Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography

The Olympus E-PL1 Review

Colorful Pattern, 2011 Lake Travis Flight

Colorful Pattern, 2011 Lake Travis Flight – Austin, Texas

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

Image Quality

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.

Elvis Lives Here, Beale Street Tavern

Elvis Lives Here, Beale Street Tavern – Austin, Texas

Pedicabs on 6th Street

Pedicabs on 6th Street – Austin, Texas

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.

Yellow Flower Macro

Yellow Flower Macro – Austin, Texas

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.

Video

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.

Glowing Dart Boards, Draught House Pub

Glowing Dart Boards, Draught House Pub – Austin, Texas

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.

Young Ladies Posing, Dia de los Muertos Parade

Young Ladies Posing, Dia de los Muertos Parade – Austin, Texas

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.

User Interface

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.

Austin Convention Center, Facade with Clouds

Austin Convention Center, Facade with Clouds – Austin, Texas

Spin Control, Parking Lot Carnival

Spin Control, Parking Lot Carnival – Round Rock, Texas

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.

Miscellaneous

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.

Galloping Carousel Horses, Parking Lot Carnival

Galloping Carousel Horses, Parking Lot Carnival – Round Rock, Texas

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.

My Likes

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

My Dislikes

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

Conclusion

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.

Zocalo Cafe, Avocado stuffed with Pork Carnitas

Zocalo Cafe, Avocado stuffed with Pork Carnitas – Austin, Texas

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.

Ferris Wheel at Blue Hour, Parking Lot Carnival

Ferris Wheel at Blue Hour, Parking Lot Carnival – Round Rock, Texas

37 responses

  1. Completely agree – this is a small gem of a camera, especially when paired with the 20mm, and the VF-2. Bought it for my wife.

    She’s also using the user interface you describe (with the strip on the right and bottom), but did you try the “Super Control Interface” (or however Olympus describes this)? It has to be turned on somewhere in the menus, sorry cannot look at the moment, since I’m at work, and wife and (her) camera are at home. What you get is a screen with the most important settings, including ISO, and you can change everything from there.

    The high ISO setting is the same I would use on this camera – ISO 800 means a one stop improvement over my E-520 (which I also love).

    About sensor size: actually, APS-C isn’t that much bigger than (m) 4/3rds when you later crop images for prints in that format anyway. In that case, it’s some 10% difference. Both formats are small compared to full frame, but having a small but capable camera really is great, especially when paired with good and sharp lenses.

    I think I’ll buy the new 45mm for my wife soon. She actually prefers the 40-150mm zoom most of the time, so I’m also playing with the thought of getting a second body (and borrow her 20mm, which doesn’t exist for my camera).

    And yes – in-body IS is the greatest thing since the invention of digital. Don’t forget to turn it off when using a tripod. Oh, and when doing flash work with external (studio) strobes, you can boost up the display for manual settings like f5.6 and 1/160th, just like with my E-520.

    Great review, and great images. Thanks.

    November 8, 2011 at 1:15 am

    • Wolfgang, thank you for you visit and comment. I’ve read about the Super Control Interface but have not tried it yet. Maybe I’ll give it a try and see if I like it better than the standard interface. Thank you for the suggestion.

      November 8, 2011 at 10:11 am

  2. Ulf

    Hi, thanks for a nice, helpful review. I’ve been looking at the e-pl1 for some time now, but not decided yet what to buy. I watched some of your e-pl1 fotos taken with iso between 500-800 and to my eye there seem to be quite a lot of “noise” especially visible in darker parts of the fotos. I actually thought there would be less, after reading your positive review. What’s the “noise” compared to the nex-5 in the same, darker, situations?

    Thanks again

    Ulf

    November 16, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    • Ulf, thank you for your visit. Noise in the darker areas is a problem, in general, to some extent, for all cameras. While I generally got pretty good results with the E-PL1 up to ISO 800, I must admit in darker exposures, in the shadows, I’ve seen some noise creep in even at ISO 400, but not always. Sharping the image in post-production tends to make the noise worse. Noise is a strange thing and I’ve seen similar exposures with different noise levels — more of a variation than expected. This has been confusing at times.

      Another thing I noticed about the noise is that the process I use to update my photos in the gallery maybe exaggerating the effect a bit. When I view the images on my local computer (24″ iMac), the images look a bit better. When I upload the images to SmugMug gallery, there is some automatic sharpening that is applied on upload and I think it emphasizes the noise a bit more. I think I mentioned in my review that I sharpen my photos less for the E-PL1 but there still maybe a bit more harshness in the images.

      The Sony NEX-5 is definitely going to have lower noise than the E-PL1. And the NEX-5n is a much better camera. I would pay the extra $50 or so and get the newer NEX-5n over the NEX-5. As I mentioned in the review, I like the color and exposure better on the Olympus but if low noise is the most important factor for you, the Sony will be better.

      If you only plan to get the kit lens and no other, I would give the nod to the Sony. I believe the E-PL1 really shines with the Lumix 20mm lens and there are a lot more nicer lenses out there for the Olympus than the Sony. If you are thinking about getting multiple lenses then the Olympus become much more compelling. The other thing is, if you do get the Olympus kit refurbished, it will cost less than half the price of the Sony.

      November 16, 2011 at 11:34 pm

      • Ulf

        Thanks for taking the time to reply!
        All things considered it seems the olympus will probably be my choice, then.

        November 26, 2011 at 1:49 am

      • Ulf, hope you have fun with the camera. I still enjoy shooting with it myself.

        November 27, 2011 at 2:07 am

      • Ulf

        Thanks.
        By the way, I’ve been trying to find out if the camera has a filter threading, since I’d like to try out polaroid filters and whatnot, do you know if it has this feature on the kit lens?

        Kind regards

        November 28, 2011 at 11:10 pm

      • Ulf, there are threads on the lens for UV or polarizing filters. The old kit lens uses a strange size though, 40.5mm. The new kit lens uses smaller 37mm filters.

        November 30, 2011 at 12:13 am

      • Ulf

        Now I’ve bought the E-PL1, the beautiful red version. I’ve read other reviews complaining about a “cheapish” feel on it, but in my opinion it feels like quality. I really like it’s design/feeling and the only “cheapish” thing on it, if any, would be some of the buttons on the back side.

        When testing it for the first time I thought the auto white balance was doing a poor job when shooting indoors. The fotos came out “yellowish”. Do you have the same experience? Any solution to the poor auto WB performance or is it just me who thinks this way?

        December 8, 2011 at 11:35 pm

      • Ulf, I think the camera is solidly built but yes a few things like the button and connection door seems particularly cheap looking. That said, the practical design has really grown on me. It does not look as slick as the newer cameras but it works fine.

        Regarding white balance, yes, I do get a warm yellowish color depending on the lights used. I don’t think it is particularly bad compared to my Canon 7D or my Sony NEX-5, just different. I find each company has their own auto white balance issues or biases. The Canon is maybe a bit more orange, the Sony is a bit more blue-green and the Olympus is yellowish.

        There are several ways to work with white balance issues.

        1. Shoot in RAW and fix the color in post-production. This is what I do, and it is usually a very quick fix. I do tone down the yellow a bit by adding a bit more blue. I generally like a warmer feel to my images, by that is my personal taste. I find, for example, a bit more effort is required to get my Sony colors that way I like them. RAW is the best because making color changes does not degrade the image at all. You can change color in JPEG but if you make large color shifts, the image will start to get worse.

        2. If shooting JPEG, Manually change the white balance mode to something other than auto white balance. Indoors set an incandescent or florescent white balance mode depending on the lights you are using.

        3. If shooting JPEG or RAW, you can do a custom white balance. This is the ultimate solution and probably the most accurate. Professional photographers, especially when creating images that need to be color accurate, will do a custom white balance for whatever lighting condition that exists in the room.

        I hope this information helps.

        December 9, 2011 at 10:54 am

  3. Just ordered a black one for myself. New and with the kit lens, it was under 250€. And I hope my wife will sometimes lend me her adapter (so I can use my 4/3rds lenses on it), or the viewfinder, or even the 20mm. Maybe when she has the 45mm ;-)

    About post-processing and sharpening: I use Olympus Viewer 2 in a virtual Win7 environment to keep the great Oly colors – and you can even use the in-camera “art” modes in post if you use this. I make a TIFF file, and process that further with the free and open source RawTherapee program (for Windows and Mac as well, but I use it on Linux). This one has a RL Deconvolution sharpening tool which beats the hell out of a simple unsharp mask or a high pass sharpening. Try it.

    November 21, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    • Wolfgang, hope you have fun. Thank you for the information on the Olympus Viewer 2.

      November 27, 2011 at 2:06 am

  4. Andy, super shots love them all!!

    December 3, 2011 at 7:40 am

  5. Hello there!

    I’m a college student, so I’m running a tight budget here. I’m looking at a refurbised E-PL1 with a kit here: http://www.cameta.com/Olympus-PEN-E-PL1-Micro-4-3-Digital-Camera-14-42mm-Lens-Black-Black-Factory-Demo-61886.cfm

    The price seems unbeatable. Do you think I should buy it for the price? Or should I look at other cameras?

    December 6, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    • thisispiggyk, I purchased my EPL-1 from them and it worked great. I recently purchased a second EPL-1 from Cameta but the order is in transit, being delivered by UPS. I would feel comfortable ordering from them again. It sounds like a heck of a deal.

      So should you buy the Olympus E-PL1, it depends on what you are going to use it for. Make sure you read my review in detail. It’s not a very fast camera so it’s not the best for action. The kit lens is of good quality but you have to have good light. In doors, with this lens, you will most like have to use flash. The flash performance of this camera is not the best per say. All of my photographs were taken without flash and the darker scenes were taken with the E-PL1 but with a different lens, the Lumix 20mm.

      Let me know what you want to photograph, and I can give you more of a specific recommendation.

      December 6, 2011 at 3:52 pm

      • Hi atmtx,

        I generally like to take portrait pictures and stills. I usually don’t take fast action shots. However, the max shutter speed 1/2000 seems enough for some “freeze action” shots. I was reading it here: http://www.brighthub.com/multimedia/photography/articles/103935.aspx

        As for lenses, I’m looking at some legacy lenses, particularly the Canon FD 50mm 1.4/1.8 ones. I know I’ll have manual focus then. But then I wouldn’t have to worry about AF. Those legacy lenses are very inexpensive! Like 20-30 bucks.

        I’m most likely not going to buy any Pancake lenses, for the reason that they are expensive.

        Also, I have never owned a DSLR or interchangeable lens camera, so this will be my first. I’m a total beginner in photography and still learning all the terms and lenses. Currently, I have Canon SD1300, which is a good camera for point and shoot, but has almost no manual control.

        December 6, 2011 at 11:46 pm

      • thisispiggy, if you are interested in portrait and stills this camera should work for you. As long as you are not trying to capture hyperactive childern ;-).

        Using an old Canon FD lens should be fine. I’ve never tried it myself but I have a friend that has. That 50mm Canon is going to act as a 100mm on this camera which is a wonderful portrait focal length. There is a zoom button on the camera that blows up the image on the LCD so that you can use it to really fine tune the focus. You have to be deliberate in your shooting and that tripod may come in handy too but this is a fine and inexpensive way to get into an interchangeable lens system.

        Good luck and please let me know how it goes.

        December 7, 2011 at 1:06 am

  6. atmtx,

    Thanks. I’ve read many many reviews about the camera and the lenses. And I think that’s the best thing I can get for the price.

    However, I’ve also heard about the E-PM1, which has improvements in many areas for about $450. What do you think about that?

    Question about the focal length. How “zoomed in” really is the 50mm on E-PL1? I hope I don’t have to stand several feet away just to take a normal shot.

    Thank you!

    December 8, 2011 at 12:02 am

    • thisispiggy, there are plus and minuses to the E-PM1. It is certainly a much faster camera especially with the new kit lens. It is a smaller camera and made of metal. I think it also has a 1/4000s shutter speed which is twice the E-PL1’s The downsides compared to the E-PL1? The E-PM1 is much more of a point and shoot interface. You will need to go into the menus more often to make adjustments. For example, it does not have a physical mode dial to set P, A, S and M type settings. The thing I least liked about the E-PM1 is the LCD quality. It is smaller than the E-PL1’s LCD and the color and contrast is not nearly as good. And here is an aesthetic consideration. The E-PLM1 has a protruding mount. It fits all the standard micro 4/3 lenses of course but I think it looks a bit goofy with wider lenses like the Lumix 20mm f1.7. In your case, if you add a FD adapter and a Canon Lens, it might look a but strange. But of course it should work fine. And finally, the E-PL1 is less expensive.

      Keep in mind the 50mm is equivalent to 100mm on the Olympus micro 4/3 format. You will need to step back more than several feet. Traditional portraits look great between 75mm to about 135mm so 100mm is in the sweet spot. But these are more traditiona portraits emphasizing the person and does not include much of the background. If you want to include people and the background I like to stay more in the 35mm to 50mm range.

      December 8, 2011 at 3:09 pm

  7. atmtx,

    Thanks! I think I’ll go with E-PL1. As for lenses, I’ll just use kit lens for daily shots and 50mm legacy lenses for portraits and stills. There are not many legacy lenses in 35mm to 50mm range for m43 cameras, as I heard.

    But thank you for all your answers! They are really helpful.

    December 8, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    • thisispiggy, glad I can help. I hope you enjoy your camera.

      December 9, 2011 at 10:35 am

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  9. Thanks again, Based partially on what you had to say here, I bought the kit over at Cameta. Normally I don’t go for the add on junk, but I needed an SDHC card reader anyway, so it turned out to be a good deal.

    January 22, 2012 at 11:50 am

    • Please let me know how you like the camera. Thank you again for your visit.

      January 22, 2012 at 12:44 pm

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  11. Great review and images. Your thoughts regarding the E-PL1 echo my own. I originally wanted an E-P2 but couldn’t justify the cost, so I picked up its ugly stepsister for a similar price to what you’ve paid. Since then, I’ve grown to appreciate its utilitarian looks and shape and find the way it handles preferable to any of the other PEN series cameras.

    I realise it has been a few months since your review, but if you have yet to discover the Super Control Panel control interface on the camera, it is worthwhile to delve into the manual and learn how to set it up. It makes a world of difference in the way the camera handles changing typical shooting parameters – everything is accessible from a single screen that can be brought up with a single button press.

    February 20, 2012 at 9:13 am

    • Thank you Eric for your visit and comment. Indeed my Olympus E-PL1 has become my go to camera for all things fun and casual. You are the second person that mentioned the super control panel, but alas I have not set it up. I will look into it when I have a spare moment.

      February 20, 2012 at 11:15 am

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  15. Tedolph

    I have been using the E-pl1 with legacy rangefinder lenses, and one SLR legacy telephoto lens for some time now. As you have discovered, the image quality is quite good, and if you know how to use some old fashioned focusing techniques, capturing action is possible too. I have been so impressed with this inexpensive camera I bought the 9-18mm wide angle zoom, and the 17mm and 40-150mm (for $99.00!) for travel. I also find the built in flash good for fill flash as it is possible to control the output down to 1/64 power! This is great for triggering inexpensive optical slave flashes if you do not want to use Olypmus’ expensive RC flashes. Also, you can synchronize the flash in maual up to about 1/250 sec. so it is usable for fill flash in bright outdoor conditions.

    Really, for the price you just can’t beat this combination, especially if you use manual lenses.

    Tedolph

    July 18, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    • Tedolph, I absolutely agree with you. Thank you for your visit and commenting on my site.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:25 am

  16. I just found this post while researching an issue I’m having with my new E-PL1 and the Lumix 20mm 1.7 lens. Everyone raves about this lens and so far it is giving me great shots, but when I try to shoot in AUTO mode, I get a severe shutter lag of close to three seconds, and no resulting image. I don’t have a problem when shooting in other modes, and I can’t locate any instances of this happening to anyone else using this body/lens combo. I’ve been out of the hobby a long time so maybe I’m missing some obvious step — any thoughts?

    December 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    • Uncle Atom, I popped the Lumix 20mm 1.7 on my E-PL1 and set it to iAuto mode — seem to work at the same speed as the other modes. Can’t think of any obvious steps. What the the camera think the shutter speed should be?

      December 1, 2012 at 2:55 pm

      • In low light at F1.7 it’s 1/60.

        December 1, 2012 at 4:34 pm

      • Just a quick follow up – I still can’t get my EPL-1 to autofocus nor get the shutter to work correctly with the Lumix 20mm lens. I have learned to be careful buying just a camera body – with the time I lost thinking it was a lens problem, the camera body seller refused to let me return the EPL-1. I’ve since picked up the EPL-2 and the lumix lens is working fine with that body, so since I’m stuck with the EPL-1, I plan to use it with my old Maxxum AF lenses on manual focus. Thanks for trying to help.

        December 11, 2012 at 11:03 am

      • Thanks for the update, Uncle Atom. Bummer about the E-PL1 body. I have a suggestion for you. Get that new really inexpensive body cap lens from Olympus. It’s tiny, inexpensive and manual focus. It might be something fun to play with.

        December 11, 2012 at 11:13 pm

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