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Operation and controls

At its launch Olympus made clear that the E-PL1 was aimed at compact camera users wanting the image quality that a DSLR's large sensor can offer without the added bulk or, crucially, the perceived complexity. The most obvious sign of this approach is the simplified 'Live Guide' mode that allows the user to adjust parameters such as brightness, saturation or depth-of-field, using sliders and without having to learn or encounter photography-specific terminology.

Unlike the E-P1 and 2, which offer a control-dial interface borrowed almost directly from the company's E-30 DSLR, the E-PL1 is entirely based on button presses - one button press engages a settings changing mode and the four-way controller is used to alter those settings until the mode is disengaged with either the 'OK' button or a half-press of the shutter. The E-PL1 also arrives with a compact-camera-like function menu that allows you to scroll through and interact with the icons that appear around the screen (this can be replaced with the Super Control Panel single-screen settings interface, if you prefer).

This modal way of working is likely to be instantly familiar to anybody that has used a compact camera with manual photographic controls. It's not as quick to use as a dial-based interface, making the E-PL1 much less attractive as a 'second camera' for existing DSLR shooters but if you're not the kind of user who regularly chooses a different aperture, you're unlikely to be troubled by it.

Rear of camera controls

The back of the camera is home to most of the controls. The magnify and direct movie record buttons are readily accessible with your hand in a shooting position - the rest require you to shift your grip to reach. The four positions on the four-way controller engage screens on which each of the settings can be adjusted - the controller being used to navigate these screens until the Start/OK button (or shutter button) is pressed.

The button at the top left acts as a customizable function button (or selects a thumbnail view in playback). Likewise the movie record button can be assigned a series of other functions. The Info button switches between the different display modes or settings selection screens, both of which can be user-defined in the menu system.

Overall the interface is slower the the other PENs for changing fundamental shooting parameters (such as aperture and shutter speed), but in some respects represents an improvement - it's much easier to manually select where you want the camera to focus on the PL1. Also, moving magnified live view (in which all the buttons behave differently), onto its own button resolves the interface inconsistencies that existed in all previous Olympus live view cameras and makes the PL1 a great camera for use with unusual lenses.

Top of camera controls

There are only three controls on the top of the camera - the power button, the shutter release and a mode dial. The most important mode dial position for this camera is iAuto, which combines the Live Guide simplified interface with automatic scene recognition and the iEnhance selective color and contrast enhancement feature for point-and-shoot creation of punchy images.

  • iAuto - Intelligent Auto mode,
  • ART - Use one of the camera's six creative 'Art Filters'
  • SCN - Manually select from the camera's 19 scene modes
  • Movie mode - Gives simple control over movie shooting settings
  • P, A, S, M - user controllable auto, semi-auto and manual exposure modes

On-screen controls and menus

The E-PL1 adds a new front-end onto the existing Olympus interface and menu system - the Live Guide. It's a results-orientated interface for the iAuto mode (you specify that you want a brighter image, not that you want to change exposure compensation, for instance). However, the existing user interface options are also available and can be used alongside or instead of the Live Guide if you prefer (you can choose which control methods are available in each shooting mode).

Live Guide lets you influence the cameras iAuto mode by choosing one of five properties of the image you want to change. For instance, selecting 'Brightness' effectively gives a results-focused way of adjusting exposure compensation.
The Brightness option is unique in giving more than a simple more/less slider. Here it allows you to adjust the top and tail-ends of the tone curve to brighten or darken the highlights or shadows. Finally there's a 'Photo tips' section that offers advice for shooting different subjects, from kids to food and pets. (Kitten not included)

In addition, in the other modes, you can choose between the Live Control or Super Control Panel for changing settings that aren't on the four-way controller. Which of these screens is available in each mode can be defined in the Settings menu (Option D7). If you decide you want access to more than one type of settings display, you can cycle between them by pressing INFO while the settings screen is being shown.

If you choose to make either the Live Control or Super Control Panel available in the ART and SCENE modes, then they can be accessed by pressing INFO from the Art Filter or Scene Mode selection page.

Alternatively, you can select the compact-camera-like icon-driven 'Live Control' screen. This is also used in all the other shooting modes, by default. There's also an option to use the Super Control Panel if you prefer a DSLR-like at-a-glance status screen. Pressing the INFO button cycles between whichever options you've enabled in Settings menu option D7

Menus

The E-PL1 inherits essentially the same menu system we've seen on all the company's current DSLRs and PENs and, like the most recent models, you can keep everything nice and simple by hiding the settings menu. If you elect to show the settings menu, you're confronted with one of the most comprehensive (and potentially intimidating) range of customization options of any camera this side of professional-level sports cameras.

The main menu rarely has to be visited and is mainly used for formatting cards and changing other fundamental camera functions. The custom settings menu is hidden by default (and isn't for the faint-hearted), but can be accessed by switching it on in the setup menu.
Once engaged an additional 62 options become available, arranged in 10 groups. These allow customization of just about every aspect of the camera's behavior. For example, not only can you choose to add a live view mode that indicates under- and over-exposed areas of the image, you can also dictate the thresholds it uses.

Record review & play displays

To give some idea of how configurable the E-PL1 can be: it gives a choice of two different methods of zooming into an image during playback mode.

Zoom Mode 1 simply uses the zoom/thumbnail buttons to zoom in and out of the image. Zoom Mode 2 first presents a box showing the area to be magnified. Pressing INFO lets you change the level of magnification.

Just as the E-PL1 offers a variety of record modes, it also gives a wide choice of playback options. Just like the live view modes, you can select which you want available, then cycle through them using the INFO button. The last-used playback mode then becomes the record review mode.

Default view Image Only (Optional)
Overall (Optional) Flashes over- and under-exposed regions Histogram (Optional)
Highlight and Shadow (Optional) Light Box (Optional and only available when Playback Zoom Mode 2 is enabled)
Settings menu option D6 lets you select which of the above playback modes you can see In the same option you can also select which thumbnail screens you want available.
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