It's been two years since the Micro Four Thirds format debuted, and the mirrorless genre is finally maturing.
For those that are still unfamiliar, mirrorless cameras like the Olympus PEN E-PL1 take the most important part of a dSLR (its big sensor) and do away with its least-desirable aspect (the bulky size, which is a result of the pentaprism mirror). These hybrid shooters tend to appeal to the enthusiast set, but Olympus is clearly taking a shot at the casual-compact crowd with the E-PL1. It looks and feels like a compact, but shoots dSLR-quality photos. Olympus made a few design compromises to pull it off, but on the whole, the E-PL1 is a success.
Body and Design
The throwback rangefinder look of the E-PL1 is a refreshing alternative to the standard dSLR shape. It’s boxier than the pricier E-P1 and E-P2 models, and predominantly plastic, but those are acceptable cost-cutting trade-offs, considering the price. In general, the weight and dimensions are midway between a compact camera and a dSLR, leaning toward the smaller end of the spectrum, like a chunky travel zoom.
The interface, too, has more in common with a compact camera than a dSLR. The rear has a simple button-based interface that should make casual point-and-shoot-users feel at home (though serious dSLR-users will scoff). Highlights include a dedicated video recording button, two function buttons (which come in handy for choosing a focal point and magnifying the live view), a pop-up flash, and accessory port.
Like the body, the 14-42mm kit lens is made from decent-quality plastic. It’s collapsible, and even quite small when fully extended (by interchangeable lens standards). It’s a nice complement to the design, if not particularly exciting.
It seems like the mirrorless market is splitting into two camps: small dSLR-type systems, and high-quality compact shooters. The E-PL1 is most definitely in the latter category. It was the smallest mirrorless camera available when it was released in February 2010, but has since lost the title to Sony’s NEX-series shooters. Panasonic’s G10 is also lighter, though the dimensions are not as compact.
User Experience and Performance
The E-PL1 looks like a compact, and handles like a compact too. It’s easy to just pick up, set to iAuto, and shoot to your heart’s content. There are also the usual adjustable settings, shutter and aperture priority, and a full manual mode, but it’s a bit harder to fiddle with those since it’s a menu-based interface -- no control dials or direct-access keys. To bring up the comparison again, the E-PL1 interface has a lot in common with that of a travel zoom. That's perfect for users moving up from a camera like that, but a definite downgrade from the nimble navigation of a dSLR, or even higher-end mirrorless cameras like the E-P2.
In general, responsiveness is satisfactory. Startup time is snappy (though not stellar) and menus respond to inputs quickly. Continuous shooting churns out a modest but effective 3 frames per second, though for RAW shooting, it maxes out at 10 frames. A handful of art filters apply cool effects like saturated colors or a pinhole effect, which can save some post-processing time, but definitely hinders in-camera performance.
Autofocus, at least with the kit lens, is on par with a compact camera, but a few notches below a dSLR (I used firmware version 1.1 for the review). This lag is pretty much unavoidable without a mirror and remains one of the big downsides of the mirrorless genre, though if your expectations are calibrated to the speed of a point-and-shoot, it should feel quick. To be clear, auto-focus in bright, outdoor situations is very fast. As the light decreases, so does the autofocus speed, at a pretty significant ratio.
The LCD is a bit of a shortcoming, at an unimpressive 2.7-inches and 230,000 dots. That’s average for a $180 camera, but comes across as an obvious cost-cutting measure here. It’s still visible indoors and in the shade, but pretty worthless in the sun. There’s a port for an optional electronic viewfinder, which should alleviate this problem, though Olympus did not include one for review. There’s also a curious lack of an orientation sensor, so any portrait shots have to be manually rotated in your photo software of choice.
The E-PL1 takes excellent pictures. Photo quality is the strongest feature on this camera. It far surpasses compact-camera quality and competes on the same level as entry-level and consumer dSLRs. Point-and-shooters who step up to the E-PL1 will be extremely pleased with still images, and enthusiasts and dSLR users will likely find that the quality makes up for some qualms that they have about the interface and performance.
Shots have a high level of detail, often crisp down to the pixel level. JPEG noise is very well controlled all the way through ISO 800. Shots at 1600 are usable, and even 3200 isn’t terrible. I found the colors to be pretty accurate too, though the brightest spots in some shots came out a bit flat. Overall, almost any photographer should be happy with the image quality coming from this $600 kit.
Video quality is solid as well, though well short of a defining feature. The 720p Motion JPEG movies are crisp, smooth, and relatively noise-free with little barrel distortion. The lack of full 1080p recording holds it back from greatness, but it’s a nice feature to complement the still shooting.
The E-PL1 feels like a high-powered compact rather than a crippled dSLR, making it an effective hybrid. It also has a little bit of retro charm that not many cameras of any genre possess these days. Though the performance and plastic design come up a little bit short of what I’d expected from a $600 kit, the image quality, ease-of-use, and portability swayed me fully in favor of this camera. Had I been able to test the electronic viewfinder, I probably would have liked it even more. And, it's worth noting, the street price has dropped down closer to $500, so it's really quite a deal.
The type of buyer that will be most satisfied with the E-PL1 is the casual or hobbyist photographer, somebody who has gotten a lot of mileage from his or her compact camera and wants to step up to something that will feel familiar, but with more power. The manual control leaves room to grow, but the interface keeps in squarely in casual-user territory. I don’t mean this as a slight, but people who haven’t used a dSLR and don’t know what they’re missing in terms of performance will love this camera. Enthusiasts, too, might find something to love here, as the JPEG quality is simply fantastic, even compared to some entry-level dSLRs with larger sensors.