Olympus PEN E-PL1 [REVIEW]

Olympus PEN E-PL1 [REVIEW]

Olympus keeps pushing the PEN, obviously feeding a market need. Now we see an entry level Micro Four Thirds model – the Olympus PEN E-PL1 – that should satisfy the less well-heeled and tech-challenged photographers out there.

Olympus PEN E-PL1

It’s hard to deny the physical attractions of the new PEN: the review camera was resplendent in a champagne-silver-gold colour with black trim; a big advantage of this colour scheme is that the control markings are highly visible, unlike the labels on black cameras. There’s also a black camera.

The review kit included the f3.5-5.6/14-42mm lens — an OK starter lens but you’ll soon crave for a faster optic and a wider focal length range: welcome to the world of interchangeable lenses.

Olympus PEN E-PL1 lens flash

Initial passion over, I grabbed the camera, hit the power, then fired off a few shots. Power off, I opened the card+battery compartment … then realised that in fact I had not cut the power but mistakenly tapped the shutter button! The shutter button and power button’s have a similar appearance and a close 13mm proximity. This factor would bug me throughout my temporary ownership of the PEN! Anyone else caught?

The rest of my tour of duty was trouble-free, so what is there to like about the camera?

Lens removed, the camera is pocketable and, even with two or three lenses detached and stowed away you could easily fit them in a hip bag or similar; total weight of such a kit would be far less than a kilo.

Olympus PEN E-PL1 back

Olympus PEN E-PL1 Features

The Live CMOS sensor can capture 12.3 million pixels, with a maximum image size of 4032×3024 pixels and a print size of 34x26cm.

Movies can be shot at 1280×720 pixel resolution with sound; whilst recording you can of course alter the zoom and, while auto focus can be used it will add a few buzzes to the sound track. You can shoot a still while shooting a movie.

Olympus saw the error of its ways in the first PEN — no flash — and has installed a pop-up job that has fill-in flash modes as well as flash forced off, slow sync plus first and second shutter sync. Flash intensity can be varied by three f stops up or down.

Cafe Bondi.JPG

As befits an upper level camera there is the expected metering options: iAUTO, Program AE, shutter and aperture priority plus manual; then there are 19 scene modes (portrait, night, macro etc) plus Olympus’ Art Filters found on its DSLRs.

iAUTO: this is an absolute beginner’s aid: it helps you to creatively adjust such elements as image brightness, focus, colour saturation etc. There’s also a collection shooting tips on tap.

I applaud the camera’s ability to accept an accessory viewfinder as well as an optional add-on stereo microphone or an external flash unit.

Olympus PEN E-PL1 ISO Tests

Olympus PEN E-PL1 ISO 100 f6.3 1:10 sec.JPG
An excellent performance at ISO 100 with no noise nor colour artefacts visible.

Olympus PEN E-PL1 ISO 800 f6.3 1:80 sec.JPG

At ISO 800 the high quality continues: no noise, no artefacts.

Olympus PEN E-PL1 ISO 3200 f6.3 1:320 sec.JPG

At ISO 3200 we begin to see a little noise appear along with some evidence of colour artefacts; definition is still excellent, so I consider think this to be a useful setting for low light shooting or the occasion where you need a small aperture and/or a fast shutter speed


The kit lens showed a degree of barrel distortion at the zoom’s wide end but no sign of any pincushion distortion at the tele end.

Mural Paddington fair.jpg

Startup Time

In three seconds from power up I was able to shoot my first shot; follow-ons came in at about a second apiece.


Quality: as good as many DSLRs that I have tested. I consider that this camera is lunching well above its weight in image quality
Why you’d buy the PEN E-PL1: a highly likeable camera with an easy to follow interface; you want to shot HD movies with zoom and auto focus.
Why you wouldn’t: can’t think of a thing!’

This is a highly likeable camera and is an ideal bridge for compact owners to cross on their way to the upper levels of DSLR ownership.

Olympus PEN E-PL1 Specifications

< strong>Image Sensor: 12.3 million effective pixels.
Metering: Digital ESP (324 areas), centre-weighted averaging, spot.
Effective Sensor Size: 17.3×13.0mm (22.5mm diameter) Live CMOS.
Shutter Speed: 60 to 1/2000 second.
Continuous Shooting: 3 fps.
Memory: SD, SDHC cards.
Image Sizes (pixels): 4032×3024, 3200×2400, 2560×1920, 1600×1200, 1280×960, 1024×768, 640×480.
LCD Screen: 6.9cm LCD (230,000 pixels).
File Formats: JPEG, RAW, Motion JPEG.
Colour Space: sRGB, Adobe RGB.
ISO Sensitivity: Auto, 100 to 3200.
Interface: USB 2.0, HDMI, AV.
Power: Rechargeable lithium ion battery, DC input.
Dimensions: 114.6×72.2×41.5 WHDmm.
Weight:. 344 g (inc battery and card).
Price: Get a price on the Olympus PEN E-PL1 in different configerations – Body OnlyBlack with 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko Digital Zoom LensChampagne/Gold with 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko Digital Zoom Lens.

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Olympus PEN E-PL1
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Barrie Smith is an experienced writer/photographer currently published in Australian Macworld, Auscam and other magazines in Australia and overseas.

Some Older Comments

  • Jeromy January 17, 2013 01:53 am

    Ant tips for shooting indoors in not great light with the E-pl1. The Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 helps, but i'm sure the results could be better.

  • Kelvyn October 9, 2012 06:09 pm

    Attention Oliver Jones - sorry for late response - thanks mate for your help - i genuinely appreciate it mate! - cheerz, Kelvyn

  • chanelle May 14, 2012 02:23 pm

    I'm new to this. I heard that when you record movies and add the mic adaptor sema -1 that it carries white noise. Is there away to avoid this? Is there another adaptor? Is there editing software to help? Sound quality is very important to me. Please help me!! Thanks!

  • Oliver Jones April 18, 2012 09:40 pm

    Kelvyn: Yes, indeed "18% graycard" is photogeek speak.

    Take a look at this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gray_card
    Here's what you do. Get your local photo place to sell you one of those. Mine cost something like USD $7.

    Then, when you go to take pictures of your work, put the gray card under the same light as your painting -- you might actually attach it to the top edge of your picture frame with a bit of tape so it hangs down over the painting.

    Then find the "WB" white balance item on the PL 1. Set it for manual white balance, and point it at the gray card to set the white balance. Look at the PL 1 instruction booklet for details.

    Then the camera will be set up to match whatever lighting you're using to illuminate your paintings. White balance is calibrated by (more photogeek speak, sorry) degrees Kelvin for color temperature. The bluer the light, the higher the color temperature.

    I hope this helps. Best of luck.

  • Kelvyn April 18, 2012 01:54 pm

    18% gray card...is that camera speak Oliver? i don't understand?

  • Kelvyn April 18, 2012 01:53 pm

    Thanks Oliver - you have been a superb help mate - sincere thanks 2 you!

  • Oliver Jones April 11, 2012 09:52 pm

    Kelvyn, the E-PL1 should do a real good job for making stills of your work. Olympus has done a good a job as anybody of making the colors coming out of these sensors work well.

    By now these are available at excellent prices on the used market.

    You DO need to do a couple of things to get the best possible results when shooting artwork.

    1. Set the ISO to a low number, 100 or 200.

    2. Don't use automatic white balance. Instead, figure out how to set the white balance manually. It's a bit fiddly to do that on these cameras. It's worth it though: it will get the colors you worked hard for in your artwork to show up in your images. Hint: you'll need a reference white or 18% gray card to do this.

    3. Put the camera on the A setting (aperture priority) and figure out how to underexpose by about 0.5 f-stop. At any rate experiment with underexposing a bit (from what the automatic exposure stuff puts out there). Again, a bit fiddly, but worth the effort.

    4. Use JPEG Superfine resolution. Then if you need a web version of your images, downsample using some program like photoshop.

  • Kelvyn April 11, 2012 04:36 pm

    I am a visual artist. I do not want a full DSLR. Does anyone recommend the PL1 for taking stills of my artworks?

  • Martin Cohen August 21, 2010 10:40 am

    This is my current do-everything camera. I would not have gotten it if the viewfinder (VF-2) was not available.

    My current setup: E-PL1, VF-2, Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 (great for available light), Olympus 14-42mm (kit lens, rarely used), Olympus 14-150. This fits in a surprisingly small camera bag.

    I also have adapters for my Konica AR lenses (nice to be able to use my 40mm f/1.8 and 100mm f/2) and T-mount (For Spiratone 8mm and 500mm f/8 mirror).

    I don't know if I will ever get the wide angle zooms.

    In a year or so, I hope to get a new Olympus body with ISO 6400 (25600 would be nice too:)

    When I show people the pictures I get at ISO 1600 with the f/1.7, they are amazed. The viewfinder also blows them away - they are so used to crappy screens (especially outdoors), they go "Wow!"

  • Mihail Iliev August 20, 2010 11:28 pm

    Would anyone compare Pen to G11? Pen is a bitmore expensive and I was thinking would it make sense to switch from G11 to Pen?

  • Darryl Cox August 20, 2010 12:52 pm

    I bought the Pen-1 two months ago after seeing the television advs and the write ups in magazines. I am not sorry in the least. I looked at it in the store.My hands started shaking and I broke out in a sweat. My first digital was the Olympus C3030 and it was great and I bought the Pen-1 based upon the good experience with the C3030.

    I wanted a small camera that had the functionality of my EOS Canons but was quick for stuff I might miss otherwise. If does just that.

    One added feature is with the EOS adapter I use my Canon lens' including the Canon 70 - 200 f/2.8 IS. The setup look funny but it gives great results. Put the ultra wide f/4.0 lens on the Pen and one can stand amongst the actors, in rehearsals, and get really interesting shots.

    The manual leaves a bit to be desired but don't they all. However after a little confused usage I am learning the men system and things are going very well. I do a lot of theatrical production photography and it even fits in there. Once I get a better handle on the manual usage it will be a wonderful too.

    No buyers remorse at all.

  • techmine August 17, 2010 01:12 am

    Aside the difficult Menu Options, this camera totally rocks. I am also new to the Olympus cameras, may be thats why difficulty with menus. I have D40 and D300s from Nikon but still got lured into this one because of the size and quality of pictures it captures. With the kit lens, the weight of the camera is negligible with a shoulder strap. That is what I wanted from a compact digital camera. I still use my Nikons for low light conditions and D300s for my son's sports. I won't yet pass a verdict on Olympus's low light capabilities because I have not tested it to its extremes.
    On and On, a great camera (tiny DSLR). I am not sure if Nikon or Canon will come up with an option in this field as they are not part of four-thirds band wagon.

  • Nathan Yurisich August 15, 2010 11:31 pm

    Got this camera with two lenses (17mm and 14-42mm) for my 21st, its brillient. First non-compact ive owned. Easy to learn how to use, makes taking nice photos really fun.

  • Ina DiSapio August 15, 2010 11:18 pm

    I bought this camera a few months ago, and I must say it is the nicest camera I have ever owned. It is so easy to use and the photos are unbelievably clear and perfect. I love love love this camera.

  • Karen Stuebing August 15, 2010 08:34 pm

    Finally Olympus has come out with a camera I can learn to love. I started digital photography with an Olympus C5050Z which has become a classic and a camera I still use despite it being only 5 mps.

    I've been waiting for them to produce another compact or DSLR winner. In the meantime, I bought a Pentax K10D which I also love but it's big and sometimes you want a smaller camera. And Olympus colors and punchy contrast cannot be beat.

    After reading a more extensive review on the PEN PL1 and looking at the price, I think this might finally be the one.

  • Oliver Jones August 15, 2010 12:32 pm

    Perceptive review; thanks! Some observations things I can add, seeing as how I got my E-PL1 about three months ago.

    It works very well indeed, with the proper adapter, with the nice OM-System glass I've had since the days of silver. It also does a very nice job with such things as fill-in flash.

    It takes some practice to learn the rocker-button moves to operate it in manual mode. Take some time to figure out how to change the aperture and shutter speed before you take it out for irreplaceable shots.

    There's one control glitch: the red button on the back makes it start shooting video. In the midst of taking photos of birds, I found myself pushing that button too often. But it can be reconfigured.

    Hook it up to your computer when you get it, and upgrade the firmware for your body and lenses from the manufacturer's web site.

  • Framtonm August 15, 2010 10:12 am

    Yes, but without a viewfinder at my age (65) camera shake is problem if I have to hold the camera so I can see the screen!