Micro Four Thirds has been heralded as the next big thing in digital photography, but it might be more accurately described as the next small thing. The Olympus PEN E-P1 is a bold example of what the Micro Four Thirds technology is capable of doing, a major innovation that is sure to get camera enthusiasts very excited and give casual shoppers some pause as they decide whether to step-up to a more robust camera.
The Panasonic G1 and GH1 were the first Micro Four Thirds cameras on the market, and they were simply more compact versions of the traditional SLR body. The Olympus E-P1 abandons SLR-body types for a more retro look, specifically echoing the original Olympus PEN SLR from 1959. It is available in both stainless steel and white versions. Personally, I prefer the vintage look and feel of the latter, though the former is formidable and eye-catching as well.
Olympus has packed an SLR-quality sensor and enough power to take truly extraordinary photographs in a body only a little larger than a point-and-shoot digital camera.
For those who want the quality of a pro-level camera and the portability and versatility of a point-and-shoot, the Olympus E-P1 is designed to meet exactly those needs.
Micro Four Thirds
First, a quick primer on what exactly Micro Four Thirds is and does and how it differs from what traditional SLRs do. Traditional SLR (single-lens reflect) cameras require a mirror and prism in order to direct an image back to the camera's optical viewfinder. These internal mechanisms require space and cause SLR cameras to be larger and heavier than point-and-shoot cameras which do not use them.
Micro Four Thirds cameras do away with the mirror and prism system, opting instead for Live View LCDs or electronic viewfinders. This allows manufacturers to significantly shrink the size of their cameras, making them more convenient and portable while retaining support for interchangeable lenses and large image sensors.
The result is a lighter, mid-sized digital camera that can be carried in a bag or purse yet is still capable of producing high-quality images that previously required a much larger (and much more expensive) camera.
Design: Attractive, Retro-Inspired Body
The PEN E-P1's aesthetic is carefully crafted to give users the impression that they are using a substantial camera. No plastic or cheap-feeling parts are to be found. Instead, Olympus has clad the E-P1 in stainless steel. Though this does result in some added weight, the weightiness and solidity of the E-P1 is actually more reassuring than annoying. In any case, the E-P1 is still very lightweight when compared to its peers, and it never felt cumbersome.
The interface is simple, with just a few, well-marked buttons on the camera's back panel. The four-way directional pad is ringed by a rotating scroll wheel, which is a popular control mechanism on cameras these days. I'm not a fan of these scroll wheels. They're often too small to really accomplish anything with and tend to increase the frequency of mistakes and unwanted movement on menus. The scroll wheel on the E-P1 is no different, but it's easy enough to avoid.
On the upper right hand corner of the back panel, there's a barrel-shaped control used in the camera's preview mode. When rolled to the right, it engages the camera's digital zoom for closer crop previews of your photos. When rolled to the left, it backs up into increasingly more inclusive gallery modes until it reaches its upper limit, a calendar that sorts your photos by day. It's a neat feature, one that makes navigating through large volumes of images a quick, smooth process.
The mode dial is tightly tucked on the topside of the camera, and has a ridged edge. It locks firmly into each mode, with no potential for slipping. The edge of the mode dial used to change modes extends out a little, but not far enough to keep your fingers from brushing up against the camera body when changing modes, which can be a little irritating. The camera has eight modes: intelligent auto, manual, shutter priority, aperture priority, program manual, scene, "art," and finally, a high-definition movie mode.
On the right-hand side of the camera's front, users will find a raised, faux-Bakelite grip which not only adds to the vintage aesthetic but also gives your hand a nice, secure place to rest when shooting.
On the right-side edge of the camera, you'll find an HDMI output, for direct connections to high-definition televisions, and the camera's USB output.
Also, if you're wondering: the E-P1 used SDHC cards, not xD-Picture Cards like most other Olympus cameras. The HD movie mode required a faster, more robust format, and thankfully Olympus made the switch. Whether they're giving up on xD entirely remains to be seen, but they should.
Performance: Excellent Image Quality
There are a few things that should be said up front about the E-P1 when it comes to performance and what consumers might be expecting. The E-P1, like digital SLR cameras, uses interchangeable lenses. The E-P1 does not have an optical viewfinder, but instead relies on a Live View LCD, like point-and-shoot cameras, to frame scenes and shots. The E-P1, curiously, does not have a built-in flash. If you want to shoot with a flash, you must purchase a separate flash accessory that sits in the camera's hot shoe. Early reports indicate that this flash is priced at $200 (though discounts and reductions are sure to arise). The E-P1 also has "sensor-shift" image stabilization, meaning that in order to keep shots steady, the camera's CMOS sensor moves around, providing a level of stability far superior to electronic or even optical image stabilization.
The sample photos found on the right hand sidebar were taken on the E-P1 using the 14-42mm kit lens, at the full resolution of 12.3 megapixels.
The camera is built to appeal to both experienced photographers, who can makes use of its extensive manual features, and to novice or advancing photographers interested in learning more but still looking for a camera that can take care of itself when it must. For those users, Olympus has added "intelligent auto" to the E-P1. In iAuto, the camera does all the heavy lifting for the photographer, adjusting its own settings based on the type of environment you're in.
The Olympus FL-14 flash sits snugly in the camera's hot shoe. It's a little big and definitely detracts from the camera's sleekness and cool-factor. It works well enough, though one would expect that the next iteration of this camera would have some sort of on-board flash.
Art Filters: A Fun Gimmick
As mentioned above, one of the available modes on the Olympus E-P1 is "art," which provides access to six distinct artistic filters for photos. Typically, I think these modes are gimmicky. I mean, they are gimmicky. They're fun, but ultimately pointless in most cases. However, the art filters on the E-P1 are actually a little more interesting than I expected them to be. As far as gimmicks go, these ones are entertaining and occasionally provided some extra verve and vigor to otherwise standard photos.
The six artistic filters are: "Pop Art," which heightens colors; "Grainy Film," which looks like it sounds; "Soft Focus," for those cheesy, soap opera moments; "Pinhole," which darkens the edges for a moody, antique look; "Light Tone," for light tones; and "Pale & Light," which gives images a washed out, faded look reminiscent of photographs from the early days of color photography. Four example images of these art filters are presented below. I left out "Soft Focus" and "Light Tone" because they are kind of boring. These filters can also be applied to the E-P1's video mode, if desired, though they tend to slow down the frame rate a bit.
Art Filters (Clockwise): Pop Art, Pinhole, Grainy Film, Pale & Light. (Soft Focus and Light Tone not pictured)
High Definition Video
The E-P1 features a high-definition movie mode capable of shooting video at a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, at 30 frames per second, in progressive scan. Simply put, it's 720p. This puts it in league with the HD movie modes on most HD point-and-shoot cameras and the Nikon D90 SLR. It's lower resolution than the 1080p HD video mode found on the Canon Digital Rebel T1i, though that camera can only do 20fps at 1080p and is a few hundred dollars more expensive than the E-P1. The Canon SX1 can do 1080p/30fps, but is a fixed-lens camera and much larger than the E-P1. The E-P1's video mode also features stereo audio recording (Uncompressed 16 bit/44.1kHz Linear PCM). Videos are recorded in the AVI format, and not in the fancy new AVCHD codec. This means that videos files will be large and take up more space on your card, but can be easily viewed and edited with contemporary software.
An 8GB SDHC card allowed for up to 30 minutes of 720p HD video recording. That's about half as much as the Panasonic ZS3 ultracompact, which can shoot 60 minutes 720p HD in AVCHD Lite on the same card. That said, the ZS3 lacks many of the advantages of the E-P1 that allow the latter to produce superior video quality, even if it can't fit as much on a memory card. For one, the zoom is fully operational in video mode, allowing shooters to be creative in their framing and to adjust on the fly.
To the left, you'll see a sample video I shot with the E-P1. The quality is very good, though I do think Olympus should adopt Panasonic's new one-touch recording design, rather than continuing to segregate the video functions to its own mode-dial entry.
Conclusion: A Bold Concept, Well Executed
The Olympus PEN E-P1 is a refreshingly innovative digital camera, one that would make perfect sense for someone looking for high-quality performance in a reasonably small package. The future of the Micro Four Thirds format seems very bright, and gives Olympus new life in a camera facet of their own creation.