Review based on a Production E-P1 (Firmware V1.0)

From the OM system 35mm SLRs and lenses to the XA series rangefinders and the half-frame Pen models, Olympus has for at least half a century been notable for producing cameras that are smaller than their competitors without sacrificing quality or functionality. And they haven't stopped; the E-450 and its predecessors are still the world's smallest digital SLRs, and the new E-620 is considerably smaller than similarly specified competitors (finally realizing the 'smaller format, smaller camera' promise we were all sold on when Four Thirds originally launched).

The apex of this miniaturization was surely the Pen F and its variants - the interchangeable lens versions of the hugely popular Pen series (over 17 million of the various models were sold between 1959 and the mid 80's when half-frame finally died out). A fully-fledged single lens reflex camera that was smaller than most rangefinders (thanks to its half frame film format), the Pen F was innovative, it was stylish and, in 1963 when it was launched, it was universally lauded, and 45 years later enjoys true classic status.

The first Micro Four Thirds camera from Olympus pays unabashed homage to the Pen F; from the classic styling to the long running teaser campaign running in print and online, the E-P1 doesn't just wear its influences on its sleeve; it shouts about them from the rooftops (and is referred to in some parts of the world as the 'Digital Pen'). There's even a subtle engraving on the chrome edge of the top plate that reads 'Olympus Pen Since 1959'.

Not that we're complaining; for years now we've been imploring every manufacturer who would listen to us to build a non-reflex interchangeable lens camera around a large sensor, and the E-P1's styling (and all metal exterior) harks back to the glory days of the mechanical camera in the 60's and 70's, when men were men and cameras were built like swiss watches (a design trend started by Panasonic with cameras like the LC-1 and LX series, if truth be told). Perfect it ain't, but when we first saw the E-P1 we couldn't have been happier, and we just wanted to run off with it and start taking pictures.

It's not hard to see where Olympus got the inspiration for the 'Pen Digital'' the Pen FT was an innovative half frame SLR that won many fans (despite its flaws) and remains a highly collectible classic 40 years later.

The E-P1 was designed from the outset to be as small as possible using current components and this philosophy led to the decision (not, I'm sure, taken lightly) to leave out both viewfinder and built-in flash. The FL-14 flashgun overcomes the latter, but the optional viewfinder attachment won't help anyone using the zoom lens, and the lack of anything to peer through, especially on bright days when the LCD gets washed out by the sun, will undoubtedly put some potential purchasers off. Though, once they get their hands on the camera, I suspect many will be won over by its undoubted charms.

Key features

The E-P1 is, essentially, an Olympus E-620 (and by extension an E-30 in most respects) crowbarred into a compact, rangefinder-style body. Aside from the changes necessitated by the removal of the mirror and optical viewfinder - and a slight firmware upgrade (for new live view features, improved image processing) it is as fully fledged as any mid-range SLR. This is quite an achievement.

Interestingly Olympus hasn't just popped the sensor from the E-30 into a smaller body; they've been working hard under the hood too, and the 12.3 MP sensor has had a bit of an upgrade to increase resolution and sharpness - plus a few fixes that show they've been listening to reviewers and users (such as adding the option to apply Art Filters to raw files in-camera). The image quality boost been achieved by the use of a lighter low pass filter and a powerful new processor (the TruePic V), which offers better moiré removal and improved high ISO performance - plus of course the ability to capture HD movie clips. Otherwise the key feature list is pretty similar to Olympus's latest DLSR offerings.

  • 12.3 Megapixel Live MOS Sensor
  • Two new kit lenses (M. Zuiko 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 and 17mm F2.8 Pancake)
  • TruePic V image processor
  • 3.0" LCD screen (fixed, 230k dot resolution)
  • HD movies (720p) with stereo sound
  • Linear PCM sound recording
  • 3.0 fps sequential shooting
  • Built-in IS with max. 4 EV steps efficiency
  • Optional Adapters for all ZUIKO DIGITAL & OM lenses
  • Newly developed GUI for easier operation via Live Control
  • Automatic recognition of common scenes possible with i-Auto
  • Dual control dials
  • Face Detection & Shadow Adjustment
  • Art Filters, multi-aspect ratios, multi exposure
  • In-camera raw conversion (including application of Art Filters)
  • Small & stylish design

Micro Four Thirds

Olympus and Panasonic announced the new, mirrorless format / lens mount based on (and compatible with) Four Thirds in August of last year. The Micro Four Thirds system uses the same sensor size (18 x 13.5 mm) but allows slimmer cameras by removing the mirror box and optical viewfinder. The new format has three key technical differences: (1) roughly half the flange back distance (distance from mount to the sensor), (2) a smaller diameter lens mount (6 mm smaller) and (3) two additional contact points for lens-to-body communication (now 11 points). Removing the mirror mechanism allows this shorter flange back distance, meaning lenses for the new mount can be considerably smaller than current Four Thirds designs. The format requires framing to be carried out using Live View on either the LCD monitor or an EVF. Existing Four Thirds lenses can be used on Micro Four Thirds cameras using an adapter.

Below you can see the advantage of Micro Four Thirds; the E-P1 is considerably smaller than the E-450, itself no giant (it's the smallest SLR on the market). Shown here with the new collapsible M. Zuiko 14-42mm kit lens, it's surprising to think that the E-P1 is actually a considerably higher spec camera (with a bigger screen, in-body image stabilization and a feature set closer to the semi-pro E-30).

So is this the camera we've been waiting for? After years of hectoring all the manufacturers to give us what we had in the days of film (a small camera that takes pictures as well as an SLR) is the E-P1 a camera we'd actually reach into our own pockets for? Read on to find out.

The E-P1 shares its nostalgic design philosophy with the Panasonic Lumix LX3; a camera popular with precisely the same enthusiast photographers that Olympus is targeting with the new system.