I alternated the day between doing housework, kicking the kids around the house, and doing more test shots along the way. The Olympus Pen camera, the E-P1, makes a powerful first impression (see Part 1 of the review), and of course, I expected the negative bits to crop up during the second day of testing.
WHAT’S NOT SO GREAT ABOUT THE PEN
Complex User Interface
I think first off, this camera has an incredibly deep but unnecessarily complex user interface. Where the camera excels in image quality, it could really do better in trying not to satisfy gadget heads and pixel peepers.
In terms of physical buttons, it’s fine and dandy, but Olympus allows a bit more customization that I thought was good for the serious photographer who will not change settings as frequently as he focuses on getting the right angle and exposure. Choice is good, but having three or four different ways to activate one feature (eg. see how to set White Balance below from the manual) can lead to user confusion.
One can argue that this allows the user to customize the camera according to his shooting style, but can you imagine if a less experienced or less tech-savvy photographer were to pick up the camera for the first time? It’s clear Olympus is trying to target digicam upgraders, but this bit seems to shut them off in favor of geeky (and not necessarily good) photographers. For professionals used to the deep menus of dSLRs, it may not be an issue, but imagine my surprise when I accidentally pressed the “Info” button while exiting the replay screen and it suddenly jumped to a zoomed-in manual magnification mode. Where did that come from?!?
It’s also necessary to take a good read through the manual, even for experienced shooters, because otherwise, you wouldn’t even know you can set custom functions like remapping the dials or selecting HDMI video output resolution. The custom menu is made unavailable by default. Perhaps Oly engineers suspected that the basic menus alone were getting too complex?
Minor Exposure and Autofocus Issues
Auto-exposure worked great here despite strong backlighting. ISO 200, f5.6, 1/60 sec, 17mm
Centre-weighted metering seems to work better for most situations. ISO 400, f2.8, 1/320sec, 17mm
The auto-exposures on this camera can be a bit too conservative at times, leading to 1/3 stop to 2/3 stop underexposure when I took the kids to the playground. The blue and orange floor, cum the yellow slide (see above), tended to underexpose so I just went fully manual here. Now I’m used to going manual exposure indoors, but outdoors demands for more auto-exposures due to rapidly changing lighting conditions. Still, the good news is I probably faced underexposure less than 10% of the 300+ shots I took today. The rest of the photos were often perfectly exposed (ie. little auto-levelling required in PS).
I learnt the autofocus quirks of the Pen when I asked the kids to help me with this panning shot. ISO 200, f7.1, 1/25sec, 17mm
Single-AF on the 17mm works great most of the time – snappy and absolute, but the continuous AF doesn’t work very well. For example, when doing a panning shot as above, I have no issues using Continuous AF + Sequential Shooting on Canon dSLRs. My EOS 5D shoots 3 frames a second during panning sessions, same as the Pen, but the Pen pauses and insists on locking AF properly before the shutter would release.
This meant that I only managed to fire off one shot on the Pen over the 10m distance the kids ran back and forth over. To fix that, I had to use Single AF when panning. It could be also due to the image stabilization being switched on, so I’ll try that another day. I suspect, and I can’t confirm till I try with more lenses, that the Pen may not be suitable for action shots. Not a big issue to me anyway – that’s what the Canon EOS system is for.
Some TLC needed
I was right – the white color of the Pen is groovy and beautiful but can get dirty easily if you like to shoot in rough conditions. It’s a bit like the Paris Hilton of cameras and needs a good cleaning cloth to maintain like a nice white car.
Another quirks of the Pen include the missing battery bar (it appears on the LCD when it feels like it).
BACK TO THE GOOD STUFF
I nearly got giddy when I browsed through the menu and found that I could do a square aspect ratio (6:6) instead of the usual 4:3, 16:9, 3:2 ratios. Most of the younger photographers today have never used a medium format camera that took square frames, but I did and having to frame in a square is part of the joy of photography. You are forced to compose differently given the reduced space and your sense of composition is tested with every image.
At the Lavender Hakka Niang Tou Fu corner coffee shop. ISO 1000, f2.8, 1/20sec
Film-like color renditon
Everyone’s raving about the Art Filters (eg. Soft Focus, Grainy BnW) but those are gimmicky at best to the serious photographer.
Early in the morning. ISO 800, f4, 1/80sec
What really counts is the default colour rendition and that’s where the Pen continues the tradition of the E-series with its slightly warm tones. More Kodak than Fujicolor. I’ve been a little annoyed with the cold Fujicolor tones of the Panasonic LX3 and it’s great to see warm tones here again. Flesh tones are also done very well, but you have to watch the exposure carefully in case of slight underexposure as mentioned above.
Excellent HD videos
Now I’m a bit lazy to post a sample video here, and might do so later (putting a 318MB video on YouTube can take some time you know). But just know that the color rendition and sharpness of the HD videos are excellent. It won’t replace my Sony HD camcorder as the continuous AF on the Pen’s video mode doesn’t work as well in tracking subjects as you walk around, but if you aren’t too picky, yes, it’ll make a good video companion
VERDICT SO FAR
The Oly Pen continues to impress me despite its quirks and fallibilities. But the pros far outweigh the cons for my needs. I know the Pen’s heritage and technology is derived from the E-series dSLRs, but I prefer to think of this camera as a seriously good compact digicam with great color rendition and low noise levels.
What the Pen really lacks now is a good range of fast prime lenses, or even fast zooms – once that happens, the entire S$700-S$1000 category of prosumer digicams might die overnight.
A S$500-S$700 digicam today, like a high-end Ixus or the Panasonic LX-3 is maxing out what digicams are capable of. Yet you still see a Canon Powershot G10, priced at S$800+, trying to entice the market into thinking more buttons are better. A G10 cannot take better pictures indoors than the LX3 simply because the former uses a slow zoom lens. And if you want to talk about outdoor shots, all digicams are more or less on equal footing here.
If you’re from Canon or Nikon reading this, you’d probably know you cannot hold out on a Pen-like prosumer camera any longer. The technology has always been there to create a sensor between digicam and dSLR sizes, and it doesn’t take rocket science to create lenses and bodies to work with those sensors.
For years, we have clamoured for the Big Two to give us just that, and you can see why the Pen is taking off like a rocket. It’s only natural for companies not to listen to the professional/hardcore market, but to internal marketing folks who get stuck in a rut, and Olympus has the opportunity to own the $1000-$1500 prosumer segment if it doesn’t mess things up from here.
In fact, I’ve always believed that a S$1000 dSLR (like the entry level Canons, Nikons and Sonys) is not a sustainable business in the long run. I suspect most of the people who buy a cheap dSLR will get tired of the bulkiness, and these are the people who will never invest in additional lenses or accessories. Imagine, I used to shoot for a living, carry a 15kg bag everywhere full of lenses and films and today I’m already tired of a dSLR’s bulk!!
The only reason why normal consumers will bother about dSLRs is the great image quality and today, the Pen provides more than adequate quality for the masses with a far smaller form factor. If my train of thought comes true, you might not see any entry-level dSLRs in a few years time as prosumers migrate en masse to a Pen-like camera system. What will accelerate it are cheaper but fast zooms (at least f4 please) for the Micro Four Thirds system.
WHO SHOULD BUY THE PEN?
At this point, apart from photo enthusiasts who’d buy anything, I’d highly recommend the Pen E-P1 to parents who’ve been frustrated with the poor indoor performance of their digicams, and to business travelers who don’t want to lug around a dSLR but want to take great overseas snaps.
Caveat: The one thing you’d need to really learn well is what makes a proper exposure. With the Pen, a slight 1/3 stop overexposure helps to reduce noise very well and adds more punch to the images. A 1/3 stop underexposure leads to slightly muted images and a visible increase in noise. Sure, you can rely on auto exposures most of the time, but the Pen demands a higher level of skill for more consistent outstanding performance. (I’m thinking to myself here: Doesn’t every camera demand that? But there are many photographers who have never learnt that the camera is not supposed to do the thinking for them. The geeky interface of the Pen can lull you into thinking the camera is smarter than you, which is obviously rubbish).
Of course, for pros, it’s a no-brainer purchase once you know what the Pen’s quirks and workarounds are.
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