Olympus PEN £600

1st Jan 2010 | 11:31

Olympus PEN

The micro four thirds range from Olympus

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Olympus PEN reviews

The timing of Olympus' Pen E-P1 launch wasn't a coincidence. It's 50 years since Olympus launched the original Pen, a revolutionary 'half-frame' camera that was eventually developed into an SLR with a 'porro-finder' rather than a conventional pentaprism, a design which resurfaced in the Olympus E-300 and E-330.

There's another non-coincidence here, too – the original Pen was a half-frame format (half a 35mm frame), and the Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds format is half-frame too.

Olympus cameras have quite a heritage, and the company exploited it to the full in the design of the PEN E-P1, its first Micro Four Thirds camera. The styling echoes the old chrome-and-leather look of the original Pen cameras, but the technology inside is pure 21st century.

More PEN cameras

Since the PEN E-P1 came out, Olympus has fleshed out the PEN range with both the PEN E-P2 and the more affordable PEN E-PL1.

We've got reviews of all three original Olympus PEN cameras right here:

And in 2011, three new Olympus PEN cameras were launched. We've also reviewed these:

Olympus PEN E-P1 review

Olympus e-p1 front

olympus pen

Olympus PEN E-P1 reviewolympus pen

The Olympus PEN E-P1 pre-production mock-up first shown by Olympus at Photokina in 2008 was very different to this, with a classical square shape, but modern, minimalist lines. If you were hoping the finished camera would look like that one, then the E-P1 could be a mild disappointment.

The body itself does have the broad feel of the original Pen series, except for the controls, but the 14-42mm kit lens seems quite out of place. It's not the same as the 14-42mm lens supplied with Olympus's E-series DSLRs. This one is a Micro Four Thirds version with a much shorter back-focus – and also a much more complicated mechanism.

To keep the design compact Olympus has introduced a 'parking' system for closing the lens down to more portable size. That's all very well, but it's a bit of a nuisance having to remember to 'unpark' it before you can use it.

And once it's extended it looks every bit as long as the standard Four Thirds kit zoom, and a good deal less pretty, with a double-barrelled extension and a small front element which rotates during focusing, so filters could be tricky.

Olympus e-p1 top

The alternative to this is Olympus's fixed focal length 14mm f/2.8 'pancake' lens, and this will look more in keeping with the camera's design, even if it is more limited. The other advantage of the pancake lens is that you can get a clip-on optical viewfinder to go with it, though that does cost extra.

At the moment, these are the only two lenses for this camera. You can use conventional Four Thirds lenses via an adaptor, though this too is extra. As is the dedicated external flash, which you may well need because the E-P1 doesn't have one built in.

Now then, the controls. Those on Olympus DSLRs are excellent, but here the designers have gone for something very different. The main dial is a rotating ring around the outside of the navipad on the back of the camera – a design now common on Canon compacts, for example.

The trouble is that the amount of pressure needed to get a proper grip on the knurled edge with your thumb is more than enough to press the directional buttons by mistake instead. These controllers just aren't effective, and the sooner camera designers figure this out the better.

Olympus e-p1 controls

Fortunately, you'll soon work out that you can use the directional buttons instead, and that these do everything the spinning dial does anyway. Or you can use the secondary controller at the top right, a kind of knurled metal cylinder. It's not as easy to use as a conventional finger-operated control dial, but it's a lot better than the main dial.

Olympus hasn't pushed the boat out with the LCD. The size is fine, but the resolution is pretty modest, especially given this camera's price. 230,000 pixels is all right, but given that this is the camera's primary viewing system, couldn't they have stretched to one of the newer 920,000 pixel displays we're starting to see on the better DSLRs?

You have to admire Olympus for producing such an attractive, classically-designed body, not to mention a whole new concept in digital camera design. But it's let down by its controls, which make it more awkward to use. The AF needs to be faster, too.

The EP-1's ergonomics may be unexpectedly irritating, but its image quality is remarkable. The definition is as good as you could expect from any APS-C format digital SLR. Indeed, despite the difference in megapixels, it's a little sharper than the 14MP Sony A380.

What's more, the Olympus kit lens has below average levels of distortion and chromatic aberration and much better than average edge sharpness and consistency across both the aperture and the zoom range.

The auto white balance system is very good, as is the exposure system. The E-P1 does tend to clip bright skies in outdoor shots, though it does seem slightly less prone to this than earlier Four Thirds models, and other cameras are guilty of this too.

Olympus e-p1 front

Olympus seems to have made great strides with the other one-time weakness of Four Thirds sensors – high-ISO performance. Admittedly, the E-P1's ISO 6400 maximum is a step too far, and it's a bit dodgy at ISO 3200 too, but at ISO 1600 it's very good by any standards.

The E-P1's JPEGs have a bright, clean look characteristic of Olympus Four Thirds cameras, and let's not forget the six 'Art' filters supplied with the camera.

Actually, we'll forget four of them and concentrate on the two really good ones: 'Pin Hole' and 'Grainy Film'. The Pin Hole effect adds a strong vignette effect and a sepia colour shift which, between them, produce a really attractive 'retro' look. And while the Grainy Film effect is a bit too contrasty, and has a pretty crude approach to grain simulation, it produces striking, gritty mono shots.

The E-P1 is an unusual camera with undeniable appeal but rather too many laws. And if it's serious about prising open a Micro Four Thirds sized gap in the digital camera market, this seems a pretty odd camera to do it with.

For:

  • Glorious performance
  • Great features

Against:

  • Awkward controls
  • More lenses needed
  • Lens build is a bit cheap

olympus pen

Olympus PEN E-P2 review

E-P2 1

olympus pen

Olympus PEN E-P2 reviewolympus pen

Olympus has a history of making mesmerising ad campaigns, but its latest for its Olympus PEN E-P2 camera is probably the most memorable since the "Who do you think you are? David Bailey?" ads from the 1980s.

The new pitch, fronted by Hollywood superstar Kevin Spacey, is more thought provoking.

It urges the current generation of digital photographers to get more serious with their picture-taking. "I don't want to take 300,000 same-old pictures that break my hard drive," says Spacey. "I want to take three that break my heart." But can the PEN live up to this creative promise?

The second-generation version of the camera certainly comes a lot closer to this lofty ideal.

The new E-P2 is, in many ways, a simple update to the original E-P1 – and much of the camera stays the same. But the new black and silver affair is 10 times closer to allowing you to be a serious photographer, and less like a tourist, than the original.

The big change is that the camera kit now comes with a clip-on electronic viewfinder (EVF) that enables you to use the PEN at eye level, rather than forcing you to use the large LCD screen at the back.

This not only pays dividends in bright light, where the three-inch display is unusable, but you can concentrate better on the wealth of exposure information the camera provides you with.

The VF-2 viewfinder attachment slots into the hotshoe, creating a large bulge on top of the otherwise old-fashioned looking camera.

You can take it off to make the PEN smaller, but for those who want to pursue Spacey's promise, it is essential to leave it on. You can switch to the larger screen with just one press of a button, and the eye-level finder can tilt up through 90° for shooting subjects at awkward angles.

E-P2 viewfinder

Flexible lens mount

Unlike other high-end compacts, the advantage of the PEN is that the lenses are interchangeable.

It uses the Micro Four Thirds lens mount – also used by several popular Panasonic models. The available range of lenses for this camera is growing fast and, thanks to adaptors, the PEN can be used with a surprisingly large number of lenses from other manufacturers, too.

The E-P2 kit comes with a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens, which gives the angle of view of an old-fashioned 28-85mm (thanks to the 2x crop factor).

This lens's party trick is that it concertinas down to half its working length when you've finished using it, keeping the camera looking as sleek and miniature as possible.

E-P2 top

Although it shares similarities, the PEN is not technically an SLR – there's no mirror mechanism.

The eye-level viewfinder provides a video feed, rather than an optical view through the lens. This is similar to the system used on the Panasonic G1 and GH1, but here the viewfinder is not built-in, so the basic body is significantly smaller and lighter.

The changes introduced in the updated PEN have, no doubt, been influenced by the introduction of a third Panasonic model, the GF1, which brought about the concept of the clip-on electronic viewfinder.

This viewfinder proves particularly useful when using one of the manual focus modes. As soon as you turn the focus ring, the display zooms into the centre of the image, allowing you to adjust the sharpness accurately.

The focus is servo-assisted, so isn't particularly quick to use. However, as the camera's autofocus system isn't especially fast or accurate, this is a godsend for telephoto or macro shots.

Olympus PEN EP-2: Features

E-P2 front

As mentioned, the Micro Four Thirds system works in a different way to a conventional SLR.

The system avoids the need for a mirror and pentaprism, so Olympus can get away with smaller camera bodies and smaller lens mounts – so this camera immediately scores points for combining portability with flexibility.

Another big advance from last year's PEN is the inclusion of an electronic viewfinder (EVF).

So, you can frame the image at eye level rather than having to do everything via the rear LCD, as you would with a cheap compact. The new EVF is really good, crisp and clear, and a massive help in poor light, where it's really hard to see the rear screen. The EVF also really helps when shooting with one of the manual focus modes.

Turn the focus ring and the display zooms right into the centre of the image, enabling you to focus accurately.

Decent ISO performance

ISO performance is good under 1600, though cynics would argue it has to be, seeing as flash doesn't come as standard.

The basic setup means you even lose the ability to add flash to fill in the shadows. In terms of features and handling, however, the E-P2 compares extremely well to most budget digital SLRs – you get the full range of exposure and focusing modes.

Use Aperture Priority, for instance, and you get a clear readout of aperture and shutter speed in the viewfinder, and a scrollwheel for changing settings that falls conveniently for your thumb.

Exposure Compensation is also easily reached and controlled; what's more you can see when it's needed thanks to a small histogram that can be constantly displayed in the viewfinder.

Other key creative overrides can also be found without any major handling problems.

And, if you delve into the menu, the camera allows you to customise more features than most; you can control the range of settings available when using Auto ISO, for instance, or decide whether the focus ring is turned clockwise or anti-clockwise to make distant objects look sharp.

Olympus PEN EP-2: Image quality

E-P2 viewfinder

We've been impressed by the quality of Micro Four Thirds-system lens, and the 14-42mm glass supplied with our Olympus PEN E-P2 is a great performer.

While not as fast and bright as the alternative 17mm pancake lens, its maximum aperture of f/3.5 is very handy in dodgy light, or just for blurring the background on portraits.

See full-res imageOlympus pen e-p2 review

WIDESCREEN:The 16:9 aspect ratio option enables you to take shots for viewing on a widescreen TV, but note there is some distortion of vertical lines

Lens distortion is kept to the minimum, and despite our gripes about the locking system, being able to concertina the lens back into the camera helps portability. Image stabilisation is built into the camera, rather than the lens, but this is still good glass.

The Olympus PEN E-P2 has a similarly sized sensor to the similarly spec'd Panasonic Lumix GF1, so image performance is comparable.

See full-res imageOlympus pen e-p2 review

POP ART:Rather than cheesy Warhol effects, we used the Pop Art filter to really boost primary colours on everyday shots, and it works well

The Olympus PEN E-P2's metering system is nigh foolproof, and JPEGs out of the camera are nice and sharp. So far so good, but we didn't find the AF as fast and reliable as the AF system on the Panasonic Lumix GF1.

It's not so much that the AF is sluggish and 'hunts', rather that it doesn't always focus in the most logical place – going for the foreground rather than the horizon or middleground in a big landscape for instance.

See full-res imageOlympus pen e-p2 review

FILM GRAIN:The black and white film grain filter is also great for moody monochromes

Fortunately, the range of image options and widgets more than compensates for the slightly eccentric AF. A big selling point of the Olympus PEN E-P2 is the range of art effects.

In-camera image tweaks are hardly a new thing on compacts, but Olympus eschews the usual daft options (soft-focus food, anyone?) in favour of Cross Process, Diorama, Pop Art and other handy tweaks.

See full-res imageOlympus pen e-p2 review

PORTRAIT:While the reasonably bright f/3.5 14-42mm is useful for portraits, the Auto White Balance sometimes struggles with accurate skin tones

As with the Panasonic Lumix GF-1 you can adjust the aspect ratio of the image, shooting in 16:9 ratio in order to display your shots on a widescreen TV.

Returning to exposure controls, you need to watch the Auto White Balance. It struggles to deliver consistently accurate skin tones, so we'd recommend adjusting it each time according to the lighting conditions. The bespoke modes are reliable enough.

See full-res imageOlympus pen e-p2 review

METERING:The metering system is really reliable, delivering well exposed shots in a variety of conditions. The 14-42mm lens maintains sharpness and detail when zoomed out

Other useful features on the Olympus PEN E-P2 include a dust-reduction mode, Face Detection and Shadow Adjustment Technology. And as you'd expect in a camera of this price and calibre, you can shoot in RAW for maximum image detail and tonal felicity.

Olympus PEN EP-2: Verdict

E-P2 1

There's a lot to like about the Olympus PEN E-P2. It's stylish, well built, relatively easy to use and takes great pictures out of the box, thanks to its Micro Four Thirds technology and quality lenses.

We liked:

The ISO performance is impressive, which is just as well considering the lack of flash.

The metering system is nigh-on foolproof, and the new art effects, such as Cross Process and Diorama, are genuinely useful. This is a great looking camera and the lenses are of high quality.

We disliked:

The price – for what you actually get, it's pretty expensive at £899 with the 14-42mm lens.

For the same money you can get a mid-range SLR from Canon or Nikon; the absence of flash as standard on the Olympus PEN E-P2 rubs salt into the wound, too. The retractable lens mechanism can be infuriating until you get used to it.

Verdict:

To sidestep the major pricing issue, Olympus has also brought out an 'affordable', simplified version called the E-PL1 (thought it'll still cost you £500).

The E-PL1 actually comes with flash, and although it has less advanced controls than the Olympus PEN E-P2, it's still based on Micro Four Thirds, and still shoots HD video.

So if you're looking for an SLR backup, but are keen to keep costs down while gaining benefits of a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, this seems a wiser buy.

For people happy to pay top dollar for the full range of features on the Olympus PEN E-P2, the question is whether you buy this camera or the rival Panasonic Lumix GF1.

While we like the PEN, we'd probably go for the Panny. It's £200 cheaper, comes with flash, has a smarter AF and takes equally good shots (especially if you buy it with the wonderfully fast and bright pancake lens).

For:

  • Stylish and well built
  • Quality lenses
  • Impressive ISO performance
  • Excellent metering system

Against:

  • Expensive
  • No flash as standard
  • Washed out auto-white balance

olympus pen review

Olympus PEN E-PL1 review

Olympus pen e-pl1

olympus pen

Olympus PEN E-PL1 reviewolympus pen

The PEN E-PL1 is Olympus' newest Micro Four Thirds camera and the third retro PEN offering.

Rather than an upgrade to the previous PEN EP-1 and PEN EP-2, the E-PL1 is actually a pared down version of the other two, which is aimed at the beginner end of the photography market and is much more competitively priced than the previous pricey PEN models.

With the previous PEN models, Olympus was targeting serious photographers looking for a stylish and viable alternative to a DSLR, but with the PEN E-PL1 it's targeting compact upgraders who find DSLRs too confusing, but who still want a camera capable of producing excellent images.

Price wise, the PEN EPL-1 carries a launch price of £524, which is considerably cheaper than the launch prices of the PEN EP-1 (£699) and PEN EP-2 (£900).

At this price point we'd be expecting a well-built camera cable of producing high quality images with a strong feature set. As it's aimed at photography novices we also expect to see an intuitive and clear user interface, and some fun features too.

Looking at the Micro Four Thirds camera's specs, it looks promising: it offers a 12.3MP Live MOS Sensor, built-in Image Stabilisation, ISO sensitivity up to 3200, integrated flash, HD movies, 25 shooting modes and 6 art filters. Let's see how it fares when it's put to the test…

Olympus PEN E-PL1: Features

Olympus pen e-pl1

The PEN EPL-1 is a good-looking camera, styled like a 60s rangefinder camera, but not to the extent of the previous PEN models.

The camera is a nice size and fits well in the hands, and as it is a Micro Four Thirds jobby (avoiding the need for a pentaprism) Olympus is able to make smaller bodies and lens mounts which offer the same creative flexibility as a DSLR, but with a decent portability factor too.

Build quality is reasonable for a beginner's camera, but we'd expect it to be better for the price – although the body panel is metal, the back is plastic, which is a real shame and some of the buttons feel a bit cheap.

For the same money you'd have your choice of high-end full metal-bodied compact cameras from the top manufacturers, which is why we're a bit disappointed at this.

The PEN EPL-1's body, lens, user interface and Image Stabilisation system are all pared down versions of those found in the earlier, and much pricier, PEN EP-2.

Olympus pen e-pl1

This isn't a knock on this camera though - its feature set is actually very respectable.

The built-in Image Stabilisation system (ma. 3 EV steps efficiency) works really well: the supplied kit lens, although plastic, is a decent bit of glass and provides bright, sharp images, and the 2.7-inch LCD screen is plenty big enough.

The user interface is clear and easy to navigate, comparable to that on a decent compact camera.

Although the majority of features are pared-down versions of what we see on the PEN EP-2, Olympus have equipped the PEN EPL-1 with a few nifty features that it foolishly omitted from the previous Pen models; namely an in-built flash, which works very well. The camera also boasts a revision of the powerful TruePix V image processor.

Undoubtedly the best thing about the PEN EPL-1's feature set is that Olympus has succeeded in making a camera that's just plain great fun to use.

Mode wise, as well as Manual Mode, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Program Mode, you get iAuto, which reads the scene and selects everything for you (in our test we found it pretty much guarantees accurately exposed pictures). There are also 19 scene modes which are easy to access and clearly labelled.

Setting the camera apart, though, are 6 different Art Filters: Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama and Gentle Sepia. These are all great, they give excellent effects, which don't look like they've been done via an in-camera effect mode – they look authentic, rather than tacky.

Olympus pen e-pl1

The filter effects get applied before you take the shot, so you can check you like the look on the 2.7-inch LCD before you shoot.

Furthermore, when using the Art Filters you can still change settings like white balance, which is great for those who are getting into photography a bit more. We found the Art Filters to be a massive draw on the EPL-1, something Olympus were obviously hoping for, as they get their own setting on the mode dial.

Autofocus

The EPL-1 has an 11-point contrast detection autofocus system, which increases to 25 points when you turn Face Detection on.

As well as single autofocus, continuous autofocus and manual focus, the E-PL1 has S-AF+MF (simultaneous use of single AF and MF mode) and C-AF+TR (continuous autofocus, plus autofocus tracking). This C-AF+TR mode works superbly and, as it takes any focusing effort out of photography, is ideal for beginners.

Olympus pen e-pl1

We particularly rate the zoom frame AF button, accessed by the zoom button on the back of the camera, which allows you to check your exact focus quickly and easily.

The PEN EPL-1 is able to record high-resolution HD 720p 120 x 720 movies in 16:9 aspect ratio and standard VGA 640 x 480 movies in the 4:3 aspect ratio, both using the AVI Motion JPEG format at 30 frames per second.

The video quality is impressive, exceptionally so for the camera's price point actually, and we really like that you can use the EPL-1's Art Filters for video, as well as stills. The microphone is mono, rather than stereo, but if this is important to you, you can connect an external mic, so this shouldn't be a deal breaker.

Olympus pen e-pl1

The camera's C-AF+TR autofocus mode is also present for video. Use this and you simply have to lock the autofocus on your main subject and the autofocus target will follow the subject as it moves around the frame.

As video is such a plus point of the PEN EPL-1, we like the fact the camera has a new one-touch Motion Picture button on the back of the camera, for instant recording, although you can of course use the Movie option on the mode dial (and then press the shutter button to start recording).

Olympus PEN E-PL1: Image and video quality

See Olympus E-PL1 video sample in HD

The PEN EPL-1's 12.3 megapixel LIVE MOS sensor and TruePic image processor have proved themselves to be an excellent duo.

Olympus pen e-pl1See full-res image

The Micro Four Thirds camera produced consistently great shots throughout our test. Noise is handled very well indeed, and is excellent up to ISO 1600.

Olympus pen e-pl1See full-res image

In fact, the noise perforance is comparable to that of its higher-end Pen siblings. White balance readings are accurate and the default colour (the EPL-1's default setting of Natural picture mode) is vivid, yet not unnaturally so.

Olympus pen e-pl1See full-res image

All of our test shots were shake-free and the built-in Image Stabiliser proved itself to be a useful addition.

Olympus pen e-pl1See full-res image

The images that come out of the PEN EPL-1 do require a bit of sharpening at edit stage as they are a tiny bit soft, but no more than average, so although it's not something to mark the camera down for, it's worth mentioning as it's not a plus point.

Olympus PEN E-PL1: Verdict

Olympus pen e-pl1

The Pen E-PL1 concept is fairly straightforward – it's a stripped down, easier-to-use version of a high-end camera which can be sold significantly cheaper.

It's not the sexiest camera ever, but it really works. Olympus has succeeded in streamlining the PEN E-P2's feature set, while still building a camera with a strong purpose in its own right, which produces excellent images and is fun to use and easy to get creative with.

The PEN E-PL1 isn't a cheaper alternative for anyone who wants an E-P2 though – serious photographers will find the compact camera style press happy interface frustrating and will most likely regret not forking out for the better feature set.

Compact upgraders who don't want to make the DSLR jump will love it though.

We liked:

It's worth getting an Olympus EPL-1 instead of a decent compact camera just because the image quality is really good, and as it's so much fun to use, it'll encourage you to take more pictures.

We love the different modes and creative options, especially the Art Filters, which make taking uber creative looking images a cinch.

The autofocus system is to be commended, on both stills and video, and the HD function itself is another great reason to buy this camera – you're getting a lot of video for your money with the E-PL1.

We disliked:

The toy-like buttons and cheap feeling (although robust) plastic let down the PEN E-PL1's aesthetics and feel, which is a shame as the other two PEN models are exceptionally high quality.

The price still seems a bit steep, when you consider you can get an entry-level DSLR cheaper too.

Final verdict:

If you want minimal effort, high quality, creative photographs from a portable camera with the option of interchangeable lenses, then you'll love the Olympus PEN. If you're a serious shooter who wants a PEN, don't buy it, you'll be frustrated with its clear beginner bias.

For:

  • Art filters are great
  • Built-in flash
  • Excellent image quality
  • Good low light performance

Against:

  • Build quality is questionable
  • Still expensive

olympus pen review

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