I've recently been considering the best camera to take on a trip to India. While I love my Pentax setup it is big, heavy and ostentatious. I don't want to attract the kind of attention an SLR can garner. On the other hand, I am used to stellar image quality and don't want to make too big a sacrifice for the sake of portability. After weighing the options I purchased an Olympus PEN E-P1. In this article I'll provide a quick introduction to the system.
It's been three years since Olympus and Panasonic banded together to create Micro Four Thirds (MFT), their new digital camera system, being a mirrorless take on their Four Thirds sensor and mount. These cameras can be built smaller than conventional DSLRs, since they lack a mirror assembly and viewfinder. Thus image composition is done using a rear LCD panel instead of holding the camera up to your face. In this way they resemble point and shoots. But they have a good deal in common with DSLRs, in that they take interchangeable lenses. Essentially an MFT camera is a hybrid between the two older paradigms.
The first Olympus model was released in July of 2009. The PEN E-P1 was based physically on the Olympus PEN F half frame film camera, with the same cute looks and retro demeanour. The PEN F is exactly as old as I am, so it's kind of freaky saying hello to its cyborg descendent. (The Olympus timeline is worth a look.)
It's taken me two years to try out an MFT camera -- the reasons are simple. First, I am quite happy with my Pentax DSLR system. Pentax makes smaller cameras than Nikon, Canon etc. so I have never had a pressing need to compromise on something smaller still. Second, the initial pricing of the MFT models was rather off-putting: $800 for the body alone and $1200 for a system that includes the Panasonic 20mm ƒ/1.7, a pancake lens that approximates a normal field of view. The unfortunate truth is that dollars convert directly to Euro or Pounds Sterling for retail pricing. Paying over a thousand pounds for a camera inferior to a Pentax never made sense to me.
But things don't stand still for long. As buyers rush to consume the latest camera models, older ones lose their value. You can now get a refurbished E-P1 for $350. And in some ways the original PEN is still the best model, in build and controls if not in features. The fast Panasonic lens has remained in high demand however, as news of its sharpness and pleasant rendering spread. Its price has recently been shooting well above the original retail of $400. But eventually more units enter the retail chain and the price lowers again.
I managed to pick up both units for less than one-third the launch price, which seemed more than reasonable to me. Happily, they arrived on the same day, though they had been purchased from different private sellers. I wasted no time in shooting some objects around the house and neighbourhood (as you can see).
What is there to like about this system? The body and lens come in around 450g and 13×7×7cm in dimensions (length, height, width). That is not pocketable in the same way a point and shoot is, but compare it to a Pentax system. My K-x and FA43 Limited are 630g and 13×9×10cm, but the body I normally use is larger and the lens hood adds more still. In use, the E-P1 is smaller than these measurements show; I would guess it's about half the cubic volume but I'm not about to try a water displacement test!
The second advantage is the sensor size, which I explained in detail in my article Thinking Outside The Frame: Sensor Sizes Explained. In short, 35mm film has a 1.0 crop factor, Pentax APS-C has 1.5, MFT has 2.0 and most point and shoot cameras are way up at 6. A larger crop factor means less depth of field control, higher noise and lower quality in general. From this comparison we can see that Pentax and MFT are more similar than different.
At this point one might ask what I gave up by not getting a more recent model. There is no built-in flash on the E-P1, but since such beasts are always horrible I don't miss it. There is no EVF (Electronic View-Finder) option but as those are expensive and add bulk they did not fit into my plans anyway. The newer E-P2 supports manual shutter and aperture control in movie mode, which is certainly a good thing. And it has new Continuous Autofocus tracking for moving subjects. However, neither of these target my interests. The newest E-PL2 has only one control dial and makes other interface sacrifices.
What about the Panasonic G1 and like models? The main advantages of Olympus versus Panasonic are solid build, smaller size, LCD that is better in sunlight, two customisable control dials and manual focus assist mode. But the biggest win is the body-based image stabilisation, which I could hardly do without after being spoiled by Pentax. These features more than make up for the Panasonic advantages, which include faster auto-focus, higher-resolution LCD and improved responsiveness. The first doesn't matter when I'm using older lenses and the second is moot if the screen is washed out by ambient light.
Choosing between the two systems was difficult, but image stabilisation was the trump card.
In short the Olympus PEN E-P1 gives me slightly less image quality than what I am used to, in a significantly smaller form factor. I will consider other usability concerns in future articles. In my next instalment I'll discuss a major advantage of the MFT system I have not yet mentioned. Plus I'll try out one of my very best Pentax lenses on the G-F1.
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