Olympus Pen E-P1 review Part 1

white oly A dream come true. My Olympus Pen E-P1 camera, purchased from MS Color today for S$1398 and photographed by my Canon 5D.

To begin with, this Olympus Pen E-P1 camera review is not for the casual Joe.

Some background: From 1999-2003, I was a press photographer in Singapore and later a technology editor who happened to review cameras and give photography workshops with Canon. I started my photography career in film and was involved in the early transition of Singapore Press Holding’s move from analogue to digital. I happen to be very traditional in my approach to shooting (my technique was built on the principles of Renaissance painters)  and I usually shoot with prime lenses on my faithful Canon 5D even though I own f2.8 zooms.

So this review is meant for fellow peers who understand everything about F-stops and apertures, proper colour balance, primes vs zooms, depth of field etc etc…because I’m not here to explain them. I’m here to tell my fellow photog buddies what they’re dying to know since I took the plunge first.

At the same time, I’m a father of two kids who has been looking in vain for the perfect alternative to my heavy dSLR system for casual and travel use. For years, I’ve waited and waited for Canon (or shudder, Nikon) to produce the perfect prosumer camera. They kept producing prosumer digicams that didn’t meet my desires, and to my utter surprise, it was the underdog Olympus who suddenly took up the mantle. I love Canon gear but my first camera was actually an Olympus 35mm f2.8 Mju film compact which actually survived my Nepal trek and produced great film images.

Today marks the local availability of the Olympus E-P1 (a Micro Four Thirds system), and no matter what you’ve read so far, I personally believe this camera marks the milestone in digital photography by upsetting the balance of power in the industry and aggressively revitalizes the prosumer space which had hit a wall and not progressed for years.

I’ve always known a prosumer camera shouldn’t be just some spec-ed out digicam. It needed…

  • A big image sensor for low noise and smooth color rendition. Not one the size of your pinky like those found in all compact digicams today.
  • A size between digicam and the smallest dSLR.
  • Top-notch manual controls, because serious photography is about the mastery of exposure and angles.
  • The perfect backup camera for pros using dSLRs, just large enough to stuff into the side pocket of a Domke bag. 

And the Oly Pen ticks off those personal requirements with absolute flair. This camera gives Oly a real chance at finally cracking the market share of the Big Two (Canon and Nikon), after years of futile trying with its E-series dSLRs. Proof? It’s selling out like mad right now.

This review is going to be split into several parts over this weekend because I just got my Pen camera today and am just beginning to put it through its paces.

If you want a quick answer whether you, an experienced photographer or advanced amateur, should buy it, my current answer is an immediate “YES”. (I don’t expect to change this view anytime soon!). Your biggest headache will really be which color edition (futuristic chrome/black or retro white/tan beige) is best for you. Personally, I’m still anguished that I can’t afford both colors and am suffering from severe post-purchase dissonance on the color front. Should I have gotten the chrome version?!?

HANDLING AND FEEL

I shan’t repeat the obvious – the camera is a work of art. But what really impresses is the build quality. No matter which color you get, the body is constructed like a tank and is actually pretty heavy too (330g) thanks to the extensive use of metal throughout. It screams first-class workmanship and I haven’t touched a camera like this for a long time (since my office Nikon F4, a clunky film SLR cum murder weapon where I honed my press photography skills as an intern).

It gets better – it’s slightly larger than my Panasonic LX-3 and that it’s large enough to grip firmly with two hands and feel confident about slow shutter speed shots (1/15sec and slower). Never mind that the camera also has sensor-based image stabilization!

back_not_an_SLR_RGB Rear view showing the upper right scroll and below that, the circular scroll wheel. Official Olympus image.

The vertical scroll button and the circular scroll button work perfectly together for manual exposures. They have the right “clickiness” to measure f-stop increments instantly. Of all the non-dSLRs I’ve handled, this is the best manual handling ever.

dSLR purists might be annoyed by the multiple capabilities afforded by say the “Info” button. On Manual mode, it allows you to go to different modes like a huge crosshair (for aligning to straight line horizons), a live RGB exposure indicator, and even a mode where it is purely for moving the AF square around the LCD. I got confused here a bit initially and didn’t know which button was causing all this, but didn’t take me long to figure it out and see the design rationale. For portrait shots, the “move AF around mode” is excellent”. (At this point, I haven’t bothered with the auto modes yet.)

THE 17MM F2.8 PANCAKE LENS

E-P1 17mm VF1_Left_14-42mmBlk_Sl

Today, only two m-Zuiko official lenses have been produced for the Pen – the 17mm (equivalent to 34mm on 35mm film cameras) f2.8 pancake lens and the kit zoom 14-42mm (28-84mm) f3.5-f5.6 zoom lens. So far, nearly all the online reviews I’ve read to date have focused on using the latter, which states the state of photography reviews today – written by non-pros for non-pros.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with that. The majority of people who buy an entry dSLR today will never take off their slow kit zoom lens off the camera body. What upsets me is that many techie reviewers don’t realize the sheer quality and low-light capabilities of prime lenses, and some even wonder why the 17mm kit is more expensive than the zoom kit. Some forum post even claimed that’s because the prime lens is more complex to build than the zoom. (Strangle myself).

I wouldn’t recommend the kit zoom lens to anyone who wants to extract the best image quality and shoot under all lighting conditions with this camera. The aperture range itself stops me from even bothering.

And at this point, I can’t really comment on the quality/sharpness of the 17mm. I’ve only shot at ISO 1250 so far. But I like the flat shape and the manual focusing ring has the right level of resistance. You probably won’t do much manual focusing on the Pen anyway. By the way, in MF mode, the screen will zoom in to let you focus, then quickly zoom out to let you frame the shot – very snappy.

Now 17mm is arguably the best walkaround focal length for this camera. I’ve gone on full trips with just a 35mm f2.0 on my 5D and it’s a good semi-wide length for 90% of the time. Just don’t go too close to people for portraits ok? I hope they come up with m-Zuiko 12mm and 25mm (equivalent to 24mm and 50mm) primes soon. That’s really all I need.

HIGH ISO NOISE AND COLOR RENDITION (SO FAR)

It doesn’t mean that if your camera can go ISO 6400, you should. Even with my 5D, I never go beyond ISO 1600 unless I can’t help it. One should always strive for the lowest noise levels at all costs.

So when I finished charging the battery and fired up the camera, it was already night time and the kids were fooling around under florescent light. I pushed the camera to ISO 1250 (though I’d preferred 800), set aperture to f2.8 and my jaw dropped. The level of noise was really low for the 12 megapixel sensor. Sure, it won’t beat my 5D, but it is many many times better than my LX-3. I can’t wait to do ISO 200 shots tomorrow and see how the color rendition improves.

This is what a prosumer camera is about! Here are some full-sized non-edited images for you to ponder. All ISO 1250, f2.8 and 1/25 sec 1/30 sec shutter speeds with image stabilization switched on and on default image/color modes. Please note I didn’t adjust the colors or contrast at all, and the camera does an impressive job of auto-white balance under my home’s daylight florescent lights.

Very natural tones under artificial light and non-disruptive noise levels. The images are a bit soft, but that’s fully acceptable give the ISO level and can be easily sharpened in Photoshop. Thanks Isabel, for being my ever-reliable muse and creating all these spontaneous nutty poses!

P7030005 P7030006

P7030013 P7030015

P7030022 P7030023

Come back for more thoughts and daylight samples from my Pen camera over the weekend.

Updated 5 July 2009: I’ve been posting additional pictures to my Facebook account and those pix are automatically imported into this blog. Please click here to see them (no full-sized images though, since FB resizes everything). No, you don’t need to be my Facebook friend to see these pictures ;D

20 Replies to “Olympus Pen E-P1 review Part 1”

  1. On the unit I tried, the low light focus is low – if it even works. And I don’t like the thumb dial used to change settings. Worst of all, unlocking the zoom lens before you shoot is troublesome.

  2. Roo, did you get to try low light focusing with the 17mm too? I’ve had no issues with that lens so far. Naturally, a slow kit zoom would present issues.

  3. Hi Toh, the innards or inner chassis may have plastic parts, but the “body”, or more accurately, the outer chassis, is nearly all (ie. “extensive use of”) metal. Not something one should bother about anyway, because most people will appreciate the solid build quality the minute they touch the camera. I’m more focused on the image quality and shooting capabilities.

  4. I long for the day Canon or anyone to produce a camera with a 17-55mm f2.8 equivalent for the Four Thirds system.

    Remember to post some pictures on the f2.8 depth of field.

  5. Wow. I guess you need to be a real photog to be able to harness all that the Pen can deliver. Great pics Ian! I’ll be honest man… if I ever got it, it’ll be because it’s cool to own one right now! Ha!

    On a not-so-related note, why are you staunchly pro-Canon and anti-Nikon?

  6. G – you need to be a real photog to harness any camera!

    Why Canon and not Nikon? From 1999-2002, Nikon made thousands of photojournalists really upset when it sold its D1 dSLR to many newspapers and to our horror, found that it produced crap colors.

    Skin tones would turn purplish brown and reds would turn orange. Why? It took me months of research to find out (nobody at that time seemed to know) – the D1 shot images in NTSC color space instead of sRGB or Adobe RGB.

    Add to that the fact that the D1 was poorly constructed (the rubber parts would fall off after some time and battery life was pathetic despite ultra heavy batteries).

    You won’t believe how much we cursed and swore at Nikon in those years and SPH Photo depts gladly traded in their Nikons for Canons when the EOS 1D Mark II came out. In fact, Canon now firmly rules the professional world (see any picture of Olympic photographer stands from the past few years) and it has Nikon’s mistake to thank.

    This is the kind of experience that turns you off a brand forever. Also, Nikon was really poor at press relations in SG while Canon’s PR is one of the best in the IT industry.

  7. Wow. There you go – a photojourno’s inside scoop! I was a Coolpix user back in the day, and it served me pretty well (then again, I’m no pro!). Before that, I was a Mju fan, with their funky teardrop-shaped sliding cover.

    I’m still learning weird and wonderful things about my LX3, so it may be a while before I get my hands on the Pen.

  8. thanks for the review. i too just became a father and finding a dslr with 3 lens too much to bear when travelling. my concern have been the low light focus ability fo the olympus. its good to know that as end user with 2 kids you find the AAF acceptable.

    1. For babies, the AF is definitely fast enough! For my kids, they’re so fast even a dSLR has trouble catching up with them ;D

      Have fun with your kid, cheers,

      Ian

  9. Ugh, TEMPTED. I have a 5D too and sometimes I just feel lazy to bring it out just for casual shooting. And small compacts just don’t cut it. TEMPT TEMPT.

  10. Hi there,

    I am intending to get the Oly Pen E-P1 for my hubby but am am totally clueless on where I can get a good deal so I read your review and got an e-quote from MS colours. The price is somewhat different from the one you stated. I suspect it is because they have quoted me for both the 17mm and 14-42mm lens. My hubby is not pro although I think he is thinking of picking up photography so we can take nice pics of kids in future =)

    Que: Do we need both lens? Am not sure if MS Colours has a non twin-lens kit quote to provide but is there anywhere else that can cut me a good deal?

    Thanks!!

  11. Have you tried using old Zuiko lenses with an adapter? My old 50mm 1.8 shoots great portraits, and manual focusing is easy unless the subject moves rapidly.

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