Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review: Olympus EP-1

I have been shooting for years using DSLR systems from Nikon and Canon (the former more than the later). The systems I have used have always been wonderful, so why did I sell everything and make a radical change to the EP-1 ? Let's start by talking about my love/hate relationship with the modern DSLR.

So what's not to love about an SLR ? Most SLRs have fantastic ergonomics, quick and on-command performance, superb IQ and well the list goes on. All great things aside, SLRs have one notable con and unfortunately for me, it the one thing that gets in the way of my enjoyment of photography: Size. Big, thick, plastic/magnesium bodies, long and heavy lenses – yes at one time I dreamed of having all of this high-end, albeit heavy gear. I mean let’s face it, a body like the Nikon D3 is beautiful, feels wonderful in hand, turns heads, and provides a limitless amount of confidence to the respected owner. A lens like the 70-200 2.8 is a ‘trophy’ when mounted on an SLR with its large front element beaming into crowds, the feel and mechanics of the metal barrel in hand – what’s not to like? Well to be honest with you, once the bragging rights and gear acquisition honeymoon is over there is plenty not to like. The sense of pride and feel of that lovely tactile weaponry in hand quickly subsides to the weight and bulk that comes with the ownership of said equipment. A day of walking around shooting suddenly turns into a chore. Heading out with a few friends for drinks and want to take a few snaps, or taking some pictures of the kids in Disney World – forget it, you are most likely just going to use your point-n-shoot. All of the sudden, that wonderful machine you have been so proudly showcasing becomes your achilles heel: It draws eyes of suspicion whenever you are out and about, or often engages you in rather mundane conversation from people who want to know more about your gear. It gives you a soar neck, it causes the back to ache. It’s a compromise for sure and many would still prefer all the benefits that come along with it - but for me personally, I just want to enjoy photography and by enjoying it I mean without the overhead that sometimes comes along with the equipment purchased.

The Olympus EP-1 turned my head when it was first announced earlier this year, though admittingly I didn’t give it much pause as I assumed that the camera would come with too many compromises, after all the 4/3rds format hasn’t exactly been a class leader. Once the reviews of the EP-1 and its sister camera, the Panasonic GF-1 hit dpreview.com, however, I started to pay attention a little more closely. This was not another point-n-shoot, nor was it a DSLR. It was the Digital Pen, redefined for the modern era. A camera paying homage to the classic looks of cameras from a world lost to a society filled with ‘cookie cutter’ black boxed SLRs and perfectly square point and shoots (with the later coming in various colors making a better fashion accessory than purposeful machine). The digital pen reeks of the term ‘rangefinder’ and in many respects is one (at least on the surface) albeit the mechanical differences therein. The pen truly is what I have been searching for, and as a Mark I camera, it does have its flaws mind you, but also as a Mark I camera it delivers many things that even current DSLRs have failed to address and does so in a rather minute package.

The Olympus EP-1 is a hybrid of sorts, the culmination of the best of the both worlds: The Point and Shoot and the DSLR. From the land of the point-n-shoot we get: Size & Live View. From the land of the DSLR we get: Image Quality, the versatility of changing lenses, and Performance (although the later is dependent upon the operation being discussed).

So how does this camera look ?. It looks good, damn good. Part of this comes from the fact that it doesn’t have the utilitarian looks that plague so many modern cameras, and part of this comes from the fact that the EP-1 is just a well designed machine. From the brushed silver metal body to the faux leather grip, the camera has styling in a marketplace where manufacturers no longer care about setting themselves apart from one another. And while I admit that judging a camera based on looks is rather silly, there is also nothing wrong with shelling out your hard earned cash for something that is both attractive on the inside as well as out. There is something to be said for the confidence that comes from the pride of ownership, and this camera speaks volumes in this regard.

From a handling point of view this camera is going to unveil some mixed emotions. It’s not an SLR, as it does not have the curved rubberized finish grip that makes one’s hand feel at home when firmly established in its resting place. The pen is a mostly solid metal rectangular box with a slightly protruding faux leather grip. Coming from a point-n-shoot camera, the EP-1 is going to feel more substantial in hand, coming from an SLR first impressions aren’t exactly positive. Handling and Framing, in my honest opinion, go hand-in-hand (no pun intended) as placing an SLR camera up to one’s eye does in fact steady the camera and in some ways help to level it as well. Framing with the EP-1 requires the 'arms out in front' approach which does induce camera shake. Thankfully the folks at Olympus were kind enough to build stabilization into the sensor itself, giving you a virtual tripod of sorts. Add the included digital level gauge to the mix and you no longer have to worry about whether or not the horizon is perfectly level within your frame. In some respects, Olympus addressed the pain with at least some form of alternative medicine, but coming from an SLR will require some re-wiring of the brain. In time, however, handling becomes second nature and with it the revelation that you no longer have a heavy brick and drain pipe hanging from your neck - a liberation which soon makes you forget all about those minor handling quibbles.

So how is the speed and performance? Well there are many reviews on the web that showcase the speed and performance of this camera. One can easily find on the web charts and graphs that give you measurements to the millisecond, but nothing at all can truly replicate how the camera operates in day-to-day usage which I can thankfully state is quite good. No, of course it’s not a match for an SLR – though to be perfectly honest with you this is highly dependent on how one intends on using the camera. As I assume that most of the candidates that will be purchasing this camera are not intending to shoot wildlife or sports, you can safely rest assured that it is good enough for most day-to-day requirements. In good light my overall impression is that in many ways the ep-1 is par with most modern SLRs, save the high-end professional bodies. In lower light, however, the contrast detection based system may struggle from time-to-time, but the good news is that the focusing system always seems to 'get its man' even in those most challenging of situations. From the click of the shutter to the write of a file to the card, the whole process seems pretty snappy with very little to complain about.

What about Image Quality. Again there are reviews on the web with resolution charts, color charts, and is my camera better than your camera charts (the later being a bit of humor of course) yet nothing can truly measure the IQ of this camera without simply using it in the field and enjoying the results in print. Image Quality is good; in fact it’s beyond good by most measures. Somehow, Olympus took the 4/3rds bar which for a while has sat deep in the lowly shadows behind that of APS-C sized sensors and raised it to be on par and in some cases beyond what most modern SLRs produce, especially when comparing the results straight of the camera. A combination of sensor and sophistacted in-camera processing that must be seen to truly be appreciated, the Olympus delivers good results again and again. Image Quality is truly the highlight of this camera and many folks will feel quite satisfied in knowing that their prized optical possessions once adapted to mount on this camera will not be let down by the image processing formula that Olympus has somehow managed to get right. This camera represents the first time in years of shooting that I have abandoned the RAW format for the often discounted JPEG architecture (a debate which I will save for a future blog posting).

There is much more to the camera than just the things I have talked about thus far, however like any camera the meat and potatoes lie in the performance, handling, and image quality all of which we have discussed in one form or another (though of course in very short detail). In later posts, I plan to spend more time on certain subjects which I feel will benefit from there own individual posting such as that of the 'art filters' for example, but for now I'll simply wrap things up with my conclusion.

The pens main flaws such as handling, are by design: The missing optical viewfinder and of course the ergonomics a compromise of mating the point-n-shoot camera and the DSLR. At the same time one can at least feel satisfied in knowing that Olympus attempted in one form or another to address some of these limitations using the benefits of modern technology (such as IBS). The EP-1 is a camera that currently is being measurebated by everyone under the sun, as it should being a the new kid on the block, but at the end the day one must realize that this is not an SLR or a point-n-shoot, it’s a Pen (wink) – a camera redefining the norm (thankfully so as the norm has become quite the snooze fest for the last few years). At the same time it should be noted that this camera also inspires a renewed passion in photography, one that admittedly is more psychological, but nevertheless works. These days I find myself enjoying photography due to a more simplified formula: I don’t worry about gear, I don’t worry about when I will have time to post process my pictures. I concentrate on lighting, composition and subject matter - nothing more, and nothing less. I use the pen to ‘write with light’ and I do so in a manor that no longer comes with the overhead of an SLR, of course I don't discount the merits of owning an SLR, I just appreciate the new found love afforded by minimalizing the process by which I take pictures. I am happier photographer having made the switch and in the end isn’t that all that really counts ? Your mileage, of course, may vary - good luck and good shooting.

1 comment:

  1. My sentiments exactly! What good is a high powered DSLR if you're loathe to lug it around?