OLYMPUS

E-P1 (DIGITAL PEN)

not a compact; not an slr; it's a pen


Please Note: The RAW files will be added very soon. I just need time to check them over and as yet have not been able to update Olympus Studio. UPDATE 19/06/09: I'm actually running the latest version of Studio and it will display but not manipulate the RAW images from the E-P1.

FURTHER UPDATE 23/06/09: I cannot upgrade Studio so cannot check the .orf files. Please if you want an .orf file to play around with email me here and I'll send you one direct rather than strain the server.

PEN BROCHURE: You can download a pdf version of the official OLYMPUS PEN brochure here.



BACKGROUND

This report is based on the hands-on experience of the E-P1 (that I'm going to call the digital Pen) I had in Berlin at the European press release event held on 15th & 16th June 2009. I had access to the camera for about 5 hours all told, time enough to form some opinion only about some things. I hope to undertake a full review when I get a further sample within the next few weeks. As for images from the EP-1 I did not have my laptop with me so I could not study the results from the camera until I got home on 17th June. But there are 10 images provided below for you to download and scrutinize.

The E-P1 is a hybrid camera, neither a true DSLR nor a traditional compact. It endeavours to sit between the two and offer qualities both are missing. For example DSLR's are renowned for being large and heavy and overly complex, putting off many who may wish to step up from advanced compacts. The E-P1 has done away with the mirror box and viewfinder of the DSLR to deliver a small and light machine as an alternative to a full blown DSLR. It offers a high level of control but through an easy to use interface. Compacts on the other hand because of their small size have tiny sensors that restrict image quality drastically, especially at raised ISO levels. They also have fixed lenses, limiting the photographers choice of focal length. The E-P1 offers the Olympus 4/3rds (17 x 13mm) sensor that is considerably larger than the those of the compact and delivers excellent image quality up to ISO 6400. It also offers the functionality of interchangable lenses - accessing its own range, the existing Olympus 4/3rds range and the older legacy Olympus OM range of lenses too!

The E-P1 offers another choice - you are no longer restricted to DSLR or compact. Now you have another avenue to explore; that offered by the new Olympus digital Pen.

THE EVENT

For anyone who is interested the event was primarily organised by Olympus-Europa and consisted of the unveiling of the new camera on the evening of 15th June followed the next morning with a hands-on experience of the camera on 16th June. There were some 300+ delegates and the whole event was 'a bit of a scrum' at times.

The evening event featured the head of Olympus Imaging, Japan, who announced the camera and pointed out the heritage the camera followed and the great significance the company were investing in the new PEN. He also acknowledged that Europe was the company's largest target market and extremely important to the company's future. The theme of the evening (and the whole event) was mono 1960's and most of the attendees were dressed in black and white. Many people carried older Pen cameras and I saw a Pen F Gothic, Pen FT, Pen Original, Pen EE, Pen EED, Pen D and a fine Pen W with Pen Flash.

(For anyone not knowing what the PEN reference is all about here's a quick run down. A young graduate called Yoshihisa Maitani joined Olympus in 1956. After two years of company familiarisation he was given the task to design a cheap camera that would sell for Yen 6000 (about 12.00). He was at first dismayed, thinking it was an impossible task. But the young Maitani rose to the occasion and in 1959 delivered a revolutionary half-frame veiwfinder camera that would change the world. It was subsequently named PEN as it was small, pocketable and easy to use; so easy it could be used to record the moment just the same as people would use a writing pen. But this was only the beginning. The original PEN went through a process of some 38 incarnations over the next 25 years which also included the worlds only half-frame SLR interchangeable lens camera, the PEN F, on which the E-P1 design is based. The PEN concept sold millions of cameras and put Olympus onto the world stage of camera manufacturers. Maitani-San went on to design the entire OM series, the XA capsule camera and the Mju and is regarded now as part of the company's heritage. For many years Maitani was Olympus.

After the unveiling there were several new cameras available to examine and 'feel' along with the system accessories. Technical reps were to hand to answer any questions. I asked about the shutter lag was advised it was measured at 70ms.

It was an enjoyable event and too soon over at about 10pm.

Early the following morning we were issued with a camera. Everyone was provided with an E-P1 and lens and later we could chose to swap lenses if desired and to use either of the two available lenses, the finder, the two lens adapters (one for normal 4/3rds and one for OM lenses) as well as the striking FL14 flash. I received a chrome model with silver 14-42mm lens and strap, but no half-case. From the hotel we were taken to several pre-organised venues where the company had laid on models and scenarios of all kinds with the appropriate lighting for the delegates to photograph. As said earlier, it was all rather frantic.

After a quick lunch at 'The Beach' we all had to return our borrowed equipment but were allowed to keep the SD cards used so we had the images for our individual reports.

THE E-P1 KIT

The basic system consists of a body in a choice of silver or white plus a standard zoom MZ 14-42mm and/or the MZ 17mm pancake. Various combinations will be available in the shops from mid July onwards. The box is marked with the MICRO icon and OLYMPUS PEN. There's no link to the E-System.

Other accessories are immediately available; the new FL14 flash, a finder to match the 17mm pancake, body cases (bottom only) plus straps and two adapters one for 4/3rds lenses and one for OM lenses.

The basic kit components; E-P1, MZ 14-42mm and MZ 17mm pancake. The zoom lens is available in black or silver.



THE E-P1 CAMERA

The camera is slightly smaller than the old Pen F/FT/FV but quite obviously based on the general design of Maitain's inspiration. It feels very substantial being quite heavy at 335g for the body only plus 150g for the compact zoom making the package some 485g - slightly heavier than the 1967 Pen EED (430g) but lighter than the 1965 Pen EM (540g).

The E-P1 body comes in either silver/chrome with black grip or white/chrome with beige grip. There is a half-case and strap available but no top case. The top plate is made of metal with a matt polished finish. The silver body panel appears to be polished stainless steel or aluminium. The white body panel is enamelled. As with any metal body part this will show any 'dings' and scratches unlike the composite plastic that most DSLR bodies are made from, which can resist minor knocks and scrapes.

A silver/chrome E-P1 with black finished standard zoom 14-42mm f3.5-5.6. This lens comes in either black or silver.



Rear elevation of a white E-P1 showing the different colour (beige) rear control pad. This matches the colour of the front grip.



Top plate view E-P1 Silver - Note (later added) engraved/etched "OLYMPUS PEN Since 1959". The cameras were originally marked E-P1 only. Later the board decided to actively promote the Pen name and heritage.



FIRST IMPRESSION

This camera is to me anyway, aesthetically beautiful. It's one of those things you simply have to pick up, touch and caress. It is truly a small object of desire. In the hand it feels small yet solid and weighty but not overly heavy. As an old time Pen F user it feels right at home in my hands. It is smooth and delightfully sculpted with the front and back grips giving plenty of purchase. The example loaned to me was silver with a silver MZ14-42mm zoom and came with only a neck strap. I wore it all morning and it felt perfectly fine even though I'm no fan of neck straps, preferring a wrist or grip strap.

On the top plate the shutter button lies within a raised chromed ring and the near by (AE) compensation button is also raised above the surface. The rest of the top plate is smooth with only gentle upward sculpting leading to the hot shoe. I note there is a raised chromed lip around the shoe area that serves to protect the top plate from scratches when mounting accessories in the shoe. At the opposite end of the top plate the mode dial is deeply recessed being controlled by a knurled dial set through a step in the top plate.

The ON/OFF button has an opaque surround that glows green when powered on. This is quite bright and is a little intrusive if the surroundings are poorly lit.

When you switch the camera on there is a slight pause as the SSWF sequences and its lamp glows and the rear screen may show (depending if you locked the zoom lens) a warning about the lens lock (see later). Unlock the lens and all is well.

Obviously, the live view is shown as there is no viewfinder. That said the very first thing I did was put the camera to my eye! For those coming from SLR this is almost inevitable. Remember though, this function is based on compact framing.

On the rear and falling to the right thumb is the horizontally designed single control wheel to which I took an instant liking providing a larger surface area than those of the E-Series. The general access buttons are familiar to any E-System user with no surprises. Image Stabilization (IS) has no direct button, being accessed through the menu. This makes sense as for most exposures it will be advisable to have IS enabled.

Around the 4-way control dial is a second control 'ring wheel' providing fast scrolling through the options. Personally I found this fiddly to use, much preferring the larger wheel. Compact users will love this.

To the left side is the sunken mode dial control wheel protruding through the back plate very reminiscent of the Pen film advance wheel.

The bottom plate has the usual battery and card compartment. EP-1 uses the BLMS-1 battery (ala E-4XX and E-6XX) and the SD (and SDHC) card. At last Olympus are using a sensible card to replace the almost defunct xD. There is no room for CF dual slot. The battery compartment door hinge looks rather delicate and might be a weak spot when open. There is a further I/O compartment on the right. The tripod bush is not centralised to the lens - apparently there was no room inside - so it is moved toward the battery compartment.

The front plate is graciously free of MP count and IS icons. The grip is square and grippy, quite large and wedge shaped covering most of the that side. There are two microphone pick-ups indents either side of the "OLYMPUS" engraving. The camera exudes simple good looks, with clean tasteful lines and is refreshingly different.

LENSES

The standard zoom MZ 14-42mm has a clever way of becoming even smaller! The zoom barrel collapses into the main lens body by twisting the zoom ring while pressing the lock button - neat! This reduces the lens by about half its normal length. If the lens is in its closed position when you switch on the camera there's a warning on the screen and no Live View. As soon as you unlock the lens the Live View is instantly displayed. This is another way of preserving battery power.

The MZ 17mm pancake is only about 21mm deep making this combination 'just' pocketable in a large coat or cargo pants pocket. The optional finder fits into the hotshoe and its optics are bright and crisp. The field of view is plainly marked within a bright frame silver 4:3 rectangle. But the finder is quite large and when fitted the camera is probably no longer 'pocketable'.

Here you can see the finder fitted - quite tall due to the 4:3 image format. Having used rangefinder cameras in the past I was quite happy with the combination but it may be strange to those coming directly from compacts.



FLASH

The E-P1 has a new horizontally biased flash - again reminiscent of the old Pen Flash - the FL14. Its metal jacket matches the silver finished cameras and is especially stylish. It has a guide number of 20 at ISO 200 and is completely compatible with any FourThirds camera. By inference this means you can use your existing FL series flash on the digital Pen. There is no head movement so if you want to bounce you'll need to use FL36/50. I can see why Olympus have gone to the trouble of creating this beautiful flash - the combination of flash and camera is quite stunning.

The FL14 fitted to the EP-1 with 17mm pancake - stunning good looks!



IN USE

The camera was set to factory default settings. I had a quick look through the menu and noticed a few differences from the E-System machines. I checked to see if SAT was set to NORMAL (off) and NR was LOW. I decided to record my shots in LF JPEG + RAW and take a chance that Olympus Studio would recognise the new ORF file. The provided 4GB SD card showed an available 161 images at my chosen resolution. I notice too that ISO now reaches 6400! IS is available in 2 modes so I set it to IS-2 through the menu.

I try out the AF system (CDAF) and find it is pretty responsive but not as quick as PDAF. Once AF is found the shutter is quick with none of that annoying mirror flip and inherent delay. But, I suspect that the CDAF technology has some way to go yet. It just feels a little tardy and far from being 'instantaneous'. Once locked there is a tiny degree of shutter lag, but nothing to be concerned about. I believe the Panasonic G1 CDAF is much faster; they must be using different technology. The shutter is light and positive and creates some noise. It's not especially loud, I suppose I was expecting it to be almost silent - it's not.

The screen is large enough and bright enough for most usage though I noticed it was difficult to use in bright sunlight. In certain conditions I was simply pointing and guessing the framing as the screen was virtually washed out. I suspect even with higher resolution that any screen could deliver a good image in bright sunlight from behind. I also note that accurate framing using the camera screen held out in front some 15" from your eyes is almost impossible as body movement translates into sway. I used the camera strap as a 'lock' by pushing the camera away until the strap was tight, thus giving some stability. Using the screen as the viewfinder will take some practice and I can understand the concerns that DSLR users of OVF's might feel.

Access to the most commonly altered settings is easy to achieve. In addition you do not have to use the full command screen as Olympus have implemented a half-way house (ala CASIO) allowing you to scroll up & down through the major functions and then sideways through the individual settings. A vertical box pops up showing function then a horizontal box for setting; you use the 4-way control to cycle up & down the vertical box and the ring around the 4-way to cycle through the horizontal box. This is quick and intuitive. Of course you can use the normal full command screen if you wish. It's a little confusing the first couple of times but I think this is a great addition to an already good system. The direct control buttons for ISO, AF, DRIVE & WB are the same as the E-5XX & E-6XX E-System cameras. Certainly, anyone coming from E-Sytem machines will be instantly at home. For those coming from compacts there is a learning curve; that said I find the Olympus interface pretty inuitive.

The new mode dial control wheel is easy to use and is positioned so as not to be changed accidentally. Obviously the dial turns with the wheel. Furthermore, when you change the mode dial (PASM etc) a box pops up to tell you what mode you are in - nifty.

RESULTS

I took some 105 images with the digital Pen. I chose to use LF + RAW. As yet I haven't been able to read or develop the RAW files as Studio won't recognise them. The samples here are the out of camera JPEGS. I have not manipulated them in any way - they are untouched. Please download them for your personal scrutiny. To download place your mouse cursor over the image and click.

We have been advised by Olympus the firmware on the camera is the commercial version so there are no restrictions or riders applying.

Olympus model: ISO 100, f5.6 @ 1/50th, A Mode, 14-42mm at 29mm.





Olympus set: ISO 6400, f5.6 @ 1/500th, A Mode, 14-42mm at 38mm.





Golden Buddah: ISO 3200, f5.6 @ 1/8th, A Mode, IS, 14-42mm at 22mm





International Cinema: ISO 200, f3.5 @ 1/2000th, A Mode, IS, 14-42mm at 14mm. Look at the leaves on the tree on the left for evidence of CA - virtually nil.





Olympus Model: ISO 200, f7.1 @ 1/125th, A Mode, 17mm pancake. Framed with finder.





Penny - the face of the DIGITAL PEN: ISO 200, f6.3 @ 1/1000th, A Mode, 17mm pancake. Framed with screen.





Olympus models: ISO 200, f6.3 @ 1/250th, A Mode, 17mm pancake. Framed with finder. Look at the dynamic range and how well the meter has dealt with the highlights.





Roof Top, Pregnant Oyster: ISO 200, f6.3 @ 1/1250th, A Mode, 17mm pancake. Framed with finder. I show this to demonstrate the relative lack of distortion from the pancake. OK the nearer the verticals to the edge of the frame the worse it will be, but this is not bad.





Bus Depot, The Beach: ISO 3200, f5.6 @ 1/200th, A Mode, IS, 17mm pancake. It was quite dark in here. You can see from the tilt that framing using the screen in darkened conditions is far from easy!





Bus Plate: ISO 1600, f5.6 @ 1/125th, A Mode, IS, 17mm pancake. Framed with screen. The inherent noise for this ISO 1600 shot this pretty well controlled - much improved.



CRITIQUE

I've tried to provide a good selection of subject, lighting, ISO and settings across the two lenses I used. I did not use the FL14 flash nor either of the two adapters. Some of my shots were not that great but this was down to me rather than the camera. Overall I'd say 95% were keepers; not a bad result from a strange camera.

(Ian Burley tried his ZD 12-60mm on the E-P1 with 4/3rds adapter and confirmed the AF worked albeit a little clunky. No doubt a firmware upgrade will follow.)

I've looked at all the above at 100% and above and I'm very happy with the sharpness delivered from either lens. The high ISO shots are very good with the 6400 delivering a more than satisfactory result helped no doubt by the lighting inside the building. Of course there is noise but this is still less than my E-3 at ISO 3200.

The new TurboPic 5 engine is delivering excellent results whilst maintaining colour fidelity and those all important Olympus colours. I believe the processor is also undertaking automatic lens correction algorithms too.

It's good to see that 4/3rds legacy lenses work on this body through the adapter and Olympus have breathed new life into the millions of OM lenses out there by explicitly producing an OM adapter. I guess there will be many who will buy the EP-1 for this alone.

The results as far as I can see are certainly on a par with the E-620 and from an ISO point of view, better. Yet another advance for the 4/3rds sensor supposedly doomed from the beginning! Can we ask for much more?

CONCLUSION

The E-P1 as delivered in this incarnation is a statement of intent and not necessarily 'the finished product'. This is the starting point for Olympus' version and vision of Micro FourThirds. There is more to come and I'm sure that Olympus is listening to its customer base. I'm positive there will be an all black version and we know there is an EVF version scheduled. And who knows after that?

As both a concept and a product the E-P1 is simply stunning. This is a bold and courageous move from Olympus and I for one feel confident that it will be rewarded by the market. The E-P1 is a refreshing change from all the 'also ran' DSLR black bodies and the boring oblong boxes of the compact world that look like mobile phones.

OTHER RECOMMENDED READING

The Internet is awash with reports and previews. You pays yer money and takes yer choice..........

The most insightful reports I've read are:

By Ian Burley at FourThirdsUser here .

And by The DPReview team here.

SPECIFICATION SHEET

Here is the specification sheet scanned straight from the official brochure.

E-P1 specifications: this is the last page of the official brochure that you can download here.


NOTE: This article seeks nothing other than to inform. Only you can decide what equipment you want/need for your use. Bear in mind I own these cameras/lenses, out of my own pocket; I have nothing to gain or lose by publishing this article, photographs, examples or opinion.


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Posted June 2009 Copyright © 2009 John Foster & Olympus Imaging Europa