Hot on the heels of the Sony NEX-3 review, we’ll next take a look at another micro DSLR camera, the Olympus E-PL1. This is a smaller, cheaper PEN-series camera, that offers a lot of the features found on the E-P1 (which I had a chance to review last year) and E-P2 at a much lower price. But just how capable is the E-PL1?
#The short version
## The good
– Really fun to use
– Just about small enough to take with you most of the time
– Wide selection of micro 4/3 lenses
– Compatible with huge numbers of cheap(-ish) legacy lenses
– Images don’t require any post-processing or messing about with RAW if that’s not your thing
– Built-in flash – can even be bounced
– Very affordable
## The bad
– Build quality not quite as good as competitors
– Autofocus a little bit slower than the Panasonic GF1 and Sony NEX-3
– Low resolution screen
– You’ll want a good pancake lens to really benefit from the compact size – which will add considerably to the price
#Body & Build
On first impression it seems obvious how Olympus managed to trim almost $400 off the price of the E-P1 or E-P2: The E-PL1 feels a lot cheaper than its metal-clad PEN siblings. That first impression isn’t helped by the mushy buttons and low screen resolution, which both make it feel quite cheap, especially when compared to the luxurious fit and finish of Sony’s NEX-3.
But first impressions can be misleading: whilst the quality of the materials isn’t quite as high as on some other cameras, the E-PL1 still feels very solid and sturdy – despite the plastic. There’s no squeakiness and despite a few knocks, the body still looks as great as it does when I first got it. Olympus also seem to have invested a bit more in the controls that really count – the shutter release button and mode dial.
The camera isn’t as amazingly thin as the Nex-3, but this is still a very small micro DSLR. By losing a bit of the bulk of the E-P1, the camera feels considerably more portable and if you use it with a pancake lens, it will easily fit into a (large) jacket pocket. The hand grip on the right side of the body makes the camera confortable to hold and since it is so light, one-handed shots are easily pulled off as well.
The design of the body isn’t spectacular, but it does remind me of the type of cameras I used to see growing up. Combine the looks with the unintentionally dated looking interface that Olympus includes, it’s quite a charming camera.
Looking past the mushiness of the buttons on the E-PL1, getting to grips with the actual controls can be a little bit challenging as well. Whilst the E-P1 and E-P2 both have dual jog-wheel controllers that allow you to quickly adjust values and navigate menus, the E-PL1 is saddled with a four-way directional control schema. Adjusting things like exposure, shutter time etc. takes a bit longer because of this and it decreases the amount of experimentation you’ll likely do as a result.
If you plan on using iAuto mode, Olympus has included a feature that they call “Live Guide”, which makes it much easier to adjust things such as colour saturation, motion blur or background focus. This allows anyone to create interesting photographic effects, without actually having to know all that much about photography priciples such as shutter speed or aperture. These controls are just one or two button pushes away, but would be even more convenient with a jog dial.
Setting other values in manual modes requires a push up on the directional controller and then up-down or left-right presses to adjust aperture and shutter speed. Not too bad, but again not quite as convenient as the jog wheels found on other micro DSLRs.
One fantastic feature is the ability to customise the fn and video recording buttons on the E-PL1. You’ll need to dive into the advanced menus to do so, but the firmware will allow you to assign one of 6 commonly used features to either of those two buttons. This lets you access the features you use most often with just the push of a button.
The placement of the one-touch video recording button has been criticised by some, as the button is prone to accidental presses. I only really had this issue once or twice whilst wearing gloves, but you can disable the button entirely using the customisation feature, making it a non issue.
The whole menu looks very 1980s with its blue and yellow colour scheme and low-resolution icon, but you can’t beat it for customisability and the features you’ll need the most often are just a few button presses away, so it’s definitely a case of function over form.
Despite some of compromises the E-PL1 makes, it is hard to describe how much fun this camera is to use when you actually get out with it. It is compact enough to take it with you, even if you’re not sure you’ll need a camera. It’s nice and responsive eough to fire off quick snapshots, but also allows you to get a bit more creative if you’re feeling artsy. I also found it interesting that people who usually feel initimidated by a DSLR felt right at home picking up the E-PL1 and taking pictures.
The shoulder strap works really well with the E-PL1 and you hardly notice the weight of the camera at all when walking around with it. I’ve taken it to the Tollwood arts festival here in Munich and even on a bike trip and around town without any problems. Several times I’ve had to check to see if I still have it.
Some criticism has been aimed at the autofocus feature on the PEN series cameras and that is definitely not their strong suit. Unlike full-sized DSLR cameras that use a phase-detection autofocus system, Micro Four-Thirds cameras use a contrast-based autofocus like the kind that is usually found on point and shoot cameras. The phase-detection system is what allows cameras like the Canon EOS / Digital Rebel series to focus almost instantaneously, whereas the PEN has to hunt & peck to find the focus sweet spot. This means you sometimes lose a few precious seconds while the E-PL1 attempts to focus on certain objects, especially in low-light situations. It certainly doesn’t happen often enough to be a showstopper, but it’s worth keeping in mind if you plan on taking a lot of low light or fast moving shots.
The E-PL1 offers 8 Art filters that are applied instantly to your shots or video. Of course, you could achieve similar effects with other cameras using post-processing software, but it’s quite inspiring to see an effect applied to your shot before you have even taken it, and might give you inspiration for a shot you wouldn’t have taken otherwise.
The filters greatly slow down the refresh rate on the screen though and whilst they can be applied in video mode as well, the reduced frame rate makes most of the filters unsuitable for video.
One exception is the diorama mode, which will give your videos a timelapse-like effect, so if you plan on filming from a fixed perspective, that mode is worth playing with.
The lack of a built-in flash on the E-P1, E-P2 and Sony Nex cameras really limits their use as an allround camera and whilst you can use external flash modules with their hot shoes, I imagine this is fairly offputting for many casual users.
The flash on the E-PL1 is great: you can choose from a number of flash timings and the E-PL1 will also use the flash for focus assistance in certain lighting conditions.
One particularly nice touch is the ability to use the flash in a “bounce” position: Because the flash is raised on a little arm mechanism, you can pull it back to point the flash up towards the ceiling. By doing so, the flash will bounce off the ceiling, illuminating your subject but without the shadows and red eyes typically seen in flash shots.
You can’t lock the flash into the bounce position (it’s not even clear if this was an intentional design decision or a lucky accident), but it’s easy to hold it back with your left index finger whilst shooting.
Micro Four Thirds cameras can be used with old analog lenses, such as the Konika Hexanon or Olympus OM series of lenses, provided you have the correct adapter. Whilst you will lose convenient features like autofocus capability and aperture adjustment, both of these can be manually adjusted using controls on the lens. But why would you want to bother using an old manual lens? Well, there are quite a few of these lenses being sold on eBay and a you can buy some pretty impressive lenses for well under $50. An adapter will set you back about $20-50, depending on the kind you need. And whilst the modern micro 4/3 lenses are great to use, nothing can quite beat manually adjusting aperture and focus on a well made lens from the 70s or 80s.
You’ll want to switch to aperture priority mode, as this is usually set on the lens itself, leaving shutter speed (and the correct exposure) up to the camera. Legacy lenses force you to learn a little bit of camera theory and will help you to better understand some of the concepts behind the PASM modes, which is good if you’re just getting started like I am.
## Video mode
The E-PL1 will record 720p video at 30fps, which doesn’t sound so impressive now that your average smartphone probably has similar video specs.
But the E-PL1 gives you full control over your video shots, allowing you to choose between continuous or manual focus, aperture values etc. This gives users the ability to achieve some really creative video shots, more reminiscent of a motion picture than a wobbly home movie. Of course – most of us will end up with wobbly (albeit high-resolution) video that looks like it was shot while jumping up and down, but at least the camera is capable of more.
Here’s a quick, unedited clip I shot using the Hexanon 52mm lens with manual focus (so it keeps getting blurry is because I’m messing with the focus wheel, not because the camera is hunting for focus). It gives you a pretty good idea of the low-light capabilities of the camera in movie mode, as well as the audio quality – bear in mind though that it was quite windy on that particular night):
The E-PL1 is a great intermediate camera: it offers manual controls, interchangable lenses and decent image quality in a considerably smaller package than your typical DSLR. Your choice of lenses is much better than on the Sony NEX series and the price tag is quite a bit lower than the Panasonic GF1 or Olympus E-P2.
While it doesn’t offer quite the same level of image quality as a full-sized DSLR, comparisons have shown that the sensor is nearly as good as APS-C sized sensors at low ISO levels. In fact, DPReview claims:
[…] the 4/3 sensor is competitive (but overall not necessarily better than) APS-C sensors with its 12MP PEN E-PL1 model being independently tested to out-resolve 15MP APS-C based competitor cameras and even matching an 18MP APS-C SLR camera model in actual resolution and high ISO detail rendering.
The built-in flash also means that the E-PL1 is flexible enough to be used for casual photography as well, something the E-P1, E-P2 and Sony NEX all lack (the optional flash modules are too cumbersome to be really useful in my opinion).
I believe this is currently one of the best cameras around for a photography enthusiast looking to make the jump up to a “proper” camera, with the Gf1 being the only other (considerably more expensive) option I would seriously consider.
In fact, the E-PL1 was good enough that a few days after returning my review unit to Olympus, I had to order one for myself.