By Eamon Hickey
I'm sure this would be true for millions of photographers, but somebody who's good at information design could draw a nice diagram that plots the history of my photographic interests against the size of the camera I want to carry. When I was fascinated by wildlife, I was happy to lug 20 lbs. of gear hither and yon. I once spent several successive days making pre-dawn hikes to a gray fox den with a 7-lb. 500mm ƒ/4 lens and a ridiculous camouflage blind. I never got more than a fleeting glimpse of the furry demons, who clearly knew exactly where I was and—this could be my imagination—amused themselves with jokes about my chiropractic bills. After three or four days of this, I complained to my then-wife that shore birds were so much easier to photograph, at which she noted, "Hence the phrase is not 'smart as an egret'" without even looking up from her book.
Years later, sans sarcastic sidekick, I moved to New York City and became mostly interested in shooting the people and things I see as I make my way around the city. I've missed a lot of amazing photographs because I didn't have a camera with me. Two twenty-something furniture delivery muscle-heads, feet on the bumper of their van, hands on the pavement, doing incline push-ups in jammed mid-morning traffic on Broadway. Ten thousand skateboarders streaming, like a river made of hipster sneakers and wispy facial hair, the wrong way up 2nd Ave., protesting new regulations and freezing traffic and street life as far as the eye could see. A bushy-mustachioed man in his 60s in well-worn brown oxfords and a puffy down jacket with the hood drawn, looking for all the world like somebody's kindly grandpa, mesmerizing a 1 a.m. crowd with a spontaneous jig, danced to the wild drumming of a subway platform busker. I don't have those pictures. I got a life to lead and a job to do, and carrying an obtrusive SLR over my shoulder everywhere I go just doesn't happen.
So for me, the essential question about the E-P1 was: is it really more portable, in a meaningful way, than other high-quality, responsive digital cameras? Could I carry it easily—and forget about it when not in use—for hours, and then get the shot when I needed it?
My approach was to use it as if the answer were 'yes' and see how it worked. I used only the 17mm lens and simply slipped the camera in my coat pocket or messenger bag whenever I left my apartment. I tried to make it an integral part of my everyday life, like my cell phone.
Unsurprisingly, it's not quite as unobtrusive as a cell phone or iPod. It's not so portable that you would slip it into the inside pocket of your tuxedo on your way to the symphony or into your hip pocket while you get your nightclub boogie on. But it's unquestionably a big step closer to the carry-everywhere ideal than any seriously capable digital camera I've used before. It does go easily in and out of a coat pocket in a way that no DSLR with moderate wide lens setup does. There were many times that I would forget it was in my pocket for several hours while I ran errands. It was an unnoticeable addition to my messenger bag on my way to and from my office.
My dream camera would have the E-P1's sufficiency in responsiveness and controllability (or better) but would be about 15% smaller and weigh, with lens, 5–6 ounces (140–170g) less than the E-P1 with 17mm. Although I often forgot it was in my coat pocket, after several hours the E-P1's weight could begin to be a modest bother. (For reference, I'm 6'2" (188cm) tall and about 170 lbs. (77kg).) I'd actually like to see a plastic-fantastic version of this camera—without compromising responsiveness or controllability, please, Olympus! That's right, bring on the plastic, I say, if it'll shave a few ounces.
Two years ago, I bought a used Pentax *ist DS and equipped it with the really lovely little Pentax 21mm ƒ/3.2 DA Limited pancake lens. I got it because, at the time, it was the smallest package available that combined good responsiveness, good image quality, and a moderately wide-angle focal length. I don't think there's a DSLR/moderate wide lens setup that's any smaller even now. The E-P1, with the 17mm lens, is without question a lot easier to carry around. Easily coat-pocketable is a different class of thing.
And on the unobtrusiveness topic, I'll add that like many others I found that, as with a point-and-shoot digicam, using the E-P1 doesn't intrude on your subjects' consciousness as much as an SLR, or even a rangefinder, held to the eye. This is a way in which LCD viewing and so-called "arm's length" framing can be an advantage. For unobtrusive shooting I find that holding the camera at chest level or close to waist-level (my elbows are bent, so it's not really "arm's length") and viewing with the LCD draws less attention from strangers than eye-level framing, especially with a big black SLR and zoom lens. Many folks claim that holding a camera at eye-level is more stable, and they tend to state the claim as if this were something that Newton proved along with the Law of Gravity. As I understand it, Newton didn't even address the issue. If you give it some attention, I think it's easy to hold a camera steady even when away from your eye. I am, in short, glad to frame with the LCD—I think it helps me more often than not.
You'll notice I've said nothing about image quality. That's intentional. The file quality of the E-P1's images is, as I knew it would be, easily sufficient—my favorite word again—for what I'm asking it to do. Which is, more or less, to make images of street and people subjects with reasonably good tonal range and quality at ISOs up to 800 or so that I can enlarge to 20 inches (50cm) wide at the most (very rarely), and images at ISO 1600 that I can enlarge to 12–14 inches (30–35cm) wide (again, rarely). Every point-and-shoot digicam I've used is not sufficient as one gets closer to the extremes of my parameters (ISO and enlargement). I also have not commented on the 17mm lens, which seems to have already acquired a mediocre reputation. It, again, is easily sufficient for me.
There definitely are types of photographs that gain meaningful artistic power from increasing technical perfection, but many, many, many pictures do not, or at least not much. The things I'm interested in making pictures of fall mostly into the latter category, and I simply don't care about 1 or 2% differences in distortion or 50 line pairs of resolution this way or that. The E-P1's file quality hits a good middle ground for me.
I also haven't mentioned the Panasonic GF-1. I haven't used it. I strongly suspect that it would please me quite sufficiently, too. It evidently possesses an at least equally nice combination of portability, responsiveness, controllability, and image quality.
Ultimately, this is all boils down to the wonderful, if inexplicably obscure science of measuring happiness minutes that I mentioned in my first E-P1 post. This camera is not perfect. Unquestionably, there will be later versions, from Olympus and others, that will be better. It's not quite a carry-everywhere camera. But it gives me something I couldn't get before—namely, it will significantly extend the times and places wherein I have a high quality camera with me. Because of that, it's the first camera I've used in quite some time that I'm very sure would significantly increase my happiness minute supply.
So now I just gotta figure out when and how to get one.
Featured Comment by Miłosz Bolechowski: "Very 'sufficient' review. :-)"
Featured Comment by Timo: "Guess I missed Eamon by just a few minutes; said golfer was down to his last juice box."