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.
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.
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.