Styled on the classic precursor to the SLR, the E-P1 has more than just retro looks going for it. But does it hit the sweet spot between compact and DSLR?
Other than the 'aspirationally' priced Leica M8, there’s no other camera quite like the Olympus PEN E-P1. By coupling a compact-sized body with SLR-quality innards and an interchangeable lens mount, it styles itself on the classic 'rangefinder' cameras of yore. There's even a hardened tan leather case available to complete the look, presumably with a pink ruffled shirt attachment.
But the E-P1 isn’t just about retro style. It fills a gap that camera manufacturers have been trying to plug with high-end compacts since the dawn of digital: a lightweight camera that takes pro-quality shots.
Based on the Micro Four-Thirds system, it has the same sensor and processing engine as a full-size SLR, but fits snugly into the palm. And other than a slight problem with the on-board RAW to JPG conversion, which blows too much detail out of the compressed shots, it matches any comparatively priced SLR for picture quality.
If you do want brilliant snaps that don't need converting, try playing around with the 'pinhole' mode, which is enormous fun given the camera's design.
Many serious snappers seem to define themselves by the size of their SLRs and phallically engorged lenses. It wasn't always thus. The founding father of modern photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson, believed so strongly that the photographer should be unobtrusive that he refused even to attach a flash to his tiny Leica.
That's the tradition the E-P1 is modelled in. With it, you could bung the equivalent of an SLR and two large lenses into your jacket pocket and still go running with the mob or climb a nearby mountain. Especially as the other big bonus of the E-P1 over a sub-£1,000 SLR is that the fully metal body is up to taking a few knocks on the way.
A better view
It's hard not to notice that there's no built-in flash, though. Working on the Cartier-Bresson theory, that's not an enormous drawback, and there's a small unit available that fits into the hotshoe if you need it.
You may not: one of the most impressive things about the E-P1 is its ability to shoot in low light. The autofocus hunts a bit in the dark, but pictures shot at ISO6400 are usable, and there's little visible grain right up to ISO2000.
The lack of an optical viewfinder is harder to overlook, though. There's one that fits into the hotshoe, but it defeats the object of a simple camera without fiddly accessories.
And unlike the flash, you will need it. The screen only gets washed out in very bright light, but it goes black for a few seconds when a shot is taken, so burst mode is virtually unusable.
That's not all. The menu system may be identical to Olympus' bigger cameras, but it doesn't have the simplicity or ease of use that the PEN's pared back look suggests.
Less buttons, more easy to use dials would have seemed entirely appropriate for a camera which evokes the era of small British sports cars, rioting French students and Agent Orange.
It's biggest problem, though, is that it's slow to start up and shoot. The one thing it should be is ever ready to capture Cartier-Bresson's 'decisive moment'. That's why anyone looking to spend this much will do their best to fight off the sexy 60s charm of the E-P1 and go for a 'proper' SLR.
Olympus PEN E-P1 review
It has a few shortcomings, but the E-P1 is a camera of unique character in a world of dull-looking compacts
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