Steve's Conclusion

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Olympus has finally released their first Micro 4/3 model, the E-P1 Digital PEN. With a retro look that comes from it's PEN family history, the E-P1 is a powerful and sophisticated digital camera. Many feel that these new Micro 4/3 cameras are not truly dSLRs, because they do not have an automatic moving mirror system. However, the E-P1, along with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 and DMC-GH1, are still interchangeable lens cameras that offer almost all of the same features/options one would find on true dSLR.

The E-P1 boasts some very appealing features, including a 12.3-Megapixel Live MOS image sensor, TruePic V image processor, Supersonic Wave Filter dust reduction system, 3.0-inch LCD screen, 324-area TTL ESP metering system, 11-area Contrast Detection AF system, sensor-shift Image Stabilization, built-in digital leveling, 720p HD video capture, JPEG and RAW image formats (RAW + JPEG available), sensitivity settings from ISO 100 - 6400 (in 1/3 or 1EV steps), hot shoe for external flash units or Optical Viewfinder, sRGB or Adobe RGB color space options, and burst mode shooting at up to 3fps.

While the E-P1 is loaded with advanced settings and options that you would find on other E-series models, like the E-620, it also shares some similarities with Olympus' consumer point-n-shoots. First being, the iAuto or "intelligent" Auto exposure mode. Just like with their consumer models, the E-P1 will gather information about the scene you are currently shooting, and automatically select the best Scene mode settings to ensure you get the best possible photos. Users can also choose from the typical Program AE, Aperture priority, Shutter speed priority, and full Manual exposure modes, that will give you as much control over the exposure process as you can handle. There are also 13 pre-programmed Scene modes to choose from (like Portrait, Landscape, or Sports) as well as 6 new Art filter modes that allow you to explore your creative side.

Like classic PEN models, the E-P1's body is compact and stylish, with two color schemes to choose from (Silver or White). We received the White model, along with the silver M.Zukio Digital ED 14-42mm f3.5 - 5.6 lens for our testing. Olympus did a very nice job at designing the exterior of this camera, with excellent control/button placement, and various comfort features. The hand grip on the right side offers a nice firm grip, making one handed shooting possible. The all-metal body is nice and heavy, which makes the E-P1 feel like it's built like a tank. The 3.0-inch LCD screen is the only viewfinder on the camera. While it only offers 230,000 pixels of resolution, the screen does produce a nice clear picture. When shooting in dim lighting, the display gains up to help you see your subject, however it does get a bit grainy. Outdoors in bright light I had no problems framing, even with the bright sun beating directly on it. Menu navigation is very simple, and resembles other Olympus E-series models. Olympus also offers a slew of optional accessories for the E-P1, from leather cases and lens mount adapters, to an optical viewfinder. Overall, the E-P1 is a very "cool" camera.

Shooting performance was more comparable to a consumer point-n-shoot than a dSLR. From power-on till the first image was captured measured 2.5 seconds. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, was almost instantaneous when pre-focused, but slowed to an average of 1.1 seconds including autofocus time. Rapid shooting in single shot mode allowed me capture images every 2.2 seconds. The E-P1 also offers a continuous capture or burst mode, which performed very well. Using it, I was able to capture 20 Large/SuperFine JPEGs in 6.2 seconds; approx 3.2fps, surpassing Olympus' claim of 3.0fps. When switching to RAW mode, the shot to shot delay in single exposure mode averaged 2.4 seconds between frames, and the burst rates were very similar, only the frame depth changed due to the larger file sizes. In burst mode I captured the first 14 frames in 4.4 seconds (3.1fps), then the buffered filled slowing the camera down to about 1.6fps. Our tests were done using both a Lexar Professional (133x) 8GB SDHC memory card, the kit M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm f3.5/5.6 3x optical zoom lens, iAuto AE mode, ISO Auto, Preview on, Large SuperFine JPEG image quality, and all other settings a default unless noted. Times may vary depending on camera settings, media, and lighting conditions.

I was very pleased with the image quality from the E-P1's 12.3-megapixel Live MOS imager and TruePic V imager processor. While shooting outdoors, the E-P1 was able to capture tac sharp images, that showed pleasing contrast and color saturation. Exposure was good most of the time, however we did have several instances where some images were a bit strong, with several blown out highlights. We used either iAuto or Program mode for most of our shooting, both of which produced great results. iAuto was able to quickly recognize the scene being shot, adjusting the camera settings to ensure optimal results. The E-P1 also handles noise quite well, which is a relief considering the camera does not offer a built-in flash. Noise levels are very good at the lower ISO settings, and the camera keeps speckling under control all the way up to about ISO 800, where you will start to see small traces in dark shadow areas when viewing at 100%. ISO 1600 and even 2000 still look very usable for 8x10-inch or larger prints, however once you reach ISO 3200, there is heavy speckling along with some detail and saturation loss. While the highest ISO settings may not be what I consider usable, the E-P1 still offers great High ISO performance that is equal to many entry-level dSLRs currently on the market.

The new Art filter modes not only offer more creativity, but they can take boring images and really make them Pop. Take for instance some of the examples we have on our Sample Photos page, which show that a boring looking wall mural shot on an overcast day can be transformed into a vivid photograph with rich colors. These filters also allowed us to bring out the colors of buildings and other objects in New York city while attending the Olympus E-P1 press event on a dull overcast day.

When shooting indoors, you will want to make sure you have an external flash unit handy, as the E-P1 does not feature a built-in flash. Olympus supplied use with the new FL-14, which was released at the same time as the E-P1. I found this compact flash compliments the E-P1 nicely, offering decent coverage for its size. We also attached our old FL-36, and the E-P1 had no problems controlling it, including the zoom head. The only feature it did not use was the AF-assist lamp. This was a little disappointing, as this camera could use some help in the low-light focusing area. I had several problems with the camera indoors in our average lit living room, while chasing the kids around with the camera. It seemed the AF system failed to focus more often than not, and I was sad that the camera was not able to make use of the AF-assist beam on the FL-36. When you have a decent lighting, the camera performs rather well, capturing nice crisp portrait or people photos. I enjoyed using the FL-14, and found that it was able to produce nice exposures when shooting from several feet away. Our people photos show that the E-P1 is able to capture pleasing people photographs, showing sharp facial details, and nice skin tones. I highly recommend you add a nice flash unit (or two) to your purchase to full enjoy the capabilities of this camera.

The video options on this camera are numerous. While there are only two resolution options (HD and SD), you have access to a host of other features, including white balance, IS mode, focus mode, AF target (Single or Multi), sound, and exposure control mode. You can choose Program AE, Aperture, or one of the 6 Art filter modes to control the exposure during movie capture. Some of these settings are a first for a digital camera, and will allow you to be a lot more creative with your videos than with just about any other digicam or dSLR on the market. Overall, we felt the E-P1 was able to capture some very good quality video, with smooth playback thanks to the 30fps frame rate. When shooting in lower lighting, quality is still pretty good, with average amounts of noise present.

Battery life was great, thanks to the fact that the E-P1 uses Olympus' PS-BLS1 7.2v 1150mAh battery pack. This is the same pack used is some of Olympus' other dSLR models (E-620), and they claim it can power this camera for up to 300 frames. I was able to capture at least 250 shots, and several short video clips on a single charge, and this included many of our other test with extensive menu navigation, playback, etc. I do recommend you pick up a spare pack just in case, especially if you plan on shooting a lot of video.

Bottom Line - I feel Olympus has hit a home run with their new PEN series model. While there are a few things that I feel could be better (shooting performance, low-light AF performance, etc.), the list of positive aspects of this camera far out weight the negatives. With the ability to capture beautiful photos, a host of creative still and video options, pleasing HD video quality, and various accessory options, the E-P1 is one well-rounded digital camera. With an MSRP of US$799.99 as tested, the E-P1 isn't cheap. However, for the level of sophistication, ease of use, and features/performance you are receiving, I feel it still offers a great value.





Olympus Releases New E-P1 Firmware

Olympus is pleased to announce a firmware update for the Olympus E-P1 that will allow the camera to operate more effectively with the following Panasonic lenses:
  • Panasonic Micro Four Thirds lens LUMIX G VARIO 14-140mm/F4.0-5.8.
    • This update increases the stability of performance between the body and lens.

  • Panasonic Micro Four Thirds lens LUMIX G VARIO 14-45mm/F3.5-5.6.
    • This update improves auto focus performance for still and motion picture recording, improves the stability of optical image stabilization during motion picture recording, and decreases audible noise during the operation of adjusting the aperture when in motion picture recording.

The ability to update the firmware in E-System components -- bodies, lenses, flash units -- is one of the key advantages of a 100% digital design. Firmware updates are available through Olympus Master and Olympus Studio software applications.

Click here to learn How to Update the Firmware




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