/ blog. chaff. occasional witterings.


Olympus PEN E-P1: A Hands On Review

essays 15:19:13


The big digital photography news this month has undoubtedly been the launch of the Olympus PEN E-P1. If you're not the sort of person who checks sites like DPReview (where the PEN has taken top place in "most popular cameras"), the E-P1 is a rather strange, interesting new camera. Using a system called Micro Four Thirds, it offers interchangable lenses, a relatively large sensor, and by abandoning the mirror and pentaprism of a true SLR in favour of "live view" technology, a compact body. I was lucky enough to have the chance to spend a few hours playing with one over the weekend, and here's what I thought.

There's been a small but vocal section of the photography community wanting a small, well-specified, prime-lensed camera for years. Mike Johnston's classic Decisive Moment Digital post set out what he wanted in a digital camera, and why the traditional compacts and SLRs failed to satisfy. For the last few years, people have tried the Ricoh GR-D cameras, the Panasonic LX-2 and LX-3 (and their Leica rebadgings), Sigma's DP1 and DP2, and all had been found lacking. When Olympus unveiled their prototype last year, people hoped their desires might soon be met.

Front view of the PenSo, how does the E-P1 actually hold up? Sadly, the final design isn't quite as nice as the prototype, but the addition of the grip bulge on the right hand side works well. Physically, it's about half the volume of my Canon 450D (XSi), and about 50% larger than my Fuji F-30 (although the prime lens, as you'd expect, protrudes less). The silver colouring makes it look somewhat consumer-centric; an all-black version would definitely be nice.

Olympus have delivered both "pancake"¹ (17mm f/2.8, 34mm equivalent) and zoom (14-45mm) lenses at launch, with adaptors for both Leica M and full-size Four Thirds mounts (which I didn't get to play with). I'm pleased to see the choice of a wide lens, since the 2x crop factor² means what are standard lenses for film are zoom lenses for the Pen. The UK has bundles with body-only, either kit lens, and finally one with both lenses, although bafflingly, this mixes the colours (what on earth is the thinking there?).

In use

In the hand, the camera is nice and dense; apparently it's made of metal, and certainly feels that way. The one I was using had a neck strap which was quite thin, hung too low, and is apparently a fairly expensive extra; perhaps Olympus have taken the retro thing too far. Of course, as there's no mirror, you compose your image on a screen. The lack of mirror also makes the shutter silent, which is a nice change from an SLR.

The screen was certainly bright enough on a cloudy London evening, but I'm not sure how it would be in direct summer daylight. There is an optional viewfinder, but that's fixed for the 17mm, and I didn't have it during my walkabout. I did try it quickly in Jessops on Thursday, and framing seemed correct, but of course it won't show depth of field or a focussing preview.

Speaking of focussing, it's handled nicely, considering the lack of a direct light path; using the focus ring on the lens causes the live view to flip to a 1:1 pixel view of the centre, which seemed to be perfectly usable when I tried it. Generally autofocus was reliable, but towards the end of the walk (at past 9pm, under cloud) there was a bit of focus seeking with the zoom lens. Speaking of that lens, it has a neat feature, letting it collapse up for storage. I think that both lenses have the same lens cap diameter, but differing filter threads: the prime is 37mm, the zoom 40.5mm.

Naturally, the Pen has an orientation sensor (one of those features that tends to be forgotten by reviewers, but which can be annoying when absent), but it also has a view mode where there are two on-screen level meters, which is handy for architectural shots. In fact, there are a wide range of display overlays, including a grid, a rule of thirds view, a live histogram, and a multiple-shot view. Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of this in action, but it seemed to work well.

The screen doesn't fold out (something that until recently was confined to compacts, but which has spread to SLRs), but it is visible from fairly wide angles (I held it above my head and was able to make out enough to frame pictures). There's the now-obligatory video mode, which offers HD (at 1280x720, not the larger 1080 size), and it seemed fine, even in lowish light. (I didn't get to take one of my usual "train entering the station" videos, but I did get some on an escalator.)

Speaking of low light, the Pen can be pushed to ISO 6400. I tried this on a couple of shots inside a restaurant (with dim, reddish lighting), and while the grain is very noticeable at full size, scaled for the web (or even full screen), the image is completely usable, with a grain-like quality, if anything. Combined with the relatively wide f/2.8 on the prime lens, I'd say low light performance would be considered good by anyone who's not used to a modern DSLR.

A drawback that's plagued digital cameras since their invention, shutter lag, is unfortunately also a problem for the E-P1. I first noticed this when trying to take video; I'd see a cyclist under the Queen Elizabeth Hall start moving, and click the shutter, but it would take a good second or two to start up, missing the action. I tried a few other times to take still photos while walking and the problem was the same in that mode. Perhaps it was due to focussing time, since it was perfectly fast in continuous shooting, and I could have been asking too much, but I'm sure it's slower than I'm used to from my Canon SLR.

More minor, but perhaps also noteworthy, is the fact the combination of the prime lens's maximum aperture of f/2.8 and the 2x crop factor mean that getting narrow depth of field is a little trickier than it would be at full-frame (or even a 1.6x crop with a f/1.4 lens). Having said that, there's some nice depth of field on this portrait (which I didn't take). One final niggle: the picture review seemed a bit slow to come up. If you don't chimp, you won't care.

To be fair, neither of these were serious issues in most of the shots I was taking, since I usually shoot buildings, details, signs, and other things that don't move, and I suspect a bit more time on my part to think about how to roll with the camera would have made even more difference. Still, they definitely need to be mentioned.

I've posted a set of images and videos, with original size available, on Flickr. I'm not a pixel-peeper, and at web resolution they seem nice; definitely better than I'd expect from the F30, and probably about on a par with the 450D.


I'm very happy to see this camera come to market. There's definitely room for a compact yet professional-quality camera, and this is probably the closest I've seen to being the DMD. Unfortunately, the last few years have seen the prices on digital SLRs built around the mirror/pentaprism drop so far as to squeeze this part of the market; who'll pay £700 for a body and kit lens when you can buy a Sony or Nikon for half that?³ On the other hand, it's a heck of a lot cheaper than digital rangefinders, which it can also claim to compete against.

Hopefully some people will look past the sticker and realise that this is something interesting. Would I recommend it? If you're looking for something pocketable but powerful, don't mind not running with the mainstream, and can justify the expense, then I'd say its unique abilities definitely make it worth serious consideration. That said, I doubt I'll get one myself. Maybe the next version?

The Good:

  • Solid, sturdy feel
  • Picture quality at SLR standard
  • Sane menu structure
  • Low-light performance seemed good (although some focus seeking)
  • Olympus are genuinely trying something new

The Bad:

  • Shutter lag
  • Price - it'll have its work cut out making room in the market
  • Limited choice of lenses (but then, it is just launched)

The Ugly:

  • No black model - choice of white+cream or silver+black
  • The bundling of randomly coloured lenses

Thanks to Ghene Snowdon for fixing it for me to have the chance to play with the camera. (Ghene's pretty active on London Flickr Meetups; it's worth paying attention there, as I know friends who've got to try out cameras there for various reasons before.)

¹ A pancake lens is a very thin prime (ie fixed focal length) lens, named for the fact it's as thin as a pancake.
² The "crop factor" is the ratio between the focal length needed for the sensor and the focal length for 35mm film. This means that, to get the same field of view as a 50mm film SLR lens would provide, the Olympus needs a 25mm lens, while my Canon SLR requires 32mm.
³ Hopefully the next few weeks will see the street price drop a little. Canon's 450D dropped from £650 to £500 over the first three months it was on the market.