The Olympus E-P1 - the company's first Micro Four Thirds camera, with its design based on the original Olympus PEN. But does the EP1 have the potential to become as popular as the 1959 classic? The What Digital Camera Olympus E-P1 review lifts the lid to bring you the verdict...

Product Overview

Overall rating:

88%

Olympus Pen E-P1

Design:95%
Image Quality:90%
Performance:85%
Value:90%
Features:80%
Overall score:88%

Product:

Olympus Pen E-P1 Review

Manufacturer:

Price as reviewed:

£699.00

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The Olympus E-P1 (Olympus Pen) is the company’s first Micro Four Thirds camera. When the Micro Four Thirds format was first announced both Panasonic and Olympus spoke of smaller-bodied cameras, and with the Panasonic Lumix G1 we saw just what was possible with this mount. The G1 looked very much like a miniature SLR camera, but without the mirror system that defines them. For Olympus’s answer to this new mount the company took a look back to a camera concept that it created in 1959 – the half-frame Olympus PEN. This classic design became the basis of its new Micro Four Thirds camera and so, in June of this year, the Pen Digital was announced, otherwise known as the Olympus E-P1. Is the EP1 as groundbreaking as the original? The What Digital Camera Olympus EP1 review lifts the lid…

Olympus E-P1 review – Features

In keeping the Olympus E-P1 true to its history, some features you may expect on a modern digital camera have been sacrificed. Most of the original Pen cameras featured a fixed lens and had a basic viewfinder. The Pen F did allow for interchangeable lenses, and used a sidewards mounted pentaprism to allow a through-the-lens (TTL) optical viewfinder. For the EP1, Olympus has chosen to remove the viewfinder altogether and offers just a rear LCD screen on the back for composition, as is the case on many compact cameras. Presumably for space reasons, and a little nostalgia, there is an optional viewfinder available that sits on the camera’s hotshoe, and while the camera lacks a built-in flash, this too is available as an optional extra that sits on the hotshoe.

 

Olympus E-P1 test sample image

 

Despite its size the Olympus E-P1 offers the same Four Thirds (17.3 x 13mm) size sensor as used in the Olympus E-series DSLR cameras. Here it is a 12.3-megapixel Live MOS sensor, with images output in the standard 4:3 format (4032 x 3024 pixels), and also in a choice of 3:2, widescreen 16:9, and square 6:6 formats. To reduce dust build-up it uses Olympus’s Supersonic Wave Filter (SSWF) and features a built-in sensor shift image-stabilisation system that claims to offer up to four EV stops of compensation.

Though there’s every chance the E-P1’s sensor is the same as featured in the Olympus E-620, the processor is brand new. The TruePic V is said to enhance colour reproduction and picture sharpness, provide faster processing speeds to support the built-in Art Filters and movie modes, and allow higher ISO capability. This ISO range, with a maximum ISO of 6400, is a step up from even the Olympus E-30 model, and is certainly impressive for a camera of this level.

Metering is catered for with a TTL 324-zone multi-pattern sensing system, offering Digital ESP, centreweighted, and spot options, while exposure compensation can be adjusted up to +/- 3EV in each direction. As well as the full manual and aperture/shutter priority exposure controls, you have the option of 19 scene modes and an i-Auto setting, which selects the most appropriate settings for you. The Art Filters, as featured on recent E-series models, offer six creative effects for your images in the form of Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale & Light colour, Light Tone, Grainy Film, and Pin Hole, which can be applied to JPEG files during capture or to Raw files afterwards.

The design of the Micro Four Thirds system, and principally the lack of a mirror, means the autofocus uses a contrast detect system from the sensor. This allows an 11-point selection that is extended to 25-points with face detection, and a 225-point manual selection when in the magnified view.

The rear screen is a large 3in HyperCrystal LCD display with a fairly basic 230,000-dot resolution. For composition however, it offers 100% field of view, exposure and white balance adjustment previews, as well as grid line and histogram display.

The E-P1 is capable of high-definition video capture. It records in AVI motion JPEG format at a choice of 1280 x 720 pixels (720p) or 640 x 480 pixels, at 30 frames per second. The audio is recorded in 16-bit stereo PCM, from microphones built into the front.

What are micro system cameras?

Design & Performance

Olympus E-P1 review – Design

Olympus E-P1 product image sideOlympus has a history of producing some distinctive-looking digital cameras, some more successful than others. The design for the E-P1 is fairly brave and a massive departure from any other mainstream interchangeable lens models. It looks closer to a rangefinder in styling; the body has been painstakingly sculptured to pay homage to its namesakes, while adding a modern twist.

The body is on the larger side of the old Pen range and certainly requires a two-handed grip to steady it. Compared to the smallest DSLR (currently the E-450), it’s significantly smaller. At 335g, it is a good 45g lighter, too.

The E-P1 is available in two colours: silver and white. The silver is the more traditional looking, while the white is distinctive but perhaps not to everyone’s taste, and the layout has been kept simple and uncluttered to keep the retro styling. A couple of nice touches include the flat mounted silver mode dial on the top and the small thumb wheel on the back panel that can be used in combination with the circular dial built into the four-way control for various shooting functions. Some of the buttons can also be customised to change their usage, though with so many options it can get a bit confusing.

Olympus E-P1 test sample image

The LCD screen is nice and large with a bright display and, despite its comparatively low resolution, is very usable with an almost flawless angle of view from all directions. For critical use, however, it is no substitute for a viewfinder and encourages you to hold the camera in a less steady manner.

Olympus E-P1 review – Performance

The E-P1’s design makes you use it in a very different way from a DSLR and so it feels more natural to compare it to a high-end compact. However, with the exception of a viewfinder, it still offers everything a DSLR should – for a similar price tag – so should really be judged in these terms. And while it easily outclasses most compacts, here it does have some shortcomings.

The contrast detect autofocus searches forward and backwards every time you half press the shutter, even if the focus point hasn’t changed. This combined with the lack of any AF illumination lamp, does make the process slow at times, and it often struggles to lock on in low light. In brighter conditions, though, the face detection works well to maintain focus.

The metering handles almost all conditions very well, giving a nice even tone graph. In high-contrast scenes it will choose to blow extreme highlights rather than underexpose, but will produce the most pleasing result in most cases by doing so.

The burst mode offers three frames per second continuous shooting, which is average at best. Write speeds are fairly standard, taking 2.5secs for a large JPEG, three secs for a Raw and 5.5secs for Raw+JPEG but, thanks presumably to a decent-sized buffer, it is capable of either 14 JPEG files, 13 Raw files, or nine Raw+JPEGs before slowing, using a SanDisk Extreme III 8GB SDHC card.

It’s worth noting that the E-P1’s range of Art Filters and other creative options do put a strain on the battery. With average usage you can expect about 300 shots (roughly a 4GB card).

Without making too much of a song and dance about it, the E-P1’s video mode is fairly impressive. Though it won’t tempt movie connoisseurs, as it offers only 720p high definition and no audio input, the results still look impressive, and can be output at 1080i if required. Plus, the ability to use the Art Filters, aperture priority and shutter priority for video means you can still get creative. Continuous focusing is available for video but the two current Olympus lens options will affect sound.

These two optics are the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 and the 17mm f/2.8, with either or both available as part of a kit with the camera. Though they certainly look the part, they don’t allow the camera to perform to its full potential – which is common for kit lenses. Though you can attach a range of Four Thirds, OM, and even Leica lenses, some faster lenses in this smaller format would be a welcome addition.

Image Quality & Value

Olympus E-P1 review – Image Qualiy

Tone and Exposure

The camera’s metering system successfully delivers a balanced tonal range using the ESP metering system. This does occasionally lose highlights in the most high-contrast scenes but the overall image is kept well exposed. The highlight and shadow spot modes can always be used when it is essential to maintain detail.

Colour and White Balance

Outdoors the EP-1 delivers bright and colourful results. Indoors, though, particularly at higher ISO values, the Auto White Balance tends to verge on a more yellow colouring. The range of white balance presets, however, is fairly extensive, offering an incandescent, three fluorescent, a custom setting, and even a one-touch setting that allows you to take your own reading.

Detail and Sharpness

Using the supplied 14-42mm kit lens, results are well detailed and of adequate sharpness, though this lens doesn’t get the very best out of the sensor. That said, detail is maintained at higher ISO values with the help of noise reduction and noise filters, and fringing is, at most, minor in appearance.

Noise and ISO

Olympus E-P1 review test sample image ISO settings and noise reduction filters

Noise levels become evident above ISO 800 and above ISO 3200 becomes fairly heavy. This noise is fairly monochrome throughout, however, and, by using the camera’s own noise reduction and noise filter systems, can be controlled very proficiently even at the highest ISO 6400 setting to produce a usable image.

Raw/JPEG

Even at 300% magnification it is really difficult to see any differences between the Raw and the JPEG files from this camera. If anything, when left at default settings using the Olympus Master 2 software, the JPEG image seems slightly crisper but the Raw image obviously offers a greater opportunity to make adjustments to the exposure, remove noise and add sharpness without degrading the image.

Olympus E-P1 review – Value for Money

 

Though not aimed at the budget buyer the E-P1 is not overly expensive. It is pitched as a premium product and will undoubtedly attract attention due to its looks, but considering it costs £699 with the 14-42mm, it is nearly half the price of the Lumix GH1, and just over £200 more than the Lumix G1. And in retro terms it is a relative bargain when placed alongside the £3,000 Leica M8. Put on a broader comparison, it is £130 more than the Canon’s G10 creative compact, and £100 cheaper than the Nikon D5000, based on recommended prices, though both of these can now be found on the high street much cheaper.

So, it’s not the cheapest option on the market but its unique looks and retro appeal will no doubt bring it a decent audience willing to pay the price, and considering the price it is a pretty impressive camera. However, at its current price it is unlikely to gain the mass-market sales of the original Pen.

Verdict

Olympus EP-1Though not aimed at the budget buyer, the Olympus E-P1 is not overly expensive. It is pitched as a premium product and will undoubtedly attract attention due to its looks, but considering it costs £699 with the 14-42mm, it is nearly half the price of the Panasonic Lumix GH1, and just over £200 more than the Lumix G1. Though, in retro terms, it is a relative bargain when placed alongside the £3,000 Leica M8. Put on a broader comparison, it is £130 more than the Canon’s G10 creative compact, and £100 cheaper than the Nikon D5000, based on recommended prices, though both of these can now be found on the high street much cheaper.

So, the Olympus E-P1 is not the cheapest option on the market but its unique looks and retro appeal will no doubt bring it a decent audience willing to pay the price. However, considering its current asking price it is unlikely to gain the mass-market sales of the original Olympus Pen.

Verdict

Though not aimed at the budget buyer, the Olympus E-P1 is not overly expensive. It is pitched as a premium product and will undoubtedly attract attention due to its looks, but considering it costs £699 with the 14-42mm, it is nearly half the price of the Panasonic Lumix GH1, and just over £200 more than the Lumix G1. Though, in retro terms, it is a relative bargain when placed alongside the £3,000 Leica M8. Put on a broader comparison, it is £130 more than the Canon's G10 creative compact, and £100 cheaper than the Nikon D5000, based on recommended prices, though both of these can now be found on the high street much cheaper. So, the Olympus E-P1 is not the cheapest option on the market but its unique looks and retro appeal will no doubt bring it a decent audience willing to pay the price. However, considering its current asking price it is unlikely to gain the mass-market sales of the original Olympus Pen.

Full Specification

AF Points:
11 (25 with face detection)

PC Socket:
No
Built-in Flash:
No

Cable Release:
No
Max Flash Sync:
1/180sec

DoF Prview:
Yes
Colour Space:
sRGB, Adobe RGB

Exposure Comp:
+/- 3EV in 1/2, or 1/3 EV steps
Shutter Type:
Computerised focal-plane shutter

Focusing Modes:
Single AF, Single AF+MF, Continuous AF, Face detection
Dust Reduction:
Supersonic Wave Filter (SSWF)

Built-in Image Stabilisation:
Yes (sensor based)
Weight:
335g (Body only)

Sensor:
12.3 LiveMOS sensor
Output Size:
4032 x 3024 pixels

Focal Length Mag:
2x
LCD:
3in, 230k dot LCD

Lens Mount:
Micro Four Thirds
File Format:
JPEG, Raw, Motion JPEG

Shutter Speeds:
1/4000-60sec + Bulb (to 30mins)
Exposure Modes:
M, A, S, P, iAuto, Art, Scene, Movie

Metering System:
324-zone multi pattern ESP
ISO:
100-6400, Auto

White Balance:
Auto, 8 presets, Custom
Drive Mode:
Single, sequential, self-timer (2secs or 12secs)

Viewfinder Type:
Optional (hotshoe mounted)
Field of View:
100%

Memory Card:
SD
Connectivity:
USB 2.0/ HDMI

Live Mode:
Yes
Power:
BLS-1 Li-ion rechargeable

Dimensions:
120.5 x 70 x 35mm

  1. 1. Olympus E-P1 review - Features
  2. 2. Design & Performance
  3. 3. Image Quality & Value
  4. 4. Verdict
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