The E-P1 is an exercise in pared-down styling with a distinctly retro design that will appeal to anyone nostalgic for the salad days of 35mm photography, before the preponderance of plastics and auto everything operation. It's got more than a whiff of the 1950's and 1960's rangefinder about it, but the most obvious debt is - as the pre-launch marketing made clear - the Olympus Pen F, the world's first 'half frame' SLR, introduced in the mid 1960's (see page 1 for more on the Pen connection).
There's no doubting this is a handsome little beast, and the choice of materials, sleek, simple lines and lack of unnecessary ornamentation give it the same 'real camera' appeal that makes otherwise rational photographers lust after the similarly timeless Leica M8. The E-P1 is one of the most attractive digital cameras we've ever seen, and we can imagine there will be a lot of people looking to justify buying one even if they have little or no real need for one. The 'pride of ownership' factor is going to be very strong with this one.
The E-P1 has been designed first and foremost for size, which itself dictates to a certain extent the physical design; we're told that - using current technology - this is as small as the camera could be, and though it's considerably more bulky than compacts like the Panasonic LX3, the body itself is far smaller than any SLR, and is dwarfed by the Olympus E-450 (the smallest SLR on the market).
The desire for the smallest possible body does mean some compromises; there's no viewfinder or built-in flash (both are available as optional extras) and there's little in the way of a grip, but Olympus has done an excellent job on the overall handling. There are fewer external controls than you'd find on an equivalent SLR (and don't forget this camera has all the functionality of a 'semi pro' model like the E-30), but the buttons are large enough to use, there's two command dials (both on the back) and the level of customization is such that it's easy to get the E-P1 working exactly how you want it. It's really, really hard to find fault with the design, even if, like me, you wish there was a viewfinder and a flash...
The E-P1 is available in two equally retro color schemes; good old fashioned chrome (with black accents) and a surprisingly attractive white version with beige/tan accents. The zoom lens (14-42mm) comes in black or chrome (the 17mm pancake is silver only) and Olympus has kits containing every possible combination.
Side by side
Below you can see the E-P1 between the Sigma DP-2 and the Olympus E-450. The DP2 (along with the DP1) is the only 'big sensor' compact in the world today (its X3 chip is roughly the same size as the E-P1's) and the E-450 is the smallest digital SLR in the world (most competitor models are noticeably larger). The E-P1 sits between the two in both physical size and weight, and although it's much closer to the DP2 in size it is, thanks to the metal body, a lot closer to the E-450's weight. It's worth noting that the figures below for the DP2 include the fixed lens (the DP2's 'body' is about 50% thinner than the E-P1).
(W x H x D)
(inc. battery & card)
|Olympus E-P1||126 x 70 x 36.4 mm (4.9 x 2.8 x 1.4 in)||410 g (0.9lb)|
|Olympus E-450||129.5 x 91 x 53 mm (5.1 x 3.6 x 2.1 in)||455 g (1.0 lb)|
|Sigma DP2||113 x 60 x 56 mm (4.5 x 2.4 x 2.2 in)||280 g (0.6 lb)|
In your hand
Thanks to its size/weight ratio (this is a pretty dense camera) the E-P1 feels incredibly solid in a way that the vast majority of cameras just don't these days. It's beautifully constructed and even our pre-production model has an excellent fit and finish. The handling is, perhaps inevitably, slightly compromised by the shiny surfaces and the lack of a grip, meaning that unlike similarly designed compacts the E-P1 feels a lot more comfortable supported by both hands, something you're going to be doing anyway if you're using the zoom.
Once in the hand it handles pretty well - small cameras always demand some compromises (smaller buttons cramped together make using the controls fiddly), but the E-P1's design (which, if we're honest, is far more about style than utility) is surprisingly usable if you assign the exposure setting you most commonly use to the upper (vertical) command dial, which is perfectly positioned under your thumb. The other dial (the circular one around the OK button and four-way controller) is a little less easy to reach and requires a certain amount of thumb gymnastics if you try to use it without taking your finger off the shutter release. Unless you insist on shooting in manual exposure mode and changing settings for every shot the E-P1 offers a nice mix of compact camera handling and SLR control.
As a live view only camera - and one without an eye-level viewfinder (discounting the optional VF-1 attachment) the E-P1's LCD screen is a vital part of the picture taking experience, and it's one of the only (mildly) disappointing things about the whole package. It's by no means a bad screen - quite the opposite; the high refresh rate, excellent brightness/contrast, low lag, good sharpness and wide viewing angle are all to be praised, but we were surprised that a premium model like this doesn't have a higher resolution screen (230,000 dots on a 3.0" LCD is pretty low these days).
It's not a decision breaker but it's a bit of a let-down. We used the camera outside in bright direct sunlight and found that - whilst you can just about make out the preview image, it's still very difficult to see well enough for precise framing or exposure / color assessment (and forget manual focus in such conditions). We also found that the screen sometimes made images appear brighter than they actually were, leading to unecessary exposure compensation (though, given the E-P1's occasional clipped highlights, a little negative EV probably isn't a bad thing).
If you can't stand the idea of relying entirely on the screen / live view for composition Olympus is offering an optional optical viewfinder (the VF-4), which is matched to the 17mm pancake. The lack of any kind of focus confirmation makes using the viewfinder a slightly unnerving experience, though you're unlikely to have problems on a sunny day with a 17mm lens on a sensor this size.
Compared to using the screen on a bright day, however, the viewfinder is a welcome relief from the squinting and guesswork involved should the sun fall onto the LCD. The feeling of being disconnected from the workings and settings of the camera takes some getting used to (it's like going back to film!) but for those of us who don't always like to compose our shots at arm's length, the viewfinder is an acceptable compromise for such a small camera. Why Olympus couldn't produce an optional electronic viewfinder I don't know, as that would transform the use of the E-P1 in bright daylight.
Battery / storage Compartment
The E-P1 uses the same BLS-1 battery as the E-420 and E-620. The battery fits into a combined battery/card compartment behind a door with a sliding lock, and has a small retaining clip to prevent it from falling out. Unfortunately the design of the camera means you can't change batteries - or get the card in or out - when it's mounted on a tripod.
The good news (as far as we're concerned) is that Olympus appears to have finally accepted the inevitable demise of xD-Picture card and has taken the eminently sensible decision to drop it in favor of an SD/SDHC card slot on the E-P1. Ever since xD took over from SmartMedia five or six years ago, Olympus users have been forced into using a slower, less capacious, more expensive and less reliable storage format. And since Fujifilm (the only other brand to use xD) dropped it last year the pressure has been rising on Olympus to finally kill off the unwanted and unloved format.
We're not there yet; Olympus compacts still use xD (and the SLRs offer dual xD/CF slots), but the E-P1 is, hopefully the first of many Olympus cameras to offer full compatibility with SD (though we suspect xD will stubbornly hang around for a while yet).