Olympus E-PL1 camera

Newly introduced, and at the exact same price as Olympus' recently reviewed E-600 Four Thirds digital SLR with 14-42mm kit lens, is the manufacturer's latest Micro Four Thirds system hybrid in the E-PL1 Digital Pen.

Like that DSLR "proper" it also comes in kit form with a zoom of the exact same focal range, equivalent to 28-84mm in 35mm film terms. The E-PL1 is however the baby of its particular family that includes its predecessors in the E-P1 and E-P2, the former reportedly due to be phased out by the middle of this year. The close price match with the E-600 is of interest as what you're getting in the E-PL1 is, as with its forebears, basically a foreshortened E-series DSLR with the mirror mechanism removed to bring lens and sensor closer together.

Although billed as the "fun" entry-level model for those formerly frightened of owning a quality digital camera such as a DSLR, and available in a choice of black, silver, white or red bodies, the E-PL1 includes some of the newer features of the range-topping enthusiast-targeted E-P2. It shares the colour boosting iEnhance option introduced on that model and likewise the tilt and shift lens aping Diorama Art Filter, which is now included among its six-strong digital effects. These are indeed fun, if used in moderation. Pop Art, Grainy Film, Pinhole Camera, Soft Focus and the E-PL1 exclusive Gentle Sepia make up the other choices.

And in the eyes of many consumers the E-PL1 will best its more expensive bigger brother due to the fact that, for the first time, Olympus has included a built-in, pop-up flash, activated by a thumb switch situated at the top left-hand edge of the camera back. As such it bears more than a passing resemblance to its main rival Panasonic's Lumix DMC-GF1, up until now the most compact Micro Four Thirds system camera to boast that feature. On both the Olympus E-P2 and E-P1 users were forced to shell out extra for the optional, distinctly Thunderbirds styled FL-14 flashgun if they needed artificial illumination.

Like its predecessors the "pitch" behind the E-PL1 is the portability of a compact, yet the image quality of a DSLR. That's down to both its physically larger sensor - the larger the chip, the better the image quality - and the fact that the lens on the front can be swapped to best suit any given scene or subject.

Like its forbears it's still too much of a squeeze with lens attached for the average pocket however, though we just managed it with a deep-pocketed winter coat, and opting for the 20mm "pancake" lens will reduce overall dimensions still. The best policy when taking the latest Pen out for the day is simply to attach the provided shoulder strap and literally shoot from the hip.

Whilst the E-PL1 is lightweight at a body-only 300g (compared with its forebears' 335g) enough to avoid aching shoulders, it feels as solid as we expected it to, having handled its steel and aluminium construction predecessors. But as perhaps could be expected, there's rather more plastic in evidence this time around to hit the more affordable price point. If it was the retro look, feel and "don't build 'em like that anymore" construction of the Pen series that appealed, last summer's E-P1 is still "the daddy" in those respects.

The headline features of the 12.3-megapixel Live MOS sensor incorporating model remain the same, or very similar to its Micro Four Thirds siblings. Like them the E-PL1 provides the advantage of in-body (mechanical sensor shift) image stabilisation so that any attached lens is theoretically protected against camera shake and resultant soft images. It appears to work effectively.

We also get 1280 x 720p HD AVI format movies at a smooth replay frame rate of 30fps with HDMI port, access to the Art Filters creative effects when recording such, plus, as a nod toward greater ease of use, a dedicated red record button top right of the camera back - an idea seemingly borrowed from Panasonic's GF1 - a press of which commences filming regardless of the stills shooting mode selected via the top plate dial. The sample below was shot in SD using the Diorama Art Filter, giving a quick time lapse effect. (There are some other HD videos we shot on YouTube, here and here.)

Despite this new backplate control a video icon still features on the main shooting dial, but whereas on the E-P1 and E-P2 pressing the shutter release button in this mode would commence video recording, doing the same thing here merely captures a stills image. So existing Digital Pen users now have to learn to use the one-touch red record button instead.

For stills shooting, users have the regular creative quartet of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Manual shooting modes, accompanied by separate Art Filter and Scene mode options, plus the wholly automatic iAuto (intelligent auto) which allows for point and shoot operation, the camera choosing which settings will provide optimal results for any given subject. At the camera's recent London launch, Olympus made great play of the reliable nature of this feature by asking journalists trialling the camera to limit their shooting purely to iAuto and Art Filter modes, which would, it claimed, still be capable of achieving professional-looking results.

Olympus has also simplified the process by which users can exercise hands on control over their shots, for example selecting a narrow depth of field and blurring backgrounds for more dynamic portraiture. Though not immediately obvious, hit the "select/OK" button when in iAuto mode and a range of coloured squares appear as a toolbar running from top to bottom at the right of the 2.7-inch LCD (smaller than the 3-inch screen of its predecessors, not that you'd notice), which Olympus is calling its new Live Guide.

Select one of these options and a slider control appears via which the photographer can control the severity of effect by tabbing up and down on the rear control panel cross keys and therefore nudging the on-screen slider in the direction of their choice. Adjustments appearing in real time, but in practice are quite hard to judge with great accuracy when viewing the screen outdoors in sunlight. The other options here include the ability to adjust colour saturation from muted to vivid, colour tones from cool to warm, tweak brightness (adjust exposure), and either freeze or blur action courtesy of the "Express Motions" setting, which unfortunately sounds like a bowel movement. 

As well as the simplified controls and functions that may frustrate more experienced users who will be better off with an E-P1 or E-P2, some headline features have also been clipped. Here light sensitivity is capped at ISO 3200, rather than the ISO 6400 of its bigger brothers.

When it comes to shooting with the camera, the E-PL1 is fast and responsive, though it does take a brief moment to automatically determine focus and exposure, confirmed with an affirmative bleep. A blocky handgrip to the front enables a firm, steadying hold, yet as the on/off button is located slap bang next to the shutter release button, it's easy for your forefinger to wander to the wrong control if you're concentrating fully on the action relayed by the LCD screen.

Once again, as on the E-P1 and E-P2, there's no optical viewfinder included as an alternative for framing a shot, though the E-PL1 is, like the E-P2 announced last December, compatible with the optional, tilting VF-2 electronic viewfinder (EVF) which is affixed via the vacant top plate hotshoe and newly-implemented accessory port beneath.

The original E-P1 didn't include this option and users instead had to make do with a £100 optical viewfinder (the VF-1). The new port not only allows for the attachment of an EVF but also an accessory microphone if so desired, so arguably the E-PL1 offers greater flexibility going forward than its more expensive E-P1 predecessor, if you can live with the plastic build and simplified control set.

Verdict

Small-ish and easy-ish to use, Olympus is claiming "big camera" results from its latest Pen. Pictures from it are invariably a match for its acclaimed predecessors if they're not quite, to our eyes, as sharp as a similarly priced mid-range DSLR with a physically larger lens can achieve.

On the plus side the E-PL1 is the most affordable Pen yet, and finally Olympus has included a built-in flash which is sure to extend its appeal beyond early adopters, consisting of Kevin Spacey fans and die-hard Pen enthusiasts.