Camera Update

After two weeks in France with the E-P1, I can confidently say two things about the camera. One is that given the image quality, which beats many comparable SLRs on a good day, the little Olympus really is incredibly portable. Most of the time I had the camera and its collapsible kit zoom tucked into a pocket of my general travel backpack with no problem. The camera itself only counts for half of the portability, as Olympus deserves credit for a collapsible zoom that makes no apologies for quality. There are quite a number of “pancake” primes with a larger form factor; comparable zooms fill the space of a beer can or more. An FL-36 flash, which worked quite well with the Olympus, hung on a belt clip. In this case the extra portage shouldn’t count against the E-P1 since I would carry it with any camera. IMO neither God nor man has yet created a useful pop-up flash.

Second, dpreview got it right. This camera is not for everybody. Statistically speaking it is probably not even for you. Focusing will feel agonizingly slow for anyone familiar with phase-detect SLRs. Sports? No. Olympus also decided not to integrate focus assist from an external flash, essentially inactivating AF at night. It is nice that the camera integrates manual focus quite well because you will need it. Night shooting commands it, and I often use MF to verify that eyes are tack-sharp when I’m shooting portraits. Note that I usually turn off the face-detect feature, so the AF may be better at portraits than I give it credit for.

kids

For street scenes like the one above I manually pre-focus the lens to a specific distance and snap the shot with my hand ‘resting’ on the camera hanging from the neck strap. For these shots it helps that the Olympus does not look like an intimidatingly ‘serious’ camera.

The menu system is another mixed blessing. Deep customization options let me find settings to match whatever kind of photography I felt like doing that day (e.g., I map the ‘Fn’ button to toggle between auto and manual focus modes) , but it also means learning a new menu system from scratch. That apparently bothers some people; again, this being my first quality digicam I didn’t have that many reflexes to unlearn. Maybe I’m quick with this stuff because it didn’t take me that long.

Like great manual focusing, the twin control dials only count as a major advantage if you compose in manual mode. I almost never use program mode, so for me the ability to simultaneously tweak aperture and shutter speed boosted the usability factor considerably. Other users may not notice the benefit.

For me the LCD screen is simply not a liability. I have heard that Olympus designed the relatively low-res screen to boost visibility in bright light and from wide angles. If so, it worked. I could clearly see the live preview with bright sun shining straight on the screen and while holding the camera at oblique angles (and both at the same time). The greatest hazard of a low res screen, manual focusing, is nullified by a magnified live view that engages while turning the focus ring.

The sum of these observations is that the Olympus E-P1 seems surprisingly tailored to me. I consider myself a traveling techno-grump who hates moving parts such as the flip mirror, which seems unnecessary in the digital age. I need Velvia-like picture quality (Olympus also likes saturated colors, although you can adjust that). I spent more than ten years shooting with a manual Nikon FE2. The farther one gets from my sweet spot – if you only know point-and-shoot photography, if you shoot action with SLRs, if you don’t need a minimal form factor for travel, if you rarely compose in Manual mode or use manual focus – the less fun this camera will seem.

big-cricket

And I am happy. Most of you already saw the remarkable crispness of semi-macro shots taken with the kit zoom. Jump over to my Flickr page to see those shots and some more samples from my France trip. Taking home a surprising number of such ‘keepers’ from a camera that mostly disappears into one hand makes me a satisfied customer.

***

Unfortunately all is not well. Panasonic, the other major developer of micro four thirds cameras, waited until the day after I leave for France to make their big announcement. And it’s a doozy. Did Panasonic finally beat the speed penalty that contrast-detect focusing usually suffers? Setting aside dual control wheels and in-body stabilization, and assuming equal image quality (they use the same CCD chip), Olympus should pray that Panasonic made a grave design error in some non-obvious part of the GF-1.






20 replies
  1. 1
    Mike Mundy says:

    In the world of digital photography, it never hurts to procrastinate.

    Of course, Olympus will soon be coming out with an EP-2, and so on and so on . . .

  2. 2
  3. 3
    Mr Furious says:

    Glad you’re pleased with the rig, Tim. As one of the people trying to push you to an SLR or a Canon G9-G10, I think you made the right choice for you. IF you had not gotten the Olympus, I fear you would always have second-guessed the decision, and this way you’ve embraced the camera.

    As a manual/film junkie, it’s a good fit for you, where it might not be for most others.

    As for the Panny…don’t sweat it. There will ALWAYS be a new model better/faster/cooler than what you just bought. And I’m not so sure that’s a better camera for you either. The trade-offs it makes are towards the P&S user.

    I’m very impressed with the camera and your shots.

    Anyone else want to make this into a share your own shots thread? I’ll go first… Mr Furious’ Flickr

  4. 4
    Starfish says:

    If it takes so long to focus, how were you managing to take the insect photos? In my experience, insects move quite quickly.

  5. 5
    dmsilev says:

    I admit to being attracted to the Panny GF1. My SLR (Nikon D80) is nice and I’m quite fond of it, but there are times when it’s just too damn big to lug around all day. A compact system (camera and a couple of lenses) with fast focusing and decent low-light performance would be wonderful.

    One problem, besides the cost, is that I’ve been using Apple’s Aperture to manage my pictures, and for whatever reason, Apple is really slow in adding RAW support for Panasonics. I’d hate to have to go back to shooting JPGs and stressing about getting the white balance just right and so forth. I suppose I could wait for the inevitable Leica re-skinning of the GF1, complete with $500 increase in price…

    -dms

  6. 6
    Tim F. says:

    @Starfish: I use two strategies. First, I pick slow moving insects like that grasshopper. Alternatively, I pre-set a manual focus distance and move the camera to keep up with the bug. Truly restless bugs like bumblebees drive me a little crazy.

  7. 7
    The Raven says:

    …and then there’s the M9…

  8. 8
    Steeplejack says:

    Unfortunately all is not well. Panasonic, the other major developer of micro four thirds cameras, waited until the day after I leave for France to make their big announcement.

    With computers, cameras and audio equipment, buyer’s remorse* is a given. Sack up and deal with it.

    * Probably also applies to yachts, but I’ve never had that problem.

  9. 9
    Steeplejack says:

    @Steeplejack:

    Stupid WordPress. Do I have to actually enter a hex code to get a goddamn asterisk?! Rhetorical question.

  10. 10
    Tim F. says:

    @Steeplejack: Put the asterisk in parentheses*.

    (*) offer void where prohibited

  11. 11
    Steeplejack says:

    @Tim F.:

    Oh, thank you very much, Mr. smart blog guy*. I’m trying to have a tantrum here.

    (*) Nice camera report, BTW.

  12. 12
    OriGuy says:

    @Steeplejack: Tantrum Day was yesterday.

  13. 13
    Nellcote says:

    What’s up with the statue of liberty at Notre Dame?

  14. 14
    Steeplejack says:

    @OriGuy:

    D’oh. When is Quiet Fuming Day again?

  15. 15
    trollhattan says:

    Happy to see and read of your success, Tim. Also relieved, since I’m one of those who extolled the E-P1 concept back when you were shopping but there was not that much user feedback yet available. Despite that, you obviously jumped in well informed of its strengths and weaknesses. Your results speak for themselves

    The G-F1 is very close to what I’d like in a micro 4/3 camera, with the obvious exception of no in-body IS. I love that Panny stole…er…was inspired by the Ricoh GX accessory EVF. Win.

    I’m far more likely to jump on the E-P deux with EVF and hopefully faster AF. By then there will be more system lenses. FWIW there are now micro 4/3 adapters for a broad range of legacy glass, opening up vast creative possibilities.

  16. 16
    Tim F. says:

    @Nellcote: It is a play on words. ‘Notre dame’ just means ‘our lady’, and every French region has its own unique Virgin.

    Regarding the statue, there are three ‘statues of liberty.’ We got the big one but France has one in Paris and another in the Rhine town of Colmar. That they stuck the Colmar statue in a traffic circle seems odd.

  17. 17

    “Did Panasonic finally beat the speed penalty that contrast-detect focusing usually suffers?”

    Well, they kinda already did, with the G1 camera they’ve been producing for over a year. It’s still not a DSLR, but it is impressively fast and quite a pleasure to use. I suspect the GF1 will have the best contrast-detect AF going.

    That said, I’ve also heard that the EP-1 focuses faster when using the Pany lenses… so it may not just be a camera issue.

  18. 18
    dmsilev says:

    @Jeff Berardi:

    That said, I’ve also heard that the EP-1 focuses faster when using the Pany lenses… so it may not just be a camera issue.

    DP Review did an exhaustive comparison between the EP-1 and the Panasonic GH1, using lenses from both companies. Short version, on a given body, the Panasonic 14-140 is a faster performer than either the Olympus 14-42 or the 17. With Olympus lenses, the GH1 is somewhat faster than the EP1. With the Panasonic lens, the GH1 is twice as fast as the EP1.

    Also from DPReview, this announcement makes micro4/3 quite attractive. Be nice to be able to share my F-mount lenses between cameras.

    -dms

  19. 19

    Impressive photos from a fine, if pricey, camera. I envy you.

  20. 20
    ** Atanarjuat ** says:

    Street photography. Cool.

    And following in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson in the country of his birth. Way cool.

    Glad you really like your E-P1. It’s obvious that it’s inspiring you to shoot more, which is what counts in the end.

    For myself, I’ve had my sights set on the Panasonic DMC-GF1 from the day it was rumored, and the moment Amazon had it listed, I’ve had it pre-ordered.

    Stupid politics and even more idiotic politicians and pundits aside, we’re living in amazing times in this digital world, and I’m really pleased that the photographic hardware is making so many more shots possible.

    Then again, I’m preaching to the converted.

    -A

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