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Olympus PEN E-PL1 review: Olympus PEN E-PL1

Olympus PEN E-PL1

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Reviews

I've been writing about and reviewing consumer technology since before the turn of the century. I'm also a photographer and cat herder, frequently at the same time.

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10 min read

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olympus-e-pl1-digital-camera-mirrorless-system-12-3-mpix-3-10-optical-zoom-m-zuiko-digital-14-42mm-and-zuiko-digital-40.jpg
7.4

Olympus PEN E-PL1

The Good

Excellent build quality; very good photo quality; can shoot raw+JPEG in every mode, including Art Filters and iAuto.

The Bad

Slow, with sluggish autofocus; short battery life; low-resolution LCD.

The Bottom Line

Reasonably priced for an interchangeable-lens model, with the same high-quality photos of its siblings, the E-PL1 nevertheless suffers from slow performance that makes it a poor choice for snapshooters looking to upgrade.

The first round of interchangeable-lens cameras offered a lot to appeal to enthusiasts, but at prices upward of $800, they weren't quite a no-brainer for point-and-shooters in search of an upgrade. The bigger sensors in these models can generally deliver better photo quality at somewhat higher ISO sensitivities than the smaller snapshot models and they support video capture, but the alternative has been the moderately larger dSLRs with action-friendly optical viewfinders and kit prices starting at a significantly lower $600. Even the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1, which delivers the right set of performance and features for these folks in a compact, attractive design, comes in at an ouch-worthy $900 or so. Olympus' sleek E-P1 and E-P2 have attracted a lot of attention, but without a built-in flash they're simply not the right camera for snapshooters, especially at their relatively high prices. So Olympus is trying again to lure this lucrative audience to its Micro Four Thirds camp, this time with the more consumer-friendly designed and priced E-PL1.

If you're one of the crowd attracted by the low price, though, keep in mind that even though both Olympus and Panasonic make compatible lenses for the system, because it's much newer there are still a lot fewer choices in Micro Four Thirds lenses than for dSLRs, and they tend to be more expensive than their SLR-compatible counterparts. For example, Olympus' 14-42mm lens lists for $299, whereas both Canon and Nikon's staple dSLR 18-55mm lenses run $199. The Micro Four Thirds lenses and bodies are more compact, though, and people are historically willing to pay more for less bulk.

  Olympus E-PL1 Olympus E-P1 Olympus E-P2
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS
17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm
Color depth n/a 12 bits 12 bits
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200
Focal-length multiplier 2x 2x 2x
Continuous shooting 3.0 fps
n/a
3.0 fps
n/a JPEG/ 10 raw
3.0 fps
12 JPEG/ 10 raw
Viewfinder Optional plug-in articulating EVF None Plug-in articulating EVF
Autofocus 11-area contrast AF 11-area contrast AF 11-area contrast AF
Metering 324 area 324 area 324 area
Shutter 60-1/2000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes
Flash Yes No No
LCD 2.7-inch fixed
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed
230,000 dots
Image stabilization Sensor shift Sensor shift Sensor shift
Video (max resolution at 30fps) 720p Motion JPEG AVI 720p Motion JPEG AVI 720p Motion JPEG AVI
Audio I/O Mic None Mic
Battery life (CIPA rating) 290 shots 300 shots 300 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 4.5 x 2.8 x 1.6 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4
Weight (ounces) 12.4 (without EVF) 13.9 13.8; 14.9 (with EVF)
Mfr. Price est. $549 (body only) est. $599.95 (body only)
n/a
$599.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $799.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $1,099.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
n/a $899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens and optical viewfinder)
$1,099.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens)

Though the elder E-P models mimic a traditional film design, the E-PL1 takes its design cues from digital cameras like the Canon PowerShot G series and Panasonic Lumix LX models. The plastic and aluminum body doesn't feel quite as tanklike as the E-P models, but it feels sturdy, with a relatively large, comfortable grip. Still, I found it just a tad slipperier to hold than I'd like, especially with winter-dry hands. It outdoes its sibling models by adding a dedicated video-record button, though there's also a movie mode on the dial.

The control layout and operation will be familiar to anyone who's shot with one of the advanced Olympus cameras, like the megazooms. Along the right side of the LCD run playback, info delete, and menu buttons. Above sits a user-definable function button, which you can assign to invoke face detection mode, provide a depth-of-field preview, set manual white balance, reset the AF area to its home position, use manual focus, override raw settings, take an unsaved test picture, pull up MyMode custom settings, toggle the LCD backlight, duplicate the function of the movie record button, waterproof protector attachment toggle, or disable the button entirely. As we've seen with other Olympus models, this method of setting the manual white balance is confusing, especially the first time you do it; unless you know to program the function button for it first, you'll never figure out how to set the manual white balance. A traditional four-way arrow-plus-OK setup includes direct-access buttons for autofocus area selection, drive mode, flash, and exposure compensation. You adjust aperture and shutter via the arrow buttons.

It's got a few different interfaces, two of which are identical to its E-P siblings. An info button cycles through a few display choices: detailed current settings, basic settings plus a histogram, selectable thumbnail previews of exposure or white-balance compensation, scale/grid display, or image only. In the menus you can choose to suppress any of these options to more quickly cycle through them. You can also pull up Olympus' typical Super Control Panel, an overstuffed display from which you can adjust most frequently needed shooting settings plus some not-so-frequently used ones, like white-balance compensation, sharpness, contrast, saturation, gradation, black-and-white filter, and Picture Tone. There's a much more useful simplified version in which you cycle around the outer edge of the display to adjust shutter speed, aperture, white balance, drive mode, image stabilization mode, aspect ratio, image size and quality, flash options, ISO sensitivity, metering, autofocus, face detection, and AF target (auto using all 11 AF areas, or user selectable).

Since Olympus is more overtly targeting those who aren't quite ready to leave the comfort zone of a point and shoot, the company adds a third operational interface in iAuto mode. Rather than simply disabling all adjustments, as many cameras do, you can use sliders to adjust background blur (aperture), exposure compensation (brightness), express motions (shutter speed), saturation, and image warmth, all with live preview. It bolsters this feature with Shooting Tips, which provides general photographic advice. For instance, the tips for photographing children include "Talk to a child and take a picture from his/her eye level" and "Take many pictures by continuous shooting mode, and select good picture later."

I like the idea of this interface, but the implementation is annoying, For instance, to change brightness, you must do the following: press Start/OK; arrow down to brightness; press OK; arrow up/down to adjust; press OK. And you can't have multiple settings adjusted simultaneously; in order to get into the saturation settings, for instance, you have to cancel the changes you've made to brightness.

  Olympus E-PL1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10 Samsung NX10
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 14.6-megapixel CMOS
17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 23.4mm x 15.5mm (est)
Color depth 12 bits n/a n/a
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 6,400 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200
Focal-length multiplier 2x 2x 1.5x
Continuous shooting 3.0 fps
18 JPEG/ 10 raw
3.2 fps
unlimited JPEG/ 7 raw
3.0 fps
10 JPEG/ 3 raw
Viewfinder Optional plug-in articulating EVF EVF EVF
Autofocus 11-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 15-point contrast AF
Metering 324 area 144 zone 247 segment
Shutter 60-1/2000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb to 8 minutes
Flash Yes Yes Yes
LCD 2.7-inch fixed
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed AMOLED
614,000 dots
Image stabilization Sensor shift Optical Optical
Video (max resolution at 30fps) 720p Motion JPEG AVI 720p Motion JPEG MOV 720p H.264 MPEG-4
Audio I/O Mic None n/a
Battery life (CIPA rating) 290 shots 380 shots 400 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 4.5 x 2.8 x 1.6 4.9 x 3.3 x 2.9 4.8 x 3.4 x 1.6
Weight (ounces) 12.4 11.9 (est) 14 (est)
Mfr. Price est $549 (body only)
tbd n/a
$599 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
tbd (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
est. $699.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens)
n/a
tbd n/a

Despite its entry-level leanings, the camera does offer a complete manual, semimanual, and preset auto feature set, as well as the full set of capabilities you'd expect for the price. Some highlights include separate vertical-and horizontal-pan optimized image stabilization options; the ability to capture raw+JPEG in every mode including iAuto (with intelligent customized overrides); and upper bound and default settings for auto ISO. If you're into HDR, though, keep in mind that it's limited to the typical three-frame bracket.

Like many of Olympus' other cameras, the E-PL1 includes the Art Filters, though this camera substitutes in a couple of new ones. Gentle Sepia is a tweak of the sepia filter, but Diorama is a new one which simulates the miniaturize and blur effect of a tilt/shift lens. For a complete accounting of the E-PL1's features and operation, download the PDF manual.

Performance. Sigh. The E-PL1's lack of speed simply makes me sad; the whole Pen series does in that respect. If you're a manual focuser it's much less depressing, though there are still non-focus aspects of the camera's performance which disappoint as well. It wakes and shoots in about 1.8 seconds, which isn't bad. But in optimal conditions it takes 0.9 second to focus and shoot, and it takes 1.4 seconds in low-contrast conditions--slower than all but Olympus' other models, and just slow by any absolute measure. Shot-to-shot time is about 2 seconds, sluggish in comparison to all but the Canon PowerShot G11, but not as problematic in practice as the slow autofocus, and it bumps to 2.7 seconds with flash enabled. Though the burst performance is a quite class-competitive 3.3 frames per second, the autofocus system can't keep up, and, like with the E-P2, just isn't very good for shooting basic kids-'n'-pets-type action.

As with the E-P2, I'll issue the caveat that it could very well be Olympus' current generation of Micro Four Thirds lenses that are the problem, as they feel slow and hunt focus excessively (unfortunately, I don't have any Panasonic lenses to try out on the Olympus cameras). However, in the case of the E-PL1, most people will buy it with the kit lens and it's kind of budget-defeating to require another lens purchase to make the AF usable.

Also like the E-P2's, the low-resolution LCD is just OK (but smaller). It seems good enough for manual focusing in conjunction with the magnification (though it blows out highlights, which makes focusing in bright areas difficult), but not as useful for judging sharpness for photos you've shot. The optional and unfortunately expensive EVF does make a big difference when shooting in especially bright or dim light, or when you need to hold the camera extra steady. It's also got the same short battery life as its siblings.

And though the Art Filters are nice, some of them--notably Pin Hole and Diorama--slow the LCD refresh down so much that they're pretty much unusable unless you're on a tripod and your scene is stationary.

I've got no complaints about the photo quality, though. The E-PL1 delivers noise performance on par with most similarly priced dSLRs, though it doesn't match the noise leader, the Pentax K-x. You can shoot pretty comfortably up through ISO 800; at ISO 1600 things start to soften and detail starts to degrade under color noise. Like most in its class, ISO 3200 is really an emergency option. Though it uses the same TruePic V processor and sensor as the other E-P models, Olympus says it's tweaked the noise reduction tradeoffs to produce cleaner-looking images, but at the expense of sharpness. Interestingly, I found the noise profile of the E-PL1 better than that of the more expensive E-P2. Olympus' default noise reduction for its JPEGs is pretty good and tends to be a little sharper than its default settings for raw (using its mediocre bundled ib software), which errs on the side of too much color noise.

Like its line mates, the E-PL1 has quite a good dynamic range and delivers excellent color accuracy; though a bit overly saturated, there's little hue shift. With sharpness set to normal--the setting in the default Natural picture mode--the E-PL1 renders crisp, but not oversharpened, details.

The video quality and manual shooting features are pretty typical for its class--you can't set shutter speed, but you can set aperture manually--but its easily confused continuous autofocus (and loud lens) makes shooting more of a project that most point-and-shooters will probably like.

Olympus positions the E-PL1 as an alternative to an entry-level dSLR for people who want to step up from a point-and-shoot. But one of the main reasons those people want to upgrade is because most snapshot cameras aren't speedy enough to photograph kids and pets, and if that's your reason then this camera's sluggish performance precludes me from recommending it. If, however, you're among those who want the better image quality that comes from a larger sensor or the flexibility of interchangeable lenses in a relatively compact design, the Olympus E-PL1 is certainly priced right compared with its siblings; mostly, it's a great alternative for people who want the E-P2 but don't want to spend the money. But it's also got two potentially strong competitors that we haven't yet tested: the Samsung NX10 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Raw shot-to-shot time  
Typical shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
0.9 
0.9 
0.6 
0.4 
Canon PowerShot G11
2.5 
2.5 
0.7 
0.4 
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1
0.9 
0.7 
0.6 
0.5 
Olympus E-P2
2 
1.9 
1.1 
0.9 
Olympus E-PL1
2.1 
1.9 
1.4 
0.9 
Olympus E-P1
2.7 
1.9 
1.6 
1.3 

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

olympus-e-pl1-digital-camera-mirrorless-system-12-3-mpix-3-10-optical-zoom-m-zuiko-digital-14-42mm-and-zuiko-digital-40.jpg
7.4

Olympus PEN E-PL1

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 6Image quality 8