Review: Olympus Pen E-P1

Olympus is taunting tigers at the zoo with its new digital “Pen” camera, the E-P1.

The “tigers” in this case are the self-appointed camera snobs, who will undoubtedly maul this bold, retro-styled shooter for not being expensive enough, powerful enough or big enough to qualify as a “real” camera.

But the ambitious consumers at whom it’s aimed will have a hard time understanding this strange new device’s appeal without first hearing a 10-minute lecture about sensor size, interchangeable lens mount standards, optical viewfinders and high ISO speeds.

The resulting camera is beautiful, fun to use, yet not entirely practical. It’s pricey too. As a result, it probably won’t become a massive bestseller, but that’s beside the point. What it will do is win design awards, turn heads, and kick-start camera makers to put a little more thought into their designs, rather than mindlessly churning out variations on the same tired theme year after year.

A series of “art” filters can give your photos a little on-the-spot post-processing, turning them black and white, vignetting them as if they were shot with a crappy Russian plastic camera, or making them soft-focused and washed-out as if they’d been shot in a Sears photo studio. The post-processing slows down shooting a great deal, though: You’re better off using Photoshop or Picasa.

The E-P1 also shoots excellent HD video (AVI format, 1,280 x 720 pixels, 30 frames per second) though recorded sound is only so-so and the internal microphone will pick up noise from the lens if you zoom in and out.

The usual complement of automatic shooting modes make it easy to take snapshots on the fly, and the E-P1 is fairly fast at focusing and shooting. For more manual shooting, you’ve got full control over aperture, speed, exposure compensation, white balance and more, all using an easy-to-navigate menu system via a control wheel and spinning knob in the upper right of the camera’s back.

In the end, would you really be willing to drop $800 on a flashy camera when an enthusiast model like the Canon G10 will take comparable pictures, weighs less, has a retracting lens and costs at least $300 less? That depends on the importance you accord to sensor size, style or the ability to swap lenses. If any of those carry weight with you, you should at least make a visit to your local camera store to test out the E-P1. It’s an impressive camera, and we hope it kicks off a new trend.

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