Start with a good prosumer dSLR…say…the Olympus E-620. Now let’s make it smaller. First, let’s get rid of the mirror and prism. That cuts a good chunk off the height and with. Heck, why do we even need a viewfinder at all? Also, let’s forego an in-built flash to make sure it’s as small as possible. To insure duribility, lets give it a solid aluminuim body with a look and shape in the same gene pool as it’s 50-year old great grandfather. Finally, to make sure that it’s as small as possible, let’s swap the E-620’s 4/3 mount with the narrower micro-4/3 mount. That’s it. Leave the 12.3 megapixel Live MOS sensor and firmware alone.
And thus is born the Olympus E-P1, also known as the Digital Pen, the first in a new class of smaller, compact interchangeable lens cameras with dSLR-sized sensors.
And thus comes hope for a less expensive option to the Leica M9 digital rangefinder for street photographers. While the E-P1 or the other cameras in this class (like the Panasonic GF-1) aren’t rangefinders, they are in the same spirit with regard to street photography: Smaller and more mobile bodies then SLRs but with the same image quality.
This is where the Digital Pen really shines and is the proof in the “large sensor in small body” concept. In fact, the dpreview review of the camera has the image quality outperforming both the larger Nikon D5000 (12.3MP) and Canon EOS 500D (15.1MP), especially at higher ISOs. From a first-hand point of view, I find the color rendition very realistic when no image processing is applied. In fact, this is usually one of the first comments I get from friends who I have let play with the camera.
While I really like the color palette rendered by the Pen, the in-camera black & white really lets me down. The configuration options for B&W are extensive, including yellow, orange, and red filter options along with the normal contrast and tone adjustments. Here’s what I mean. The photo below was taken via a custom image profile with the following settings:
- Mode: Monochrome
- Contrast: +1
- Sharpness: 0
- B&W Filter: Orange
- Pic Tone: Neutral
With a higher contrast and orange filter, one would expect moderate overall contrast with some good whites and blacks. This is what I actually got.
Kind of muddy, isn’t it? So, I’m still forced to post-process a bit to get decent black & white. But what else is new with digital?
Besides the color, the image details are also good. Here’s a photo with a 100% blowup as an example.
Not too shabby.
The Olympus E-P1 Ecosystem
Yes, the micro-4/3 system is new to the scene and thus not very mature in terms of available products. However, with a number of manufacturers (Olympus, Panasonic, and Leica among others) behind the standard it won’t take long for native lens selections to fill out. With a adapter, standard 4/3 mount lenses can also be used with full functionality. As the m4/3 mount is so narrow, it is also known as the most adaptable mount in the market and a quick search of ebay can find you any camera mount adapter you could ever possibly need and they all focus properly from infinity on down. In fact, I regularly use my E-P1 with either a Leica M adapter or LTM adapter so that I can make use of my favorite CV fast lenses.
This adaptability combined with it’s compact size makes it an almost ideal backup camera for any system. This also makes the E-P1 a great choice if you have a favorite piece of classic glass that doesn’t fit into the manufacturers modern bodies. It will fit with the Pen.
Because of the way the Olympus Digital Pen is made, there are some issues that really can’t be avoided. Here’s a list of some of the more annoying ones:
- SHUTTER LAG!!! This is something that I’ve run into with every digital camera I’ve used and not specific to the E-P1, but it is annoying. Especially from a street photography perspective.
- Slow AF. Because there’s no viewfinder, the only way for the AF system to focus is via contrast AF, which is inherently slow. It has to literally go through the entire focus range of the attached lens before locking. Not only that, but every time you release the shutter fully and press down again, the camera will re-focus! The speed was increased with the latest firmware release, but it’s still painfully slow. Continuous focus is better then single focus and in continuous picture mode it won’t refocus if you only let up halfway on the shutter release. Or you can just use a manual focus lens.
- Battery Life. Also because there’s no viewfinder, all photos must be composed via the 3″ LCD. Obviously, this is going to burn through the battery. One charge will get you ~350 shots so it’s best to have an extra battery or two in the bag.
- Slow Write Time. This really isn’t an issue if your shooting JPEG only, but if you decide to shoot JPEG+RAW this becomes a problem. Since the E-P1 is compact, there’s no room for a CF card slot meaning the only media option is an SD card…and even the speediest SD cards aren’t the fastest to write to.
Like it’s cousin the Olympus E-620, the E-P1 can shoot 720p HD video at a full 30fps. Not a requirement, but cool to have when your kid starts doing something cute.
And that ends my thoughts on the Olympus E-P1 Digital Pen. It’s a retro-cool styled compact camera with dSLR image quality and functionality and something that I’ve really enjoyed using, even with it’s drawbacks.
Next time it’s back to film with a review of a modern classic rangefinder, the Mamiya 7ii.