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The Olympus E-P1 has now been on the market long enough to satisfy the early demand. I was able to finally get my hands on one to see if it is a camera that will make it into my camera bag. Along with the hands-on came a surprise I'm not sure how to accept.
Ken holding the E-P1
It isn't often a new camera is introduced that creates the sensationalism which we've experienced twice this year. First was the Olympus E-P1 and the second is the Leica M9. Both cameras represent such radical departures from the current norm, but have the characteristics of what was among the very best in years past. These truly are exciting times and as Canon has introduced another excellent upgrade to the EOS line in the 7D, we have more options not just in brand/model but in operational style than we have ever had in the "digital era".
I will admit it, I've been very enamored with the Olympus E-P1 as well as the Leica M9. Since the beginning of the digital camera revolution I've felt that cameras have been stepping stones on the way towards some eventual goal. As manufacturer after manufacturer introduces model after model it is plain to see that each camera is "nice" but even as you are getting your credit card swiped you are already thinking about the next one to replace the one which you haven't yet even removed from the bubble-wrap. The Leica M9 is the first camera that I've felt has achieved a maturity of design you know will be a fine item in your camera bag both now and years into the future. This is in contrast to yesterday's feelings of inferiority when going into a camera store with my "ancient" Olympus E-1, in fact, the very store in which I saw and experienced the E-1 for the very first time.
The demo E-P1 was equipped with the 17mm lens and had the hot-shoe mounted viewfinder attached. The first thing that I noticed and kept coming back to is how the camera is a near perfect fit in the hands. The shutter-release is ideally positioned and the camera has a heft to it that is misleading. You would think that the camera is lightweight, and in comparison to the pictured E-1, it is. But it is a very solid camera with a metal body that gives you the sense that this camera really is something special and is built to last. The tactile feel of the camera is important and does give an impression that you can trust it.
Full-frame image from the E-P1 close focused. F3.5 at 1/10 Second, ISO 200, Handheld, IS turned off
The E-P1 feels very much like an OM camera in hand. It has very similar size, weight and feel. There is just enough body shaping on the right-hand side to give the hand something to grasp onto, without having the "look at me, I have a fake motor-drive" grip shape. This picture, shown above, is a testament as to the stability of the camera even without the built-in Image-Stabilization turned on! It wasn't until later that I discovered it was turned off, but even so, the E-P1 has a smooth enough of a shutter that I was able to handhold the camera to very slow speeds--possibly much shorter than I can with the E-1, of which I can handhold to excessively low speeds. This picture is a JPEG straight out of the camera with only resizing applied. Pictured below is a 100% crop of the JPEG.
100% Pixel Crop of the previous image--no sharpening applied. Handheld at 1/10 with IS turned off
As you can see in this picture, the 17mm lens is able to focus very close and has exceptional Bokeh characteristics. What I was very disappointed in seeing, however, is a lot of CA. The magenta/cyan shifting is severe enough that I consider this to be a show-stopper for me even though it can be fixed in post-production in most cases. To illustrate the CA, the following photograph is a 100% crop of an in-camera JPEG taken outdoors. Obviously, the in-camera sharpening on the JPEG file as made it appear worse, but this is a "default setting" image.
CA in all its fine glory. (Note, the bluish left side of the pole is an entire face of the square pole, not CA)
As the 17mm lens is an expensive upgrade to the kit, I would have expected more from the image quality. CA in this lens is unacceptable and it surprises me that Olympus would introduce such a flawed lens with this camera. Olympus optics are better than this and I give Olympus a big "shame on you" for not getting this right. Contrast, sharpness and other traits are fine. I have no issue with that as far as I was able to test, but having this much CA is unforgivable. This is especially troubling considering what else I found and will talk about on the next page of this review.
Where I will give Olympus credit on this lens, however, is in the position and feel of the focus ring. As someone who appreciates tactile response and how the classic OM Zuiko lenses feel, I absolutely loved the feel of the focus ring. The entire camera falls to hand so well and the focus ring is exactly where it is supposed to be. The balance of the camera and lens is "reference material" it is so good. I did not want to set the camera down.
I will grouse about one other aspect of the 17mm lens--the filter ring. Filters go into some reduced size filter ring unlike any other lens I've seen. PLEASE, Olympus, please give us standardized filter ring sizes. Nearly all of my OM Zuikos take 49mm filters. With the E-system, it's rare to see any two lenses have the same filter ring size. This isn't just a complaint about the 17mm lens, but all E-system lenses. It is completely unacceptable to have to have a bag full of step up rings to use a common filter such as a polarizer. This is a complaint about all Digital Zuikos, not just this 17mm lens which is absurdly designed with a mini-filter ring that is set in from the outer edge of the lens by some distance. In the perspective of "usability" in my opinion this is a design gaff that I just don't understand.
The LCD monitor is the other major shortcoming of the E-P1. As many other reviewers have stated, the display is sub-standard. It is neither bright enough outdoors nor sharp enough to be used as the sole method of composing the picture. Indoors, it was bright enough and contrasty enough to be usable, but the display had to be shaded to be seen outdoors for anything more than basic framing. As I've seen other screens which are much better, I would say that this screen is usable, but definitely not enjoyable. That said, the refresh rate and lag are non-issues. If the monitor choice is a result of these two issues, then I understand Olympus' design choice, but this came at a price. I'd suggest that Olympus lean on its partners a little more and get a quality display which has fast refresh rate and low lag.
While I'm on the subject of the monitor, I'm going to express my tremendous dislike of the information display overlaying the image. When composing an image, I do not want anything overlaying it. No numbers, no modes, nothing. The screens are so busy with information (size, JPEG settings, etc) that I cannot see the image! This is the one huge problem with live-view and the manufacturers are bent on overlaying the data on the image instead of maintaining a separate display of the basic settings outside of the frame like we have with normal DSLRs. A live-view display cannot be used on a professional camera as long as the overlay is in the image area. It's one or the other, you can have an image-only display giving you NO exposure data or you have so much overlay information that you can't see the image.
Which brings me to the hot-shoe mounted auxiliary viewfinder. Other than the barrel distortion which gives you approximate framing, the viewfinder really was a pleasure to use. Eye-relief was a bit short, but the image was clear and the frame lines crisp. I appreciated having the viewfinder, but it does make me want to see and experience Panasonic's electronic viewfinder that also attaches to the hot-shoe. My problem with these viewfinders, though, is that I cannot use external flash gear with these cameras. No PC Sync socket to plug anything into means that I have to use the hot-shoe for my radio triggers. How can I use my radio triggers if I have the viewfinder attached?
The AF performance was definitely not to my liking. Each time it focused it would run through the focus from lock-to-lock. Olympus has updated the firmware with version 1.1 and this camera has not been updated yet. I would hope that the firmware update has addressed this or that Olympus is diligently working on this issue. Focus was essentially no quicker than on my old Minolta A1 digital camera.
I set the camera to AF+MF, which is my standard setting on all of my digital cameras. I was pleased to see that when I touched the focus ring after AF locked onto something the monitor zoomed into the active focus point so I could fine-tune the focus. However it never zoomed back out. I'm not sure if this is a menu item, but I would have appreciated the system that was found on the C8080 where the zoom in portion was just in the center of the screen (to keep your overall image still visible) and I believe it would disappear a few moments after the last focus adjustment. I have no doubt that this is a setting somewhere in the menu or it will be a firmware update.
Speaking of menus, I can see the brilliance of design in the menu structure. It truly is a work of art in how you can quickly return to a menu setting without stepping back through menu choice after menu choice. Unfortunately, this very same structure of menus is nearly impossible to navigate the first time through and it took quite some time for me to find something as simple as the AF+MF setting. I'm not sure how to categorize the menu system, but it is genius. Unfortunately, like many geniuses, there are some oddities.