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Sunday, 28 June 2009

Hands On With The Olympus E-P1

Every once in a while a product comes along, out of the blue, that you’ve been wishing for. For me, the Olympus E-P1 is this product. For years I’ve been spouting off to manufacturers and resellers about the need for a digital compact camera with interchangeable lenses. I’ve even gone into in-depth detail about exactly how this should be done, and alas, its all fallen on deaf ears. Thankfully, Olympus has answered this call (which I never made to them) with the E-P1.

In the film days, for well over a decade I’d been a Leica rangefinder user, having had M4-2, M4P and M6 bodies and most M lenses available. I made most of my favourite pictures with these tiny cameras and those great lenses. Having tried the M8 twice, alas it was clear to me that it just wasn’t for me. The sensor’s cropped size, terrible performance in mid ASA’s upwards and need of extra filtration has put me off for good. I really wish that they sort out these shortcomings instead of just focusing on limited editions and luxuries like mineral crystal LCD covers.

Its because of the lack of a decent digital rangefinder that in my opinion there’s a niche in the market that needed to be filled. Straight off, I’ll say that so far, the optics on the little Olympus don’t come anywhere near the quality of Leica optics, and and the build quality, whilst excellent, isn’t as sturdy as a Leica. However, the costs aren’t even comparable! Digital image quality however, is. I had just under three hours with the E-P1, and I must say that I’m really very impressed by it.

It just feels right in the hand. Its sturdy, comfortable, ergonomic and well made. The construction is really very impressive. Those “retro” looks are quite cool too. One thing I’m definitely unhappy about through is the fact that there isn’t a black version available, though the photograph release by Olympus at launch, seems to hint that a black one will become available. Whilst I’m on this subject, please Olympus, make sure all lenses, finders and flash are available in black too.

I immediately took off the zoom lens and fitted the tiny pancake 17mm f2.8. Its even smaller than my M lenses! The focal length of fitted lenses doubles, so most of the pictures you’ll see were shot at 34mm. Rather upsettingly, the camera doesn’t have a built in optical finder. I would love a large, bright, optical finder with lines for the focal length in use. I really dislike working without an optical finder, so I fitted the crystal clear and nicely made external viewfinder. One thing I wish the lens had though was focus distance markings; one often likes to set the distance on a lens and snap candidly.

This little lens is superb though; its sharp, contrasty and performs well with flare. I just wish it was f2 (or faster) and not f2.8. With the smaller sensor, getting out of focus backgrounds is trickier as the smaller sensor increase depth of field; as a result, it would be preferable to have faster apertured lenses. Naturally this also opens up the world of available light photography.

Talking of which, this camera performs rather well in higher ASAs. Lets get one thing straight though, its never going to come anywhere near a Canon 5D MkII or a Nikon D700, but as far as Olympus cameras are concerned, it does do an extremely good job. I did a whole series of shots from 100 to 1250 ASA, and all of the images impressed. 1600 ASA is usable, and anything above is really for emergency use. The fact that the sensor has IS and the 17mm is f2.8, does mean that you can work in pretty dim situations.

Whilst the 14-42mm zoom is tiny and handy to have, its not where this camera is at. It felt superb and produced its best images with the 17mm. I really hope that Olympus is going to concentrate on fast prime lenses. 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 75mm f2 lenses (35mm equivalents), all with matched external finders would be my personal wish. The current 17mm is fine for the time being though. I would also love to see an ultra fast 50mm (equivalent), say an f1.2 or an f1.0.

Performance wise, I found the AF (which I only tested in single focus mode) to be sometimes sluggish. It was generally quite snappy though, but on a couple of occasions I completely missed the shot as it just wasn’t quick enough. You have a choice of various focus modes, but as I was using the external finder, I preferred the fixed centre point focus spot. For some reason though, occasionally the camera would go into auto focus spot selection mode; very annoying! The other complaint I have is the exposure meter has a tendency to slightly over expose. During my test I shot in A (aperture priority) and it was generally fine. The auto white balance worked well outdoors but in tungsten light was off, producing results which were far too warm.

At the time of writing, there’s no RAW conversion software, so all the images shown here are jpeg files. I did shoot RAW + jpeg though, so I’m looking forward to processing the RAWs through Aperture when they’re supported. The jpegs where fine though.

Thankfully, the camera supports SD cards and Olympus haven’t tried to force XD cards on us. Another interesting development is the availability of converters. Olympus already has a converter allowing the use of four thirds lenses and another allowing the use of Olympus OM lenses (in manual focus and stop down metering). As far as I know, the Panasonic Leica converters should also work on this camera; I would love to try out some Leica M and Zeiss ZM lenses on this camera.

So, who’s this camera aimed at? Its not a compact and not an SLR; think of it as a modern day rangefinder style camera. For me, its ideal for features / reportage and street photography. I would definitely recommend it as a second camera to an SLR user.

Me and the Olympus E-P1 with the 17mm f2.8 and finder. Photo: Ghene Snowdon

After my three hours was up, I had to return the camera. I must admit, I did this reluctantly. I was fond of this camera when I first saw the concept, and even more so as I saw the pictures of the finished camera and read the specification sheet. Well, having now actually used the camera and seen the results, I’m a little smitten. Its not perfect yet, and has a few flaws, but as a first generation product, on its first firmware, its pretty special.

If the E-P1’s made available in black and has a few descent fast prime lenses with matched optical finders, then I wouldn’t hesitate in getting this camera. Lets hope Olympus keeps this up and expands the product line.

For a gallery of images taken with the E-P1, visit my Flickr page.


  1. Cheers Edmond for taking the time to report on it. Can't wait to see/hold one in person.

  2. I don't think you'll be disappointed. It impressed me more than I thought it would!

  3. Hi there, two quick comments: 1. The Novaflex mft-lem adapter works straight away without the menu setting you have to set on the Lumix G1. 2. A RAW-jpeg converter is included in the box with the camera and it can export TIF too. 3. Using the Novaflex adapter you have access to a lot of fast primes from Leica (up to F0.95), Voigtlander (F1.1) and Zeiss. What more do you need. With the OM converter you can use the OM 50mm F1.2 too.


  4. Many thanks for all the info Cliff; much appreciated.
    I was told that the RAW converter wasn't yet ready but would be on the web site soon! I'll wait for Apple's update and run the images through Aperture.

    Its great to hear the adapters work well, as can be seen from your pictures:

    However, ideally, Olympus will make these fast primes itself, because a) they will be smaller than using an M lens and much smaller than SLR lenses and b) offer AF.

  5. For anyone interested in these adapters, here's a link:

  6. Sounds a great bit of kit! I'll be very interested to try one after that review. Hope all's well.

  7. Hey Leon,
    All's well ta; hope you're keeping well too.
    Its a great bit of kit for sure; definitely have a look at it. I think you'll be mightily impressed!

  8. Agree with your point about the importance of making available a very wide aperture on the lenses. I use Olympus E3 equipment, and find that the only serious drawback with four thirds lenses and their inherently short focal lengths is the difficulty in throwing parts of the picture sufficiently out of focus when you would really like to! Even for reportage we don't always want sharpness from front to back!

    Loooks like I may get one in black one day.


  9. Just bought one for my girlfriend.

    I know you mentioned Aperture, but if you have Lightroom or Photoshop CS4, you can run the Raw images through the Adobe DNG converter (free) and then open them in ACR. Aperture can be pretty slow about updating their software for newer camera models.

  10. As I use Aperture & Nik Software's Viveza, I've found I only use Photoshop for around 3% of my work, so only have CS3 without the need to upgrade. I've tried out Lightroom but find Aperture works much better for me. I use it on news jobs without fear of missing a deadline and for almost three years now has become my workflow foundation. At the moment I'm editing a project with almost 6000 pictures and its been smooth and stable; it just works!
    Apple's RAW updates are slower as you say, but they're OS level updates which is why they take longer.

    Thanks for the tip though; its much appreciated.

  11. I'm very interested in this camera with the 17mm lens.

    But the thing that I really want to know is how easy or difficult it is to focus. How does the AF work when you are looking through the external viewfinder? Are there any indications that it has locked in the viewfinder itself, or can you see it out of the corner of your eye on the LCD? Or do you just wait for the beep?

    Also how easy is it to manual focus the lens? I love the fact that it's small and compact and really don't care that it's "only" f2.8.

    I'd love to hear your experience of this.


  12. The way I was using it was on centre point AF and with an audio confirmed beep when focus was locked. I just pointed the centre of the finder at where I wanted the focus to be. Its a pretty dependable way - its not 100% though as I had probably around 7 or 8 frames out of focus during the day's shoot where the focus had actually gone to the background.
    Another AF mode which may work well with the finder is face detection, but I didn't get a chance to try this.
    As time was restricted, I didn't get a chance to manually focus. However, what I can say is that the lens doesn't have a focus scale on it. Having heard from users, the manual focus using the screen works very well though. There's a chance I'll be doing an in depth review for the BJP in the near future, so watch this space and I may have your answers!

  13. Great review. I wan not aware that the camera was available. Could you report about its availability? Street Price?

    Rocco Galatioto

  14. Thanks. As far as I'm aware, cameras are available now, but you'll have to search around for exact info and prices depending on where you live.

  15. Nice review, Edmond. My concern is that the LCD will not be sufficiently visible in bright light. Do you have any observations on this? Thanks.

  16. Hi Edmond: Thanks for your review. I have a question: If is not using the external viewfinder, relying solely on the LCD screen, how does the screen perform in bright light? So many small camera have LCD screens that are virtually unusable outdoors. How does this LCD measure up in bright light circumstances? Thanks.

  17. Many thanks; glad you liked the mini review. I'm not a big fan of using these LCD displays, which is why I was mainly using the 17mm and the external viewfinder. I did take a few shots outdoors with the zoom lens whilst using the screen and must say that it was fine. I wasn't standing under a glaring sun though so unfortunately can't give you a full answer.

  18. Thanks. I since heard from a sales associate at a local camera store. He said the LCD display on the EP-1 is readable in bright sunlight, but it definitely fades. I agree with you that relying on an LCD in bright light is never great. It's too bad that the EP-1 was not designed so as to include a viewfinder.

  19. Great review - I have also been waiting (and occasionally writing to the winds) for a digital camera that handled just like a plain old Leica with just a digital sensor. And didn't cost 8g lke the M8.
    The E-P1 is really a great step forward, Oly (as opposed to Panasonic) was brave enough to go for it. You may know that Panasonic deliberately added a bump to give it a SLR look.
    Well - talking of marketing musts, turns out Oly made the conscious decision to NOT turn out a black body (at least at launch time) because their studies showed people associated black with complicated.
    Other tidbit, the E-P2 definitely will be an electronic viewfinder type (sigh) although they have not closed the door to an optical one. These and a few other interesting details from the point man at Oly were discussed in a Q&A with French photogs in Berlin recently (reported in "Le Monde de la Photo").

    FYI the link for a near complete translation

  20. Fantastic input Andre; many thanks. Will read that link soonest.
    What a shame about the viewfinder! I hope they change their mind! Who knew black meant complicated?!

  21. Thanks again Andre - great link and translation - an interesting read. Seems the future may hold a lot of interesting development.

  22. Very nice review!
    And the last answer of this interview saying the EP familly will take two ways (mainstream and more important: pro) make me think that Olympus is going strait toward the perfect gear!!! (for my way of taking pictures at least).
    An updated EP-1 more pro with an integrated and complete optical(let me dream) viewfinder (i don't care about the mini flash, never use it).
    But it's true and we should have this in mind that the ep-1 is the first of this serie and the price is due to all the ingenering work to mignaturize everything. That's why he's a bit expensive.
    Anyway, if i hadn't read that there was more pro EPs coming, the EP-1 would be mine after your review.

  23. Thanks, glad you like it.
    These are interesting times, and its an interesting camera. If they do the pro / hobby split, make good primes, then its going to be great! Lets wait and see!!