Monday, February 13, 2012

Olympus Pen E-P1 Review

Olympus Pen E-P1 Review
February 2012, Carl Garrard 

Olympus Pen E-P1 Review- Not only do Olympus have a rich history of camera making and innovations that spans over decades, they also have made at least a couple classic designs that have not only stood the test of time but have engraved themselves into camera lore. Olympus have much of my respect as a camera maker and despite some recent financial hiccoughs with the parent company (putting it mildly), I see no reason they won't continue to make more wonderful cameras in years to come. Today, I'm talking about the Olympus Pen E-P1, Olympus's first mirrorless camera to the market.

Olympus PEN E-P1 Body Only Current Best Price Used and New
Olympus Pen E-P1 Review: Introduction

Olympus's E-P1 was their first D.I.L (digital interchangeable lens) camera, and at the time of its introduction warmed the hearts of many in the photography community immediately. Olympus added to the effect by marketing the E-P1 with sheer brilliance, even going so far to pay a wonderful artist to come up with a song for a video Olympus produced. With over three and a half million views, I'm sure my feelings are mutual for many many others. This video actually brought a tear to my eye on more than one occasion (happy tear or two of course).

Beautiful craftsmanship. Simple, elegant, purposeful- kind of like a ... Pen.

I don't recall how many times I listened to that song or watched the video, but each time I did I remember thinking how perfect of a song it was for the Pen's introduction. In a way too, it was a great reminder of the spirit of photography and how important it is in our culture and our personal lives. Each moment only happens once, we don't get a second chance.

My review is a reflection of how the E-P1 has made an impression on me thus far. It is a camera that I'll admit isn't my main camera, but instead fills a spontaneous niche in my photography- much like many other cameras that I own. It stands out as one of the better ones though, and for reasons the E-P1 sort of makes unique.

Note: Know that this review was written using the final version of the E-P1's firmware from Olympus, therefore this review doesn't suffer from the same "out of the gate" constraints that were reported in the initial reviews of the EP1. It's a bit more of a mature product as a result of the firmware upgrades and my review is based solely on its "finished" design.

Olympus PEN E-P1 Body Only Current Best Price Used and New

Olympus Pen E-P1 Review- Disclosure #1: This is the second time I've used an E-P1 for any length of time. I find that timing is sometimes important when it comes to evaluating a camera. My needs vary slightly over the course of time, and so does my attitude and perspective. Apparently I wasn't ready to be accepting of the E-P1 the first time around and in hindsight I find that to be ok now. I don't like to force myself to finish a review just because someone lent me a camera or because I purchased it. I like it to happen sort of naturally. My time with the EP1 the second time around has been a much different experience, as this review will reveal.

Olympus Pen E-P1 Review- Features

Olympus cameras are always loaded with useful, photography oriented, and sometimes flat out fun features. The bang for the buck factor is high with the E-P1. On the outside it looks simple, elegant, stylish and fun. The great thing is that you can shoot with it just that way, simple, and fun. But if you are like me and want more control over the camera the E-P1 is loaded with excellent features literally oozing out of its body moldings. 

The Olympus E-P1 was Olympus's first interchangeable lens camera designed without a mirror box, AF unit, or viewfinder.
Olympus PEN E-P1 Body Only Current Best Price Used and New

Some might say it has too many things packed in there but I completely disagree. It might take you a bit to work around the menus and set the camera up your own way- and that can be daunting initially- but after you get used to the camera its like you custom ordered it your way. I'd much rather have the inconvenience of an initial break in and set up period, and hefty menus, than to not have features I want or need to make a good photograph. I say don't be a whiner, take the time to get to know the camera and it will reward you in return.

The E-P1 is loaded with fun art filters that beg you to work outside your comfort zone and try new and challenging types of photography and compositional choices. I love the Art filters, and I love the Jpegs from them. I only wish the E-P1 had the cross processing filter the E-P2 has.

You can read the specification sheet for all of the E-P1's features if my E-P1 favorites list doesn't tick any of your boxes.

  • Art Filters- Grainy B/W, Pinhole, and Pop Art are my three favorites (I use pop art and an odd white balance setting to simulate cross processing with success)
  • Custom FN button- I have mine set for one touch manual white balance, but you can choose many other things for this button.
  • Quick Menu- Pressing the Ok button allows you to use an active interface to change almost all settings on the E-P1 fast, and without having to menu dive. After my initial set up and a few tweaks after, I rarely have to visit the menus of the E-P1. I love this feature.
  • Single Auto Focus w/Manual- Allows me to auto focus and touch up manually with a magnified (7x) view of my subjects if needed. This is the most versatile AF implementation I've ever used. Olympus aren't the only one to use it but its pretty rare in camera world to have it.
  • Super Sonic Wave Filter- Effective elimination of dust . Olympus pioneered it, everyone else (but Sony) copied it. Love it, love it, love it. A big weight off my mind and time savings in post processing.
  • In body image stabilization- a huge advantage.
  • Dual axis level gauge keeps your horizons and axis straight and true.
Olympus Pen E-P1 Review- Style

What can I say? Gorgeous. It's a totally gorgeous camera. The Original Pen line was a work of art that followed function, truly a masterpiece of a small camera design. It's a no brainer then to have looks of that camera, and the spirit of its simplicity in a digital version.

Not many, including myself, weren't taken by the heart when we first saw it. I still love looking at the E-P1 and picking it up. Just enough style with just enough external controls- a good design balance here- a good working camera that just looks stellar. How fun.

Olympus PEN E-P1 Body Only Current Best Price Used and New

Olympus Pen E-P1 Review- Handling

Ironically the small and simple body is a great handling one. There's just enough grip to feel firm and steady in the hand even with medium sized lenses attached. I wouldn't put a 300mm f/2.8 on the front of it, but any of the smaller primes and consumer zooms feel perfect on the Pen. Controls are well laid out for the most part and after extensive use became intuitive and second nature. I really like how the E-P1 handles. It's well balanced too, cool to the touch, and the buttons and dials all have a rigidity that speaks quality and usability.  

Going in and out of the coat pocket nothing on the camera body will snag or be accidentally changed. The E-P1 is especially wonderful in this regard with a small prime (like the 17mm f/2.8) attached. I think this combination is when the Pen shines the most and only wish Olympus had an array of small compact "pancake" primes in varied focal lengths for this camera. 

The top of the camera is laid out just right. The on/off switch has been given its own status light (a nice touch), the shutter release and EV button all located within easy reach of the forefinger. Importantly I never accidentally switch the camera on or off or need to double check where the top controls are with a quick glance. All three buttons feel different enough to be mapped mentally- just intuitively designed and placed.

Good sized shutter release, classy on/off switch light.  EV button is easy to reach and use.

Size- As is the E-P1 is a pretty small camera with a larger than average sensor- which is the main inspiration and draw to the digital Pen line. Carrying it around with the kit lens I find that it's not all that much larger than some of the more serious fixed lens compacts out there as long as you don't put on a huge lens. 

Surprised but the size comparison? So was I.

Sure the X-10 has a viewfinder and the lens is slightly longer on the telephoto end, but the advantages aren't all that great in real life use. I find the fiddly on/off switch of the X10 and small grip to be distractions for one handed shooting wherein the E-P1 is brilliant for quick one handed shots- something I absolutely insist upon having in a small camera.

Olympus PEN E-P1 Body Only Current Best Price Used and New

Olympus Pen E-P1 Review- Lens Wish list, Kit Lens Quality

A 12,14,17,25,35,and 45mm set of pancake primes could conceivably travel with me nearly undetected weight or space wise, covering a full frame equivalent of 24-90mm all with fast apertures. If I were the one making decisions on the Pen lens lineup, those would all have been in the pipeline from the get go like one big matching set. Olympus should still fill in those gaps now, I say. 

Back to reality, the 14-42mm kit lens is very decent and nearly covers that range in a very small form factor (although I don't like the locked zoom thingamajig- it's impractical and fiddly). Images are sharp, contrasty, and plenty good enough for my varied expectations. 

Auto focus is quick and Olympus's implementation of focus by wire is nearly perfect. It's one of the few focus by wire types that I actually like- normally I prefer mechanical focus 99 times out of 100.  I didn't notice its "focus by wire lag" ever- and that is how it should be.

Olympus Pen E-P1 Review- Image Quality

Olympus PEN E-P1 Body Only Current Best Price Used and New

12 megapixels will cover a vast array of needs for a photographer without taking up too much card space, processor power, or computer storage. I think 12mp is nearly perfect resolution for most tasks. The E-P1 makes gorgeous 20x30" prints uncropped at ISO's 100 and 200. Enough for me, more than enough for most. And that is without up sampling the images sizes, or even when processed from raw. 

At base ISO, the E-P1 gives plenty of detail, gorgeous colors, and excellent tones right out of the camera.

Jpegs are that good at those ISO values. Raise the ISO, and like all cameras, image quality starts to diminish incrementally. Still, it's not uncalled for to get a great looking 8x10 at ISO 3,200 assuming you pay minimal attention to a proper exposure. Just watch out for banding in the shadow regions on under exposed images. Overall the Jpegs are so good there is little to capitalize on output wise by shooting raw. I always shoot Raw+Jpeg so if the Jpeg is right from the start, I might keep that instead of the raw file at times. 

I'm smitten with Olympus's processing on Jpegs and the vast amount of control a user has on the output. It's all the fiddling and tweaking one could need from a camera- and that much forethought put into what users will need gives me happy thoughts about Olympus. A very photographer first oriented company.

Hint: Don't underexpose and then push your processing in Raw. Get your exposure correct the first time.

Raw- The highest ISO level that I'll use the E-P1 at and still feel totally comfortable is ISO 5,000. There is still plenty of good looking detail and low enough noise to make a great looking 10x14 or 8x10 photograph depending on how well you nailed the exposure. Some grain is present but I find it uniform and pleasing and not that much more than larger sensors at all. Take a look at the ISO 5000 shot below, shot in very dim light and hand held.

E-P1 ISO 5,000, ACR converted Raw file

Olympus PEN E-P1 Body Only Current Best Price Used and New

Image Quality Summary- Olympus has mastered the art of in camera Jpeg processing. Simply put, the E-P1 has Jpegs that often look good enough right out of the camera that I'd gladly rely on them and not have to spend time processing a raw file. Colors and contrast are next to fantastic- punchy without being overblown or oversaturated. Plenty of detail, plenty of dynamic range and tonal value. 

And I just love how much control I have over the amount of noise reduction in them. Olympus gives you the option to have highly detailed Jpegs if you don't want the camera to do much or any noise removal. This is critical for digital cameras if you ask me. The user pays for a camera, they should have the choice over the image quality that comes out of it.

Raw gives me more freedom to work with my exposure (safe for about 1 full stop of over exposure), white balance, and image output size and bit depth of course, but I find that I use raw less with the E-P1 simply because I'm so happy with the Jpegs. My only wish is that Olympus had a DNG raw file option like Panasonic, Pentax, and Leica do.

Image quality on the whole is very good to excellent. I don't find there to be that much sacrifice at all regarding the smaller 4/3 sized sensor when compared to other DSLRS I have. Do I have cameras that perform with better image quality than the E-P1? Sure of course I do. Yet most of my cameras aren't as portable as the E-P1. And you know what they say about having a camera with you...

Olympus PEN E-P1 Body Only Current Best Price Used and New

Olympus Pen E-P1 Review- Le Art Filters

I like them and encourage users to try them. The trick  is not to expect too much at first, just have fun with them. Later you might find like I do that the filters are not only really good, they help you to be more creative and help your mind to see a particular scene in advance with one of the 6 filters in mind. 

The Pop Art filter can give some interesting color nostalgia to images.
I like the punchy oversaturated contrasty look of the Pop Art filter

Olympus PEN E-P1 Body Only Current Best Price Used and New

After a while you might develop a new way of shooting- and even a style of shooting- that you might not have ever pursued before. As I mentioned earlier in the review I have 3 favorites that I use consistently- Pop Art, Grainy b/w, and Pin Hole. 

Grainy b/w used to be my favorite and only Art Filter used, but I've since moved onto the other two and indeed find uses for them. Still, Grainy b/w probably gets the most use and I only wish I had some basic control of the output. As is I still dig it, a lot.

ISO 3,200 w/Grainy b/w filter
Now that's just funny.

One good reason to like the Grainy b/w filter is that grain is the main theme, so feel free to shoot at whatever ISO you wish, just as I did above. Depending on your perception of what good image quality is, the grain can be very attractive, even on a larger print.

The pinhole Art filter is just flat out fun.

Olympus Pen E-P1 Review- Battery Life

Battery life is somewhat of a positive surprise. The supplied PS-BLS1 lithium ION battery runs at 1100mA and 8.4 volts. That isn't really a lot of battery power. And unless you like shooting blind the E-P1 relies on this battery 100% of the time off the rear LCD.  That said, here's the surprise. 

I was able to consistently get 4 hours of solid shooting time with the Ep1, which means about 350-700 shots off of one charge with varied power management and no use of a flash (I normally don't use flash anyways). For a small compact camera that I can take with me anywhere, that is more than enough battery life to rely on for a full day's shoot. I can comfortably manage the E-P1's battery life and know confidently that I won't run out before days end. I expected worse with the smaller battery to be honest. 

Glad I was pleasantly surprised.

Olympus PEN E-P1 Body Only Current Best Price Used and New

Olympus Pen E-P1 Review- Autofocus Comments
Autofocus is plenty good even in varied lighting on the E-P1 using the latest firmware update. For street shooting and landscape shooting, the E-P1 didn't disappoint. I found it to lock on at least 95% of the time, and accurately (the key).

Disclosure #2: I always use the center AF point on any camera (well near always), and the focus/recompose method. This works for me but often takes a bit more time to do in comparison to a traditional point focus shoot method.

Therefore AF speed is more critical at times doing things my way, and so it goes without saying I desire faster AF performance. Bottom line I don't recall the E-P1 giving me fits, at any point while using it. Even when using it on some moving subjects. It's no pro DSLR but when the situation calls for one of those I just use one of those.

Also worth noting is that I am using the second generation kit lens, which is supposed to be a bit faster in focusing than the original kit lens supplied with the E-P1.
Olympus Pen E-P1 Review- History

The current E-P1 "Pen" is designed in spirit from a historic line of Pen film cameras, the last of which was the Olympus Pen "FT" model. The Pen F model was probably the most popular overall and had great sales success worldwide. It is in the spirit of this model specifically that the E-P1 was designed after.

A bit about the Pen "F" quoted from Olympus:  

"The Olympus Pen F (1963) was the world's first and only half-frame system single-lens reflex camera, released in 1963. The camera featured a porro-prism finder and was the first to have a rotary titanium shutter. It could be used with a highly versatile range of 20 exchangeable lenses. The Olympus Pen F was a revolutionary camera packed with innovative features. The rotary shutter, which combined speed with durability, was reportedly perfected only after long and hard effort by Olympus engineers."

Here is an important note (in bold) about the Pen during its time. I find these comments interesting because I know a great many photographers who use the modern day Pen as a smaller substitute for their professional equipment- brand loyalty goes right out the window. Compact digital fixed lens cameras are being used less and less by Pro's as a secondary system, and Pens and mirrorless models seem to be replacing them more and more.

"The first-generation Olympus Pen camera appeared in 1959 and the design process began with the concept of creating a camera that could be sold for ¥6,000 yen. The Pen combined the superb photographic performance of the D-Zuiko lens with excellent portability, and it was also used by professional photographers as a secondary camera.

Over 17 million Pen cameras were distributed worldwide, and that's a lot of cameras. It says a lot about the design of the series, as well as it's innovations. The modern day Pen line does a good job of honoring its history both in design and market relevance, and most importantly execution.

Olympus Pen E-P1 Review: Final Conclusion
Olympus PEN E-P1 Body Only Current Best Price Used and New

For now, the E-P1 fits a solid niche in my photography. It's image quality is about a stop or two better than the best fixed lens compact cameras I've used, and it's not that much larger when using the kit lens or smaller lenses. I found very little to complain about with the E-P1 my second go (with much more extensive hands on) around with it. Simply stated the E-P1 did not frustrate me in any way, nor do I miss the convenience of a built in flash much, if at all. Like all cameras it's not perfect but that is an unattainable goal anyways.

I also found the E-P1 to be an elegant and rewarding tool to use. Something about the sound and feel of a focal plane shutter cycling in a camera so small is quite rewarding, and Olympus tuned the sound and feel of that shutter well. It's not too loud of a camera to use when volume is an issue, nor is it so quiet that I miss out on the feel and finality of the exposure. Attention to details like this really warm my heart and make using a photographic tool just that much more rewarding. 

The E-P1 is highly portable, and when I don't need a viewfinder its a good choice to bring with me- otherwise I prefer a K5 with a small lens attached. It's an easy camera to carry around with a couple different lenses and goes easily in and out of a coat pocket. It's also a great camera for backpacking when you want DSLR level quality but you don't want to sacrifice lens selection. The lenses are small and light. I can bring 3 Pen lenses that will weigh less than one DSLR lens with an equivalent focal length.

Features wise, the E-P1 pleases greatly. It has a lot of features that stand out for me, namely the in body image stabilization, dual axis level gauge, art filters, in camera raw development and Jpeg tweaking. It's dust reduction system is the best in the business (alongside Pentax) and that bodes well for worry free lens changes in most environments. These are the big things that stand out for me on the E-P1 on a daily basis. I'd hate to not have any of those features.

In terms of customization The E-P1 is loaded. Olympus may have a vast menu system but the amount of control and freedom that gives a user is almost unsurpassed by other manufactures. This I believe is one reason why some users prefer Olympus over other popular makes and models like Canon and Nikon. And while those two makes surely offer more than some others do, I think Olympus holds the record for customization amongst manufacturers. If anything its a three way tie between them, Pentax, and Ricoh.

I could write a book on the amount of control that the E-P1 gives the user over shooting parameters etc., but this is a review, not a book.

Having used many of the mirrorless models (but not all) I'm surprised that the E-P1 even though older than some, comes out at the top of the list for me. I was sure a Panasonic with its well organized menu system and black serious looks would win out, but so far the E-P1 has them all beat. I'm not really sure why that is either. Maybe photography is a bit more about the style of your equipment and how it makes you feel when you use it than I realized. No that isn't it. 

Simply put the E-P1 is a well designed and handling camera that offers a ton of control wrapped up in a stylish unassuming exterior that produces beautiful images. And for the price you can get one for nowadays, even brand new, this camera is simply a steal. This is one of the primary motivations for reviewing the E-P1 years after its introduction, but certainly not the only one.  I'm glad I gave the E-P1 a second shot.

 E-P1- Highly Recommended
 (Especially for today's new and used prices)

Olympus PEN E-P1 Body Only Current Best Price Used and New

As always, be safe and happy shooting.

-Carl Garrard


  1. Carl, great write up learned quite a bit from this review, been looking in at the Fujifilm X10 even with the "sensor bloom" anomalies. These cameras are really priced right,might have to go look at one if I can still find one local. Again, great write up.


  2. Thanks Mike! Glad you learned something. Never satisfied with the total amount of information I put in reviews, but even if I wrote a book I'm sure I'd be saying the same thing.

  3. I've been thinking of this or the EP-L2 with Panasonic's 20mm f1.7 lens as a basic kit to build a collection of affordable rf primes around. I love the look of the L2, but not thoroughly convinced with the plastic feel.

  4. Between Panasonic's GF1 and Olympus's Pen series you'd think an easy decision could be made. It's not an easy one! I think an E-P2 with a built in flash would make it a no-brainer. :)

    The E-P1 will likely not be my last Pen or m4/3 body.


    1. I sold my GF1, kept the Ep2 and bought an ep1. I prefer the olympus jpegs and menus

  5. Because of this review I just found an bought a white good looking!

  6. thank you for this terrific review and reminder... i agree with your review emphatically... i've been using an e-p1 for about 1.5 years... very happy... so far, i can't find a reason to upgrade although i did purchase a dmc-gf2 mainly for the 14mm lens... the camera was a $100 rear lens cap...

    i believe the e-p1 will eventually be considered a classic... certainly it was the first of it's kind... Thanks again!

  7. Thanks for the very thought provoking review - I had been considering picking up a E-P2 to "fit between" my Pentax K-5 system and Fuji X-10 and this nudged me over the edge to go ahead and do it - at under $500 with the 17mm pancake lens they are simply a steal before they are gone for good... (not to mention that the black body with 17mm silver lens is darned nice looking and will be a sweet set should I add the 12mm $ 45mm primes someday). One other thing really nice about the E-P series is that it is so easy to shoot at multiple aspect ratios, especially square format which I' m interested in doing for a creativity spike. It really is different to shoot & frame square as opposed to crop afterwards...

  8. One thing about my E-P1 that annoys me is the number of menu steps required to put the camera in to AEB (Automatic Exposure Bracketing) mode.

  9. Yep the menus can be heavy. When olympus nails the menu system and continues to improve its sensors they will blast off in the mirrorless category. Those two areas scare away customers currently but as the OMD-EM5 shows, they are catching up sensor wise.

    I think Olympus should make a 10mp and 18mp version of the next OMD- one for low light shooters, and one for those who prefer resolution.