Hands On With The Olympus E-P1

Every once in a while a product comes along, out of the blue, that you’ve been wishing for. For me, the Olympus E-P1 is this product. For years I’ve been spouting off to manufacturers and resellers about the need for a digital compact camera with interchangeable lenses. I’ve even gone into in-depth detail about exactly how this should be done, and alas, its all fallen on deaf ears. Thankfully, Olympus has answered this call (which I never made to them) with the E-P1.

In the film days, for well over a decade I’d been a Leica rangefinder user, having had M4-2, M4P and M6 bodies and most M lenses available. I made most of my favourite pictures with these tiny cameras and those great lenses. Having tried the M8 twice, alas it was clear to me that it just wasn’t for me. The sensor’s cropped size, terrible performance in mid ASA’s upwards and need of extra filtration has put me off for good. I really wish that they sort out these shortcomings instead of just focusing on limited editions and luxuries like mineral crystal LCD covers.

Its because of the lack of a decent digital rangefinder that in my opinion there’s a niche in the market that needed to be filled. Straight off, I’ll say that so far, the optics on the little Olympus don’t come anywhere near the quality of Leica optics, and and the build quality, whilst excellent, isn’t as sturdy as a Leica. However, the costs aren’t even comparable! Digital image quality however, is. I had just under three hours with the E-P1, and I must say that I’m really very impressed by it.

It just feels right in the hand. Its sturdy, comfortable, ergonomic and well made. The construction is really very impressive. Those “retro” looks are quite cool too. One thing I’m definitely unhappy about through is the fact that there isn’t a black version available, though the photograph release by Olympus at launch, seems to hint that a black one will become available. Whilst I’m on this subject, please Olympus, make sure all lenses, finders and flash are available in black too.

I immediately took off the zoom lens and fitted the tiny pancake 17mm f2.8. Its even smaller than my M lenses! The focal length of fitted lenses doubles, so most of the pictures you’ll see were shot at 34mm. Rather upsettingly, the camera doesn’t have a built in optical finder. I would love a large, bright, optical finder with lines for the focal length in use. I really dislike working without an optical finder, so I fitted the crystal clear and nicely made external viewfinder. One thing I wish the lens had though was focus distance markings; one often likes to set the distance on a lens and snap candidly.

This little lens is superb though; its sharp, contrasty and performs well with flare. I just wish it was f2 (or faster) and not f2.8. With the smaller sensor, getting out of focus backgrounds is trickier as the smaller sensor increase depth of field; as a result, it would be preferable to have faster apertured lenses. Naturally this also opens up the world of available light photography.

Talking of which, this camera performs rather well in higher ASAs. Lets get one thing straight though, its never going to come anywhere near a Canon 5D MkII or a Nikon D700, but as far as Olympus cameras are concerned, it does do an extremely good job. I did a whole series of shots from 100 to 1250 ASA, and all of the images impressed. 1600 ASA is usable, and anything above is really for emergency use. The fact that the sensor has IS and the 17mm is f2.8, does mean that you can work in pretty dim situations.

Whilst the 14-42mm zoom is tiny and handy to have, its not where this camera is at. It felt superb and produced its best images with the 17mm. I really hope that Olympus is going to concentrate on fast prime lenses. 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 75mm f2 lenses (35mm equivalents), all with matched external finders would be my personal wish. The current 17mm is fine for the time being though. I would also love to see an ultra fast 50mm (equivalent), say an f1.2 or an f1.0.

Performance wise, I found the AF (which I only tested in single focus mode) to be sometimes sluggish. It was generally quite snappy though, but on a couple of occasions I completely missed the shot as it just wasn’t quick enough. You have a choice of various focus modes, but as I was using the external finder, I preferred the fixed centre point focus spot. For some reason though, occasionally the camera would go into auto focus spot selection mode; very annoying! The other complaint I have is the exposure meter has a tendency to slightly over expose. During my test I shot in A (aperture priority) and it was generally fine. The auto white balance worked well outdoors but in tungsten light was off, producing results which were far too warm.

At the time of writing, there’s no RAW conversion software, so all the images shown here are jpeg files. I did shoot RAW + jpeg though, so I’m looking forward to processing the RAWs through Aperture when they’re supported. The jpegs where fine though.

Thankfully, the camera supports SD cards and Olympus haven’t tried to force XD cards on us. Another interesting development is the availability of converters. Olympus already has a converter allowing the use of four thirds lenses and another allowing the use of Olympus OM lenses (in manual focus and stop down metering). As far as I know, the Panasonic Leica converters should also work on this camera; I would love to try out some Leica M and Zeiss ZM lenses on this camera.

So, who’s this camera aimed at? Its not a compact and not an SLR; think of it as a modern day rangefinder style camera. For me, its ideal for features / reportage and street photography. I would definitely recommend it as a second camera to an SLR user.

Me and the Olympus E-P1 with the 17mm f2.8 and finder. Photo: Ghene Snowdon

After my three hours was up, I had to return the camera. I must admit, I did this reluctantly. I was fond of this camera when I first saw the concept, and even more so as I saw the pictures of the finished camera and read the specification sheet. Well, having now actually used the camera and seen the results, I’m a little smitten. Its not perfect yet, and has a few flaws, but as a first generation product, on its first firmware, its pretty special.

If the E-P1’s made available in black and has a few descent fast prime lenses with matched optical finders, then I wouldn’t hesitate in getting this camera. Lets hope Olympus keeps this up and expands the product line.

For a gallery of images taken with the E-P1, visit my Flickr page.

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