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Effects / Color modes

The camera offers a series of Pciture Modes, including the selective brightness and contrast boosting 'iEnhance' mode that is default in iAuto mode.

Olympus E-PL1 Compare to:  
      
      
      
      
iEnhanceVividNaturalMuted
PortraitMonotoneAdobeRGB

The E-PL1 offers six of the creative effects (called Art Filters), that Olympus has been including in its recent cameras. There's a slight change with the E-PL1 - it gains Gentle Sepia and the Diorama mode we first saw on the E-P2. All six are available in movie mode, as well as shooting.

  • Pop art
  • Soft Focus
  • Grainy Film
  • Pin Hole
  • Diorama
  • Gentle Sepia

The three we liked most are Grainy Film, Pin Hole and Diorama. The latter pair cause slight delays and require a couple of second pause before you can shoot again - these delays extend to creating a rather more laggy preview and a lower frame rate for movies. The E-PL1's lack of orientation sensor means that the diorama mode always puts its in-focus stripe up the middle of the frame (half way up the short edge), but is still a great deal of fun to play with. The grainy film mode, with its very high-contrast tone curve can also be a little bit difficult to use.

Even with these slight hitches, we rather like the Art Filter concept. For people inexperienced with Photoshop or who need a little reminder that representative imagery isn't the sole purpose of photography, it's really nice to have access to these filers sitting on the control dial.

Pop Art Soft Focus Grainy Film
Pin Hole Diorama Gentle Sepia

Flash

The E-PL1 is the first PEN to include a built-in flash. It's not a very highly powered unit (just Guide Number 7 at ISO 100), but it's certainly better than nothing. It's enough to provide a little fill-flash or for close-quarters photography. In addition, of course there's a standard hot shoe to allow more powerful flashes to be added on and, surprisingly for a camera at this level, there's the ability to use the internal flash to remotely control the output of compatible offboard flashguns (such as the Olympus FL-50R or FL-36R),=.

Movie mode

The E-PL1 offers the same 720p HD video as previous PENs, compressed in the inefficient but easy-to-use Motion JPEG format. Movie mode allows you to select between program, aperture priority and full manual mode, depending on how much you wish to remain in control of depth-of-field.

As with the other PENs the quality is good, though without the optional adapter, you'll have to make do with Mono sound recording. The first video sample shows examples of white balance and exposure changing, both of which are easily visible and, towards the end of the clip, rolling shutter effect. The E-PL1 isn't particularly prone to the skewed verticals of rolling shutter but with a subject this fast moving, this close to the camera, most cameras would struggle.

Sample movie: 1280 x 720 pixels @ 30 fps
File size: 45.4 MB, 11.4 secs

Click on the thumbnail to view the movie (caution: very large file)

Sample movie: 1280 x 720 pixels @ 30 fps
File size: 31.7 MB, 8.1 secs

Click on the thumbnail to view the movie (caution: very large file)

Sample movie: 1280 x 720 pixels @ 30 fps
File size: 49.1 MB, 12.3 secs

Click on the thumbnail to view the movie (caution: very large file)

Highlight clipping / dynamic range

Dynamic range has traditionally been one of the shortcomings of the Four Thirds system but this has been addressed on recent cameras by changing what part of the sensor's dynamic range is used to represent middle gray (for more details, see here). As a result, you get significantly greater dynamic range at ISO 200 and above than you do at ISO 100 - an effect also seen on Nikon DSLRs.

However, unlike the other PENs and the E-30 and E-620 DSLRs that do the same thing, Olympus has decided to specify ISO 200 as the lowest 'recommended' ISO setting. ISO 100 is now described as 'low-noise priority'. The Auto ISO setting also uses ISO 200 as its lowest setting.

ISO 100 ISO 200
100% crop of above image 100% crop of above image

What this all means is that there's a considerable dynamic range advantage to shooting at ISO 200 rather than 100. You pay a small price in terms of noise in the shadows (most likely to be visible if you also use the Auto Gradation dynamic range enhancement option), but overall the effect is more detail and a more gentle transition between bright and over-exposed regions.

The only time this is likely to be a problem is in really bright light, because the E-PL1's shutter doesn't allow short enough exposures to prevent ISO 200 overexposing (and you'll not protect that highlight information by switching down to ISO 100).

Overall Image Quality / Specifics

The most positive thing you can say about the E-PL1 is that there's so little to criticize about its image quality. Its pictures are detailed and sharp (if perhaps a little over-sharpened by default), and its colors generally vibrant without being excessive. Noise reduction is also well balanced, providing detailed images and retaining contrast without them being overly noisy.

We're not completely sold on the iEnhance Picture Mode - it 'analyses the colors and brightness [and] mimics what the naked eye sees,' according to Olympus US but can occasionally get a little carried away, particularly with blue skies. In most modes you can specify how strong an effect iEnhance has, in three steps: Low, Standard and High but it's inescapable in iAuto mode - so you have to decide if you like iEnhance Standard.

Natural iEnhance (Effect: Standard)
iEnhance (Effect: High) iEnhance (Effect: Low)

Just as our only gripe about autofocus appears to be a lens issue, rather than a camera problem, the biggest flaw we regularly found in the images was the chromatic aberration (colored fringing) seen towards the corners. Because it's a lens issue we usually wouldn't raise it in a camera review but, because the target audience for this camera likely to only use the kit lens and because the Micro Four Thirds standard allows for chromatic aberration to be corrected, we thought it was worth mentioning.

We also saw the occasional hot pixel with the E-PL1 we tested - these were removed using the camera's Map Pixel function but appear in some of the provided sample images. This is a sensor we've encountered many times in recent years, so we have no reason to suspect it's a particular problem for the E-PL1.

Overall the performance is excellent, though. The target user for this camera is unlikely to want to engage in RAW processing and, with a JPEG engine this good, it's hard to see why anyone would bother - the results coming out of the camera are about as good as you'll get.

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