It’s a camera I’d long wanted, since the original Digital PEN concept model was shown off a couple of years ago. It’s a very clever digital remake of an old and esteemed series of film cameras that Olympus made from the 60’s to the 80’s. Clever, because they fulfilled a huge and unexploited gap in the digital camera market. A small, compact camera that can fit in a jacket pocket or purse, with a large sensor and a range of interchangeable lenses that produce DSLR quality images. The Micro Four Thirds concept was born.
I’d long wanted it. On Saturday evening I ceased to be a long time jealous admirer and started what will hopefully be an even longer time as a proud owner. I took possesion of my shiny new Olympus PEN E-PL1. I’ll post a few more thoughts and findings over the coming days and weeks, but it’s best to kick things off with my first impressions of my deluxe new toy.
Straight out of the box, the camera felt very solid in my hands. It has a certain heft, which I like. It feels just about perfect in fact, and very well built. My Panasonic FZ35 felt very well built and solid, but a bit plasticky. The camera that followed that, the Fuji HS10, felt heavier, with more solid materials, but not quite as well put together. But the PEN feels perfect. It’s metal body is screwed together tightly, and every button and dial is very solid indeed.
I’m not a manual reader. Not my style at all. I’m a man – manuals are for women! So the next thing to do is fit the lens on, insert the battery and memory card and hit that ‘on’ button. And take some photos. It’s time to see how intuitive the camera is to use. It has been designed with beginners in mind, so it should be very easy to get into.
It hasn’t got the plethora of buttons like on the the Fuji HS10, one for every function. The rear of the camera is quite sparse in fact, with the majority of settings selected via the menu. There are pros and cons to this sort of approach, the main con usually being crucial settings buried deep in a menu system. Not the case here.
It is going to take a little time to remember which direction to go in in different dial modes, but most of the required settings are just a couple of clicks away. The camera also has a lot of helpful settings in iAuto mode. I think even experienced photographers will get something out of these settings options. After just a couple of days, I’m getting the hang of it, even if it hasn’t become second nature instantly.
Last point. This isn’t what I’d call a budget camera, with a list price of nearly $600, and a street price of $500 plus. But it is the cheapest of the PEN range, and a good couple of hundred dollars cheaper than Panasonic’s compact Micro Four Thirds unit, the GF1. It is, essentially, a budget version of the E-P1, with fewer features and a cheaper, plastic housed kit lens.
However, the important elements that make the E-P1 and the newer E-P2 such good cameras have been retained, including the superb sensor. The one bit of scrimping that is really noticeable however, is the LCD on the back. It’s a lower resolution 2.7″ screen which is far from class leading. But it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for the price.
Some elements of the camera are, however, an improvement. For one, this camera has a built in flash! The other Pen’s do not. It also has a Jpg engine producing superb images that have had review sites raving. Some of the results I’ve had, particularly in low light at high ISO’s, have had me raving too. I’ll leave you with one of those images.
It’s not a perfect image, and degradation of image quality can be seen at larger sizes. However, it was taken in very difficult conditions, in terrible light, at full zoom, cropped a little, at ISO 1600. And it’s still usable. That, to me, is impressive.