Cameras

Olympus E-PL1 Digital Camera Review

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Introduction

This third camera in the Olympus Micro Four thirds PEN line delivers the pop-up flash missing from the E-P1 and E-P2, retains the accessory port used for adding an electronic viewfinder or external stereo mic to the E-P2 and sells at a tempting $600 list price. Image noise is still an issue, as with all Micro Four Thirds cameras, but high ISO noise reduction has improved significantly from the detail-blasting system in the E-P1 to make it a truly useful option. With excellent image sharpness, a lightweight, easy-to-handle body and extensive photographic controls, there's a lot to like about the E-PL1, though the lack of even one control dial is a nagging issue for those who like to adjust shutter speed, aperture or exposure compensation manually.

Design

Front

Front Tour Image

Back

Back Tour Image

Sides

Sides Tour Image

Top

Top Tour Image

Bottom

Bottom Tour Image

In the Box

Box Photo
  • Camera with body cap
  • BLS-1 Lithium-ion rechargeable battery
  • BCS1 battery charger
  • CB-USB6 USB cable
  • CB-AVC3 AV cable
  • Neck strap

Lens & Sensor

The E-PL1 uses a Four Thirds format sensor with a gross resolution of 13,060,000 pixels and an effective resolution of 12,300,000 pixels. As with other Micro Four Thirds cameras we've tested, the small sensor size compared to the APS-C sensor used in most digital SLRs is a mixed blessing, allowing smaller camera design (particularly when measuring the depth), but ramping up image noise.

The sensor-shaking dust reduction function kicks in every time you turn the camera on.

Viewfinder

The E-PL1 doesn't come with an electronic viewfinder, but it does have an accessory slot for mounting the optional VF-2 EVF (a pricey $280 accessory). The good news here is that the EVF display is bright and clear, even in low light, and keeps up well as you move the camera, without the smearing and stuttering we sometimes see. The eyepiece can be angled freely up to 90 degrees, which is fortunate — when left flat, it's very difficult to hold comfortably without the camera mashing into your nose. Of course, your nasal protuberance may be more forgiving, but we found a 45 degree angle was the best bet. If needed, you can make a a diopter adjustment by turning a ring around the eyecup.

The EVF shows the same information as the LCD and, also like the LCD, can be adjusted for brightness and color temperature.There's no sensor to automatically switch between the two displays when you hold the camera to your eye. Instead, you press a button positioned under the eyecup.

Display(s)

The LCD is a bit small, at 2.7 inches, with an ordinary 230,000-dot resolution. The image gets a little grainy and flickers a bit in low light, but updates smoothly under any lighting conditions, stands up to bright sunlight well. Overall, a perfectly adequate display, but lacking the visual snap of the OLED screen on Samsung's NX10, or the higher-res 3-inch LCD on the Panasonic GF1.

LCD brightness and color temperature can both be adjusted manually, with 15 available settings for each. There is also an optional Live View Boost feature to adjust brightness automatically.

Related content

Secondary Display

The monochrome information display panel found on higher-end SLRs is understandably lacking here.

Flash

Olympus literally saw the light with the E-PL1, added a pop-up flash to its Micro Four Thirds line for the first time (the better to compete with Panasonic's similarly equipped GF1). The flash is small, but it pops up a good distance from the lens on a nicely designed hinged arm, and fires a decent burst of light for its size (Olympus puts the guide number at 7 at ISO 100). What's impressive is the even coverage we found in our flash shots, with only a slightly hot spot in the middle.

The pop-up flash won't pop up on its own when shooting in auto mode; you have to raise it manually using the switch on the camera back. We prefer this system to cameras that take it upon themselves to raise the flash and fire, causing potentially problems in flash-free environments.

Flash output can also be adjusted manually, to full, 1/4, 1/16 or 1/64 power. And when shooting with the standard flash modes, you can adjust the intensity in a ±3 range.

Flash bracketing is an option, with a three-shot sequence and 0.3, 0.7 or 1.0 EV increments.

With compatible external flash units, the E-PL1 can control three units independently.

Flash Photo

The small pop-up flash produces surprisingly even coverage.

Connectivity

There are two I/O connectors under a plastic door that closes tightly but works poorly; it has a plastic hinge that won't open completely, and feels like it will break if bent back too often. Inside is an Olympus proprietary connector for standard-def video (with mono audio) and USB data. Below that is a mini HDMI port for connecting directly to a high-def TV.

Battery

The E-PL1 is powers by a BLS-1 rechargeable Lithium ion battery (the same one used in the E-P1 and E-P2). Olympus claims will take 290 shots measured by CIPA standards; we'd say this is slightly, but not wildly optimistic. An extra battery lists for $60, sells for $38 on Amazon, and seems like a good investment, especially when it's small enough to carry easily.

Battery Photo

The battery and memory card share a compartment – not the best arrangement when shooting on a tripod.

Memory

The camera accepts SD and SDHC memory cards, but Olympus doesn't support the higher-capacity SDXC standard yet.

Image Quality

Sharpness

Sharpness scores for the E-PL1 far exceeded any of the other cameras in our test group, with measurements of 2026 lw/ph horizontally and 2284 lw/ph vertically at the center of the lens at the widest setting.

Sharpness suffers at the widest focal length with the lens stopped down to f/22, but outside of this extreme results are very good. As expected, chromatic aberration is most visible at the widest lens setting.

The softness at f/22 is less noticeable in the midrange, with lower chromatic aberration. And at the other apertures results are tack-sharp from edge to edge.

There's a trace of chromatic aberration, but overall sharpness holds up very well with the lens at its full telephoto setting. More on how we test sharpness.

Image Stabilization

We test the effectiveness of image stabilization systems by mounting the camera in a computer-controlled rig that produces repeatedable movement patterns and shooting a test chart at a range of shutter speeds, first with a low level of shake, then with a high level. In the case of the E-PL1, the in-camera stabilzation didn't have much effect when the camera wasn't moving much, but produced substantially sharper images at all tested shutter speeds when the camera was shaken more aggressively.

Color

While the E-PL1 couldn't match the stand-out color accuracy of its more expensive brand mate, the Olympus E-P1, it did handle both tint and saturation very well. The natural color mode was the most accurate, and was used as the basis for our scoring, but it's worth noting that the portrait and muted modes also produced very low overall color error readings. More on how we test color.

In natural mode, saturation was a reasonable 97%. Only the vivid mode was significantly oversaturated, at an appropriate 110%. Dark skin tones, purplish blue, orange yellow and magenta were reproduced with particular accuracy in natural mode, while bluish green, purple and vivid yellow were particularly off-hue.

NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors.

As shown in the following score comparison chart, the E-PL1 fared well in our color accuracy testing against some stiff competition — the D5000 and E-P1 are two of the strongest cameras we've tested in this area.

Color Modes

There are five straightforward picture modes; vivid, natural, muted, portrait and monotone (i.e., black and white). There is also an i-Enhance setting that analyzes the image, picks out the predominant colors and emphasizes them to produce a more dramatic effect. Finally, there's a custom setting that lets you tinker with the settings for any of the provided pictures modes and save the results for future use. The available variables include contrast, sharpness, saturation and gradation, which is the Olympus term for dynamic range adjustment.

The following chart includes same-size samples taken from our test shots in each color mode.

White Balance

We were disappointed with the inaccuracy of the E-PL1 white balance system, given the strong performance of the E-P1 here. We expect to find problems when the automatic white balance system encounters tungsten light bulbs, and the E-PL1 was no exception, but it proved less accurate under daylight than any of the comparison cameras, and not much better under fluorescents. And while taking a custom white balance reading produced better-looking photos (particularly under incandescents), the white balance is still less accurate than we expect to see.

Automatic White Balance ()

The automatic white balance setting underperformed when compared to the other tested cameras. Daylight isn't usually much of an auto WB challenge, but the E-PL1 found difficulties even here.

Incandescent lighting often produces orange-hued photos when shooting with auto WB. The E-PL1 results here are bad, though the Nikon D5000 and Samsung NX10 were even worse under these lighting conditions.

The color reproduction under compact white fluorescent lighting using automatic white balance isn't awful, but the E-PL1 still trails all but the totally flummoxed Nikon D5000 in our comparison group.

Custom White Balance ()

Take a custom white balance reading and your indoor photos taken with incandescent lighting improve dramatically. Under fluorescent and daylight illumination, though,the expected level of improvement didn't materialize.

As shown below, the E-PL1 underperformed the pack in white balance accuracy.

White Balance Options

The E-PL1 offers eight white balance presets, including three types of fluorescent illumination.

White balance settings are reflected in the Live View image on screen, so you can see the effect of changes made using the live control or super control panel as you make them. Fine adjustments can also be made to any white balance setting (auto, preset or custom) via the custom menu. In this case, the Live View display isn't active, but you can take a preview image (by pressing the movie button) and see the results of your fiddling without leaving the adjustment screen.

If you set the display to multi view, you can see previews of four potential white balance settings at once, scrolling through your options before committing.

The procedure for taking a custom white balance reading is straightforward. With the live control menu cursor on one-touch white balance, pressing the INFO button brings up the setting screen. Point at a grey or white surface, press the shutter button and you're done.

White balance bracketing is available, with three images recorded from a single shot, with increments of 2, 4 or 6 steps set separately for the amber-blue and green-magenta axes.

Long Exposure

In our long exposure testing, we measure both color accuracy and image noise at shutter speeds from one second to 30 seconds, under low light. The Olympus E-PL1 image noise results were very close to those found with other Micro Four Thirds cameras we've tested, including the Olympus E-P1 and the Panasonic GF1, all of which are notably higher than the Nikon D5000 and Samsung NX10, both of which use larger APS-C format sensors. For color accuracy, the E-PL1 color error is pretty high across the range of shutter speeds, though not as far off as the Panasonic GF1. More on how we test long exposure.

Shooting in the most accurate faithful mode, color error under low light is significantly higher than in our bright light testing. Saturation, though, remains nearly the same under both shooting conditions.

The long exposure noise reduction system actually resulted in noisier images across most shutter speeds. This is not that unusual and, if you think about how this type of processing works, not surprising. With long exposure noise reduction enabled, the camera takes a shot with the shutter open and then takes a second shot with the shutter closed. It then analyzes the noise pattern in the second, dark exposure and tries to mathematically eliminate that pattern from the actual exposure. Problem is, noise is inherently random, so the patterns in the two shots are unlikely to match unless there's some consistent flaw in the sensor. It's rare that we see this type of processing produce any significant gain, and in this case we'd leave it off entirely for low-light shooting.

The two cameras with APS-C sensor basically clobbered the Micro Four Thirds models in this test.

Noise Reduction

We test for image noise by shooting a brightly lit X-Rite ColorChecker chart with high ISO noise reduction turned off, and at each available noise reduction level setting (in this case, low, standard and high). As seen in the chart, noise levels start out below 1% with noise reduction turned off (to preserve maximum fine detail levels), but results are barely usable by the time you hit ISO 800, and hopeless after that. Cranking up the noise reduction level has a substantial effect, but as seen in the sample high ISO images seen here, you pay a considerable price in lost detail at anything beyond the standard level. Considering the trade-off, your choice of setting will ultimately be guided by what you're shooting (is there much detail to lose?), and how you're planning to display the shot (a small image viewed on-screen can survive a lot more abuse than an 11x14' print).

Occasionally one component of the total image noise will be notably higher than the others, making noise much more apparent to the eye. That's not the case here: the red, green, blue, yellow and chroma (grey) noise levels are tightly grouped. More on how we test noise.

ISO Options

The ISO settings range from 100-3200. There is also an Auto ISO function, which will make the setting automatically based on lighting conditions. The user can set an upper limit to the auto ISO, and a default value.

We don't see a lot of ISO bracketing around these parts, but it's provided in the E-PL1. In a three-shot sequence, the ISO value is raised and lowered from the current setting by 0.3, 0.7 or 1.0 EV.

Dynamic Range

The dynamic range problems we found with the Olympus E-P1 continue here; in fact, the E-PL1 had slightly less success maintaining detail in the bright and dark areas of high-contrast images than its predecessor.

The E-PL1 started out with a mediocre five-stop range at its lowest ISO setting, which narrowed quickly and dramatically as the ISO level increased. More on how we test dynamic range.

The E-PL1 results are nearly identical to those produced by the E-P1, which is not a good sign. An interesting oddity here is that the Samsung NX10, which uses an APS-C sensor, scored nearly as badly here as the Micro Four Thirds models.

Taking dynamic range performance across the entire ISO range into account, the E-PL1 received the lowest score in our comparison group.

Noise Reduction

We test for image noise by shooting a brightly lit X-Rite ColorChecker chart with high ISO noise reduction turned off, and at each available noise reduction level setting (in this case, low, standard and high). As seen in the chart, noise levels start out below 1% with noise reduction turned off (to preserve maximum fine detail levels), but results are barely usable by the time you hit ISO 800, and hopeless after that. Cranking up the noise reduction level has a substantial effect, but as seen in the sample high ISO images seen here, you pay a considerable price in lost detail at anything beyond the standard level. Considering the trade-off, your choice of setting will ultimately be guided by what you're shooting (is there much detail to lose?), and how you're planning to display the shot (a small image viewed on-screen can survive a lot more abuse than an 11x14' print).

Occasionally one component of the total image noise will be notably higher than the others, making noise much more apparent to the eye. That's not the case here: the red, green, blue, yellow and chroma (grey) noise levels are tightly grouped. More on how we test noise.

ISO Options

The ISO settings range from 100-3200. There is also an Auto ISO function, which will make the setting automatically based on lighting conditions. The user can set an upper limit to the auto ISO, and a default value.

We don't see a lot of ISO bracketing around these parts, but it's provided in the E-PL1. In a three-shot sequence, the ISO value is raised and lowered from the current setting by 0.3, 0.7 or 1.0 EV.

Focus Performance

The camera uses eleven autofocus areas, as shown in the diagram below. You can let the camera select one, in All Target mode, or choose one manually using the four-way controller. Since the leftmost button on the four-way is the shortcut for selecting an autofocus area, the process is fast and simple. You can also assign the Fn or movie button to automatically return the AF point to a predetermined target, but this doesn't seem like a particularly compelling use of scarce button resources.

One of the major beefs with the Olympus E-P1 and E-P2 was autofocus speed. Actually 'speed' isn't even the right word, since 'crawl' more accurately reflects the experience. In April, Olympus released a firmware update for the E-PL1 (and the other PEN cameras) that promises to improve autofocus speed by 15%. We updated our review cameras, took it for a test drive and (drum roll please)... found that the update lives up to its promise. Of course, the key question is whether faster is fast enough, and that really depends on what you're shooting. When the lights are low, autofocus performance is still mighty pokey (and there's no autofocus assist lamp to help out). In a normally lit room shooting candids, you're probably going to be alright. Trying to follow the action at a school football game it's hit and miss.Initial focus acquisition time is still going to make you miss out on some key plays. If you know who you're shooting, though, lock on and use the continuous autofocus tracking option, you'll succeed more often than not.

If you turn face detection on, the camera will find a face and focus on it when you're using all target mode. If you've selecting an autofocus target manually, the camera can still use face detect for exposure control, but will focus on the target you've chosen.

Long Exposure

In our long exposure testing, we measure both color accuracy and image noise at shutter speeds from one second to 30 seconds, under low light. The Olympus E-PL1 image noise results were very close to those found with other Micro Four Thirds cameras we've tested, including the Olympus E-P1 and the Panasonic GF1, all of which are notably higher than the Nikon D5000 and Samsung NX10, both of which use larger APS-C format sensors. For color accuracy, the E-PL1 color error is pretty high across the range of shutter speeds, though not as far off as the Panasonic GF1. More on how we test long exposure.

Shooting in the most accurate faithful mode, color error under low light is significantly higher than in our bright light testing. Saturation, though, remains nearly the same under both shooting conditions.

The long exposure noise reduction system actually resulted in noisier images across most shutter speeds. This is not that unusual and, if you think about how this type of processing works, not surprising. With long exposure noise reduction enabled, the camera takes a shot with the shutter open and then takes a second shot with the shutter closed. It then analyzes the noise pattern in the second, dark exposure and tries to mathematically eliminate that pattern from the actual exposure. Problem is, noise is inherently random, so the patterns in the two shots are unlikely to match unless there's some consistent flaw in the sensor. It's rare that we see this type of processing produce any significant gain, and in this case we'd leave it off entirely for low-light shooting.

The two cameras with APS-C sensor basically clobbered the Micro Four Thirds models in this test.

Video: Low Light Sensitivity

In our low light sensitivity test, the E-PL1 required 26 lux of light to reach 50 IRE on the waveform monitor. This is more light than was needed by the other cameras we compared the E-PL1 to — including last year's E-P1.

Chromatic Aberration

There was some visible chromatic aberration, most noticeably at the widest lens setting, but it's not a major problem.

Distortion

We don't include distortion results in our scoring for interchangeable lens cameras, but we do measure it. Shooting with the 14-42mm kit lens (the same collapsible lens offered with the Olympus E-P1 and E-P2), we found very low distortion at the maximum and mid-range zoom settings. At the widest setting, we measured 1.82% barrel distortion, which is certainly acceptable.

Motion

The E-PL1 records all video using a 30p frame rate, which is the same frame rate that is used on the Olympus E-P1 and numerous other video-capable DSLRs. In addition to its 1280 x 720 record mode, the camera also has a standard definition setting that captures video at a 640 x 480 resolution. More on how CamcorderInfo tests motion.

The E-PL1 produced fairly smooth video in our motion test, but the camera's image had more artifacting than what we saw from the Olympus E-P1. We also noticed quite a bit of blur and trailing on the RGB pinwheel in our motion video. Overall, we place the E-PL1 in the middle of the pack when it comes to motion performance.

The E-P1's motion video had less artifacting and trailing than the video produced by the E-PL1. Overall, however, the two cameras rendered motion quite similarly. The two cameras also have the same record settings for capturing HD video (1280 x 720 resolution with a 30p frame rate).

The Nikon D5000, which is the only true DSLR in this set, didn't do very well with our motion test. Its video was juddery, had lots of artifacting, and made straight lines look jagged. The D5000 also had a rolling shutter issue that produced a wobble effect whenever we panned back and forth with the camera (we see this on most video-capable DSLRs). The D5000 is the only model in this group that records using a 24p frame rate as opposed to 30p.

The Samsung NX10 didn't have major problems with artifacting, but its motion video had quite a bit of trailing and blur. The camera also didn't capture very smooth motion in our test. Strangely, the NX10 also had a rolling shutter problem like we saw from the Nikon D5000. Usually we don't see any rolling shutter issues with mirrorless cameras like the NX10, but there was definitely significant wobble when we panned with the camera.

Video Sharpness

The E-PL1 measured a horizontal sharpness of 575 lw/ph in our video testing. The camera's vertical sharpness also came out to 575 lw/ph in this test. These scores are average for a camera that records 720p video (as opposed to being able to capture a Full HD image — 1920 x 1080). Still, we were disappointed to see the E-PL1 come in with a slightly lower sharpness score than last year's E-P1. More on how CamcorderInfo tests video sharpness.

Low Light Sensitivity

In our low light sensitivity test, the E-PL1 required 26 lux of light to reach 50 IRE on the waveform monitor. This is more light than was needed by the other cameras we compared the E-PL1 to — including last year's E-P1.

Usability

Buttons & Dials

There are significant changes here compared to the E-P1 and E-P2. The vertically mounted control wheel is gone, along with the left hand control dial, with their functions taken over by the four-way controller. It's not a disaster, but it's a notable downgrade, making adjustments slower and less convenient. For manually adjusting shutter speed and aperture priority, the new system is a clumsy kludge, as outlined here. For most operations, though, the trade-offs are acceptable. And we are happy to see the dedicated movie button, especially since it can be programmed to take over some of the functions previously only assignable to the overworked Fn button.

Like the Olympus E-P1 and EP-2, the E-PL1 employs a three-part menu strategy. There's the standard full-screen tabbed menu for infrequently changed settings, a live control menu that overlays the right and bottom screen edges with key settings while shooting, and the enthusiastically named 'super control panel' which overlays the entire Live View screen with shooting settings that can be adjusted.

When shooting stills in program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority manual or iAuto modes, the live control menu (shown below) includes settings for picture mode, white balance, drive mode/self-timer, image stabilization, aspect ratio, image format and size, flash mode, flash compensation, metering mode, autofocus mode, face detection and ISO.

OLYMPUS-E-PL1-lc.jpg

Changes you make to picture mode, white balance, aspect ratio and metering mode are all previewed on-screen, a helpful feature.

The live control and super control panel (see below) are not available in art filter or scene modes.

OLYMPUS-E-PL1-scp.jpg

While the live control panel puts many settings at your fingertips, there's an even more complete option available. pressing INFO switches from live control to the enthusiastically named super control panel, which covers most of the screen and lets you adjust just about every shooting setting without delving into the main menu system. We found using the super control panel became our main shooting strategy, since it not only let us make lots of adjustments easily, but also showed most of the current camera settings at a glance.

Finally, the full-screen menu system is used for less frequently changed settings, such as image stabilization and bracketing, and for customizing camera operations. There are five menu sections, two for recording, one for playback, one for function customization and one for rarely changed camera settings. the organization isn't bad, but the use of icons instead of text for some choices is potentially confusing, and there are options which aren't visible on-screen until you've scrolled down to reveal them, never a good design choice.

Instruction Manual

Olympus delivers a 124-page manual that looks fine, has lots of nice charts and diagrams, and gets the basic points across well enough. Unfortunately, the distinctive camera features that may confuse even knowledgeable photographers are given painfully short shrift. There's a camera setting for 'gradation.' What's that, you ask? Here is the user guide explanation, in its entirety: 'Adjust tone (gradation).' (Turns out its dynamic range adjustment processing, but you'd have to be clairvoyant, or talk directly to the folks at Olympus, to have a clue.) The Art Filter system is a concept requiring a bit of explanation — it gets half a bit here. Wondering what that i-Enhance picture mode does? 'Produces more impressive-looking pictures matched to the scene mode.' Adda set of intimidating LCD diagrams in the 'basic' up-front section with 56 callouts between them, inadequate explanations for your playback mode options and a barely-there index and you have a document sorely in need of a skilled editor. To see for yourself, you can download a copy in PDF format here. At least that way, you can use search instead of struggling with the index.

Handling

The E-PL1 doesn't have the classic retro look or metal body of its PEN predecessors, but it offers a similar comfort level. The camera is light and maneuverable without feeling insubstantial. The right hand grip on the front is a bit shallow for our taste, but curling your middle and ring fingers around it provides a firm handhold, with your index finger positioned appropriately over the shutter. Your thumb rests on a flat space just to the left of the movie record button (right over the speaker, in fact). This looks a bit perilous in the photo, but that record button is actually raised up on a kind of pedestal, making it very unlikely your thumb will drift over and accidentally start shooting.

Handling Photo 1
Handling Photo 2

Buttons & Dials

There are significant changes here compared to the E-P1 and E-P2. The vertically mounted control wheel is gone, along with the left hand control dial, with their functions taken over by the four-way controller. It's not a disaster, but it's a notable downgrade, making adjustments slower and less convenient. For manually adjusting shutter speed and aperture priority, the new system is a clumsy kludge, as outlined here. For most operations, though, the trade-offs are acceptable. And we are happy to see the dedicated movie button, especially since it can be programmed to take over some of the functions previously only assignable to the overworked Fn button.

Buttons Photo 1
Buttons Photo 2

Display(s)

The LCD is a bit small, at 2.7 inches, with an ordinary 230,000-dot resolution. The image gets a little grainy and flickers a bit in low light, but updates smoothly under any lighting conditions, stands up to bright sunlight well. Overall, a perfectly adequate display, but lacking the visual snap of the OLED screen on Samsung's NX10, or the higher-res 3-inch LCD on the Panasonic GF1.

LCD brightness and color temperature can both be adjusted manually, with 15 available settings for each. There is also an optional Live View Boost feature to adjust brightness automatically.

Secondary Display

The monochrome information display panel found on higher-end SLRs is understandably lacking here.

Viewfinder

The E-PL1 doesn't come with an electronic viewfinder, but it does have an accessory slot for mounting the optional VF-2 EVF (a pricey $280 accessory). The good news here is that the EVF display is bright and clear, even in low light, and keeps up well as you move the camera, without the smearing and stuttering we sometimes see. The eyepiece can be angled freely up to 90 degrees, which is fortunate — when left flat, it's very difficult to hold comfortably without the camera mashing into your nose. Of course, your nasal protuberance may be more forgiving, but we found a 45 degree angle was the best bet. If needed, you can make a a diopter adjustment by turning a ring around the eyecup.

The EVF shows the same information as the LCD and, also like the LCD, can be adjusted for brightness and color temperature.There's no sensor to automatically switch between the two displays when you hold the camera to your eye. Instead, you press a button positioned under the eyecup.

Image Stabilization

We test the effectiveness of image stabilization systems by mounting the camera in a computer-controlled rig that produces repeatedable movement patterns and shooting a test chart at a range of shutter speeds, first with a low level of shake, then with a high level. In the case of the E-PL1, the in-camera stabilzation didn't have much effect when the camera wasn't moving much, but produced substantially sharper images at all tested shutter speeds when the camera was shaken more aggressively.

Shooting Modes

The move from using a dial control on previous PEN cameras to relying exclusively on the four-way controller takes its toll when it comes to making adjustments while shooting. Adjusting program shift, aperture value in aperture-priority mode, and shutter speed value in shutter-priority mode requires pressing up and down on the four-way controller buttons. Pressing up, though, also triggers exposure compensation, with values changed by using the left and right buttons. And pressing down is the shortcut for setting the drive and self-timer mode.

Take a deep breath and follow along with just one example of how this gets ugly. You want to shoot in shutter-priority mode. You turn the mode dial and the current shutter speed and aperture values appear on screen. You press the down button on the four-way to lower the shutter speed value — d'oh! The drive mode control pops up on the screen (since that's the default command for that bottom button). Backing out of that, you press up on the four-way to engage the shutter speed adjustment, and can then press down to lower the shutter speed... only, in the process, you've also engaged exposure compensation mode (the default value of the top four-way button), whose values are changed by pressing side to side on the four-way. And, if you actually take a picture using a particular shutter speed setting and want to lower it again — yep, you first have to press up on the controller before pressing it down. Can all this be done without a master's degree? Yes. Is it elegant and intuitive? Not on your life.

The new iAUTO live guide system is an interesting way to give less savvy shooters more control over their photos. There's no requirement that you tinker with the settings arrived at by the automatic system, of course; the live guide doesn't even appear on the screen unless you press the START/OK button.

OLYMPUS-E-PL1-guide7.jpg

When you do, a slim panel slides out from the right side of the screen offering six options:

|**Change Color Saturation** | Raise or lower saturation in 15 steps, from Clear & Vivid to Flat & Muted. |

| Change Color Image | Adjust the white balance setting, in 15 steps, from Warm to Cool. |

| Change Brightness | Starts with a 15-level overall adjustment from Bright to Dark, but this control is more sophisticated than the others. Pressing the left button in the four-way controller brings up a two-part control offering options to brighten or darken bright areas or dark areas separately. |

| Blur Background | A 15-step aperture adjustment from Blur to Sharp. |

| Express Motions | Shutter speed adjustment in 15 steps, from Blurred Motion to Stop Motion. |

| Shooting Tips | A series of simple text tips on photographing children, pets, flowers and food, and framing your shots. |

As you change settings, the effects are previewed live on-screen, so there's no guesswork required. Live guide is not available when shooting with a flash, though.

As with the E-P1 and E-P2 before it, the E-PL1 offers sophisticated ways to store camera configurations, so you can load a group of settings instead of individually adjusting each one for different shooting conditions. And as before, these options are presenting in a way that's frustrating and confusing.

For starters, in addition to being able to reset the camera to its factory defaults, you can also create two stored configurations and reset to those instead. the The camera can be reset to factory defaults via the first shooting menu, but it can also be set to one of two stored configurations. It isn't hard to do; right on the first shooting menu there's a Custom Reset listing, with the option to store the current camera settings as Reset1 or Reset2, or to apply either one if you've already stored them. Any other camera manufacturer, though, would have called these Custom Settings or Custom Modes. And if they're really good, they let you give them meaningful names (Sports or Indoor, for example), or maybe put them on the mode dial for quick access.

And if the bafflement level hasn't already hit 11, there's another, entirely separate way to accomplish nearly the same thing. This one is called My Mode, and allows you to store a variety of shooting settings as My Mode 1 or My Mode 2. The only way to access the My Mode feature is to assign it to the programmable (and much in demand) Fn button. And to actually use those settings, you have to hold the Fn button down while you press the shutter button. an uncomfortable pincer-like maneuver best undertaken by those with tiny, well muscled hands. It's a powerful concept implemented very badly indeed.

Focus

The camera uses eleven autofocus areas, as shown in the diagram below. You can let the camera select one, in All Target mode, or choose one manually using the four-way controller. Since the leftmost button on the four-way is the shortcut for selecting an autofocus area, the process is fast and simple. You can also assign the Fn or movie button to automatically return the AF point to a predetermined target, but this doesn't seem like a particularly compelling use of scarce button resources.

One of the major beefs with the Olympus E-P1 and E-P2 was autofocus speed. Actually 'speed' isn't even the right word, since 'crawl' more accurately reflects the experience. In April, Olympus released a firmware update for the E-PL1 (and the other PEN cameras) that promises to improve autofocus speed by 15%. We updated our review cameras, took it for a test drive and (drum roll please)... found that the update lives up to its promise. Of course, the key question is whether faster is fast enough, and that really depends on what you're shooting. When the lights are low, autofocus performance is still mighty pokey (and there's no autofocus assist lamp to help out). In a normally lit room shooting candids, you're probably going to be alright. Trying to follow the action at a school football game it's hit and miss.Initial focus acquisition time is still going to make you miss out on some key plays. If you know who you're shooting, though, lock on and use the continuous autofocus tracking option, you'll succeed more often than not.

If you turn face detection on, the camera will find a face and focus on it when you're using all target mode. If you've selecting an autofocus target manually, the camera can still use face detect for exposure control, but will focus on the target you've chosen.

Recording Options

The E-PL1 offers a choice of medium and low resolution settings when shooting in the 4:3 aspect ratio.

There are four JPEG compression settings: Super Fine (compressed at 1/2.7), Fine (1/4), Normal (1/8) and Basic (1/12). RAW files are recorded in the Olympus ORF format at full 4032 x 3024 resolution no matter what the aspect ratio setting, with the aspect ratio selection saved along with the image. when shooting RAW+JPEG, any of the four JPEG compression settings are available.

Speed and Timing

Shutter speeds range from 1/2000 second to 60 seconds, plus bulb for extended exposures. The fastest shutter speed isn't very fast when compared to most SLRs, which ordinarily offer 1/4000 or 1/8000 second speeds. It's worth noting that the Olympus E-P1 tops out at 1/4000 second.

The Anti-shock mode lets you set a delay (anywhere from 1/8 second to 30 seconds) between the moment you press the shutter button and the moment the photo is taken. This is useful when shooting with a microscope or telescope.

There is a single burst mode setting, which Olympus puts at 'approximately 3 frames/sec. for as long as the shutter button is pressed.' Whether we were shooting full-res super-fine JPEGs or RAW files (without attached JPEGs), we found that the buffer filled up after nine or ten shots, slowing progress to a crawl.

The E-PL1 delivered what Olympus promises, burst rate shooting at about 3 frames per second, putting it on a par with the E-P1 in the just adequate department.

There are two self-timer settings but, oddly, no option to have the camera beep as the self-timer ticks down. Not that the sound serves much purpose, since there is a clearly visible lamp blinking at the subject on the front of the camera, but we've come to expect an audible cue too.

Focus Speed

The camera uses eleven autofocus areas, as shown in the diagram below. You can let the camera select one, in All Target mode, or choose one manually using the four-way controller. Since the leftmost button on the four-way is the shortcut for selecting an autofocus area, the process is fast and simple. You can also assign the Fn or movie button to automatically return the AF point to a predetermined target, but this doesn't seem like a particularly compelling use of scarce button resources.

One of the major beefs with the Olympus E-P1 and E-P2 was autofocus speed. Actually 'speed' isn't even the right word, since 'crawl' more accurately reflects the experience. In April, Olympus released a firmware update for the E-PL1 (and the other PEN cameras) that promises to improve autofocus speed by 15%. We updated our review cameras, took it for a test drive and (drum roll please)... found that the update lives up to its promise. Of course, the key question is whether faster is fast enough, and that really depends on what you're shooting. When the lights are low, autofocus performance is still mighty pokey (and there's no autofocus assist lamp to help out). In a normally lit room shooting candids, you're probably going to be alright. Trying to follow the action at a school football game it's hit and miss.Initial focus acquisition time is still going to make you miss out on some key plays. If you know who you're shooting, though, lock on and use the continuous autofocus tracking option, you'll succeed more often than not.

If you turn face detection on, the camera will find a face and focus on it when you're using all target mode. If you've selecting an autofocus target manually, the camera can still use face detect for exposure control, but will focus on the target you've chosen.

Features

Recording Options

Olympus uses the Motion JPEG compression system on the E-PL1 to record HD video. Motion JPEG, or MJPEG, is commonly found on point-and-shoot digital cameras that have video modes. The compression system is very basic and widely compatible with editing software and media players (the E-PL1 saves video files in the .avi format). We're not crazy about MJPEG compression for HD video because we don't feel it can deliver the quality that something like AVCHD compression is capable of.

The E-PL1 has two record modes: an HD option that captures a 1280 x 720 video image and a standard definition setting that records using a 640 x 480 resolution. The maximum record time for a single clip is 7 minutes in HD mode and 14 minutes in the SD mode. File sizes are also limited to 2GB. Find out how the performed in our video image quality test./r:link_to_content

Video Controls

We're happy to see Olympus include options for shutter speed control, ISO, aperture, and exposure on the E-PL1's video mode. The camera has far more manual options in video mode than its predecessor, the E-P1 (it only had an aperture-priority mode and exposure control). Unfortunately, none of the manual controls—not even exposure—can be adjusted while recording is taking place. All settings must be made prior to pressing the record button (you can adjust focus manually during recording, however).

You can record video on the E-PL1 in any of the camera's shooting modes. The only mode that allows you to set manual controls for videos, however, is movie mode. If you record in any other mode the camera will revert to automatic settings — even if you've set things like aperture or shutter speed for your photos.

Auto Controls

Since the Olympus E-PL1 isn't a full-fledged DSLR, the camera is able to offer a continual autofocus system. This means the camera can automatically focus during recording without the touch of a button. The focus system isn't fantastic, however, which is what we're accustomed to seeing from Micro Four Thirds cameras that have a live autofocus option. The autofocus is noisy, slow (it can take 2-3 seconds to focus properly), and it occasionally alters the exposure levels and color temperature for a moment while focusing.

The auto exposure system on the E-PL1 is also not a highlight of the camera. When moving from different light levels the camera's auto exposure provides no gradual transition whatsoever. Perhaps some users will like this quick, snap-like exposure change, but it seemed jarring to us.

Zoom

The zoom and zoom controls for the E-PL1 entirely depend on what kind of lens you have attached to the camera. The kit lens is a 14 - 42mm lens, which means it has a 3x optical zoom. The zoom for this lens is adjusted by rotating the large ring on the middle of the lens (the outer ring adjusts focus).

Focus

The E-PL1 has a number of autofocus modes, which we discussed in the Auto Mode section above. You can also set focus manually using the outermost lens ring on the camera. Using manual focus is preferable when recording videos as it doesn't have any of the issues associated with the autofocus system. Manual focus is also one of the few features that can be adjusted while recording is taking place.

Exposure Controls

Exposure, aperture, and shutter speed can all be set manually on the E-PL1 in video mode. Exposure can be set manually when the camera is in program or aperture-priority mode. Obviously, aperture can be set in aperture-priority mode, but it can also be set independently from shutter speed in manual mode. Shutter speed can only be set manually in manual mode. The camera offers a good range of aperture, shutter speed, and exposure adjustment — just look at the table above to see the full list of available settings in video mode.

Other Controls

ISO (which is called 'gain' on camcorders) can also be set manually when the E-PL1 is in manual video mode. The camera doesn't have the same ISO range that is available for its still images, but it still has quite a few options (ranging from ISO 200 to 1600).

The camera also has a few Art modes for recording video, including: Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, and Gentle Sepia. These modes differ as to what they do, but many of them allow you to record at very low shutter speeds (like Pin Hole mode). You can adjust exposure manually in each of these modes, but ISO, aperture, and shutter speed cannot be set when using any Art mode.

The E-PL1 has three image stabilization settings in video mode—Auto IS, Vertical IS, and Horizontal IS. We did not test the performance of these stabilization settings for video, but we did test how well the camera's image stabilization worked for taking photos.

Audio Features

The Olympus E-PL1 has a tiny built-in microphone that is mounted on the top of the camera. The mic can record stereo audio, which is a plus, but it also picks up plenty of operational noises when you rotate the lens, use the autofocus system, or press buttons on the back of the camera. As far as audio features go, the E-PL1 doesn't really have any — except for an option to turn audio recording off if you so desire.

Let's face it, if you want clean audio you shouldn't be using the built-in mic on the E-PL1 or any video-capable DSLR. Olympus does offer an external stereo mic that fits into the hot shoe and accessory port ($90), but we did not have the opportunity to test this accessory.

Mic Photo

Those two tiny dots represent the E-PL1's built-in mic.

In the Box

Box Photo
  • Camera with body cap
  • BLS-1 Lithium-ion rechargeable battery
  • BCS1 battery charger
  • CB-USB6 USB cable
  • CB-AVC3 AV cable
  • Neck strap

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