Olympus PEN E-PL1 Digital Camera Review

With new user friendly features, such as a dedicated video recording button and a built-in flash along with a nice £540 price tag, the Olympus E-PL1 will tempt a wider market to Micro Four Thirds.

| Olympus E-PL1 in Mirrorless Cameras
Build and handling

Olympus PEN E-PL1 Digital Camera Review: Olympus E-PL1 front view
Micro Four Thirds is an innovative new concept allowing small camera bodies with interchangeable lenses. It uses the same sensor that's found on the Olympus DSLRs so you get DSLR quality images on a smaller camera.

The word Micro comes from the smaller lens mount and a reduced space between the sensor and rear lens element.
Olympus PEN E-PL1 Digital Camera Review:  
Matt Grayson tests the new Olympus E-PL1.

With the addition of the built-in flash and direct video record button, the E-PL1 is aimed at the newcomer to Micro Four Thirds or people upgrading from compacts.

The digital Pen series has ensured Olympus are now a name on everyone's lips when thinking of a small, easy-to-use digital camera with interchangeable lenses and a decent sensor. The E-P1 retold the story of the original Pen from the late 1950's with a modern twist and since then, the E-P2 has joined the ranks and was quickly joined by the E-PL1. Priced at £540, the 14-42mm lens, the E-PL1 is half the price of the other models in the Digital Pen range.

Olympus E-PL1: Features
Olympus PEN E-PL1 Digital Camera Review: Olympus E-PL1 rear view
The rear view shows an easy to use layout on the E-PL1.
Olympus PEN E-PL1 Digital Camera Review: Olympus E-PL1 command dial
The large command dial sits on the top plate, unlike the E-P1 & E-P2 which have a sunken dial on the left shoulder.
The idea behind the E-PL1 is that it's a Pen that is even easier to use than the E-P1 and E-P2. It doesn't matter that the latter two are painfully easy to navigate, Olympus don't seem to want to put all their eggs in one basket so the E-PL1 has simplistic features such as a built-in flash and a direct video recording button which is soft to press. I'm a little disappointed that it takes three or four seconds for the camera to actually start recording. I would have thought that the direct button would reduce the waiting time, but apparently not.

Interestingly, the screen is 2.7in, not 3in as I'd expect and can be found on the E-P1 and E-P2, which will most likely be in order to cut costs and keep the price down. There's also no spirit level gauge to indicate when the camera is straight but the camera does still record in 12-bit Raw on the 12.3Mp LiveMOS sensor. The lens mount is fully compatible with the Micro Four Thirds system so there's no problem interchanging with any existing lenses you have in that format which means the camera could be a decent cheaper back-up camera should you feel you need one.

However, I don't feel that the camera has been created to be a back-up, the easiness of the system along with the new features suggests that it's squarely aimed at people who may be new to the Micro Four Thirds system or upgrading from a compact and still want the small size that they're used to but with the versatility of a DSLR.

It's a slightly quirkier camera that doesn't really fit with the other two models, possibly because the E-P2 is a clone of the E-P1. The E-PL1 looks more modern but not because it looks futuristic, it just looks non-vintage. The command dial sits on top of the camera instead of being sunken into the body like the other two cameras in the Pen range.

I like the buttons on the E-PL1, they're bigger than the E-P1 and E-P2 which makes them easier to press. The controls on the buttons have been simplified, so you get access to flash and drive functions, exposure compensation and focus points instead of ISO, white-balance and AEL/AFL lock button that are on the higher models.

Two new Art modes have been added to the E-PL1 called Diorama and Gentle sepia. These are designed to add to the vintage side of the range and complement the Grainy film and Pinhole modes.

Olympus E-PL1 Art mode Pop art
Olympus E-PL1 Art mode Pop art.
Olympus E-PL1 Art mode Soft focus
Olympus E-PL1 Art mode Soft focus.
Olympus E-PL1 Art mode Grainy film
Olympus E-PL1 Art mode Grainy film.
Olympus E-PL1 Art mode Diorama
Olympus E-PL1 Art mode Diorama.
Olympus E-PL1 Art mode Pinhole
Olympus E-PL1 Art mode Pinhole.
Olympus E-PL1 Art mode Gentle sepia
Olympus E-PL1 Art mode Gentle sepia.

Olympus E-PL1: Build and handling
The build quality is a mixture of aluminium and plastic instead of the pure metal build of the E-P1/E-P2. ISO sensitivity has been capped at a lower step of ISO3200 and the top shutter speed is capped at 1/2000sec from 1/4000sec on the higher models.

The E-PL1 has a built-in flash so the hot-shoe is spare and you could fit the optional electronic viewfinder although at £280, it's less painful to use the back screen. It would be cheaper to buy an additional flashgun and forget about the built-in type to give you more control. Even the mid-range FL-36R model is less than the EVF at £219.

It seems weird to pay so much attention to the battery bay but I'm impressed with it. The battery has been designed so that it can't be put in at all if it's the wrong way round and the door has been given a lip to provide tension and keep the door open while you load it. It's a simple trick but I like the idea so that if you're trying to load it and the door would normally keep flapping shut, this will make sure it stays open.

Dipping into the menu systems displays a similar set up to other Olympus cameras but the highlighter is a garish greeny yellow colour. The image stabiliser has been given an extra feature of allowing the focal length to be set if you're using a lens that isn't Micro Four Thirds if you decide to fit regular Four Thirds lenses using the MFT to FT adapter MMF1 at £150 from Warehouse Express. Just press the Info button on the back while while you're on the image stabilisation menu and it'll allow you to adjust the focal length.

Olympus E-PL1: Performance
All images were taken in the Raw/JPEG format and the Raw files have been converted to JPEG for use in the review. No other changes have been made to the images.

The Olympus uses Digital ESP metering which is Olympus’ advanced multi metering system. It works by splitting the image into 324 sections, analysing the data from each section and giving the best exposure from the results. There’s sill a margin of error but on the whole it works well. With strong side-lighting creating a bright area of the image, I found that it exposed the image really well. I also got the same results when the sun was directly in the frame in that the ground was still nicely exposed, demonstrating a large dynamic range. That must theoretically mean that the image is flatter with hardly any contrast but photographing the bark of a tree with the sun casting from one side, I found contrast in the darkest grooves and knots of the bark while the shaded areas still have detail which I think is brilliant.

Olympus E-PL1 sidelight image
Olympus E-PL1 Digital ESP metering
Digital ESP metering.
Olympus E-PL1 Centre-weighted metering
Centre-weighted metering.
Olympus E-PL1 Spot metering
Spot metering.
Olympus E-PL1 Spot hilight metering
Spot Hilight metering.
Olympus E-PL1 Spot shadow metering
Spot Shadow metering.

Like the other Pen models in the range, the E-PL1 boasts five metering options: Digital ESP, centre-weighted, spot, Spot Hilight and Spot Shadow.

Since the focusing debacle that affected early models of the E-P1, the focusing system has been improved upon and the E-PL1 sports the same speed contrast detection focusing system as the other two models in the range. It does hunt like a compact, but is much faster although not as fast as a DSLR. The act of the camera focusing is very smooth and not unpleasant to watch unless it can’t find a lock.

Low noise test results look really good with both ISO100 and ISO200 settings producing smooth images across the board. ISO400 starts to show a few cracks in the foundations and there's a few black spots starting to show at ISO800, but the main swing in quality seems to come at ISO1250 when purple and green colour starts to show in the mid-range levels and speckles dot the images all over. ISO1600 manages to retain black as the colour black, but by the final setting, the noise has given black a purple cast to it.

Olympus E-PL1 ISO100 test
Olympus E-PL1 ISO100 test.
Olympus E-PL1 ISO200 test
Olympus E-PL1 ISO200 test.
Olympus E-PL1 ISO400 test
Olympus E-PL1 ISO400 test.
Olympus E-PL1 ISO800 test
Olympus E-PL1 ISO800 test.
Olympus E-PL1 ISO1600 test
Olympus E-PL1 ISO1600 test.
Olympus E-PL1 ISO3200 test
Olympus E-PL1 ISO3200 test.

There are two modes of noise reduction. You can switch noise reduction on or off and there’s also a noise filter which has three varying degrees of strength which are low, standard and high. It works quite well for what it’s supposed to do but there’s an element of detail loss as the picture is smoothed out to remove any noise.

In ambient light, the lower ISO settings still deliver outstandingly smooth images. Black dots start to appear at the same stages as in controlled lighting and you can see them the easiest lurking in the shadow areas. However, it’s milder and there’s more of a jump between ISO1600 and ISO3200.

Olympus E-PL1 outside ISO100 test
Olympus E-PL1 outside ISO100 test.
Olympus E-PL1 outside ISO200 test
Olympus E-PL1 outside ISO200 test.
Olympus E-PL1 outside ISO400 test
Olympus E-PL1 outside ISO400 test.
Olympus E-PL1 outside ISO800 test
Olympus E-PL1 outside ISO800 test.
Olympus E-PL1 outside ISO1600 test
Olympus E-PL1 outside ISO1600 test.
Olympus E-PL1 outside ISO3200 test
Olympus E-PL1 outside ISO3200 test.

Colour reproduction
Olympus PEN E-PL1 Digital Camera Review: Olympus E-PL1 colour test
Olympus E-PL1 colour test.
Olympus E-PL1 blue sky
Olympus E-PL1 blue sky.
Olympus PEN E-PL1 Digital Camera Review: Olympus E-PL1 portrait shot
A nicely balanced exposure with accurate skin tones although the dress is a little more red in real life.
Olympus PEN E-PL1 Digital Camera Review: Olympus E-PL1 close portrait shot
Getting in close allows the camera to show off its prowess with incredibly sharp images.

Olympus E-PL1 pastel colours
Pastel colours work better than vibrant ones on the Olympus E-PL1.
It’s a mixed bag with the colour performance of the E-PL1. I love the brightness of the yellow, but I’m disappointed in the primary red, I think it looks a bit too dark, and the primary blue which I think is a tad on the pale side.

The same can be said for the earthy colours, brown isn’t as vibrant and rich as I’d expect and green also struggles to keep afloat. Alongside yellow, turquoise and the pastel colours remain true to life and the grey scale is good.

I was hoping that this may just be an issue with controlled lighting and that in ambient light, the camera may behave differently, but rich blue skies turned out a lot more tepid than I’d expect and the most realistic colours were of the pale and mundane variety.

Daylight white-balance modes such as sunshine, shade and cloudy work great on the E-PL1 with balanced images in shade, sun and when it’s cloudy. In controlled lighting, it’s a different story. Fluorescent light gives a better result in the auto white-balance setting than the preset but then there are different types of fluorescent lighting that give off a slightly different cast. Tungsten does well on the preset version and in auto, the image comes out a little warmer. Although I think in the right situation, it could be an advantage.

Olympus E-PL1 fluorescent auto white-balance
Fluorescent auto white-balance.
Olympus E-PL1 fluorescent white-balance
Fluorescent white-balance.
Olympus E-PL1 tungsten auto white-balance Olympus E-PL1 tungsten white-balance

Buffer read/write speed
Setting the camera into its sequential shooting mode can be done on the quick menu by pressing the Ok button. The camera runs at about 3fps (frames-per-second) and managed to shoot 3sec of Raw files before it slowed to less than 1fps. The E-PL1 took 13 shots in the ten second trial period in Raw format.

Switching over to JPEG, the camera still runs at 3fps and then slows to a snails crawl for the rest of the period. It had a sudden burst of a couple of shots before the end of the ten second period like a last hurrah before the end.

The battery that goes into the Olympus E-PL1 is a rechargeable lithium-ion type called the PS-BLS1 at £58 from Warehouse Express which is a little on the high side but it’s small and light. Despite being a simple rectangle shape, it’s designed to not fit into the bay at all if it’s the wrong way round which is good because some go half-way down and stop which is annoying.

Throughout the test, I didn’t use the electronic viewfinder, opting for the screen on the back. I played back all images I took and generally messed around with it. I also used the Art modes, some of which have a lengthy processing time. By the end of the test, the battery icon was flashing red because it was dangerously low.

Olympus E-PL1: Verdict
It’s another nice little camera from Olympus which will only aid to bolster the MFT (Micro Four Thirds) market and adds a budget model into the range. I like subtle parts of the camera such as the raised command dial and new Diorama Art mode but I’m unimpressed with the look of the camera. The Pen series has made a name as a retro model and Olympus have really pushed that ideology, but here they are with a modern looking camera which is partly down to the shape but I think mostly down to the materials used to build it.

For a budget model, it’s a good camera. Sure, I wasn’t happy with the colour reproduction and I think that has let the camera down the most but the features, ease of use and compact size are all positive notes. 

Saying that, the Panasonic GF1 is an excellent camera and for the money that the Olympus costs: £534 with the 14-42mm lens from Warehouse Express, I would still spend an extra £40 and get the GF1 and same lens.

Olympus E-PL1: Pros
Good price
New Art modes are fun
Built-in flash
It's only a small thing, but I really like the battery door
Command dial on top of the camera
Video mode & direct button

Olympus E-PL1: Cons
Colour reproduction


To read an interview with Olympus' Head of Product Planning, Toshiyuki Terada, please click here.

Olympus E-PL1: Specification
Price: £539.99 (c/w 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens)
Resolution: 12.3Mp
Sensor size: Four Thirds 17.3x13mm
Sensor type: LiveMOS
Max. Image size: 4032x3042
Aspect ratio: 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, 6:6
Focusing system: Contrast detection
Focus points: 11 (AF/MF), 25 (AF with face detection), 225 (MF in magnified view)
Focus types: Manual, Single AF, Continuous AF, face detection, AF tracking
Crop factor: 2x
Lens mount: Micro Four Thirds
File types: JPEG, Raw
ISO sensitivity: ISO100-3200 in 1/3 or 1 step increments
Metering system: TTL open aperture light system with 324 zone multi pattern system
Metering types: Digital ESP, spot, centre-weighted, spot with highlight, spot with shadow
Exposure compensation: +/- 3EV in 1/3, 1/2 and 1 step increments
Shutter speed range: 60sec - 1/2000sec
Frames-per-second: 3fps
Flash sync speed: 1/180sec
Image stabilisation: Yes, sensor shift type
Live view: Yes
Viewfinder: Yes, additional electronic VF-2
Monitor: 2.7in HyperCrystal LCD, 230,000dot
Media type: SD, SDHC
Interface: USB 2.0. HDMI
Power: Li-Ion battery BLS-1
Size: 120.6x69.9x36.4mm
Weight: 300g (body only)

The Olympus E-PL1 costs around £499 body only and is available from Warehouse Express here:

Olympus E-PL1

You can add a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens to the body for £539.99 and the kit is also available from Warehouse Express here:

Olympus E-PL1 & 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6

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Photographs taken using the Olympus E-PL1

One Lovely Dahlia.The Light breaks inChadwick SerenityLight headed starlingBirdingPath Through the WoodsA Moody Blues Type Of Flower.Garden AngelCarrisa CarandasCute little Sahara boyThe little orme moonHomage?Through the WaterfallA Slice of Orange and Lemon

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Chaitanya Avatar
Chaitanya 13 15 1 United Kingdom
16 Feb 2010 12:21PM
Is this camera worth buying? I own 5 SLRs and 15 lenses and it is a lot to carry every time I go for field trips. I need to buy a cheap and compact camera that can do the job. The other 3 micro 4/3 format cameras are expensive for the performance they offer.
MattGrayson Avatar
MattGrayson 16 622 3 England
17 Feb 2010 2:28PM
At the moment this is just a preview of the camera and its features. Until I get a model in, I wouldn't like to say, but it does look tempting.
dd1989 Avatar
dd1989 13
30 Mar 2010 5:14PM

Quote:There are two modes of noise reduction. You can switch noise reduction on or off and thereís also a noise filter which has three varying degrees of strength which are low, standard and high. It works quite well for what itís supposed to do but thereís an element of detail loss as the picture is smoothed out to remove any noise.

The "first" mode has nothing to do with noise, it's to do with removing the random hot pixels from long, low-light exposures. It uses a black frame to remove the hot pixels.
Chaitanya Avatar
Chaitanya 13 15 1 United Kingdom
5 Apr 2010 2:36PM
I hope that olympus releases the camera in India soon, after reading the review I am going to buy the camera with 25mm lens. Looks like a perfect camera to carry for trips. Also Compared to Ep-1 and EP-2 this camera will offer a better grip.
daviewat Avatar
daviewat 19 4.1k Scotland
25 May 2010 12:37PM
I have massive bulky hands and previously bought an EP-1 and although i loved the camers, its quality etc i did find it small in my hands and a strange shape to grip confidentatly.

Then along comes this little number and I have to say I am delighted, so bought one and it feels just right in my hands, larger where needed etc.

I got the 14-42mm lens with it an d it gives excellent results. Also using an MMF-2 adaptor as the shop gave me one free with the camera, so i can use all 4/3rd lends for Olympus now and i am also going to get an MF2 adaptor so i can use any Olympus OM lens Smile

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