Friday, July 01, 2011

Olympus E-P1 Review Part Three

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In this article I continue my review of the Olympus PEN E-P1 begun back in early June with A Review of the Olympus E-P1 with FA 43 Limited and continued earlier today with Part Two. In this instalment I'll discuss the screen and viewfinder options, consider the size issue and look briefly at image quality and other attributes. I'll then examine the brand new E-P3 in light of the deficiencies I found with the E-P1 and summarise the improvements I still hope to see.

Screen, OVF, EVF
This was the first PEN model and there is no option for an Electronic View-Finder (EVF), only an optical finder keyed to the 17mm prime lens FOV. Thus one needs to rely on the rear-panel LCD for all composition. This is a known limitation of this model. The screen is a nice 3" in size but a low 230K in resolution, a fact many critics have noted. I have no problem with this, actually, and find it a decent LCD all things considered. Perhaps that's because I do not expect to do any critical viewing on a camera. This screen is more than good enough for composition. It makes manual focusing fairly easy, since it is obvious when the subject is crisp.

Use of a screen like this in bright light is going to be troublesome. Though there are certain accessory solutions (hoods, shades and magnifiers), nothing beats an EVF in these cases.

Using an optional external EVF has four significant problems: it blocks the flash mount; it increases the profile of the camera significantly; it is fiddly to attach, unattach and carry separately; and it is expensive. Olympus has so-far failed to provide an MFT camera with a built-in EVF. This is incomprehensible to me and is a situation that likely can't last. The Panasonic G3 provides a shining example; I doubt Olympus can ignore this competition for long.

Though one of the new Olympus cameras has an articulated screen, the top-end models so far do not. This is also a disappointment as such an LCD solves several problems and provides very real shooting benefits. First, it can be used to reduce the effects of glare, by tilting in a propitious direction. Second, it can facilitate self-portraits, shooting over crowds and so on. But maybe most important, it can allow waist-level photography for discrete street shooting. Even the simple tilt screen of the Sony NEX, though not fully articulated, accomplishes two out of three of these goals while maintaining a slim profile. Let's get one of those!


A Word About Size
Size is one of the main reasons a serious photographer would shoot MFT over some other system. But size only matters when there is a quantum difference in form factor between two otherwise similar cameras. You can either put a camera in your pocket (point and shoot) or you can't. You can either put your walk-around kit in a small discreet bag (MFT and some APS-C) or you can't. You can either hand-hold the camera (full-frame and Canikon APS-C) or you need a tripod (medium format and larger). Thus, size for me boils down to where you have to put the camera when not in use: a pocket, a shoulder bag, a dedicated camera case / rucksack, or a car boot.

MFT has the possibility of being a pocket camera but then only in its smallest sizes, without EVF add-ons and with the most compact lenses. It is only in these configurations that it has any significant advantage over the small and powerful Pentax APS-C cameras. For that reason I bought the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens alongside the E-P1. Though I was disappointed that further pancake lenses were not available.

Many of the illustrations on this page were made using a K-mount to MFT adapter and some of my favourite Pentax lenses. In doing so I forsake compactness. Not only is the lens larger, but the adapter must make up the difference in registration difference -- any size advantage MFT has is hence lost. Though fun, this might not be a compelling argument for the use of MFT over some of the smaller DSLRs.

The forthcoming Olympus 12mm f/2.0 and 45mm f/1.8 primes fill two important niches in their system. However, neither are pancake designs.

blue dory
But What About The Images?
I won't say much here, since I presented several photographic examples and discussed my favourite settings in the first part of my review. There I concluded "Colour me impressed. This lens/body combination is brilliant!" I was referring to the use of the Pentax FA43 Limited, but having since tried several Pentax lenses on this body my opinion stands for all of them. The Olympus sensor does a good job and is in no way inferior to the APS-C sensors on the second-last generation of Pentax cameras. However, it cannot compete with the latest sensors, found in the K-x and K-5, when judged at high ISOs. This is a big issue for the hordes of spec followers who examine every sensor minutely for improvements over the previous. For me, in normal shooting, I was happy to use the camera at up to ISO 800. And since that's all I really use with my K20D, I was losing nothing.

In most cases I have been shooting RAW, but I tried some JPGs; on the highest setting they were indistinguishable from the RAW files. That's quite remarkable. Of course RAW will allow more latitude in post-processing. And since the JPG files are not that much smaller, I'll stick to RAW. However, it is nice to know that if I need to do a quick shoot for a client who needs immediate results I needn't worry about the performance of the JPG engine.

I am also blown away by the metering on this camera. I am used to doing my own metering and have even dallied in zone work. This is the first camera I have used where I trust the automatic meter to accurately read a scene. Really. Of course it still isn't perfect and never could be. But I consider this a solved problem.

The auto-focus with the Panasonic 20mm lens is perfectly fine for me. Others complain about performance, but I say there are more important things to fix first. For example, the overall sluggish responsiveness of the camera, which lies somewhere between a point-and-shoot and a DSLR, can really get in the way of shooting. Though some will show shots proving otherwise, I think it's foolish to use this camera for action. There are far better choices. And though there might always be a difference between the performance of camera systems, I am sure that more memory and a faster processor will improve the MFT user experience significantly.

Auto white balance is as good as one could want. Other features worked as advertised. One can play around with funky processing modes or apply these after the fact. It kills time when travelling on a bus.

At least until your battery runs dry. The battery here is a lot weaker than I'd like. For a significant outing you'd need a backup. I get far more use out of my Pentax DSLRs. Maybe I'm spoiled.

I took one video. It looked good. That's about as far as I'm going with that. You'll have to read someone else for detailed video info.

Other Irksome Things
When attaching a manual lens one can configure the IBIS for the new focal length. But there are two problems with the implementation. First, this setting has to be found in the menu system. Second, this figure does not reset when an automatic lens is attached. Olympus should take a leaf from Pentax here: prompt for the focal length and automatically reset if the camera can read the lens value itself.

Bracketing is buried deep in a menu, so I find I never bother using it. Perhaps this should be on the drive menu or somewhere else convenient.

The shortest Sleep setting is one minute. This means that every time one turns on the screen for a momentary adjustment it must stay on for sixty seconds, draining the battery. I would appreciate five second and ten second settings.


dome dominion
Summary
Here are the improvements I'd like to see:

1. Tilt screen for waist-level shooting and glare control.
2. Integrated EVF.
3. ISO assignable to any soft controls or dials.
4. Dedicated focus assist button independent of view modes.
5. Left-hand control wheel.
6. Larger hand grip.
7. Improved responsiveness.
8. Better access to bracketing.
9. Configurable User menu.
10. On/off slider (not button).
11. EV comp button moved away from shutter button.
12. Non-photographic controls moved apart from others on back panel.
13. Re-configured and logically laid out menu.
14. Smarter IBIS settings.

As important are the things I do not want:

a) A smaller body. Too small and one has to start dropping important controls.
b) A built in flash. These are always useless for proper shooting. Any flash I use must be tilt/swivel. Besides, the presence of a flash would cram existing controls closer together.
c) The loss of any existing features.
d) Additional buttons for secondary features unimportant to photography.

All of these are very conservative requests. What I would really like is a camera with complete direct control over aperture, shutter speed and ISO (something like the Fuji X100). One with totally configurable buttons and switches. But that ideal seems somehow impossible to reach in an interchangeable lens system. The only reason for this failure is lack of vision on the part of the manufacturers. But there it is.

Olympus E-P3
What about the E-P3?
It might seem ridiculous to be reviewing a two-year-old camera when many newer bodies have been released. But, quite honestly, I don't think any of these have made significant improvements over the original digital PEN. Certainly the E-P3 is the best of the bunch. So how many of my boxes does it tick?

Almost none. The responsiveness has been boosted and there is now a Magnify button, which maybe solves point 4. The grip is interchangeable; one alternative is available. I haven't seen it but let's be generous and say it satisfies point 6.

The camera now has two Fn buttons, but these need to be assigned to AE lock and EV compensation to make up for the lack of buttons present on the E-P1. According to reports, it is still true that neither can be used for ISO! Incredible!

At most, then, the culmination of the Olympus line only satisfies me on 3 of 14 points and, incidentally, back-slides by wasting space and money on a flash unit.

Conclusion
Do you want a small camera with interchangeable lenses and excellent image quality? Depending on your budget, I advise you to buy a Pentax K-x or K-5 and some pancake lenses. You have access to a much larger system, excellent high ISO images and great ergonomics. Responsiveness, battery life and many other characteristics are superior to Olympus MFT.

The E-P1 system is smaller, but only if you limit yourself to a very few lenses. Otherwise it is not decisively smaller -- you still need a shoulder bag rather than a pocket to carry it. In return it gives up too much in ergonomics and usability. Neither is it really cheaper, at least not if you consider the latest model. This analysis could change in a very short time, should Olympus release a "pro"1 model made with photographers in mind, rather than targeting people upgrading from point and shoot cameras.

Nonetheless, the E-P1 is a fun camera. If you are happy with the available auto-focus lenses it is very usable. If you wish to use a wide range of off-brand lenses it provides a decent, though frustrating, back-end. Until I can afford a K-5 I'll keep mine. By then maybe Olympus will have done the right thing.


1 I adopt here common terminology, though I reserve the term "professional" to apply to people.

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