Olympus PEN E-P1 Review

The PEN E-P1 is designed in the style of the original PEN. This camera is different from the Micro Four Thirds concept premiered in 2008. Is this the dawn of a new era?

The timing of the new Olympus PEN E-P1 isn’t a coincidence. It’s 50 years since Olympus launched the original Pen, a revolutionary ‘halfframe’ camera that was eventually developed into an SLR with a ‘porrofinder’ rather than a conventional pentaprism, a design which resurfaced in the Olympus E-300 and E-330. There’s another non-coincidence here, too – the original PEN was a half-frame format (half a 35mm frame), and the Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds format is half-frame too.

Olympus cameras have quite a heritage, and the company has exploited it to the full in the design of the E-P1, its first Micro Four Thirds camera. The styling echoes the old chrome-and-leather look of the original Pen cameras, but the technology inside is pure 21st century.

Design and handling

The pre-production mock-up first shown by Olympus at Photokina in 2008 was very different to this, with a classical square shape, but modern, minimalist lines. If you were hoping the finished camera would look like that one, then the E-P1 could be a mild disappointment.

The body itself does have the broad feel of the original Pen series, except for the controls, but the 14-42mm kit lens seems quite out of place. It’s not the same as the 14-42mm lens supplied with Olympus’s E-series DSLRs. This one is a Micro Four Thirds version with a much shorter back-focus – and also a much more complicated mechanism. To keep the design compact Olympus has introduced a ‘parking’ system for closing the lens down to more portable size. That’s all very well, but it’s a bit of a nuisance having to remember to ‘unpark’ it before you can use it. And once it’s extended it looks every bit as long as the standard Four Thirds kit zoom, and a good deal less pretty, with a double-barrelled extension and a small front element which rotates during focusing, so filters could be tricky.

The alternative to this is Olympus’s fixed focal length 14mm f/2.8 ‘pancake’ lens, and this will look more in keeping with the camera’s design, even if it is more limited. The other advantage of the pancake lens is that you can get a clip-on optical viewfinder to go with it, though that does cost extra. At the moment, these are only two lenses for this camera. You can use conventional Four Thirds lenses via an adaptor, though this too is extra. As is the dedicated external lash, which you may well need because the E-P1 doesn’t have one built in.

Now then, the controls. Those on Olympus DSLRs are excellent, but here the designers have gone for something very different. The main dial is a rotating ring around the outside of the navipad on the back of the camera – a design now common on Canon compacts, for example. The trouble is that the amount of pressure needed to get a proper grip on the knurled edge with your thumb is more than enough to press the directional buttons by mistake instead. These controllers just aren’t effective, and the sooner camera designers figure this out the better.

Fortunately, you’ll soon work out that you can use the directional buttons instead, and that these do everything the spinning dial does anyway. Or you can use the secondary controller at the top right, a kind of knurled metal cylinder. It’s not as easy to use as a conventional finger-operated control dial, but it’s a lot better than the main dial.

Olympus hasn’t pushed the boat out with the LCD. The size is fine, but the resolution is pretty modest, especially given this camera’s price. 230,000 pixels is all right, but given that this is the camera’s primary viewing system, couldn’t they have stretched to one of the newer 920,000 pixel displays we’re starting to see on the better DSLRs?

You have to admire Olympus for producing such an attractive, classically-designed body, not to mention a whole new concept in digital camera design. But it’s let down by its controls, which make it more awkward to use. The AF needs to be faster, too.

The E-P1’s ergonomics may be unexpectedly irritating, but its image quality is remarkable. The definition is as good as you could expect from any APS-C format digital SLR. Indeed, despite the difference in megapixels, it’s a little sharper than the 14MP Sony a380 also tested this issue. What’s more, the Olympus kit lens has below average levels of distortion and chromatic aberration and much better than average edge sharpness and consistency across both the aperture and the zoom range.

The auto white balance system is very good, as is the exposure system. The E-P1 does tend to clip bright skies in outdoor shots, though it does seem slightly less prone to this than earlier Four Thirds models, and other cameras are guilty of this too.

Olympus seems to have made great strides with the other one-time weakness of Four Thirds sensors – high-ISO performance. Admittedly, the E-P1’s ISO 6400 maximum is a step too far, and it’s a bit dodgy at ISO 3200 too, but at ISO 1600 it’s very good by any standards. The E-P1’s JPEGs have a bright, clean look characteristic of Olympus Four Thirds cameras, and let’s not forget the six ‘Art’ filters supplied with the camera.

Actually, we’ll forget four of them and concentrate on the two really good ones: ‘Pin Hole’ and ‘Grainy Film’. The Pin Hole effect adds a strong vignette effect and a sepia colour shift which, between them, produce a really attractive ‘retro’ look. And while the Grainy Film effect is a bit too contrasty, and has a pretty crude approach to grain simulation, it produces striking, gritty mono shots.

The E-P1 is an unusual camera with undeniable appeal but rather too many laws. And if it’s serious about prising open a Micro Four Thirds sized gap in the digital camera market, this seems a pretty odd camera to do it with.