By Eamon Hickey
So as stated yesterday in Part I of these comments on the Olympus E-P1, in my opinion the camera has excellent controllability—all important exposure and focus controls are directly accessible and configurable.
What about responsiveness? It's not perfect—I'll mention some suggested improvements below—but it's sufficient. I think "sufficient" is a very helpful concept to embrace for photographers who lack trust funds. It's an equally amiable notion for photographers who lack cast-iron spines.
The E-P1's autofocus has taken a lot of flak. I would characterize it as middling, not counting follow-focusing of moving subjects, which it's not much good for. In practice, this is a relatively small issue for me, given the types of shooting for which I would use a camera like the E-P1. Even when shooting street shots of the run of everyday life, I'm usually pre-focusing or anticipating a subject's future position or waiting a few seconds, camera at ready, for an interesting moment. Some of this is a kind of anticipatory shooting and focusing, and it can often be done very unobtrusively by targeting any handy object located at the proper distance, then recomposing. The E-P1's AF system, and its manual focus system, work fine for these various methods.
One caveat to the above: unless you're using older manual focus lenses on the camera via an adapter, there's no really good way to do zone (a.k.a. scale) focusing with the E-P1. That's a disappointment. As I said, you can pre-focus the lens at any distance by picking an object at that distance and focusing. I often did just that, following my usual habit of setting the focus for about 8–10 feet (~3m) as I walk around. That seems to me like the most likely distance at which I might ever get a good raise-the-camera-and-shoot-instantly grab shot. You can also set a custom function to disable the camera's default behavior of re-focusing to infinity every time the camera is turned off or on, which is a small help. But none of this is classic zone focusing where you can set the focus distance using a scale on the lens, which you do in the split second that it takes to raise the camera to your eye or aim it from your hip according to classical decisive-moment doctrine. It should be easy for Olympus to create a feature where the current lens focus distance is displayed on the LCD, along with a depth-of-field indication or scale. This would allow easy zone focusing in the classic style and should be a no-brainer on future cameras (or in future firmware updates).
If you pre-focus or focus manually, the shutter response is similar to an entry- or mid-level DSLR on manual or pre-focus. Again, quite sufficient—and notably better than most compact digicams I've used. This does, however, bring me to my one caveat about the desirability of the electronic viewing design. Judging the moment to trip the shutter by viewing through the LCD introduces a slight additional delay to the cycle that can roughly be described as decisive moment is seen > photographer pushes button > picture happens. In my timing tests, there's a slight delay added by the LCD—about 1/10th of a second compared to viewing through the optional optical viewfinder (or simply peering at the subject over the top of the camera). You can learn to compensate, at least partially, for any delay that's consistent—and this one seems consistent—but still, all things considered, shorter shutter lags are better than longer ones. I'm hoping to see LCD/EVF delay reduced further as these technologies develop.
I had no trouble with the E-P1's supposedly deficient LCD resolution (230,000 dots). I found it easy to compose my pictures and to judge manual focus. I do wish that the manual focus assist function, which magnifies the central part of the scene either 7X or 10X to help with focus judgment, had one additional setting. As it currently works, the entire LCD area is magnified, which helps with focusing but you lose your view of the overall composition. I'd like an additional option to have only the center portion of the LCD show a magnified view, while the rest of the LCD stays at normal magnification so you can still get a decent sense of your composition.
I was not shooting on any particularly sunny days, so I can't give an opinion on how well the LCD works in direct sun, but I've shot in those conditions with many, many compact digicams, so I know that, for me, it's not a deal-breaker either way. I'll say more about the issue of "arm's length" LCD shooting in Part III of this mishmash.
Control responsiveness is also perfectly sufficient—i.e. the speed with which the two thumbwheels and all the push-buttons do their thing is just fine. No complaints in use.
Avenue A at 10th St.
I will mention two other things I'd like to see improved. The camera's power-on-to-first-shot time is a fairly long 2.7 seconds. I imagine there's dust-shaking and who knows what else going on in that time, and it would not normally be much of a concern to me, if it weren't for my second complaint: you can't leave the camera powered on when it's going in and out of your coat pocket (or holster bag or whatever). Why? Because, as many others have noted, the cameras controls are very easy to inadvertently adjust. Olympus could solve this with a sliding lock switch that disables all the buttons and wheels. As it stands—at least as far as I can tell—you have to turn the camera off when you stow it in your pocket, which means you have to endure the 2.7 second delay when you yank it out to get that fleeting shot of Elvis ducking into a taxi on West 57th Street. If anyone has a solution for this that I overlooked, I'd be grateful to hear it.
Those complaints stated, in the real world of walking around and shooting, at least for me, it would be relatively rare to miss a shot because of them. They do not, in other words, destroy the camera's sufficiency.
In the third and final installment of my E-P1 comments, tomorrow, I'll talk, in the best self-help tradition, about my happiness and the history of my unmet needs. It'll be fun, at least for me.