There’s only one bad thing about buying a new camera. And it doesn’t really matter how good the camera is, or how much you spend on it. There’s a better one coming along about five minutes after you’ve fired off the first few shots. Such is life. I can’t afford a new camera every five minutes. I’ve had to live with my current model, the Olympus PEN E-PL1, for very nearly eighteen months now. It’s not, truth be told, hard to live with.
From the moment I took the camera out of the box, I loved the PEN. It looks fabulous. It feels weighty and solid. It feels like a quality camera, which is good. Feeling like you can take an award winning shot gives you the confidence to do so. The camera fits nicely into the hand as well, allowing a firm grip, and a steady shot. The buttons are well placed too, although given that this is the budget member of the PEN family, there aren’t a plethora of buttons – it’d have been poor if they weren’t well placed.
I bought the PEN for it’s large sensor, and the improved quality in low light shooting that that enables. I haven’t been disappointed. The manual functions are all there to make the most of the sensor. It’s always produced good quality shots with nice colours. So good is the Jpeg engine, I don’t bother shooting RAW. I like the Art filters too, although they are, like filters usually are, a bit gimmicky. But they work well in stills. It’s a more mixed result in video.
The PEN has been a joy to use. It’s diminutive size, in comparison to DSLR’s, is a serious plus point. It’s so much more convenient to take out that a full sized DSLR. It’ll not fit into a pocket, but it’s not going to make your shoulders ache after a day of carrying it around. It does what it’s supposed to do, and does it well. And unlike its more expensive PEN stable mates, it has a built in flash. The lack of which would have been a deal breaker fore me, to be quite honest.
It’s not perfect though. Being the budget model, as I mentioned earlier, it has a few low spec compononets and missing features. The most obvious one is the LCD on the back. It’s a 3″ screen, but low resolution, and you can never be sure whether you’ve got a winning shot or not. The camera doesn’t always deal with contrast so well either, and I’ve gotten home plenty of times with dud shots wasting space on my memory card.
And while the Jpeg engine is great, the iAuto setting leaves something to be desired. In many difficult situations it’s next to useless, and you have to go manual. Which isn’t always convenient. And is not something my old Panasonic TZ5 ever struggled with – Panasonic’s Intelligent Auto perhaps the best out there. Having said that, the results using manual settings can (when they come off) put anything my TZ5 could do to shame.
There is also the kit lens. It’s capable enough in most circumstances. But with a maximum aperture of f3.5, it’s not the brightest piece of glass in existence. As far as low light shooting goes, some of what I gained over the Fuji HS10 it replaced, from having the larger sensor, has been lost with the kit lens. To be fair, most kit lenses from most manufacturers are of similar spec.
The last year has seen a real explosion of quality compact cameras that could see themselves as potential rivals. A few have caught my eye. Fuji’s new X-S1 superzoom is a wonder. Canon have also just released the latest in their G range, the G1 X. It doesn’t have the zoom of the Fuji, but has a sensor even larger than my PEN’s. It comes with much faster glass though – f2.8, Both have just one obvious flaw. The price. They are both in the $600 plus bracket. A little cheaper, and able to fit into a pocket, is the new Panasonic TZ30 travelzoom, the descendant of my old TZ5.
It’s hard to believe that you can fit a 20x zoom into a pocketable camera. And with the new CMOS sensors, the capability of the camera is light years ahead of my old model. Sure, it won’t produce shots of the same sort of image quality as the other camera I’ve mentioned, especially in low light, nor can you get quite as creative. But for most everyday shooting viewed on a monitor, it’ll match them 95% of the time. For half the price. And fits in your pocket.
I mentioned the flaws of the Olympus PEN. But really, they are completely overshadowed by the positives. My main complaint can be solved by simply buying a new lens. I’d hoped to have done so by now, but it hasn’t come to pass. In other words, I haven’t had the cash. And you do need cash, because the MFT lenses (especially the Olympus ones, although the Panny lenses will fit too) cost a very pretty penny.
But there is light on the horizon, because a few third party lens manufacturers are about to release some cheaper, but hopefully just as capable, lenses. I’m particularly keeping an eye out for a couple of Sigma lenses due out soon and shipping, apparently, for less than $250.
Did I make the right choice? I’m still happy with my camera. I’d prefer the Fuji or Canon that I’ve mentioned, but they are not really within my budget. Nor were they available in 2010! But if you are buying one today, then it’s worth noting that you can pick up an E-PL1 with the kit lens for just $290! That’s a hell of a lot of camera for the money. If my budget were under $300, I’d be hard pushed to think of anything else I’d buy. Shucks, if my budget was $400, I’m not convinced that there’s anything out there substantially better – I’d probably still buy the PEN and put the $100 into a piggy bank to go towards a new lens one day.
The last word on this mini review though should be left to the photos. Whenever a camera interests me, I’ll go read the reviews. They’ll have an impact on my buying decision. But I’ll also search Flickr for real world examples of what people are getting out of the camera. Those results influence me far more than the mere written word. So please do click here to see a little gallery of my best/more interesting results. The image below is just a little teaser.