I have entered the micro four thirds system of digital photography – and video shooting – with an Olympus PEN E-PL1. Delighted with the camera. Here’s some advice on how to use the E-PL1, based on my experiences so far.
The E-PL1 is certainly an interesting camera. The body is not much larger or heavier than a compact digital camera, the zoom “kit” lens it comes with (14-42mm) is also small; yet it packs a four thirds sensor as large as in Olympus’ main DSLR models, and almost the size of sensors in most Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras (but significantly smaller than the costly “full frame” sensors).
Olympus Pen E-PL1 has retro look yet ultramodern functionality
The “PEN” reflects connections to Olympus’ Pen range of lightweight, half-frame cameras introduced in 1959 – and there’s something retro about the design. Yet there is also extensive, fully up-to-date functionality.
I like the feel of the camera: it’s lightweight (compared to an SLR/DSLR), sits nicely in my hands.
iAUTO and Scenes modes
Like many cameras, the E-PL!’s default mode is aimed at imexperienced users. In iAUTO mode, it can be used in simple point and shoot ways – and pressing a start/ok button allows changes to, say, colour saturation and brightness, as well as choosing to shoot fast moving images: all without mention of somewhat technical terms like f-stop or shutter speed.
Though I often like to control at least some settings, I find iAUTO a very handy mode for quickly starting to shoot pictures, especially when there isn’t much light so it’s ok for the camera to choose high ISO.
There’s also chance to select SCN mode, and switch between potential scenes such as portrait, landscape and close-up, with the camera then switching settings accordingly.
But of course, there’s more, and many variations are possible. There are program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual modes, with scope for switching f-stops and shutter speeds. You can use a dial to switch between modes.
A MENU button leads to a menu screen, and here it’s possible to make a host of changes, even customising the way the camera works for you.
The first two choices on the main menu screen are for somewhat basic camera settings, including:
- Resolution of images (do you want RAW and/or jpeg?; for jpeg, choose quality);
- Aspect ratio (4:3 is standard): can help if you have certain aim for the shots, like prints of specific ratio.
- Whether image stabilizer is on and, if so, what focal lengths it becomes operational. Also, should it be for vertical shake (which is suitable for, say, shots when panning horizontally), horizontal shake, or both vertical and horizontal shake.
There’s another set of choices for playback modes.
More interesting is the unobtrusive “gears menu”. Here, there are extensive choices, taking the E-PL1 well beyond the realm of regular consumer cameras. You can, say:
- Choose what happens when you press buttons such as “Fn” and “INFO”, choose additional settings for stored photo quality (Large photos with fine jpeg quality are possible here: I’ve read that as Olympus has strong jpeg processing “engine”, these are about the same quality as RAW files);
- Choose at what level of battery charge the battery low warning will start to show… Not all settings can be selected for iAUTO mode, say.
Among the gears menu settings I’ve found handier:
- Choose the INFO button for LV (live view) to include shadows/highlights – which gives a handy indication of where parts of an image will be completly over-exposed;
- Option to choose to have connection to USB cable result in “Storage” be default (as I simply connect to computer, to transfer photos, or check for software updates);
- When in P, A, S or M mode: via E gears menu, for EXP/display/ISO, there’s a choice for “anti-shock”. This is time delay between pressing shutter release, and shutter firing – so don’t get camera shaking because of pressing the release. Somewhat similar to self timer, which I’ve used for this purpose on other cameras, but works better. You can then choose whether to shoot in “anti-shock” mode via button below the Start/OK button.
Spanner (tools) menu
Another menu is accessed by a button with a spanner symbol. Among settings here is REC VIEW, where you can choose whether to show an image of a newly taken photo and, if so, for how long.
I prefer to turn this off – so when necessary can keep shooting, without need to see image and wait for it to vanish.
Program mode for basic shooting
I mostly use the camera in Program mode. Partly as got used to this with, say, Nikon F100.
But using Program does not mean simply letting the camera make all the decisions. There’s a range of settings that can be changed; and several should be changed for best results.
Touching the E-PL1’s start/OK button leads to a menu appearing on the right of the screen. The buttons above and below this button allow you to scroll through the options; then press left/right to switch between options, and then OK to select.
Among options here is the ISO (used to be known as film speed): Olympus recommends 200ASA, for balancing noise (should be minimal at 200ASA, increases with ISO) and dynamic range (so still get good range of brightnesses recorded). I’ve read that this is actually the ISO of the sensor: ISO 100 is achieved via some computation. You can also choose Sequential photos – fully press the shutter release and keep it pressed, and the camera takes shots in rapid succession; while if you press, then keep it half pressed the focus is unchanged and you can take more photos if you wish: this way, there’s no black screen between taking shots, as happens when the camera takes one shot, then needs to refocus.
With these settings chosen, there are buttons around Start/OK, which you can press to quickly:
- Choose to adjust exposure;
- Choose where to focus;
- Choose what happens when shutter is released (such as one image, several photos, anti-shock delay);
- Make choices for flash (note that you have to manually release the actual flash head).
Autofocus Not Always Selecting Correct Subject
I’ve found that when trying to shoot dark subjects against light backgrounds, like dark bird on branch against sunlit foliage, the E-PL1 has trouble focusing – typically focusing on the background not subject. Happens even when choosing selective focus, such as centre focus.
This photo is an example of just this issue; I did try pointing the camera at different places on the bird and railing, but focus kept heading for the leaves behind. (Also managed a shot with the bird in focus by using MF assist, but of course this is troublesome, takes time – so far from ideal for many subjects including birds.) I sent this shot to Olympus as an example of my problems, and received this reply:
[quote]We checked the image you attached. If there is a bright area with a dark subject in a selected single focus target such as your image, the focus may tend to be done on the bright area.
In that case, we suggest that you try to set the metering mode to Spot metering to point at the dark subject.
According to Exif information of your image, the metering mode was set to Pattern (= “digital ESP metering” in manual). This mode makes it tend to choose a bright subject, so please try to change it when you cannot focus on a dark subject.[/quote]
Well, having tried this, I’m not at all convinced it works. Though just might help to have spot metering as option for AEL (which is different to the overall metering selection).
Autofocus Tracking May Help Focus on Static Subjects Too
After an outing taking some bird photos, and quickly trying spot metering as advised, I again had trouble trying to take shots of birds on branches, with light foliage etc behind. Tried switching to centre weighted and digital ESP (pattern metering), but didn’t notice a different.
I then tried switching to focus tracking, and had more success with this – even for birds sitting still on small branches. I think the reason is that here, the camera is looking for something with a shape to it, not focusing on a pattern with contrast, so there is more chance of focusing on a bird or even branch a bird is on.
Maybe best if choose to focus on centre of image,as AF target.
– Yet after more bird shots, I think focus tracking isn’t such a boon for static subjects. Instead, centre focus seems best option. If not easy to focus on actual subject, focus on something close by, then retry the subject – the autofocus starts “hunting” for something at similar distance.
Can use with manual focus assist; this enables good focusing on subject, while if there’s little time for this can try rapid turn of focus ring, so the focus should be somewhere around the subject, and retry autofocus.
Noise Reduction – two types
There are two kinds of noise reduction, for two kinds of noise: difference not explained in the instruction manual that I’ve noticed.
Surely the best is “Noise Reduction”. This is for long exposure images, and for removing issue with “hot pixels”, sometimes also referred to as “stuck pixels” – though in answer to What is Pixel Mapping?, Olympus notes these are really hot pixels. [Lest you’re curious, pixel mapping is to counter problem with sensor pixels becoming dead or stuck over time: can be performed by E-PL1.]
These hot pixels result from sensor becoming warm during long exposures; they record brightnesses higher than they should, resulting in scatter of whitish dots across a long exposure image. Noise Reduction involves the camera following actual exposure with another exposure of same length, with the shutter closed; then blends the image that should be entirely black with the actual one. Great improvement, so would seem useful to have Noise Reduction turned on, and can use “auto” setting so only starts when taking long exposures.
Note that Noise Reduction is automatically turned off when you select sequential shooting.
The other way to reduce noise is through Noise Filter. This is to reduce the random noise, akin to film grain, that is especially prevalent at higher ISOs. This filtering means some smoothing of image, so there may be potential for smoothing fine detail, making image a very little like a watercolour. Reportedly takes a little time, so you might consider turning this off, and reducing random noise using image processing software.
Great to have video – makes this a highly versatile camera.
The Electronic Viewfinder is an accessory that fits in the hotshoe atop the camera. It’s relatively pricey – almost half the cost of the Olympus E-PL1. Not so vital with wider lenses I think, such as the kit lens zoomed out, as using these you can nearly always have a fair idea of what you are shooting. But very handy for longer lenses, especially in bright light – in which case, it can be harder to use the main screen to compose photos.
The Electronic Viewfinder is bright, and I find it can be a boon.
It tilts upward, which is handy for times I have the camera low down, such as for some macro shots, and at times for bird photography (when looking down can make me seem less interested in the bird I’m “shooting”).
Small, Light Tripod is Useful
With micro four thirds, it could seem silly to lug around a relatively heavy tripod – even the carbon fibre Manfrotto tripod I’ve used for 35mm photography seems like overkill, weighing a good deal more than the Olympus E-PL1.
But, a tripod can of course be very useful. This is particularly as I have the Olympus-Zuiko 40-150mm zoom lens, and I soon found that even the image stabilisation didn’t lead to shots as sharp as I hoped when hand holding with the lens zoomed in (becoming akin to 300mm lens on a 35mm camera).
I use a Velbon CX-888 tripod, which I think is remarkably lightweight and small for carrying, whilst being pretty stable and extending to an impressive height. Had some good results, though for best stability either avoid windy conditions, or keep the tripod low: the more extended, the wobblier.
And yet: after buying M.Zuiko 75-300 zoom, I found the CX-888 not too stable, even at mimimum height: zoomed out to 300mm, I was seeing image shake when I was touching camera/lens. So for this lens, now using a more “serious” tripod, unless set to hike for any distance.
For examples of results, please see below, from my gallery of Photos Taken with Olympus E-PL1.
For some info on top of that in the instruction manual, Olympus America has handy page: E-PL1 Frequently Asked Questions.
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