By Eamon Hickey
I stole part of the title of this post from a magazine article* that I recently read about one of the founders of "scientific management" theory, Lillian Gilbreth, who once referred to a metric that she dubbed "happiness minutes." The point of her theories and methods, she explained, was to give people more of them. It's science, you see.
Gilbreth's tragically overlooked breakthrough will guide what follows, over three posts. I'd like to accumulate some additional happiness minutes; I emerged from the factory with a reasonably sensitive built-in meter to measure them; and I was really only interested in whether the Olympus E-P1 would increase my supply. So this won't be a formal, comparative review of the E-P1. Instead, it'll be a highly subjective, entirely random rundown of things I liked, disliked, or noticed while using it.
The camera was loaned to me by the PR folks at Olympus Imaging here in the U.S. (for three weeks; it's now back home in Pennsylvania) and came with the Olympus 14–42mm ƒ/3.5–ƒ/5.6 M.Zuiko lens, the 17mm ƒ/2.8 M.Zuiko pancake lens with its companion VF-1 optical viewfinder, and the FL-14 flash. I never used, and therefore having nothing useful to say about, the 14–42mm lens or the flash, and I barely tried the viewfinder because, well, I'm not interested in shooting with those gadgets. My interest in the E-P1 is centered on, in order of importance: portability, responsiveness, controllability, and image quality. Oh, and portability. All in the service of knockabout street, travel, and informal people photography.
The portability of the E-P1 did indeed please me, but I'll talk more about that in a later post. After the portability, the next biggest thing that stood out to me is the excellent usability of a camera that combines a live histogram with responsive advanced controls. It got me to switch from manual to automatic exposure control (after 25 years), and, for me, is a modest but important step forward in quick and accurate shooting. Here's the way I set it up:
Aperture-priority exposure mode with the main command dial set to control aperture. Sub-command dial set to enable instant exposure compensation. LCD set to display a live histogram. Manual focus but with the AEL button set to activate autofocus. Finally, auto ISO with a maximum limit of ISO 800, so the camera will freely adjust the ISO between 100 and 800, according to available light levels.
Why is this cool? Because I have the speed benefits of automatic exposure control, with, obviously, direct control of the aperture, which is critical to me. The live histogram gives me a deeply informative, real-time meter check of the camera's autoexposure decision that I can intelligently interpret much faster than any in-camera reflective metering system I've ever used, from multi-pattern to spot. And with the sub-command dial set for instant exposure compensation, I can override the automatic exposure instantly and quite precisely, from shot to shot, in even the most complex lighting. Then, for focus, I have simultaneous instant access to manual or auto, whichever is best suited to the shot. And—this is crucial—the camera will not refocus every time I press the shutter release. (Separating AF activation from the shutter release is the first thing I do on any camera that I'm using.)
For me, the live histogram is the key addition. It really improves the exposure part of this circus. Compared to analyzing a spot or center-weighted meter reading, using the live histogram lets me much more quickly see (don't have to think much) whether the autoexposure decision is a good one, and instantly override it if need be. I ended up concluding that an electronic viewing camera with the right controls and a live histogram option, compared to traditional optical viewfinder designs, makes it faster and easier to reliably find and set the best exposure. (I can hear the OVF-or-die crowd denouncing my heresy as I write.)
Bowery at Grand
Using the E-P1 this way, walking around New York City slipping it in and out of a coat pocket as needed, I could shoot very quickly, yet with exacting control of exposure and focus when I needed it (one doesn't always need it). Again, good responsiveness and the right camera controls are crucial—instantly accessible aperture (or shutter speed) and autoexposure comp control, plus AF activation separated from the shutter release, are mandatory. You need everything working together, which is where most (all?) point-and-shoot digicams—some of which have live histograms—fall short.
More on the experience of using the camera, and a caveat to my endorsement of EVIL** in Part II, which will appear tomorrow morning.
A note on the illustrations: All were post-processed to one extent or another; please don't make any judgments about out-of-camera color, tonality etc. from them. I'm leaving out technical and shooting details, but if you want to know, just ask in the comments. I will say that the "Moonstruck Diner" shot was done at ISO 1600, and I would happily print it up to 12 or 14 inches (30–35cm) wide.
*"Not So Fast," by Jill Lepore, from The New Yorker, Oct. 12, 2009
**Meaning, of course, "electronic viewfinder interchangeable lens," not that which gives rise to wickedness, which I do not endorse.