Olympus PEN E-PL1 12.3 MP Digital Camera - Blue (Kit w/ 14-42mm Lens)

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Cheapest interchangeable lens camera packs a punch

Jan 21, 2012 (Updated Mar 22, 2013)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Cheap but more powerful and customizable than compacts

Cons:Older LCD screen, sensor, not quite pocketable

The Bottom Line: Good budget choice for compact interchangeable lens system


The Olympus E-PL1 is a somewhat dated Compact Interchangeable Lens Camera (CILC) by today's standards, and it shows. Nevertheless, at bargain-basement prices, it becomes a good deal. It has a good JPEG engine with colors that a lot of people like and which is sharper than the GF2's JPEGs; and its RAW performance is also a bit better than the Panasonic GF2.  

Discussions of personal experiences are in italics.


THE GOOD:


Stabilization attempts to counteract your hand shake and thus counter the blur that can result from shaky hands holding the camera at longer exposure times. It will only help for non-moving subjects, though; using it on something like a running football player in low light will result in a photo of a blurry football player on sharp grass--only the non-moving things will be sharper with stabilization.  And if the exposure time is too long or your hands are very jittery, even stabilization will not net you sharp photos. It's best to use a tripod and eliminate hand shake altogether, but not everyone can afford to buy and carry a good tripod around. 

Stabilizing sensors can be placed in the camera body and move the sensor in the opposite direction your hand shake is moving the camera; or the sensors can be placed in the lens to shift the incoming light beams in the opposite direction of your hand shake.

The Olympus has in-body lens stabilization (IBIS), which works on all lenses regardless of whether the lens has optical image stabilization. So you can get an adapter and mount your old lenses on the E-PL1 and the camera will stabilize them! IBIS is more effective on shorter focal-length lenses, though, such as wideangle lenses, due to how the physics of the process work. Moreover, IBIS generates heat near the sensor which may result in noise, and is thus less effective when taking video, as video already stresses the sensor and heats it up. The last thing you want is MORE heat near the sensor.


The E-PL1 lets you adjust the size of the focus box; the part of the frame that the camera will try to focus on. And the camera also has some nifty artsy presets, though that's become standard on cameras today.


One nifty undocumented feature of the E-PL1.  The built-in pop-up flash "bounces" if you pull back on it. That is, you can get it to bounce the flash off ceilings for a more natural-looking photo rather than blast someone in the face with it for those awful deer-in-headlight photos you get with cameras that don't allow you to "bounce" the flash.


The E-PL1 has a self-cleaning mode for the sensor, as well as a pixel mapping mode which visually rids yourself of hot pixels, especially important in long-exposure photography.


Color accuracy.
I shoot RAW and correct white balance in post-processing, as well as any color. From what I have seen the Olympus E-PL1 does a pretty good job here. In JPEG the E-PL1 has punchier colors (saturation) than I am used to, but I know there is a large fanbase of Oly users who actually like these punchier colors, and frankly, most of the general population probably also likes the punchier colors. Even if they aren't completely accurate. You can always adjust the in-camera JPEG settings to correct to something more to your liking, of course.


THE BAD:


Autofocus.
Even updated to the latest firmware as of Jan. 2012, and with the latest firmware for the kit lens, the autofocus is a bit slow compared to its peers. The GF2 is much faster, for instance. But the real problem is how the camera doesn't have an AF assist beam and focuses slowly, if at all, in low light. It just hunts for focus and gives up. This is the kind of performance you'd expect out of a compact camera, not a CILC. Thankfully the E-PL1 does better with more light or faster glass, but most people will use the kit lens and expect to be able to use autofocus with it.


Tripod Mount.
Who was the foolish engineer at Olympus who decided to place the tripod mount at the center of the body, rather than centered beneath the lens? This off-center-of-lens placement wreaks havoc on those who mount tripods and take panoramas. Yeah, I know, the proper way to take a panorama also involves a nodal scale anyway, but for quick and dirty panoramas of distant things, a few swivels OUGHT to be enough. But no, the tripod mount is off-center. Unbelievable. On the other hand, most users probably will never use this camera to take panoramas on a tripod anyway. Even I don't, most of the time--I just snap a few shots and stitch them together on a computer, using free software like Hugin. 


High ISO performance and dynamic range:
IBIS, fast glass, flash, and tripod can help with shutter speeds and/or handshake, but when all else fails, you need to crank up ISO. And the E-PL1 is behind the times when it comes to cranking up ISO. Sure, ISO 800 is usable, especially at reasonable print sizes and web-sized images, but ISO 1600 is really pushing it. It's not bad as far as 12MP Micro Four Thirds sensors go, but the newer 16MP MFT sensors do better at higher ISOs. I have been asked to describe "the picture" by someone.

It is very difficult to describe in words, but the E-PL1's picture is fine at low ISO (say, 100 to 400). As you creep up to 800 and 1600, you get blotchiness and fuzziness throughout the image frame; a sort of light smearing of detail. This is not necessarily a problem for certain types of photos, and a little smearing can actually be flattering for certain types of portraits--it's certainly one way of smoothing out wrinkles. However, the smear/blotchiness/fuzziness looks bad in relatively uniform portions of the  frame, such as the sky, or a large shadowy area, or both.

On a related note is dynamic range, which is related to noise in a complex way. The E-PL1 has mediocre dynamic range on par with compact cameras and a bit worse than entry-level DSLRs, especially if you shoot in JPEG. I am thinking about one photo in particular that I took early on with the E-PL1 that I was unhappy about. It was a landscape with bright sunlight shining down onto trees that were half in shadow. The in-shadow portions were rather noisy and fuzzy in a way that my Nikon D5100 would never be, but then again the D5100's sensor is a) larger than the E-PL1's; and b) the best in its class when it comes to dynamic range (shared with the Sony NEX-5N, Nikon D7000, and Pentax K-5).  The E-PL1 photo's fuzz was the result of the camera trying to neither overexpose nor underexpose, all with a limited amount of wiggle room in-between (dynamic range), and then processing it into a compromise JPEG. When I looked at the RAW file, though, the photo was actually pretty good, so I chalk it up to the camera's JPEG engine making a bad processing decision when it came time to synthesize a JPEG.  I shoot mostly RAW so it doesn't bother me.


Metering.
The E-PL1 has a maddening tendency to overexpose if you are not careful. OK, that's an exaggeration but it does tend to overexpose more than many of my other high-end cameras. So if you want to play it safe, just underexpose everything a little and pull exposure back up in RAW as necessary, shifting tone curves, etc.

Handling.
No thumbwheel, no touchscreen. To change ISO you need to push buttons, just like a compact camera. But at least it's intuitive enough to figure out without a manual. Still, it's not the fastest camera out there to change settings on. Combined with the slightly laggardly autofocus and shutter release, it's not the most pleasant camera to use when shooting fast action.

To be fair, even more expensive M43 cameras like the G3 doesn't have enough manual controls to easily switch ISO via thumbwheel, and it's not hard to push the "up" and left-right buttons to modify ISO and aperture (or shutter speed depending on what mode you're shooting in).


LCD screen.
The screen is a small 2.7 inch, 230k dot mess. It just looks bad compared to high-end compact cameras and CILCs and DSLRs. THe only thing it looks good next to are the really cheap compact cameras. The LCD isn't even particularly bright, and it gains up in dim light to the point where noise and colors throw the image off. Yes, it's still possible to check to see if you manually focused right, if you use image magnification.  This is easy to set on the camera.


Flash/viewfinder.
Since it comes with no viewfinder, if you want one you will have to pay extra for the VF-2 or VF-3, both of which are good viewfinders but which also makes it so you can't simultaneously use an external flash. Just something to think about, if you like using an onboard external flash.  I have used the VF-2 viewfinder and it is pretty good with minimal lag; you will never mistake it for an optical viewfinder, but it is good enough and can do fancy things like project the exposure histogram on top of other info like ISO and aperture settings.


Lens.
The 14-42mm kit Mark I lens has an odd 40.5 filter thread which may be difficult to service with your favorite brand. It's pretty sharp even wide open, at the center; stopped down to f/5.6 and it's sharp all over. It's also rather small and light and can lock back into itself. The main problem is that the lens at certain focal lengths and exposures will incorrectly compensate for handshake. It won't affect you most of the time, just be aware of the problem. They fixed this with the Mark II version, which also accepts nifty things like bayonet-mounted wideangle and macro filter attachments. And thankfully this camera is compatible with a lot of great, small lenses natively; as well as a lot of legacy glass via adapters (manual focus only).

Someone asked me to talk about distortion at different focal lengths. This will of course vary from lens to lens in most camera systems. Micro Four Thirds is different. All Micro Four Thirds lenses tell Micro Four Thirds cameras how to un-distort the image.  So the E-PL1 automatically corrects distortion of the kit lens. This "undistort" command is literally baked into the RAW file, and so with common RAW-reader programs like Adobe Photoshop, you don't get to see the uncorrected version.  If you use software that ignores the RAW file's "undistort" commands, though, such as RawTherapee, you can see the uncorrected version. And yes there is some distortion, but since it is auto-corrected with minor impacts to sharpness, in practice you can just ignore such distortions.


Video.
The 720p video is dated compared to everything else in its price bracket. It's not the end of the world but just another ding. Even the GF2 can do 1080i. Due to CMOS limitations, you will get a slight jello effect since the entire frame isn't exposed simultaneously; rather, frames are processed line by line so if you pan quickly enough, you can make straight lines blend; but that's common among all current generation CMOS sensors. 


THE NEUTRAL:


Battery life is around 300 shots if you do some flash photos and check your LCD and such sometimes. That's about average for a CILC. Bring a spare if you think you will need more juice.


CONCLUSION:


This camera has too many deficiencies for me to recommend without any reservations. It's just a tad too slow for fast action due to its below-average autofocus speed and shutter release time, handling is no better than average speed, the LCD has no touchscreen and has an unimpressive resolution, and it has no built-in EVF which means you have to rely on the small LCD to frame and to confirm focus. If you can look past those limitations, though, this camera can take very good photos. It's just more of a hassle to use than its rivals.  But at rock bottom prices, especially for barely used cameras, coupled with compatibility with a great lens and flash selection, and built-in image stabilization, the E-PL1 is a viable alternative and good bang for the buck.


Recommend this product? Yes

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