A camera that delivers DSLR-quality imaging and still able to fit in your jacket pocket.
So far, Micro Four Thirds cameras have been priced for the early-adopter crowd, with the first models from both Olympus and Panasonic debuting at about $800 (street) with their respective kit lenses. Now, the new Olympus Pen E-PL1 brings the entry price down to a more manageable $600 (street) with a 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 collapsible kit lens. And without compromising on performance.
In the Pop Photo Lab, we rated the E-PL1’s image quality Very High from ISO 100 through its penultimate sensitivity of ISO 1600—quite an impressive feat for such a small camera.
Some of the credit goes to the LiveMOS sensor, which boasts about six times the surface area of the sensors found in most compacts. At 12.3MP, it doesn’t match the pixel count you can get from a mid-level DSLR, and the next round of entry-level DSLRs will likely offer more, too.
Still, the E-PL1 earned a Very High rating in our resolution test, nearly identical to the more-expensive Pen E-P2. That still leaves Olympus trailing Panasonic’s 12.1MP Lumix DMCG1 and DMC-GF1 in resolving power, but it’s no slouch.
Colors proved accurate and rated Excellent, with exactly the same average Delta E, a measure of the difference between colors, as the Panasonic GF1. (All Micro Four Thirds cameras have scored Excellent in color accuracy.)
Where the E-PL1 most excelled in our tests was its ability to control noise. At ISO 1600 and under, it kept noise to a Low or better rating. At ISO 3200, its score of 3.2 proved far lower than the GF1’s 5.9 at ISO 1600 and 9.7 at ISO 3200. Even at ISO 800, the difference is just as stark, with the Olympus delivering a score of 1.5 for a Very Low rating, while the GF1 hit 2.9, just maintaining the Moderate level.
When you consider that the Olympus costs $200 less, this becomes still more significant.
We do not test contrast-based AF systems (the type used in all non-SLRs) for speed. But in side-by-side comparisons in the field, the E-PL1 proved to be on par with the earlier E-P2 in terms of focusing speed, and both trailed the Panasonic GF1 slightly.
No contrast-based AF comes close to the phase-detection systems in DSLRs, but we expect to see a fair amount of improvement in the coming year or two.
And because contrast-based AF relies on sampling the sensor over and over again to home in on the target, this is one area where the larger sensors in Micro Four Thirds cameras work against them compared with compacts. Not only is it faster to sample the data from a smaller sensor, there’s also less data to process.
Like more and more cameras these days, the E-PL1 largely relies on menus to change settings, and Olympus has designed a nice way to do so: Press the OK button in the middle of the four navigation keys, and a list of settings pops up on the 2.7-inch LCD.
You can then move up and down to find what you want to change—options appear across the bottom of the screen. Simply use the left and right keys to select. Those four nav keys also let you access exposure compensation, flash mode, drive mode, and AF-zone selection.
In our field tests, we found the system quite intuitive and didn’t have trouble changing settings quickly. But since the camera has no built-in viewfinder, and the settings are overlaid on the scene you’re framing, it’s more distracting than when you change settings on an SLR while framing through the optical finder.
The E-PL1’s body design marks a departure from the first two Olympus models. To accommodate its pop-up flash, the mode dial had to move to the right side of the camera top.
The vertical scroll wheel on the upper right of the older camera back was eliminated, as was the wheel surrounding the navigation pad on the E-P2.
We miss both those wheels, because they allowed faster setting changes. But considering the difference in price, we don’t mind all that much—and we very much appreciate the fl ash.
Since Olympus is targeting point-and-shooters who are eager to gain more control over their photos, the PL1 put its new Live Guide within the iAuto shooting mode.
This lets you adjust one of a handful of settings at any given time, and, more important, uses very nontechnical language. For example, instead of a setting called white balance, it says Change Color Image and gives you a slider from warm to cool within that option. Similarly, you can set Color Saturation, Brightness, or Blur Background (i.e., adjust aperture), or Express Motions (adjust shutter speed).
As long as you understand what Change Color Image means, or at least click to find out, we think this could be a good step into a higher level of photography. More seasoned photographers will most likely want to be able to control more than one setting at a time.
Another addition to the E-PL1 is a dedicated video button. At any point, regardless of shooting mode, you can press it to start recording AVI Motion JPEG video at up to 1280x720p and 30 frames per second.
Sound is mono, and you’ll have to use the SEMA-1 kit ($90, street) if you want to add an external stereo mic.
We found the footage impressive for such a small device, though AF remains too slow to be of much use even when set to continuous mode. Despite that, we like the idea of Oly’s new continuous-tracking AF, which will lock on any object and keep it in focus as it moves around the frame or as you recompose. Once AF speed increases, this should prove helpful.
One Sweet Deal
Overall, we were very pleased with the Pen E-PL1. It matches a lot of what you get with the Panasonic GF1, but knocks off a quarter of that camera’s price. That will almost cover the cost of the optional VF-2 electronic viewfinder ($280, street).
If you want a camera that can deliver DSLR-quality imaging and still fit in a jacket pocket or medium-sized purse, the E-PL1 makes a lot of sense.
Imaging: 12.3MP effective, Four Thirds sized live MOS sensor captures images at 4032x3024 pixels with 12 bits/color
Storage: SD and SDHC. Stores JPEG, ORF RAW, and RAW + JPEG files.
Video: Up to 1280x720, 30-fps AVI motion JPEG; built-in mono mic with optional mic input; continuous AF.
Burst Rate: Full-sized JPEGs (normal mode), up to 18 at 3 fps with SanDisk Extreme III Class 6 SDHC card. RAW, up to 10 shots at 3 fps (12 bit).
AF System: TTL contrast detection with 11 focus areas. Single-shot and continuous. shutter Speeds: 1/2000 to 60 sec, plus B (1/3-, 1/2-, or 1-EV increments).
Metering: TTL metering using 324-area multipattern evaluative, centerweighted, and spotmetering (approx. 1% of LCD screen). EV 0–18 (at ISO 100).
ISO range: ISO 100–3200 (in 1/3- or 1-EV increments).
Flash: Built-in pop-up with TTL autoflash and wireless triggering of optional flash units, gn 23 (ISO 100, feet). Flash sync to 1/160 sec. Dedicated Olympus e-system hot-shoe.
LCD: 2.7-inch TFT with 230,000-dot resolution.
Output: hi-Speed USB 2.0, mini HDMI video, composite video.
Battery: Rechargeable PS-BlS-1 li-ion, 1150 mah. CIPA rating, 290 shots.
Size/weight: 4.5x2.8x1.6 in., 0.76 lb with card and battery (without lens).
Price: $600 with 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6.
For info: olympusamerica.com
Hands On: Olympus PEN E-PL1