Olympus PEN E-PL1 Review

olympus e-pl1 photo

My first full day taking pictures with the Olympus E-PL1 for this guide made one thing readily apparent: mirrorless DSLRs really are in their own category.

The E-PL1 seamlessly blends the low weight and portability of a compact along with all the custom features and manual controls you'd expect in a DSLR.

It was definitely strange at first to take pictures only using the LCD - I kept wanting to put my eye up to a nonexistent viewfinder. However, if you've only ever used compact digital cameras then this won't be a compulsion that you'll have to overcome.

I was able to find most of the custom controls without the use of the manual, which is my own personal test for a camera's usability. If I have to go digging through a manual just to figure out how to change ISO, then that points to a flaw in the camera's layout.

Once I got the hang of adjusting the camera's settings, I was having a ball snapping all manner of shots from sweeping panoramas to flowers to wildlife close-ups.

In this Olympus E-PL1 guide, I'll try to explain how you can too.

Look and Feel

olympus e-pl1 photo

The term that I'd use of the shape and styling of the Olympus E-PL1 is "retro-tastic".

Despite all of its modern features, the camera really looks like a throwback to a 35mm film camera that you might have come across 50 years ago.

The camera's good looks do not come at the expense of ergonomics: with its extended grip and slightly chunky body, the E-PL1 is quite easy to hold in one hand...provided you don't have a huge lens attached to it.

Both camera and lens feel quite solid when gripped, yet remain light: you can easily forget that you've got this camera slung over your neck or shoulder.

I did like that the camera had some depth to it - this seemed to improve the grip and I didn't feel like E-PL1 was going to slip out of my hand, even when held at arm's length.

The battery compartment and SD memory card slot are placed at the bottom corner of the camera next to a traditional tripod mount sample photo, and the back of the camera is fairly uncluttered sample photo. The round SET button and the four directional arrows are used to access all of the camera's menus and settings.

Camera Control

The top of the E-PL1 - what there is of it - is used up by the built-in flash, the camera's hot shoe (for an accessory viewfinder and larger flash units), the shutter release button, power button and the main control dial.

The main control dial lets you choose between one movie mode and multiple still image modes:

AUTO IMAGE MODESMANUAL IMAGE MODES
  • Automatic (iAUTO)
  • Scene (SCN)
  • Artistic (ART)
  • Program (P)
  • Aperture Priority (A)
  • Shutter Priority (S)
  • Manual (M)

In the auto modes, the camera pretty much does all the thinking for you. While you can make a lot of choices about how your photos turn out, you don't have to know a thing about photography to get decent shots. Auto modes are for anyone with a point-and-shoot sensibility.

For those who don't want a computer doing their thinking for them, the manual modes are the way to go: they provide precise control over aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, color tone and more.

Automatic Mode

The "i" in iAUTO stands for "intelligent" and it means that the camera will do its best to make every picture you take look great.

However, you can get the same sort of functionality from a compact camera for a lot less cash...just take a little bit of manual control here is going to let you start taking pictures your way rather than letting the engineers at Olympus dictate how your photos will look.

But for some, the idea of taking manual control of a camera is akin to jumping into the deep end of the pool when you don't know how to swim.

Since that's the case, the Olympus E-PL1 offers up something called a "live guide" in iAUTO mode. I prefer to call it the "wading pool" of camera control.

The live guide lets you begin to change the way your photos look without requiring hours studying dusty photography how-to manuals in the library.

For example, to make your photos brighter, just select the Change Brightness option in the live guide, and then move the slider that appears in the direction of "Bright".

All told, the live guide provides you with 5 basic settings that you can manipulate:

  1. Change Color Saturation — from "Flat and Muted" to "Clear and Vivid"
  2. Change Color Image — from "Cool" to "Warm"
  3. Change Brightness — from "Dark" to "Bright" sample photo
  4. Blur Background — from "Sharp" to "Blur"
  5. Express Motions — from "Stop Motion" to "Blurred Motion"

This certainly doesn't offer the full level of camera control that some people might hope for, but it's a start for those who want to wrest some control away from the camera to make their photos more personal.

Scene Modes

A second alternative for people who want some measure of control without a steep learning curve are the scene modes.

I've always been skeptical of scene modes since all they really do is replicate camera settings that you can change yourself, but a few of the scene modes on the Olympus E-PL1 did prove useful.

First, here's a quick list of every scene mode - all 19 of 'em! - that you'll find on the E-PL1:

  • Portrait
  • e-Portrait
  • Landscape
  • Landscape + Portrait
  • Sport
  • Night Scene
  • Night + Portrait
  • Children
  • High Key
  • Low Key
  • Dis Mode
  • Macro
  • Nature Macro
  • Candle
  • Sunset
  • Documents
  • Panorama
  • Fireworks
  • Beach and Snow

Now, the difference between Macro and Nature Macro might not be readily apparent - it sure isn't to me. However, there IS a clear difference between High Key (bright) and Low Key (dark).

olympus e-pl1 photo

In particular, the High Key scene mode is a good option when you're taking pictures in the shade. Digital cameras often under-expose in the shade and the E-PL1 is no exception. A quick way to compensate for this is to choose the High Key mode every time you take pictures in the shade.

Other scene modes are not as useful and can in fact be quite challenging to use. For example, in Sports mode, the camera shifts the autofocus from one shot to continuous (meaning the autofocus tries to track your subject as it moves).

If the autofocus tracking were high-speed and spot-on accurate the this would be great. Unfortunately, the tracking autofocus can't quite keep up with a moving subject. This means that you'll probably get MORE blurry shots in Sports mode than you will in regular old iAUTO mode.

The best advice that I can provide for scene modes is this: just give them a try.

If you want to take a flower close-up then it certainly doesn't hurt to select Macro Mode. The same applies if you're taking a picture at Sunset or by Candle light.

Beware though that some of the modes can actually compromise image quality rather than improving it.

Art Modes

The art modes are where the Olympus E-PL1 really shines and it's a lot of fun to experiment with them.

One interesting side effect of having these artistic modes at your disposal is that you might find yourself actually looking for photo opportunities that can leverage the different filters.

First, let's take a look at what's offered (click any photo to see larger):

olympus e-pl1 pop art olympus e-pl1 soft focus olympus e-pl1 diorama
Pop Art Soft Focus Diorama
olympus e-pl1 grainy black and white olympus e-pl1 gentle sepia olympus e-pl1 pinhole
Grainy Black and White Gentle Sepia Pinhole

As I used the Olympus E-PL1 for this guide, I would go out of my way to look for opportunities to use the art filters.

For example, walking about a city, I found a high vantage point so that I could use the Diorama setting - which makes humans and cars appear to be part of an elaborate model sample photo.

I also used the Diorama setting when taking photos of a train yard sample photo and was quite pleased with the results.

Taking portraits, I tried Soft Focus mode, to give the image a soft dreamy look.

olympus e-pl1 pinhole

I found lots of uses for the Pinhole effect, especially when taking photos that required a grungier look - like the inside of a carpet warehouse.

Obviously, these filters can be over-used. If every image you take has some sort of effect applied to it, the look gets old pretty fast.

But for a handful of images, it's fun to think creatively about how you can apply a filter to create an image with more impact. This type of creative thinking is a real benefit when taking pictures and it can help you see NEW photo opportunities that you might have missed otherwise.

Important note: when you use Art Modes, the preview image that displays on the E-PL1's LCD is delayed and jerky. This makes capturing images of moving subjects VERY challenging.

Manual Modes

As if all the automatic and semi-automatic modes weren't enough to keep you snapping away for hours, the E-PL1 also has manual modes: Program (P), Shutter Priority (S), Aperture Priority (A) and full Manual (M).

You can use these manual modes to control the exposure precisely by manually adjusting shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

olympus e-pl1 exposure compensation

These controls exist so that if you want to intentionally over or under expose your images you can.

The one manual control that I always seek out on a camera is something called exposure compensation. In its simplest form, exposure compensation lets you make your photos look brighter or darker.

Why is exposure compensation necessary? It's useful because the E-PL1's light sensor doesn't always get the automatic settings right.

For example, if you take a photo in very deep shade, the camera may actually under expose the photo a bit. If you want the image to appear lighter, you can adjust the exposure compensation to brighten it up.

Another useful tool on the E-PL1 for the more advanced photographer is a real-time histogram display.

The histogram is super-imposed on the live preview image that displays on the camera's LCD and tells you exactly if your photo is too dark or too bright. Using exposure compensation control in conjunction with the histogram helps to ensure that all of your exposures turn out well.

ISO

Part of what makes mirrorless DSLRs like the E-PL1 so appealing is the size of their sensors.

Since the E-PL1 sensor is larger than a sensor in a compact digicam, it produces a lot less noise at high ISO settings (the higher the ISO value, the more noise / grain you see).

I could spend all day writing about how little noise I perceived in the high ISO images, but instead I'll just let you be the judge.

olympus e-pl1 iso 1600

The photo at right was taken at ISO 1600. Click the image to view the photo at its original size and you will definitely see some speckling...but this is not bad for a high ISO like 1600..

When it comes to ISO, you should know that the E-PL1 will automatically select a reasonable ISO unless you are in one of the Manual modes (in which case you have to set ISO yourself).

If you keep an eye on the ISO number on the LCD screen, you'll see it range from 100 to 1600 depending on the amount of available light you're working with. If you're outside on a sunny day it will be between 100 and 200 and if you step indoors, it will automatically shift between 800 and 1600.

The nice part about this auto ISO setting is that it reduces the potential for image blur, regardless of the amount of available light.

As the available light goes down, you run the risk of getting blurry shots since the shutter speed also slows down to compensate for the lack of light. Since higher ISO numbers also result in faster shutter speeds, the camera's ability to switch automatically means that you get more clear shots in dim available light.

Image Stabilization

olympus e-pl1 photo

When you can shoot pictures hand-held in incredibly dim light and still get crystal-clear shots, you can thank the image stabilization (IS) system.

The best way that I can describe the IS in the E-PL1 is like this: it's photographic peace of mind for low-light photographers.

The IS in the E-PL1 is built-in to the camera body: this means that you get IS with every micro four thirds lens you attached to the camera.

Without stabilization, I typically see image blur right around 1/30th of a second (although this does depend on the lens and the stability of the photographer).

With the stabilization in the E-PL1 I was snapping away at 1/10th of a second and not really all that worried if my shots would turn out.

Being able to take pictures at these shutter speeds without using a tripod opens up a whole range of photographic opportunities.

First and foremost, you can take pictures in very dim available light. People who enjoy photographing inside museums, aquariums and other such places where flash is often not allowed will get great results.

However, stabilization can also be used in brighter light to create motion blur effects.

If you've ever seen a shot of a waterfall where the water looks like a sheet of glass, that's due to a slow shutter speed. In the past, you needed a tripod to create such an effect, but with the E-PL1 it's not necessary.

Autofocus

Overall, the autofocus on the E-PL1 is just about what I'd expect from a mirrorless DSLR.

It's not nearly as fast as what you'd get with a normal DSLR, nor is it as painfully slow to use as a regular compact camera.

By default, the camera uses a grid of autofocus boxes that are spread out across the entire LCD display.

One big difference between this setup and what you get with a regular compact is that you can manually select the box the E-PL1 is using as a focus point.

This is helpful if you're trying to zero in on an off-center subject and the camera is struggling to lock focus.

Another nice feature is the face-detection autofocus, which can recognize multiple faces in a scene. To try out this feature I took a group shot of children at a small family reunion.

olympus e-pl1 photo

So long as the kids were facing the camera - a rare occurrence I know - the E-PL1 was clearly finding the faces in the scene despite their proximity to each other.

While the autofocus for still images works quite well, using the same system for movies is more challenging.

I only had problems when I was trying to track a moving subject or when I zoomed the lens from wide angle to telephoto.

I expected the video to get blurry when I zoomed in, but was surprised at how tricky it was to get the image BACK in focus.

I found that the E-PL1 takes a bit of time to get things back in focus (the image blurs, turns sharp, blurs and turns sharp). While you can use manual focus, I found this even more challenging than using the autofocus. It might work on subjects that aren't moving very much but it's quite hard to do with action.

To try the camera out on some moving subjects, I took it along to my son's soccer practice.

I set the autofocus mode to "Continuous" so that it would constantly adjust to keep track of the subjects running around the field. The sample video below illustrates the results of this exercise: you can see that continuous autofocus is hit or miss. Sometimes the video is in focus, and sometimes it's quite blurry.

Please note that this is a challenging situation since the subjects are constantly moving either toward or away from the camera.

If the subject-to-camera distance is a relative constant, then you won't have such issues: autofocus once before you start capturing video, and the entire video will be nice and sharp.

Movie Mode

The one-touch movie capture button on the back of the E-PL1 makes capturing video in the middle of a photo session a snap.

The E-PL1 also has a dedicated movie mode that you can select using the main control dial, but I found myself using the movie button far more often.

The E-PL1 captures video in the Motion JPEG format and you can select between two different video sizes:

  1. 1280 x 720 (suitable for playback on a High Definition TV)
  2. 640 x 480 (suitable for playback on a computer)

Moving around while taking video shows of the capabilities of the built-in image stabilization system: camera shake is reduced and the resulting video is very smooth.

You can adjust the exposure settings manually in movie mode and you can also apply art filters.

I tried out one art filter and stopped: the application of the filter results in VERY choppy video playback that is not synched at all with the audio.

While I did experiment a bit with manual exposure controls, I found it unnecessary for "typical" video capture. If you want to create short feature films with your E-PL1 then it's useful - for all other home video needs, auto mode works just fine.

Flash

I appreciated the inclusion of a small built-in flash on the E-PL1 — a feature that's missing on both the E-P1 and E-P2.

The flash is not all that powerful, but you can use it to add just a touch of fill light to a scene with plenty of natural light. For this it's a real benefit to have the flash always attached to the camera.

When the flash is the ONLY light source, the results are pretty harsh.

If you think that you'll be taking a lot of flash pictures, then I would recommend that you pick up a more versatile external flash unit like the Olympus FL35R or the FL50R.

And if you do get one of those external flashes, you'll actually get TWO for the price of one: the built-in flash on the E-PL1 can act as a remote trigger for either one of these external flashes.

This means that your main flash does not have to be on-camera. You can set your remote flash some distance from the camera and have it go off every time you take a picture just by activating the built-in flash.

Playback

The E-PL1 has an HDMI out port so that you can connect the camera to an HDTV with a mini HDMI to HDMI cable.

My kids got a real kick out of seeing the video that I took of them up on the big screen, sort of like "look Mom, I'm on TV!"

Still images also look pretty spectacular when viewed on a large screen but beware: every single little mistake you make will be readily apparent. While you might not notice focusing or blurring when you view images on the camera's LCD, you SURE do see them when the photo is up on a giant screen.

If you're just viewing stills, the E-PL1 has a built-in slideshow mode. When you start the slideshow, the E-PL1 transitions through your photos and you can select the type of music that you want to play in the background.

It's a nice way of showing off the images from your latest trip to family and friends.

Extras

Here's the part of the E-PL1 guide where I talk about some of the more obscure camera features.

These features really are for special uses, but it's worthwhile to mention them for those folks who want their cameras to do more than just take "normal" photographs.

FEATUREDESCRIPTION
Multiple ExposuresBlend two consecutive images together into a single photo.
Wireless FlashThe E-PL1 can remotely trigger Olympus FL-36R and FL-50R flash units. When the remotes sense the light from the built-in flash, they also fire. Great for multi-light portrait setups.
Live HistogramA real-time histogram can be displayed on the LCD while you're taking pictures. Adjustments to exposure are instantly reflected in the histogram.
Bracketing

Notes and Tips

Here's the most important tip that I can provide when using the E-PL1: keep track of the lens cap.

The lens on this camera is so small that you wind up with a wafer-thin lens cap.

Over my brief period of time using the E-PL1 I thought that I'd lost the lens cap on three separate occasions. Turned out the thing was just in my pocket, but I could not tell because it's so small.

A second piece of advice is related to the scene and art modes: using the same subject, cycle through each different setting and take a single picture.

If you use the settings in order, then it's pretty easy to later match the image with the scene mode or filter you applied.

The reason to do this is to see the variations that occur in each different mode. For example, doing this will help you determine if there REALLY is a difference between "Portrait" and "Night Portrait" mode.

If you don't find some settings at all useful to your style of photography, then you can safely ignore them in the future.

Overall Impression

The ergonomics of the E-PL1 are great: I like how the camera felt in my hand.

Although small, the E-PL1 body feels quite solid and has some heft to it. You don't get the impression that you've just purchased a $500 piece of plastic.

olympus e-pl1 photo

With the regular 14-45mm lens on the front this camera won't slide into a pocket, but it's far more portable than a normal DSLR. I took it just about everywhere while I was using it for this guide and found it easy to tote around for an entire day.

I really like the ease-of-use of the video mode. The dedicated movie capture button on the back of the camera lets you capture video regardless of the mode the camera is in.

This means that if you're busy snapping pictures and a spontaneous video moment takes place you can capture it with ease. You don't have to stop and think "gee, how do I switch over to video mode again?"

Unfortunately you're not going to get perfect autofocus when shooting movies right out of the box.

I had more than one moment where the focus was WAY off and the camera could not seem to get it back again. However, I like to push the boundaries of what a camera is capable of.

If your video-taking leans more toward still life or if you think more like a film-maker and plan out your shots ahead of time, then having to shift autofocus quickly in the middle of a shoot won't ever be an issue.

I had a lot of fun with the art filters.

olympus e-pl1 photo

I'm not the type of person who spends a lot of time editing my photos to give them a certain "look" — I just don't have the time.

The nice part about the art filters is that I could apply a specific effect the moment I was inspired, rather than after the fact. This got the right side of my brain fired up, and led to more creative and interesting images.

And last - but certainly not least - I was impressed with the image quality produced by such a tiny camera, especiallly at high ISO values.

The benefit of the larger sensor was quickly apparent when images at ISO 800 and even 1600 didn't look like a grainy mess.

The compact size, great low-light performance and easy video capture make the E-PL1 a camera ideally suited for people on the go who want to capture the world around them the moment inspiration strikes.

Guide Published: August 2010