Olympus E-P1

Olympus’ potentially ground breaking new 12.3 megapixel, interchangeable lens E-P1 camera is as much a product of the past as the present. Since 2002, its manufacturer, in conjunction with Panasonic, has pioneered a system for smaller digital camera bodies and lenses, naming it Four Thirds in reference to the size of its integral sensor. Last year Micro Four Thirds joined it, promising even more compact cameras by keeping the same chip but removing the mirror box associated with digital SLRs (DSLRs), in order to bring lens and sensor even closer together.

Panasonic made it first to market with the new system’s DSLR inspired G1 and GH1 cameras, but Olympus has responded with something totally different again in the E-P1. Different and yet not so, in that the camera is being marketed as the first digital ‘Pen’, a resurrection of Olympus’ curiously-named compact camera brand of the 1950s and 60s that took pictures at half the size of a 35mm film frame.

However the new digital Pen isn’t aimed purely at ageing converts, despite one of the few concessions to modernity being the 3-inch LCD at the rear in the absence of an optical viewfinder. Olympus has young women in its sights as one of the intended audiences, issuing models in both strident silver and gentler white – both with the same retro look, and the latter, for us, the more immediately covetable. Pick the camera up and it feels like something from a bygone era too. The E-P1’s is constructed more or less entirely from metal: aluminium top and bottom, stainless steel at the sides. It certainly feels Tonka toy-solid when gripped in the palm, a nice leather-look pad to one side providing purchase for the fingers.

Despite Olympus’ claim that the E-P1 is a compact camera with DSLR quality, what you cannot say about this product however is that it’s a pocket model. In fact its width matches that of an entry level DSLR, if not its depth, so it’s not one for pocket or handbag. That said the camera handles enjoyably, function buttons and dials falling readily to hand, with plenty of space on the back plate for controls to breathe. Top right of the LCD, falling readily under the thumb of your left hand is a command wheel that rotates the inset mode dial above. As well as program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual shooting modes, users get access to intelligent auto for occasions when simply pointing and shooting is justified, plus smooth and sharp HD video, scene and art filter modes.

Introduced first on Olympus’ E-series DSLRs, such effects are another feature that sets the camera apart. Each can be applied to images at the time of capture; pop art, soft focus, pale and light, light tone, grainy film and pin hole. In practice it’s best to use these sparingly, as we found not all are equally successful. But while pale and light predictably renders captures wishy-washy, and pop art makes everything look like it’s been rendered in children’s poster paint, we enjoyed the attention focusing device of pin hole, while grainy film can add an intensive moodiness, working most dramatically when mixing light and shade. Without use of any filters at all, the ‘Pen’ delivers a refreshingly naturalistic interpretation of scene and subject – in fact closer to what is seen via the naked eye than any camera we’ve used for a long time.

As well as shooting in standard 4:3 digital image ratio, users can switch to shooting in 16:9 widescreen aspect, 6:6 to ape a medium format camera or 3:2, equivalent to 35mm film. Plus, for those who miss the traditional aspect of an optical viewfinder, it’s available as a extra or as part of the twin lens bundle offered on launch – and clips neatly onto the camera’s top mounted hotshoe; this otherwise houses an optional flashgun, since, as with higher-end DSLRs, built-in flash isn’t provided either. When affixed the recommended flash looks rather odd, dominating the camera and again echoing the past with its seemingly Thunderbirds inspired look.

With a choice of auto or manual focus, of course the most exciting thing about the E-P1 is that, as with a DSLR, users can swap the lens on the front for a wider range of creative opportunities than a fixed lens compact would allow – a sharp and crisp 14-42mm M.Zuiko Digital zoom was supplied with our review sample, equivalent to a wide angle 28-84mm in 35mm film terms. It’s worth pointing out to that the lens helps maintain the camera’s overall compactness by featuring a retractable design mechanism, with a close focusing distance of 25mm.

Ultimately as much a statement of intent as camera in its own right, Olympus UK has indicated to us that supplies of the E-P1 will be deliberately limited. That’s sure to bring out the collectors in force to snap up the first digital camera of its kind.

OUR VERDICT

So is the E-P1 the much promised ‘best of both worlds’ camera – providing images that wouldn’t shame a DSLR, but without any of the attendant bulk? Using the supplied lens we got almost uniformly sharp, crystal clear results; the camera’s metering providing even exposures and ably maintaining both shadow and highlight detail. Also impressing is the intuitiveness, the response times, plus the build quality that shows a high level of attention to detail. Anyone who has ever wondered ‘why don’t they make them like they used to?’ need wonder no more – because now, they actually do.