A First Look at the Olympus E-P1 'Digital Pen' | B&H Photo Video Pro Audio
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A First Look at the Olympus E-P1 'Digital Pen'

Olympus Puts Substance Behind the Word 'New'

Text & Photos by Allan Weitz

When word got out we were going to have samples of the new Olympus E-P1 Micro-4/3 camera at our store a day after it was announced, one rabid Olympus fan hopped into his car and drove 1 ½-hours into Manhattan and blew through the doors only to find out the folks from Olympus had left for the day. Undaunted, he hightailed out the door, spotted the Olympus posse heading up the block, ran up to them and literally begged to see the camera. According to reliable sources this poor guy had tears in his eyes as he coddled the new camera.

These days, with 'newly enhanced' cameras debuting as often as the flavor of the week, it takes a very special product to create the kind of buzz the Olympus E-P1 (a.k.a. the 'Digital Pen') has brought to our sales counters. And the new camera is indeed buzz-worthy.

Olympus E-P1 with 17/2.8 M.Zuiko 'Pancake' Lens & EV-1 Finder

Fifty Years in the Making

The thought process behind the E-P1 goes back to 1959, when Olympus introduced the original half-frame Olympus Pen as an alternative to the heavier SLRs of the day. Instead of 36 (24x36mm) horizontal images per roll of film, the new camera captured 72 (24x18mm) vertical images (same format used for 35mm motion pictures) in a camera that was noticeably smaller, lighter, and supported by a wide selection of sharp, interchangeable lenses. The camera quickly attracted a loyal following of photo enthusiasts and is still cherished by many to this day.

The E-P1 accomplishes the same size-reduction feat without sacrificing image quality. Instead of halving the size of the 4/3 sensor and turning it sideways, the engineers designed a DSLR minus the mirror housing and prism assembly. By removing these 2 components it was possible to design a lens mount with a circumference 6mm narrower than the original 4/3-format lens mount and half the distance between the rear lens element and the imaging sensor.

The result can be described as a grown up point-and-shoot with DSLR attributes including interchangeable lenses and enough imaging resolution to satisfy the needs of all but the most critical of photographic applications. Physically, the E-P1 measures 4.9 x 2.8. x 1.4", and weighs 0.9lb including a battery & memory card. The E-P1 contains the same 12.3-megapixel 4/3-format (18 x 13.5mm) Live MOS sensor found in the Olympus Evolt E-30 and E-620, but with a more efficient low-pass filter. The Digital Pen also contains the new TruPic V image processor, which combined with the improved low-pass filter delivers lower aberration image files, better low-light image quality, and the ability to capture hi-def video.

Composing, Viewing, and Editing

For composing images, viewing them post-capture, and menu browsing, the E-P1 features a fixed 3" HyperCrystal LCD (230,000-dot), which, like most current LCDs does a fine job at each of these chores under all but the harshest of sunlight. (A tiltable, 920,000-dot screen would be far more fitting for a camera of this caliber, but such is life.) The default aspect ratio for the E-P1 is 4:3, and can be changed to 3:2, 6:6, or 16:9 depending on your needs.

The camera's LCD also serves as your command center with a full-screen display of most all camera functions that can be called up by pressing the menu button. When selecting shooting modes, a brief description and sample image appears on the screen to illustrate the type of scene each mode is optimized for with fonts and icons that are well designed and easy to decipher. One particularly useful LCD-related feature is the Leveling tool, which displays a series of hash marks along a line that runs across the bottom of the LCD that increases left or right of the center point of the line if you veer off-level from the horizontal plane.

Design & Usability

From an operational standpoint, the E-P1 contains a smart blend of analog and digital controls. The exposure mode wheel is designed flush to the top plate, with just enough of the wheel jutting through the back plate for easy thumbing. The camera's dual control wheels and function buttons are equally easy to read and navigate. A stainless-steel body plate that wraps around the entire camera body compliments the E-P1's sturdy aluminum chassis. Overall, the EP1 feels good in the hand and is intuitive to use.

The E-P1 incorporates an 11-area AF system (25-area with Face Detection) and a 49-Zone multi-pattern TTL metering system that can be set to Center-weighted average, 2% Spot, Digital ESP, and a choice of Shadow or Highlight-based Spot metering.

Aside from Single-frame still imaging, you can shoot 3fps in Continuous mode for a burst of up to 10 frames in RAW, and about 12fps for large JPEGs depending on the file size. Shutter-speeds range from 60-seconds through 1/4000 (30-minutes in Bulb), with a flash sync from 1/30th to 1/180th. You also have 11 choices of White Balance settings including Auto, Auto Bracketing, & Kelvin (2000-14000K), as well as fine-tune adjustments for the Red-Blue and Green-Magenta channels to help minimize color aberrations.

Stills & HD Video

Stills can be captured as JPEGs (7 compression ratios), RAW, or a combination of the two. In addition to Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, Program, and Manual exposure modes, the E-P1 features a total of 19 Scene modes including an iAUTO mode that analyzes the lighting and compositional characteristics of your image and automatically chooses the best settings based on the subject matter (portrait, landscape, etc). When shooting portraits you can also set the camera to ePortrait mode, which optimizes the exposure settings for natural skin tones and smoother facial features.

Unlike the original Olympus Pen, which was strictly a film-shooting still camera, the E-P1 Digital Pen can also capture HD video (1280x720 or 640x480 @ 30fps) in bursts up to 7-minutes in length (14-minutes in STD mode) with a 1/12 compression rate. And while there is currently a choice of extremely fine HD video-enabled DSLRs on the market, the E-P1 is the only one that maintains full autofocus functionality in video mode.

(Because of the technical realities involved in shooting video with DSLRs currently manufactured by Canon, Nikon, and Pentax, you must pre-focus the lens before shooting video and/or manually focus the lens while filming, which requires a bit of practice to perfect.)

With the E-P1 Digital Pen, stills and video can be captured with equal ease. Video shooters will also appreciate the ability to change the lens aperture while shooting in order to increase or decrease the depth-of-field on the fly or compensate for changing ambient light levels. Combine these features with an incredibly broad choice of optics mountable on the E-P1 and you have the making of a seriously creative HD video capture device.

It's also possible to edit your video clips in-camera as well as combine stills and video together complete with fades, transitions, and other basic video-editing tools. You also have the option of capturing a full-resolution still image at the end of each video sequence. For additional special effects, 6 in-camera Art Filters (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale & Light Color, Light Tone, Grainy Film, and Pinhole) can be applied to stills and video clips alike.


Linear PCM Stereo Sound

The audio abilities of the E-P1 are also impressive by competitive standards. Built-in stereo microphones record uncompressed Stereo PCM/16bit, 44.1kHz audio for true, hi-fidelity sound recording. Audio tracks can also be added post-capture to both stills and video files. And for times imagination eludes you, the E-P1 contains a selection of themed 'mood music' composed specially for the new camera that you can slice and dice into your videos.

Dust Reduction and Image Stabilization

The E-P1 features a Dust Reduction system that shakes dust particles from the front of the low-pass filter via ultrasound technology. Particles that fall away from the sensor assembly are then captured by strips of sticky material attached along the base of the sensor.

It's important to always keep in mind the E-P1 lacks a mirror box, which means the sensor is directly exposed to the elements every time you remove the lens. For this reason it would be a good idea to always aim the camera downwards when changing lenses (dust falls down, not up or sideways) and turn your back to the wind when swapping glass outdoors. And for gosh sakes keep your fingers out of the sensor chamber.

The E-P1 features in-camera mechanical image stabilization, which enables up to 4-stops of stabilization when shooting stills under poor lighting conditions. This function works fluently with Micro 4/3-format lenses and equally well with either a standard 4/3-format or non 4/3-format optics used on the E-P1 via adapters. The camera's IS system also takes into consideration the focal length of the lens when computing the degree of IS needed to maintain image sharpness. This information is gathered electronically when using 4/3 and Micro 4/3 lenses, and can be entered manually when adapting lenses from other manufacturers.

(Note- In video mode image stabilization is accomplished digitally instead of mechanically).

In order to maintain a compact size, the designers nixed a built-in flash. Now before you start grumbling about the lack of a built-in flash, keep in mind the E-P1 contains an intelligent IS system good for up to 4-shutter speeds of shake dampening, and like a rangefinder camera, the E-P1 doesn't have a mirror slapping up and down each time you trigger the shutter. Keeping these factors in mind, the E-P1 should prove to be a trustworthy camera for capturing sharp images under less-than-desirable lighting conditions.

For times you do need a bit of artificial daylight, Olympus offers the FL-14 Flash, which sports a low profile, a guide number of 14 (@ISO 200), and will deliver about 80 shots from a set of AAA batteries. Recycling time is about 5-seconds, and it an be set to TTL-Auto, Auto, and Manual. The FL-14 is finished in an aluminum casing that matches the finish of the E-P1. The E-P1 is also compatible with all Olympus E-system TTL flashguns.

During our brief hands-on intro to the new camera, we had a chance to shoot with both of the new Micro-4/3 lenses, as well as an Olympus 8mm f/3.5 Fisheye ED Zuiko and an Olympus 40-150mm f/4-5.6 Zuiko ED zoom lens using the MMF-1 lens adapter. The results from each of these lenses were equally impressive.

8mm f/3.5 Fisheye ED Zuiko
17mm f2.8 M.Zuiko 'Pancake' Lens
40-150mm f/4-5.6 Zuiko ED

Older Olympus OM-series manual-focus lenses can also be adapted to the Digital Pen using the optional MF-2 lens adapter. Because OM-series lenses lack the ability to communicate with the camera body, you loose some metering functionality (Manual & Aperture-priority only) and some data display on the LCD. But you do maintain full image stabilization and the ability to manually enter the lens's focal length for additional stability with longer optics. The same holds true for all other non-4/3-system optics you may chose to mount on the E-P1. Optically-speaking, there's zero compromise.

Kits, Micro-4/3 Optics, Standard 4/3 Optics, and Everybody Else's Optics

The Olympus E-P1 is available as a body-only in Silver

, bundled with a 17mm/f2.8 M.Zuiko 'pancake' lens with matching VF-1 optical finder (Silver body/Silver lens), or with an M.Zuiko 14-42mm/f3.5-5.6 zoom lens in a choice of Silver body/Silver lens, Silver body/Black lens, or a limited-edition White body/Silver lens. Both of these M.Zuiko Micro-4/3 kit lenses compliment the compactness of the E-P1 camera body. The 17mm pancake lens protrudes less than an inch from the camera, and the 14-42mm zoom collapses to half its working size (1.6") when not in use.

In addition to the above-mentioned Micro-4/3 M.Zuiko optics, the Digital Pen is compatible with all 4/3-format optics when used with the optional MMF-1 4/3 lens adapter. Currently there's a variety of fixed and zoom 4/3 optics available in a choice of focal lengths ranging from 7 through 800mm (1.5° - 114° AOV) that maintain full functionality with the E-P1. To learn more about 4/3-System optics click here.

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