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Olympus Pen E-P1 with 14-42mm lens review

Ben Pitt
21 Sep 2009
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
687
inc VAT

Could have been great, but at this price we wouldn't be prepared to live with its weaknesses.

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Specifications

17.3x13mm 12.2-megapixel sensor, 3.0x zoom (28-84mm equivalent), 485g

There's a big gulf in image quality between compact and SLR cameras.

However, not everyone wants to carry a bulky SLR around with them. Olympus and Panasonic's jointly developed Micro Four Thirds format attempts to provide the best of both worlds. Sensor design is taken straight from SLR cameras, though the optical viewfinder is discarded, and various space-saving tricks are used to produce cameras that are smaller than any SLR.

The Pen E-P1 is Olympus's first Micro Four Thirds camera. The retro design takes inspiration from the company's Pen cameras of the 1960s, and its metal construction looks smart and feels sturdy. Although its key specifications are in line with Olympus's SLR cameras, the E-P1 isn't significantly bulkier than premium compacts such as Canon's PowerShot G10.

The 14-42mm kit lens makes it too bulky to fit in most pockets, despite it retracting down to a remarkably slim 43mm when not in use. However, the E-P1 is also available with a fixed-zoom 17mm, f/2.8 lens, which adds just 22mm to its depth, making it far more pocket-friendly. Olympus's SLRs usually have both CompactFlash and xD memory card slots, though there's no room for CompactFlash here. Thankfully, Olympus has abandoned the slow and expensive xD cards, and given the E-P1 an SDHC slot.

Some of the other efforts to keep the size down are less agreeable. The lack of a through-the?€'lens (TTL) optical viewfinder is integral to the Micro Four Thirds format, but unlike Panasonic's cameras the E-P1 doesn't have an electronic viewfinder. An optional optical viewfinder can be clipped into the accessory shoe, but this works only with the fixed 17mm lens. That leaves the 3in LCD screen for composing shots, and its 230,000-dot resolution is disappointing at this price. Another omission is a built-in flash - without one, the camera struggles to capture moving subjects indoors.

The E-P1 feels comfortable to hold, but it's not satisfying to use. There are fewer single-purpose controls than on Canon's G10 or most SLRs. The two dials for adjusting shutter speed and aperture are welcome, but we found the lack of a dedicated manual focus switch frustrating.

The biggest frustration is the E-P1's performance. The 2.9fps continuous speed is passable, but elsewhere it behaved more like a budget compact than an SLR, taking three seconds to switch on and capture a shot, and 2.5 seconds between subsequent shots. This is partly down to the contrast-detect autofocus, which is much slower than the phase-detect systems used by SLRs. Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds cameras also use contrast detect autofocus, but are far faster.

Our wide-angle test shots displayed stunningly sharp details in brightly lit conditions, and although the lens wasn't as sharp at the telephoto end it didn't let the camera down. The automatic exposure system could be thrown by a bright sky, but in general colour reproduction was excellent. The optical image stabilisation performed well at slow shutter speeds. It's built into the sensor, making it available for any lens attached to the camera. However, even this couldn't cope with the needlessly slow shutter speeds sometimes chosen by the fully automatic iAuto setting - we found the Program mode more reliable for point-and-shoot operation. Noise levels at high ISO speeds weren't quite as low as with the best SLRs at this price, but were far superior to any compact camera.

Video is recorded at 720p, but while picture and soundtrack quality were generally excellent, both were spoiled by the continuous autofocus, which was inaccurate and mechanically noisy. It's best to fix the focus for the length of the clip.

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