New Camera in the Stable: Olympus E-PL1

One thing that I’ve really taken a shine to is using manual focus lenses of all types with my Panasonic GH-1. As I’ve posted elsewhere, to me there’s something magical in the link between the physical act of focusing a camera, setting its aperture, and snapping the image. As of late, I’ve started drifting toward lower-light photography and although the GH-1 is a great camera, for my style there is something better.

The Olympus E-PL1 possesses a key feature that the Panasonic GH-1 does not: in-camera image stabilization. This may not seem like a big deal when one uses autofocus lenses, but with manual focus optics, the in-camera rather than in-lens approach to stabilization is simply superb. When shooting with a Voigtlander Nokton f1.4/40mm (pictured at right) enables me to shoot images at a much slower shutter speed than with my GH-1. Coupled with that, I find myself being more accurate with my focus than with the viewfinder-equipped Panasonic. What I’ve observed is that for some reason the lower resolution display of the Olympus seems to show subtle differences in focus that the Panasonic does not. Therefore, I find myself being more accurate with manual focus on the E-PL1 than on the GH-1 despite the lack of a viewfinder. Weird, I know.

Some reviews I’ve read have complained about the E-PL1’s menu system and how it is clumsy and awkward. Well, after spending about an hour with it and discovering that there are a host of ways to reconfigure the buttons on the camera and gain quick access to submenus, I find the Olympus a bit easier to use than my Panasonic. For example, the big red video record button that people complain about can be reconfigured to activate any one of several different functions. I’ve reconfigured it for setting the white balance which now comes as natural as, well, a touch of my thumb.

Something I’ve noticed is that the Olympus tends to be a bit more consistent in exposure than the Panasonic. The fact revealed itself during a series of test shots I took with my DIY tilt/shift lens, the Snuffleupagus. I normally set my micro 4/3 cameras to underexpose by one stop as to not blow out the highlights. When using the Panasonic with my DIY lens, the metering system would often get confused and get the exposure all wrong. In the case of the Olympus, it was consistent across all tests, even with my intentional underexposure. It simply post-processed the images in Apple Aperture by adjusting the contrast and voila, an interesting and creative image without the color adjustment and exposure fuss that I’d regularly encounter on the Panasonic.

In my short time with the Olympus PEN E-PL1, I have to say that I really like it. It feels good in the hand, is great on the street, and matches the way I want to take photographs. Eventually, I’ll add the viewfinder to it as when I played with one in the shop, it really did make this camera a good street shooter. The Panasonic is not going away, however. I plan to dedicate it to videography and will attempt to hack the firmware soon.