The rapid evolution of digital photography has spawned so many cameras capable of producing technically outstanding images that we have taken it for granted. The result is that we spend more time peeping at pixels, MTF charts, and plots of dynamic range performance with Stouffer Step Wedges than we do learning how to capture presentation-quality photographs, or learning how to digitally develop them in a way that allows the printed or web-based versions to show off the camera’s capabilities and (as importantly) the photographer’s vision.
For me to investigate the technical minutiae about high ISO noise reduction, the sharpness of the veins on a leaf ten yards away from the lens, or whether the sensor can capture 8.5 stops vs. 9.2 stops of dynamic range at its optimum ISO is a bit like delineating whether an alcohol stove on our kitchen counter uses 0.45 oz of fuel per pint of boiled water or, God forbid, a ghastly 0.50 oz of fuel per pint.
To drive this point home, I captured images of several landscape scenes with a Sigma DP2, Olympus E-P1 (with its m.Zuiko 17/2.8 lens), and Panasonic GF1 (with its Lumix 20/1.7 lens), and produced 16 x 20 enlarged prints from each camera1.
And at first glance, I couldn’t tell the difference between any of them! Not in dynamic range, not in detail resolution, and not in color rendition. In fact, the differences were so minor that I had to spend several minutes investigating the images with a loupe before I was able to make any meaningful conclusions about image quality. At first this surprised me, so I showed a sample set of the images to Sam Haraldson and Addie Bedford, my officemates, and their conclusions were the same as mine.
Here are those conclusions:
- The sharpest images came from the Sigma DP2 – the lowest resolution camera of the lot (4.7MP), even when these images were not upsampled in Photoshop!
- The most appealing color came from the Sigma DP2 and the Panasonic GF1. The Olympus E-P1 produced more substantial blue-gray casts on shaded snow, failed to reveal subtle greens in fall foliage that the other two cameras picked up, and had a difficult time resolving color range (and thus, detail) in dense foliage that was predominantly tan or brown in color (resulting in bushes that looked more like muddy blobs than bushes).
- The most shadow detail was revealed by the Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic GF1. This is somewhat expected, since the sensors of these two cameras have been shown to produce wide dynamic range in their RAW files relative to the DP2. Surprisingly, however, this did not result in an image that was necessarily more aesthetically appealing to viewers. See #4 below.
- The richest (most noise-free) blacks and whitest (not color-casted) whites were produced by the Sigma DP2. Both the Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic GF1 produced blacks that were not truly black (and pocked a little with noise), and the whitest whites in images from the E-P1 and GF1 came at the expense of low contrast in bright areas that produced seemingly unnatural "smudginess" that resulted in less definition in bright areas.
- Pixel peeping of 100% crops of digital images seemed to reveal that the Panasonic GF1 was able to resolve slightly higher levels of detail than the Sigma DP2, which in turn seemed able to resolve significantly higher levels of detail than the Olympus E-P1. However, when print enlargements were produced, images from the Sigma DP2 clearly resolved greater levels of detail than prints produced from E-P1 and GF1 files (with the GF1 having a significant edge over the E-P1).
Producing high-quality 16 x 20 prints from 35mm (or smaller) film cameras with consumer grade lenses, or from digital cameras with small sensors, is nearly impossible. The fact that any of these images (which all come from sensors 5-10X larger than the sensors in compact cameras, but from cameras that weigh a pound or less!) can compete with each other at a 16 x 20 print size is thus a remarkable achievement in digital photography, and one that easily exceeds any expectations that most of us backpackers have for image production. Further, that a 4.7MP image from the Sigma DP2 produced images with more detail and aesthetically pleasing colors than either the E-P1 or GF1 is even more remarkable, and a testament to the fact that Sigma’s gamble on using Foveon sensors in their cameras may continue to have long-term competitive significance.
Several 16 x 20 print enlargements were made from several competing cameras to investigate (primarily) detail resolution and (secondarily) color tone, dynamic range, and noise.
Thus, it is in this context, especially after comparing large prints between comparable cameras, that I am reviewing the Olympus E-P1. Sure, it’s lighter than its DSLR brethren, but it’s also no small bit heavier and bulkier than its compact cousins. Consequently, for me to upgrade to a camera like this for backpacking purposes, it must offer substantial improvements in areas other than image quality in order to justify carrying its additional weight and bulk. In addition, the fact that the smaller Sigma DP2 and its similarly-positioned Panasonic GF1 produce images that seem to be better than those produced by the Olympus E-P1 means that the E-P1 has a steep hill to climb in order to find its way into my pack, to replace my Sigma DP2, which until now, has sat alone in its ability to produce technically outstanding images among any other camera and lens combination that weighs less than a pound.
Weight Comparison of Compact Cameras with Mid-Sized Sensors
The Olympus E-P1’s unique feature is that it is a member of a very small number of cameras that hold the distinction of being among the lightest interchangeable lens cameras available. They are both lighter and smaller than DSLRs, while appearing to offer the creative flexibility of using interchangeable lenses and offering image sensor sizes similar to those found in DSLRs.
The following table compares the body, lens, and system weights of the few cameras that currently occupy the niche defined by a compact body size and mid-sized sensor (i.e., a sensor that is significantly larger than those found in most compact cameras, while significantly smaller than a full frame (24mm x 36mm) image sensor).
Weight Comparison of Selected Camera Systems (Compact Size, Mid-Sized Sensors)
|Type||Body||Body (including Battery) Weight||Lens||Lens Weight||Total System Weight|
|DSLR||Olympus E-450||15.0 oz||Zuiko 25/2.8||3.7 oz||18.7 oz|
|Interchangeable Lens Compact||Olympus E-P1||13.4 oz||m.Zuiko 25/2.8||2.6 oz||16.0 oz|
|Interchangeable Lens Compact||Panasonic GF1||12.3 oz||Lumix 20/1.7||3.5 oz||15.8 oz|
|Interchangeable Lens Compact||Ricoh GRX||6.6-7.1 oz (est.)||GR 50/2.5||9.3 oz||15.9-16.4 oz (est.)|
|Integrated Lens Compact||Leica X1||11.0-11.5 oz (est.)||Leica Elmarit 24/2.8||Incl. in body||11.0-11.5 oz (est.)|
|Integrated Lens Compact||Sigma DP2||10.5 oz||Sigma 24/2.8||Incl. in body||10.5 oz|
The controversial Leicaphile Erwin Puts probably has a leg up on digital photography image quality – and more important, image quality context – than most of us:
"…colour reproduction is a science and a complicated one. It is very difficult, at least in my opinion, to make general statements about the colour quality of a specific camera. A reviewer can present as much factual evidence as one can handle, but subjective conclusions should be used very sparingly." – from Puts’ website, Tao of Leica.
I would say that the same context could be applied not only to color, but also to dynamic range, noise, and detail resolution. Most important, I would use my subjective conclusions about the image quality of the Olympus E-P1, as I conveyed earlier when comparing the character of its image quality to that of the Sigma DP2 and Panasonic GF1, as Puts would say himself, sparingly!
The most important question, then, is one that I must ask myself, and provide an answer from my own perspective only:
Does the Olympus E-P1 provide image quality (with any lens) that is substantially better than my much lighter and more compact Sigma DP2 that would justify me carrying its additional weight and bulk?
Fortunately, my analysis of the E-P1’s images both on screen and in print reveal an answer to that question that is a simple, but not necessarily resounding: probably not.
That’s not to say that the E-P1 is incapable of producing technically outstanding images. Quite the contrary. It’s just that the DP2 can hold its own quite well, and for the type of photography that I am most interested in (landscapes of the places through which I walk, and the activities of the people that I’m walking with, such as camping, cooking, and fire-chatting), I prefer the character of the DP2 images (which feel moodier, with richer color, more dimensionality – like film, but sharper) than the character of the images from the Olympus E-P1 (which feel duller, more digital-looking, flat, and rather sterile – sort of like the images from every other digital camera out there).
Finally, I would like to close this discussion of image quality with two considerations. First, when assessing the image quality of a camera, consider what the out-of-camera JPGs might look like (or, for the RAW aficionado, what the RAW files look like with minimal processing such as white balance, tone curve, and exposure correction). This is the area where I am most critical of the E-P1 relative to the DP2, and why I feel the latter looks more like a high quality film and why the former looks like every other digital image out there.
The second consideration is how a photo developer might feel about the RAW images coming out of the camera. The photo developer is that person who spends hours in a darkroom (either chemical or digital) tinkering with image color, contrast, bypass techniques, or push processing to take what the camera has captured to film (or sensor) and create something that reflects the developer’s unique vision. To that end, I think the Olympus E-P1 will satisfy most developers, even relative to the Sigma DP2. My criticisms with the E-P1 images from a developer’s standpoint is that I believe the sensor inadequately captures the color and detail (relative to the DP2) that gives the developer of E-P1 files less latitude than what is at the disposal of the developer of DP2 files, which is remarkable when you consider that E-P1 files offer nearly three times the pixel resolution of DP2 files.
Accessibility: Size, Weight, Simplicity, and Ease of Use
Other important criteria to assess when reviewing a camera are those things that contribute to a camera’s accessibility: its size, weight, simplicity, and ease of use.
The Olympus E-P1 creates images that seem to be as technically sound as those of a larger compact DSLR, for marginally less size and weight (e.g., the nearly-as-small-and-light Olympus E-450). However, it does not appear to be capable of creating images that are technically superior to the significantly more compact and lighter Sigma DP2. Thus, we’ll have to look elsewhere for justification for the size and weight of the E-P1. Its unique feature (relative to the Sigma DP2, at least) is its ability to use interchangeable lenses (see "Versatility" below). Since the use of interchangeable lenses has virtually no bearing on its "accessibility" (in fact, one could argue that an interchangeable lens camera is less accessible than a fixed lens camera due to added weight and bulk, and most certainly, is more complicated), trying to make the argument that the Olympus E-P1 offers unique "accessibility" features relative to the entire camera market seems a bit of a stretch.
The real question to be asked relative to how the Olympus E-P1 stacks up to other options is this: for the additional size and weight, does it offer benefits in simplicity and ease of use? To answer this question, let’s walk through the mechanics of taking photographs with the E-P1.
The Mechanics of Taking Photographs with the E-P1
The E-P1, like just about every other digital camera out there, offers fully automatic operation (lens focus, exposure metering, and ISO) that simply requires that you turn the camera on and press the shutter button. That’s a good thing, because you’ll appreciate automatic control for certain situations (opportunistic candids and inclement weather), and of course, it’s valuable to the photographic novice while they are learning the technical skills of manual photography.
In addition, the E-P1 offers a plethora of customization options, artistic functions, and creative options that I have no intention of documenting in this review (you can read about them elsewhere), and in fact, I will build a case about why this sort of complexity is inconsistent with my ethos of simplicity that lies at the core of my lightweight backpacking philosophy.
For now, however, I’d like to explore the Olympus E-P1’s ability to be responsive and intuitive for a discriminating photographer who desires manual control of key operations (focus, exposure control, and ISO), as well as access to key functions of particular importance that might be employed intermittently but not infrequently, including the toggling of shooting modes, the adjustment of exposure compensation, the separation of autoexposure lock (AEL) from autofocus lock (AFL), and use of the self-timer.
Most digicam users are baffled by having manual focus as a benefit. With the speed of autofocusing lenses ever increasing, and the accuracy of autofocus becoming more successful with each new generation of autofocus sensors and motors, it might seem that the utility of manual focus is fading.
Most DSLR users gave up manual focus (for the most part) long ago and seem rather happy to have done so. To promote manual focus as a benefit of a contemporary digital camera may seem a little akin to either photosnobbery or marketing suicide. But on a camera that touts manual control as a benefit (e.g., the Ricoh GRD and its successors, the Sigma DP1/DP2, and the Olympus E-P1), the mechanism by which a lens is manually focused is an important one. Here’s why.
One important reason to be able to manually focus a camera is that it decreases the time you have to hold your camera up to your eye and disrupt the actions (and reactions to the camera) of human subjects while zone focusing. This is important to me in backpacking photography, because I like to hike with people (not just myself!) and I enjoy capturing their candid reactions to wilderness travel.
Zone focusing allowed me to capture this image from my hip with the Sigma DP2, without reaction from my very cold and wet packrafting companions while we recovered from hypothermia in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Zone focusing is the act of setting your focus manually (often while the camera hangs down at your hip) to an approximate distance between your camera and the desired subject, then lifting the camera to your eye, snapping the photo, and immediately dropping it. One modification of zone focusing that requires a little extra time (depending on the quality of your camera’s autofocus vs. your skill at manual focus) is that of making microadjustments to the focus while the camera is held to your eye. Zone manual focusing is the fastest technique for shooting, is an essential one to learn for capturing the candid mood of a scene with human subjects at close range, and is commonly used in photojournalism, documentary, and street photography.
But is zone focusing important in "backpacking photography"? If your primary subjects are static mountain vistas and posed photos of your trail partner by mileage signs, then the answer is a resounding "no." However, if part of your photographic style depends on capturing candid moments of those you are hiking with, I’d encourage you to master the technique of zone focusing and use a camera with a manual focus process that allows for it.
So, back to the E-P1. Let’s discuss how the E-P1’s manual focus process works.
Built into the camera’s firmware is an option called "MF Assist," or "manual focus assist." MF Assist is a process by which turning the manual focus ring of the lens sends a signal to the camera body to "do something." That "something" on the E-P1 is the triggering of an enlarged (e.g., 7X or 10X) view on the LCD of the part of the image that you are trying to focus on. The idea is that at 1X magnification, the LCD screen cannot resolve enough detail to provide you with accurate focus, but at 7X or 10X magnification, the pixel resolution provides sufficient resolving power that allows you to manually focus the lens with accuracy. The process is simple and works well.
In addition to having MF Assist triggered by the movement of the focus ring on the lens, the E-P1 can also enter (and exit) the MF Assist mode through a series of button pushing (this is the only way you can manually focus third party manual focus lenses with the E-P1, including Leica M-mount lenses, since their manual focus rings cannot communicate to the E-P1 body), but this particular process severely interrupts the normal workflow of image capture, and I can’t recommend it for anything other than landscapes and other still subjects2.
This series of images illustrates the progression of focusing manually with the E-P1 in combination with lenses that adhere to the Micro Four Thirds standard (i.e., lenses for which MF Assist is activated by turning the focus ring on the lens). The top view shows the image out of focus at its normal magnification. Once the lens focus ring is turned, the camera automatically enters MF Assist mode (middle view, at 10X magnification), which is a magnified view of the subject that can be used to manually focus the lens. Pressing the shutter button halfway exits MF Assist mode and returns to normal LCD magnification (bottom view), at which point in time the scene can be reframed and the image captured.
Having used both Leica and Voigtlander rangefinders since the 1980s, I found the manual focus of the E-P1 to be vastly inferior in both usability and speed, and I cringe whenever the comparison is made between a rangefinder and the Olympus E-P1. I even pulled out my old Canon AE-1, my first manual focus SLR (and quite inferior to my Leica M6 in terms of manual focus ability), and found myself yearning for even its poorly lit viewfinder and through-the-lens focus view.
In spite of these limitations to MF usability and speed, the E-P1 relies on centering the focus subject when using MF Assist3, much like a rangefinder. So, the process of taking a photo is similar: center the subject you want in focus, manually focus the lens, reframe the composition, and take the shot. The effectiveness of the process is limited primarily by the poor quality of the LCD (low resolution and dim screen in bright light). Other reviewers universally criticize the limitations of the E-P1’s LCD screen. Manual focus is not currently coupled to any external viewfinder that Olympus offers, so for now, it remains a crippled and tedious process that relies on the photographer viewing the LCD.
Regardless of these limitations, accuracy is quite good using MF Assist. Consequently, while its complicated usability (entering a zoomed screen, finding the subject, focusing on it, zooming out, reframing, and then snapping the photo) and slow speed (accurate focus requires, sometimes, several iterations through the desired focal plane) disqualifies the E-P1 as a reasonable camera for manually focusing candid photographs of moving subjects (especially since there is no feedback on either the lens or the viewfinder for zone focusing distances, like there is on the Sigma DP1/DP2), it does not disqualify the use of manual focus when you have the time and patience to fiddle with it, as in the case when shooting static scenes. I still find the feature useful, but only for more creative shots at wider apertures where complicated foregrounds or mid-range subjects fool the autofocus sensors and algorithms of the E-P1, as in the image below.
Here’s a scene that fooled the autofocus sensor of the E-P1. I used MF Assist to focus on a plane of grass just beyond the two or three foreground grass stalks, giving the image a very shallow depth of field that faded smoothly to the background grasses.
When comparing the Olympus E-P1’s manual focus ability to that of the Sigma DP2, notable differences exist:
- Because the DP2 offers a dedicated focusing thumbwheel with precise stop and start points (0.28m and infinity), and the E-P1 offers a continuously turning manual focus dial on the lens, coarse focusing is much easier and faster on the DP2.
- MF Assist with the magnified focus display on the Olympus E-P1’s higher quality LCD make fine manual focus with the E-P1 more accurate than on the DP2. As much as other reviewers have criticized the "low-resolution" and "dim" screen of the E-P1, it would be a significant and welcome improvement for the DP1/DP2 user, offering a larger size, more pixels, and a lot brighter screen than on the Sigma cameras.
- Because the DP2 offers a zone focusing ruler on both a dedicated focusing thumbwheel (which can be seen from above the camera for discreet hip shooting) and its LCD screen (which can be seen from the rear of the camera), it is a more capable zone focusing camera than the E-P1.
In general, manual focus is a more enjoyable experience on the Sigma DP2, requires very little fiddling, and is intuitively operated by a dedicated thumbwheel. Unfortunately, the low quality LCD screen of the DP2 makes fine focusing less accurate at wide apertures and close subjects than with the E-P1. While the E-P1 can be fine focused to a high degree of accuracy, the process is more practical for slow photographers who have the patience to fiddle with it. Both fine and coarse focusing seem faster with the Sigma DP2.
Toggling Shooting Modes
In addition to full auto (iAUTO), program shift (P), scene (SCN), artistic (ART), and video modes, the E-P1 offers, most importantly, aperture priority (A), shutter priority (S), and manual (M) modes. These modes are toggled by a thumbdial that sits on the top left of the camera. The dial is recessed into the top plate of the camera (which some will say contributes to the E-P1’s aesthetic appeal and pocketability, perhaps) and thus is adjustable by sliding the knurled dial with your thumb. It’s more difficult to use with cold fingers than traditional protruding mode dials because you can only operate it with the thumb, instead of a thumb and forefinger.
A comparison of the mode dials between the Olympus E-P1 (top) and the Sigma DP2 (bottom). The Sigma DP2 hides most of its non-shooting related functions in a menu activated by setting its mode dial to SETUP, a brilliant feature. The Olympus E-P1 doesn’t have a particularly complex mode dial, certainly, but the camera’s simplicity could certainly be improved by discarding the gimmicky ART, SCENE, and iAUTO modes, and adding a SETUP mode to the dial. As a photographer with only a rudimentary understanding of exposure control, I still yearn for a digital camera that discards P and S modes and gives the shooter the options to shoot in full manual (M) or aperture priority (A) modes. The result would be the replacement of the mode dial with a shutter speed dial (with control of aperture on a lens ring), with an A setting on the shutter speed dial that would allow the camera to enter its aperture priority mode.
In contrast to the E-P1’s eight shooting mode dial positions, the Sigma DP2’s seven positions are a little different. In addition to P, A, S, M, and video modes (modes that also exist on the E-P1), the Sigma DP2 offers an audio capture mode and a setup mode. My suspicion is that few of us are interested in a dedicated audio capture mode as a core camera feature, and I wish Sigma would drop it in favor of a more capable video mode. However, that’s a small thing. A much bigger thing is Sigma’s brilliant SETUP mode. The SETUP mode is engaged for activating the camera’s setup menu – those functions that are rarely used (fourteen menu items are allocated in this mode). The benefit to this is that the resulting main camera menu that is engaged upon pressing the menu key while in a shooting mode is limited to essential functions related to shooting. The result is a vastly simpler menu system that gets big points for ease of use, something that seems completely foreign to Olympus, Panasonic, Canon, and Nikon these days. The E-P1 is no exception, and we’ll address its menu system later on in the review.
I long for the days when cameras were cameras instead of computers with lenses. Exposure control was managed by dials with tactile feedback and easily readable visual labels rather than by complicated configurations of nested button presses that lacked intuitive use and are nigh impossible to operate in the dark or with the LCD screen turned off (to save batteries while in the backcountry).
Manufacturers like to think they are appeasing us by offering so-called "multi-function" dials that spin and click and are capable of doing many different things. This does not seem to me to be a step in the right direction, but rather quite a lot more than a stone’s throw in the wrong direction from the simplicity, speed, and visual and tactile feedback of the dedicated shutter speed dials and lens aperture rings of yesterday. Well, yesteryear.
Adjusting aperture in either A or M modes on the Olympus E-P1 is a simple affair. A very usable thumbdial (with, thankfully, no button press option!) on the back of the camera allows one to easily change apertures. The dial is difficult to use with gloves, but easy to use with cold fingers. Unfortunately, visual feedback of the aperture value is limited to viewing on the LCD screen, but the poor quality of the LCD screen in bright light makes determination via visual feedback difficult.
The upper thumbdial (silver dial in the upper right) is the primary exposure controller on the Olympus E-P1, and is used to adjust aperture in A mode, shutter speed in S mode, and aperture in M mode. It works well, offers good tactile feedback, is located in the right location, and thankfully, doesn’t have a dual use function as a depressable button. The lower thumbwheel, however (black ring at lower right surrounding the AF, ISO, WB, frame advance, and OK buttons) is an ergonomic disaster that is difficult to use in normal environmental conditions, and frustrating with cold fingers. The wheel is extremely difficult to rotate without pressing one of the other feature buttons (i.e., AF, ISO, WB or frame advance).
Adjusting shutter speed in S mode is exactly the same as adjusting the aperture in A mode – you simply use the upper thumbdial. However, setting the shutter speed in M mode is a less simple and more aggravating affair, since the upper thumbdial is allocated to the aperture setting. Instead, a lower thumbwheel is used. Unlike the upper thumbdial, the lower thumbwheel has four clickable buttons embedded underneath it (up, down, right, and left), and these buttons are easily pressed accidentally while rotating the dial, thus opening the door to accidentally (and often, unknowingly) adjusting the ISO, AF mode, WB, or frame advance/self-timer. This lower dial provides poor tactile feedback due to a very small contact surface area and low relief knurlings and is thus nearly impossible to operate correctly with cold fingers. This was the single most maddening control that I experienced on the E-P1.
Adjusting ISO on the E-P1 is as simple as Olympus wants you to make it, or as complicated as you would like to choose to make it (sic). It requires that the ISO button be pressed once (note: the ISO button is the "up" button underneath the lower thumbwheel) to enter the ISO selection mode, followed by one of three ways to actually adjust the ISO (yes, three – no kidding – either the upper thumbdial, the lower thumbwheel, or the left/right buttons), and finally, pressing either the OK, Fn, playback, menu, info, exposure compensation, on/off, or half-pressed shutter buttons to confirm your selection4.
In addition (hang with me, we’re almost done), you can change ISO by pressing the menu button, scrolling down to the custom setup menu (which you have to activate elsewhere through more button pushes, since it’s not a default menu), button down to one of nine menu choices, then button down to one of another ten menu choices, and then select your ISO setting. Be careful, though, because the same buttons that allow you to confirm your ISO selection as described previously don’t work the same in this menu!
Oh, wait! There’s one more option for changing ISO. Pressing the OK button while in shooting mode activates so-called "Quicksets" or "Quick Menus." Using this method, the selection, setting, and confirmation of ISO is only as little as four to ten clicks away!
What choices we have for selecting something so simple as ISO! It’s like being able to take one of ten different but intersecting (and unsigned) trails to the same destination!
This technical "brilliance" (sic) in usability is not limited to the setting of ISO, of course. Similar paths can be chosen for AF mode, white balance, frame advance/self timer, and a host of other functions. Manufacturers will tout all of this as a usability feature, while the plethora of options and configurations and paths confuse beginners ("Why do we need to do this so many different ways?"), confound the pros ("Why do we need to do this so many different ways?"), and baffle those of us that place an extremely high priority upon simplicity and elegance of operation and design ("Why do we need to do this so many different ways?"). It makes me think that the usability engineers that designed these functions first selected one way of doing it, found that their focus groups couldn’t figure it out, so they added another dozen ways in the hopes that random and chaotic button clicking might eventually reach the desired result5.
And herein lies the primary problem with today’s digital camera design philosophy, which is almost universal among Panasonic, Olympus, Canon, Sony, and Nikon: feature vomit. And let me tell you, the E-P1 is bathed in it from head to toe, and it stinks.
Thankfully, there is a dedicated and clearly labeled ISO button, so the process is not too painful once you familiarize yourself with the camera. But the real pain is in knowing that there are at least three other ways to set the ISO, and these other ways complicate the menus and operation of the camera because they compete with your intelligence when you are searching for other functions buried in the menus that are not deserving of their own buttons.
How to set ISO on the Olympus E-P1. I cannot imagine, for the life of me, how any usability engineer could look at this diagram (which is entirely accurate) and feel pride in their ability to simplify the setting of a function that has such a fundamental impact on the quality of your photograph and type of exposure you create.
Adjusting exposure compensation is thankfully, a great deal simpler than adjusting ISO, and there are only two ways to do it (which is one too many, ahem). Next to the shutter button sits a small exposure compensation button (+/-). To set exposure compensation, you simply press this little button with your index (shutter) finger, and while holding it down, scroll the upper thumbdial left (to underexpose the image) or right (to overexpose it). As soon as you select the setting you want, you simply release the shutter finger from the exposure compensation button, and you’re ready to shoot.
Adjusting exposure compensation with the E-P1 requires that you hold the exposure compensation button on the top of the camera with your index finger, while rotating the upper thumbdial to adjust the setting. The process is simple and works well, and can be performed (thankfully) without immersing yourself into the complex menu structure of the camera’s software.
The only disadvantage to this method is that pressing, and then releasing, the exposure compensation button without adjusting the exposure compensation value, toggles the use of the upper dial between aperture adjustment (in A mode) or shutter speed adjustment (in S mode) and exposure compensation. So, you may think you are in A or S mode and are able to adjust either the aperture or shutter speed with the upper dial, but you may accidentally find yourself only able to adjust the exposure compensation. A click of the exposure compensation button toggles you back into either A or S adjustment mode for the upper dial. Confused? Just wait until you accidentally do this in the field under bright light when you can’t see the feedback of what’s going on in the LCD screen and you’re baffled at your camera’s behavior! Here’s another classic example where multiple possible behaviors from alternative uses of the same buttons can lead to confusion and unnecessary complexity. The potential secondary side effect is inciting wrath in a user seeking peace in the wilderness.
Apart from two dedicated +/- buttons (which some argue will be more complicated than this setup, especially since those buttons may be accidentally pressed), the hold-and-spin ergo may be the best system for adjusting exposure compensation that I’ve used in any camera, film or digital. Unfortunately, the fact that simply clicking the exposure compensation button toggles the upper dial function ranks this process right up there with the worst I’ve seen. Having more than one way of doing things is not necessarily the best and provides a strong argument for simplicity. Oh! How I yearn for a digital camera that will simply get out of my way so I can focus more on taking the photo than operating the instrument.
The only other manual function (in addition to exposure control, manual focus, and ISO setting) that I find essential in precise digital photography is that of separating autoexposure lock from autofocus lock. Fortunately, the Olympus E-P1 offers a dedicated AEL button for the thumb that can be held down (and, thankfully, unlike exposure compensation, not locked when clicked once!) to lock exposure while the scene is reframed for autofocus (activated with the half press of the shutter button), and then reframed again for composition. The process of separating AEL, AFL, and releasing the shutter is fluid, simple, and perfect on the E-P1.
For me, access to the self-timer function and the ability to adjust between its short-timer mode (2 seconds) and long-timer mode (10 seconds) easily are critical. I use short-timer modes for capturing scenes using slow shutter speeds on a tripod, I use long-timer modes for self-portraits, and I use both of them often – every day on every expedition I take.
To capture a photograph with the self timer, five or six presses involving three different buttons are required: first, press the bottom of the lower thumbwheel to enter the frame advance mode, then press the right side of the lower thumbwheel (or the upper thumbdial – with Canolypanasonikon, we have to have options, you know!) either three or four times to enter the 12s or 2s self timer modes, respectively, then press the OK button to confirm your selection. The process is repeated to exit the self timer mode, but instead requires only four or five presses of the same three buttons. Whew!
A similarly complicated button pushing fiasco is required to engage the self timer on the Sigma DP2. Apparently, progress comes slow. A-hem.
However, this is one area where the new Panasonic GF1 really shines. The frame advance mode is toggled by a real, live switch, located on the top of the camera. One control. It’s beautiful. But we’ll reserve assessing that in more detail until that review is published.
Reliability: Environmental Robustness
I know photographers that have never had a camera fail in the field, and I envy them.
I have not enjoyed the same experience. Perhaps I’m a little careless, or a little lazy, or a little hasty in my processes. Or maybe I’m just not lucky. I’ve fallen in a river and destroyed a Contax T3, I tripped over a tripod and cracked a Leica lens, and I’ve sent at least three compact digital cameras to the paperweight graveyard by exposing them to continuous rain and snow.
That’s why when I went to the Arctic in 2006, I left my Leica M, my DSLR, and even my Contax at home, in favor of a Pentax Optio W60i, a tiny and rugged waterproof camera. Reliability and battery life (which I calculated upon my return home to be more than 500 shots per ounce of spare batteries!) were absolutely the most important features when selecting a camera for that expedition. And while the images I captured there couldn’t compete on a technical level with a high-res scan from my Leica M3 shooting Velvia 50, or my DSLR, or the E-P1, I was still able to shoot a full page magazine spread for The Great Outdoors and record the sound of a howling wolf that aired on National Public Radio, in addition to the scores of photographs that effectively documented my expedition.
Therefore, when I evaluate a camera for environmental robustness, I look at moisture resistance (especially for winter trips, when snow seems to find its way into everything), dust resistance (especially for windy or desert environments), ruggedness and build quality (when I expect to hang the camera from a piece of AirCore around my neck while I bushwhack or scramble through desert canyons or mountain talus), and battery life (for long expeditions).
The Olympus E-P1 offers no unique resistance mechanisms to dirt and moisture, although it does have an ultrasonic mechanism for keeping the sensor clear of fine dust particles that may attach themselves while exchanging lenses in the field.
However, what does seem to be unique to the E-P1 that I’ve not found to be the case with any other camera (film or digital) other than perhaps a Leica M6-M8, is its solid build quality. There are no jiggly or moving parts, and the body seems to be meticulously engineered. What is immediately noticeable is its density. You really have the feeling that the internal parts inside the camera are well-protected, and that the metal body can protect the camera from bouncing around. The body of the E-P1 truly feels like a working man’s camera that is going to last a long time.
I can’t say the same for the two kit lenses that ship with the E-P1: the m.Zuiko 17/2.8 and the m.Zuiko 14-42/3.5-5.6. They have the plasticky feel of cheap goods that don’t inspire confidence when they are sticking out from the body of the camera while swinging on a neck strap.
Battery life on the E-P1 leaves a lot to be desired. Cold weather performance is abysmal and warm weather performance is marginal. This is worth serious consideration for long trips, because the E-P1 is not a pocketable camera, so batteries can’t be kept warm in the camera in a pocket like they can with a pocketable compact. Under my normal use, I’m getting around 100 to 200 shots (depending on temperatures, ranging from 20 F to 50 F) per ounce, and far less than that when shooting video. In comparison, I can get 200 to 400 shots per ounce of battery with the DP2 and 150 to 300 shots per ounce with the Panasonic GF1.
Versatility: Zoom, Creativity, and Video
I’m a prime lens kind of guy, and I’ve always adhered to the purist, if antiquated view, of allowing my own two legs to serve as the lens zoom. I was also borne into film photography with a Leica rangefinder, and it’s hard to let go of the perception that prime (non-zoom) lenses always afforded one with the ability to produce the best possible images.
However, I have to admit that there are situations where a modest zoom lens is awfully nice. I think it’s more important for compact cameras with small sensors (from which images cannot be aggressively cropped due to low image detail) than for cameras with larger sensors, but the ability to use small zoom ranges and effective scene framing saves some post processing time back home, and a little walking time in the field.
Therefore, when assessing the capabilities of the Olympus E-P1 in the context of producing images at different focal lengths, then it must be compared not only to compact cameras (with small sensors) with built in zoom lenses, but also to larger DSLRs.
When comparing the E-P1, and say, its m.Zuiko 14-42/3.5-5.6 kit lens, to a compact zoom camera, it’s clear that the E-P1 offers a substantial gain in image quality over most compact zooms. In fact, the difference in image quality between the E-P1 with a zoom lens attached and a compact zoom at an equivalent zoomed focal length may be more dramatic than the difference in image quality between the two cameras at short focal lengths: the larger lens will deliver more image information to the larger sensor and produce a better image. In most cases, the image quality will be noticeable in both high-res files online (1200-1600 pixels) and in modestly enlarged prints (8 x 10 and larger).
Therefore, it will be up to the individual user to decide for themselves whether or not the added weight and bulk of the Olympus E-P1 and a zoom lens will be worth the potential increase in image quality. If one shoots primarily landscapes, then I would argue that the benefit is small. If one shoots primarily portraits and desires the shallower depth of field that a mid-range zoom provides, then the advantage may be more significant. Likewise, if one shoots primarily wildlife, then the tradeoffs between weight and image quality become very significant, and the E-P1 starts to look like an attractive alternative to the DSLR, while offering much higher image quality than compacts.
One aspect of photographic imaging that is often lost on compact camera users is that of the creativity afforded to the photographer through various combinations of lenses and image controllers (camera bodies). The three most important controllable features, for which extremes do not exist in compact cameras, are aperture, shutter speed, and focal length.
Larger sensors combined with wide aperture lenses can create shallow depths of field that offer significant creative opportunities for the photographer, because of (a) the ability to shoot hand held in low light, and (b) the ability to isolate an in-focus subject from an out-of-focus background. Likewise, ultra-fast shutter speeds can be used to minimize the depth of field in bright light, and ultra-slow shutter speeds can open up options for starlight photography, or impart those silky looks to waterfalls we find on the trail. In addition, compact cameras often struggle with image quality in both macro, extreme wide angle, and telephoto photography, both of which can be strengths of the interchangeable lens camera, with the right lens.
To me, this is the single most important feature of cameras like the Olympus E-P1. The ability to combine the E-P1 with one of its four native lenses (two of which are on the market now, two more of which will be available in early 2010), or with an adapter, a wide variety of fast primes from Leica, Voigtlander, Olympus, and others, affords significant creative opportunities that are simply not available to compact camera users. For example, the m.Zuiko 9-18mm lens offers a very wide angle of view for dramatic landscapes, while the m.Zuiko 14-150mm lens offers a longish telephoto for wildlife photography. Unfortunately, Olympus has not fully convinced me that this type of creativity will happen soon for the E-P1. Missing from the lens line are lenses with very fast apertures (none exist that are less than f/2.8), and specifically, fast prime lenses. One promise of the Micro Four Thirds standard was to be the availability of fast, shorter focal length prime lenses that were lightweight and tiny. While the m.Zuiko 17mm f/2.8 gives us light and tiny, it fails to give us fast, and its image quality leaves a lot to be desired.
In addition to still image creativity, many of us are looking to replace two cameras in our kit (a still camera and a video camera) with a single camera capable of producing quality video as well. Long gone are the days where 640 x 480 video is acceptable, and we certainly want HD! The Olympus E-P1 doesn’t fail to deliver in this regard. It produces terrific HD video, and combined with the variety of creative lens options available for it, it can deliver cinematographic results that are nothing short of stunning. Missing from the E-P1’s video package, however, is the ability to capture more than ten minutes of video at a time (as a result of antiquated encoding standards), and the ability to capture audio via an external microphone.
I used to place a very low priority on gear value, demanding technical performance above all else. The current recession has changed my view. I keep more gear for a longer period of time, will elect to repair gear today that I would have replaced two years ago, and I no longer feel compelled to simply upgrade to the latest new thing simply because one exists.
Thus, my expectations for a digital camera are that it should last a pretty long time. Heck, I still love shooting my now-obsolete Ricoh GRD, which in spite of its shortcomings remains one of my favorite compact cameras. In addition – brace yourself now – it still produces images for online viewing and 8 x 10 prints that neither you, nor anyone else, could distinguish from my images taken with the larger and heavier E-P1! So, to me at least, my GRD has been a very high value camera.
The real value of the Olympus E-P1 is not in its ability to produce technically superior images when compared to existing cameras on the market. Nor is it in its ability to make photography easier or simpler (quite the contrary, in fact!). Nor is it in its ability to compete technically and aesthetically with a DSLR (it has no viewfinder, no built in flash, and is slower to use). The real value of the E-P1 is in its ability to offer creative imaging options, like a DSLR, for less weight and bulk. Unfortunately, because this is its primary selling point, and it lacks the simplicity, environmental robustness, and image superiority of smaller cameras like the Sigma DP2, its value proposition is questionable. A small and light DSLR can be purchased for less money while offering similar imaging performance for a weight penalty of less than a quarter of a pound, and a compact mid-size sensor camera can be purchase for less money while offering a package that is significantly smaller and lighter than the E-P1. In addition, the introduction of more compact mid-size sensor cameras, including the Pansonic GF1, the Leica X1, the Ricoh GXR, and the Samsung NX will muddy the waters further and will more than likely make the value proposition of the Olympus E-P1 an even tougher sell.
I used the Olympus E-P1 nearly every day for three months. I desperately wanted to fall in love with it. However, when the day was done, I listed the following things about the camera that absolutely drove me crazy:
- Disappointing image performance relative to my own personal baseline, the Sigma DP2. I was particularly disappointed by the E-P1’s 17mm f/2.8 kit lens, and its sensor/image processing performance when I combined it with my existing Leica and Voigtlander M-mount lenses.
- Insane levels of complexity in the menus, operations, and imaging gimmicks for JPG shooters. I sure do miss the dials of film cameras, the SETUP menu of the Sigma DP series cameras, and the utter simplicity of the Ricoh GRD series.
- Lack of water resistance. I currently carry two cameras on every trip. One of them is a Panasonic TS1, which offers full water resistance and decent image quality for it. I’m patiently waiting for the day where I can carry one camera with the assurance of exceptional image quality and reliability while I shoot in severely inclement weather.
- Lack of an external microphone jack. In a camera that shoots HD video, is this big, and is this heavy, I want an external mic jack!
- Less-than-effective manual focusing in bright light due to the dim LCD screen.
However, I’m not completely critical of the E-P1, and the things that I loved the most about the camera while shooting with it were:
- Exceptional build quality and ruggedness of the body.
- Very comfortable ergonomics in the hand.
- The option to carry camera and lenses with creative imaging options that weigh less than an equivalent DSLR kit.
In conclusion, I think the Olympus E-P1 is going to be a tough sell to the lightweight backpacking community accustomed to carrying compact cameras. If you carry a mid-size sensor compact, like the Sigma DP2, you probably do so for one reason: image quality. If you were to upgrade to the Olympus E-P1 and expected to achieve technical image quality significantly higher than the DP2, I think you’d be disappointed. On the other hand, if you carry a small sensor compact, you probably do so because the image quality it produces might be acceptable enough for your end uses: publishing photos online, or printing small enlargements, perhaps. For you, the Olympus E-P1 will simply be nothing more than a heavier, more expensive, and bulkier brick.
And so, I think the Olympus E-P1 might make sense to two groups of users: those who currently carry DSLRs, and those who carry compacts but want to increase the creativity of their image capturing. The Olympus E-P1 will certainly aggravate most avid DSLR users because of its lack of a viewfinder, lack of a built in flash, and slow operation (especially autofocus). However, I think you can get used to all of these things, and you’ll find yourself rather pleased that you’ll be able to have a "DSLR-like kit" in the backcountry for less weight and bulk.
Finally, I think those of you who carry compacts but want to increase the creativity of your image capturing will be thrilled by what the E-P1 and similar cameras have to offer. However, I’d caution you to wait and let the market mature. My next review will be detailing the E-P1’s primary direct competitor: the Panasonic GF1, and there’s more on the horizon, including the next upgrade from Olympus, the long awaited E-P2 (which includes an electronic viewfinder and an option for an external microphone).
It is difficult to identify strengths and weaknesses for cameras because the strength of one camera for one photographer might present itself as a weakness to another. Consequently, the recommendations I make herein for "improving" the E-P1 are based primarily on how they might serve my needs first, and possibly, the needs of others who adhere (perhaps too rigidly!) more to an ethos of lightweight backpacking and less to an ethos of photography. In that context, then, I make the following recommendations for improving the E-P1:
- 1. Simplify the functions, menus, options, button pressing, and customizability – dramatically!
- Focus on the development of wide, fast prime lenses in a pancake format. The 17mm m.Zuiko lens is a perfect complement to the E-P1, but its quality and slow speed (f/2.8) leave a lot to be desired.
- Improve bright light performance by including a higher quality LCD and an optical viewfinder (OVF) in the camera, not as an external accessory (with focus coupling for MFT lenses, like a rangefinder!). This combination might be more useful than a low-resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF).
- Improve focusing speed.
- Create manual switches and controls for the most used exposure control parameters (aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, and frame advance) and simplify access to often used parameters such as ISO.
- Add a 1/8" microphone jack so higher quality audio can be coupled with HD video.
- Create a weather-sealed camera that can at least accommodate use in sustained rain and snow.
- Put a sensor in this camera that focuses on detail resolution and more robust color tonality, perhaps at the expense of high ISO noise and dynamic range.
A camera with the endearing and rugged form factor of the Olympus E-P1 that addressed items #1-6 above would result in a camera for which I’d give a Recommended rating. A camera that addressed these items in addition to #7 and #8 would certainly stand on its own and be unique enough to warrant a Highly Recommended rating, and one for which I’d happily trade my Sigma DP2 for the added weight and bulk.
Gallery of Images
I think it’s important to close with something positive about the E-P1. As I write this review, I have a dozen cameras in front of me. The one that feels the best in my hand is the Olympus E-P1. Its form really is beautiful, and that aesthetic has been a redeeming quality of the camera that, in the field, allows it to overcome some of its shortcomings. For creative snapshooting, when I want the creative qualities of certain lenses, without worrying too much about the finest details of imaging performance or the lack of simplicity in the underlying menu structure, I really do enjoy photographing with the E-P1. That in and of itself is a very important quality to a camera. The tactile feedback you get from holding a camera, framing a scene, focusing the lens, adjusting the shutter speed, and releasing the shutter – this is as important to my photographic experience as developing the images in Photoshop upon my return home. To that end, the E-P1 does not disappoint, and it is that feature alone that distinguishes the E-P1 from the vast majority of digital cameras on the market today.
So, I hope that the following gallery of images leaves you with some confidence at the E-P1’s ability to capture beautiful photographs – ones that I will enjoy looking at for a very long time.
These photographs have been processed in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop to my tastes based on how I wanted to convey the look of the scene to the viewer. If you are looking for out of camera images, they are available elsewhere on the Web, en masse, and publishing more of those here would do little to enhance the conclusions in this review. I never look at a single camera as an island technology in my overall digital workflow, but rather, as an integrated component of a larger whole out of which I demand what is most important to me in the end: an image that I’m proud to have framed, captured, and developed on my own.
Click an image below to view the image gallery.
Gallatin River Fog Lifting. The Gallatin River is one of Montana’s most scenic rivers. It flows out of Yellowstone National Park as a meandering meadow stream in a high valley that is commonly engulfed in fog during early summer mornings. This is one of the most beautiful images I captured with the E-P1 (with the m.Zuiko 14-42/3.5-5.6 lens), balancing the blue sky and water very well with the green foliage and white clouds without dramatic casting or contamination.
Causey Headwater. Causey Reservoir near Ogden, UT is a haven for stillwater boating, fishing, and high desert hiking. Chase and I explored the intimate and lush depths of its creek inlets in July via packraft. When greens dominate the scene, the E-P1 and the m.Zuiko 14-42/3.5-5.6 captures them well, but subtle green casts of color on the rocks had to be removed using a layer mask in Photoshop.
Uinta Brook Trout. There may be no trout more inviting to photograph than a brook trout, like this one from a high mountain lake in Utah’s western Uintas. The E-P1 struggles with subtle greens, like the body on the trout in this photograph. I boosted green color a little using a layer mask in Photoshop. Lens: m.Zuiko 14-42/3.5-5.6.
Columbine. Columbine may be the universal mountain flower of the West. One disadvantage of Olympus’ current Micro Four Thirds lens lineup is the lack of fast lenses that can create shallow depth of field. Even when isolating a flower with the m.Zuiko 14-42/3.5-5.6 lens at 42mm and f/5.6, the background is too busy for my tastes.
Lake Tenkara. Chase and I spent the summer practicing Tenkara fly fishing techniques on both streams and lakes. Olympus cameras are well known for their ability to capture images where rich blue skies and water dominate the scene, but the camera and lens combination proved completely incapable at capturing the true color of Chase’s stark red shirt, notoriously one of the most difficult colors to produce with any of my cameras. I think I should just get him a new shirt. Lens: m.Zuiko 14-42/3.5-5.6.
Talus field in the Western Uintas. These are the types of images that mean the most to me, and any camera I use must afford me the ability to candidly capture them. For this image, I prefocused the E-P1 using manual focus so I could focus on framing the shot without worrying about autofocus lag. This image has been slightly desaturated in Photoshop to calm down that darn red shirt. Lens: m.Zuiko 14-42/3.5-5.6.
Cottonwood Meadows. One of my all time favorite hiking destinations within twenty miles of my house. This was the same location of Episode 3 of "24," but it looks rather different in the movie because of the snow! In early summer, the meadows and forests offer a range of greens that are a spectacle to behold. This type of image is where the high dynamic range of the E-P1 really shines. You can pull a lot of detail out of dark shadows, especially when they are dominated by single color shades (greens in this image). I equalized tonal range in this image using layer masks to brighten and darken selective areas, instead of reverting to high dynamic range techniques, which often look unnatural. Lens: m.Zuiko 17/2.8.
Tobacco Root Sunset. One of my favorite features of Micro Four Thirds cameras is their ability to accept (with adapters) my M-mount lenses. This photograph was captured with a Voigtlander Super-Heliar 15/4.5, which renders sky colors with what some photographers call "creaminess." Unfortunately, the E-P1 offers no in-camera image processing that is optimized for third-party lenses, so don’t expect your photographs to look the same on the E-P1 as they do on your Leica M.
Garnet Mountain Lookout. Here’s another one taken with a Voigtlander lens – this time the 35/1.4 Nokton. That this camera and lens can deliver this kind of color information to the sensor of the E-P1 is remarkable to me, and one of the greatest advantages of cameras with larger sensors, and lenses with quality optics. Whenever I’ve tried to capture these types of images with small sensor cameras, they are fraught with noise, ungainly lens flare, muddy shadows, and poor dynamic range.
Pyramid at Hyalite. Clouds were breaking in the wake of a storm, bringing bright sunshine as well as shade on the mountains beyond, and creating a shaded foreground. The dynamic range of this image was too high to be captured by the E-P1, so I exposed the image as dark as possible without clipping highlights. I then used a layer mask in Photoshop to draw out detail in the dark areas of the image, and was very pleased with the noise-free results and rich colors that resulted. Lens: m.Zuiko 17/2.8.
1 To produce the image, I captured the photograph (with the camera on a tripod) at ISO 200 and f/5.6 as a RAW file (with shutter speed set to an EV value as low as possible without clipping highlights). It’s worth noting that all images were captured at an aspect ratio of 3:2, and because I was shooting with prime lenses that had slight differences in 35mm equivalent fields of view, I usually engaged my legs a little bit for zooming in and out so each camera captured the same scene, to avoid focal length artifacts that would have biased the capture of scene details. Images were imported into Photoshop CS4 through Adobe Camera Raw 5.5 with no sharpening or other preset adjustments (other than normalization of white balance). Once in CS4, I applied curve correction to distribute luminance across the entire dynamic range. I exported the images as 8-bit TIFF files (without upsampling the Sigma DP2’s 4.7MP image size to produce the same resolution as the 12MP E-P1 and GF1), and sent it to a professional lab for printing, with no modifications performed by the lab.