Review: Olympus E-P1 Digital Pen (Part 1)

Olympus E-P1 Front

This is the Olympus E-P1 , the digital camera that set a million tongues wagging when it was announced. The first Olympus camera to be based on the Micro Four-Thirds standard co-developed with Panasonic, the E-P1 is supposed to be able to capture close to professional DSLR (digital SLR) quality photographs, in a form-factor barely larger than a compact point and shoot camera. The E-P1 is also one of the smallest digital cameras with interchangeable lenses.

I’m not a professional photographer, and my experience with digital cameras has thus far been limited to point and shoots, so bear in mind that this review is from a purely amateur perspective. That said, I’ve had the camera for almost a month, and it’s shaping up to be a great experience.

Professional photographers will scoff, but the size and looks of the E-P1 played a large role in my purchasing decision. The E-P1 was created to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Olympus Pen camera range, and its design history can be traced back to the original Pen released in 1959. It’s a rangefinder-style camera like the hugely expensive Leica M8, but it doesn’t actually use a rangefinder.

Olympus Pen History

Olympus E-P1 Size Comparison

Olympus E-P1 Size Side

The E-P1 is not quite pocketable, but it is small enough to replace a compact point and shoot camera, and it’s way more discreet than a bulky DSLR.

The E-P1 is available in silver, with a black hand grip; and in white, with a light khaki-colored hand grip.

Because the Micro Four Thirds standard is so new, there are very few dedicated lenses available. Panasonic and Olympus each have a couple, but adaptors are available that let you use normal Four Thirds lenses and Leica M-mount lenses. Olympus offers the E-P1 in kits that consist of only the body, with 1 lens, or with 2 lenses.

Olympus E-P1 Left

Olympus E-P1 Right

This is the 17mm pancake lens (‘pancake’ because it’s thin. Very thin). The camera will just about fit into a large pocket with this lens attached.

Olympus E-P1 Zoom

This is the 14-42mm zoom lens. To keep it as compact as possible, the lens barrel retracts when not in use.

Olympus E-P1 Extended

This is how the lens looks like extended. It’s a pretty clever design, but a little cumbersome because if you forget to twist it open before shooting, the camera displays a cryptic ‘check that a lens is attached’ error message. To retract the lens, you hold down a sliding switch and simultaneously twist the lens closed.

Olympus E-P1 Ports

On the right side of the camera are the HDMI-out and proprietary USB ports. Cables are included in the box.

Olympus E-P1 Rear

The 3-inch LCD has a 230,000 dot resolution, which is on the low side for a camera in this price range. Many point and shoots already come with 460k dot LCDs, and some, such as those from Panasonic, have 920k dot LCDs. Olympus says that a decision was made to use a low resolution, but bright, LCD. The display is bright, but it still gets washed out in sunlight. And it’s disappointingly grainy. The E-P1 isn’t festooned with buttons, which is a relief, but also means that most of its functions must be accessed through several layers of menus. There’s a 4-way D-pad, with a rotary ring around it. You can use either to navigate through the menus, and as far as I can tell, they serve the same purpose. There’s a scroll wheel (the silver bar on the top right), and a rotary dial that selects the different modes.

Olympus E-P1 Top

The top of the camera houses a hotshoe connector and the power, shutter, and exposure compensation buttons.

Olympus E-P1 Bottom

The battery and SD card compartments are on the bottom, along with a tripod socket with metal threads. The E-P1 feels very sturdy and well put-together, thanks to its weight and metal exterior. It does not, however, have a metal chassis. Only the skin is metal – the insides are plastic.

Olympus E-P1 Viewfinder Front

Olympus E-P1 Viewfinder Side

Two huge drawbacks of the E-P1 are the lack of a built-in viewfinder and flash. I hardly use the flash function on my compact camera, but it’s nice to have, and a viewfinder can be useful when the LCD gets washed out in bright sunlight. Both are available as options – the viewfinder retails for $100, but comes included with the 17mm and dual lens kits. The viewfinder slots into the hotshoe connector on the top of the camera, but it’s really not worth paying for. It’s an optical viewfinder, not an electronic viewfinder (EVF) which means that it isn’t connected to the image sensor, unlike the LCD. It also has a fixed focus length (i.e. it can’t zoom), so it only works with the 17mm lens. You can use it with other lenses if you want, but you’ll just get a very inaccurate picture.

Olympus E-P1 Flash

Olympus recommends that you purchase the FL-14 flash because it was designed to be used with the E-P1. It’s tiny and a perfect match design-wise, but I didn’t get it because it’s so small it’s not very useful. I got the FL-36 instead, but as you can see it doesn’t quite mesh with the E-P1. It was made to work with full size DSLRs, so it looks positively huge on the E-P1, and also makes the camera topple over… I couldn’t get the camera to stay upright on its own so I had to leave it in the case.

Olympus E-P1 Flash Up

This is how the whole setup looks like without the case.

Olympus E-P1 Camera Hirano Case

Speaking of cases, Olympus is capitalizing on the retro-trendiness of the E-P1 by releasing a range of complementary accessories, and third-party vendors are getting in on the act. The official Olympus accessories are currently available only in Japan. The case pictured here is a custom leather case from Camera Hirano, and ordered through Japan Exposures (Camera Hirano doesn’t ship this case internationally).

I’ll review the case, as well as several other accessories separately. I haven’t really had much time to play around with the camera, and this review is already too long, so the rest of my usage experience will be covered in another post. For what it’s worth, the E-P1 is one of those rare gadgets that actually has character and you can’t help liking it despite its shortcomings.

Here are some example pictures:

Olympus E-P1 Sample Car

Olympus E-P1 Sample Car Wheel

Olympus E-P1 Sample

Yes, they are supremely amateurish and poorly composed, etc. – I just went and snapped them for this review. The first two were shot in RAW and the last was in jpeg, with very minimal tweaks to correct exposure and color. Image quality is excellent for a camera of this size, and it’s perfect for someone who wants to get into photography as a hobby.

RRP: $800-$2000 at Amazon depending on kit/bundle

What I like about it: Solid build quality; great design; compact; excellent picture quality, OK HD videos with stereo sound.

What could be improved: LCD is barely tolerable; optional viewfinder and flash place form over function, and are ridiculously priced (the flash is currently available with a $100 rebate at Adorama); noisy lens motor can be heard during video recording.

Categories: Reviews

4 replies

  1. I take so many photos through my iPhone and other phones that I rarely touch my ‘normal’ camera. Nice review though. I will be interested to see how many they sell at that price.


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