This review appeared in the September issue of DSLR user and would like to thank Charlotte Griffiths for letting me hold on to this little puppy from time to time! This review is longer version than appeared in the magazine. If you can’t be bothered to read all 1526 words you can see the pictures and videos I have been taking with the Olympus Pen E-P1 on flickr here, if you can be bothered read on! The small images on this page link to larger versions on flickr, and don’t forget about my book signing and photo courses in San Fransisco in October more details here.
Before I start diving into the details of this little camera it’s best that you know how I will be judging the Olympus Pen E-P1. I am best known for my work with compact film cameras, I have shot for many high profile clients using nothing more than a lomo LCA or my trusty Contax T2. I carry a compact film camera with me wherever I go so I never miss a photo opportunity. I have tended to shy away from digital even though it’s 2009, but I am a big fan of the 5D and hope soon to get my self a Mrk2 so my standards are quite high when it comes to digital. One of my biggest problems with digital compacts is shutter lag, which I am glad to say is not a problem with the E-P1; once you have a focus lock you can take a picture in an instant.
I was quite excited to get my hands on a E-P1 for several reasons: the ability to use manual focus, the large aperture when compared to digital compact cameras, interchangeable lens and the fact that it looks like pure sex when compared to you most digital compacts. From the front you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s an original Pen from the 60s.
There are two lenses available at launch are the: 17mm 1:2.8 with is equivalent focal length: 34mm on a 35mm and 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 equivalent focal length: 28-84mm at 35mm. For the lomo LCA lovers out there the the 17mm lens is prety close to what the 32mm lens on a lomo LCA. I am a fan of prime lens so for the most part I kept the 17mm “pan cake” lens on and found this more than adequate. The 14-42mm is light I had in my man bag and did not even notice it was there.
You can choose to control as little or as much of the camera as you want, when walking around I left it in ‘intelligent auto mode’ so that if I saw something I wanted to quickly snap I did not have to worry about any settings. The full manual mode was a doddle to use; on some digital compacts it can be quite tricky. In manual mode the main dial on the back of the camera controls the shutter speed and a sub dial controls the aperture, which are comfortably controlled by your thumb and index finger.
While using the camera I started discovering lots of useful features that made the camera really easy to use, the camera I used did not come with a manual so I had to work it out for myself but this was not a problem as it is all quite intuitive. Although there are dedicated buttons for exposure compensation, white balance mode, ISO etc. Every thing is pretty much accessible with the main dial on the back of the camera by pressing the middle of the dial and spinning it to get what you want.
Auto White balance did not perform so well in certain situations but is easily rectified, I found when moving from bright sunlight to the shadows every thing started to look a little blue but all I had to do is switch it to “shadows”. It was a similar story with artificial light but the white balance adjustment is so accessible that it’s not a problem, as you flick through the different white balance options you can see the change happening live so you know you are going to get it right.
The manual focus is not quite what I expected but it’s far better than what was available on say the Nikon P6000. It is difficult to tell what is in focus especially when shooting on a wide aperture, it would have been nice if the camera gave you some indication of what is in focus by drawing a box round it. You can use a zoomed in view so can see a cropped version of what the sensor sees but it’s a little fiddly especially if you are used to the focus points on a DSLR. I am used to zone focus cameras where you set the distance of your subject from you, I think it would be great if the E-P1 did that same thing. Once have set the focus you are free to shoot pictures with no shutter lag, this is handy for a bit of street photography.
The sensor dust removal really impressed me on the E-P1; it’s called “Super-Sonic Wave Filter”, the sensor shakes really fast to remove any dust. I was a little concerned at first because being used to a DSLR’s at least they have a mirror and shutter to offer some protection to the sensor while you are changing lenses, this is not the case with the E-P1. The sensor stares at you whenever you are hurriedly trying to change your lens. When looking at my pictures on my computer I did notice there was some sensor dust on some shots but after a few shots this was gone, that is never the case with my 5D.
The E-P1 has impressive ISO’s range, from 100 to 6400, I found that the image quality is fine up until ISO 800, its starts to get a quite noisy after that and anything above 2000 starts becoming quite soft. But shooting in low light is not a problem and depending on your environment you can get away with a low ISO thanks to the Pen’s image stabilization which is built into the camera so will work with any lens, I shot pictures at 1/8 with no camera shake, image stabilization also works in video mode too. The one thing that the camera lacks though is flash, I don’t tend to use flash a lot but there is a small flash add on that can be purchased separately but unfortunately that was the one thing I was not sent to test.
The E-P1 also features a fine art filters. Some people might dismiss these as a gimmick and to be honest some of them are like soft focus, but if you want your shots to look like a 70’s pin up posters you are onto a winner. The two filters I really liked were the black and white and pinhole. Black and white does not simply de-saturate the image; it adds noise and contrast to make the picture look like it was shot on film. I examined a high-resolution scan of a black and white negative with a black and white picture from the E-P1 at 100% and was hard pushed to tell the difference.
The pinhole might as well be called Lomo mode, this was the one for me you could take photos of inanimate objects and they would look great. When shooting in fine art mode I set the camera to shot RAW and JPEG that I also had an un-processed version of the image incase I did not like what the camera had done.
E-P1 also shoots HD video, because the lenses you get with the E-P1 you can shot video with low depth of fields which sets the video apart from video shot on a standard video camera. The video it captures is really sharp with great colour. You can use the fine art filters in video mode but because of the processing over heads it will drop frames when shooting in HD. If like me you only shoot video occasionally the video mode on the E-P1 is more than satisfactory. If you want to shoot HD video with a DSLR you have to go for a Nikon D90 or a Canon 500D witch will set you back between £630 and £750 and they’re not going to fit in your pocket! The only problem I had with shooting video was that if I used continuous focus, the subject tended to pop in and out of focus every few seconds while the camera tried to get a focus lock even when the subject was not moving.
This camera packs all the controls and features of a DSLR into something that you can slip in your pocket or handbag. I would definitely recommend it to any amateur who is looking at DSLR’s and would be open to alternatives. You are always going to take better pictures if you always have a camera on you, the E-P1 can be your life companion without getting in the way. I had this camera round my neck for four days, if you did that with a DSLR you defiantly have a neck ache so I would also recommend to anyone who travels a lot. If you are a professional and are looking for a weekend camera this is also for you. The only problem I have now is deciding whether to get it in retro silver or white with a cream leather trim!
I really really want this Kev. It looks awesome. As the proud owner of an original 1/2 frame Olympus Pen-EE handed down form my dad, this would close the circle nicely.
Now I just have to starve for a few months to afford it. Grrr
Good (useful) review. I had a little play with Brett Walker’s Pen and was impressed. I too thought black and white would be a gimmick, but it’s really cool if you are into that look.
I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford one of these until it’s obsolete, which it probably will be soon, thanks to Panasonic’s new offering. I wonder if someone will let you test one of those.
Good review Kevin, and thanks for the insight into the whole manual focussing thing which has rang out as an issue for me getting a camera like this… don’t fancy just using the screen to shoot and always wondered how the separate viewfinder works out when you’re shooting wide open to pick out details with depth of field.
Dunno, I think the sweet days of the E-P1 in it’s own wee niche are coming to a close with the release of the Panasonic GF1, and in recent days the Leica X1. Sure, these newcomers are both different cameras but I think the Panasonic will be more intuitive to focus with, but there again maybe Olympus will respond with an E-P2?
I just picked up this camera with the 17mm and viewfinder kit. So far, I am reallly enjoying it. I really like the lomo mode too, I think some people will view it as weird that you buy a high quality digital camera and then use a mode that makes the picture look ‘lower quality’, but I really like the output of the mode, and it’s great fun for pics without having to do any photoshop work.
I also really enjoy the HD video, I was amazed at the quality, I took quite a few videos in NYC when I got the camera, and compiled them, along with a few pics thrown in, the video is on Vimeo if you want to look, be sure to view in HD!
All in all, I’m really pleased before, and the low light performance is great, (I don’t use flash). The ISOs are equal to my 400D in noise, (I think, not scientific or anything). And, the fact that you can floor it up to 6400 is useful in emergencies, or for fun grain images.
I love this review… But you barely mentioned anything critical about the EP1 and I’ve read some unfavorable things elsewhere (dpreviews, amazon). I know you used the camera for a few days and I’m wondering what your final thoughts were? Is it worth the expense? Were you happy with the image color (it looked washed out to me). Were you happy with the autofocus and startup speed? The lens?
I would say it is worth the expense to have a camera that small that functions as an SLR but small enough to fit into your pocket. I thought the color was fine, I did not tweak the color much in post. That said i was never using raw but now that lightroom can read its raw files i will start using raw. I did bot have a problem with the auto focus. Start up is super quick, after your comment I checked out quick it was. It was so fast that to test it I held down the shutter button and turned the camera on, it took a picture just after i pressed the power button. There is a little bit of chromatic aberration with both lens but there is on most even with canon L lenses.
Hey Kevin, I have mainly only used film based cameras. I have yet to go digital. I am a big fan of lomography and I have been very inspired by your work as well. Would you say that this camera would be good for someone who is new the digital camera world? I mainly do street photography. I love your review and as a digital camera, how would you rate it compared to other digital cameras you use?
its good but lack of flash and view finder lets it down abit. it is perfect for a beginner but would also be worth checking out the Samsung NX10 witch is the same size but has more features. Samsung NX10 review will appear soon on my blog!
I think the pinhole art filter is a lot of fun, and it has inspired me to start a flickr group.
Please take a look: http://www.flickr.com/groups/1371996@N20/pool/
Thank you belatedly for this review, Kevin. Years after the fact – it’s now 2015 as I write this – I finally have purchased a very-lightly-used E-P1 – along with the 17mm pancake and the nifty non-electronic clip-on viewfinder – and I must say, it’s one of the more elegant – and ‘sweet’ – digital cameras that I’ve ever used, let alone fondled. I’ve shot with other digital Pens before btw, and some very nice Lumixes as well, but your review was both enjoyable and helpful. Muchas offing gracias 🙂
Glad the review was of some help even though it’s 6 years old. Hope you got a good price for that E-P1 as that camera is old. Olympus has come a long way since then with it’s Micro 4/3rds cameras. If you ever upgrade check out the olympus OM-D system, it’s uses the same lenses as the PEN but it’s way better, more like an SLR but small. I reviewed the OM-D EM-1 a while back. I currently use an OM-D EM-5 (the first OM-D camera) for most of my swimming photography see an example here.
I hovered over you Avatar and saw you wrote Revenge of the Nerds, I have not seen it but it is on my watch list after I heard Curtis Armstrong and other cast members talk about it on the Nerdist Podcast. I was only six when it was released so that’s why I missed out!