Olympus PEN E-PL1 Micro Four-Thirds camera
Review Adding another variation to its popular PEN range of Micro Four-Thirds cameras, the Olympus E-PL1 has done away with the retro style of its siblings, added a pop-up flash and a dedicated movie record button. It has re-designed the menu layout for even simpler navigation, introduced a Live Guide mode for complete novices and downgraded some of the pro options.
Hybrid offshoot: Olympus' PEN E-PL1
To entice a larger number of beginners to the Micro Four-Thirds format Olympus also keeps the price of this new family member more in line with the consumer market – the body only version selling at £470. The £499 lens kit version includes a cheaper, plastic mount version of the collapsible 14-42mm lens.
The E-PL1 has a contemporary, sleek design and an all-plastic body that at 300g and 120.6 x 69.9 x 36.4mm is both lighter and smaller than its predecessors and most other models in this category. Despite its lightweight plastic construction, the body feels robust and has a raised textured handgrip on the front, which is more ergonomic than the flatter one featured on the E-P versions.
On the left of the top plate, in place of the shooting mode dial there is the new pop-up flash, which is activated by a sliding switch on the rear top right corner, and the familiar hot shoe and accessory port. The mode dial has been moved to the right of the top plate next to the shutter release and is raised rather than being encased in the body as in the E-P1 and E-P2. This repositioning certainly makes operating the mode dial easier.
Like its more expensive brothers the E-PL1 features Manual Mode, Shutter and Aperture Priority, Program Mode, iAuto, Art, Movie and a Scene mode with 19 pre-sets. The back of the camera has been simplified with fewer but larger and easier to press buttons and no control dials. Instead there are four directional buttons for accessing menu functions and a red button to start movie recording in any mode.
Retro styling has gone, but colour options are available
This cut down interface makes shooting simpler when used in program modes but a lot more complicated if you decide to go manual. The lack of the dual command dials for setting aperture and shutter speed means that, in order to change these key settings, you will have to do quite a lot of button pressing, which can be cumbersome and slow you down a lot.
Compared to the previous models the E-PL1 loses the Levelling feature and the built-in mic is now mono, rather than stereo. Top shutter speed is 1/2,000 second instead of 1/4,000 second and the fastest ISO setting is 3200 instead of 6400. The screen has also been reduced to 2.7in from the 3in of the E-P1/2 models, which is a bit of a disappointment.
The only real gripe is this PEN's screen is smaller at 2.7in.
The resolution is an average 230,000 dots but the LCD screen is quite bright and has a very wide viewing angle. In truth this new PEN should be considered more like a sophisticated compact camera with interchangeable lenses than a DSLR alternative. It offers more creative control than a point-and-shoot but not the flexibility of a DSLR. The optical viewfinder – a detachable accessory that slots into the hotshoe and included with the E-P2 kit – is extra.
The menu layout is simple and intuitive for the most part. You can access all the options in the menu via the four-way pad but the E-PL1 also offers what Olympus calls the Super Control Panel. This function groups together all the key settings in a grid on the LCD screen, that you can navigate to directly.
Another innovative addition to this latest PEN is the Live Guide mode. When the camera is in iAuto mode you can activate Live Guide by pressing the Start/OK button. This will bring on the display six icons, which, replacing photographic terms with results-based names, allow you to change key camera settings according to the outcome you want to get.
The options are Colour Saturation, Colour Image, Brightness, Blur Background, Express Motions and Shooting Tips. It is an ingenious way to make the usual program mode work in a more creative and personal way, letting anyone take better pictures without necessarily having to understand the principles of photography.
The 12.3Mp Micro Four-Thirds sensor is the same across the range
Despite its cheaper price tag the E-PL1 sports the same excellent 12.3Mp Live MOS sensor and the 324-point ESP metering system of the previous PENs and also retains their very effective Image Stabilisation system and Supersonic Wave Filter that protects the sensor from dust particles. Other features inherited from the previous models are: four different aspect ratio options (4:3; 3:2; 16:9 and 6:6), Face Detection with the ability to handle up to 8 different faces, Red-eye fix, two custom setting modes and the iEnhance mode that automatically boosts the dominant colour in a scene, i.e. reds in a sunset.
14-42mm Kit Lens
Since the release of the E-P2 Olympus has greatly improved the contrast-detection Autofocus performance, with the E-PL1 taking full advantage of this, being a much faster shooter than most compacts, although not nifty as a DSLR. In addition to Single Autofocus, Continuous Autofocus, Autofocus Tracking and Manual Autofocus the E-LP1 also has two simultaneous focusing options that work really well: Single AF + MF and Continuous Autofocus + Tracking. In manual focus the zoom button activates the enlarged display function, which allows for very accurate focusing by providing up to 14x magnification of the selected focus area.
Optical viewfinder attachment is an optional extra
The E-PL1 delivers the same great quality images of its predecessors, with well-calibrated exposures, rich colours and accurate handling of difficult lighting. Dynamic range is also very good, even in high contrast scenes. Noise control is really impressive for a camera at this level, delivering crisp images from ISO 200, its lowest speed, all the way to ISO 800. From ISO 1250 images start to be less smooth but even at the highest setting (ISO 3200) the noise levels are totally acceptable and certainly better than any compact alternative.
Olympus offers two ways to further reduce noise. There is a four-level noise reduction system that can be switched on or off and also a noise filter with three different settings (Low, Standard and High). While the noise reduction system works pretty well without over smoothing the details, the noise filters seems to have a stronger effect, even at the lowest setting, which results in some detail loss.
The E- PL1 inherits five of the Art Filters of the E-P2 (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama) and the Multiple Exposure feature, whilst adding a brand new Gentle Sepia effect. What makes these effects really great is that they are applied before taking the shot, so you can preview the final outcome. I’m quite partial to Olympus’s Art Filters as they produce artistic but realistic results that don’t look shamefully amateurish.
The Art Filters can be applied in movie mode but some of them reduce the frame rate to such an extent that the movies become jerky almost as a frame-by-frame film. The other drawback is that some of them take a very long time to process. The E-PL1 also have good in-camera editing options including a range of other editing operations such as trimming, resizing, saturation, shadow adjustment and Black & White conversion.
The E-PL1 records AVI movies in HD at 1280 x 720 and in SD at 640 x 480, both at 30 frames per second. Maximum recording time is 7 minutes in HD and 14 minutes in VGA or 2GB maximum file size. The E-PL1 lets you shoot movies in Program or Aperture Priority mode or gives you complete control over exposure in Manual mode. It also allows the use of a zoom lens while filming. The newly introduced C-AF + TR focusing mode can be used in movie mode with very good results. Even thought the built-in mic you there is an option for a stereo audio adapter and an external mic.
Arguably, the best hybrid compact around
The E-PL1 comes with a HDMI port with CEC control and uses SD memory cards. The BLS-1 lithium-ion battery used by the E-PL1 has a decent if not brilliant life with a rated 290 shots, which is considerably shortened if you make extensive use of the Art Filters or video recording.
With the E-P1 and E-P2 Olympus was targeting the enthusiasts and the serious photographers who were looking for a lighter and smaller alternative to a DSLR. The E-PL1 reflects a market shift by Olympus as it is aimed at the beginner and the compact owner who wants to upgrade to an interchangeable lenses system. This shift is reflected in the lower price, simplified interface and reduced features. This is in-line with Panasonic's offering of the DMC-G10 as a cheaper alternative to its DMC-G2. Being a Micro Four-Thirds model, the G10 is a direct competitor, but the E-PL1 is a good deal smaller and lighter. Indeed, if you're looking for an affordable, versatile compact hybrid, the Olympus E-PL1 is about as good as it gets. ®
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