Shooting With Olympus PEN E-PL1 in 2020

Those who have followed me since the earlier days will remember that I have an Olympus PEN E-PL1 and I still keep it till today. I have not used E-PL1 often, not when I got it 10 years ago, and I have probably not used the camera for more than 5 years. I thought it would be fun to take a look at the original PEN Lite camera, the first one considering now in 2020, there is already a 10th iteration - E-PL10 released. Therefore, I brought the Olympus PEN E-PL1 for a few shutter therapy sessions and see how I feel about the camera after the Micro Four Thirds system has evolved so much over the years. 

Video version of this article here (click), for those who prefer to watch. 

The Olympus PEN E-PL1 was released in 2010, as the first budget friendly Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera from Olympus, following the E-P1 and E-P2 which were positioned as the top, premium products. I did not need this camera, and I was already actively shooting with Olympus DSLRs at the time, I had both the E-520 and E-5, both I used for some paid shoots as well as my own shutter therapy. However, I was curious with what Olympus was doing, and I thought the mirrorless system had a lot of potential and I knew mirrorless would be the future. I bought the E-PL1 because I wanted to see how well a mirrorless camera can perform, while at the same time, DSLR was dominating that era. 

E-PL1 was quite a basic camera, with no built in electronic viewfinder, but has an attachment for external module (to be purchased separately). The E-PL1 used a 12MP image sensor, which was the best Olympus had at the time, the same image sensor shared with top of the line DSLRs E-5 and E-30. The E-PL1 was a stripped down version of E-P1 and E-P2, with less features, plastic build instead of metal and the camera had no control command dials, just buttons. The screen has quite a low resolution, and this was perhaps my biggest complain. The handling of the camera was not great, but good enough for a small and light camera, and the E-PL1 was indeed very compact during its time - a good alternative for me to have if I did not want to carry out bulkier DSLRs with me for my street photography. 

I recently brought the E-PL1 out for some street shooting. I was immediately reminded of why I did not use the camera as often as I should. The main reason - AF. The contrast detect AF was just not ready for a serious camera. The fact that Olympus aimed their PEN line cameras especially the earlier versions toward casual, lifestyle users instead of professional or serious photographers was obvious. The AF alone made the camera quite a challenge to use particularly in street photography environment. The AF hunts for about half a second or more before locking focus, which was sufficient to cause misses of critical moments that you need the camera to respond instantaneously. A lot of people still think that mirrorless cameras lag behind DSLRs when it comes to AF and I can clearly see where this misconception came from. The earlier days of mirrorless cameras did not exactly inspire confidence for the mirrorless camp, at the very same time DSLR's phase detect AF was miles ahead in terms of speed and accuracy. It took Olympus a few more years to speed the AF up and finally surpass what DSLRs can do in their E-M5 and E-M1 cameras. 

Obviously, I have missed a lot of shots using the E-PL1 on the streets, and that was okay really. I can see how enthusiasts and serious camera users would be totally disappointed with E-PL1, or any other Olympus mirrorless cameras in the earlier days. 

My other complain was the almost useless LCD screen. I think Olympus used a higher resolution LCD screen for the higher PEN models eg E-P1 and E-P2, and the E-PL1 had the inferior screen. The experience shooting with the LCD screen was not pleasant. It was not easy to check for critically accurate focus, and having unreliable AF to begin with, this made things even more challenging. Visibility was quite poor under bright sun too. I guess that just points to the necessity of an EVF, and subsequently most mirrorless cameras in the future have built in EVF. 

The 12MP image sensor is dated, and it shows in the images that I have shot. The 12MP image sensor was so far behind anything that Olympus currently has in their latest camera models. The dynamic range was extremely limited - I can easily get overblown skies even if I only overexpose by about 2 stops, and that is not enough in many situations. The RAW files did not have much headroom to work with, I could not recover much details both from the shadows or highlight regions. I am perfectly fine with the 12MP resolution, I thought that was plenty even for today, and yes the E-PL1 did produce really sharp and pleasing looking images with abundant details, contrast and very true to life looking colors. The kit lens 14-42mm (first generation) was good, delivering satisfactory results, and perhaps the less demanding 12MP sensor did not show much of the lens flaws. Of course things fell apart quickly in low light situation, even at ISO800, the images are quite bad already with severe loss of details and noise creeping in. 

It was indeed interesting to see how far Olympus has improved - take a look at the OM-D E-M5, that camera surpassed everything the earlier Micro Four Thirds cameras like E-P1/E-P2 by a huge margin. The newer 16MP image sensor not only packs in more resolution but it delivers much better dynamic range, high ISO performance and the RAW files were respectably good in recovering details. Furthermore, the AF has improved drastically, some photographers even compared the speed against Canon 1DX and claimed the E-M5 to be on par (single-AF only). Then Olympus included a built in EVF, 5-Axis IS, weather-sealing, magnesium alloy body, twin dials controls just like a DSLR, a tilt screen and touch screen operation (Olympus was the first to implement this) and it seemed like Olympus saw the future and brought the future to us. 

Do not get me wrong, I did get some good shots from the E-PL1 even shooting in 2020, and the camera is not half bad. It can still perform and deliver good results, but it is also difficult to recommend anyone to get this camera now. If you still have the E-PL1, and you are not doing anything serious with your photography, it can still be a capable tool and get you fantastic results, no question about that. However, if you are looking for a budget Olympus camera and you don't need the greatest and latest, the older cameras can be a good alternative. I would not suggest looking this far back into the era of E-P1/E-P2/E-PL1, if you can, start with the OM-D first generation cameras. Either E-M5, E-M1 and E-M10 from first generation, any of these would be superior and you get a lot more out of the camera, even if you have to pay a little bit more. The difference between the older 12MP image sensor (E-P1/E-P2/E-PL1) vs 16MP image sensor from E-M1/E-M5 is just too great. You also have to consider handling, EVF, as well as AF reliability! I really see no reason going that far back. 

Do you have an E-PL1 yourself, or have you owned one before? Do share your experience and thoughts!

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  1. Hi Robin,
    Appreciated much your refresh on the olympus Pen Series, since most focus people will put on OMD rather than its rang finder style pen ep and epl.
    From your experience, what do you think about the EP3, does it still considered performing well today, or just too far away from epl8 or similar series. This is my first used mft camera, really like its solid and metal feel design.

    1. I got into the range with an E-M5, but your mention of the E-P3 made me reply because I was going to mention it myself!

      I'd seen the first MFT products from Olympus and Panasonic, and although I was only starting to think about upgrading from a compact, I met a photography enthusiast who was very happy with his E-P3. The reviews had noted that the autofocus was now competitive and he agreed with that opinion, saying it was easily good enough for him.

      When I eventually got the E-M5, I don't think there were any competitors with its balance of features at that price, which was quite a bit lower at that point. But it would be interesting to hear Robin's perspectives on the second round of Olympus mirrorless models: the ones after the E-PL1 but before the E-M5. It sounds like they had some happy customers, too.

      And, as always, Robin may wish the camera were better, but he still takes some great pictures!

  2. I never used EPL1, but I had OM-D EM5 and loved it. I got it mostly for it's size compared to Canon 7D which I had before. IBIS was also very useful. I had a whole arsenal of lenses: 12-50mm kit lens, 14mm 2.5, Leica 25mm 1.4 (My favourite! Absolutely fantastic), Oly 45mm 1.8 and 40-150mm 4-5.6. Flip-out screen was useful too, and I never had a problem with AF. I sold everything eventually for wanting to try full frame. I have very fond memories of starting my photography hobby with this camera.

  3. Got my feet wet using the EPL1, upgraded my kit lenses to the II versions. Then bought the 60mm macro lens after owning the 4/3 macro lens with M4/3 adapter. Worked my way up the EPL series to the EPL5. Then made my step up to the EM10, wonderful camera, then the final step to the EM10 II, best move I have ever made, thanks to Robin's blogs. Would have loved to have the EM5 I or II, just out of my budget. So I am happy with the EM10 using the 25mm f1.8, 60mm Macro and and 40-150mm kit zoom lens.

  4. My first Olympus is a Pen Mini (1st version). I still use it once a while. In fact just took some pictures with it 2 days ago. This almost free E-PM1 got me spent more $$$ on E-M5, E-M10 + lens.....

  5. OMG! What happened to that body?
    I also bought this combination in the same colors. Wanted a simple camera. Sold all my professional gear because I retired and I did not need it anymore. And all that digital post processing stuff took away the pleasure I used to have in photography. So my dealer let me test a few mirrorless cameras and the E-PL1 was my choice.
    Bought a few extra lenses, the Olympus 45mm and the two Lumix pancakes, the original ones that make nicer images than the versions II if you ask me. And a VF-2. Used this set up on many long trips and my body still is flawless. (The camera, not me).
    Some day in India I met a group fellow travelers who were also fanatic photographers. They all used big gear, large DSLR’s with long zooms. We promised to exchange the best of our images, so I sent them some as soon as I was back home. They (technically) outperformed all that they came up with, some of them after weeks of post processing I assumed. They all wanted to know my technique and when I told them the were just OOC JPEGs some didn’t believe me.

    The design of the camera is still a classic if you ask me. The looks of the lens are outdated, but it’s optics are still not bad at all. Did you try it on your E-M5 III?

  6. My first mirrorless was an E-PL2 bought 11 years ago along with 2 kit lenses, the 14-42mm and 40-150mm F5.6. I believe it has the same sensor as the E-PL1 and would agree with its shortcomings compared with the 16mp and 20mp Sony sensors Olympus currently uses. Perhaps the AF on the E-PL2 was improved since I did not find it slow, and my hit rate improved when used with the VF-3. The IBIS system is certainly not up to OMD standards or as good as the lens based Canon IS I continued to use.

    The camera and 14-42 is sitting in my closet and is unlikely to see the light of day anytime soon. The 40-150mm is still in use on my EM-5 III and is the best 6 ounce telezoom lens around.

  7. My experience with E-PL1 :
    -huge shutter vibrations at 1/10...1/60s which makes it nearly unusable in low-light;
    -huge noise over ISO-200;
    -less focus points and a very slow focus speed;
    -no EVF, no electronic shutter, poor IS.

    I understand people frustration when they had to switch from DSLR cameras (ex. E-520) to E-PL1.

    I am using E-PL1 as lens cover. And when I am too lazy to change the lens on E-M1 MK II, I do the photos with E-PL1.
    Maybe a phone is a better option than E-PL1.

  8. Thanks Robin - please keep reviewing the "old generation" cameras; for there is a new generation of potential photographers out there for whom inexpensive secondhand cameras are the first step away from smartphones....

    In the UK EPL1 models with the kit lens are selling at way less than £100 GBP, with EP1 bodies without lenses selling for less than that too - but as you say, those first generation Olympus models struggle with AF.

    So which ARE the old affordable models that we should be recommending to new photographers with shallow pockets?

    There seems to be a point, about a decade from a camera's launch, at which the price on eBay drops rapidly - and that can be a great place to look for creative camera bargains.

    I have had a good recent experience with the Olympus EPM-1 that I bought out of curiosity for <£50 (<280MYR). The AF speed is vastly superior to the first generation models, the out of camera JPEGs are excellent and the size is tiny and the LCD screen much brighter and contrasty. For 10x8 prints and computer or HDTV viewing the images are excellent, while carrying a mini tripod to keep the sensor to low ISO settings delivers even good night time images.

    Once you have mastered the screen-based camera controls it is a great unobtrusive camera with a small AF lens for use on photo walks - while paired with a manual focus 25mm/F1.8 and 10mm/F5.6 lens and the magnified screen view set to the rear function button it becomes a surprisingly creative device.

    The drawback is that the camera is almost TOO small and needs a "thumb grip" in the hot shoe to improve handling as it is as slippery as a bar of soap!

    So Richard - what are the "bargain" models that you would advise?

    And don't forget to remind Olympus to support their old models - for once you use a camera brand you typically trade up to higher models as your skills rise and your pockets deepen!

    Best wishes - Paul


    PS - the new 10mm/F5.6 manual focus lens with M4/3 from Pergear/Brightin Star is an excellent buy. I have had mine now for a few weeks are strongly advise that you get one and give it a test run on the KL streets !!! Mine cost <274 MYR with all taxes and delivery to the UK - which makes it a bargain M4/3 wideangle at less than the cost of the Olympus 9mm "body cap" lens. Set focus at 1.20m and the DoF covers from about 80cm to infinity!

  9. Postscript on inexpensive M4/3 cameras to try out today.

    This may be disloyal to the Olympus fans - but the Lumix Gf1 with a 20mm or the 25mm prime panasonic lens is still a veery creative model. The manual controls are far better then the ealy EPL/EPM Olymus models while the AF seems to be far faster. The out of camera JPEGs are not as good as the Olymous EPM1 - but I have found that shooting RAW with old cameras and processing using a newer software system gives images to match.

    Again, mine cost only 245MYR in 2021 and it has been a great creative vhallenge during the COVID lockdowns. Yes - I appreciate the advances of my newer cameras - but getting the best out of old sensors teaches you how to optimise today's models.

    Lastly - if you are looking for a small camera to carry at all times to and from work and on weekend shopping trips - then the cost compared to the currently fashionable Sony 1-inch sensor RX cameras and their equivalents is very different indeed!