M Olympus E-P1 Camera Review
by Ryan Jordan
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The rapid evolution of digital photography has spawned so many cameras capable of producing technically outstanding images that we have taken it for granted. The result is that we spend more time peeping at pixels, MTF charts, and plots of dynamic range performance with Stouffer Step Wedges than we do learning how to capture presentation-quality photographs, or learning how to digitally develop them in a way that allows the printed or web-based versions to show off the camera's capabilities and (as importantly) the photographer's vision.
For me to investigate the technical minutiae about high ISO noise reduction, the sharpness of the veins on a leaf ten yards away from the lens, or whether the sensor can capture 8.5 stops vs. 9.2 stops of dynamic range at its optimum ISO is a bit like delineating whether an alcohol stove on our kitchen counter uses 0.45 oz of fuel per pint of boiled water or, God forbid, a ghastly 0.50 oz of fuel per pint.
To drive this point home, I captured images of several landscape scenes with a Sigma DP2, Olympus E-P1 (with its m.Zuiko 17/2.8 lens), and Panasonic GF1 (with its Lumix 20/1.7 lens), and produced 16 x 20 enlarged prints from each camera1.And at first glance, I couldn't tell the difference between any of them! Not in dynamic range, not in detail resolution, and not in color rendition. In fact, the differences were so minor that I had to spend several minutes investigating the images with a loupe before I was able to make any meaningful conclusions about image quality. At first this surprised me, so I showed a sample set of the images to Sam Haraldson and Addie Bedford, my officemates, and their conclusions were the same as mine.
Here are those conclusions:
1. The sharpest images came from the Sigma DP2 - the lowest resolution camera of the lot (4.7MP), even when these images were not upsampled in Photoshop!
2. The most appealing color came from the Sigma DP2 and the Panasonic GF1. The Olympus E-P1 produced more substantial blue-gray casts on shaded snow, failed to reveal subtle greens in fall foliage that the other two cameras picked up, and had a difficult time resolving color range (and thus, detail) in dense foliage that was predominantly tan or brown in color (resulting in bushes that looked more like muddy blobs than bushes).
3. The most shadow detail was revealed by the Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic GF1. This is somewhat expected, since the sensors of these two cameras have been shown to produce wide dynamic range in their RAW files relative to the DP2. Surprisingly, however, this did not result in an image that was necessarily more aesthetically appealing to viewers. See #4 below.
4. The richest (most noise-free) blacks and whitest (not color-casted) whites were produced by the Sigma DP2. Both the Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic GF1 produced blacks that were not truly black (and pocked a little with noise), and the whitest whites in images from the E-P1 and GF1 came at the expense of low contrast in bright areas that produced seemingly unnatural "smudginess" that resulted in less definition in bright areas.
5. Pixel peeping of 100% crops of digital images seemed to reveal that the Panasonic GF1 was able to resolve slightly higher levels of detail than the Sigma DP2, which in turn seemed able to resolve significantly higher levels of detail than the Olympus E-P1. However, when print enlargements were produced, images from the Sigma DP2 clearly resolved greater levels of detail than prints produced from E-P1 and GF1 files (with the GF1 having a significant edge over the E-P1).
Producing high-quality 16 x 20 prints from 35mm (or smaller) film cameras with consumer grade lenses, or from digital cameras with small sensors, is nearly impossible. The fact that any of these images (which all come from sensors 5-10X larger than the sensors in compact cameras, but from cameras that weigh a pound or less!) can compete with each other at a 16 x 20 print size is thus a remarkable achievement in digital photography, and one that easily exceeds any expectations that most of us backpackers have for image production. Further, that a 4.7MP image from the Sigma DP2 produced images with more detail and aesthetically pleasing colors than either the E-P1 or GF1 is even more remarkable, and a testament to the fact that Sigma's gamble on using Foveon sensors in their cameras may continue to have long-term competitive significance.
Thus, it is in this context, especially after comparing large prints between comparable cameras, that I am reviewing the Olympus E-P1. Sure, it's lighter than its DSLR brethren, but it's also no small bit heavier and bulkier than its compact cousins. Consequently, for me to upgrade to a camera like this for backpacking purposes, it must offer substantial improvements in areas other than image quality in order to justify carrying its additional weight and bulk. In addition, the fact that the smaller Sigma DP2 and its similarly-positioned Panasonic GF1 produce images that seem to be better than those produced by the Olympus E-P1 means that the E-P1 has a steep hill to climb in order to find its way into my pack, to replace my Sigma DP2, which until now, has sat alone in its ability to produce technically outstanding images among any other camera and lens combination that weighs less than a pound.
- Weight Comparison of Compact Cameras with Mid-Sized Sensors
- Image Quality
- Accessibility: Size, Weight, Simplicity, and Ease of Use
- The Mechanics of Taking Photographs with the E-P1
- Manual Focus
- Toggling Shooting Modes
- Exposure Control
- Self-Timer Use
- Reliability: Environmental Robustness
- Versatility: Zoom, Creativity, and Video
- Gallery of Images
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# PHOTOS: 19
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- The Mechanics of Taking Photographs with the E-P1