Review – Olympus Pen E-PL1, Part 3: Image Quality & Conclusion
Note: The camera and accessories tested in this review were loaned to EtL by B&H Photo & Video store. To thank them for their generosity and allow us to receive more products for review, please consider purchasing your camera equipment through our affiliate B&H link (also found on the right sidebar). Thanks!
Further note: The new Olympus E-PL2 is the successor of the camera in this review and is an improvement in many ways. If you read the review and like the E-PL1, you can confidently purchase the E-PL2 knowing it is an even better camera.
As I’ve stated elsewhere, analysing image quality of modern large-sensor digital cameras is mostly useless, hair-splitting drivel. The only clear differences are at high ISO, and even then I doubt many would be able to declare a clear winner if viewing 8×10 or A4 prints from these cameras. With this in mind, let us proceed.
Low ISO Image Quality
The base ISO of the E-PL1′s sensor is 200 and Olympus recommends you use this ISO as your standard for optimum quality (when ISO 100 is set the image is taken at ISO 200 and pulled down to 100). I disobeyed them and used ISO 100 a lot; I saw no appreciable difference in dynamic range between it and ISO 200.
Images up to ISO 800 are of the best quality when pixel-peeped and lend themselves well to RAW massaging. They are sharp and the colours are vibrant without being garish. Standard settings on ACR are all you need, or simply shoot JPEG directly. A fine example of what I’m saying is the flower image above; it is a JPEG straight from camera with no further adjustments save for some sharpening after size reduction. Bearing in mind the kit lens is being stressed (shot at its longest focal length and closest focusing distance), I find the image quality outstanding. Some more examples below. Note the dynamic range in the tall building shot against a bright blue sky; the Sun, peeping over the building is washed out, but the sky still retains strong colour while the building façade, in shadow, retains plenty of detail.
High ISO Image Quality
The 4/3 sensor is smaller than APS-C by 40%, a fact that many use to automatically disqualify it from being used at high ISO. In Real Life™, that’s not necessarily the case. The E-PL1 only goes up to ISO 3200, which I suspect is a marketing move to devalue it versus its more expensive siblings, the E-P1 and E-P2, which both reach ISO 6400 (UPDATE: The new E-PL2 now goes up to ISO 6400). I say this because ISO 3200 is eminently usable and I had no hesitation shooting with it when the need arose. Colour saturation was pretty good and chroma noise was very controlled; when present, it appeared as fine speckles, not blotches. Needless to say, B&W conversions at high ISO looked very nice (for those that like the monochrome film look). Even high ISO JPEGs out of camera look good; see below, only sharpening after downsizing has been applied.
I could go on and on and show a gazillion 100% crops, but you can find that elsewhere on the internet if you really want. I’ll just tell you that, in my opinion, high ISO image quality is very good, even with the kit lens. Is there room for improvement? Of course! But high ISO IQ is good enough for most Real World™ uses.
Olympus cameras have a reputation for producing great JPEGs straight out of the box. I can’t agree more. So much so that I’m giving this topic its own section. I don’t know how Olympus have done it or what gods they’ve sacrificed Zuiko lenses to, but the Oly JPEGs are by far the best looking I’ve seen. No matter what settings you choose, your photos will look fantastic—friends will be stunned into silence, gallery owners will fight over representing you, and yes, you will get the girl…or guy, whatever tickles your fancy. But seriously, this camera could be the one that would convert me to shooting JPEG for colour (B&W is a different beast).
Olympus have built a beautiful-image maker with this E-PL1; if you like shooting JPEGs, you’ll love this camera. It is also a camera that is simple to operate, yet can be customised in hundreds of ways, thus appealing to both the newbie and the experienced shooter. Thanks to its menu system, both will feel at home setting it up. The one drawback to this camera is the lack of external dials (wheels) to change settings, but this has been addressed with the E-PL2, which now has a rotating rear wheel. The E-PL2 also addresses the maximum ISO issue (by now reaching to 6400), which cripples the E-PL1 slightly; 3200 is the maximum ISO of advanced P&Ss nowadays and a large-sensor camera deserves more.
Given the current low price, I would recommend the E-PL1 to photographers owning manual focus legacy lenses. Whatever brand those lenses may be, there is an adapter for them; if you don’t mind the 2x crop factor, using legacy lenses allows you to shoot in Av (using the lens’s aperture ring) and the manual focus aids provided by the E-PL1 are top-notch. You can even get the VF-2 EVF if you hate focusing on the rear LCD. I would also recommend this camera to any neophytes wanting an easy-to-use mirrorless camera that they can set to full auto and just snap away with, knowing they’ll get great looking photos. Having said all the above, I will point out that autofocus with the two lenses I used (kit zoom and superb 17mm f/2.8 pancake) was very good for my needs, so don’t think I’m endorsing manual focus lenses because AF is bad.
Now, if a higher price doesn’t intimidate you, the new E-PL2 takes all the good stuff from the E-PL1 and adds a better LCD, higher ISO and rear control wheel (and a few other things) making it much better value for everyone, and probably pissing off owners of the E-P2.
Pros and Cons
- Compact size (camera plus a couple of lenses can be carried in coat pockets).
- Onboard flash can be used for bounce.
- Auto ISO available in M mode.
- Beautiful JPEGs out of camera.
- Surprisingly good kit lens.
- Surprisingly good ISO 3200.
- Very customisable.
- Many options for live view (multiple grids, histogram, shadow/highlight overlay, etc.).
- Despite DxO Marks poor score for dynamic range, I find it performs very well in this respect.
- Focusing direction of the lens focus ring can be customised (clockwise or counter clockwise).
- Cannot assign ISO to one of the two customisable buttons.
- Auto ISO in M mode not smart enough to compensate overexposure if light gets too bright for ISO 100.
- ISO tops at 3200.
- No orientation sensor for vertical shots.
- No IR/cable remote capability.
- Won’t display picture until it’s been moved to the memory card.
- No hood for the lens.
- Low resolution LCD display.
- SD card is difficult to take out because it’s almost flush with the battery/SD-card compartment door.
- No AF assist light.
- Plasticky body (though it feels solid).
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Tags: Cameras, Digital Pen, DSLR, Olympus E-PL1, Olympus E-PL2, P&S, Photography, Reviews