It's a point-and-shoot! It's a DSLR! No, actually, it's a Micro Four Thirds camera. What's that, you say? It's a class of camera that attempts to match digital SLRs' speed and image quality, but uses the same technology as a point-and-shoot, which, in part, keeps them much smaller than DSLRs. The idea of the Olympus PEN E-P1 ($799) is to give consumers and advanced photographers the best of both worlds: an excellent portable camera that that also takes strong photos. While the image quality is up to snuff and it's faster than a point-and-shoot, the speeds don't quite match lower-priced, full-size DSLRs, and you don't get an integrated flash. Nevertheless, the E-P1 is one of the most innovative cameras of the year.
What is Micro Four Thirds?
First things first: although it's not fair to classify the E-P1 as a point-and-shoot, it works more like one than a DSLR (which, for the record, it is not). The name Four Thirds refers to the size of the camera's sensor, which is the same as a DSLR's. However, a DSLR, which stands for "digital single lens reflex," has an internal mirror system that contributes to its unbeatable speeds. Although the E-P1 and other Micro Four Thirds cameras also have removable lenses ( la DSLRs), they lack this mirror system. By removing this mirror, and instead making the camera run the way a simple pocket camera does, manufacturers have been able to build devices that deliver comparable image quality and manual control, but in a much smaller package.
As befits a camera that's not a point-and-shoot and most certainly not a DSLR, the E-P1 has a singular design that's sure to get double-takes from friends and passersby. As advanced as it is on the inside, the E-P1's exterior has a retro feel. The shape helps: at 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.5 inches and 1.2 pounds, it has a thick, rectangular build that's reminiscent of an older camera. And we mean that in the best way: thanks to details such as a leather-like hand grip and a stainless steel chassis (available in silver or white), the E-P1 is sure to make the wearer look hip.
Unlike other Olympus cameras, which accept the company's proprietary (and relatively expensive) xD format, the E-P1 only accepts the more common SD/SDHC format, which was a pleasant surprise. One thing you won't get on the E-P1 is a viewfinder, whether optical or electronic. The fact that Olympus chose to omit it is one reason the E-P1 is smaller than other Micro Four Thirds cameras, including Panasonic's two models, the DMC-G1 and GH1, both of which look more like shrunken DSLRs. Still, the shot-to-shot speed of all three will remain about the same, since the viewfinders on the Panasonic cameras are electronic, not optical. However, we found ourselves squinting at the E-P1's LCD as if it were a viewfinder; for some people, not having one will be an ergonomic adjustment.
Although it offers full manual control, the E-P1 doesn't have many more buttons than a point-and-shoot. That's good news for one of Olympus' target demographics: those looking to step up to a more advanced camera for the first time.
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On the top of the camera (left to right) is a mode dial, a hot shoe for an external flash (not included in the kit), a power button, the shutter, and a small button for adjusting exposure. The lack of an integrated flash may be a dealbreaker for some; Olympus sells one (the FL-14) for $199, but since the shoe is a standard mount, nearly any external flash can be used.
The large 3-inch LCD takes up most of the camera's backside. A smattering of controls flank it, including playback, menu, info, and delete buttons; a function button to turn off the LCD; an AEL/AFL (autoexposure lock/autofocus lock) button; a zoom dial; and a five-way click wheel whose sides double as ISO, autofocus, white balance, and self-timer/continuous shooting controls.
Navigating the menus was mostly self-explanatory; we were especially fond of a built-in leveler that shows you if the photo you're about to take is level with the horizon. The only thing that felt confusing at first was how and when we could take advantage of the click wheel. In a menu, you can spin the wheel to move down a menu, but not to move left or right; to do that, you still need to press the right or left side of the navigational pad. In playback mode, you can't use the click wheel to quickly move through photos and videos; it simply controls movie playback volume.
Finally, the zoom dial, located on the back side in the upper right hand corner, is only there for you to zoom in and out of photos in playback; it's tempting to adjust it while framing a shot, but for that you'll have to rotate the zoom ring on the lens.
When it comes to manual control, the E-P1 has something for everyone. Fairly inexperienced shooters will appreciate Intelligent Auto Mode, which automatically adjusts the settings and selects the scene mode depending on the shooting conditions. More advanced users can play with Manual mode (full manual control), shutter priority, aperture priority, and program mode; each offer plenty of control, but will save your current settings even if you briefly turn the dial to, say, movie mode. There is also a dedicated SCN option on the dial, with 19 scene modes in total. One, ePortrait, smooths out wrinkles and other skin blemishes; indeed, when we shot a man with a weathered face, his skin looked softer and more evenly balanced once we applied this shooting mode.
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The E-P1 delivers on its promise of strong image quality; our 12.3-megapixel photos, while imperfect, were on a par with what we'd get with an entry-level DSLR, and were undoubtedly better than the test shots we usually take with point-and-shoots. Across the board, the colors in our photos were lively, yet accurate. Regardless of whether we shot in a colorful amusement park or on a ferry while surrounded by overcast skies, we were generally pleased with our shots.
However, it wasn't until we left Intelligent Auto mode that we took our best shots. In Auto mode, our photos were consistently underexposed; once we moved to manual or program mode and bumped the exposure up anywhere between 0.3 and 1.0, we were more satisfied with our photos. This made a particularly big difference when we were shooting in cloudy conditions, or when our subject was strongly backlit and we wanted to suss out as much shadow detail as possible. When we remembered to stay out of Auto mode and use Program instead, the camera flourished in low-light situations.
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Although the included 14-42mm lens is wider than a typical DSLR kit lens (18-55mm), our Macro shots were nonetheless some of the best we took. Although there are dedicated scene modes for both Macro and Nature Macro shooting, we preferred to stay in one of the Auto or manual modes, and play with both our distance from the subject and the extent to which we extended the zoom. All of our macro shots showed outstanding detail while blurring the background in an artful way. However, we found that we had to experiment more with our distance from the camera and our zoom before we could get the subject fully in focus; the entry-level DSLRs we've tested focused much more quickly.
Continuous Shooting and Shot-to-Shot Speed
Continuous shooting and shot-to-shot speeds are the biggest things you'll sacrifice if you opt for the E-P1 over a DSLR. Although our shots were clear, in a fast-moving situation, we would have had even more options to choose from had we used a DSLR--and perhaps we would have been less likely to miss the shot we really wanted.
Specifically, the E-P1 can shoot up to 3 frames per second at full resolution (the Canon EOS Rebel XSi, a DSLR that also costs $799, fires off 3.5 frames per second). We put this feature to the test while shooting a troupe of breakdancers performing on the street. Although some shots were marred by a blurry foot, we left with a handful of crisp action shots that we looked forward to showing off later.
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Likewise, while riding on a ferry, we stood in the back of the boat and photographed the fast-moving wake. When we used continuous shooting, we could make out the detail in the crest and bubbles; when we used single-shot mode, however, the photo looked blurry.
The single shot-to-shot speeds, while faster than an average point-and-shoot, were still markedly slower than what you'd get from a DSLR. The problem is that the E-P1 relies solely on Live View, the same way a digital point-and-shoot does. Every time we've tested Live View on a DSLR, we've found that the shot-to-shot speed increases compared to using viewfinder. Framing shots through the E-P1's LCD screen is like using Live View on a DSLR; while there isn't a whole lot of shutter lag (less than a second), the picture lingers on-screen for a frustrating five seconds while you potentially miss other photo ops.
Like many point-and-shoots (and an increasing number of DSLRs), the E-P1 shoots 720p video. As with a DSLR, this feature holds plenty of possibilities, because you can tweak all the settings--exposure, ISO, etc.--before you begin recording. In short, our video was one of the things we liked best about the E-P1, and, aside from its relatively compact design, is one of the few things it offers that most DSLRS don't.
The camera records up to 7 minutes of 720p video at a time, and up to 14 minutes of VGA (640 x 480) video at one go. Our 720p videos all showed lots of detail, and delivered rich sound, from carousel music to the sound of people screaming on a roller coaster. We rarely say this about cameras, but we would use this as a camcorder. Not all the time, to be sure, but if we were on vacation we'd be happy to bring just the E-P1.
While DSLRs also have interchangeable lenses and offer the same kind of manual control, filming with them is a more unwieldy experience, since one generally has to balance them on a tripod while adjusting both the manual focus and zoom rings (see our Nikon D90 review to learn more). The E-P1, however, has autofocus. Just make sure to go into the settings and select continuous Autofocus (C-AF) so that the camera will refocus as you turn your attention to different subjects.
However, we did notice that the E-P1 was slow to refocus, and there was often a second of blurriness before the camera jerked to attention and focused on the new subject. Also, be aware that while the E-P1 uses mechanical image stabilization for still photos, it uses electronic IS for movies, which we've generally found to be less effective than optical or mechanical IS.
While the E-P1 caters to advanced shooters by offering full manual control, it attempts to appeal to less technical photographers as well. In addition to Intelligent Auto mode, users can play around with six art modes: Pop Art (think oversaturated, Andy Warhol-esque colors); Pin Hole, which leaves a dark border around the image; Soft Focus; Pale & Light color (think of photos from the '60s and '70s with a blue-green overcast); Light Tone; and Grainy Film, which, true to its name, makes photos black-and-white and more textured (read: noisier) than any photo you'd take with a modern-day digicam.
Personally, we could take or leave Soft Focus, Pale & Light, and Light Tone, but the Grainy Film, Pop Art, and Pin Hole effects made for some interesting shots. Everything we took with Grainy Film automatically appeared grittier. Our photos taken with Pop Art, meanwhile, took on a surreal tone. And while it isn't exactly subtle, Pin Hole helps draw the eye to a certain element of the picture (a skyline and the Statue of Liberty, in our case).
These effects apply not just to photos, but to movies. In the case of movies, three of the six effects (Grainy Film, Pop Art, and Pin Hole) will slow the frame rate down from 30 frames per second to 15 fps. Depending on your subject and the filter you choose, the effect can be artistic or downright creepy. Case in point: our crawling, black-and-white footage of a carousel, complete with carnival music in the background, seemed vaguely sinister.
It's important to note that you can't apply these effects after a JPEG photo has been taken; you must first select Art mode on the dial. Moreover, we noticed that the camera took longer to process photos taken with a special effect than those taken without. We don't recommend playing with these settings in a fast-moving situation, because you'll feel frustrated watching a photo op fly by while the camera continues to digest your last shot.
Battery Life, Software, and Warranty
The E-P1 has a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which took more than 350 photos and several HD videos before dying. For many people, this will be enough, but in our case we didn't get through a full day of shooting before needing to swap in a juiced-up spare. If you're a more advanced photographer, or just planning on taking your camera on vacation, you might crave more endurance, too.
You can conserve energy by pressing a button on the back of the camera to turn off the LCD when you're not framing a shot. For people who are afraid of missing a shot because they turned their camera completely off, turning off just the LCD is a faster, more energy-conscious way to remain poised for the next photo op; the screen turned on and was ready to go in under a second. If you turn the camera off completely, it takes less than two seconds to start up, which is still fast for a point-and-shoot.
Advanced users will also appreciate that the Olympus Master software supports both the JPEG and RAW format, meaning they can tweak a photo's properties--such as exposure and noise--more finely, and before it's fully processed. The EP-1 has a one-year warranty.
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For many shoppers, DSLRs' bulky shapes are a deal-breaker, and that's why we like the Olympus PEN E-P1. If you want the image quality of a DSLR along with a more compact design (and can afford to pay a premium), this camera is a compelling choice. The E-P1 is also a smart buy for serious photographers looking for something smaller than a DSLR but more advanced than a point-and-shoot. Although entry-level DSLRs often offer better speed and lower prices (street prices have dipped below $500), Olympus deserves credit for evolving digital cameras in the right direction.