I’ve been a fan of the Micro Four-Thirds format since I first played with the Olympus E-P1 shortly after it was released. Last year I picked up the Olympus E-PL1 and absolutely love it. It’s certainly not without flaws, but it’s a cheap and fun way to get started with “proper” photography and to learn about aperture, shutter speeds and other mysteries.
I had been on the lookout for the Panasonic 20mm prime lens, as it’s considered to be one of the best Micro Four-Third lenses out there. When I spotted a package deal that offered the 20mm lens with the GF-1, I couldn’t resist. Although both the GF-1 and E-PL1 have both been succeeded by newer models, I thought I’d share my impressions after using the GF-1 for about two weeks.
The GF-1 had a substantially higher retail price than the E-PL1, so its superior build quality is to be expected. While the E-PL1 can certainly survive a bump or two, it does feel quite plasticky and cheap when compared with the GF-1, which has a metal body and rock-solid switches.
The screen resolution on the GF-1 is higher than that of the E-PL1, which loooks very grainy in low light. And speaking of low light, none of the Olympus M4/3 cameras have a focus-assist lamp (that annoying orange lamp you’ll find on every cheap point and shoot camera). This means that they are terrible at focusing in low light situations whereas the GF-1, which does have a focus-assist lamp, has no problems at all. I have no idea why Olympus refuses to add an AF assist feature to their M4/3 cameras, but after a few weeks with the GF-1, I really do miss it on the E-PL1.
The other features are nice to have, but wouldn’t necessarily convince me to get one over the other – although the remote shutter feature will come in handy this summer, where I plan on rigging up an iPad photo-booth contraption (like this one) at our wedding.
Part of the attraction of the M4/3 cameras are the large number of cheap “legacy” lenses you can use on them with appropriate adapters. Old Nikon, Konica and numerous other old 35mm lenses can be bought cheaply on eBay and used with a M4/3 camera. The sensor size is well suited for them and the old lenses offer great optical quality at bargain prices (provided you’re willing to focus manually).
Panasonic’s M4/3 cameras forego a built-in image stabilisation feature, as Panasonic prefers to use in-lens stabilisation instead. The E-PL1 however has a sensor stabilisation feature, that will work with any lens – even old legacy lenses. This is quite useful to have, particularly when using longer focal lengths or when shooting at low light.
The E-PL1 also has a slightly better grip to it and its built-in flash can be pointed to the ceiling or just above your subject, allowing you to avoid overly bright direct flash in your images.
It is also often said that Olympus cameras produce nicer JPEGs that require less post-processing – something which I am also keen to avoid for casual shots, if it can be helped. So far, I would tend to agree that the colours and white balance in my E-PL1 shots are usually better than the GF-1, where I’m still experimenting with different settings and options.
Both cameras have their merit and I haven’t yet been able to make up my mind which one I want to keep.
The GF-1 is certainly more versatile, particularly in low-light settings, but to really get the most out of the body you may want to to invest in Panasonic’s more expensive M4/3 lenses with in-lens stabilization. The camera also feels much more solid and nicer to use as a whole.
The E-PL1 has a certain cheap and cheerful charm to it: the design and construction are certainly never going to win any prizes and its quirky menu and buttons don’t exactly inspire confidence. But after using it for half a year, I can attest to its ruggedness and it’s a really solid camera that delivers great shots every time you take it out – provided you don’t need fast focusing in low-light situations. It’s also hard to beat on a budget.