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Review – Olympus E-P1 Digital PEN Camera – Part I of III

Disclaimer: This will be a very photo/video intensive review, so I’ll split this review into three parts. All the photos are available for viewing at full size in my flickrset.

Part I – Body and Lens

Part II – Focus, Video, User Interface

Part III – Image Quality, Noise, Verdict

Olympus has finally answered the call of many photographers who loved the form factor and looks of 1970s cameras. Whether they were rangefinders or SLRs, cameras in the 70s are much more compact and streamlined, with only the lens being a protrusion.

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In late 1950’s, Olympus introduced their line of half-frame rangefinder cameras known as the PEN series. The  PEN F became the first and only half-frame camera that offers interchangeable lenses. The PEN F was sleek, light, capable, and stylish.

Fast forward to the late 80s, rangefinders were dwindling in numbers and big, black SLR bodies were starting to emerge. The addition of electronic circuitry and pursuit of better ergonomics prompted manufacturers to build SLR camera bodies as we know of today.

Olympus digital SLR line is technically still supporting the half-frame approach with its 4/3 system, in which the sensor has a 4:3 aspect ratio compared to the more common 2:3 ratio of traditional 35mm film.  The small 4/3 system has a much smaller sensor which allows Olympus to build smaller mirror assemblies in their DSLR line, and as a result, Olympus generally has the smallest form factor DSLRs in the market.

Together with Panasonic, Olympus designed a new Micro 4/3 system that allows the camera to revolutionize the camera world just as the Pen F did 50 years ago.  The new Micro 4/3 system utilizes no mirror box assembly unlike a DSLR, the result are cameras that are a lot smaller than DSLR but still retain most of the advantage of having a much larger sensor than consumer digital cameras.  Panasonic released the first Micro 4/3 camera, the Panasonic DMC-GH1.

The Olympus E-P1 Digital PEN took it a step further and  offered interchangeable lenses with available adapters to use the Zuiko 4/3 digital lenses for Olympus DSLR and older manual focus OM mount lenses.

Let’s see the specs:

Olympus E-P1: Specification

Resolution: 12Mp

Sensor size: 17.3×13.0mm

Sensor type: Hi-Speed LiveMOS Four Thirds

Image size: 4032×3024

Aspect ratio: 4:3

Focus system: Contrast detection AF system

Focus points: 11

Crop factor: 2x

Lens mount: Micro Four Thirds

File type: 12bit RAW, JPEG

Sensitivity: ISO100-6400

Storage: SD, SDHC

Focus types: Area, single, face detection

Metering system: TTL open aperture

Metering types: Digital ESP, centre-weighted, spot

Exposure compensation: +/- 3EV in 1, ½, 1/3 step increments

Shutter speed: 60sec-1/4000sec

Frames per second: Approx. 3fps

Flash: External only

Flash sync speed: 1/30sec-1/180sec

Image stabilisation: Sensor shift type, one or two dimensional movement to 4EV steps

Integrated cleaning: SSWF

Live view: Yes, Contrast detection system, 100% field of view

Viewfinder: Optional accessory

Monitor: 3in Hypercrystal LCD, 230,000dots (73,000px)

Interface: USB 2.0, HDMI

Power: Li-Ion battery

Size: 120.5×70.0x35.0mm

Weight: 335g (body only excl. battery and card)

As you can see, the specifications of the E-P1 is a cross-over between a high-end prosumer digital camera and an entry level DSLR. The question is, do you get the best of both worlds or the worse of both worlds in the E-P1?

Body

Olympus knows who their main targer market is, the experienced photographer who have loved film cameras and are looking for an affordable rangefinder-like digital camera without the hefty price tag of an Epson RD-1 or Leica M8. The camera will have to be sleek, retro, light, functional, yet still deliver images and response times much faster than the best fixed-lens digital camera in the market.

The result is a beautiful digital version of the original film PEN F.

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The basic Olympus E-P1 kit comes with the M.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6  zoom lens. You can purchase a dual lens kit which also includes the M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f/2.8 prime “pancake” lens.  Let’s go through the body first.

The front of the camera is dominated by the lens itself, a lens release button, and a rubberized grip. The camera body has a brushed metal finish that’s not too glossy and very retro 70’s. The top plate, front panel, and base-plate all have slightly different texture and shade which compliments each other nicely. The grip is made of textured rubber and increases hand-holdability tremendously compared to a flush, no-grip design.

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The 3.0″ 230K pixel LCD takes up 3/4 of the back of the camera while all the control buttons are to the right of the screen. The LCD is very clear with good colors and has a good viewing angle as well.

The main camera shooting mode knob can be seen on the upper left of the camera, this knob switches the camera from Full Auto, Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, Movie Mode, Art Mode, and Scene modes). The function buttons are primarily controlled by the silver vertical roller knob (mainly as a zoom and shutter adjustment knob in Manual mode), the 4-way thumb button (controls ISO, white balance, drive mode, and auto-focus), and the dial that surrounds the 4-way thumb button (controls menu scrolling, aperture or shutter adjustment in Av/Tv mode, respectively, and general menu scrolling). The other hard buttons are direct controls in menu features, with the “Info” button at the button that scrolls through different viewing modes on the LCD. The speaker can also be seen left to the chrome roller button.

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The LCD has approximately 170 degrees of viewing angle, which is great, but the resolution is a far cry from the current 3.0 LCD screens which sport over 500K pixels in resolution. In addition, the E-P1’s LCD is greatly degraded in low-light conditions. As the scene gets dark, the live view display gets progressively noisy with colored lines and grainy artifacts obscuring your screen. While this may seem like a small issue, it becomes troublesome when you need the LCD for low-light manual focusing as the screen cannot show any details at all.

The top of the camera shows the mode dial on the left, the hotshoe, a small LED indicating when the Super Sonic Wave Filter (sensor cleaning) is functioning, an On/Off power switch with a surrounding LED ring, the shutter button, and the exposure compensation button. You can also see the subtle “Olympus PEN Since 1958 E-P1” imprinted on the top casing. I wish they stamped or engraved this instead of just printing it on as it’ll wear off pretty quickly with the thumb and finger rubbing that area quite constantly.

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The baseplate houses the battery and memory card slots, secured by a solid trapdoor. A standard 1/4″ tripod socket is available but like most cameras of this size, it is not aligned to the center of the lens. While it is less critical due to the small size and light weight of the camera, but when heavier lenses are mounted (such as Zuiko Digital zooms), it may present an issue. I do have to point out that the finish of the baseplate isn’t very high-wearing. The baseplate can be scratched rather easily and the chrome finish doesn’t help hide the blemishes compared to a black body. The white version may even produce worse scuff and scratch marks, so when the leather base protector case comes out, it’s a very worthwhile purchase. Interestingly, I’ve been scouring my old film camera cases to find one that’ll fit the E-P1, sadly most of my cases don’t line up with the tripod socket or are large wide for the E-P1.

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Here’s the battery, it’s rated at 7.2V at 1150mAh rated at 300 shots with 50% flash usage. Now think about that for a minute, why does flash usage come into play when the camera doens’t have a flash to begin with? Anyway, with a lot of LCD viewing and in-cam file deletion, I was able to shoot more than 250 shots before I decided to charge the battery (it wasn’t dead at that time, but I needed the battery charged before going out). Remember that the camera doesn’t have a mechanical viewfinder, so the LCD is always on functioning as live view which robs a tremendous amount of juice. That is a very, very commendable battery life.

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Just for reference, this is how slim and small the camera is. Remember that this is a interchangeable lens system with a relatively large 4:3 sensor, compare it to the smallest DSLR, it’s still minuscule.

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You can conceivably bring 2-3 lenses with an EP-1 in a small belt pouch during your travel or photoshoots. TheE-P1 with its zoom lens and pancake prime lens will occupy less space than a single mid-range DSLR in a camera bag.

Let’s take a look at the kit lens, the M.Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens.

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The zoom ring feels very tactile while the manual focus ring is reasonably sized. I do have to note that it’s hard to grip the lens during mounting as the only part of the lens barrel that doesn’t rotate is the one closes to the lens mount. That’s roughly 5mm of width to grip on. The lens also uses a harder-to-find 40.5mm filter, so until you find one, be careful with your front element as it sits near the edge of the lens ring. The small filter is readily available online, however, but stores may not have it as most SLR lenses use 49mm and larger filter diameters.

The lens is incredibly compact and small when you consider that this is actually a zoom lens. It’s arguably smaller than most 50mm lenses for SLRs, as you can see in the following comparison to a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens.  Note that there’s no provision to attach any form of lens hood unless it is mounted on the filter threads.

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There is a catch, however, this is a zoom lens, so the size and length of the M.Zuiko you see above is in its “storage” position. You cannot use the lens in its compacted state. Notice that there’s a “Unlock” button on the side of the barrel. This button acts like a zoom lock to keep the lens in the retracted position and you’ll need to release it in order to extend the lens to its useful focal ranges starting from 14mm. Speaking of the “Unlock” switch, I really don’t know what it is for as you can still unlock the lens without pressing the switch itself, the switch doesn’t really prevent the ring from turning beyond the normal torque of extending the lens. I think this would’ve been better used for a traditional manual-focus switch instead.

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This is the lens real size at 14mm, the inner elements extends quite a bit from it’s stored position. It gradually shortens at 25mm range then extends to its fullest length at 75mm at 42mm range. Note: I have no idea why dpreview says the lens is at its longest at 14mm, however.

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@14mm

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@ 25mm

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@42mm

As you can see, the lens does protrude quite a bit from the manual focus ring and it does look somewhat strange, however, even at full extension, the lens is still much smaller than most DSLR lenses in the market. It makes sense to “lock” the lens while walking around to prevent the lens hitting surrounding object and to keep the overall size small. Another reason to walk around with the lens collapsed would be the horrible lens wobble that can be felt even if the camera is just hanging on your neck/shoulder. The wobble disappears when collapsed completely. Be careful with the lens cap as well, it’s thin and tiny, quite easy to misplace and too pretty to replace with a generic one.

By the way, here’s how it looks around your neck (and yes, that’s a sweet looking Maserati behind me).

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When you turn on the camera and the lens is still in the collapsed position, the LCD will duly inform you to check the lens position as needed.

If you don’t need the zoom range and prefer a faster lens and portability, the M.Zuiko 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens would be a better option.

You’ll feel a little confused with an interchangeable lens that doesn’t automatically retract and/or have the front element close by itself. I frequently expect the lens to collapse to a shorter length as soon as I turn off the camera, which will not occur, obviously.

As mentioned earlier, if you’re an existing Olympus E-system user, your Zuiko digital lenses would work just fine with the EP-1 with the MMF-1 4/3 adapter, and if you still own manual focus OM lenses, there’s the MF-2 adapter available so you can use great lenses such as the OM f/1.2 prime lenses. Naturally, these OM lenses will not have auto-focus capabilities as the lens itself doesn’t have any mechanism to auto-focus with.

Going back to the M.Zuiko 14-24mm zoom lens,  the lens is reasonably sharp wide open across all focal lengths, giving good corner to corner sharpness (as expected with a small sensor) and nice rounded bokeh thanks to the rounded 8-aperture blades.

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The lens handles flare relatively well for a zoom lens at its price point.

The focal length of 14-42mm provides an effective field-of-view of 28-82mm on a 35mm sensor.

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It’s difficult to judge the lens’ auto-focus speed as much of it has to do with the camera’s AF sensor as well. We’ll discuss that in Part II as we continue to this review to talk about the menus and usability of the camera.

Part I – Body and Lens

Part II – Focus, Video, User Interface

Part III – Image Quality, Noise, Verdict

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