With the E-PL1, Olympus has concocted a simpler and less expensive addition to its line of PEN digital compact cameras. The Olympus PEN E-PL1 may be closer to a point-and-shoot than either the E-P1 or E-P2, but for those of us thirsty for high-quality still images, the E-PL1 does not disappoint.
UPDATE: There’s a newer edition of this camera!
Click here to see the new Olympus PEN E-PL3.
First Impressions of the Olympus PEN E-PL1
Although Olympus doesn’t mention it, the “L” in E-PL1 probably stands for lite. As with lite beer and other such low-cal products, Olympus has fiddled with the E-PL1’s recipe: omitting a few ingredients while adding others.
Even the lens sports the L designation. The markings around the lens barrel read, “Olympus Digital 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 L ED.” This lite lens uses a black plastic mounting ring as opposed to the metal mount on the non-L version that came with my E-P1. If you change lenses often, this difference may make the L lens a little less durable, but it works fine on both the E-PL1 and the E-P1.
The E-PL1 can use any lens designed for a micro-four-thirds mount. This includes several lenses made by Olympus and a few more by Panasonic.
Additionally, there are adapters available that allow SLR lenses to be attached to the E-PL1 – but you’ll have to focus manually. These include lenses from just about every maker: Nikon, Canon, Minolta, Pentax and others. Full-sized four-thirds lenses can also be used, and some of these will autofocus.
Olympus describes the color of the model I received as “blue,” but it’s much more attractive than it sounds. The rear panel is indeed a medium blue while the front is a subtle violet color. Separating the two is a metallic band with a stainless-steel look which wraps all the way around the top, bottom and sides of the camera. All of these parts have a nice matte sheen to them.
The E-PL1’s plastic body feels a little less rugged than my E-P1 and there are fewer dedicated buttons – and no thumbwheel controllers. On the plus side, the E-PL1 does have a built-in flash, larger finger grip and the movie button.
Compared to most pocket-sized cameras, such as the Panasonic LX-5 and Canon G11, the E-PL1 has two distinct advantages (as do all micro-four-thirds cameras): its larger image sensor captures better quality images and it uses interchangeable lenses.
Don’t forget to check out my other small camera reviews in my series, “The Lightweight Photographer.”
Olympus E-PL1 Models and Prices
The E-PL1 is available in three colors: blue, black and champagne. If you decide to buy the E-PL1 or any photo gear from one of the online retailers listed, help me pay the bills here at PhotoCitizen – at no cost to you – by clicking on one of the links on this page to get there. Thanks.
|Olympus E-PL1 (Blue)
with 14-42mm Lens
|Olympus E-PL1 (Black)
with 14-42mm Lens
|Olympus E-PL1 (Champagne)
with 14-42mm Lens
Compact Camera Uses and Requirements
While searching for the perfect compact camera, I’ve developed a philosophy about using a small camera and refined my requirements:
Why Use a Compact Camera?
- I’ll use the compact as a second camera to my main Nikon D300 SLR – instead of a second SLR – for wide-angle shots when I have a long lens on the D300.
- I’ll carry the compact camera by itself when I don’t feel like toting all the weight of my D300 and accessories.
- Some compacts – especially those from Olympus – have some fun artistic modes. I’ll use those when I’m feeling arty or need some creative inspiration.
- For more fun, I’ll attach Nikon and Lensbaby lenses to a micro-four-thirds compact camera using a lens adapter.
- I’ll take advantage of the small size and less professional look of a small camera to get access to locations where “pro” cameras are prohibited and to create portraits of shy subjects who may become intimidated staring into a large SLR lens.
- I’ll use the compact to capture video, something my older Nikon D300 doesn’t do.
Compact Camera Requirements
- I rarely shoot in JPEG-only mode, so the camera must capture raw images.
- I need publication-quality images for my stock photography agency.
- I want to capture low-light images at high ISO settings with minimal noise.
- Ease of use is important. I want lots of dedicated buttons and a well laid-out menu system.
- True hi-def movies that aren’t overly compressed.
- When I shoot raw + JPEG, the JPEG should be the highest quality available.
- A built-in flash is useful. Preferably a pop-up.
- I’d love an optical viewfinder, but I’ll settle for an electronic one.
- A tilting LCD would be nice.
- Small size and light weight.
- Reasonably priced around $800. No $2000 Leica for me.
Testing the Olympus E-PL1 in the Real World
To complete my Real World tests, I worked with the E-PL1 in the field over several weeks as I would during any travel photography session.
The product photos you see here were done in my home studio, but all the rest were done on location.
While I appreciate the popular camera review sites that scientifically document every camera feature and specification, I find an honest opinion from a real photographer to be more valuable. That is what I strive to provide here on PhotoCitizen.
My comments here are based on my usual shooting style: raw or raw-plus-JPEG images captured using aperture-priority mode.
The Test Camera
The camera I’m testing came as part of a kit including the E-PL1 (in blue), the 14-42mm M.Zuiko lens and all the other common paraphernalia such as battery, cables and the like. I was also able to test it with the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens which I had on hand from my Panasonic GF1 review.
During the course of this review, I updated the firmware (the camera’s operating system software) from the original 1.0 version to the latest 1.1. According to Olympus, version 1.1 improves auto-focus performance – for stills and movies – as well as improving compatibility with the optional VF-2 Electronic Viewfinder and with MSC lenses designed specifically for HD video. Read more about the update and download the new firmware from the Olympus website.
Interestingly, there is no firmware update for the lens. The non-L 14-42mm lens on my E-P1 was updated from version 1 to version 1.1 when I updated that camera’s firmware. But with the L lens mounted on the E-PL1, the Olympus firmware updater found no update for the lens.
I was unable to test the viewfinder or any of the MSC lenses, but I did find autofocus to be somewhat improved after the update. Focus seemed a bit faster when shooting stills and, when using continuous AF for video, the camera didn’t seem to hunt for focus as much as it did with the old firmware.
Image Quality and Noise
The E-PL1’s performance at high ISO settings is amazingly good – as long as the image is properly exposed in the camera.
Under-exposed images don’t fare so well: correcting the exposure in the computer brings out plenty of noise. Even at high ISO settings, a properly exposed image sometimes needs very little noise reduction.
In normal shooting situations, I prefer shooting at ISO 200 most of the time. In low-light I normally turn on Auto ISO which I have customized to go no higher than ISO 800.
Although the E-PL1 can be set as low as ISO 100, I’d suggest using that setting only when long exposures are needed since the image quality is no better.
I did notice color fringing in some high-contrast scenes where a bright white subject against a medium background had a purple or magenta outline around it. It’s a hit-or-miss affair: in other similar scenes where I’d expect to find fringing, there wasn’t any.
Although color fringes can usually be corrected using Lightroom’s Color Aberration sliders, it does add another step to my workflow.
Raw Plus JPEG
While testing the E-PL1, I shot mostly in raw-plus-JPEG mode. Interestingly enough, the high-ISO JPEG’s were virtually noise-free. The camera’s software obviously does a very good job with noise reduction while still preserving detail.
For some reason, the JPEG is always one or two stops brighter than its accompanying raw image. The camera automatically adjusts highlights and shadows on the JPEG (Olympus calls it gradation) and there is no way to disable this adjustment. Sometimes, this results in an unusable, blown out JPEG image.
In Picture Mode, it is possible to choose from four gradation levels – auto, normal, high-key or low-key – but I saw no significant difference between them.
The E-PL1 offers two choices of color space in its Custom menu: Adobe RGB or sRGB. Raw images are always recorded in the chosen space, but not so for JPEGs. In normal shooting modes (P, A, S and M), the JPEG will be recorded in the chosen color space whether shooting raw-plus-JPEG or raw-only.
In the other modes (Art, Scene and iAuto), JPEGs are always recorded in the sRGB color space. As it is, these modes take a long time for the camera to process, so I guess Olympus made a design choice not to tax the E-PL1’s processor even more by asking it to process images in the wider gamut Adobe 1998 color space.
Super Fine JPEG
The Olympus E-PL1 offers four choices of JPEG size/quality combinations. By default, these are Large/Fine (LF), Large/Normal (LN), Medium/Normal (MN) and Small/Normal (SN). These same combinations are available when recording raw-plus-JPEG or JPEG-only.
Each of these combinations is user configurable via the Custom menu. It’s a bit hard to find, so here’s the full road map. In the main menu, go to the Custom menu (that’s the one with the gears icon). Go to submenu G and choose the menu item called SET. Once set, it’s simple to switch between them via the Super Control Panel or the Live Menu.
In the SET menu, there are two additional quality settings available that don’t appear by default. Basic records a highly compressed file suitable for the web and not much else. The other hidden setting is much more practical for every day shooting. It’s called Super Fine and it results in the least compressed, highest quality JPEG file possible on the E-PL1.
Using the super-fine setting increases file size by about 30- to 60-percent. In my tests, large JPEGs created using the fine setting took up anywhere from 4.4MB to 5.9MB of card space depending on the scene being captured. Large, super-fine images of the same scenes ran from 5.7MB to 9.2MB. By comparison, raw files – which are recorded using lossless compression – ranged from 11.2MB to 12.5MB.
Built-in Image Stabilizer
One of the Olympus PEN E-PL1’s significant advantages over its competitor, the Panasonic GF1, is the E-PL1’s in-camera image stabilization. The GF1 relies on in-lens stabilization. While Panasonic adds stabilization to some of its micro-four-thirds lenses, the E-PL1 – and the rest of the Olympus PEN line – allows stabilization of any lens attached to the camera.
With the appropriate adapter, that even includes lenses meant for SLR cameras built by Olympus or other manufacturers. I have successfully used my Nikon 105mm macro and my Nikon F-mount Lensbaby 2.0 on the E-PL1 using an adapter made by Fotodiox. Neither of these lenses includes any kind of stabilization, yet on the E-PL1, I get the full benefit of stabilization with each of them. This also applies to the non-stabilized Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens – although this lens doesn’t require an adapter.
To get the most out of the image stabilizer when using non micro-four-thirds lenses, manually set the focal length of the attached lens in the E-PL1’s image stabilizer menu. Focal lengths from 10mm to 1000mm are available. For micro-four-thirds lenses, this is set automatically.
Using an adapter like the Fotodiox does not allow any electronic communication between the camera body and the lens. So, if you attach a lens that has its own stabilizer built-in, you don’t have to worry about disabling it. Stabilized lenses rely on the camera to activate their stabilization mechanism when the shutter button is depressed, but the adapter prevents that signal from being sent, so the stabilizer in the lens will never turn on.
The E-PL1 offers three image stabilization options (four, if you include off):
- I.S. 1 (Auto IS) is the normal mode where both vertical and horizontal camera shake are stabilized.
- I.S. 2 (Vertical IS) is used for horizontal panning. It only stabilizes vertical, up or down, camera shake without interfering with the sideways motion necessary to create a panoramic image.
- I.S. 3 (Horizontal IS) is used for horizontal panning when the camera is held vertically – to capture a taller horizontal panorama. This mode also stabilizes up or down camera shake.
Stabilization does not take effect until the shutter release is pressed all the way and the exposure begins, so the image viewed on the LCD prior to the exposure is not stabilized.
Flash: Built-In and External
The built-in flash is not powerful – its guide number rating is 10 meters at ISO 200 – but works well for fill flash at relatively close range. It pops up to a position about one-inch above the top of the camera, so when used for full flash, expect flat lighting.
The nicest thing about pop-up flashes as opposed to those built into the front of the camera – think Canon G11 – is that you don’t have to worry about turning the flash on or off. When it’s popped up, it’s on; when it’s retracted, it’s off. Simple.
A pleasant surprise that I have not seen on a compact camera until now is the flash remote control (RC) mode which allows the built-in flash to trigger an external off-camera flash. I did not have an Olympus flash available for testing, but the user manual says that up to three flash units can be controlled independently as long as they “offer a remote control mode and are designated for use with this camera.”
Flash units that fill this bill include the Olympus FL-50R, and FL-36R. According to users, the FL-36R functions well with the E-PL1 and allows remote controlled TTL operation. I imagine the more powerful FL-50R works just as well.
I use off-camera flash often with my Nikon D300 and SB-800 or SB-900 flash. The D300’s built-in flash triggers the off camera flash – which I usually hand-hold above and to the left of my subject – but does not add any significant light of its own. Nikon’s i-TTL flash system is the best in the business. It will be interesting to see how accurate the Olympus system is by comparison.
Both the Olympus FL-50R and FL-36R can also be used in the E-PL1’s hot shoe as can the non-remote FL-14.
There is no dedicated button to set the flash mode or flash compensation, but both are available from the Super Control panel or Live menu. When set to Fill In mode, the flash will always fire – as long as it’s popped up. Don’t be fooled by the name, Fill in. You’ll still have to manually dial in some negative flash compensation or else you’ll get full flash in this mode.
Other flash modes include four manual settings (Full, 1/4, 1/16/ and 1/64), two slow sync modes (first and second curtain), Auto, flash off and two red-eye modes. Flash sync speed is 1/160 of a second. Flash recycle time averages about three seconds in normal use.
The control layout of the E-PL1 is functional and typical of cameras in its class with one glaring omission: other than the top-mounted shooting mode dial, there are no control dials on the E-PL1.
Everything is controlled by buttons. I’ve come to love the two control dials on the back of the E-P1. But the E-PL1 has none; more evidence for my “lite camera” theory.
This may not seem like a big deal, but it does affect the camera’s ease-of-use. Using the E-PL1’s Super Control Panel is more of a chore. Instead of dialing in settings, the E-PL1 makes you push buttons. To make multiple changes, you have to keep accessing the panel because it disappears after every button click.
Aperture and exposure compensation changes are even more annoying. On my E-P1, the main dial changes aperture and the sub dial changes exposure compensation without accessing any menus. The E-PL1 forces you to click the exposure compensation button to access either of these settings. Then, use the up or down arrows to adjust aperture and the left or right arrows for compensation.
I’m also not too crazy about the positioning of the red, movie-record button. I’m forever pressing it inadvertently as I carry the camera. I’ve erased a lot of accidental, hip-shot movies as I move from one shooting location to the next. The movie button can be disabled, but moving it to the top of the camera would be a better idea.
There are some things I like about the E-PL1’s controls. Despite the movie button’s awkward placement, I do like being able to switch instantly from shooting stills to shooting movies; the dedicated Magnifier button that activates focus-assist is very handy when shooting with a manual focus lens; and, the top-mounted shooting mode dial is nice and stiff so it won’t accidentally change modes when it rubs against your clothing.
Menus and Settings
I’ve mentioned the Super Control Panel several times in this article, so let’s start with it. This panel displays a bunch of commonly-used settings on the LCD simultaneously. It’s easier to show than to describe, so click on the photo to zoom in and get a good look at it.
Besides changing settings, the panel offers a quick way to check settings. It shows such important settings as ISO, white balance, aspect ratio and picture quality settings. The Super Control Panel is a great memory jogger for those times when you’ve been shooting in an unusual situation and you’ve forgotten to set things back to normal afterward.
A pet peeve of mine is a camera menu that makes it difficult to format a memory card. Fortunately, the E-PL1 makes it easy: six quick button-pushes to a clean card.
To minimize scrolling, all but one of the submenus contain a single page of items. The exception is the 15-page-long Custom Menu which allows you to customize the behavior of your camera in intimate detail.
The E-PL1, like the rest of the PEN line, offers several useful customization options.
The Custom Menu is the place to set up your camera controls the way you like them.
If you’re particular about these kinds of things, this process will take you a while: there are a lot of settings you can change. There are too many items in this menu to list them all, but here’s a sampler:
- Change the direction of the lens focus ring from counter-clockwise to clockwise.
- Change what happens when the shutter release is pressed half way or all the way.
- Program the Function and Movie Record buttons to one of several options.
- Set up My Mode options.
- Change the amount of data that appears on the LCD during shooting and playback.
- Change the upper and lower limits of the histogram (default is 0 and 255).
- Set EV steps to 1/3, 1/2 or 1.
- Set upper and lower limits for Auto ISO (200 to 1600). I suggest 200 and 800.
- Enable Super Fine JPEG compression.
- Change the dpi setting of your image files (1 to 9999). I set mine to 300.
- Engage pixel mapping which checks and adjusts the sensor.
Once you’ve got everything set up, Custom Reset allows you to save the entire setup. In fact, you can save two setups. One can hold your everyday settings, and the other, settings for some favorite activity like black-and-white or action photography.
Once you’ve registered your settings in one of the Custom Reset positions, just click on it again later to return to those settings. Now you can play around with the camera settings as much as you want – or even set them back to factory defaults – while your favorite settings are safely stored away and quickly available.
My Mode is similar to Custom Reset except that while Custom Reset saves shooting settings and every other customization option, My Mode saves only the shooting settings. My mode is meant to be used to quickly change from your normal settings to, for example, black-and-white or high ISO, and back again.
The Function button can be assigned to activate My Mode. Once you’ve saved your My Mode settings, hold the Function button down while you press the shutter release and that single picture will be captured with your My Mode settings. Release the function button, and you’re back to your normal settings.
The Function button can be assigned to activate My Mode, manual focus, depth-of-field preview or several other options.
The Movie record button can also be reassigned to the same options available for the Function button – or it can be disabled so it does nothing.
The behavior of the shutter release can be changed to one of three different modes. Each of these three modes can be assigned differently depending on the selected focus mode. So, in single AF mode, the shutter button can work differently than it does in continuous AF or manual focus.
Art and Scene Modes
I don’t have much use for scene modes in any camera, so I did not test them on the E-PL1. But, for the record, here’s what you get: portrait, enhanced portrait, landscape, landscape plus portrait, sport, night scene, night portrait, children, high key, low key, dis (something to do with reducing camera shake), macro, nature macro, candle, sunset, documents, panorama, fireworks, and beach & snow.
Some of the Art filter modes are fun. Modes that require a lot of processing, such as Diorama or Soft Focus take several seconds to process after the image is captured. They also cause the LCD to lag: the image on the LCD stutters as you pan, so don’t expect to capture action shots in these art modes.
All of the art modes produce JPEGs only. If the camera is set to raw-only, switching to one of the art modes will cause a JPEG to be created in addition to the raw image.
Here’s a brief description of each of the six art modes:
- Pop Art – bright, vivid colors
- Soft Focus – good for certain portraits
- Grainy Film – a favorite of mine. Gritty, high-contrast black-and-white
- Pin Hole – adds a dark vignette around the image
- Diorama – adds blur at the edges in an attempt to simulate a tilt lens
- Gentle Sepia – monotone image with sepia tint
Picture quality of high-definition movies captured with the Olympus PEN E-PL1 is good – providing your scene is well lit. In low light, picture quality is inadequate: the image appears to be shimmering as pixels get brighter and darker.
Continuous auto focus will hunt for focus with the slightest movement of your subject resulting in a couple of seconds of blur before focus is regained. And the sound of the lens movement will be recorded in the audio track. For these reasons, I recommend using single AF or manual focus when shooting video with the E-PL1.
The E-PL1 provides no way to edit or trim video in-camera.
Audio is strictly mono. For better sound, get the Olympus external microphone set (SEMA-1) which allows you to mount the included stereo mic on the camera’s hot shoe or, by attaching the included 3-foot cable, use the mic off-camera. For current pricing of the SEMA-1, click one of these links to check Amazon.
Other Features & Comments
- Color space: Adobe RGB or sRGB.
- DPI settings: up to 9999 dpi. I’ve set mine to 300 dpi since that’s what my stock agency prefers.
- Manual focus assist: enlarges the LCD image for easier manual focusing.
- Audio notes: add up to 30 seconds of audio to a still image after-the-fact. Good for recording shooting notes or capturing ambient sound for a slideshow.
- Bulb mode: up to 30 minutes. But you have to hold the shutter release the entire time.
- Auto ISO can be set to a lower limit of 200 and any upper limit of up to 3200. I suggest 200 and 800.
- Auto ISO bracketing: takes one image and records it at three different ISO settings.
- One-touch white balance: set white balance from a white or gray card.
- Focus modes: in addition to the normal AF and manual modes, S-AF/MF allows manual touch-up after auto-focus. C-AF/TR locks onto a moving subject and tracks it – as long as it’s not moving too fast.
- Super Fine JPEG: higher quality JPEG is disabled by default. Enable it in the Custom Menu, submenu G.
- Aspect ratios: 4:3 (native), 3:2, 16:9, 1:1 (square).
- Shutter speed: maximum of 1/2000 is too slow for shooting wide open in bright light.
- Focusing: uses contrast detection AF which doesn’t work well in low contrast situations or low light and there’s no AF illuminator.
- Battery life: lasts all day when photographing sporadically without flash. Recharge time for a completely discharged battery is just under 3 hours (in a real world test).
Here are a few important specifications. To see them all, visit the Olympus website.
- Sensor: 12.3 megapixels (effective)
- LCD: 2.7-inches diagonal, 230,000 pixels
- Field of view multiplier (crop factor): 2X
- Dust reduction: Supersonic Wave Filter
- Still image formats: RAW (12-bit lossless compression), JPEG, RAW+JPEG
- Still Image size: 4032×3024 pixels (RAW), 640×480 to 4032×3024 pixels (JPEG)
- Movie recording format: AVI Motion JPEG at 30 frames per second
- Movie modes: 16:9, 1280 x 720 HD or 4:3 640×480 VGA
- Movie recording limits: 2GB file size or 7 min. duration. (14 min. duration for VGA)
- Sound recording format: WAV 16-bit @ 44.1Khz
- Shutter speed: 60 seconds to 1/2000 plus bulb (up to 30 minutes)
- Focusing: imager contrast detection
- Focusing points: 11 areas individually selectable or multiple
- AF illuminator: not available
- Metering modes: ESP 324-area multi-pattern, center-weighted, 1% spot, manual
- ISO: 200 to 1600 (default), optional 100 and 3200. EV steps of 1/3 or 1.
- Exposure compensation: +/- 3 EV in 1/3, 1/2, or 1 step.
- Exposure bracketing: 3 frames up to 1EV apart.
- Drive mode: single, sequential, self-timer ( 2 or 12 seconds)
- Flash: GN 10 at ISO 200
- Top notch image quality at all ISO settings
- Excellent JPEG image quality (and Super Fine option)
- Good movie quality
- Built-in Flash
- In-camera stabilization
- Dedicated movie button (a pro when I press it deliberately)
- Optional lens adapter lets me use my Nikon lenses
- Optional electronic viewfinder
- Remote control off-camera flash with optional Olympus external flash units
- Audio notes
- Art filter modes – especially Grainy Film
- Plenty of customization options
- The least expensive micro-four-thirds camera on the market
- Clunky menu system
- Color fringing in high-contrast scenes
- Overly simplified controls – no dials or thumbwheels!
- Not as rugged as I’d like
- Dedicated movie button (a con when I press it inadvertently)
- Mono sound quality
- Difficult to focus in low light or other low contrast situations
- Instruction manual is typical geek-speak and short on pertinent information
The Olympus PEN E-PL1 is a good camera. For someone just stepping into the mirrorless compact camera world – especially photographers who are used to a simple point-and-shoot – the E-PL1 is a big step up.
It’s a useful tool with plenty of potential that any serious amateur would love to find under his or her Christmas tree.
But I’m used to the ease of control offered by my Nikon DSLR. And my Olympus PEN E-P1, despite its inferior movie quality and lack of a built-in flash, is still the gold standard by which I judge other small cameras.
So, I’ll have to pass on the E-PL1 and keep looking. Next up: the Olympus PEN E-P2.