By Ken Tanaka
If you’re at all attuned to camera news you are well aware of Olympus’s new PEN E-P1 camera. This 12.3 megapixel Micro Four-Thirds camera has stirred up quite a bit of excitement since its concept design was previewed at the 2008 Photokina. Olympus's own tagline has done much to ignite curiosity: "Not a compact. Not an SLR. It's a PEN."
The Pen E-P1 commemorates the 50th anniversary of Olympus's Pen series of half-frame 35mm cameras. These small, modestly-priced amateur/travel/family cameras, manufactured from 1959 to 1966, were quite popular in the period just before the single-lens reflex camera design consumed the market. Oly reportedly sold over 17 million PENs so I would imagine that they're hoping for similar success with the digital version.
Sentimentality aside, the main practical question for most people is whether or not Olympus's new PEN is a serious camera and not just a retro-styled toy. My answer is yes, the E-P1 is an earnest and versatile camera that can be fun to use. But it's also a camera with a few noteworthy shortcomings.
What follows are my notes after working with the E-P1 daily for over two weeks. I admit to frequently using the Leica M8 rangefinder as a comparative standard. While I recognize that most readers may not have experience with that camera, I feel that it presents a more appropriate functional and performance standard than either a compact digital camera or a DSLR.
Design, build, and finish
Although the E-P1 is quite small it's not truly a pocket camera. With its rangefinder-like body it's much smaller than a DSLR and even smaller than a Leica M rangefinder. In fact, it’s just a bit larger than a Canon Powershot G10.
When fitted with the ultra-slim 17mm pancake lens the E-P1 could be carried in a coat pocket. But with any larger lens you'll be carrying it on a strap or in a bag.
The E-P1 is relatively light at 335g plus a 40g battery. But it has a solid heft. Nothing rattles and there is no hollow-box feeling to the camera; it feels full and tight.
The body features sleek industrial design details rarely seen since the functional-but-ugly single lens reflex design became the standard camera body. The fingerprint-resistant brushed metal band that forms the main body turns corners gracefully and joins the curvilinear matte-and-chrome top plate neatly. The program mode dial is nicely inset to prevent accidental setting changes. The front grip pad could probably protrude just a bit more, but it's adequate to provide a secure feeling. An engraving in the chrome just above the thumb position pays homage to the camera's predecessor: "Olympus PEN Since 1959 E-P1."
Note that the E-P1 is neither weatherproof nor "splash proof." While it might be fine in a bit of drizzle or light snow it is not designed to withstand any truly harsh conditions.
My first disappointment with the camera came when I looked at its LCD screen. Just like the dreadful Sigma DP2, the E-P1 has a low-resolution 3" 230K display. I am not one of the many who claim they cannot live without a regular viewfinder. Although I'd also like to have a good viewfinder on the E-P1, I think an LCD can offer strong advantages...as long as it's state-of-the-art in resolution (460K) and brightness. The E-P1's crummy LCD is a cheap detail unworthy of a product touted as commemorative of its maker's past laurels. Tsk, tsk, Olympus.
Snap! That’s how the E-P1's shutter sounds and feels. It's a solid, substantial, real-shutter feel far more characteristic of small film cameras of the original PEN's era than any small digital cameras today. Snap! The sound and feel of the first frame I shot with the E-P1 instantly brought a smile to my face. The shutter does, indeed, seem quieter and softer than that of a Leica M8, although the M8.2 is quieter.
Now for my second disappointment: autofocus. The E-P1's autofocus is simply awful. (But read on.) It's certainly the camera's weakest attribute. In fact it can hardly be called autofocus. It's more like "autofocus attempt” (AFA). I've used both of the camera's kit lenses as well as two Olympus-brand Four-Thirds lenses and one Sigma Four-Thirds lens. Regardless of light levels, the E-P1's autofocus is slow with its own lenses, even slower and rather unpredictable with Four-Thirds lenses, and basically non-functional with the Sigma. I'd like to expect that Olympus will fix this with a firmware update but Oly aficionados tell me to expect such a fix at about the same time that chickens grow lips.
So I suggest that buyers of the E-P1 completely immerse themselves in the PEN's retro spirit. Just assume that you're buying a manual focus camera just like the original PEN cameras. Then be delighted when you discover that the camera offers AFA. Just think of how excited all those PEN owners, with their flat-top haircuts and horn-rim glasses, would have been in 1960 to have AFA!
Fortunately the E-P1 features the best manual-focus support I’ve encountered in a small digital camera. When using an Olympus digital lens in manual focus mode the rear display automatically switches to a 7x magnified view to assist critical focus when you turn the lens's focus ring. (If the LCD were of a more currently standard higher resolution—ahem—the ability to quickly reach critical focus would be much easier.) The display returns to normal view when the shutter button is depressed half-way or when you press a particular button on the camera back. This is a pretty good, responsive system design although folks with presbyopia (and short arms) might struggle with seeing the LCD display clearly.
Once you get the hang of using this facility, and you program the camera’s chameleon "Fn" button to quickly toggle between manual focus and "AFA" modes life actually gets pretty sweet, particularly if you’re accustomed to using manually-focused lenses. Shutter lag becomes almost non-existent and, using some old zone-focusing skills, you might feel like you’re using a Leica, Bessa, or Ikon.
Speaking of Leica, one of the E-P1's big draws for some snappers is its ability to use M-mount rangefinder lenses via an adapter. (Voigtländer and Novaflex currently make them.) I was extremely eager to use my razor-sharp, high quality M-mount lenses on a more contemporary and versatile, but small, digital camera body. (Yes, I realized that the Micro Four-Thirds sensor size would double all lens focal lengths. But so what?)
Sure enough, not only does it work, but it also brings two collateral benefits. Since the E-P1 features in-body image stabilization, I can shoot with all of my M lenses at even slower shutter speeds than on an M body. Also, for the first time I am actually looking through my M lenses as I'm shooting with them! And since the lenses have analog irises I am automatically getting depth of field previews on the E-P1's "live view" display. This is very cool.
But there is one hitch with shooting with these analog lenses. Since the camera has no communication with the lens it cannot automatically switch to magnified manual focus-assist view when the focus ring is turned. You must make this switch manually. You must also switch back to normal view manually. This becomes awkward and slow because the button that switches views is in the center of the camera’s main multi-function control dial. One thumb spasm and, boing, you’re changing ISO or any number of other settings. (If you have large fingers you really have trouble.) It would be nice if a half-press of the shutter button automatically returned the display to normal magnification, just as it does when manually focusing Olympus lenses. (Is anyone at Olympus reading this?)
Using Four-Thirds lenses
Readers with full-sized Four-Thirds lenses will be pleased to learn that they can mount those lenses onto the E-P1 with Olympus's MMF-1 adapter (sold separately). Olympus-brand Four-Thirds lenses operate exactly like the Micro Four-Thirds lenses, with full camera to lens communications. I was especially happy to again use a 25mm ƒ/2.8 Zuiko Digital pancake lens left over from a now-gone E-420.
But now for the surprise. Using unarguably better lenses with the E-P1 does not always, or even generally, produce proportionately better results than the kit lenses! I expected my Leica, Zeiss, and Voigtländer lenses to paint some remarkable results that put the Oly kit lenses to shame. But that's just not been the reality. While the M lenses have produced very good images, I have to honestly admit that the best average results I’ve had thus far have been from the Oly 14–42mm zoom lens and the 17mm pancake (even though the latter suffers from some nasty chromatic aberrations in the edges at large apertures).
Some of these results may be due to the rather more awkward nature of manually focusing uncoupled lenses on the E-P1. But the bigger conclusion here must be that the E-P1 knows how to optimally process its own lenses and leaves images from unknown lenses alone.*
What about the pictures?
The last judgment on any camera is, of course, its ability to record faithful, sharp images. Using a 10 scale I rate the E-P1's low-to-mid ISO image performance as a 7.5 and its high ISO (1000+) imaging as an 8.5.
The E-P1’s normal ISO images are quiet. The camera does a nice job of maintaining shadow details when possible, although it can sometimes blow highlights a bit soon. Frankly, the rather cool tonality and nice shadow details found in the E-P1's daylight images remind me of the Leica M8's images.
The E-P1’s high ISO images are rather remarkable. Olympus claims that the camera's new "TruePic V" processor has been designed particularly with noise control in mind. After seeing some results I certainly believe them. Raw high ISO images processed through the Olympus Master 2 software (the only software I have that reads E-P1 raw files at this writing) are nothing short of excellent. It’s hard to distinguish an ISO 1000 image from an ISO 5000. ISO 6400 images are also very clean. No, the E-P1 is not in the same shoot-in-the-dark league as the top-end Canons or Nikons. But its general imaging performance is certainly on par with the venerable Canon G10 at low ISOs and it kills the G10 in high ISO imaging. Very impressive.
I must, however, note that E-P1 images seem to lack that little bit of sharpness and zest that make the difference between very good and great imaging. This seems true regardless of the lens used. Of course these days it's easy to add such character with some careful post-processing. But one of the attributes of the Leica M8, for example, is that images tend to come straight out of the camera with that extra pizzazz.
I applaud Olympus's PEN E-P1. The camera world is badly in need of new ideas even if they’re not entirely new. Taking advantage of the PEN’s 50th anniversary was an inspiration that has injected welcome excitement into the camera marketplace, rather like the 2006 introduction of the Leica M8. Relatively few people can, or are willing to, spring for Leica’s pricey digital rangefinder. But the E-P1 is within reach of a broad segment of photo enthusiasts and is reportedly already selling very well, even in this repressed economy.
But I also wag a finger at Olympus. The E-P1's weak autofocus system and its low-resolution LCD display are big disappointments in a camera that's supposed to represent a bygone era of high quality craftsmanship (even if it was fictional). Shame on Oly for skimping on such important details.
Will the Olympus PEN E-P1 be a "keeper" for me? Absolutely. Even with its shortcomings I've found it to be very enjoyable to use and a good camera. I look forward to future developments within this new (old) genre of camera designs. But for now I’m pretty happy with my E-P1.
*For more about the distortion processing built into the Olympus E-P1 lenses and software, see Colin Jago's comments on the Auspicious Dragon Photostream. —Ed.