Camera Corner
Olympus E-P1 Review
August 2009

by Eli Reed

The Austin, Texas, Bergstrom Airport TSA officer walked toward me with focused intent in his eyes and I wondered about possible laws I may have unknowingly broken. His first spoken words were exact. "Sir, what kind of camera is that? I don't believe that I've seen that one before!" We talked for a while. And so it goes. That happens a lot with an Olympus E-P1 hanging around my neck.

The look of the Olympus E-P1 brings us back to a certain point in the past in the guise of the Olympus PenF film camera. It has returned to us as a proverbial blast from the past that works. I always have a camera somewhere on my body and the E-P1 makes it easy to do that. I am always looking for interesting photographs and that happens a lot with this camera. It is easier to do just that because I can throw it into almost any of my pockets, and it does so much with its many very usable bells and whistles. I am a photographer who used to be a painter and now I use a camera in place of a paintbrush while using Compact/SD Cards in place of paint.

Support our sponsors

Two observations need to be addressed before I get into my view of this camera. The first point is that I have photographed with Olympus cameras since 1982 when I began using them during my coverage of Central America and Lebanon and I have worked with Olympus in their Visionary program because I like the quality of their cameras. They have stayed light and functioning in a way that syncs well within the way I work. I have worked with the other major cameras in the past but it is a matter of personal choice.

© Eli Reed
The other point I have to make is that I basically have no interest in the technical stuff that goes along with and drives technical GEE WHIZ camera use and production. I care only about the photographic result that will make me happy enough to not go screaming into the night because of photographic miscues caused by errant cameras. Perhaps that's an overreaction.

The Olympus E-P1 is a continuing part of the 1959 family ancestry connected with the legendary Olympus Pen film cameras. This current generational image collector is a Micro Four Thirds system camera that is the smallest of the new generation of digital cameras. This next stage camera carries much of the features connected with the Olympus digital SLR system such as: Art Filters, dust reduction via SuperSonic Wave Filter, face detection, magnified focus assist, multiple exposures, and sensor-shift image stabilization.

This Olympus E-P1, as the shiny new infant on the block, has a 12.3-megapixel sensor and is capable of still and video capture. It has a 3-inch LCD viewfinder; 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 (28-84mm in 35mm film); ISO: 100-6400; weight: 11.8 oz.; uses memory SDHC/SD cards and along with a lot of other features, comes in at the MSRP of $799.00. The Olympus E-P1 body retails alone at $750, and the camera bought with the 17mm f/2.8 with Olympus optical viewfinder costs $900. Some of the new features arriving at the party come as HD video, 324-area matrix metering, onboard music, in-camera music/still/video integration, and digital leveling.

© Eli Reed
The camera is retro in a digital world and attracts attention from amateurs as well as professionals, partially because of its coolness factor.

To address what this camera is about is to address the nature of what photography is today. The E-P1 touches on different possibilities (such as multimedia with music inside the camera's video programs) in this one little machine that fits in a sports jacket or photographer's vest pocket. It has full HD video and permits the use of all of the Art Filters that are in the Olympus E30 to be used with the video capture which means that the photographer will end up with some very interesting video at the end of the day, with very good sound. The video also has the capacity to make a still image of whatever video is being captured when the video capture is ended which I think is pretty cool.

After I began carrying the camera everywhere and shooting at random various subjects catching my eye – it seemed as if it took on a life of its own. It got to the point where I was able to shoot in a fluid way, and without focus problems, anything I wanted to shoot. I found it very freeing. I carried the E-P1 with me as I spent a couple of days on assignment photographing President Obama in the White House and in Washington but I wasn't able to shoot any stills because I often (like everyone else) had to use longer glass. I did manage to shoot some video by sticking the camera on a tiny tabletop tripod and placing it in my inside shirt pocket but because of my inexperience with the camera, the video was shot on a bad angle. The video did look good on a bad tilt. I confess that I didn't shoot as much video as I had intended but I did manage to do a bit more video shooting of a visiting personal trainer in a swimming pool in the area where I live.

© Eli Reed
I liked the image color quality and after hearing comments about camera noise at high ISO, I shot some images at different speeds up to about 1200 ISO. This camera will not scare Nikon's D3 camera. Photographers who cannot shell out $3,000 for the Canon 5D will love the E-P1, and the sound recording is much better. $799 is a pretty good deal and the camera delivers amazing features for this price. I have bounced around on my motorcycle with the camera while enjoying the speed of focus without losing photographic moments I wanted to capture. Part of that will happen because, like anything, it's necessary to feel it out. I never thought that I would get to a point where I could leave my house all day without worrying about not having my E30 or E3 cameras with my 12-60 mm to shoot the odd picture.

With the interchangeable lens that can be used with the camera – it brings up some interesting things to come in the future. The capabilities demand that the news photographers who now are expected to shoot video at times while on assignment can do so easily without carrying a lot of extra stuff. There cannot be any excuses for not having this camera with them.

I have made some photographs that I might not have made because of this interesting tool. Of course, there is a wrinkle in some places – as in the video gets a bit choppy when certain of the Art Filters are used. For example, the Grainy B/W Art Filter slows down the moving image because of the processing for the effect. The good news is that it looks interesting but it will not be in real time. Instead, you get an interesting slow motion effect in the resultant video.

© Eli Reed
I didn't get the opportunity to shoot with the 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens and viewfinder but I am looking forward to working with it in the future. I imagine that lens as a 'street shoot delight' situation every day the lens is on the camera and I would hazard a guess that street shooters will love the feel of that.

This is a fun camera that invites a lot of different kinds of photographs. I have started a project using the camera because I will always have it with me and I like the idea of working in a simple fashion. I expect some hostility from other camera makers because of their being caught with their pants down. That won't last long because they will have to do the work to catch up.

I have found the image quality to be excellent; the Live View has been delightful to work with and I wondered at first if I was going to have a problem with that. I am used to using eye level finders for the most part but it has not been a problem.


The camera is a such a delight to work with that I can almost feel guilty about enjoying it so much – but not that guilty. It is a useful tool and it allows the person who uses this camera to explore the artistic possibilities inside of themselves. This camera may be the bargain of the year.

© Eli Reed

Eli Reed, a Clinical Professor of Photojournalism at the University of Texas at Austin, has been with the elite Magnum Photos since 1983. A 1982/83 Harvard University Nieman Fellow, he has worked on assignment for national and international publications covering world news events since 1982. He is the recipient of countless prestigious awards, including the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Documentary Photography; Overseas Press Club; Kodak World Image Award for Fine Art Photography; Leica Medal of Excellence; POY Nikon World Understanding Award; World Press Photo; Pulitzer Prize nominee, and Visa Pour l'Image Festival du Photoreportage (Perpignan, France).

His books include "Beirut: City of Regrets," "Black in America" (text and poetry written by Reed with preface by Gordon Parks), and "I Grandi Fotografi Eli Reed." Reed is a member of the black photographic collective Kamoinge, and the Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers (SMPSP), having photographed approximately 30 feature, documentary, and cable network films. He is involved in ongoing film projects.

blog comments powered by Disqus