Wednesday, February 11, 2015

POS Camera Review: Olympus E-PL1

As you may or may not remember, in 2014 I started reviewing cameras that can be purchased under $100. The last camera I reviewed was a disappointment on nearly all fronts, but I have moved on and here we are.

First off, I have a confession to make. I cheated... sorta. The Olympus E-PL1 with a lens still sells new for over $400 on Amazon. Used, you can get them online for $120. I got mine on craigslist in immaculate condition for $70. It even came with a cute little camera bag, battery, charger, strap, and lens cap.

To qualify for review status, a camera must be available under $100 and must be smaller and easier to use than my D300s DSLR. The trick, which we learned on the last review, is to leave the camera in Program Priority (P is for professional!) and let the camera make all the decisions regarding exposure, white balance, etc.

THE QUICKIE REVIEW of the Olympus E-PL1 is: Buy it. This camera is a *stellar* example of an inexpensive vacation camera, provided you can accept the limitations of the micro 4:3 format AND you don't mind the limited zoom lens that comes standard. Of course, if you want to step things up, the lenses are interchangeable and you could upgrade to the 17mm 1:2.8 pancake which costs twice what you paid for the camera... but that's a discussion for another time.
I have not upgraded my lens and so far, I have *really* enjoyed using this camera. It took me a while to figure out how to work the menus, which aren't exactly user-friendly, but once I got my preferences dialed in, I just let the camera go to work. In fact, I enjoy using it so much that it's taken me a few months to get down to writing this review. I think that says more about the camera than anything else.

Let's break it down.

SPEED: The camera fires up in about 1 second. Assuming you have the lens unlocked (its semi-collapsable), you are ready to shoot immediately. The autofocus is FAST and perfect 95% of the time, even in low-light situations (not to be confused with no-light; you gotta give it something to work with). Focus is a half-press of the shutter, pretty standard. There is *no delay* between pressing the shutter and taking a picture. None of the delay that people have come to expect from a point and shoot camera. You press the button, you take a picture. Wham bam. On to the next one.
The Olympus also shoots surprisingly well in continuous mode. About 3 or 4 fps depending on the length of your exposure. It will go for 8 or 9 frames shooting in RAW (did I mention it shoots raw?!) before it has to stop and fill the memory card. Using a class 10 SD card, it writes about as fast as can be expected to an SD (not as good as CompactFlash).

Great camera to take sledding (That's my mom!)

COLOR: On the money 95% of the time. I left it in auto-white-balance and was almost always happy with the results. On the off-chance it missed, I can always make changes in post production, because I'm shooting in raw.

LOW LIGHT PERFORMANCE: Far better than expected! The ISO goes all the way up to 3200. In that little light, the camera will focus and expose correctly almost every time. Yes, at that kind of ISO on the micro 4:3 sensor, you will get a LOT of grain and a bit of a weird texture as well. BUT, you will also get the shot every time. To realize the full potential of the camera, I did not limit the ISO performance in the menus, although you could if you so chose. I let it max out at 3200 whenever it deemed necessary to get me a shutter speed above 1/15, which I generally accept as the lowest usable shutter speed. It did great.

LENS: The standard 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 lens came on this camera and it does just fine. Autofocus is snappy, zooming is easy (even if it is backwards from my Nikon). The zoom range is a bit limited. I found myself all the way out to 42mm and wishing for more fairly regularly. BUT - it doesn't really matter if you like the lens, because they are interchangeable. The real power of the micro 4:3 platform is that you get a lot of the versatility of the DSLR without all the weight and buttons. If I wanted to sink money into Olympus equipment, I would get a few fast prime lenses for this camera. f/2.8 and faster on this machine would be killer. No weird distortion on this lens at either end; I'm happy with it. If you had to replace it, you can get the full size version for $120 and the pancake for $300.

BATTERY: I continually get between 800 and 1000 frames per charge on this battery. It's got a proprietary battery and charger, which is kind of a bummer. Ideally, I would like a camera just like this that takes AA batteries, which you can find anywhere in the world. Still, 800 or so frames on a charge is acceptable. During day-to-day weekly use, I charge it about once a week or less. During heavy vacation use, once every two days.

SPECIAL: It does shoot RAW! Lightroom knows how to convert the .ORF file to DNG, which means I can use the same workflow on these photos as I do on my Nikon photos. Very pleasing. These days, I actually leave the camera in a "monochrome" setting. The screen displays everything black and white and all JPG previews are black and white on the computer. It's like shooting BW film, but with the option to go back to color if I want to. Since these POS cameras exist to replace the film I used to shoot on vacations, that is exactly what I am after.

The only bummer about this camera is that it does not have a viewfinder. You have to compose all your images on the rear LCD screen. Not a huge deal, but occasionally a minor annoyance in bright sunlight.

IN SUMMARY: I take this camera with me everywhere I go. It's my go-to camera for wandering around town, off-roading, hiking, pretty much everything. It isn't as small as the super-compact point and shoots like the Sony W800 I reviewed last time, but it's about the same size as the big coolpix 20x zoom cameras (which are really nice). If you can find it used for $100 with a lens, DO IT, because I'm not selling you mine!

The only reason it doesn't get 5 stars is because it doesn't take AA batteries.