The Olympus E-P1 Pen Camera
Are we there yet? To remove the bulk of a DSLR but avoid the limited image quality of a compact camera Olympus aimed, with a E-P1, for a enthusiast camera the size of a portable classic range finder camera with the advantage of a large sensor:
- Handling with more manual controls then compact cameras
- Improved ISO performance (lower pixel density)
- Better Depth of field, being able to thought out background accentuate the subject (large sensor)
- Better dynamic range
A smart move! But when released the design was crippled with a number of shortcomings. Most noticeable was the not at all working auto-focus and even with firmware version 1.1 it was hardly working. The goal seemed far far away and I was trying to replace my E-P1 with a nikon D90. But then with the firmware update 1.4 Olympus put itself back in the game. Olympus manged the miracle to implement the fastest state of the are contrast based focus and put it to the top of it's class. Now I sold my Nikon D90 in favor of the much lighter and better E-P1. But: Are we there yet? We are close but there is still some criticism that need to be addressed in firmware updated to truly get the top camera that opens the marked for Olympus. Some things the competition does just better.
With the firmware update 1.4 Olympus manged the miracle to implement the fastest state of the are contrast based focus. Even with the firmware upgrade 1.1 you could not catch anything faster then a snail crossing the street. Bbut now focus speed is very close, if not equal, to my Nikon D90. I could catch cars going at 27 m/s, that is 100 km/h, as well as bicycles and motor bikes and sport shoots.
I like to take the final image as JPEG rather then raw formated images and finalize it later. The E-P1 certainly does, unlike the Panasonic - G-1, a good job catching JPEGs. First I had some complains about some minor grain and artifacts left with the large-fine settings compared to my D90. But then I discovered that there is a Superfine setting which produces cutting edge quality JPEGs.
One of the reasons you want a camera with a large sensor is better Iso-performance due to the lower pixel density of only 5 MPix/cm2. Is does a good job so far with little chroma noise and you have good control over noise reduction. I have not finished testing ISO performance jet. So far HI ISO is slightly less good then on my Nikon D90.
The other advantage you get with a large sensor is a shallow death of field (DOF) and being able to thought out background in order to accentuate the subject of your image. For an enthusiast quality is everything. That is why enthusiast spends so much more money compared to a compact camera. I would have certainly expect an bright lens with an minimum aperture of 2.8 for the 14-42mm lens even if it adds to size.
Now I have a lousy 3.5 to 5.6 aperture loosing 2 stops compared to my Panasonic LX-3 with 2-2.8 aperture. While High-Iso performance gets you short shutter speeds and thus sharp images in low light High-ISO is not a replacement for fast lenses as it always adds you some grain and noise. While the camera is perfect in bright conditions the zoom kit gets a real handicap in less bright environment. If you are not working in bright conditions you are loosing compared to the LX-3.
It is a big mistake of Olympus to release a number of slow lenses. Enthusiast need fast lenses.
Luckily Panasonic understood our needs by releasing the excellent Panasonic 20mm/1.7 prime lens.
My Leica 14-50m and Olympus 50-200m four third lens work very well with the Olympus MMF-1 adapter. Only the aperture ring does not work which would be a nice to have.
My E-P1 works perfectly together with the Olympus Zuiko ED 50-200 F2.8-3.5 SWD as you can see in the free hand image below:
In software engineering we have a principle called K.I.S.S: Keep It Simple and Stupid. And that is the big dilemma with the E-P1: It has a myriad of features that are no very well integrated into the user interface resulting in confusion of the user.
If you do not want to miss a shot a user interface must be consistent: Using the same controls should get the same results. This is not the case, like with so many other digital cameras. The tendency assigning a myriad of functions to a limited number over buttons and controls confuses the user. I spend sometimes minutes and missing important shots just to figure out why the camera does not behave as expected or usual. The user interface should receive a major redesign.
Information Display Screens
To have so many display screens in shooting mode is cumbersome and confusing. Displays should be cumulative, like in the gird example below. That is a grid is added to a display not sown in separate info-screen. In play mode this is no very critical and they are welcome. One of the key factors is shutter speed and aperture which should be display almost always. A clever screen is the highlight and shadow screen.
Quick Letter/Number Reference
On my Nikon the extended menus are labeled with letters and numbers like e.g. A2 would be AF-Area. If menus would be quick-labeled with a letter and numbers it would be much easier to communicate, and document settings.
Once you decided shooting program, iso sensitivity, focus and exposure mode, choosing white balance and film mode your are set and now the most important is to watch your exposure readings. As and enthusiast photographer we do not shoot autopilot and need to judge exposure after a half press of the release button. To slow and we need to decide: Rest the camera, or use a tripod, push up ISO-sensitivity or stop down aperture or use a fill in flash. Unfortunately the small shutter speed and aperture numbers are not very visible in order identify the problem. Here (left) is an suggestion how to improve it with a larger font and fade out the background.
Singe Focus Plus Manual Focus
The single focus followed by manual focus with the 10x focus assistant is an an absolutely great invention that makes it possible to have sharp images.
Fast Delete Operation
The fastest way to confirm a delete operation would be to press the delete button twice, once to bring up the confirmation menu and once to confirm the delete,like the competition has done. Using the menu and the need to navigate to confirm is very cumbersome.
After shooing the image it would be nice if the camera automatically zooms in shortly to see quality at 100% crop, like the competition has done. This is very similar to what the manual focus assistant does.
With the last firmware update it seems if the REC-VIEW is set to auto it sometimes but not always zooms in on dialing. This is incoinsitent. It is far better to set the REC-VIEW to e.g. 10 seconds. If a dial is used or button is pressed it return to life-view. So dialing would for example change the aperture or shutter speed as desired.
The rule of third is an important rule in photo composition. One version of the rule states that in any of the areas should be some object the other that the image looks pleasing to the human eye if the objects are placed on on the lines of even better on th corners of the third grid. The E-P1 has a complex and CONFUSING grid. But there is no true 1/3 grid which is annoying. A good grid would have let me better position the image. Above are examples of positioning image subjects at certain geometric positions. Here is my suggestion. To avoid more confusion a grid view should be cululative with the other views.
Barrel- and Turn-Dial
With a barrel dial and a turn dial the camera and a number of buttons the camera is set for potentially good ergonomics and I am able to change important settings quickly. However an user expects a consistent interface that can be operate blindly so a certain operation does the same thing.
The turning/screw motion of the lower turn dial is much more natural for zooming in and out then the upper barrel dial which is more. It is a constant annoyance to me. I hardly want to change the audio volume in the still image review mode. This could be done easily vie a menu. But I want to zoom in using the lower turn-dial.
One of the big criticism of the E-P1 is that , unlike the to GF-1, lacks a flash. In contrary flash of the GF1 is very small and the same size as on my LX3. In praxis this flash is absolutely useless for any purpose, even fill in.
However it could use a good flash even if the camera is gets slightly larger. The FL-14 packs well with the E-P1 and should be part of the package. However for a standalone flash it is a bit under powered and can has no indirect 45° position. The price of half of the camera for such a simple flash out of any proportion.
For a in-camera flash it would be in line with the hype and feature set of the E-P1 to have a flash like on my Panasonic L1 with also adds indirect 45° position.
Image Stabilization and Tripods
Another key feature is the in body image stabilization witch stabilizes even lenses like the Panasonic 20 mm. I am missing a valid test on this topic at dpreview. While the Panasonic L1 was mentioned to have stabilized 1/3 of a second many stabilizations can not cope well with anything less then 1/60 s which renders image stabilization useless.
There are 2 self timer modes: 2 and 12 seconds. Two seconds is a useful mode in low light scenes to avoid shaking while pressing the shutter. The 12 second mode is most useless as focus exposure is ONLY taken when the shutter is presses and NOT after the timer has expired and the shot is taken.
Portability and Carrying Bags
- 1190g (Tamron 16-50mm A 2.8)
While the 1190 g heavy Nikon D90 is certainly a portable camera that fits in a handbag (left) or my handle bar bicycle bag (right) it needs a lot of enthusiasm to carry it around. It certainly does not fit into the "always-carry-with-you" category of camera.
The E-P1 however with just 40% of the weight of my D90 just fits into the "always-carry-with-you" class and fits into both bags protected by the Lowepro Cirrus TLZ 5 Camera Bag from shock and environment. In contrast the LX-3 would only fit in a coat pocket and is thus not much more portable then the E-P1.
Lowepro Cirrus TLZ 5 Camera Bag
The Lowepro Cirrus TLZ 5 Camera Bag not protect from shock and environment but also can carry the FL-14 Olympus flash, a small tripod, lens cleaning tissue and extra battery and SD-card. With this package you are always prepared. I us this as a kind of inner back that I move to my hand bag for going out or bicycle-handlebar-bag or clip it to the front of my rucksacks shoulder belt for quick access to the camera during hikes. The flash is actually carried in the pouch that it is delivered with.
The missing AF illuminator helper light seems not to be such a big problem as I expected. Amazingly I could even auto-focus pin sharp in the low light of a poorly lit room. However aiming for dark object (in that room) showed me the limits of this approach as it did not focus.
There are an number of useful default setting