The 12.3Mp Olympus PEN E-P1 is larger than a standard compact digital camera such as a Canon Ixus or a Sony Cyber-shot and has interchangeable lenses. Here's our hands-on report.

Olympus is celebrating 50 years since the 1959 launch of its ground-breaking PEN 35mm film camera - the first affordable, consumer portable camera and one that Olympus believes was a ground-breaking launch.

This week, it launched a digital version broadly based on the original 1959 design. The 12.3Mp Olympus PEN E-P1 is larger than a standard compact digital camera such as a Canon Ixus or a Sony Cyber-shot and has interchangeable lenses.

It uses the Micro FourThirds standard that Olympus co-developed with Panasonic and can be used with a standard FourThirds lens via an adapter ring. However, it's not an elite model and is aimed at a far broader market than the high-end digital SLR community. In fact, it's aimed at inveterate snappers and those with an interest in rather than an obsession with photography. People like me, in other words.

To chime with this, Olympus has given the E-P1 a more modest price tag than FourThirds cameras generally carry and, though it will cost around £599 at launch for the body only, you can get it with a 14-42mm lens for £699 all in. You'll still need to fork out extra for a detachable viewfinder and the rather fetching leather case shown in many of the press shots though.

NEXT PAGE: first impressions

The 12.3Mp Olympus PEN E-P1 is larger than a standard compact digital camera such as a Canon Ixus or a Sony Cyber-shot and has interchangeable lenses. Here's our hands-on report.

First impressions

Having seen a few shots of this Micro FourThirds camera on the web, we thought we knew pretty much what the E-P1 would be like. However, it's bigger than we imagined, at 121mm wide and 70mm tall, though its 335g didn't feel particularly heavy. We were lucky enough to have six full hours to get to know the camera and even after carrying around all day, didn't feel laden down by it. The jury is out on the colour options too.

The E-P1 comes in a choice of black, black and silver, or white. We went with the iPod-esque white and caramel and used it with the aforementioned 14-42mm lens. Thankfully, this lens is silver, rather than being given a white makeover.

When you switch on the camera it fires up quickly but every time you do so, you then get an onscreen message requesting that you check for the status of a lens. Presumably the camera can't sense whether one is attached, but this initially helpful message got old fast.

Once you've twizzled the attached lens a little to confirm its presence, you're ready to shoot. There's a large notched dial on the top left with a recessed indicator on the top of the camera to indicate which item is currently selected. As well as the iAuto and playback options, there are Scene, Art, P, M, S and A to choose from.

Using these you can exert as much or as little control as you little over the camera's settings, from image stabilisation and ISO levels to the white balance and colour temperature.

There's a familiar menu button on the lower half of the camera's rear too, while pressing the Info button in the middle of the navipad allows you to adjust settings related to your current scene mode. Press any of these and a context-sensitive menu appears onscreen with settings you can scroll through and select vertically or horizontally.

Manual settings

The Olympus can recognise single or multiple subjects in a shot and prioritises their appearance. If you wish, you can invoke the e-Portrait and apply a little airbrushing so your subject looks fabulous even when blown up on an HD screen. There's an HDMI output to encourage direct display from the camera to a TV.

Single, spot and multi-point autofocus are of course included and we liked the fact that you can call up detailed image setting information at any point so you can see both your chosen and the camera's automatically selected ISO level and a histogram outlining the RGB distribution.

Boosting the ISO up to 3200 is possible, though we didn't put it to such an extreme test. Problem areas where there's a glut of light behind a subject, for instance, are highlighted both in shots you're about to take and those you've already taken.

The trickiest shot we got the E-P1 to take was a statue of a Buddha in a room set up for a pop art scene and bathed primarily in red. With image stabilisation on and the ISO setting boosted to 260, we got a shot with sufficient light to pick up the statue's detail but, unsurprisingly, the colour was very awry. This was easy enough to fix in Photoshop, however.

Olympus E-P1 camera ISO

Olympus E-P1 camera ISO colour balanced

NEXT PAGE: making a scene

The 12.3Mp Olympus PEN E-P1 is larger than a standard compact digital camera such as a Canon Ixus or a Sony Cyber-shot and has interchangeable lenses. Here's our hands-on report.

Making a scene

When you choose either the Scene or the Art button you get a brief explanation of what each option does and when it's best used. Scene modes include fireworks, landscape, portrait and night portrait. There's a useful landscape+portrait option too, for those scenes where you want to capture both an iconic scene or building with your companions in the foreground.

The setting that's most fun on the E-P1, though, is undoubtedly the Art mode. Here, you get a choice of six filters including Pin Hole, Grainy Film, Soft Focus and Pop Art.

Olympus E-P1 Grainy Old Film

We were less convinced of the usefulness of the Pale & Light Colour option in which "reality in front of you is enclosed in a flat, gentle light, floating serenely in its own world like an image in your memory". As far as we could tell, it deliberates washes out otherwise colourful photos.

Olympus E-P1 camera Pop Art

Light tone, meanwhile, renders both shade and highlight areas equally and seems the antithesis of depth of field. When taking shots that needed to look uniform from left to right, as in the shot of the three identical glass buildings, we were pleased to report exposure and scale were handled adeptly with no sign of lens barrelling.

Pin Hole allowed us to indulge in experimentation with a glitterball up against a regularly-patterned ceiling, while Pop Art was a great choice if we wanted shots to really stand out. On the already vibrant Aladdin truck it was staggering while the snap we took off some deck chairs on the bank next to a brightly-coloured boat was hurriedly composed but saved by the colour filter.

It was the grainy old film mode that was our favourite, however, and its moody effects seemed perfect for the mid 20th-century look that many scenes we encountered in Berlin for the Olympus launch suggested.

NEXT PAGE: detailed display

The 12.3Mp Olympus PEN E-P1 is larger than a standard compact digital camera such as a Canon Ixus or a Sony Cyber-shot and has interchangeable lenses. Here's our hands-on report.

Detailed display

We were really taken with the 3in, vibrant LiveView LCD of the Olympus E-P1 which offers plenty of detail (230,00 dots, in fact) and is effective for viewing and playing back video. The LiveView display was almost able to keep up even as we barrelled through the city on our bust journey.

Video is one of the distinguishing features of the Olympus versus its rival Micro FourThirds camera, the Panasonic G1. We hope to test this in more detail when we get our review sample in the next week or two. However, initial tests showed really vibrant, well-defined colour and detail and smooth playback.

One worry about this camera, however, was that we seemed to drain the battery quite fast, even though we were too busy taking photos to review those we’d taken or to experiment with the video mode to any extent.

NEXT PAGE: our expert verdict >>

Olympus PEN E-P1: Specs

  • Olympus PEN E-P1 digital camera
  • Micro FourThirds
  • 3in LiveView LCD (230,000 dots)
  • digital SLR
  • multi-point auotfocus
  • image stabilisation
  • six scene modes
  • art filters
  • video capture
  • HDMI output
  • 335g
  • 121x70x35mm
  • Olympus PEN E-P1 digital camera
  • Micro FourThirds
  • 3in LiveView LCD (230,000 dots)
  • digital SLR
  • multi-point auotfocus
  • image stabilisation
  • six scene modes
  • art filters
  • video capture
  • HDMI output
  • 335g
  • 121x70x35mm

OUR VERDICT

The retro feel of the Olympus E-P1 is wonderful. It's the sort of camera that puts a smile on your face when you use it and we loved the amount of control it gave us over what we took and its final look. In fact, our main criticism of a camera purportedly for the more general camera fan is its price. The £599 body only headline price makes the Olympus E-P1 seem expensive given that it doesn't claim to be a pro or even semi-pro model. You can buy it as a bundle for £749 with the 17mm pancake lens and separate viewfinder or, better still, the 14-42mm lens for £699. For both lenses it's £899.

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