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

Here’s Part 1 and Part II of the review, in case you’ve missed it.

Part III deals with the important aspect of image quality. I can confidently say right now that most photographers will not be disappointed with the E-P1.

All the images taken are shot using the Program mode unless otherwise indicated. This was done to see how well the E-P1′s metering system fares and how the image processing engine handles jpeg images.

ISO Noise

It seems that everyone is engrossed with the ISO race after the megapixel race tapered off, while it’s understandable, I don’t really think they’re that big of an issue nowadays with larger sensors as there are a lot of details retained with most sensors these days, it only boils down to how good (or bad) the noise processing engine handles the captured noise that will make or break the final image.

The Olympus E-P1 has a smaller than APS-C/35mm sensor, so it is expected to have more noise than its larger sensor counterparts, but to be honest, the noise discrepancy isn’t as great as it used to be. There are a lot of details retained at high-ISO which makes ISO 1600 more than usable in most circumstances. The expanded 3200 and 6400 is still respectable, though not really recommended, but thankfully, the good monochrome modes of the EP-1 makes good use of those high ISO settings.

Olympus EP-1 First Shots

ISO 1600

Olympus EP-1 First Shots

ISO 1600

For web-sized use or small prints up to 5R, the noise at ISO 1600 is very usable and when viewing the inkjet photo printouts, the details are well retained just like most DSLR images I’ve printed in the past. Again, it’ll depend on your requirements whether or not these level of noise is acceptable.

Here’s a set of 100% crops at different ISO settings.

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Full Scene

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ISO 100

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ISO 200

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ISO 400

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ISO 800

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ISO 1600

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ISO 3200

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ISO 6400

As you can see, details are starting to soften due to noise reduction at around ISO 800 while artifacts start creeping in at the same ISO range. Saturation and contrast is also affected as the ISO moves up, but that’s common and standard for almost all cameras anyway. Even the ISO 6400 is very usable for non-critical work, banding isn’t very offensive either. This is quite a feat for a small 4/3 sensor and the resolution of the sensor is very high providing a lot of details, while the kit lens works splendidly in tandem with the sensor.

The noise reduction algorithm seems to be conservative, only the higher settings will produce offensive amount of smearing of details.

Below is a set of images at ISO 800 showing the different levels of in-cam noise reduction of the E-P1, starting with the full image view.

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Noise Filter: OFF

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Noise Filter: LOW

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Noise Filter: STANDARD

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Noise Filter: HIGH

In small prints or 640×480 web-sized images, the Standard and High noise filter settings would look pretty decent, but for most circumstances, it’s best to leave the Noise Filter in the Off or Standard setting, at the most to prevent excessive smudging of details at higher ISO.

Exposure

The Olympus E-P1′s evaluative and center-weighted metering modes proves to be effective and pretty accurate in most shooting environments except for high-contrast, back-lit scenes (which is a common problem for almost all cameras anyway). In overcast or subdued lighting, the exposure is very accurate and provides good color saturation and excellent skin tones at its default settings. Colors are nice and rich with the red/orange getting a little aggressive in saturation, but not to the point of clipping. The out-of-the-box images are pleasing and accurate with a balanced amount of sharpening present, which is great if you want to spend less time post-processing your RAW files.

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Scenes against a predominantly white background would underexpose a little, as expected.

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In the default settings, the contrast is pretty high (hence the pleasing images in overcast conditions) and you’ll see dynamic range limitations quite easily. The photo below was taken a few hours before sunset and the sky isn’t as bright as the photo depicts. Lowering the contrast adjustment to -2 retained a lot more details in the sky areas. The E-P1 also has a tendency to underexpose a little when faced with high contrast scenes, but rarely more than 2/3 of a stop.

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Sharpness

With the default settings intact, the E-P1 produces good sharpness and detail rendering. Sharpening artifacts appear in high contrast, hard-edge scenes such as my son’s shirt in the photo below.  Even with the Noise Filter turned off, some shadow details are lost, but overall, the E-P1 creates very high detail images. I’d assume that much can be improved when shooting RAW and a proper RAW converter, but unfortunately, I wasn’t supplied with the Olympus Master 2 software.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Add a proper dose of ACR and USM, the good amount of details become excellent.

White Balance

I’ll keep this part short. Auto WB works well in almost all conditions including tungsten lighting, with only some issues if small halogens are used. Overall, the E-P1′s Auto Wb and presets generally work just as well, if not better, than my DSLR.

Depth of Field

Sensor size affects depth-of-field and having a small sensor would mean that it’ll be more difficult to isolate objects from the background compared to an APS-C or 35mm sensor. The E-P1′s Micro 4/3 sensor would require a fairly long focal length in order to produce pleasing out-of-focus background compared to traditional DSLRs, especially if the subject cannot be placed near the lens’ closest focusing distance.

The examples below are taken with the kit lens at 42mm, f/5.6 at its closest focusing distance. With small subjects (<3″) the separation is decent but not satisfying. When it comes to portraits, it’s very difficult to isolate the subject from the background when shooting head/shoulder framing even when the subject/background distance is increased.

Fortunately, the E-P1′s kit lens does produce a nice and smooth out-of-focus bokeh.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Monochrome Images

It may be strange to have a dedicated section about monochrome images but I personally love shooting mono and the E-P1 delivers as good as out-of-the-cam monochromatic images closest to film that I’ve seen in quite a while.

My current DSLR allows the same amount of parameter adjustments as the E-P1, but the DSLR’s noise is rather low and when I bump the ISO up, the noise pattern doesn’t really look like film. The E-P1”s ISO noise pattern looks very consistent with slide film, in my opinion, and with almost no tweaking in-camera, they look very punchy and detailed. The prints look really great when printed on glossy paper.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I can replicate the tonality of the E-P1 B&W images on my DSLR, but being a DSLR with a low-pass filter, I usually have to go sharpen them anyway even at its highest in-cam sharpening setting, which makes shooting B&W jpegs a bit pointless if I have to sharpen it in post anyway. The E-P1 gives me great B&W without any fuss – and I love that.

Verdict

I’ll make it clear right now that this review is meant to provide you actual user’s experience without any preconceived bias for or against Olympus, the 4/3 system, nor the E-P1. If you’re a subscriber to my site or know me through photography forums, you know how excited I’ve been since the first leaked rumor about a retro camera from Olympus. I’ve been more than ready to buy the EP-1 mainly because of the form factor, prime lens availability and I trust Olympus cameras in terms of Zuiko optics.

Overall, I’d have to say I’m impressed with how well the optics, sensor, and processor works together to deliver really good image quality without going through RAW processing and post-processing sharpening. I’m not sure if the E-P1 has a low-pass filter, but the images are quite sharp without unsharp-masking (USM) applied, but improves greatly with USM added in post-processing.

It’s quite obvious that I’m very disappointed with how clunky the focusing system is, and I really don’t understand why anyone who have used a digital camera post 2005 will find the AF to be acceptable in speed and accuracy. If this was a $400-500 camera, then I’d accept that as a compromise, but not a $900 camera as that price range already ventured into the entry-level DSLR category and I don’t think the $400+ premium is worth the entry fee to own a retro digital camera.

The Olympus E-P1′s AF shortcoming is almost identical to the Sigma DP1/DP2, the price of the camera isn’t cheap, and having a major usability feature handicap an otherwise superb camera is a sad sight.

I’m not a big advocate of buying first-generation electronics or mechanical products, as most products inherently have bugs that aren’t sorted out while the manufacturer rushes to push the product out in the market. Most of the time, it’s the first-generation buyers who become beta-testers while manufacturers rectify and perfect everything in the second release. We’ve all seen that with cars, computers, phones, cameras, and so forth. So if I were you, I’d wait until Olympus comes up with a solution for the AF and upgrade the LCD as well. They’re relatively minor improvements with major benefits and should trickle into the next release. As a matter of fact, if they can fix the firmware to support AF assist from Olympus FL flashguns, then the usability of the E-P1 goes up several notches and I’ll rank it among the best cameras in the market overall.

I can very enthusiastically give the E-P1 a 9/10 if I’m basically judging it by its look and final photo output. However, just as we don’t rate a car by its engine alone, we can’t blindly praise the E-P1 without being aware that an auto-focus system is a critical part of a modern camera and the E-P1 fails to deliver on that point. Unless you’re buying an Epson RD-1, Leica M8, or a medium format back, you’d really expect a decent auto-focus system for a camera released in 2009, especially with a product so hotly anticipated by experienced photographers with practically zero competition in the market.

Keeping the AF and LCD issue in mind, I’d have to give the E-P1 a 7/10, which is still favorable, but a little disappointing.

If you can’t resist the uber good looks of the E-P1 and don’t really need a responsive camera, by all means, do purchase the dual-lens kit now. It’s a great camera with very unique appeal. However, if you rely on AF quite a bit and feel that $900 bucks is a lot of dough for an “incomplete” release, then I suggest you wait for an update from Olympus.

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