It’s hardly a secret that Canon and Nikon dominate the DSLR market. Rather than beating their heads against the wall by competing directly against them, other manufacturers are zeroing in a new type of camera—one with a large imaging sensor, smaller size and interchangeable lenses so you can get the photographic benefits of a DSLR without breaking your shoulder carrying it around all day. Olympus and Panasonic have jumped into this arena and Sony is planning to join them later this year. One of the newest of these cameras is the Olympus PEN E-PL1 which uses the same 12MP chip found in the company’s much larger and heavier E-30 and E-620 DSLRs. Let’s see if Olympus has delivered on the dream and if you should consider it instead of a DSLR.
Features and Design
Pick up the new PEN and it looks like a 35mm film camera from back in the day. With the optional 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens attached, it has a boxy, retro shape some might find cool while turning off others. We liked it and it’s a real standout, but check out the accompanying photos to see if this design appeals to you. The camera measures 4.5 x 2.8 x 1.63 (WHD in inches) and tips the scales at 15.8 ounces with the pancake lens and battery. It’s definitely not as bulky or heavy as a DSLR, but wafer thin it’s not.
Our review sample had a steel blue color, but all-black and silver editions are available. The front of the E-PL1 is dominated by the lens opening which accepts Micro Four Thirds glass. Unlike Canon and Nikon, there are just a handful of lenses for this system, but with a $199 adaptor, you can use a respectable selection of Four Thirds lenses (from Olympus, Panasonic and Sigma). Also on the front is the lens release button, self-timer lamp and a nice grip with a textured finish.
The top has a manual pop-up flash, a hot shoe, mic, shutter and on/off button. The mode dial looks just like something from an old film camera but the options are decidedly 2010. There’s iAuto, Program, aperture- and shutter-priority, full manual, Movie (720p), Scene (19 options) and Art. This is a trickle down from the company’s DSLRs and it lets you add special effects to your shots. We were partial to Pop Art with the larger cameras and liked having that option with the PEN.
On the back is a 2.7-inch 230K LCD screen that held up very well, even in direct sunlight. This is a good thing since adjusting the intensity is buried in the menu system. If you slide out the hot shoe protector you’ll notice an accessory port. This is required to operate the optional VE-2 Live Finder but at $279 it’s way too much cash for the few times you might need it. All the other keys on the back are standard stuff for a digicam or DSLR: a red dedicated video button, Playback, Menu, Info, Delete and the four-way controller with center OK button gives access to the flash, burst shooting, metering zone, and exposure compensation. The speaker is on the back as well.
On the right side is a compartment for USB and mini HDMI outs, while the battery/card compartment and tripod mount are on the bottom. The “Designed in Tokyo, Made In China” camera accepts SDHC cards and you should use Class 6 or better if you plan to shoot video.
What’s In The Box
The camera, battery, charger, USB and A/V cables, strap, 124-page manual and CD-ROM with ib software for handling images. The kit lens is a Micro Four Thirds M.Zuiko 14-42mm zoom (28-84mm 35mm equivalent). The battery is rated 290 shots per the CIPA standard, a decent number but much less than a DSLR. Of course, they’re bigger and weigh more so there are always tradeoffs.
With a 4GB Class 6 card in place, it was time to capture stills and HD videos.