Olympus E-PL1 Handling & Feel

Review Date: August 15, 2010

Category: Beginner to Serious Amateur

Olympus E-PL1

Olympus E-PL1


The Olympus E-PL1 has a charm all its own even though it’s not quite the retro chic look of the E-P1. The body is solidly built and the handgrip affords a secure enough hold, though we’d prefer it a bit deeper. It’s a nice design overall and one that is distinctive enough that you can pleasantly recognize the camera from afar.

It comes with the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 14-42mm F3.5(W)-F5.6(T) kit lens which is collapsible (don’t confuse it with the non-collapsible 14-42mm version) and a good starting lens with 3x optical zoom. The starting focal length is a wide-angle 28mm (equiv.) and the 84mm (equiv.) medium tele makes the E-PL1 a nice camera for street photography. Of course, as a Digital Interchangeable Lens (DIL, aka “mirrorless DSLR”) camera, the E-PL1 accepts interchangeable Four Thirds lenses.

The front of the camera is clean, with the Self-timer Lamp just above the handgrip and the Lens Release Button on the right of the lens.

Olympus E-PL1 Top View

Olympus E-PL1 Top View

The top of the camera has the Power ON/OFF Button, Shutter Release Button, Mode Dial, Hot Shoe, Microphone (in front of the Hot Shoe), and pop-up Flash.

The camera will not turn on if the kit lens is in the collapsed position, with an error message on the LCD advising you that “The lens is locked. Please extend the lens.” Just twist the lens to extend it and the camera powers on. The Power button glows with a nice blue light to indicate it is on.

Startup is fast at about 1 sec. (from Power ON to LCD ready for capture, i.e. time-to-first-shot). Shot to shot times is about 1.1 sec. (or 0.9fps, with 9 shots in 10 sec. in M mode, MF, 1/125sec.), whether you’re shooting LF JPEG or RAW.

It takes approx. 4 sec. to write a RAW image to memory card (though you can take the next one in about 1.1 sec.). You can also select to save a RAW+JPEG (Large Fine, Large Normal, Medium Normal or Small Normal).

At Image Quality = Large Fine, a 12.3MP JPEG image is compressed down to anywhere between 4MB and 9MB. A RAW image occupies about 11 to 14MB.

I find the Shutter Release Button on the small side with a too short half press. It is too easy to take a shot when all you want to do is to half press the shutter to lock focus.

In good lighting, there is no practical shutter lag but AF is about 1 sec., not as fast as we would have liked and making us miss some pictures. In low lighting, AF is also about 1 – 2 sec. and success is dependent on the light level and how contrasty your subject is. Because there is no AF-assist Illuminator, you may not be able to lock focus in extreme low light, and may have to resort to manual focus.

The Mode dial has iAuto, PASM, Movie, SCN, and ART. You invoke Program Shift and/or Exposure Compensation by pressing the UP ARROW. Then use UP and DOWN to program shift or LEFT and RIGHT to dial in an exposure compensation. The Mode Dial can be freely rotated in any direction. This is where a Control Dial would have been much appreciated.

The Drive mode dial has Single, Sequential (Continuous), Self-timer 12 sec., and Self-timer 2 sec.

TIP: If you find the shot to shot time (1.1 sec.) too long, simply leave your camera on Continuous Shooting which is about 3.3fps (10 shots in 3 sec. when buffer fills up) for LF JPEG and about 3fps (9 shots in 3 sec. when buffer fills up) for RAW. Press once to take one shot, press and hold down to take consecutive shots when you don’t want to miss the action. Be sure to leave auto focusing on S-AF or the camera will spend most of its time continuously focusing.

Olympus E-PL1 Back View

Olympus E-PL1 Back View

Fn: Can be turned OFF or customized to Face Detect, DOF Preview, One touch WB, AF Area Home Position, MF, RAW+JPEG, Test Picture, My Mode, Underwater scene mode, AEL/AFL, Monitor OFF. In Playback, press to view thumbnails.
Close-up Playback.
Recorder: By default, the button with the red dot is assigned One button Movie Record, but you can customize it just like the Fn button, in effect giving you 2 Fn buttons. In Playback, Protect button.
Navigation: UP = Exposure Compensation. RIGHT = Flash. DOWN = Sequential (Continuous), Self-timer. LEFT = AF Area.
Once set, the Exposure Compensation Indicator conveniently stays displayed on screen until it is reset to “0”
Range: -3 EV to +3 EV (in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV increments, set in Menu)
Surprisingly, the screen brightness does not increase or decrease to reflect the value you use.
Note: the exposure compensation value selected is retained even when the camera is turned off (so remember to reset to “0” after using it or the next time you turn the camera on, your shots may be over- or under-exposed.)
No info, All info with Grid, Histogram with Bottom Line info only and minus Grid.
You can select different grid lines in Menu [MENU – DISP/Remote/PC – Closeup Playback/INFO SETTING – LV-INFO – DISPLAYED GRID].

The LCD screen resolution is 230k-dot and can be difficult to see in bright sunlight. Improvement suggestion is to increase the LCD resolution to at least 460k-dot. In low light, the screen gains up very well though it reverts to a lower refresh rate and is too pixelated to help tell when manual focus is achieved.

Manual Focus enlarges the display by 7x.

TIP: While the display is enlarged, press INFO and UP to increase display up to 14x.

TIP: Use 14x magnification only when your camera is resting on a tripod; when handholding the camera, stay at 7x magnifcation or the image will bounce around too much on the screen.

You can display a grid (in fact, 4 types) on screen, very useful for those who, like me, find it difficult to keep their horizon, well, horizontal. [Menu – Set up – Disp/Remote/PC – Info Setting – LV-Info – Displayed Grid – select a grid type]

I like AF Target [LEFT ARROW] that gives 11 focus points. Unfortunately these avoid a large swatch of the screen edges. Face Detection AF can be definitely improved. AF Tracking works reasonably well, as long as your subject does not move too fast.

Besides the control buttons, Olympus has implemented Live Control: press OK and a “quick menu” pops up and allows you to set the most used functions quickly.

But if you want to customize the E-PL1 to the way you want it to work, there are also lots of customization available, more than anyone would ever use in my opinion, as though the menu designer wanted to make all possible options available — just for the heck of it. Unfortunately, the Menu structure is not labelled, the icons are not the easiest to decipher and the menu structure can be quite confusing to navigate. It is not apparent which option will eventually lead to the function you want to set and you can spend a frustrating time finding what you want to customize. [Why is it so difficult to design a user friendly menu? There are lots of good examples to follow.]

TIP: Delve into the menu only to customize something; just make sure you have the Instruction Manual close at hand.

TIP: If you don’t need a One-button Movie record button, you can customize it to be a second Fn button. [Menu – Set up – Button – Movie Function]

TIP: The Erase button can be customized to delete a picture immediately [Menu – Set up – Record/Erase – Quick Erase – ON]. This can be a convenient and quick way for experienced photographers to review a picture on the LCD screen and then delete it with one button press. It can also be extremely dangerous for those who are trigger happy: press this button inadvertently and the picture you are looking at is forever gone. Use with extreme caution.

The Fn and Close up Playback buttons are in the traditional space reserved for a zoom toggle button on compact cameras. They serve the traditional purpose of looking at thumbnails or enlarging your picture in Playback mode but, because of their presence, I find that I keep pressing them when I should be zooming manually.

Olympus E-PL1 Popup Flash

Olympus E-PL1 Popup Flash

A pop-up flash [don’t know why but it reminds me of Wall-E] is good enough for fill-in and can even wirelessly trigger the optional Olympus FL-36R and FL-50R speedlights.

Olympus E-PL1 Optional Live-Finder

Olympus E-PL1 Optional Live-Finder

Just below the hot shoe is the accessory port that accepts the detachable high resolution (1440k-dot) VF-2 live-finder which rotates up 90 degrees (useful when shooting subjects from challenging angles) and the new EMA-1 external microphone adapter for enhanced audio capture. The optional viewfinder comes in handy since the LCD tends to be difficult to view in bright sunlight.

The hinged Connector Cover (on the right side) does not open up wide, so you have to struggle a bit to plug in the USB cable or HDMI connector. The Battery/Card door is at the bottom and the battery has a latch to keep it from accidentally falling. The tripod socket at the bottom is metal and is not inline with the lens; you won’t be able to change battery or memory card when the camera is on a tripod.

Included in the box is a rechargeable Li-ion battery PS-BLS1 that can take about 290 shots (CIPA standard) on a fresh charge. A Battery Charger BCS-1 recharges a depleted battery in a long 3 hours 30 min.

The Olympus E-PL1 accepts the SD and SDHC memory cards. It does not accept the SDXC card.

Though we miss the retro lines and quality build of the E-P1, we find that the Olympus E-PL1 is nevertheless nicely built and a very capable Digital Interchangeable Lens camera. Stay with the control buttons and the Live Control and you should find the E-PL1 snappy and fast to operate.

Next: Olympus E-PL1 User’s Experience