By Vlatko Juric-Kokic
Let me immediately join Eamon's camp: I'm also someone who wants a small and serious camera. I've been rooting for a more advanced E-4xx ever since the E-400 appeared. I talked to various Olympus people about it, but...no. Having seen the development of the series and now the E-P1, I can understand Olympus's reasoning and why there isn't a real digital OM. Nevertheless, a man can dream.
Olympus apparently gives a lot of importance to the E-P1. They brought journalists from all over Europe (and one from South Africa) to the launch in Berlin. Masaharu Okubo, the president of Olympus Imaging, came to deliver the introductory speech at the launch. The atmosphere was one of eager expectation. Unlike some launches I've seen, everybody rushed to see the camera when it was officially unveiled and you couldn't approach the display case for some time because of the people photographing the camera...
Olympus also organized interviews with some of its top people. I was in the group talking to Akira Watanabe, the manager of Digital SLR Product Strategy Department in Tokyo, and Heino Hilbig, Head of Communications and Marketing Services, Olympus Europa.
It was the usual group-interview mess with everybody pulling in their direction. I still haven't transcribed it, but several interesting tidbits were said. Firstly, Mr. Watanabe said Olympus was already designing more lenses. There was some confusion about that point, but it appears that there are three more lenses in the works. What is interesting, as the telephoto design for Micro 4/3 and "standard" 4/3 is very similar and a 300/2.8 lens would be about the same size for both formats, he also said Olympus was concentrating on wide angle for Micro 4/3. Unfortunately, when I asked about primes and whether Olympus was looking at the old Pen lenses for inspiration, I got the usual Olympus disclaimer: "We'll see what the market wants." Mr. Hilbig added that about 12 years ago people started buying mostly zooms after years of using primes, but, after seeing what they got with E-P1 and 17mm ƒ/2.8 on it, Olympus is willing to see whether they can change users' minds back and start manufacturing a greater number of primes again. Since they also said their main target group is people stepping up from compacts, I am doubtful whether this will happen, but let's wait and see. As an aside, Mr. Watanabe also mentioned they were preparing firmware updates for the 12–60mm ƒ/2.8-4 and the 50–200mm ƒ/2.8-3.5 SWD to be compatible with contrast autofocusing.
Price? Of course somebody asked about the price, the rumored price being a sore point during the period before the launch. Mr. Hilbig said that the price in Europe would be around 700–800 Euros for the kit and the double kit, the exact price depending on individual markets. I guess it translates to $700–800 in the States. Not compact cheap, but not the rumored $990 for the kit, either. [Ed. note: the U.S. prices are now set, as you can see by going to B&H and searching the various options.]
Me, a control freak
Olympus organised a photo "safari" through several locations in Berlin. Each journalist received an E-P1 with the 14–42mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 kit zoom on it. For every group, there were a couple of people from Olympus with additional lenses and adapters. I also had my backpack with my E-3 and several lenses in it, one OM lens, and a couple of 4/3 lenses. The weather was pretty bad for photographing. It started very cloudy early in the morning (I went to photograph around the hotel with my E-3 around seven), but then the clouds cleared away and we had merciless sunshine with sharp, dark shadows. On the other hand, your garden-variety tourists don't wait for the golden hour. They go sightseeing when they can, so our light conditions simulated typical situations quite well.
I concentrated on the still camera functions of E-P1 because I'm not really interested in video. In spite of that, I tried the video a bit. When I shoot video on compacts, it's usually shaky, as the cameras are too light for me. Give me a big honking video camera I can put on my shoulder and I could do something.... The E-P1's video was not shaky. It means that the video stabilization works. The sound is also pretty good: Olympus put the technology from one of their more recent dictaphones in the E-P1.
Now allow me to repeat what Eamon said—the camera is coat- or cargo-pocket pocketable. I really wouldn't want a smaller camera. This one is small and light enough.
The camera is set to "consumer" settings by default. That means the controls are lined up along the side of the screen and not all settings for finer adjustment are revealed in the menus. But enable the additional settings and whoa! This little camera suddenly turns into a much more serious machine. Enable Auto ISO in all modes? No problems. Set up autofocus and manual focus behaviour? No problems. Furthermore, you can change the compact camera on-screen controls into the typical Olympus Super Panel you can find on DSLRs. On that note, I find it slightly amazing how E-P1 reminds me of E-30. 12-megapixel sensor, 11 AF points (or more correctly, areas in Contrast AF), level gauge, multiple exposures, art filters, advanced settings... As you already know, E-P1 is more sensitive, going up to ISO 6400 and the default Auto ISO setting is ISO 200-1600 instead of the former ISO 100-800. E-30 has the movable LCD and greater speed in its favour, though.
That all said, E-P1 is apparently not a camera for people who like fiddling with controls. For instance, when I changed between focus points, I noticed that I sometimes also switched another setting in haste. And then, "why is this photo blue? Oh, I changed white balance." The problem is greatly alleviated when you switch to Super Panel, but it's not a panacea. On the other hand, it may easily be that my hands are too big and I need a longer period of adjustment. It's interesting that in the typical manufacturer cross-pollination E-P1 got the Canon wheel-ring around the usual 4-way pad on the back. That's the second dial beside the retro volume-cylinder close to the top of the camera.
Through the lenses
As I said, the kit zoom behaves nicely. The zoom control and the focus ring are smooth although the latter is a bit too light for my taste. A good thing is that it's collapsible. One twist releases it to about two times the collapsed length. It looks a bit funny, being narrower at the front, but it handles very nicely. On the negative side, when you switch the camera to MF or SF+MF, every tiny little bump on the focus ring causes the Live View to jump into the magnified mode for manual focusing.
The same thing didn't happen with 17mm ƒ/2.8, probably simply because the lens is so small. For all its smallness, the lens is also very nice to work with and handle. The add-on viewfinder has frame lines for this focal length but I'm not used to that kind of photographing so I won't comment on it. That brings us to the LCD.
I have to admit I too was a bit skeptical about it. My skepticism was kinda justified. It's not a viewfinder and it won't ever be a viewfinder. It simply cannot be. The adverse photographing conditions in Berlin, though, showed me that the LCD on E-P1 can be used in the sun. You won't be able to check for critical focus quickly but you can frame without problems. Given the main target group, I think it's perfectly okay.
When we came to Haus der Kulturen der Welt, also known as Schwangere Auster (Pregnant Oyster), I quickly pulled out my OM 28mm ƒ/2.8 lens for a tryout. And returned it to the backpack equally quickly. The magnified view works only with lenses that can tell the camera the focus ring was moved. For manual lenses, you have to switch to the familiar Live View mode with the magnifier on screen, press OK to magnify the small area of the picture, focus, press OK again to return to the whole view to compose the shot and finally press the shutter. Too complicated and fussy for me. It might be okay for somebody who's used to zone focusing. Or Olympus might implement something to make the process easier. All the elements are already in the firmware, I'd say.
After the Oyster, we were loaded on a boat for a cruise along the Spree River. Both the kit zoom and the pancake were too wide for that so I took out my old version of 50–200. (People who laugh at E-420 with a big lens should see this combination. You appear to hold just a lens in your hands.) The combination didn't fare well. The lens refused to focus in some situations with no obvious reason while it behaved normally in others. That would be a matter for concern if it wasn't for a small thing—the lens officially doesn't work with Contrast AF at all. You'll have to switch to the SWD version for reliable results when they update the firmware.
The focus on the camera otherwise behaved really well and although it was slower than my E-3, it's not a terrible difference. Perfectly usable for normal situations, particularly because it's combined with a shutter lag on DSLR levels. By the way, what I really, really like about E-P1 is the quiet snick of the shutter. No DSLR-like clatter here. I'm not familiar with film Leicas, but I'd say that E-P1 is easily quieter than E-1 which is very quiet for a DSLR.
Image is all
All good points of E-P1 would be nothing without an appropriate image quality. Unfortunately, not even Olympus supports E-P1 raw in its Master yet, so it's to our advantage that I shot Raw + Large Normal JPEG. It means that the JPEG has the max resolution of 4032x3024 and the compression of 1/8, two steps below the minimal compression of 1/2.7. The camera was set to Standard noise reduction for a while and then I switched to Low. I also used –0.3EV in a lot of shots, so some of them are slightly underexposed, but it's nothing that raw development cannot cure. All the photos you see here are straight from the camera, resized and slightly sharpened for the web. I also cropped one photo a bit and straightened another.
E-P1 surprised me pleasantly in lots of shots. Yes, the contrast is a bit too strong for my taste. Everything else is very nice. My favorite, though, is the vertical shot of the model in pink bikini. Out-of-camera JPEG, not the lightest compression, I misfocused, she had her eyes almost closed and the photo might benefit from a tiny little increase in exposure…I still think that the overall tonality of the picture is terrific. Okay, maybe I'm raving a bit, but I would be glad to own any camera that can produce such results.
Of course, these are just first impressions and further use is needed. For example, to see whether ISO 6400 is usable for anything more beside web-sized pictures. That's all in the future. At the moment, my impressions of E-P1 are quite favorable, limitations and occasional awkwardness and all. We obviously didn't get what we wanted. But it may be that we got another camera to make great photos. Sometimes it's all that you need.
First vertical: 17mm lens, ƒ/4; second: 17mm lens, ƒ/4; third: kit zoom at approx. 16mm, ƒ/5.6; last (pink bikini): zoom at 24mm, ƒ/5.6.
Ed. Note: The towering guy at the back in this photo is Vlatko, a.k.a. Erlik. (He's 6'8".) —Mike