Olympus E-P1: The Pen Is Mightier Than…

Olympus are trying very hard to push their entries in the four thirds marketplace, and with their recently released entry into the micro four thirds space, they have revived the now fifty years old Pen name, bringing forth the Olympus Pen E-P1 Micro Four Thirds Camera. The camera is available with either or both of a 17mm “Pancake” lens and a 14-42mm zoom.

Olympus also make a couple of adapters for this camera, those being one that lets you use your standard four thirds format glass on the Pen, and another that lets you use any vintage OM compatible glass that you might be able to get your hands on.

Olympus were kind enough to supply The Gadget Grill with a Pen, both lenses, and an OM adapter for review. As you may already know, we here at the Grill have a long involvement in photography, and we were keen to see if the new Pen could recreate some of the magic that the original Pen was revered for.


First, let’s look at a couple of background issues, so that we can fully understand where this camera sits in the market place.

I’ve certainly been underwhelmed at the market position of the whole four thirds DSLR situation. It has but a few players, and, although those players make products of a very high standard, the DSLR market place continues to be dominated by the products of Canon and Nikon. The four thirds presence in this market is merely a thimble in an ocean, so to speak.

So, what of the new Micro Four Thirds format then? For starters, it’s not a new format; it’s a variation on the existing four thirds format, using the same underlying design parameters, but with the removal of some basic camera features that a DSLR user takes for granted. In nutshell, those features are all embodied in the DSLR’s mirror box assembly, and this mirror-box-ectomy results in a camera that is smaller and lighter, but lacks an optical viewfinder. Thus, the camera cannot properly be caller any sort of “reflex” camera. I’ve seen the format referred to as “EVIL” (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens), but that truly does this camera a disservice.

Olympus have a long history of making great cameras and glass, and the original Pen (and its derivatives) was one of several of their cameras that could be regarded as truly collectible. This was a half frame 35mm film camera, meaning that on a normal roll of film, you were shooting just a half of a normal 35mm frame for each image that you made. On a 36 exposure roll of film you could get 72 exposures, and the quality of the glass still meant that you were getting very good quality images.

The concept of the new Pen, with the micro four thirds format, echoes the original Pen’s place in the market, and to my mind, resurrecting the old name is very clever marketing on the part of Olympus.

So, how does the Pen fare in the company of modern day cameras? Is it mightier than the swords proffered by Nikon and Canon? Does it stand on its own merits, as a viable camera for you to use?

To answer that last question first, yes, undoubtedly. It is a very fine camera, and one of the first things that impressed us was the feel of the camera. Metal body, small but very solid, almost brick-like in its feel in the hand. This feels as if it can be a workhorse camera, whereas many of the other cameras in this (and several other) market place feel too light and plasticky. This camera feels very good in the hand.

The main command dial reminds me of some old cigarette lighters, and falls directly under a path that your thumb passes by when needing to change stuff. Follow that path to the right for the control dial; or towards the left for pretty well most of the rest of the controls that live to the right of the nice 3″ LCD.

Controls seem logical and well placed, with most of them grouped together on the camera back, to the right hand side of the LCD. Mostly, this control placement makes the camera very easy to handle, but for my heavy fat fingers, the control dial directly to the right of the display was a little too sensitive, and this affected my ability to properly control some of the camera’s functions. I’m still undecided as to whether this is a “me” problem – for which I need to adjust my use of the camera – or whether it’s something inherent in the camera.

In a related vein, the on/off switch is a push button, on the camera’s top plate, right next to the shutter release button. Smaller, with a slightly raised illuminated (when the camera is turned on) ring surrounding it, but otherwise flush with the top plate. The shutter release is raised so there’s some differentiation, but I don’t like this sort of on/off switch design. I suspect that it might be confusing for users, who might inadvertently switch the camera off when trying to make an image, or when trying to adjust EV compensation, for which there’s a similar button on the opposite side of the shutter button. I would prefer some sort of a two position switch, perhaps in a collar surrounding the shutter switch. I will add that Olympus are not alone in their use of this sort of design, and I have seen it in a number of other cameras.

The only controls that are outside of this region are the shooting mode dial, which is under your left thumb, and the aforementioned EV compensation button, located on the extreme top right of the top plate.


The Pen seems to me to have a good implementation of live view. I think Nikon have taken the CLS approach and way over-complicated how Live View works, whereas on cameras like their old CoolPix 5000, it was very simple. Slow, but simple. As such, I’ve yet to be able to master live view on the high end Nikons in a manner that’s truly practical from a usability sense, and in fact I have yet to understand a need for the manner in which it’s been implemented. The Olympus implementation seems to me to be way better than Nikon’s efforts.

AF speed seems reasonable, and in use we could see facial recognition focus indicators popping up on the screen to help you achieve a sharp image. We did however observe one very unusual reaction from the facial recognition system in that it seemed to recognise my rear end as a face at one point. One wonders what the camera was trying to tell me here.

In good light, focus speed is acceptable, and the camera is a very usable tool, and if you leave the camera to its own devices and let it run with the iAuto setting, you will see quite good results.

In lower light, focus speed might suffer, but in really low light, it’s the image quality that suffers most of all. As you use the cameras high ISO settings, image quality can be significantly degraded.

One surprisingly useful and elegant feature came into play when using manual focus mode: when the camera senses that you are manually focusing your proposed image, the display switched into a digital zoomed-in mode, permitting you to easily focus upon some of the finer details in your subject.

In-camera black and white is quite nice, with good levels of contrast available. And you have a variety of shooting formats available to you as well. You can even shoot square format, in the camera. Interestingly, Olympus call this 6×6, but of course, for those of familiar with shooting on 6cm x 6cm medium format cameras, this is a long way from 6×6.

Which brings me to the sensor size. The four thirds format uses a crop sensor, with a crop factor of roughly 2x. This provides you with an angle of view approximately equivalent to half that expected from a given lens when compared with what you would see on a 35mm film camera. For sports photography, this can be a very useful feature, as it provides you with the effective equivalent of a focal length double that of the lens that you’re using. Conversely, if you want to shoot using wider angles, you need to go to extreme wide angle focal lengths in order to achieve some element of a wide angle view.


For instance, my favourite focal length when shooting 35mm film stock was always 24mm. With the two kit lenses available for the E-P1, the 17mm translates to 34mm (only moderately wide) and while the 14-42 comes in wider at a 28mm equivalency (at the wide end), that is still somewhat short of the sandpit I like to play in.

So, a lens with a wider field of view is, I think, desirable for this camera.

Ok, so we’ve decided that this is a very nice camera. But it’s not perfect, and the most obvious problem is it’s outdoors usability.

Because the camera doesn’t have a built in optical viewfinder, then you need to rely upon the display on the rear of the camera. This is certainly adequate for shooting indoors, but if you take the camera outside on a sunny day, then shooting becomes something of a hit and miss affair. Fortunately, we’re shooting with cameras, so there’s little chance of causing any critical damage in the case of a miss.

If you’re using the 17mm you should attach the accessory optical viewfinder to the hotshoe, but if you’re using any other lens, then shooting outdoors in bright conditions may prove problematic for you, and this should be borne in mind if you are considering purchasing this camera.

Which brings to the most important point of all: would I buy one of these? Absolutely. This is definitely a camera I could live with, as an adjunct to my bigger and heavier DSLRs. It’s small and light and almost pocketable, and very capable of helping me to produce images of a very high quality. For me, this would make an excellent walk-around or travel camera.

I should note that the camera also has quite acceptable and easy to use video capabilities, but in my personal use of this camera I did not have an opportunity to really give this facility a serious trial.