Olympus E-P1

...and the E-P2, this time done right

Go back to my OM-D and Micro Four Thirds section...
...or to articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

The EP-1 is a significant camera, an entirely new breed. It has lots of appeal, but also some painful, designed-in limitations. Here is my take on it.

When I wrote the original article, the E-P1 had yet to arrive to the USA; as it was so different than anything before it, I decided against posting the text until I actually use the E-P1, at least casually.

This happened only in September of 2009; surprisingly, my original impressions based on the published specs and user manual withstood this test quite well; just some minor adjustments to the text were needed.

The E-P2, announced just in November of 2009, addresses my main complaint about the E-P1: the lack of general-use, eye-level viewfinder. I've added a section on the E-P2 at the end.

All illustrations are from Olympus promotional materials, copyright by the Olympus Corporation.

Intro: the Micro Four Thirds

Before the Micro Four Thirds standard was introduced by Olympus and Panasonic in 2008, digital photographers had a choice between either SLR cameras (providing advanced specifications, good image quality, and interchangeable lenses) or all-in-one models, with the non-detachable lenses, and (except for the Sigma DP1/DP2) using much smaller sensors: less than half linear size of the Four Thirds or APS-C frame.

The only exception was the Leica M8, with all its strengths and limitations, and a surreal price tag (now also the "full-frame" M9).

The Micro Four Thirds standard (µFT or MFT for short) uses the same imager size as Four Thirds, but reduces the lens-to-sensor distance significantly, cutting it in half, or by about 20 mm. This allows for more compact camera/lens combinations: there is no room needed for the swinging SLR mirror.

Because of the latter, it can be employed in all three existing types of non-SLR camera models:

  1. Cameras with an eye-level, digital viewfinder, very much like the common "super-zoom", all-in-one category (some people refer to those as "quasi-SLR", because externally they may look like smaller SLRs). The first (and, until the E-P1, the only) µFT camera introduced, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 (updated to DMC-GH1) belongs to this category.
  2. Cameras with an eye-level, see-through optical viewfinder (one would be tempted to say "rangefinder", except that there is no range metering functionality there), like the Canon G10, Olympus C-7070WZ, or the clamshell Olympus C-60. The Leica M8 (or M9, ouch!) also belongs to that group.
  3. Cameras where the only way to preview the scene is on the external color monitor, like in most point-and-shoot models on the market now (or in cellular phones).

As it happens, all models in groups [1] and [2] have also the viewing functionality of [3]; none of them (except for the Leica M8/M9) allows for interchangeable lenses, although some accept lens attachments.

It is also possible that a camera in group [3] can enter [1] or [2] with use of an add-on accessory: for example, the Ricoh Caplio GX-200 can use an optional digital finder of type [1], plugged into the camera's hot shoe. As we will see, the E-P1 can also be moved into Group [2] with use of a similar accessory.

Providing lens interchangeability in digital cameras outside the SLR domain is a significant step; while it was made by Panasonic in the G1, Olympus was, most probably, the driving force behind its concept and technology.

In 2005 (see Cameras: the Next Ten Years) I predicted that electronic-viewfinder (EVF) cameras of type [1] will replace most of SLRs on the market, outside high-end and niche applications (think: medium format), within ten years. This will probably happen: we are seeing the first steps. Just wait until 2015.

Micro Four Thirds is not the only step in this direction. Samsung announced it is working on a new camera line, referred to as NX; so far no information about it is available, except that it will use an APS-C sensor and an eye-level EVF. A mockup was presented recently at some trade shows; it looks like one more SLR-shaped EVF model.

One thing about the µFT standard still puzzles me a bit. When Four Thirds was introduced, one of the advertised advantages was the retrofocus design, with the lens quite far ahead of the imager (in terms of the latter's size). This was supposed to provide a more uniform response of the imager photosites to the light arriving from various points within the lens's exit pupil. In legacy lenses used on APS-C cameras this response was falling off-center, which required some corrective image manipulation, at the cost of increasing the noise, among others.

(Leica says they address the problem by tilting the microlenses in front of each photosite, but this is expensive and may work with varying efficiency, depending on the lens used.)

Now, the Micro Four Thirds abandons this principle (at least to a large degree): did it suddenly become irrelevant? Or did Olympus and Panasonic accept the fact that most of the buyers just don't care (or understand what this means), and they just want to have smaller, but still feature-loaded, cameras? There seems to be some contradiction here.

OK, this much about the µFT. I had to discuss it here, as this may be the most important thing about the new camera, and some aspects may escape the attention of those who follow the developments.

The Olympus product line

Back before the era of affordable digital SLRs, cameras with optical eye-level finders were the most common breed in the enthusiast's market. Olympus had a strong position there, with the C-series models, starting from the C-2020Z (1999) and, unfortunately, ending with the C-7070WZ of 2005; still a very desirable and competent, in today's terms, camera. At that time, most of that market moved to SLRs, and Olympus abandoned this segment, moving in the same direction.

The "advanced compact" breed is still kept alive thanks, mostly, to the Canon G10 (and Nikon P6000, although I prefer the former), catering to those of us who need a well-specified and capable camera in a non-SLR formfactor (and this excludes the EVF look-alikes). They are a minority, true, very much like Leica users were in the film SLR era, but they cannot be ignored.

After that withdrawal, Olympus, until the EP-1 at least, limited itself to three types of cameras: simple point-and-shoot ones, all-in-one EVF "superzooms", and SLRs with, at present, four distinct lines (E-4**, E-6**, E-** and E-* which, for a predictable time, will probably coexist). Now, looks like with the E-P1 Olympus re-enters the market segment it just abandoned ("I always wanted to have a Leica"); what remains to be seen is whether it is just a single foray or a beginning of a new camera line. And this is the context in which I see the release of this new model.

The new release is tied to the sixtieth anniversary of the original Olympus Pen series of 1959. Actually, while the first half-frame Pen model saw the light that year, the SLR version, Pen F, was released only four years later (this is the model to which Olympus refers in their marketing). The Pen F was a very innovative, against-the-grain camera: high-quality, half-frame (18×24 mm) SLR with a nice collection of interchangeable lenses. It was like no camera before (or after) it, and I know of people who are still using theirs, also very collectible.

I haven't owned or used a Pen, but my good friend, John Foster from England, knows everything about them (he wrote two books on the subject), and if you are interested, have a look at John's Web site.

The legendary Pen, reincarnated?

The E-P1 is a new kind of camera; it even looks like nothing else on the digital market (except, to some extent, the Sigma DP-2, Ricoh GX-200 and a few even less popular models). It has a conservatively shaped and beautifully finished metal body, a mount for interchangeable lenses — and no viewfinder except for the LCD monitor in the back.

Inside, it uses an imager which is similar (or identical) to that in the recent E-620; its imaging pipeline is also very close. In other words, it can be seen as a serious camera which pretends not to be one.

Thus, ironically, what's new is the retro styling, while what's old (at least largely inherited from recent Olympus SLRs) is the modern internals; an interesting role reversal.

Camera body

Olympus says the casing is made of metal (this is nowadays not always easy to tell); the body is 120.5 mm wide, 70 mm tall and 35 mm deep (without lens). The body weight is 335 g; add to that 46 g for the battery and the lens weight: 71 g (17 mm) or 150 g (14-42 mm). Therefore the full package weighs 452 g or 531 g, depending on which of the two available (now) lenses you are using. This means: compact but solid; perhaps better.

The body styling is very elegant, with a slight, leatherette-covered right-hand grip and no significant protrusions; even the mode dial is recessed.

Lenses

As a real system camera, the EP-2 will accept any µFT lenses. At this moment this includes the two already released by Olympus, and a few made by Panasonic for their G1 cameras.

17 mm F/2.8 MZD

6 elements in four groups, 57 mm diameter, 22 mm length, 71 g, 37 mm filter thread; focusing down to 20 cm. This is a typical "pancake" lens; a moderate wide angle (corresponding to 35 mm on a 35-mm film camera).

14-42 mm F/3.5-5.6 MZD

9 elements in 6 groups, 62 mm diameter, 43.5 mm length, 160 g, 40.5 mm filter thread; minimum focus at 25 cm. A general-use, walk-around zoom, equivalent to 28-85 mm on a 35-mm film camera.

Notice that this lens is significantly smaller than a similar one from the Four Thirds line (66×61 mm). 20 mm less in length, when added to the 20 mm decrease in the backfocus distance translates approximately into a 40 mm less in the total (lens+camera) depth, a considerable reduction.

Actually, the lens collapses into a "storage" position when not in use; you can see the switch used for this purpose. The quoted lens length is in this position.

Size reduction is not something you can do without a penalty, and there are hints that Olympus had to accept some unavoidable compromises. Certain un- or under-corrected optical flaws (chromatic aberration, distortion) are, most probably, fixed or masked at the stage of image processing. Panasonic also does it this way in the G1.

The question is whether this is done before the raw image is stored in a file, or during the raw-to-RGB conversion. Having heard Panasonic chose the first approach, I hope Olympus uses the second one, with the raw file containing only directions (based on the lens used) how the flaws should be handled in conversion; these could then be followed, modified, or ignored in off-camera postprocessing. One thing which may be hinting at that is a recent update to the Adobe's DNG (sort-of-raw) format, allowing for such information to be embedded.

Four Thirds lenses can be used on the E-P1 with an FT-to-µFT lens adapter. There are more than thirty such lenses, although many of them may look quite ridiculous on the diminutive E-P1 body (or rather vice versa). I can bet another lens or two from Olympus (40-150 mm?) will follow soon.

The throat of an µFT mount is a few millimeters less wide than that of the Four Thirds. I am surprised this does not cause light fall-of problems with FT lenses.

Shown here: the 8 mm ZD Fisheye on the E-P1, with a lens adapter.

Four Thirds lenses retain the autofocus capability when used on the E-P1, although only in the single-AF mode (as opposed to continuous AF). I would suspect that the autofocus action may be faster and more precise with those few FT lenses which have been designed with phase-detection (Live View) AF in mind; at present the list is quite limited.

Then, legacy (film-camera) lenses in almost any mount will also be usable on this camera, albeit only in MF mode and only with stepped-down, aperture-priority metering. The image stabilization function of the camera will work (the lens focal length has to be entered manually).

This requires another lens adapter, different for every lens standard used. Olympus is providing such an adapter for its old OM lenses; third-party adapters for other systems will certainly follow soon.

Shown: the 35 mm F/2 Zuiko lens for the OM series, with an OM->µFT adapter.

Interestingly, using those legacy lenses may actually be less painful on the E-P1 than on SLRs (at least without resorting to the Live View): stepped-down metering does not make the previewed image any darker (a rehash of the same story for rangefinder and SLR cameras from fifty years ago, which led to the introduction of automatic aperture). The EP-1 also provides a magnified preview, which makes manual focusing actually easier and more precise than with the SLR viewing — if best applicable to tripod work.

Viewfinder

By itself, the EP-1 offers viewing only by means of the back-side LCD monitor, therefore falling into category [3] of my list above. This was a painful decision to make: even best LCD screens are washed out and unreadable under bright outdoors light, and they require shooting with the camera held in your extended hands, not the most reliable and secure way.

I have to repeat, however, this is not a design flaw, but a conscious decision. First, the built-in optical see-through finder would increase the camera size. Second, it is just impossible to make such a finder, adjusting the field of view to any lens which can be used on the camera (and this may easily range from 7 to 500 mm). Any Leica owner who tried to use a 300 mm lens on that camera knows what I'm talking about.

The limitation could be, in principle, addressed in two ways.

The first one is an external add-on, optical finder for framing, very much like such finders available for Leica-type cameras. Olympus offers such an accessory for the 17 mm lens; it plugs into the camera's hot shoe.

It is thinkable that with time, when the µFT lens array grows, we may see an "universal" version of such a finder, either switchable between a few different fields of view, or with the corresponding frame outlines etched.

The latter approach has been tried before in a number of cameras (including the Zeiss Werra series, supporting 35, 50, and 100 mm lenses).

In principle, the hot shoe pins could be used to exchange finder-related information and to provide the power some of its functions may need. (It remains unclear whether Olympus exercises this option; I consider this a remote possibility.) In such a case, the add-on optical finder could offer light-up framing aids inside, based on the focal length used (or set). Science fiction? Maybe, maybe not.

November, 2009: The above paragraph was written as a part of the original version of this article, in June of 2009. The EP-2 announcement of November shows that, after all, Olympus chose a separate electronic interface; probably a matter of technical necessity.

In any case, for longer focal lengths the designers would be facing a difficult technical problem of the geometric alignment of the finder in the hot shoe; a mechanical challenge.

The second option would be to provide an add-on electronic viewfinder. This would also require modifying the hot shoe connections, but it has been already done in the Ricoh GX-100/GX-200. Olympus designers were certainly aware of what's going on in the industry, so they must have considered this possibility. Whether they decided to use it or not, remains unknown at the moment; this would greatly increase camera's appeal, making it genuinely usable with long lenses.

November, 2009: The just-announced E-P2 offers an externally-mounted electronic viewfinder. Looks like it could not have been done using the few existing pins of the hot shoe; the new camera uses a new connector, shaped as a horizontal slot just a bit below.

The monitor

The LCD monitor in the camera's back is large: 3 inches diagonally, or just above 45×60 mm; compared to 2.7" (41×55 mm) in the E-620 or E-30. The resolution, however, remains the same at 230,000 "dots", or 77,000 pixels (QVGA).

Some of the newer, mid-level SLRs by Canon and Nikon offer four times that pixel count (VGA, or twice the linear resolution); the G10 also ups this to a more reasonable 460,000 dots, so this is one of the most-heard complaints about the E-P1.

Asked about monitor resolution, a senior Olympus technology officer is reported to say that at the moment they had to make a choice between either a higher resolution combined with lower brightness, or vice versa. Faced with that, they selected the second option. I tend to agree, given that in most situations the monitor will be the only way to preview the scene, so its good visibility in bright light is of utmost importance. Numbers are not everything, and almost every problem has multiple dimensions.

What I find more painful, though, is that the monitor does not tilt or swivel. Once again: size and weight considerations, but the adjustable angle is a tremendous advantage in monitor-based viewing. Especially when the unassuming shape and size make the E-P1 an ideal people-watching camera, being able to use this feature for low-angle shots would be a huge plus. Yes, I would gladly accept a 4-6 mm increase in the camera's thickness, and I wouldn't mind to go back to 2.7", if these two sacrifices could give me a tilt-and-swivel (or at least tilt) display.

I am sure that the design team spent time on agonizing over this decision, finally assuming that more potential buyers will be attracted by the sex-appeal of a sleeker, slimmer camera, than by the practicality of adjustable-angle viewing. Too bad.

Shutter

The E-P1 has a real focal-plane shutter: vertical-run, with speeds up to 1/4000 of a second. This alone makes it unlike any other non-SLR on the market (Sigma DP2 uses an in-lens type).

As always, Leicas M8 an M9 are exceptions here, but I'm talking about cameras normal people buy.

Low-end cameras may use electronic gating for timing the exposure, but this does not provide an opportunity for the imager to be flushed (to rest a while before doing the real work).

The exposure time ranges from 60 seconds to 1/4000 s; flash synchronization up to 1/180 s.

Flash

Contrary to the common trend among compact cameras, the E-P1 has no built-in flash. I believe the main reason behind this design decision was to keep the size and weight down. Actually, a purist in me is happy with this, and built-in flashes are, for a number of reasons, notorious for bad results they deliver.

The camera has a hot shoe accepting an external flash. Models designed for E-System SLRs provide full through-the-lens exposure automation with the E-P1, where the camera's circuitry measures the intensity of a pre-flash scattered off the subject, instructing the flash unit how strong should the "real" light burst be; a reliable and proven system. The compatible units include FL-20, FL-36R, and FL-50R by Olympus (the older models with no 'R' in designation work just fine, too, and the E-P1 does not support the wireless flash control in the 'R' versions anyway).

Specifically for the E-P1 Olympus has released the tiny FL-14, aesthetically matching the camera's body. This is a somewhat improved replacement for a built-in unit, providing a guide number of 14 m (ISO 100); this means just half of the illumination provided by the (almost equally small) FL-20.

The FL-14 is powered by two AAA batteries, and Olympus rates the (NiMH) battery life at 80 frames or so. Obviously, using higher ISO settings may extend battery life. The angular coverage should be sufficient for a 14 mm (28 mm EFL) lens.

My problem with the FL-14 is that it is way overpriced ($165 street). Your money, your decision.

Olympus-dedicated Metz units will, I am sure, also work OK with this camera in the TTL Auto mode. Another option is just to get a non-dedicated, third-party thyristor unit. With these, you set the shutter speed and aperture manually and let the flash circuitry to measure and throttle the light. A simple flash like that will cost $25 or so, and for $100 you can get a really loaded one (second burner, tilt/swivel, etc.) The results will be as good as with an Olympus flash, at a small fraction of the price. Just make sure that the trigger voltage is below 12 V or so (which is the case for any unit made in the last five or ten years).

Imaging

Whatever design compromises Olympus decided to make, they do not extend into the imaging pipeline: the sensor and the accompanying image-processing circuitry. The whole market image behind the E-P1 is about the external simplicity combined with internal image quality; they wouldn't risk cutting any corners here; you make the first impression only once.

The 12.3 MP imager used, made by Panasonic, is very similar to those used in the recent Olympus E-620 or E-30. The µFT sensor is of the same size as Four Thirds: effectively 17.3×13.0 mm, just slightly less than various flavors of the common APS-C format (Canon: 22.2×14.8 mm) but dramatically bigger than, for example, the sensor used in Canon's attractive G10 (7.6×5.7 mm) or other rangefinder-style cameras.

The much larger (a linear factor of two or more) sensor assures significantly lower noise levels and wider dynamic range (at least as compared with other non-SLRs on the market). I expected the imaging performance of the E-P1 to be at par with the E-620, and the samples I've seen seem to confirm that.

The sample images (Olympus and third-party) show, indeed, that the camera provides a full-fledged, SLR-class image quality, no ifs and buts. Judge for yourself — see, for example, the samples at Steve's Digicams (just skip the "art mode" ones, completely irrelevant in camera evaluation), or at DP Review.. (Unfortunately, I would need a camera for a week or so to come up with my usual sample set, so I've given up on that.)

The promotional materials refer to the imaging engine as TruePic V, while the one used in the E-620 (or E-30) is TruePic III+. A major jump in the version number may suggest some significant changes, but it does not have to be the case: all those names are invented by the marketing people, who do as they please; as long as no specific information is released, these remain just empty names.

The E-P1 offers a full range of adjustments to the image processing (most of them affecting only JPEGs, not raw files), including control over contrast, sharpness, saturation and gradation curve, as well as over the aggressiveness of noise filtering applied.

The sensor gain can be set anywhere between ISO 100 and ISO 6400. Judging, again, from the E-620, the results (contrast, colors, noise) should be very nice up to ISO 800, certainly usable at ISO 1600, and just so-so (but much better than nothing) at ISO 3200. This, obviously, is well beyond the reach of any camera based on a 1/1.7" (or smaller) imager.

Actually, the samples I've seen seem to exhibit less noise than those from the E-30 or E-620. As this is just a matter of filtering in raw-to-RGB conversion (there is no new, revolutionary sensor involved), I wonder at what price: nothing comes free. Anyway, ISO 1600 looks quite pleasing.

Image files can be saved in ORF (Olympus Raw Format) or JPEG format, the latter with four compression rations (from 1:2/7 to 1:12). The former is hard to tell apart from any lossless compression scheme, providing files about 8 MB in size. There is also an option to save both ORF and JPEG of the same frame. In-camera raw development of previously-taken pictures is possible, with a full range of parameter adjustments.

Storage and interfaces

The E-P1 is rather too small to use a Compact Flash card for storage. Instead of stubbornly insisting on using their proprietary xD-Picture card (possibly the worst one in industry, although Sony with their umpteen flavors of Memory Stick, is not far behind), Olympus, at long last, switched to the Secure Digital standard, common in the industry. The camera is compatible with the recent SDHC (SD 2.0, high capacity) standard, currently supporting capacities up to 32 GB (this would be close to 2,500 raw image files from the E-P1).

The switch was not really a matter of choice: the xD standard is simply too slow to support the data rate for high-definition movies.

The camera has two interface sockets. One takes the combined USB/Video plug (two separate cables are used for these two purposes), and another takes an (optional) HDMI cable for high-definition video.

When the USB connection to a computer is used, the latter sees the camera as an external disk drive, so the files can be moved at will. Those who are not computer-literate and who do not know how to copy files (obviously, a rocket science!), may use the Olympus Master software to automatically transfer the images, or resort to the Windows (Vista or 7) MTP functionality for automated transfer.

Exposure automation

The whole array of exposure modes, as expected on an advanced camera, is provided: Program, aperture and shutter priority, manual. Both exposure compensation and program shift are provided.

There is also an iAuto (Intelligent Auto) exposure mode, where the camera is supposed to recognize the type of scene involved, and switch to a dedicated program suitable for that type. This makes the E-P1 a point-and-shoot, with all the convenience and caveats involved. I have yet to see how well this works.

Individual special-occasion exposure modes can be accessed via the monitor when the mode dial is in the Scene mode. This may be useful for an absolute beginner, but even so I have my doubts.

Focusing

Autofocusing may be set to one of the two modes. In Single AF the focus is locked when the shutter release is half-pressed. In Continuous AF, the camera will try to follow-focus the subject almost until the picture is actually taken (also trying to predict the subject position at that moment).

The AF uses a system of eleven focus points (or areas) in the image frame; it may select one automatically ("trust us"), or use the point selected by the photographer (most commonly, the center point).

µFT lenses have an external focus ring, which can be used for manual focus (the preview image in the monitor can be enlarged up to 10× for that purpose). You can also use the Single AF with manual override.

All this is nice and flexible, but the most important thing is how fast and accurate the AF focus is. The phase-detection principle, used in all non-SLR cameras, is by definition slower and less reliable than contrast-detection systems in SLRs. The EP-1 is no exception here.

Some hands-on reports indicate that the E-P1 AF system is less responsive than one in the Panasonic G1 (based on the same principle); while I wasn't able to make such a comparison, I could verify that at an average living-room light levels the E-620 is clearly snappier. I haven't done any comparisons by daylight, though. Oh, well, I wouldn't expect an SLR performance here.

Image stabilization

To avoid (or reduce) camera shake, Olympus uses a body-based IS system; it moves the imager in two dimensions to compensate, within limits, of course, for camera movements detected by a built-in motion sensor. A body based system has an advantage that it works with any lenses.

The IS system in the EP-1 is advertised as having an effect of "up to 4 EV". The top value would mean that you can shoot from hand using shutter speeds up to 16 times longer with IS than without. In real life, the advantage turns out to be more modest; my tests for the E-510 and E-3 (claiming "up to 5 EV") have shown the advantage ranging from 1 to 2 EV, depending on the focal length. I would be greatly surprised with the E-P1 showing more.

There is one more factor here, often overlooked. Holding the camera in your extended hands (you have to, using the monitor for viewing) provides less stability than if you use it held against your face, with an eye-level viewfinder. This may, partly at least, negate any advantages of image stabilization. While it is important only in low light, it is still a factor.

Other features and trinkets

Dust reduction system based on a vibrating filter plate in front of the sensor was originally introduced by Olympus in the E-1, shunned by competing manufacturers as unnecessary, only to be introduced later in all their models. The Olympus implementation works well (not all do!), and it was a must-have feature here.

Movies: the mass market wanted movies, the mass market got movies. The camera can record movies, optionally adding a single still picture automatically when a take ends. By default, AF is done before each take, but it can be activated during one by a button press (probably to avoid AF noise).

The implementation is more advanced than some: there is a choice between program and aperture priority autoexposure, and you can also apply the Art Filters to your movies, if you really have a reason to. The resolution can be switched between 640×480 or 1280×720 pixels (AVI motion JPEG). There is a built-in microphone for sound recording.

I've seen some criticism of the recent Olympus SLRs: why no movie feature? I would think that implementing still and motion pictures on the same device, with the same imager, involves trade-offs on one or both sides, and I prefer a good still camera over a so-so mixed-function one. At the entry level, however, this may make a marketing sense; I just hope this feature does not negatively affect the main task of this camera, which is taking pictures.

On the upside: the movie clips I have seen were of surprisingly good quality.

The camera can be also used to play recorded movie clips on a high-definition TV with use of the built-in HDMI interface socket.

Scene Modes: These are program-like modes, optimized for certain situations, but with little or no room for any adjustments. While they may look OK on paper, I doubt their usefulness, even for an inexperienced user.

Art Filters: If you've read some of my recent SLR-related articles, you will know what I think about these: useless. They may make a good advertising point, though.

Controls

Olympus faced a daunting task here, having to provide a user interface to all camera's features and adjustments within the restraints of available space, at the same time conforming to a given visual style, and making them efficient and easy to operate. I think they succeeded (with a few minor exceptions).

The camera top is refreshingly devoid of clutter. The right side houses just three buttons: on/off, shutter release, and exposure compensation (it does the job in conjunction with the control dial). A quick access to exposure compensation is a must in any camera, so its omission would be a great disadvantage.

The left side houses just the recessed mode dial, driven by a thumbwheel underneath.

In actual handling, the camera turns out to be somewhat larger than expected, but it has a very nice (and substantial) feeling of a precision instrument; not a common thing nowadays.

Most of the camera controls are on its back side. Except for the mode thumbwheel at the far left, all of them are located to the right of the monitor.

There are two control dials here; the first, cylindrical one, is easy to spot at the top right. The second is implemented as a ring around the cursor key cluster. (If this solution actually works, I would like to see it in future Olympus SLRs).

The E-P1 uses no less than four user interfaces with overlapping functionality. Some features are accessible in all four, some only in those near the bottom of the list.

  • The cursor buttons double as direct access ones for changing of ISO, white balance, focusing mode, and drive mode; they work using the standard push-and-turn metaphor. The remaining ones are related to display and image review functions, except for the AE/AF Lock button, somewhat confusingly placed at the top of a vertical row, and for the user-assignable Function button, above the arrow cluster. Only practice will tell how this arrangement works.
  • Almost all adjustments likely to be made during a shooting session are accessible from the Control Panel, shown in the monitor. It is similar, if not identical, to such panel on recent Olympus SLRs, which works great, perhaps the best in industry.
  • New in Olympus cameras is another control scheme, referred to as Live Control. Pressing the [OK] button brings a screen overlay (or rather two edge panels), showing the adjustments available at the right, and the values for the currently selected adjustment at the bottom. The kind of adjustment is selected by turning the bottom dial (around arrow buttons), while the value — with the dial at the right top. Alternatively, arrow keys can be used.

    This seems like a logical and practical scheme, but I'm not really sure if we really need it. It may be usable while the subject is being viewed in the live monitor.

  • Only the settings inaccessible via buttons or Control Panel (as well as all camera customization functions) require the on-screen menu system to be accessed. That system looks simpler than in many previous Olympus cameras, but this is mostly because the most branched menu, used to customize the camera (unfortunately, not only) remains hidden by default.

Most importantly, the E-P1 remains a very customizable camera; you can make it work the way you want it to by changing eighty or so various preferences. This may be overwhelming, but the system is similar (or identical to) one used in the recent E-30 and E-620 Olympus SLRs, and my experience with those shows that leaving all those preferences at factory defaults will also work just fine; they are intended only for those of us who must have the camera work exactly their way — customize the camera to your liking and never (well, almost) use the menu system again.

My personal conclusions

There is no doubt this is a milestone camera. It is stylish, well-specified and well-designed, beautifully made, and it performs well. This is enough for many people to get it, use it, and love it.

Facing no competition in this segment market and clearly aiming at a "posh compact" user, Olympus is pricing the E-P1 accordingly. At the release the prices were $800 (with the 14 42 mm ZD), or $900 (17 mm ZD and VF-1). The November, 2009, prices (B&H) are $750, both versions. While quite expensive, this is far from exotic; a camera made like this has to cost more. It seems to be selling nicely.

To enjoy the E-P1, you have to be willing to live with its sole major limitation by design: no eye-level viewfinder. Well, not exactly: the add-on optical VF-1 finder for the 17 mm lens serves the purpose just fine, but with any other lens you have to use the LCD screen for viewing — and this is something I dislike a lot under most circumstances.

Having acquired two SLRs this year, including the compact E-620, I've decided against getting the E-P1 or Micro Four Thirds, at least not right away. Still, I know and understand people who got the camera and are thrilled (or at least very happy) with it, and you may be in that number.

The E-P2: or E-P1 done right?

In November, 2009, just six months after the E-P1 release, Olympus surprised us (well, at least most of us) with the announcement of the upcoming E-P2, which should become available before Christmas.

According to the manufacturer, this camera is not a replacement for the E-P1, but a higher-tier offering, and both will coexist on the market. For me, however, the E-P2 is E-P1 done right.

The new model adds one feature of real importance: an eye-level electronic viewfinder, mounted in the camera's hot shoe. This provides a full and accurate coverage for any lens used and does not suffer from outdoor visibility problems and increased camera shake, major disadvantages of LCD screen viewing.

The new finder (VF-2) even tilts up to 90 degrees upwards, which is a significant advantage in low-angle and table-top applications. This makes the absence of the tilting monitor less painful.

The picture shows the button used to switch between finder- and screen-based viewing; it also offers diopter adjustment (here hidden, above the eyepiece).

The finder resolution is 1.4 million dots (RGB sub-pixels), roughly equivalent to the SGA (800×600) display standard, which is actually quite good. The magnification is 1.15× (equivalent to 0.575× on a full-frame camera), which, at the moment of release is probably as good as they come — the apparent finder size is the same as in the E-3 or E-5.

To accommodate the new finder, Olympus had to add a new accessory port, a horizontal slot just below the hot shoe (hidden under a cover in this picture). The port will be also used for other accessories, like the external microphone.

Surprisingly, adding the accessory port does not affect the officially quoted camera dimensions (the height stays at 70 mm). I believe this is due to the "excluding protrusions" clause in the specs; the port seems only to raise the hot shoe a bit, while the rest of the top deck remains unaltered.

Other changes in the new model are of, at most, secondary importance: continuous AF tracking mode, tracking AF and manual exposure in movies, manual focus assist (image magnification). Oh, yes, the artist types will appreciate two more Art Styles (for clarity: I'm being sarcastic here).

Last but not least, the new body is black.

The E-P2 is expected to sell for $1100 (at the December release, at least), bundled with either of the lenses described above and with the VF-2 electronic finder. Expensive? Depends how you look at it; this clearly is a luxury product, and it is priced accordingly.

My friend, who bought the E-P1 just last September (i.e., two months before the E-P2 announcement) feels bad about Olympus not having waited with the E-P series release until now, when it is really ready for the prime time. Most probably, he is not alone in that feeling.

Well, if I were Olympus, I would offer the early adopters a $300 upgrade option to the new model. Those who can live without an eye-level EVF would probably pass on it; the others would take the offer. The advantage in terms of free advertising and building brand loyalty would be, I believe, well worth the trouble.

Other E-P1 and E-P2 reviews

Here I'm listing only the reviews which I consider really informative or educational; this obviously excludes any postings on ambulance-chasing cell-phone news sites and similar. If I find any other worthwhile sources, they will be added to the list.

  1. Olympus Pen E-P1 In-depth Review by Simon Joinson and Andy Westlake at DP Review
  2. Olympus E-P1 Review by Shawn Barnett et al. at the Imaging Resource
  3. Olympus E-P1 Review ("And now for something completely different...") by Tom Hogan
  4. Olympus PEN E-P1 Review by Gordon Laing at Camera Labs
  5. Olympus Pen E-P1 ("The real winner is the Leica M9") by Ken Rockwell
  6. Olympus E-P2 Quick Review by R. Butler at DP Review
  7. Olympus Pen E-P2 Review by Gordon Laing at Camera Labs
  8. E-P2 Pen Review by John Foster (the world's top expert on the original Pen series)

Go back to my OM-D and Micro Four Thirds section...
...or to articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

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Original of 2009/06/27; last updated 2017/04/08 Copyright © 2009-2014 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak