The Olympus E-PL1 Review
I purchased my Olympus E-PL1 almost on a whim this past summer. I’m usually the type of person that analyzes something to death before I buy, but I decided to pull the trigger only after thinking about it an hour or so. Now, don’t get me wrong, there were tangible reasons for me to get this camera but I already actively use 3 cameras so I really didn’t need a 4th camera, did I? For the record, I use my Canon 7D as my most “serious” camera when speed and quality really matters. I have a bunch of lenses for this baby and I shoot all my wide-angle urban landscapes, action, sports and high quality portraits with the 7D. My Sony TX-5 is my take anywhere, waterproof point and shoot. I use this mainly on beaches and pools to photograph my kids. My in-between, camera has been the Sony NEX-5. This Sony is in the new class of mirror-less interchangeable lens cameras that some people, including myself, call EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) cameras. The Olympus E-PL1 is really in the same class at the NEX-5, so why did I end up getting another similar camera? Well first, I was attracted by the price. I found a factory refurbished unit for only $320 including the kit lens. Second, during the summer, may family was away on vacation and I gave them the Sony NEX-5 to use. I was left without my EVIL camera. Third, while I like the Sony overall, as I wrote in my NEX-5 camera review, I wasn’t too pleased with skin tones. It also had a cooler greenish blue color cast that did not always work for me. I heard from several sources that the Olympus colors were great, so I was tempted. Also, did I mention the Olympus was only $320? This is a killer price. It has a lower prices than premium point and shoots like the Canon S95 or G12 but with better picture quality.
The Olympus E-PL1 is a chunky and a bit clunky looking camera. It certainly will not win any design awards. It was designed to be the lower cost alternative to the Olympus Pen E-P2 and it shows. The buttons look cheap, the display and menus looks dated. The plastic body is functional but does not exude the quality of the Sony NEX-5. Readers of this blog might recall a post from about a year ago called In Search of an EVIL Camera, where I was trying to decide which camera to buy. I ended up with the Sony and really decided against the Olympus partly because of dated and low-cost design. Well I figured at $320, as long as it took good-looking snaps of my family, it would be worth the price. I can still use the Sony as my primary tweener camera. Well a funny thing happened. As I started using the Olympus, I really started to like it. The colors are fantastic and the sharpness and details are superb. I get a level of sharpness, even with the kit lens, that I do not get with the Sony. With some cameras, like the Canon 7D, my appreciation of the device grew over time — I like it now more than when I first purchased it. The NEX-5, on the other hand, has diminished a bit with use. The Olympus is definitely growing on me. After 3700 shots since Summer my appreciation for this low-cost camera has continued to increase. In fact, I have a nick name for the E-PL1. I call it the Millennium Falcon of cameras. The Millennium Falcon, as you my know, is the clunky and ugly space ship customized by Han Solo in the original Star Wars movies. It doesn’t look like much but it performs very well. Well that is the way I now describe this Olympus. So with the introduction out-of-the-way, let’s finally talk about the camera.
Make sure to click on a photograph to see a larger image
As mentioned above. Image quality is fantastic with one major caveat which I will mentioned in just a bit. First, I really love the color and exposure on this camera. In most cases, I don’t have to adjust exposure and I shoot it with zero exposure compensation. Sometimes, I do bump up the exposure 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop in dark places when I want to get a brighter snap shot of my family. I really like the color. Skin tones look great. The auto white balance tends to be warmer and orange-ish like my Canon, and not the blue-greenish color of the Sony. Maybe after years of shooting Canon, I have a bias towards warmer colors. the Olympus colors are warm like the Canon but a bit less. If anything, I thing the auto-white balance is more accurate than on the Canon. Now, I do usually shoot the camera in RAW so I can easily change the color in post production. However, since I like the color and exposure for the most part, I usually do not have to do much changes in post.
I also find that the images are very sharp, even with the standard 14 – 42mm kit lens that came with the camera. In fact, the images were so sharp that I was first thrown off by the results. I noticed that images I posted to my photo blog, mostlyfotos looked a bit harsh from the Olympus. I first assumed that the Olympus had lower image quality or lower resolution which caused this problem. It turned out, to my surprise, the harshness came from my post processing technique, which works fine for the Sony and Canon. Basically my post process sharpening, coupled with the additional sharpening done at upload caused the images to be over sharpened, thus giving a harsh look. Interestingly, this same post processing method with the other cameras worked fine, they did look over-sharpened. When I backed off the sharpening a bit on my Olympus images, I got great looking photos without any of the harshness. I read that the E-PL1 has a weak anti-alias filter which along with the lens, may give it the extra bit of sharpness the Sony and even my Canon does not have. The kit lens also does some good-looking closeups too. Take a look at the flower below that I took with the kit lens.
So with great color, exposure and extreme sharpness, it perfect, right? Well the Achilles heal of the E-PL1 and all past and current Olympus digital cameras has been the high ISO image quality. With the smaller sensor, physics dictates the amount of light that is captured is less than the NEX-5 and 7D which both have much larger APS-C size sensors. I find that I’m perfectly happy with images up to ISO 800, both taken with JPEG or RAW. However at ISO 1600, the image rapidly deteriorates. I have used 1600 but only in real emergencies. By contrast, both my Sony and Canon easily handle ISO 1600 and they usually look fine at ISO 3200 or even a bit higher. But all is not lost. The Olympus has some tricks up its sleeve. First, the camera has in body image stabilization so any lens attached to this camera is image stabilized. With image stabilization, you can potentially shoot at a slower shutter speed and keep the ISO lower to minimize noise. Second, both Olympus and Panasonic, under the Lumix brand, have a nice collection of large aperture lenses that allow you to gather more light. Using the right large aperture lens with image stabilization is a very potent combination that may allow you to stay at or below ISO 800. These two features, allow the Olympus to compensate, to some extent , for its smaller sensor size. I have the Lumix 20mm f1.7 lens for my Olympus, which is a fantastic lens, that works really well on this camera. I will review the lens separately, in the future.
E-PL1’s video, spec wise is behind the times. However, it is possible to make good recordings. It records at 720p at 30fps. There are not many recording options however, its saving grace is full control of the Aperture, Shutter and ISO. The video is stored in the relatively old Motion JPEG format and a 1 minute movie takes up about 230MB. Unlike the Sony NEX-5, I really didn’t have any expectations about the E-PL1’s video capability. I purchased this camera for its still photography and not for moving pictures. I still, however, have taken some clips with the camera. The key to get good video with this camera is to keep it really steady and minimize camera movement. At times when I had particularly shaky hands, the recording showed jittery video and some rolling shutter effects. I’m not sure what kind of image stabilization it’s using, whether the in-body or digital, however it didn’t cope well with shaky hands I had on that day. Normally, however, the video seems decently stabilized even when I was walking through the house into different rooms. The camera does not continuously focus while taking video. I have usually half-press the shutter button to focus. Focus speed is not lightning fast and there is a small bit of hunting. The kit lens that came with the E-PL1 is not the silent focus type that is optimized for video. Subsequent newer kit lenses are designed with quiet focusing motors.
In some ways, since the video features are more basic, with some planning I might actually be able to capture better video on the E-PL1, compared to the Sony NEX. I just have to force focus via the shutter button. The hunting and focusing can be edited out in post production, if necessary. In my Sony review, I complained how the NEX would focus on the background at times and not the subject in the foreground. Since the Olympus does not continuously focus, I can easily lock focus on the subject and as long as the subject did not move too much, the video will be fine. The bottom line is that video is not necessarily the camera’s selling point but with some planning, it will be possible to get nice clips. Especially if you used lenses that allow for shallow depth of field. I believe in the micro 4/3 system, Panasonic has the advantage when it comes to video but I prefer Olympus for the still photography.
Design and Build Quality
The Olympus appears to be built mostly of plastic, however the quality of the major body components are well made. The camera has enough weight and feels solid enough not to appear flimsy. However, it is the buttons and dials on the camera that look and feel cheap. The rubbery usb and hdmi access door particularly looks out-of-place. The silver color of the door and the body do not match and looks second-rate, at least to me. Design wise, I would characterize the camera is being functional. There is not much aesthetic design sense. The front of the camera, which I generally like, looks like it was designed by a different group than the back of the camera. The bottom of the camera with its stickers, screws, access door and tripod mount looks like some Soviet era industrial tool. Robust but lacks any kind of subtly. Finally, I really dislike the brushed metal looking mode dial at the top of the camera. At the beginning of this post, I called this the Millennium Falcon of cameras. And true to the statement, despite its clunky looking exterior, in actual usage, the camera works decently enough. The picture quality, as mentioned above is fantastic. So, as the old adage goes, I guess you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. In all fairness to Olympus, the other Digital Pen cameras, which include the E-P1, E-P2, the newer E-PL2 and the newest E-P3, E-PL3 and the tiny E-PM1 all look nice. The E-PL1 that I’m reviewing is the ugly duckling of the group.
The functional and non-subtle design has grown on me, however Its plain looks does not stand out and call attention to itself. Its relatively small size blends in and does not intimidate the people being photographed. The Sony NEX looks slick and futuristic. Some people notice and comment about it odd shape and looks. The Olympus flies underneath the radar, very few people are attracted by the camera. While the LCD is low resolution by today’s standards at 230k pixels, it is deeply set into the body. The substantial plastic frame tends to protect it from scratches. While I complained that the sleek-looking Sony’s anti-glare screen was being rubbed off, I doubt the well protected Olympus screen will suffer the same fate. The LCD is bright and the color seems vibrant and generally accurate.
The kit lens has a unique folding design which makes the camera more compact during transport. It’s made of plastic, including the lens mount. The build quality seems on par with typical kit lenses but optically it works great.
Speed and Responsiveness
The E-PL1 is not a fast camera. For non-action photography, it is generally adequate but I found I was on the edge of frustration with the original kit lens. Focusing speed will depend on the lens used. The Panasonic Lumix 20mm seems a bit faster than the kit lens. For stationary scenes such as landscapes both lenses will work fine. Portrait photography will be fine as long as you are not trying to shoot hyper-active children. What really surprised me is when I attached the newest generation kit lens, that ships with the E-P3 and E-PL3 on to my old E-PL1. What seemed like a leisurely and slow camera was transformed into a snappy machine. I’m sure the E-PL1 still focuses slower than the E-P3 even with the new kit lens, and I didn’t do any timed tests, but the E-PL1 was so much faster — it really shocked me. On the other hand, when I put the old kit lens on the newest Olympus digital Pens, the new cameras became pokey like my E-PL1. Therefore, much of the focusing speed seems to be dictated by the attached lens, rather than the camera body. This is potentially good news for the E-PL1 but disappointing news for the new Olympus cameras. My favorite lens, that 20mm Lumix lens was, unfortunately, not very fast on the newest Olympus cameras.
The menu system and image playback was responsive enough. This Olympus lacks a dial interface and works completely off button pushes. It’s not possible to zip through menu options but the button pushes are met with quick responses. The buffering after taking many shots is slow. The user interface is not accessible for several seconds after taking a burst of 3 photos . Shooting one shot at a time seems decent enough but this is not a camera designed to take long bursts of images. The camera maybe capable of capturing a couple of frames per second, just don’t expect to see and do anything with the pictures for several long seconds after shooting off the images. That said, there is a consistency with the speed of the camera. If you shoot at a steady pace, the camera does well and allows me to capture most of the images I desire.
The E-PL1 has a logically thought out, point and shoot user interface. Most important controls are accessible via button pushes but there are few dedicated buttons. There is limited capability to remap buttons and in particular, I miss quick access to the ISO button. Beyond that, the interface does not surprise or frustrate. Menus and options are laid out in a logical way. Hitting the START/OK button brings up a strip of options on the right side of the screen that allows for consistent access to all the options you may want to change. This interface reminds of the Canon Powershot interface, except the Canon’s options are displayed on the left side of the screen. You don’t get super quick access to these options but they are consistently laid out that I find that I don’t get lost in the menu system. While having less direct access and less button programmability, in some ways I prefer the Olympus interface to that of the Sony NEX-5. The Olympus does have an amazing amount of parameter customization deep inside the advanced menu options. The advanced menus are turned off by default but when activated, it gives the user a level of customizability that sometimes exceeds what I can do on my Canon 7D. One advanced modification I made was changing the maximum ISO of the Auto ISO feature. Normally the maximum ISO defaults to 1600. I’ve changed mine to ISO 800 since I really don’t want to shoot at ISO 1600 unless it is an emergency. In rare cases, I may manually select ISO 1600 from the menu but generally I keep the camera set on Auto ISO and fire away. In this way, even if I don’t have direct access to an ISO button, Auto ISO works the way I want it for 95% of the time.
While decently laid out, the text and graphics on-screen look very dated. The low-res 230K screen renders the fonts in a slightly blocky way. In many ways, the on-screen user interface matches the functional design of the physical camera. The user interface is utilitarian, functional and will not win any awards for sleek design. However, once you get past the 1990’s PC style menus, the camera is very usable and the user interface mostly melts away. I’ve moved past the need for a slick interface and the camera delivers with great looking images. Unlike the Sony NEX-5, which had a sleek but annoying interface, the Olympus interface under promises but delivers nicely. There are no glaring interface issues that I can remember.
The key feature in all the Olympus digital Pen cameras is the in-body image stabilization. I can not overstate how important this is to me. The in-body image stabilization is one of the major reasons why I pick Olympus over Panasonic for still image micro 4/3 cameras. If I get into video, I might be more interested in the Panasonic, however for still photographs, I like the Olympus better. If you look though the entire camera industry, it is quite rare to have large aperture lenses with image stabilization. With the Olympus, I can use my 20mm f1.7 and other large aperture lenses with the stabilization that allows me to shoot in dark places. Since high ISO performance is not the camera’s strong point, using lens that captures a lot of light and having the stabilization feature allows me to shoot in darker places better that I can with my Canon 7D an Sony NEX-5. This was really surprising to me since both the Canon and Sony have higher ISO capabilities. However, when I use my Canon lenses with large apertures, I inevitably have to shoot at 1/50 to 1/100 of a second to get sharp images. With the Olympus I can shoot these scenes at 1/30 and even down to 1/10 of a second. The Sony currently suffers from a lack of large aperture lenses so I need to crank up the ISO to get some decent low light images.
Battery life is rated for about 290 shots. This seems in line with what I’m getting. One strangeness I see on battery life is that I go from, what appears to be a 2/3 charge to a low battery warning rather quickly. I purchased this camera as a factory refurb and I’m wondering if I got an older battery or maybe one that is not working perfectly. I’ll eventually get another battery but the single battery is working fine so far. I shoot very little video with the camera which probably helps to preserve battery life.
The E-PL1 supports multiple on screen crop factors. It natively shoots in 4×3 mode. There are also settings to shoot in 16×9, 3×2 and 6×6 (square). When selected, the rear LCD actually shows your composition in the selected crop factor. For people who like to shoot in a square crop,they will just love this feature. I thought I would use different crop factors more often when I first bought the camera but I end up keeping things in 4×3 mode. For me, I’ve really grown to like 4×3 and now prefer it over 2×3 and square.
Unlike some Olympus Pen modes, the E-P1 does have a built-in flash. You can also push down on the pop-up flash slightly to angle the light off the ceiling to get a bounced flash look. I have not used the flash much. I’ve used it as a fill flash during daylight which seemed to work fine. Some shots at night with the flash seemed to produce an over exposed look. It did not seem to balance flash with the ambient light as well as my Canon or Sony. Since I have not used the flash extensively, I should test this some more. There maybe a setting or technique that I can use to make the low light fill-in flash work better.
There is a very good but expensive digital viewfinder option, the VF-2, that works on the camera. Some people swear by view finders and I admit that during the day, in the bright sun, they are nice to have. The rear LCD can be a challenge to see in certain lighting conditions. Since, I shoot more indoors or in the evening, I have not been compelled to get the VF-2. One potential issue with the viewfinder is that it can not be locked down and tightened on the camera. I’ve heard reports from a couple of fiends that the viewfinder has almost fallen off during usage. The viewfinder is not loose on the camera but an unlucky bump from a person in a crowd area may be enough to unseat it. Olympus has a new viewfinder, the VF-3, which is slightly less expensive and has a locking mechanism. Unfortunately, this viewfinder does not appear to work on the E-PL1’s accessory port.
When buying an interchangeable lens camera, it is important to look at the entire system. What lenses are available can be a critical factor. The micro 4/3 standard really shines in this area. Both Olympus and Panasonic make a nice selection of lenses as does a few other smaller companies. In the mirror-less, EVIL camera world, the micro 4/3 has more lenses that anyone else. This is one of its great strengths over Sony, Samsung and the new Nikon 1 system. For me, I’m interested in the large aperture prime (non-zoom) lenses. I already have the 20mm f1.7 and I am thinking of adding the Olympus 45mm f1.8 to the collection.
One downside with this camera is relatively slow maximum shutter speed of 1/2000 per second. While this camera is not geared toward sports and fast action, a 1/2000 shutter speed might not be enough to truly freeze the action for really fast movements. The bigger headache for me is when I want to use my 20mm f1.7 wide open (maximum aperture) during the day. I easily bump up against the 1/2000 shutter limit. To solve this issue, I am planning to purchase a neutral density filter that artificially darkens the scene even during mid-day so that I can use a larger aperture. This allows me to get a shallower depth of field effect that tends to be more pleasing for portraits.
1. Takes excellent quality photographs up to ISO 800
2. Nice skin tones and warm color
3. Accurate exposure
4. Compact form factor
5. A fantastic selection of lenses
6. Conventional design does not attract attention
7. Utilitarian design is very usable in real life
8. Bright and colorful LCD
9. Standard hot shoe
10. Extensive ability to tweak parameter settings
11. Menu system is consistent and understandable
12. Great price performance
1. High ISO quality, 1600 and above is not very good
2. Slow focusing, depends on lens used.
3. Dated looks is not very stylish
4. Not many direct button controls
5. Not much ability to program physical buttons
6. Movie mode is behind the current generation of cameras
7. 1/2000 maximum shutter speed
8. Flash overexposes particularly in dark places
I didn’t have great expectations when I purchased the camera. I got a great price and I was going to use it primarily as a family snapshot camera. As I put the E-PL1 though its paces, I realized that the camera is capable of so much more. The image quality, the exposure and color is fantastic. There is a depth and liveliness to the images that I didn’t generally find in the Sony NEX-5, for example. The sharpness of the kit lens was a pleasant surprise. In decent light, all you need is the E-PL1 and the kit lens. I knew going in that the high ISO capability of this camera was not as impressive as my Sony or Canon cameras. Since I shoot quite a bit indoors and in the evening, I realized that I need a lens with a bigger aperture that has more light gathering ability. I decided to invest in the Lumix 20mm f1.7 lens since the E-PL1’s image quality was impressive enough to warrant buying another lens. The 20mm lens runs about $350 right now, more than the entire cost of my camera kit, so I’m definitely making strong commitment to the camera.
The Olympus E-PL1 with the Lumix 20mm turns this mild-mannered camera into something really special. First, this 20mm has been universally praised and unlike many lenses with large apertures, it is sharp at its maximum aperture. This lens along with the in-body image stabilization allows me take low light images at ISO 800. I was quite surprised that I was able to take low light images in conditions where I was less successful with my other cameras with better high ISO capabilities. In short, my appreciation for this camera has only increased the more I use it. I have a daily photo blog called mostlyfotos. You may have noticed that the number of Olympus E-PL1 images that I post have greatly increased recently. This camera is currently my go to camera for everyday shooting. I still use my Canon 7D for wide-angle landscapes, fast action and portraits. I have to admit that my Sony NEX-5 usage has dropped off considerably. I still keep the Sony around so that others in my family can use it as a high end point and shoot and I do still take some videos with it. However the Olympus has now replaced my Sony as my everyday camera.
Over the last several months, this unassuming, utilitarian design has continued to grown on me. It seems rugged enough to carry around on a daily basis and it looks plain enough that it flies underneath the radar. Its unassuming looks belie it picture-taking ability, particularly with the 20mm lens. I do admit though that using a prime, non-zoom lens, is not the way most people would like to shoot. It is a bit of a throw back to before the age of zoom lenses. Nowadays, it’s the type of shooting that enthusiast photographers do particularly for everyday life and street photography. It is my low-cost, easy to use Leica substitute. Nope, I don’t shoot with a Leica but I have an appreciation for what it can do. It’s just that I’m not willing to spend the $5000 to $10,000 for a film or digital Leica. Sure at about $600 my faux Leica does not match the quality of the original. But for a little more than 1/20th the cost, I get a fantastic camera that autofocuses and has a suite of lenses the Leica does not have. As my interest in this camera grows, I’m considering another lens investment. Olympus recently introduced a 45mm f1.8 lens. A perfect lens for portraits and low light shooting. At a 90mm equivalent vs the 40mm, it will allow for a different look with a shallower depth of field.
Please stay tuned. I’m going to write more about this camera and some of my favorite micro 4/3 lenses. Please click here if you would like to see some more images that I took with the Olympus E-PL1. I purchased my E-PL1 at Cameta Camera for $320 but since then the same kit has dropped to $300. While I’ve only purchased one item from them, the Olympus, the buying experience has been good.
Update: I have now bought 2 E-PL1s from Cameta Camera and the price of the cameras continue to drop, making them even better a value.