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Olympus PEN E-PL1 Review
Wednesday, March 2, 2011  
Olympus was one of the pioneers of the interchangeable lens micro four-thirds format. Since its introduction, this new format has gained a reputation as an alternative to the smaller pocket cameras and the larger DSLRs. The promise of this format is a larger DSLR-like sensor in a compact, easier to manage package. This alone makes it an attractive option for cruise enthusiasts looking for more power in a manageable size. Most of the cameras in this category tend to lean more toward the DSLR side in terms of functionality and design. The E-PL1 aims to bring this format to a more approachable, "consumer-friendly" level.

The Olympus E-PL1 appears to be appealing to a novice photographer wishing to take a step up in capabilities rather than a sophisticated DSLR owner looking for a compact alternative. The E-PL1's sparse body and stripped-down interface features a single function-dial combined with an on-screen 'Live Guide' interface (via Menu button) that allows tweaking of various settings.

This simpler interface is well suited to novice photographers stepping up from fully automatic 'point-and-shoot' cameras who want the ability to get great photos immediately and learn about ISO, shutter speeds and white balance down the road. On the other hand, a more sophisticated photographer used to DSLR manual controls is likely to find himself frustrated with the myriad of menus and button-clicking required to adjust these parameters.

Even though the E-PL1 takes design cues from its big brothers, the E-P1 and E-P2, it offers something that neither of these more expensive models do: a built-in, pop-up flash unit.

E-PL1 features:

  • 12 megapixel Four Thirds-sized sensor
  • In-body image stabilization
  • Simplified 'Live Guide' interface
  • 2.7" LCD screen (230,000 dots)
  • Built-in flash
  • Direct record movie button
  • 720p HD video (MJPEG compression)
  • ISO 100-3200
  • 6 'Art Filter' creative effects
  • Accessory port for add-ons such as electronic viewfinder

The Olympus E-PL1 is compatible with two accessories available for the E-P2: the VF-2 electronic viewfinder and the microphone adapter, which allows use of an external stereo microphone when recording audio. With the external microphone installed in the hot shoe, the internal mic is superseded. We tested the external mic and found it to be a valuable accessory. The unit comes with an extension cable and tie clip allowing the mic to be used as a lavaliere mic. Very well designed.

The Olympus E-PL1 uses an SD/SDHC card and ships with a 1,150mAh lithium-ion battery. In our testing, we used a 16 GB Class 6 card. We never experienced a problem with battery life, even though the LCD screen remains on due to the lack of a viewfinder. The camera comes with a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. The lens collapses flat for storage and transportation and extends for usage by pressing a LOCK slide button on the side of the lens barrel.

The E-PL1 has a very good, solid, quality feel in hand. The front is aluminum while the rest is polycarbonate. I suppose the best way to describe holding the E-PL1 is "comfortable". The camera is heftier than a pocket camera, but much lighter than a DSLR.

On the left side of the camera is a clever new pop-up flash, activated by a sliding switch on the back. In the center is a hot shoe/accessory port combo. On the top right is the mode dial.

The shutter release button is well placed, but has an unusual feel. I found myself often wondering if I had engaged the focus point and accidentally pressing too hard causing a photo to be snapped inadvertently. It takes a little getting used to. To the right of the shutter release is a small, and I mean small, power button. A tiny blue LED in the center of the power button indicates when the power is turned on.

The 2.7" LCD panel on the back of the camera is bright and clear with 230,000 pixel resolution. The Movie Record button is marked with a red dot.

To the right of the LCD screen are the control buttons and four-way navigation (<,>,/\, and \/). Then we have Playback, Menu, and Info buttons, followed by the trashcan button. There are no dials for aperture or shutter speed when in Aperture or Shutter priority modes, or Manual. That will be welcomed by novices, but scorned by semi-pros.

Aperture and shutter speed are adjusted via onscreen menus, activated by pressing the the up arrow. Of course, most novices will leave the camera in the Program or iAuto mode, making these adjustments unnecessary.

The L-ION battery compartment and SD/SDHC card slot are on the bottom of the camera accessed by a single hinged door. So, if you are using the camera on a tripod, you will have to remove it to swap batteries or memory cards.

On the right side of the camera is a small door that reveals the USB/AV port and the HDMI out port.

One of the nicest features of this model compared to the other PEN cameras is the built-in, pop-up flash. However, I had difficulty getting the correct amount of flash. In iAuto many photos came out over-exposed (too much flash). There is an optional external flash unit available that should offer much better lighting than the built-in unit.

PHOTOS

Taking pictures is easy. Turn the camera on, set it to iAuto, aim and shoot. Novices will appreciate the fully automatic functions. If you need more control over aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, you can certainly do this by setting the dial to one of the manual modes. There are also 20 scene modes that you can use for special shots such as portraits, night shots, macro, etc.

The auto-focus works pretty well, albeit a little slow with the 14-42mm kit lens we tested. Manual focus can be achieved by setting the camera to "Manual" in the on-screen menus. A focus ring on the lens allows for focusing.

VIDEO

The E-PL1 shoots HD video in 720p format. Shooting video is straightforward. Focus on the subject and press the red Movie Record button. Recording will continue until the Movie Record button is pressed a second time. An on-screen timer shows the length of the current clip being recorded. However, shooting video with the E-PL1 is not as novice-friendly as a dedicated, fully-automatic video camcorder, or even video capabilities found in many 'point-and-shoot' cameras. I think it is fair to say that this is a camera first, and a video camera second.

When shooting video scenes for our website, I encountered a few problems with the auto-focus. More than once, it took a few seconds for the lens to acquire focus. Attempting to use auto-focus on a moving subject will result in a lot of "in and out" movement of the lens as it attempts to maintain focus. Also, the Image Stabilization built into the camera is not really sufficient for hand-held video. That said, I was able to get very good video when using a tripod.


What I Like

  • Small, compact design
  • Very compact lens designs
  • Compatibility with a wide range of existing lens designs using adapters, albeit with limitations
  • Built-in pop-up flash
  • Lightweight
  • External stereo mic (optional)
  • Face detection with ability to detect up to 8 faces
  • Bright and clear LCD performance even in bright sunlight
  • Up to 14x zoom centered on selected AF point for manual focus -- even with off-center subjects
  • Variable AF point size
  • Dedicated Movie button
  • Twenty scene modes
  • RAW photo format
  • Live Guide makes things even simpler in iAuto mode

What I Don't Like
  • Internal flash is fairly weak
  • Clumsy menus
  • No control over audio levels / amplification
  • Kit lens very slow to focus
  • Image stabilization not adequate for hand-held video

SUMMARY

The Olympus PEN E-PL1 is an excellent choice for any novice photographer wanting a step up from a pocket digital camera. It is not going to be as attractive to a DSLR user wanting the same functionality in a smaller footprint. The other PEN micro four-thirds from Olympus may be better suited to more advanced photographers looking for this type of solution. Even though the E-PL1 is bigger than a pocket camera, it is still light enough and small enough to be comfortable around the neck and should suit the needs of travel photography very well. The biggest advantage the E-PL1 has is the availability of lenses offering a variety of photographic choices, something you can't get with a pocket digital. If you are looking for a flexible photographic platform without the heft and expense of a full-blown DSLR, a micro four-thirds camera should be on your list of considerations. With an excellent reputation for quality and dependability, an Olympus PEN should be at the top of that list.

SAMPLE PHOTOS
Click on the thumbnails below to see a larger version of the photo.



SAMPLE VIDEO

Click the video below to see some test video shot with the E-PL1.





Reviewed by Chris Dikmen
Managing Editor of CruiseReport.com
     
     
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