Olympus E-PL1

Thanks to cell phones, nowadays it seems like everyone always has a camera with them at all times. But even before cell phones, it was not unusual for photographers to carry a compact digital camera with them at all times, “just in case.” For many years the compact of choice, at least for professional photographers, was Canon’s G series of cameras. However, these G series compacts were rather pricey. The G11, for example, sells for $380+. And the sensor in the camera is very small. Even a four-thirds sensor is five times larger!

Consequently, I have refrained from getting a compact camera to supplement my DSLR. Nor do I have a cell phone camera worth spit. If I my DSLR isn’t at my side, I can’t take a picture, period. So I’ve sometimes toyed with the idea of getting an inexpensive used compact — something under $100 just to have with me in lieu of a decent cell phone camera. What has always prevented me is the tiny sensors of those cameras combined with the lack of raw support. While many photographers argue that the best camera is the camera you have with you, I’ve always gone by the philosophy that if you can’t get a decent image, you weren’t meant to take it in the first place. I would, in short, rather have no photograph then settle for what is produced by these tiny compacts.

Lately, however, copies of the Olympus Pen E-PL1, a camera originally released in February of 2010, began appearing at bargain basement prices, such as $129 for a camera, and $189 for a camera and a 14-42 kit lens. After doing some research and finding out what the accompanying kit lens could accomplish on a four-thirds sensor, I decided to give the little camera a try. It would be the camera I would take with me when it was impractical to take my DSLR. In other words, I would have it with me on errands around town, or one short walks around the neighborhood or along Humboldt Bay, or perhaps as a secondary camera on wildlife shoots. I can’t say I had any strong ambitions for the camera. I would still be using my Pentax K-5 for the overwhelming majority of images. The E-PL1 would simply be a kind of emergency camera, just in case I ran into something photo-worthy on those miscellaneous occasions when I didn’t have or couldn’t take my DSLR with me.

Having now had the camera for over a week, I have better idea of its strengths and weaknesses. What follows is a purely impressionistic, even “subjective” (though hopefully not subjective in the disparaging sense of the word) review. Please don’t take any of the images provided or comparisons to other cameras as constituting some type of rigorous, scientific test. I don’t do tests. I’m simply trying to give a general sense of the capabilities of this little camera. Nothing more, nothing less. So let’s have it.

Size. Most photographers I suspect purchase a Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera because of it’s small size. They are tired of dragging around the huge Canon and Nikon professional DSLRs and want something easier to tote around. In the size department, how does the Olympus fare?

The camera itself is remarkably compact. Not quite as small, mind you, as most compacts: but not much bigger. You could easily fit it into a large pocket, if all you were taking was the camera. However, the camera by itself is entirely useless. The trouble with the mirrorless APS-C and four-thirds cameras is that the bigger sensor in the body requires bigger lenses. I hear a lot of talk about mirrorless cameras being the future: they will over-run and render obsolescent the big DSLRs. I’m skeptical of that narrative. Yes, undoubtedly the smaller size has its conveniences. But as small as cameras like the Olympus PEN and the Sony NEX and the new Canon EOS M may be, they are only small as a camera. Once you put a lens on them they become bigger, sometimes much bigger. And while they still remain smaller than DSLRs, it’s not clear how advantageous this really is. In a sense, all these cameras are “tweener” cameras: in between the compacts and the DSLRs. As such, they are too big to be truly pocketable, yet not big enough to support large lenses, flashes, and other accessories sometimes needed for “serious” photography. I’m not trying to suggest that the size of these tweener cameras renders them in any sense useless. I fully appreciate the small size for the E-PL1, even with the lens attached. I just want to note that there are real drawbacks involved in reducing the size of cameras that seem to be ignored by the most fanatical denizens of mirrorless and MFT.

Concerning the size of the E-PL1, I would say that if it were any bigger, it would have been too big for my purposes. And again, it’s not the camera itself that is the main problem, but the lens. I could have, of course, made the camera even smaller by opting for a pancake lens. But that would have greatly increased the cost of the camera. I didn’t want to spend more than $200, and I needed a camera with a flexible FOV. Although I love shooting with primes, in this case, on grounds of practicality, I needed a zoom. The whole purpose of the camera was to capture that unexpected shot, and I didn’t want to get caught with the wrong focal range. Fortunately, the Olympus kit lens that comes with the camera is, for a zoom lens, quite small. It is retractable, and folds up into larger round enclosure that’s the size of a fairly small SLR prime lens. Of course, it would have been nice if it were even smaller, but the laws of physics just don’t allow for such things.

Raw. One essential feature I absolutely required in the camera was support for raw. To find such support in a camera under $200 was nothing short of a miracle. Why is raw so important? Because it allows for a degree of transformation and improvement that a mere jpeg could never handle. So this bland and uninspired image...

...can be transformed into this:

Or this nondescript snapshot...

...can be transformed into this:

With raw you get to work with a lot more data, and that provides a significant amount of wiggle room through which to edit and improve one’s images.

Control over camera. The E-PL1 was targeted primarily at compact camera users looking for something better. This suggests that it would not make a good camera for a more advanced user, accustomed to controlling aperture, ISO, shutterspeed, and other variables. Is the E-PL1 simply a compact on steroids? Can it be used for serious work?

The answer to these questions is a qualified “Yes.” While the default, out-of-the-box settings favor the compact camera user, under the hood, waiting to be unleashed, in a more powerful camera capable of being used in a satisfactory fashion by advanced photographers who insist on a far greater level of control. The main caveat is that you have to read the instruction manual to unleash the camera’s hidden powers. By default, the camera’s custom menu is not displayed. You have to drill into the menu system to set it free. Once activated, the E-PL1 becomes a “real” camera. You can fine tune the various display panels, program two of the camera’s buttons, set the direction of focusing, select customized user settings, choose the parameters of autoISO, and countless other settings, some important, some obscure and even trivial. Important for my own personal use was setting up the “super control panel,” which allows for easy access to the ISO settings (very important for me), metering mode, image stabilizer, and several other less important functions. On the back of the camera you have buttons for menu, info, playback, delete, zoom-in, exposure compensation, sequential shooting, flash, and AF target. There are also two programmable buttons. One of the buttons I programmed as an on/off switch for the LCD, to help conserve power; the other I have programmed to return the focus point to the center.

The camera does not feature a scroll wheel. That’s a bit of inconvenience; but so far, I can’t say I’ve missed it that much. The mode dial features program mode, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, movie, and three modes for newbies: scene, art, and iAuto. I’ve decided to use the camera primarily in aperture priority; indeed, I doubt I’ll use any of the other settings. I tried a few shots in program mode and didn’t like it. To get what I want with the camera, I really need to have complete control of the aperture. I’m less concerned with the shutterspeed, particularly in good light. In bad light, I’ll merely switch to autoISO and let the camera choose the best combination of shutter speed and ISO. Although the camera can be used with a tripod, I don’t think that’s where its strength lies. After all, if you’re going to drag a tripod with you, having a bigger camera is not that a big a deal. This is a camera best used in a minimalist style, sans tripod, sans flash, sans any accessories whatsoever.

Resolution. Although the sensor of the E-PL1 is five times larger than the typical compact camera sensor, it is still smaller than an APS-C sensor. So how does the E-PL1 compare, resolution-wise, to my APS-C cameras? Well here we run into a bit of a problem. Since I’m using different lenses for the different sensors, it’s difficult to make meaningful comparisons. However, since the kit lens that comes with the E-PL1 does so well on various the measurbation tests scattered across the internet, I thought I would venture a comparison, just for the fun of it. Obviously this is not a scientific test, so please don’t read too much into it.

The Olympus 14-42 v1 scores so well on those aforementioned tests on the wide end of the lens that I’m going to assume it has equivalent resolution to my Pentax M 20/4 lens. From that rather generous assumption, I made a couple of images with each lens, pairing the Olympus lens with 12 MP E-PL1 and the Pentax lens with the 10 MP K200D. Both these cameras are known for having weak AA filters, so they should do well, in terms of resolution, with raw files taken straight out of the camera. The first crop is from the Olympus, taken at f6.3 and 15mm, the second from the Pentax lens taken at around f7:

These are both derived from unsharpened raw files exposed at 100 ISO. Not surprisingly, the M 20/4 on the Pentax K200D provides a slightly sharper image. However, it’s so close that the difference is largely insignificant. That the Olympus kit lens, on a camera with comparable resolution, should come this close to a very good prime lens is a testament to how well the lens performs on the wide end. It also suggests that there is no real great difference, at least in terms of resolution, between 12 MP four-thirds sensor used in the Olympus E-PL1 and the 10 MP APS-C sensor used in the Pentax K200D. The difference, such that exists, consists in the greater noise of four-thirds sensor. The Olympus sensor provides (slightly) more resolution; but the higher quantity of pixels comes at the cost of a lower quality of output. Consider these two crops, the first from the Olympus, the second from the Pentax cameras:

In these crops, the Olympus clearly produces noisier files, as one can see in the shaded areas of the green house. This additional noise, of course, compromises resolution — so much so, that we could make the argument that the Olympus lens is actually as sharp, if not sharper, then the Pentax, and only appears slightly less sharp due to the added noise.

The Olympus E-PL1 has a numerical resolution of 3024 x 4032; the Pentax K200D, 2592 x 3872. In practical terms, that’s not a big difference. Because of the greater noise of the larger Olympus sensor, I would suggest there’s no practical difference, in terms of resolution, between the two cameras. The K200D uses a fairly old APS-C sensor (first introduced in a Pentax camera in September of 2006). So this suggests that the Olympus sensor, in terms of resolution, is about on par with 10-12 MP APS-C sensors from six years ago. Given that the Olympus sports a four-thirds sensor that even two years ago, when it was introduced, was hardly regarded as the best of its kind, this is saying quite a bit for the four-thirds format. Four-thirds sensors used in top-of-the-line Panasonic and Olympus cameras are reputedly much better, particularly in terms of noise control. There is no reason why a camera such as the new Olympus OM-D or the Panasonic G5 can’t produce images with enough resolution to satisfy the needs of all but a few shutterbugs. True enough, cameras with larger sensors will have an advantage, particularly when it comes to achieving a narrow DOF at normal to wide FOVs. But the fact remains that under current technology, a four-thirds camera provides plenty of resolution. The desire for more is, on the part of most photographers, irrational. Unless you make and sell very large prints, four-thirds is good enough for any type of photography that does not require narrow depth of field at wide and normal FOVs.

Noise and Dynamic Range. I’ve already noted some issues relating to noise at ISO 100. What about noise at higher ISOs? This is one area where the Olympus E-PL1 really struggles. Even ISO 200 is a bit on the noisy side. And the shadows are even worse. Let’s take a look at some images.

Shadows at ISO 200 are palpably noisy:

Recovered shadows (using the “Shadows” slider in Lightroom 4) are even worse:

Fortunately, it doesn’t get much worse as one cranks up ISO, at least in terms of well lit objects, as we see in the following crop, taken at ISO 1600:

But recovered dark areas are a disaster at ISO 1600:

How well does such noise clean-up in post? Let’s take a look, first at the two of the ISO 200 examples:

ISO 200 cleans up fairly nicely, although with a palpable loss of resolution. The ISO 1600 images fare less well:

It’s entirely subjective whether the ISO 1600. Granted, my examples aren’t particularly apposite, as the letters on that last crop are out of the zone of focus. But when using the camera, I’m going to try to avoid ISO’s higher than 100 whenever possible, and ISOs higher than 800 when not possible. The E-PL1 is not a great low-light performer. Since I’m trying to get the very best images I can from the camera, I will be setting the ISO at 100 and sticking as close to that as I can.

Curiously, the folks over a dpreview.com complained about “poor dynamic range at ISO 100.” I have no idea what they are talking about.Dynamic range at ISO 100, while not stellar, is nonetheless sufficient. It is at higher ISOs, including even ISO 200, where the trouble begins.

Auto-focus. This is a difficult one to judge, since my E-PL1 came with the first version of the M. Zukio 14-42, which is notorious for slow focusing. While I wouldn’t call the AF particularly swift, it was nonetheless adequate for my purposes. As usual with digital cameras, it struggles in low contrast and low light. The camera does come with a movable focus point, or rather, movable focus zones.

Image stabilization. Among the mirrorless ILCs, other than Pentax, only Olympus has in body image stabilization. I find this baffling. Isn’t the whole point of mirrorless to keep things small? Aren’t mirrorless cameras going to be used hand-held the great majority of the time? So stabilization would appear to be a big priority. However, Sony, Fuji, Panasonic, and Samsung have all chosen to forego in body stabilization, opting instead to put it in some of their lenses. I suspect I know the reason for this decision: they want to make their cameras as small as possible. But here’s the problem: if you don’t put stabilization in the body, you have to put it in the lens, or give up on it altogether; yet it precisely the lens where size is the biggest issue. It would have made far more sense to concentrate on making the lenses smaller while letting the body be a little bigger to accommodate stabilization.

The image stabilization on the E-PL1 works fairly well, although it is hardly perfect. It seems to work best at wide to normal FOVs. Consider this crop taken from an image of a computer screen shot at 1/10 of a second:

Not bad at all. However, if you want to get the very best out of the camera, there’s no substitute for a fast shutter speed or a tripod.

One curious feature of the image stabilization is the ability to set the camera specifically for either vertical or horizontal shake, to compensate when panning either vertically or horizontally. I haven’t tried the feature yet so I have no idea whether it actually works.

Some notable features of the camera are sequential shooting at 3 frames per second, self-timer for 2 and 12 seconds, face detection, bracketing (exposure, ISO, white balance, and flash), multiple exposure in a single frame, video (at 640 x 480 and 1280 x 720), and in-camera panoramas. One feature I found especially curious was the ability to set the power of the built-in flash. It can be set at full power, 1/4 power, 1/16 power, and even 1/64 power. Given how small and weak the flash is, I have serious reservations on the practicality of these manual settings, yet I like the idea. What other on camera flash can be set manually?

Final verdict. I have found the Olympus E-PL1 to be an adequate performer, despite it’s small size. As a diminutive secondary camera to compliment my Pentax K-5, it fills a role in my photography. Even so, I will probably only use this camera for about 1 to 2 percent of my total photography. Nor would I want it any other way. For what it is, the E-PL1 is a nice camera. It will out perform any point-and-shoot that you put against it. Ten, even five, years ago, a camera of this size that delivered this level of quality would have been regarded as a mere pipe-dream. However, having admitted as much, I nevertheless can’t bring myself to regard this camera as ideal for doing serious work. Not that it can’t do serious work: that is precisely what I plan to do with it! I merely wish to content that I find it easier to do serious work with a larger camera that has an optical viewfinder and can more easily be used with larger lenses and accessories such as a flash and a tripod. The small size of the E-PL1 is both a blessing and a curse. Yes, it is convenient to have a camera this small. It’s easier to carry around. But sometimes size is an advantage. If I want to shoot macro with a ring flash; or wildlife with a professional quality 300mm or longer lens; or shoot on a tripod with square filters; or shoot outdoors in bright light: the E-PL1 isn’t not well suited for such photography. Of course, it’s capable of all those things. It just would be awkward and difficult to accomplish such tasks with camera of this size and form factor. I’m not suggesting here that Micro Four Thirds is not a serious format or that it can’t accomplish serious things. Only that if I was going to attempt to do serious work with an MFT system, the Olympus E-PL1 would not be the camera I would choose. The Olympus OM-D seems a far better candidate for serious work on the MFT platform. And for video, it’s hard to top the Lumix GH2.

As a small secondary camera to compliment a larger DSLR, the Olympus E-PL1 is an okay camera. But I would not wish to have it as my only camera.