voice of experience talking.)

Pro: raw+jpeg shooting in all scene and art filter modes.

Con: No optical viewfinder. An external optical viewfinder (Olympus VF-1) is available, but its designed for the 17mm lens only.

Pro: lens adapters allow use of almost any lens designed for Olympus original Four-Thirds camera,T-mount lenses and those designed for Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Minolta.

Con: will not fit in a pocket.

Pro: hot shoe for external flash.

Con: no built-in flash.

Magic Lantern Guide book for the Olympus E-P1Pro: dedicated buttons for most often-used functions plus a couple of quick menu modes.

Con: the user manual is well illustrated, but sometimes short on information. Luckily, there’s an alternative: buy the Magic Lantern Guide to the Olympus E-P1.

Will Work For Food Camera Gear

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If you’d like to share your experiences with your own compact camera or ask a question, please leave a comment below.

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