Hands on: Olympus Pen E-P1 review

25th Jun 2009 | 08:40

Hands on: Olympus Pen E-P1 review

Is the retro-chic EP-1 a camera concept too far?

Intro

It's not often that you see a piece of cutting-edge technology take the guise of a gadget that was around 50 years ago, but that is exactly what we have with the Olympus Pen E-P1.

Designed to emulate the look and feel of the Pen series of cameras first released by Olympus in 1959, the E-P1 is stunning proof that the Micro FourThirds format has changed (near) SLR photography for the good forever.

Straight out of the box, the camera impresses. The brilliantly constructed chassis has the feel and look of a Pen; compact yet sturdy, light yet solid in the hand.

The obvious difference is that unlike the original fixed-lens Pen cameras, the E-P1 makes use of interchangeable lenses, more on which we will mention later.

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RETRO COOL: The E-P1 takes its look for the Pen cameras of the Sixties

The controls on the camera's body are kept to a minimum and don't jump out at you on first glance. The most striking is the sunken Mode dial, which can only be controlled by an old-school click-wheel on the back of the camera.

As it's so close to the top lip of the LCD screen, this can take a while to master, sometimes slipping away from your thumb before you have clicked to the right setting. A bit of force and more dextrous finger-play and you'll soon get the hang of it.

Connectivity

Olympus 5CONNECTIVITY: On the camera there's a mini-HDMI USB slot

Dominating the back of the camera is the ample-sized LCD screen. At three inches, the screen is plenty big enough to view your images and take your shots with. As it's a HyperCrystal display, it's bright too (and LiveScreen) but don't go expecting touchscreen as all the controls are situated to the right of the display.

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CLICK-WHEEL: The button layout is simple, with a click wheel dominating

You have four button options down the right-hand side of the camera's back: AEL/AFL, Playback, Delete and Menu. Next to these are an Fn and Info button, and then you have a circular option button for ISO, autofocus, multiple shooting and white balance.

For the more experience photographer, there are numerous ways you can tweak your shots.

Click the Okay button, found on the back of the camera, and you are confronted with a veritable wall of options. Here picture sized can be changed (large, medium or small with the option to stay with the RAW file format for all sizes), autofocus meddled with and ISO can be tweaked with - up 6400.

There are myriad more options available and all are accompanied with a helpful graphic so even the uninitiated should be able to delve in and have a play.

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SD CARD: The SD card slot for the camera is hidden at the bottom

Menu options

For even more options, click on the Menu button (also found on the back of the camera) and here you will be able to change Picture modes, Gradation, and even which way the dial direction goes.

While it's always easy to lose your way among myriad menu screens, the E-P1 seems intuitive and if you do change something you shouldn't have, the Custom Reset option is easy to find.

The final piece of furniture on the back of the camera is a horizontal zoom mechanism, which is a bit cumbersome to use. Maybe we are used to the zoom being part of the shutter button, but it just didn't feel quite right.

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MODE DIAL: Sunken into the camera, the Mode dial is flipped from the back

Moving to the top of the E-P1 there's the aforementioned sunken Mode dial. Sporting eight options, here you can whiz through the many photo modes available, including Auto, the customisable Programme Auto and Manual shooting. For the creatives, there's a number of filter options under the guise of Art Filters.

Here you can pimp your images to look like Pop Art, Grainy Film and even Soft Focus. Not one for imaging purists, then, but fun all the same. Scene mode is what you expect from a digicam (there's 19 'scenes' available) with things like Night+Portrait, Children and Macro present.

Next to Mode dial is a hotshoe. This is for either the Flash accessory that's sold separately or an optional optical viewfinder. The latter works well, considering the camera is based around LiveView technology. On the right-hand side, there's the power and shutter button.

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LENS OPTIONS: While we used a pancake lens, a zoom one is available

Performance

When it comes to performance, the E-P1 is a workhorse. Using the 17mm pancake lens, we found the camera a breeze to use. In fact, you could kid yourself into thinking that what you have in your hand is a simple point-and-shoot compact.

And that is the beauty of the camera. It's a DSLR (well, as close as you can get with the mirrorless micro FourThirds system) in a compact body, one that will be desirable to both the pros and first-time snappers.

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HOTSHOE: The hotshoe can be used for a flash or optical viewfinder

Manual focus was a breeze, the pancake lens ring is smooth and somewhat satisfying when used. If you want a bit of zoom action, then there's also a 14-42mm zoom available.

The 12.3MP Live MOS sensor works will with the camera's TruePic V processing, with shots looking both vibrant and crisp.

HD movies

One of the best features on the camera is the HD movie function. Shooting 720p clips in five-minute bursts is a satisfying experience and the light nature of the camera means that you can be as experimental as you like with your shots. Couple this with PCM stereo recording and there's definitely some professional moviemaking tools at your disposal with the E-P1.

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COMPACT CAM: The E-P1 has a brilliantly compact body

Whether the Olympus Pen E-P1 is a one-off camera, never to be reproduced again remains to be seen. But from our hands-on, Olympus' homage to its 50-year-old film equivalent is a superb effort – both in the style and substance stakes. The camera is a joy to use, and the detail Olympus has put into making the camera as retro as possible is superb; down to leather-style strap and matching slip case.

In our short time with the camera, it's plain to see that this is exactly how the micro FourThirds technology should be used. And with a price tag of just £599 (body only) there's definitely going to be interest in the camera from seasoned pros and newcomers to the DSLR world.

Just ask renowned photographer David Bailey, who is helping to launch the cameras at Jessops flagship store in London on 25 June. And if he's giving it the thumbs-up, then who are we to argue?

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