Olympus E-PL1 Review

This review is derived from what was originally a comparison review of several mirrorless cameras on bythom.com. As such, it's abbreviated from my usual form.

PROD SHOT 10-2011-ILC 20288

What is It?

The Olympus E-PL1 is basically an E-P2 with a number of simplifications. Like its bigger brother, if features a 12mp m4/3 sensor with image stabilization built-in. Indeed, from a functional standpoint of the imaging chain (sensor, ASIC, etc.), for all intents and purposes the E-PL1 is identical to the E-P1/2.

Where the E-PL1 differs from the E-P1 and E-P2 is in the following ways:

  • Removal of the two control dials
  • Addition of a built-in flash
  • More use of plastic in the build
  • Slower maximum shutter speed (1/2000 instead of 1/4000)
  • Slightly different body build (a little boxier, less rectangular)
  • The orientation sensor has been removed

As with all the Olympus Pen models, there are a lot of small, subtle differences, most of which really don't make a lot of difference in practice. For example, the E-PL1 adds an art filter over the E-P2 and two art filters over the E-P1. The flash sync speed is a slightly lower 1/160 second. Some additional information can be displayed on-screen. 

The goal behind the E-PL1, which is called the Pen Lite in some parts of the world, was basically cost reduction--to produce a lower-cost camera than the E-P1/2 with as few sacrifices as possible. 

To that end, Olympus has mostly succeeded. You don't give up a lot of function by going down to this model over the E-P1 or E-P2. You do give up some build quality and features that make for easier control during shooting. The addition of the pop-up flash appeals to lower end users, too.


How's it Handle?

The Olympus E-PL1 is fairly close to the original E-P1 overall (see my review). Many of the things I complained about with handling on the E-P1 remain in the E-PL1. For a camera partially targeted at the compact consumer trading up, the Olympus menu system is a mess (though the elaborate custom settings are not visible by default, simplyfing things for the new user but also hiding many options, as well). For a sophisticated DSLR user trading down, the menus are still pretty much a mess. On the flip side, once you've read the manual a couple of times and figured out some of Olympus's terminology, the camera is highly configurable, which is what most of you reading this want. The big bugaboo still remains, though: it's too easy to accidentally hit the OK button in the center of the Direction pad and accidentally change a key setting without noticing. It happens to me about once a shooting session, and it's exceedingly annoying.

PROD Mirrorless 05160 EPL1


Other than that, the E-PL1 is a bit like using a compact camera that has a Mode dial. Exposure modes are set via the dial, everything else relies upon buttons. Nothing inherently wrong with this, but changing exposure compensation isn't direct (press button, set compensation via buttons, press button), and those who like to set apertures and shutter speeds directly via dedicated controls will be unsatisfied.

More bad news: the tripod socket is offset from the center of the lens, the only one of the four cameras to do so. No hood for the kit lens, and it needs one (hint: buy a B&W screw-in hood from B&H). The record movie button is too prominent; I accidentally hit it too often. Good news: you can easily accomplish a bounce-like flash (in small spaces) by holding your index finger to hold the pop-up flash from folding forward.

I've used the E-PL1 a lot, so obviously I've gotten used to its handling quirks. But I choose to use it despite its handling. Why? because of the compact lenses (9-18mm, 14-42mm), and those lenses are compact partially because they don't have built-in stabilization. Yep, that sensor stabilization in a smallish body is one of the key traits, and it's sometimes enough to triumph over poor handling.


How's it Perform?

Single focus (SAF) has a tendency to drive past focus and back on the E-PL1, which slows it a bit. CAF isn't particularly usable for me, as it isn't jittery enough on near static subjects, meaning that you can sometimes miss focus point slightly. Yet on moving subjects, it tends to be a little too jittery. Manual focus is slightly less easy to reach (OK button, navigate to focus, navigate to MF setting with the camera at the defaults), but I find it a little more difficult to nail manual focus on the Olympus than on some other mirrorless cameras, and I attribute that to the monitor. Don't get me wrong, the E-PL1 would be at the top of any pure compact camera list in terms of focus performance and behavior, but it doesn't really exceed the best of the true compacts, IMHO. I'm mostly a static subject shooter, so that hasn't really bothered me in practice, but when I do pull out the E-PL1 to shoot wildlife (and I have, several times), I get jittery ;~). I don't trust CAF in those situations, so I do a lot of SAF.

I'd put the E-PL1 up against any of the 12mp Nikon DSLRs any day at base ISO, with the only caveat being to pay a bit more attention to dynamic range issues. In high contrast scenes you need to work to control that contrast, either by using more light (fill flash, reflectors, etc.) in the shadows or holding back light (polarizer, NDs, etc.) in the highlights. Either that or you have to accept that some shadow detail will "go to black." Still, you've seen a number of my images from these cameras over the past 16 months--I'll put them right up against the 12mp Nikon DSLR images I shot in that same period.

At ISO 3200 I see clear differences from larger DSLRs. The E-PL1 is being pushed to its limits (if not beyond), and color noise buildup is in the realm where you want to be very careful in applying noise reduction lest you clobber detail, acuity, and tonality. I generally don't push my m4/3 cameras beyond ISO 800 for that reason (plus the serious drop in DR).


 Final Thoughts

I can recommend the Olympus E-PL1 if (and it's a big if) you can live with the screen and the accidental settings problem. It's a shame, because without the accidental settings problem it might be my favorite. I don't mind the screen, but you might, especially if you're going to do any manual focus work. The E-PL2 does fix the screen and a few handling issues. Unlike the Panasonic change, I prefer the new Olympus to the old. 

Note: ratings have changed since the original review

stars3

Features

stars3

Performance

stars3

Value (at the clearance prices Olympus sometimes runs of US$300 or less, I'd give it another star)

Recommended (at US$400 or less new)


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