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Conclusion - Pros

  • Excellent resolution, tons of detail in the shots
  • Appealing, bright and punchy out of camera results and well optimized JPEGs
  • Very clever collapsible kit lens that's small, but offers decent quality
  • Unique retro design puts SLR quality into a compact body
  • Good high ISO performance up to ISO 3200 and lots of control over noise reduction
  • Superb build quality
  • Decent handling
  • Dual control dials - unusual design that works well
  • Lots of external control, easy access to photographic functions
  • Comprehensive feature set and impressive level of customization
  • Reliable metering and white balance (in natural light)
  • Lots of stuff to play with; art filters, aspect ratios, multi-exposure and level gauge
  • In body image stabilization
  • Easy to use, high quality video mode

Conclusion - Cons

  • Slow focus requires a more considered approach to shooting
  • Some highlight clipping (and poor dynamic range at ISO 100)
  • Low resolution screen that's hard to see in bright light
  • No viewfinder
  • No built-in flash (and the optional flash is expensive and pretty basic)
  • Complicated menu system not that easy to navigate
  • Preview image brightness doesn't always match the captured image brightness
  • Poor focus, slow lens and jerky live view image make shooting in very low light frustrating, to say the least
  • No AF illuminator
  • The most interesting Art Filters slow down operation (and make the movie mode virtually useless)

Overall conclusion

You have to take your hat off to Olympus for getting so much right with its first Micro Four Thirds camera. From the stylish, retro design to the top notch image quality this is a camera that, unlike so many we see, pretty much completely lives up to the hype surrounding it. And that's a lot of hype; few cameras released in the last few years have created the kind of frenzy of interest that greeted the unveiling of the E-P1 last month; hardly surprising given the paucity of genuine innovation in the digital camera market at the moment, particularly in the compact sector.

For years now we - along with many of our users - have been pleading with SLR manufacturers to produce a camera like this, and we would be very surprised indeed if the E-P1 were the only model in this new category in 12 months time (in fact we'd be very surprised if Panasonic doesn't offer something similar this year). The combination of a compact body, large sensor and interchangeable lenses is an appealing one for the serious photographer, and for these users the E-P1, with its extensive photographic controls and superb output (not to mention the design, which harks back to the glory days of 'real cameras') is going to be very tempting, and - for the most part - very rewarding.

Size matters

Squeezing this much functionality into such a small body was always going to result in a certain amount of compromise when it came to the handling and operation of the camera, and the E-P1 certainly feels a little cramped compared to any 'full size' digital SLR. Compared to most compacts, however, the dual control dials work well and the dense body feels well balanced and stable in the hand, despite lacking much in the way of a grip. It's by no means perfect, and those with larger hands might find the buttons - which are all crowded together in one place - fiddly, but overall the E-P1 works surprisingly well even when used with extensive manual control.

Bare essentials

The lack of a viewfinder - something not helped by the rather pedestrian screen (one area I really would've liked Olympus not to be cutting corners) - will, I suspect, put many potential buyers off, especially dyed in the wool SLR users who find the very idea of composing 'at arm's length' an anathema.

Personally I wasn't that bothered by the lack of viewfinder until I found myself trying to frame a shot with the bright summer sun behind me, at which point all I could see were the fingerprints on the surface of the LCD and I was effectively shooting blind. At that point even the rudimentary (but expensive) optional finder for the 17mm pancake is better than trying to squint at the screen.

But no, the lack of a screen isn't a deal killer for me (though to be fair, living in the UK we're hardly plagued with bright sunshine), though there were times it annoyed the heck out of me. The same goes for the lack of built-in flash. I don't like flash very much, but there are always going to be situations when you really need it (though, as mentioned below, the low light focus is so slow that I basically gave up taking 'social snaps' with the E-P1).

Image Quality

Arguments will continue to rage about the E-P1's features and performance but few could find any serious fault with its image quality, which is easily as good as most SLRs at a similar price point. Yes, it's fractionally noisier than the best APS-C models (particularly if you turn the noise filter off to get the maximum detail), and yes, the dynamic range isn't as good as the very best-in-class cameras, but honestly we're splitting hairs here. Our overall impression of the E-P1's image quality was and remains overwhelmingly positive.

The 14-42mm zoom is as good as any SLR kit lens (we were less impressed by the 17mm pancake, which has the single standout feature that it's very thin), and in optimal conditions the E-P1 is capable of capturing superb levels of detail. Crucially, unlike many DSLRs, you don't need to shoot raw to get the best results; the JPEG engine produces remarkably good output at all ISO settings - though we'd avoid ISO 100 simply because you lose so much dynamic range, and ISO 3200/6400 are pushing the sensor a bit too far.

Finally, I think it would be fair to say that default settings (in 'Natural' mode) produce results that are a little too punchy for our liking (with a touch too much saturation and a harsh tone curve), which doesn't help the highlight clipping, but it's easy to mitigate this by careful exposure and (if you want a flatter result) changing the image parameters or shooting in raw mode.

Who's it for?

As mentioned earlier the E-P1's appeal to photo geeks like us is easy to see, and the results will for the most part justify the extra effort (or at the very least the change in shooting style) involved in getting them. This is the kind of camera that you just want to pick up and take out shooting, and the wealth of features and controls (not least the Art Filters), combined with a highly portable body make it the perfect walkabout camera for anyone needing to give their creative muscles a bit of a workout.

Seeing how much positive press this camera is getting in the Sunday supplements and style sections - and the fact all my non-photographer friends seem to want one - it's obvious that the unique retro styling and promise of SLR quality in a compact body has a much broader appeal, and is likely to be bought by considerably less experienced users.

Our advice to anybody wanting a simple point and shoot model who is seduced by the E-P1's obvious charms should tread carefully - and here's why. Firstly it simply doesn't work anywhere near as well as a decent compact in social situations; the focus is painfully slow in low light, especially with the zoom (which is slower - in aperture terms - than most compacts), and even if you fork out for the flash you'll find getting quick shots indoors at night frustratingly difficult.

Secondly the output when using the full auto mode with either kit lens isn't going to look that different from a good compact when used outdoors in good light, meaning you're carrying a lot of extra weight for little gain. Finally the sheer number of options and controls and features will leave many novices scratching their heads in confusion. That all said, if you do want to learn about photography this is certainly a camera that will pay dividends to anyone prepared to invest the time and effort involved in mastering it.

The head says no, the heart says go

The E-P1 is one of those rare products in this mass-produced age that can provoke an emotional response in even the most jaded shooter, which is a tribute to the Olympus design team as much as a reflection of any pent-up desire for a new category to bridge the yawning gap between compact cameras and entry-level DSLRs.

It's easy to come up with a list of reasons not to buy one; the slow focus, the dime-store screen, the lack of built-in flash, the paucity of Micro Four Thirds lenses, the unimpressive 'iAuto' mode, not to mention the fact that Panasonic could - and probably will - produce something that fixes half these problems at some point by making a compact version of the GH1.

In fact the biggest question I'm left with looking at that list is why don't I want to give this one back? Because in spite of - perhaps in a small way because of - the E-P1's limitations (some of which could be solved with a much-needed firmware upgrade), it's a camera that ticks an awful lot of boxes and fills an awfully big hole in the digital camera market. And it's also a camera that is, literally, in a class of its own - at least for now.

Olympus PEN E-P1
Category: Mid Range Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Performance
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
Walkaround camera for landscapes, SLR users wanting something pocketable with excellent image quality
Not so good for
Low light, indoor or action/sports/wildlife photography
Overall score
66%
It's hard not to fall for the E-P1's charms. The unashamedly nostalgic design combines with true SLR quality in a remarkably pocketable package. The lack of flash and viewfinder will put some off, as will the relatively slow focus, but overall this bodes very well indeed for the new system.

Original Rating (July 2009): Highly Recommended
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean

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