Olympus Pen E-P1 digital camera

Olympus’ latest digital camera harks back, in terms of the name at least, to the famed Pen range of half frame (a half frame of 35mm film that is) Olympus cameras first introduced in 1959 and that heralded the sale of 17-million units between its launch and the Pen FT launched in 1966. A success and no mistake.

And given the buzz around the new Olympus Pen E-P1 it may well prove to be a success but just how much, only time will tell. The camera looks a real treat and its aluminum top and bottom plates are sat on a curvy stainless steel body that does indeed ooze class.

My first outing with the camera was to view a photographic competition at a local gardeners club, and judging by the reaction of the snappers present, the sudden mutterings of “it is, it’s that new E-P1” swiftly spilling round the room when those present saw the camera round my neck surprised me. What surprised me more was the sudden vulture like swooping as said snappers ran over, almost en-mass, to have a closer look: interest is refreshingly high.

So what is the E-P1? For a kick off it is Olympus’ first Micro Four Thirds camera (Panasonic’s been busy on that front with its G-series models for a while) and is therefore a compact, interchangeable lens system camera of some quality. The camera’s retro styling reflects its ’60 forbears but not much more as the new camera is rather bigger than you might expect.

Its sturdy and attractive construction lacks both viewfinder and built-in flash, both are optional extras to the £849 twin lens kit I tested here. The first lens is a superb 17mm F/2.8 prime lens (which the optional VF-1 viewfinder is for) and this sits on the throat of the Micro Four Thirds mount that is striking as the sensor is clearly visible: there’s no mirror to get in the way. Olympus’ renowned sensor cleaning is built-in, and thankfully, I had no issues with dirt on the 12.3-megapixel LiveMOS sensor.

This lens gives the equivalent (35mm equiv.) focal range of 34mms and the 14-42 F/3.5-5.6 zoom that comes with it provides a 28 to 84mm focal length range. The new optics have been made to make the most of the Micro Four Thirds mount and as such provide superb image quality. However, the observant among you will have noticed the zoom provides the same range as the kit lens available for the likes of the Olympus E-620 DSLR, for example, and it is almost certainly an adapted optic.

And that’s the other thing about the E-P1, the shape and design look and feel retro, but the camera actually has the best of Olympus’ E-series cameras internals as well. This is a camera that is not a DSLR, but performs like a DSLR; and not a compact but handles like a compact.

There’s a new iteration of the Olympus TruePic imaging engine TruePic V slotted into the all metal bodywork of the E-P1 and this gives better noise and image processing control and works exceedingly well at higher ISOs, allowing the camera to achieve a top ISO rating of 6400. Colour performance is very good and as the new camera also has the same art filters found in the E-620 and the E-30, that provide soft focus, pop art and grainy black and white modes, to name a few, all helps get the most from those.

Image stabilisation has three modes to choose between and Olympus claims up to four stops of advantage, which I feel is a bit optimistic but certainly helps given the lack of a flash unit. And it is here we encounter the first things that might be seen as a barrier to ownership.

The lack of viewfinder will raise eyebrows among SLR users that might be tempted to part with their cash, but this will (on balance as it looks less complex to use) attract the compact fraternity, those trading up. But they will raise their eyebrows at the price and lack of a built-in flash. £700 for this camera seems expensive, add the VF-1 finder and the FL-14 flashgun (both of which sit on the hot shoe, so you cannot use both together) and then you enter the realm of some serious DSLR kit and so this might be a push too far for some.

In terms of handling, the original Pen’s ethos was supposed to be as simple to use as a Biro, a simple pen, hence the name. Well, there is a new intelligent auto (iAUTO) mode that provides the camera with a point and shot function that can choose the “correct” mode for the scene it’s presented with, which works very well, but the rest of the camera posses a control set up nearer to a DSLR, and that means it’s certainly not a simple to use a Biro.

Nevertheless, a single mode dial, recessed into the top plate and adjusted from an equally recessed knob at the back of the top plate provides control of the main shooting options; the four manual modes (P, A, S, and M), the iAUTO mode and the scene selection mode, that provides a total of 19 settings ranging from landscape and portrait to text and sunset presets.

You also get access to the rather funky Art Filters here too and these provide some neat effects such as pinhole camera and pop art modes. As you can shoot simultaneous RAW and JPEGs, (also in iAUTO too) the filter effect is only applied to the JPEG so you can still get at the RAW data for further editing on PC.

Here you get the 720p HD movie capture control as well, where you can shoot movie clips even applying the art filters to them as well so you get plenty of creative potential with interchangeable lenses and filter effects. As with still shooting, the TruePic V system does a great job of working to keep image noise down, movie quality and the fact the camera has a HDMI out port too, means you can connect the camera up to an HD TV and play movies and images direct from the camera.

Multi-aspect shooting comes as standard too, so images can be captured as 16:9, 6:6 and the “normal” 4:3 aspect ratios and that extra creative potential is allied to the excellent image quality, helped by the kit’s twin lenses, both of which provide a crisp start for the light entering the lens, the 17mm being the standout optic.

Metering is superb although the best overall option seems to be the centre-weighted mode as evaluative metering seems to underexpose very slightly, presumably to help preserve highlight detail. Spot metering is great for portraits where even some of my shots of the misses taken against strong backlighting are correctly exposed to the face and flattering to boot (even if I do say so myself).

Focus control is okay for most tasks and nips quickly to the subject, here though in bright light, seeing the (otherwise excellent) 3-inch screen can present problems in determining if the correct focus point has been used. Ditto exposure assessment where bright sunlight can make evaluation of the shot difficult. The lack of an optical viewfinder here is irksome.

Face Detection AF works well enough grabbing multiple faces in a scene but is slightly slower than I’d have liked, a pity really as it means you can loose a shot by it not working quickly enough. Colour is well balanced and white balance control is also superb. Shooting in low light with mixed lighting a child’s party highlighted both the great WB control and the superb image noise control too, where ISO 800 images are some of the best I’ve seen from an Olympus Four Thirds system camera, at least as good as my old E-410 at ISO 200.

Detail is very good and with around two to three stops of exposure and detail headroom in the RAWs there’s plenty of extra detail to pull out of shadows and highlights if you need to. The Large Fine compression JPEGs are very clean however and compression artifacts are kept to minimum even at 100%.

At first the E-P1 seems a bit of an anachronism, neither fish nor fowl and priced at a point that puts it firmly into the higher, enthusiast echelon of the DSLR market. But there’s something about the camera, it’s tactile and nice to hold and use, yes I curse the lack of the viewfinder but, and it is a big but. When you get a look at the shots on screen, you’re immediately won over by some great quality shots, in fact some of the best I’ve seen from a “serious” Olympus to date.

Verdict

The E-P1 looks hard to justify at £700 (and a significant further price increase needs to be added when the optional lenses, viewfinder and flash are factored in) given it is not a DSLR but priced like one. When you start to factor in the handling, feature set, superb optics and the stunning picture quality, with image noise really being handled well, it starts to become more enticing.

True this camera will be neither fish nor fowl to some, who may not be able to see the point. However, others that may hanker for that “days of yore” feeling, evoked by the styling, design and handling will not be disappointed. As for me? Well, I was won over by the image quality and that at the end of the day is probably the single most important factor and so makes this a camera one I cannot help but recommend.