Olympus E-P1 Digital Camera Review$499.99
Lens & Sensor
The kit lens is a modest 3x zoom ranging from 14-42mm (equivalent to a 28-84mm on a 35mm camera), with a maximum aperture of f/3.5-5.6. The ingenious touch here is the way the lens telescopes to make it more portable. When not shooting, sliding a switch on the lens barrel and rotating it collapses the depth of the lens to about half its original measurement (making it look about as deep as a pancake lens). When it's time to shoot again, simply turning in the opposite direction quickly restores the lens to full size. It's an exceptionally useful feature, saving roughly 1.25 inches in camera depth and enhancing portability in a bag or even a substantial jacket pocket. The E-P1 is still no point-and-shoot, but it's as close as an interchangeable lens camera has gotten so far.
The shots below demonstrate the zoom range at widest angle, maximum telephoto and smack dab in the middle. A digital shading compensation option attempts to brighten the outer edges of an image to correct for light drop-off that can occur, particularly with wide-angle lenses. This is an on/off control, without additional fine adjustment.
The Micro Four Thirds format takes a three-pronged approach to creating compact interchangeable-lens cameras: remove the SLR mirror system, use a smaller lens mount and a smaller sensor. The E-P1 sensor has a gross resolution of 13,060,000 pixels and an effective resolution of 12,300.000 pixels. It measures 17.3mm x 13.0mm, with a native 4:3 aspect ratio. Micro Four Thirds and standard Four Thirds format cameras use the same size sensor and, as the illustration below shows, this is considerably smaller than the typical APS-C format sensor used in digital SLRs.
Compactness does have its downsides. Cramming over 12 million pixels onto a small sensor has consistently produced higher image noise in our testing than in standard SLRs. It also increases the apparent lens magnification effect, from the 1.6x found on most digital SLRs to a full 2x. Mount a 14-42mm lens, like the one included in the E-P1 kit, on a digital SLR and it will shoot like a 22-67mm lens. The same lens on the E-P1 is a 28-84mm equivalent: you get more telephoto effect but less wide angle coverage.
The E-P1 uses a filter vibration system to automatically remove dust in front of the sensor every time you turn the camera on.
The E-P1 does not offer a built-in viewfinder, optical or electronic. There is an optical viewfinder accessory, the VF-1 ($100) that mounts on the hot shoe and displays the view seen through the 17mm pancake lens, but that's clearly a specialty item and cold comfort for camera-to-the-eyeball shooters.
The LCD is a 3-inch model with 230,000-dot resolution. It's not going to thrill anyone with beautiful image playback the way the 920,000-dot screens on higher-end Nikons and Canons might, but it does have an interesting advantage in the use of Olympus HyperCrystal technology. The screen lets some of the light through the outer colored layer and bounces it back from behind, leading to a brighter display in difficult sunny conditions. Even then, shooting on a bright August afternoon wasn't going well until I boosted the brightness all the way up in the setup menu. That did the trick, though: even direct sunlight on the camera back didn't leave me shooting blind.
Both the brightness and the color temperature of the LCD can be adjusted using the setup menu, each with values of ±7. There's also a Live View boost option which will automatically adjust the brightness to match the surroundings.
The monochrome information LCD mounted on the top of many high-end SLRs is understandably missing from the slender E-P1.
One casualty of the compact E-P1 design: there's no built-in flash. Of course, point-and-shoots that make the E-P1 look like a behemoth by comparison somehow manage to shoehorn in some form of flash, pop-up or otherwise, but Olympus decided to go without. We think that's a mistake: sometimes a flash is the only way to grab a shot, plus even a small built-in unit can be valuable as a fill flash when shooting outdoors.
The camera is compatible with a number of Olympus flash units, including the newly introduced FL-14 ($200), a petite unit meant to complement the E-P1 design. It's very small, at 5.6 ounces, which is good news when it comes to portability. However, for $200 and the trouble of carrying an external flash, I'd far prefer a mount that lets me bounce the flash, a feature sadly lacking in the FL-14.
Flash sync speed can be set between 1/60 and 1/180 second, in 1/3 EV increments.
When you do mount an external flash, you get the same assortment of flash modes offered in Olympus SLRs. For compatible flash units, flash intensity can be adjusted manually, to one of seven levels. Flash bracketing is also available, shooting a three-shot sequence (the metered value, one lower and one higher) at increments of 0.3 EV, 0.7 EV and 1.0 EV.
The port for connecting provided USB and standard-def AV cables is proprietary, the HDMI port for connecting directly to a high-def TV is industry-standard, though like the rest of the camera world the hard-to-find mini HDMI cable is not included.
The E-P1 uses the small rectangular BLS-1 Lithium-ion rechargeable battery, which Olympus estimates will last approximately 300 shots. Charging time for a completely discharged battery is about 3 hours 30 minutes.
Olympus, developers and chief promoters of the antiquated xD memory card format, saw the light (fueled largely by the need to provide fast, high-capacity storage for 720p video) and support SD/SDHC memory cards for the E-P1. Let's hope this is a trend that extends to the rest of the Olympus camera line.