Olympus goes back to the future with the retro-styled E-P1 digital camera
By Alan Brandon
June 19, 2009
A modern reinvention of the classic Pen camera from the 1960s and 70s, Olympus' E-P1 rolls a compact point-and-shoot form factor and full-size DSLR features together in a way that seems to defy categorization. There's something undeniably appealing about a 12.3-megapixel camera with interchangeable lens system, 720p high definition video, image stabilization and stereo audio recording that you can carry in a classic leather half-case and leather strap.
During the 1960s and 70s, the Olympus Pen series was a popular line of compact film cameras that used a half-frame format. Today’s Pen, the E-P1, uses the Micro Four Thirds format behind some slick retro styling to create a compact yet capable digital camera that is neither a point-and-shoot nor a DSLR. The market between these two categories is typically made up of prosumer cameras like the Canon PowerShot G10 that have fixed lenses but advanced shooting features and full manual control.
The E-P1 is almost as notable for what Olympus left out. There’s no viewfinder. There’s no flash. There’s no reflex mirror. Instead they packed the E-P1 with the advanced features of their other E-series cameras like the E-30 and the E-620, a 12.3-megapixel sensor, an interchangeable lens system, High Definition (HD) video, stereo audio recording, and in-camera creative editing features.
Compact body, retro styling
Olympus is known for manufacturing some of the smallest DSLRs around, and the E-P1 continues that tradition. In fact the E-P1 is Olympus’ smallest interchangeable lens camera. The stainless steel body is only 1.4 inches (3.6cm) thick, and will be available in either white or silver. The distinctive black or tan faux-leather grip is reminiscent of the early Pen models. The retro styling continues into the accessories as well. Olympus is offering an optional leather half-case and leather strap, as well as lens caps featuring the traditional gothic “F” from the old Pen designs.
Updated sensor and live view LCD
The E-P1’s 12.3 megapixel Four Thirds sensor is the same size used in the Olympus E-series DSLRs. This is a Live MOS type sensor, measuring 17.3 by 13mm (0.7 by 0.5in.). The Four Thirds sensor is smaller than the sensors found in most DSLRs, which typically use APS-C size sensors that measure 23.6 by 15.7mm (0.9 by 0.6in.). However, the Four Thirds sensor is quite a bit larger than the sensor found in most other compact cameras. The point-and-shoot cameras typically use a 1/2.5in sensor that measure 5.8 by 4.3mm (0.23 by 0.17in.).
The E-P1 offers an ISO range of 100 to 6400. With no built-in flash, the E-P1 needs the higher ISO capability. To help compensate for the “graininess” associated with high ISO ratings, the E-P1’s TruePic V image processor has been tuned for greater noise suppression as well as better color reproduction.
The E-P1’s rangefinder styling might make you think should hold it up to your eye to compose your picture. However, the Micro Four Thirds format eliminates the optical viewfinder as well as the mirror and prism found on DSLRs. Because there’s no viewfinder, composition is done through Live View on the 3in. (7.6cm) LCD screen. To make sure that you can see what you’re shooting under different lighting conditions, the E-P1 provides +/-7 brightness adjustments for the LCD. The E-P1 display also features Live Control, which allows you to see the image being shot and the camera’s controls on the LCD at the same time.
Olympus does offer a separate optical viewfinder that mounts on the E-P1’s hot shoe on top of the camera. The optical viewfinder is meant for use with the 17mm f/2.8 lens. This will give you that old-school rangefinder experience, although the E-P1’s autofocus will handle the focusing chores.
Interchangeable lens system
Olympus also announced a new line of M.Zuiko lenses for use with the E-P1. These Micro Four Thirds lenses include a collapsible 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 (24-84mm equivalent) zoom lens and a 17mm f/2.8 (34mm equivalent) prime lens.
Standard Four Thirds Format lenses can also be used on the E-P1 with the optional MMF-1 Four Thirds System Lens Adapter. The adapter allows you to mount any of the more than 20 Four Thirds lenses from Olympus plus lenses from Sigma, Panasonic, or other manufacturers. The focal length of Four Thirds lenses stays the same because the distance to the focal plane with the MMF-1 adapter is equal to the Four Thirds standard.
Olympus is also offering the MF-2 OM Adapter that allows you to mount older Olympus OM lenses on the E-P1 or any other Micro Four Thirds digital camera. OM lenses are manual focus only, and certain other features may be disabled as well.
Despite the E-P1’s compact construction, Olympus managed to fit in mechanical image stabilization (using sensor shifting) that can be used during still image shooting. Importantly, electronic image stabilization is available when shooting video.
The E-P1 also includes an automatic dust reduction system. When you turn on the camera a supersonic wave filter vibrates, dislodging any dust and preventing it from interfering with image quality.
Olympus has included a built-in digital level that displays horizontal tilt and vertical pitch on screen. This is a useful feature for architectural photography or other specialized uses, or as a helpful way to frame your composition just right.
In a change from their previous cameras, Olympus outfitted the E-P1 with an SDHC card slot instead of the usual XD. For the best performance, especially when shooting HD video, the company recommends using Class 6 SDHC cards.
The E-P1 offers all the capabilities you would expect from a full-featured DSLR including a new 18-zone multi-metering system (center-weighted and spot metering are also available), autofocus, automatic scene modes, face detection, and a full manual mode. Shooting modes are accessed through a vertical thumbwheel on the left shoulder of the camera. (The thumbwheel is also programmable for custom functions.)
The auto focus feature uses an 11-point contrast detection system with several modes including single AF, continuous AF, manual focus, and single-AF + manual. In the S-AF+M mode, twisting the focus ring causes the LCD to zoom in to a magnified view of the focus area to allow for sharp focusing of distant objects.
The E-P1’s 19 scene modes include settings for night-time scenes, portraits, landscapes, macro, and sports. A special setting for novice (or lazy) photographers is iAuto mode, which automatically identifies the type of scene being shot and adjusts the camera settings accordingly. At the opposite end of the control range, a full-manual mode is also available as well as aperture priority and shutter speed priority modes.
Creative editing and effects
Olympus has included the creative features from the E-620 in the E-P1 including six art filters, multiple exposures, shadow adjustment, and the Perfect Shot preview mode that lets you preview photo effects on the screen before you take the shot. Many of these features can be applied while shooting, or in post-editing. The E-P1 also includes selectable aspect ratios so you can take pictures in 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 or 6:6. Only the 4:3 ratio uses the entire sensor field.
The E-P1 has an added processing feature called ePortrait. The ePortrait mode smoothes out the facial features of your subjects. Applied while shooting or during post-editing, ePortrait can help improve the appearance for playback on an HD television.
Olympus is aiming the E-P1 at those customers who chronicle their daily lives on personal blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and more so the E-P1 also offers HD video recording. The camera can record HD 720p (1280 by 720) or SD (640 by 480) at 30fps. Many of the creative filters can be applied as effects while shooting video. Combined with the camera’s interchangeable lenses, the video capabilities make the E-P1 a capable video platform.
Olympus chose the AVI motion JPEG format for the video. This limits each video file to 2GB, which means you can only shoot up to about 7 minutes of HD at a time, or up to 14 minutes of SD video.
Built-in multimedia shows
Olympus knows that one of the great advantages of digital imaging is its immediacy, and the ability to relive your experiences right away with friends. Tying the camera’s photo, video, and audio capabilities together, the E-P1 features an in-camera multimedia playback mode that mixes stills, movies, and audio. The multimedia feature allows you to blend photos and videos with creative art filters, fade-in/fade-out effects, and audio. You can use audio you record yourself, or dub one of five built-in background music options. To share your multimedia show, connect the E-P1 to a television using the HDMI or AV output jacks.
Pricing and availability
Early reviews of the E-P1 are mostly positive. If the combination of photo and video features in a chic compact package strike the right balance, Olympus could once again have a winner in their reincarnated Pen line.
Olympus says the E-P1 will be available in July 2009. They estimate street pricing will be as follows: