While many digital camera manufacturers are adding features to their SLRs and point-and-shoot cameras, Olympus (and Panasonic, with its Lumix DMC-GF1 ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) created the E-P1, a camera that delivers SLR-like quality in a size that's closer to a point-and-shoot. In the process, the E-P1 created a new segment of the camera market.
In a nutshell, the E-P1 (also called Pen) is a fairly small camera (the body is roughly 4.75-by-3-by-1.5) with interchangeable lenses, and an image sensor that's larger than what you'll get on a point-and-shoot, but not as big as what you'll find on an SLR. The practical upshot is that it's a camera that functions more like an SLR, but that you can still probably fit in a pocket.
Like the Lumix DMC-GF1, the E-P1 conforms to the Micro Four Thirds specification, a standard developed by the consortium of Olympus and Panasonic. An offshoot of the same consortium's Four Thirds format, Micro Four Thirds cameras specify a sensor of a particular size, and all use a common lens mount, so you can readily exchange lenses between vendors.
Since Micro Four Thirds sensors are larger than what you'll find in a point-and-shoot camera, they yield images with less noise than those produced by point-and-shoots. Since the specification calls for the lens to be very close to the image sensor, the cameras and lenses can be made much smaller than an SLR. However, the small size also precludes the use of an SLR-like mirror system, so you can't have an optical viewfinder that looks through the lens.
(Image Caption: Olympus E-P1)
Ultimately, these cameras are more evocative of an old 35mm rangefinder camera, and Olympus has appropriately chosen a retro style for the E-P1 that is very attractive. Clad in silver, brushed metal, with a black, leather grip on the front, the camera is very eye catching, as well as small and comfortable to hold.
For the user who is a stickler for image quality, and who likes the flexibility of interchangeable lenses, but doesn't want the bulk of an SLR, the E-P1 may be the ideal camera.
The camera ships in two configurations, one with a 14mm to 42mm, f3.5 to f5.6 zoom lens, and the other with a 17mm, f2.8 lens and a clip-on viewfinder (more on this later). The Micro Four Thirds system has a 2X focal length multiplier, so you can simply double those focal lengths to determine their 35mm film equivalents.
Of course the camera is also compatible with lenses from Panasonic, and any other Micro Four Thirds vendors that turn up.
Ins and out
The E-P1 packs 12.3 million pixels and offers a fairly simple control layout. In addition to the shutter and power buttons, the top of the camera sports the expected mode dial, as well as an exposure compensation control. The back of the camera packs all of the expected controls for ISO, white balance, autofocus, drive mode, menu navigation, and playback.
The E-P1 is a Live View-only camera, meaning the only built-in viewfinder is the 3-inch LCD on the back of the camera. However, if you're using the 17mm lens, Olympus makes an optical viewfinder that clips onto the camera's hot shoe. While the viewfinder is nice if you're working in bright sunlight that can render the LCD screen unusable it's not especially accurate and doesn't always crop out of the middle of the frame.
Unfortunately, the E-P1's LCD screen is hardly state-of-the-art. Offering a paltry 230,000 pixels, you can actually see individual pixels, which can be a little distracting. For a camera at this price point, Olympus should definitely have opted for a better screen.
I've never liked using LCD screens as viewfinders. They're hard to see in bright light, they don't show the full dynamic range of your scene, and I simply like to block out the rest of the world while I'm shooting. That said I did have fun with the E-P1, and its viewfinder is very good for many situations.
The E-P1's sensor is stabilized, so any lens that you put on it becomes stabilized, and Olympus' stabilization is very good. Like all stabilization systems, it's not a replacement for a tripod, but it will reduce the jitters caused by handheld shake. However, the effects of stabilization are not shown on the screen, so it doesn't help framing when you're using a very telephoto lens.
The camera lacks a built-in flash, which might be an issue if you tend to do a lot of flash work, but Olympus sells an optional $200 external flash. While this is much more powerful that what you'd get from a built-in flash, it also bulks up the camera, defeating some of the purpose of the camera's small size.
Also a little frustrating is the camera's slightly sluggish autofocus. With its small size and high-quality lenses, the E-P1 could be an ideal street-shooting camera, allowing you to unobtrusively grab candid shots about town. However, the slow autofocus really limits your ability to capture decisive moments. For most other situations, though, this won't be an obstacle.
Overall, the camera is a speedy performer, and is typical with Olympus, is very well-made. Sturdy and solid, the camera feels like a serious piece of gear that will yield years of steady use.
I've always found Olympus' interfaces to be somewhat clunky and confusing, and the E-P1 is no exception. While the camera provides external buttons for exposure compensation, ISO, Autofocus, white balance, and drive mode, all other functions are set by delving into the camera's menu system.
It's difficult to determine exactly what it is about the Olympus system, but ultimately it comes down to the fact that it feels like it takes more button and dial turns to set a function than it does on other cameras. I've been reviewing digital cameras since 1997 and still I had to repeatedly go to the E-P1 manual to figure out how to do one thing or another.
Sometimes, an interface philosophy is simply built for a person who thinks a particular way, and it may just be that I'm not that person. My interface quibbles are not enough to warrant a dismissal of the camera, but you should definitely get your hands on the camera before you buy, and see if its interface makes sense to you.
The EP-1 takes very good images, thanks largely to the exceptional lenses that Olympus has made. However, the larger sensor size definitely helps both in terms of noise, and because you can get a little more creative than you can with a point-and-shoot camera, thanks to the ability to shoot with shallower depth of field.
The E-P1's ISO ratings are a little fast, which means that in low light your images will come out a little darker than they would from another camera. You'll have to brighten them to get them back up to a good exposure, but still the noise levels are very low.
Macworld's buying advice
As a second camera for an SLR shooter, or as an advanced camera for the photographer who wants more than a point-and-shoot, but really needs the smallest camera possible, the E-P1 is a very good choice. Auto-focus is a little slow for some applications, but the image quality is very good. Check out the interface before you buy, but if you choose it, you'll get great images in a fun, small package.
[Macworld senior contributor Ben Long is the author of Complete Digital Photography, fourth edition (Charles River Media, 2007). More of Ben's work can be found at Complete Digital Photography.]