Olympus PEN E-P1 review

Price when reviewed

Various manufacturers have tried to resurrect the concept of the old 35mm rangefinder over the past few years. None have been wildly successful and all have been very expensive. The idea of a digital rangefinder-style camera is to bring the quality and flexibility of an SLR to a smaller, more discreet package.

The key to replicating SLR quality in a small body is maintaining a large sensor. A joint effort between Olympus and Panasonic has produced a new camera standard called Micro Four Thirds. It’s based on the existing Four Thirds system used in DSLRs such as Olympus’ own, very compact E-420 (web ID: 199170). The Micro Four Thirds system preserves the same sensor size but has different mechanical specifications, allowing for a more compact body that places the lens closer to the sensor.

So close, in fact, that there’s no room between the two for a traditional SLR reflex-mirror system. This leads to the PEN’s one major flaw. It’s an interchangeable-lens camera, just like a DSLR. But take the lens off and the sensor is completely exposed, just a couple of centimetres away from your oily, ruinous finger. This is terrifying. If you happen to touch it, a trip to you local repair shop to get it professionally dealt with will be your only option.

Being based on the original PEN rangefinder of the 1950s, the EP-1’s styling is inevitably retro. It’s very compact compared to a DSLR, although still bigger than any normal digital compact model. A surprising omission is an optical viewfinder, but fear not: you can buy one for £99 inc VAT and attach it to the flash hot-shoe.

The standard kit comes with a 14-42mm zoom lens, giving the same equivalent focal length of about 28-85mm as a standard DSLR kit lens. When it isn’t in use, it needs to be manually retracted by twisting the zoom ring anti-clockwise while holding a locking catch open. To take a shot you need to manually twist it back out again, extending the lens past the catch position.

Beyond the retro styling, the PEN is totally modern. Switch it on and you’re greeted by a menu system based on Olympus’ DSLRs. Buttons and controls are more or less identical too, with mode dial at the top left and the standard array of control buttons at the back beneath your right thumb.

When it comes to taking photos it’s functionally identical to a DSLR too, with three exceptions. First, you need to use the screen to frame your shots unless you’ve bought the optical viewfinder. Second is the slight start-up lag. From hitting the On switch to the screen coming to life takes a little less than two seconds; not the end of the world but a lot slower than a DSLR, the majority of which have no appreciable power-on delay.

The third occurs when pressing the shutter button. The autofocus uses a contrast-detect scheme rather than the separate optical system a DSLR can employ. That increases typical autofocus time to around one second and shot-to-shot time to about 2.5 to 3 seconds, giving it a feel frustratingly closer to a compact than a DSLR. You can mitigate the shot-to-shot time with burst mode, though, which in our tests managed a little over three frames per second for eight shots in RAW mode or around 20 shots in JPEG.

Image quality is every bit as good as the Olympus E-420. It’s far superior to any digital compact, with greater dynamic range, better ability to capture the subtleties of light and lower noise. But, as with standard Four Thirds DSLRs, the smaller sensor in comparison to APS-C or full-frame DSLRs is a limiting factor. There’s a slightly greater tendency for highlights to blow out, and noise performance at high ISO isn’t quite as good as the best of the current bunch.


Image quality 6

Basic specifications

Camera megapixel rating 12.3mp
Camera screen size 3.0in
Camera optical zoom range 3x
Camera maximum resolution 4032 x 3024

Weight and dimensions

Weight 560g
Dimensions 121 x 82 x 70mm (WDH)


Battery type included Lithium-ion
Battery life (CIPA standard) 500 shots
Charger included? yes

Other specifications

Built-in flash? no
Aperture range f3.5 - f5.6
Camera minimum focus distance 0.25m
Shortest focal length (35mm equivalent) 28
Longest focal length (35mm equivalent) 84
Minimum (fastest) shutter speed 1/4,000
Maximum (slowest) shutter speed 1 mins
Bulb exposure mode? yes
RAW recording mode? yes
Exposure compensation range +/-3EV
ISO range 100 - 6400
Selectable white balance settings? yes
Manual/user preset white balane? yes
Progam auto mode? yes
Shutter priority mode? yes
Aperture priority mode? yes
Fully auto mode? yes
Burst frame rate 3.0fps
Exposure bracketing? yes
White-balance bracketing? yes
Memory-card type SD, SDHC
Viewfinder coverage N/A
LCD resolution 230k
Secondary LCD display? no
Video/TV output? yes
Body construction Alloy
Tripod mounting thread? yes
Data connector type Proprietary USB

Manual, software and accessories

Full printed manual? yes
Software supplied Olympus Master 2
Accessories supplied None

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