The PEN series gets smaller and adds a built-in flash with the Olympus E-PL1
Two years on and both Panasonic and Olympus have done well to provide an array of models for the series, which now include some pocket-friendly alternatives to those following the traditional SLR form. And with the latest Olympus E-PL1 model Olympus has pushed the concept the farthest, with both its body and price tag being the most modest yet.
Olympus E-PL1 features
Although the Olympus E-PL1 is designed to sit at the base of Olympus’s PEN series of cameras, the company has not only carried over many features from its two previous models but also gifted it with new ones. Notably, the Olympus E-PL1 is the first Olympus model to offer a built-in flash, which springs up from the top-plate when its catch is released, as well as a dedicated button on the back of the camera for stopping and starting video recording.
With the model aimed at novice photographers, it also debuts a new Live Guide interface which allows the user to adjust a number of parameters in a straightforward manner. The warmth of an image, for example, may be regulated by moving a slider towards either the warm or cool extremes of the scale, while saturation and brightness may be altered in the same way, as can depth of field and shutter speed. The feature also provides recommendations for shooting particular subjects, such as pets and flowers, in a similar vein to the Guide function included on previous Olympus cameras.
In keeping with the E-PL1’s fun and functional ethos, Olympus’s Art Filters have continued on this model, with a choice of six. These include the previous Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole and Diorama, together with the new Gentle Sepia option, and each may be used in conjunction with the camera’s HD movie mode. Sadly, support for stereo audio recording has been dropped as standard, though it is still possible with the aid of an external microphone.
Image and video capture takes place on a 12.3MP Live MOS sensor, in both Raw and JPEG formats, which works together with a revised version of Olympus’s TruePic V image processing engine. Together, they allow for the camera’s sensitivity to run from ISO 100 up to a maximum ISO 3200, with a range of noise-reduction options available. The familiar combination of Olympus’s Supersonic Wave Filter and image stabilisation system have also made their way onto the E-PL1, with the latter function claiming to stabilise effectively at up to three extra stops of exposure past what would be usually possible.
While 3in LCD screens have dominated many cameras over the past year or so (including Olympus’s other PEN offerings), the E-PL1’s measures 2.7in and has a resolution of 230,000 dots. There’s also a HDMI output to complement the camera’s HD video capabilities, and a slot that accepts both SD and SDHC memory cards.
Design and performance
While the relationship between the E-P1 and
E-P2 was clear, the appearance, feature set and asking price of the new
arrival show it to fulfil a different aim. First glances show the E-PL1
to differ only slightly, with the previous large, flat grip replaced by a
smaller but more defined protrusion. There’s a small revision to the
lens mount button, but it’s on the rear and top plate where the camera
distinguishes itself from its siblings. Without a command dial by the
thumb rest, operation is carried out entirely through the handful of
buttons and mode dial on the top plate. With the mode dial now on the
left hand side of the camera, the flash sits on the right with a catch
below to activate it. And thanks to the dedicated record button on the
rear, video recording may be carried out with greater spontaneity.
inner barrel of the lens retracts into itself when the lens is not in
use, though ideally, there would be an option to link this to the
powering up and down of the camera. As it is, the camera requires two
operations – one to activate power and one to lock or unlock the lens.
Together with the need to remove the awkwardly thin lens cap, it makes
starting up the camera a touch more difficult than with a comparable
high-end compact, such as the Canon G11, which simply requires a button
Whereas the E-P1 and E-P2 offered all-metal bodies, the
lower positioning of the new model means that only the metal frontage
has been retained, with the back and sides constructed of plastic.
Despite this the model feels very well constructed, and together with
the slightly smaller body this reduces the overall weight.
For whatever reason, the camera is set by default to hide many of
its customisation options, the sort that users of previous E-system
models will be familiar with. Once these have been enabled, they turn a
seemingly simple camera into one full of options and customisations. If
you don’t want to use the movie recording button for its intended
purpose, say, you can change its function to a different setting; in the
same way the Fn button may be personalised. Further exploration
uncovers a bulb mode that can be programmed up to 30mins, and an
Anti-shock setting ideal for use with lower shutter speeds.
no mirror/pentaprism combination, the Olympus E-PL1 relies solely on the
contrast-detect system of achieving autofocus. This steps through points
of focus incrementally to find the right one, and, as on previous
models, it does this even when the focus point hasn’t changed from the
previous capture. While for most static subjects this won’t be too much
of an issue, anything requiring more immediate focusing attention is
likely to present a greater problem. Switching to manual focus is one
solution, though the focusing ring is not mechanically linked to the
relevant lens group, but to a system which electronically instructs how
far this group needs to shift. This makes fine-tuning focus less
intuitive, a problem compounded by the small steps by which the system
finds focus. When shooting video it’s easy for this movement to become
quite apparent in the resulting footage, as the focusing ring may at
times need to be shifted by a fair amount.
This isn’t necessarily
insurmountable; using a tripod or simply stopping the lens down far
enough can get round this problem. Another saving grace comes with the
14x magnification option, which makes the process of focusing on more
distant subjects infinitely easier. It is also possible to set the
camera to focus continuously during movie recording, though this system
lacks some of the expected responsiveness when the subject or camera
changes position. Using an external microphone rather than the inbuilt
one is also likely to pick up less of the camera’s operating sounds,
which can otherwise be noticed (even when using manual
Thankfully, the processing speed when using the
Art Filters has improved from when Olympus first introduced the feature,
most likely as a result of its newer processor. Using a relatively fast
SDHC card the average processing time for a simultaneous Raw and
high-quality JPEG file is around three seconds, though this varies with
each effect. The Pop Art filter, for example, is applied instantly,
while the Pinhole filter can take four to five seconds. The processing
speed of each effect seems roughly proportional to its effect on movie
frame rate, when the two are used together. While three filters are able
to maintain 30fps recording, the Grainy Film filter reduces this to
6fps and the Pinhole to just 2fps.
The addition of a flash is
definitely welcome, particularly as many users upgrading from compact
cameras will be used to its presence. A panel hosting a handful of flash
options also helpfully includes a few separate powers (such as full
power, ¼ power and so on) which negate the use of a separate flash
compensation function, though the flash itself always needs to be
manually released from the top plate first by the user, regardless of
whether it is set to its most basic automated setting.
software suite supplied with the camera includes Olympus’s latest ‘ib’
program. While it allows basic Raw adjustment, its focus is more on
doing several things to extend the camera’s functionality, rather than
specialising in any one of them. These include tagging people and
mapping images, as well as editing tasks such as panorama stitching. Its
slick interface differs considerably from the software previously
supplied with Olympus cameras, but for serious editing it’s perhaps best
to look elsewhere.
Value and verdict
Having been launched nine months after the
original E-P1, the E-PL1 commands roughly the same price for both
body-only and kit options.
This may make the former option seem more
logical, with its larger LCD screen, more effective image-stabilisation
system and stereo sound recording, to name three of its benefits, though
to some the addition of the flash and the slightly smaller form factor
may be preferable.
Evaluating the Olympus E-PL1 isn’t entirely straightforward, given the rate at
which this particular market is changing.
The Micro Four Thirds system
has unquestionably pioneered the hybrid concept, but Samsung’s NX10,
Ricoh’s GXR system and the promises made by Sony will all challenge how
its future models are received. None the less, it’s becoming
increasingly clear that the advantages offered by such cameras take more
and more off the appeal of enthusiast compacts, those which have long
enjoyed the reputation slowly being bestowed upon this newer breed of
camera. In fact, the only significant benefits of such enthusiast models
comes from their retracting lenses, which makes them more pocketable
than models such as the Olympus E-PL1. This factor aside, it’s difficult to see
what their next move will be simply to justify their existence.
the Olympus E-PL1 indicates the direction for hybrid models, then the outlook is
certainly positive. The camera is by no means perfect, particularly
when its focusing foibles are considered, and it’d be nice to see
high-res LCD screens and a few other wrinkles ironed out in future
models. Even so, to achieve this level of image quality in such a small
body is a significant development; let’s just hope Olympus and Panasonic
are as ingenious with their future models as they have been in their
conception of the system.