Owning a digital SLR is becoming more affordable with every new advance in imaging technology. But, the bulk and ‘feature-list overkill' can be a bit daunting for the pro-sumer. Further, while more and more amateur photographers are seeking the versatility of a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera), due to the versatility that interchangeable lenses provide, high prices of additional equipment and the size of these accessories can be a deterrent.
One option that is fast gaining popularity is the mini-DSLR. The wave of miniaturisation sweeping the ‘point & shoots' had not moved upwards to the SLRs, until recently. Amongst the first to introduce a mini-DSLR in its portfolio was Olympus. We get shutter-happy with the Pen E-PL1 and find that it is a good attempt at bridging the gap, though this mini-DSLR still has some remnants of a ‘point & shoot' in it.
Boxed in antique-style leather, the camera cover is reminiscent of an old-world SLR camera's packaging. The E-PL1 has adopted the Micro Four Thirds system, which makes it considerably smaller than the conventional DSLR.
The 12-meg sensor measures 18mm x 13.5mm with a diagonal of 22.5mm, which makes it 30-40 per cent smaller than the usual 35mm DSLRs in the market. This excludes the recent full-frame DSLRs.
Despite this, the camera's shell allows for a sensor that is almost nine times larger than the ones in most compact digicams.
This makes the 14mm-42mm collapsible kit lens that comes with the camera equivalent to 28mm – 84mm in a 35mm camera because its sensor is roughly half the size of a full-frame 35mm camera. The absence of the mirror and the prism has made this camera considerably smaller hence lighter than a DSLR. The collapsible design makes the camera compact and makes it easy to carry along wherever you go.
The built-in flash is effective up to five feet at ISO 100, but you have the option of using an external flash thanks to the presence of a hotshoe.
The Intelligent Auto mode features a brightness mode where you can dramatically alter the brightness of the subject, transforming subjects in poor light or shadows to look like they have been shot under excellent lighting conditions.
The camera has a ‘Live mode' that lets you have a preview of how your final image would look like and accordingly lets you adjust contrast and other settings to suit your requirements. In this mode however, we had some difficulties while trying to shoot photographs under bright lights.
The level of brightness can also be adjusted during ‘Live' view but a considerable amount of noise builds up as a result of tweaking the settings while in this mode.
You can change hues of the picture from Warm (Yellow) to Cool (Blue). A couple of other interesting features in the IA mode include blurring of the background and creating a blurred motion or a panned effect.
To aid beginners, the Intelligent Auto mode also has tutorials and shooting tips on capturing pets, children, candlelight and landscapes on the camera.
The ISO range is from 100 to 3200 and it also has an Auto ISO option where the camera selects the ideal ISO according to the ambience.
The shutter speed has a wide range — from a full 60 seconds to 1/2000 of a second — with a B (bulb) setting for longer exposure. These longer exposures, however, in different trials produced noise, resulted in loss of colour and in compromised contrast.
Shooting in the RAW format however reduced the noise.
The lens has an aperture of F3.5 at the wide end, which progresses to F5.6 at the telephoto end. Aperture can be stopped down to F22 at both ends.
The image stabilisation has three stages, and is effective at IS 2.
Lenses that have been made for the Four Thirds mount can be used in this camera with an adaptor made available both by Olympus and Panasonic.
In the continuous mode where up to 3FPS is possible, the monitor darkens after the first frame and it becomes difficult to track or follow.
The camera struggles a bit to focus on moving objects and subjects in low lighting. The absence of an AF assist lamp was felt when shooting in the dark.
The camera has a sleep mode which enables power saving.
The absence of a mirror exposes the sensor to dust whenever you want to change your lens. Olympus, however, claims that it is not a major issue since an inbuilt sensor-cleaning mechanism is designed to get rid of the dust that accumulates on the sensor. On the other hand, the advantage of not having the mirror is that at slower shutter speeds the vibration, that would otherwise be caused by the movement of the mirror, is avoided.
When you bring it up to the eyes to shoot like you'd do in an SLR, you realise the camera doesn't have a viewfinder. So you have no other option but to shoot holding the camera away from your face as you'll have to frame and focus on your shot only via the LCD view at the rear of the camera.
The absence of a scroll dial or wheel is a handicap especially when you want change your settings in a hurry, moreover you have to press the control buttons at least twice to change any setting on the camera. This can be cumbersome and the delay could mean losing precious time during which you might miss out on capturing just the right shot.
Overall the Olympus Pen E-PL1 and the lens performed well in most conditions with sharpness, contrast and colour much better than most compact cameras. The noise levels were acceptable in most pictures we shot. The E-PL1 is a good attempt at building DSLR capabilities within the confines of a compact body and within its range of lenses, though not all of them are in the market yet. With the advantage of being able to shoot movies in HD, the camera can be compared favourably to most entry level DSLRs currently in the market.
Value for money: 2/5