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

If you’ve missed the start of the Olympus E-P1 Digital PEN camera review, you can backtrack here and read about the physical attributes of the camera.

Part II of the review deals with the user interface and the actual hands-on experience of using the Olympus E-P1.

I’ll deal with what I consider the biggest shortcoming of the E-P1 – the auto-focus system.

The conundrum of the E-P1 is it doesn’t belong to any previous category of digital cameras. It’s clearly not a portable fixed lens camera, it’s not a pro-sumer fixed lens camera like the Panasonic LX-3, Canon G10, Sigma DP-1, nor even the Panasonic G1/GH-1, it’s certainly not a DSLR, and most certainly not a digital rangefinder. That unique space that the E-P1 sits on makes it hard to evaluate which type of camera’s AF system we should compare it to.

In daytime usage, the AF system is adequate, with the response time similar to most point-and-shoot live view cameras. The E-P1’s 11-point AF system, when left on its own to choose a focus point will lock on the wrong subject most of the time, even if a higher contrast area is available. The face-detection works really well and expands the AF coverage to 25-points, it can even follow a moving subject’s face and multiple subjects in the scene with good accuracy.

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However, since the kit lens maxes out at f/5.6 when zoomed to 42mm, the AF is slower than most P&S cameras which has an f/5 or larger maximum aperture. While each camera’s AF system is different, most will benefit from more light entering the sensor for quicker AF response times. The Olympus E-P1’s AF sensor shows that it tends to focus hunt at f/5.6 even in reasonably bright scenes. It locks focus, but it takes longer than it should regardless of lighting condition. Take a look.

NOTE: The videos may seem to depict a pitch-black room, in reality, it’s NOT pitch black, the video camera had to meter on the bright LCD so expect the ambient to be dark. The point of the videos is to compare a contrast-detect system WITH AF ASSIST vs NO AF ASSIST light and the fact that the E-P1 requires to “scan” through the whole AF range before locking focus. I’ve been referred by friends in other forums stating that the condition/room I was shooting the videos were pitch black and no camera and lock onto focus with such dim lighting. The facts are: 1) The Lumix locked focus, the E-P1 didnt under the same light, 2) AF must travel its entire focus range before taking a shot.

The video below was shot in a brightly lit room, the E-P1 was pointed at the laptop’s LCD screen displaying the Google homepage, which is predominantly white. Bright enough to register an ambient exposure of 1/30 f/5.6 @ ISO 100. With only the website’s logo and text to focus on, the E-P1 had no trouble finding which area to focus, but notice how it “hunts” through its entire focus range before locking focus regardless of where the focus area may be. It is the same regardless of maximum open aperture. This is extremely annoying.

Olympus EP-1 AF from David Tong on Vimeo.

Even in broad daylight, the AF does the same thing. Notice in the video that the front element moves regardless of focal length, the LCD reflects that AF movement as well. It seems to move back and forth before locking focus, and that results to roughly a second of focus lag even in good lighting conditions.

In low light, it gets worse. The AF hunts badly in low-light scenes such as a subject being lit by a street lamp or lighting inside a cozy restaurant. When it gets dark (but not pitch black), such as most outdoor night scenes where the ambient of surrounding buildings or billboards are the only light source, it’s nearly impossible for the E-P1 with the zoom kit lens to lock focus.

The solution could’ve been really, really simple. Just add an AF-assist LED light! Olympus decides not to add an on-board flash, which is fine with me, but not having an AF assist light in an auto-focus camera is absurdly dumb, in my opinion.

I set up a basic scene in low light to see how the E-P1 fares with my wife’s Panasonic Lumix TZ3 ultra-zoom camera with an 28-280mm equivalent f/3.3-4.9 lens in terms of AF locking in low-light. The scene is dark but clearly visible by the naked eye. My Canon EOS 40D’s live view AF was able to lock focus with the kit lens (also f/3.5-5.6 like the M.Zuiko) with no problems without any AF assist, but I didn’t bother shooting a video on this as I’d expect a DSLR’s AF system to be superior anyway. I felt that comparing the E-P1 camera and kit lens with a point-and-shoot with AF is appropriate to see how big of an omission the AF-assist light can be.

Here’s the video of the Lumix locking focus at all focal lengths with the help of the AF assist lamp. Note also how “clean” the LCD image is as well compared to the Olympus’ LCD in low-light.

Panasonic Lumix TZ-3 AF Sample from David Tong on Vimeo.

Now here’s the E-P1 trying to obtain focus in the same lighting conditions at various focal lengths. Notice that at f/3.5, it locks fine, but still took longer than the Lumix, but at f/5 and beyond, it’s struggles to the point of AF failure.  Notice how “noisy” the E-P1’s LCD images are in low-light as well, as mentioned in the first part of the review. You can easily replicate the LCD noise banding by just covering the lens with the lens cap.

Olympus EP-1 AF Video from David Tong on Vimeo.

Before any of you say “you only chose the middle AF point and you’re focusing on a white subject!”, here’s a video showing you the 11-point AF coverage along with a wider view allowing the camera to pick any area it wants to focus onto. In addition, the scene isn’t really very dark, as you can see with the LCD’s captured photograph, the exposure wasn’t very long to register a bright image. The videos are dark because the camera is metering the LCD to keep the video information visible.

Sample of Olympus EP-1 Focus Hunting from David Tong on Vimeo.

We have a double whammy here. The E-P1 cannot focus in low light at all with the kit lens, and the LCD is so grainy and full of noise artifacts that you cannot use manual focus to accurately find focus either. In short, this camera cannot be used in low-light without some form of passive AF assist – PERIOD.  If you thought that AF assist systems that uses pre-flash is annoying, you’ll wish that the E-P1 has pre-flash when you bring this camera out in low-light. If you consider bringing a flashlight everywhere you go for AF assist purposes, be my guest, but frankly, this AF shortcoming is a big enough reason for me to think twice before joining the Olympus E-P1 bandwagon.

Addendum: The Live View Boost can prevent the LCD from entering “high ISO” noise mode, but the low-res screen will make it hard to MF.

In order for me to shoot the image below with an off-camera flash (yes, the E-P1 works fine with any radio triggers), I had to ask my wife to stand beside my son to hold her handphone’s LCD for me to have a bright spot to focus on. The scene isn’t that dark in reality, there are street lamps every 20ft and my son’s standing in between the two street lamps with headlights zooming throughout this intersection at all angles.

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I do think that using the pancake lens would solve this problem with its bright f/2.8 aperture, but to what degree, I can’t say right now as I don’t have the lens with me to test, but for now, avoid the kit lens at night. Unless Olympus comes up with a faster zoom lens that is as affordable and portable as the 14-42mm, it will be a tough sell for some of the more experienced customers. If we have to end up using normal 4/3 Zuiko lenses, then the portability factor goes out the window.

I’ve used the Canon G10 quite a bit and it’s AF feels at least twice as fast as the E-P1. There’s no way the E-P1 can take a shot without wasting almost a second for the AF motor to go through it’s entire range before locking focus.

If you’re curious about my claims, here are Imaging Resource’s timed AF response for the E-P1 (1.230 seconds), Panasonic G1 (0.372 second), Canon G10 (0.569 second), Panasonic LX3 (0.77 second), Sigma DP1 (1.534 second), Panasonic TZ3 (0.76 second), and Nikon D60 (just for comparison’s sake – 0.26 second).

Numbers don’t lie.

Another thing about the focus, the Manual Focus Assist function is a feature where the LCD automatically zooms to magnify your subject to aid manual focusing. This is turned on by default and it is absolutely annoyingly useless. The low resolution LCD can’t render the details, as mentioned, and the MF assist operates automatically without intervention! So when you’re trying to half-press your AF, you’ll suddenly see your subject being magnified to its maximum zoom on the LCD and you can’t see anything but noisy vertical pixelated lines. In order to return to shooting, you still have to press the “OK” button before you can press the shutter to return to full view on the LCD!

It’s a really dumb implementation as virtually all digital MF assist I’ve used from 2002 return the LCD view to full view by just tapping the shutter button and taking the shot, with the Olympus E-P1, it’s a 2-button process, so unless your subject is stationary and your camera is mounted on a tripod, your manual focus will be off by the time you press the shutter!

Finally, you may think “I’ll get an external flash and that problem is over!”, guess what? The Olympus FL-14 flash that was designed for the EP-1 does NOT offer any AF-assist beam either! In fact, according to other review sites, the E-P1 cannot utilize ANY of the other Olympus flashes (with AF assist beams) such as the FL-36 and FL-50. Now isn’t that an amazing omission?

Ergonomics

The Olympus E-P1 looks and feels very much like a retro 70’s camera, and that’s both good and bad. The good aspect of the E-P1 is the weight and portability, it really is a light camera considering it’s a 4/3 sensor with interchangeable lens. You can shoot all day with one hand and carry the camera around your neck the entire day without feeling any strain, much like a portable digital camera, but you won’t look like a tourist around town with it. It really, really looks nice!

Holding the E-P1 feels natural and doesn’t really cramp up your fingers as smaller cameras do, and the lightweight offsets the grip shape of a DSLR. However, if you’re used to using a similarly shaped film body, you will definitely find yourself bring the camera close to your face when taking a shot quite often and then realize that there isn’t a viewfinder available. My thumb even tends to look for a film advance lever after a shot, seriously, that’s how close it feels to using a proper film camera.

It’s quite amusing to see that the positioning of the camera strap lugs are similar to the old cameras as well, where the loop hole protrudes from the side of the camera instead of the strap going through a recessed hole like most modern cameras. The protruding loop hole will block your index finger whenever you try to reach for the shutter button.

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Most of the buttons feel great with good tactile feedback and response, too bad that the most important control, the rotating dial around the 4-way selector, is very loose and sensitive. It’s frustrating to select options with the rotating dial as it tends to scroll through a several lines and skips over to the next menu when you press the directional buttons.

The menu system is very complicated and unintuitive. The E-P1 offers a lot of customization not present in many DSLRs, such as the ability to adjust each metering pattern’s exposure tendencies, or adjust each white balance presets temperature and color, etc. However, to reach these settings, you have to go through several layers of menu with unintuitive icons and titles that doesn’t seem to describe the feature.

For example, count how many menu layers you have to go through just to activate the shutter delay (sort of like a mirror lock-up), which Olympus stubbornly calls “Anti-Shock” (when I first used the Olympus E-500 4 years ago, I thought it was some form of image stabilizer).

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That’s quite a few button presses just to activate mirror-lockup. For example, the noise reduction setting is nested under the custom function >> Color/White Balance sub-menu, why?

It’s a menu system that requires you to bring the user’s manual all the time as even after several days of usage, you’ll still wonder where to find certain basic menu items.

The live view has several useful viewing options including a horizon leveling view. The live view display cycles between no information, grid views (if set in custom menu), horizon guide (with leveling meter, if set in the custom function), full setting display, histogram overlay, manual focus point (for zoomed view), and custom setting (such as white balance preview or exposure compensation preview).

Now the E-P1 does have a “Super Control Panel”, where almost every menu item is condensed into one screen. It speeds up the setting change process a lot, so I suggest you use it.

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I’m curious why the flash menu can be accessed easily through the “OK” button even if the camera doesn’t have an built-in flash unit as well.

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You can probably deduce that I don’t like the Olympus menu system much, and I’m disappointed to see that it hasn’t really improved from the E-500 back in 2005, neither has the user’s manual, it’s still VERY poorly written.

You can map your most frequently used controls  to the hard buttons at the back, but that’d also mean that the printed indicators will no longer be of any use. For example, I currently have set my Fn button for instant manual focus override while changed my AF button to IS mode as well. After some tinkering, you’ll really have to rely on your memory to remember what button was assigned with what task.

The rear panel has many buttons controlling a lot of features but they are difficult to find in the dark as well.

I won’t go through every single menu option, but here quite a bit of interesting features available from the E-P1 – once you figure them out yourself as the manual won’t help much.

Image Aspect Ratio and Timing

Much like Panasonic, Ricoh, and other P&S cameras, the EP-1 offers several aspect ratios from its native 4:3, to the traditional 2:3, and the more unusual 6:6 square format, and 16:9 wide-screen format.

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Unlike the implementation of Panasonic, however, the E-P1’s resolution decreases if you choose an aspect ratio other than 4:3 as it crops off parts of the sensor to achieve a particular image size. Panasonic uses a larger-than-4:3 sensor that allows full resolution regardless of aspect ratio.

Once the focus has been obtained, there’s very little shutter lag to speak of. The camera creates a rangefinder-like “shick shick” sound whenever an image is captured and the images are written into the memory card without drama. You can shoot full resolution at 3fps for 10 shots or so without experiencing performance issues. No issues until you use the creative ART modes, that is.

In the ART modes, the processing and write times can take anywhere between a second to an agonizing 5 seconds (such as the PINHOLE, and GRAINY B&W modes) to complete.

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Pinhole ART Mode

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Grainy B&W ART Mode

 

When using the ART processing in movie modes, it’s borderline useless as the video will either be very slow or the images won’t be moving at all (but the audio’s fine).

Speaking of the movie mode, the E-P1 provides smooth 16:9  @ 30fps videos with really good audio quality. The mic and audio processing software is really good.

Here’s a sample video in low light (sorry for not being able to show off the DOF, I forgot to turn on manual focus).

Sample Video from David Tong on Vimeo.

Here’s a sample of how useless the ART filters work with video.

Olympus EP-1 Digital PEN sample video from David Tong on Vimeo.

I don’t know how to shoot video well, all I know is it’s best if you set your camera to manual focus before shooting your video so you can play with selective focus and other goodies. You can choose between aperture priority or auto program mode when shooting video.

I wish I can talk more about the video, but I’m a really lousy videographer and I really don’t have any knowledge about creating cool videos even if you gave me a RED One camera, so I’ll end the video part of the review right here.

I won’t talk about features such as printing, reviewing images, or in-camera editing as they are pretty standard (printing and reviewing) and the in-camera editing are just gimmicky, most of will probably never use the in-cam edits anyway.

I’ll end Part II with the video so we can begin talking about image quality in Part III – Image Quality, Noise, Verdict, I’ll give my overall impression of the Olympus E-P1 at the end of the review.

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