Improvement suggestions for the Olympus PEN E-P1 camera
I’ve been using an Olympus PEN E-P1 for a while now. Camera manufacturers have finally woken up to the fact that there is a market need for a reasonably small, reasonably light, quality camera. The Olympus E-P1 is one of a growing number of cameras that is fulfilling that need. There are some things that I’d like to see improved, and I discuss these in this post.
My suggestions can be divided into software improvements (which hopefully could be provided by an upgrade sometime in the future), hardware improvements and new accessories. These are listed below and explained in more detail in the following text.
- Allow more of the buttons to be customizable.
- Make the focus assist zoom display more easily accessible for manual focus lenses (currently you need to be in the correct info mode)
- Make exposure bracketing more easily accessible (currently it’s hidden deep in the menu system).
- Add more automatic exposure bracketing options.
- Move the Level Gauge setting into the LV-INFO menu
- Use upper and lower case letters in the menu system.
- Improve the selection of information displayed in Playback mode.
- Let users add star rating and other metadata to photos in Playback mode.
- Allow the user to disable display animations.
- Produce a software development kit to allow development of third-party installable camera applications.
- Produce a lighter variant.
- Improve the screen resolution from its current 230,000 pixels to at least 460,000 pixels.
- Support remote liveview.
- Move My Mode settings to the Mode Dial.
- Use a 18mm by 15.3mm image sensor to better support different aspect ratio photos (including square)
- Standardise the MFT battery
- Standardise the MFT electronic viewfinder interface
- Produce a 12mm prime lens.
- Produce a tilt-shift lens.
Most of the software improvements are about making functionality more accessible, rather than adding new functionality. When taking photos its important to be able to quickly do the thing you want – if you have to go through several menus to change a setting, then you can miss the photo.
The EP-1 has four main ways to access functionality:
- Direct Buttons
- Live Control (accessed by pressing the OK button)
- Super Control Panel (accessed by pressing the INFO button from Live Control)
- Menu system (accessed by pressing the MENU button)
The E-P1’s menu system has been described as “clunky”, “cluttered” and “difficult to navigate”. While I tend to agree, this is ameliorated by the fact that most commonly used functions are available without entering the menu system. Indeed most common functionality is available by use of the Direct Buttons or Live Control – many of my suggested improvements involve extending the use of Direct Buttons and Live Control.
1) Allow more of the buttons to be customizable. Currently the (Fn) and (Left Arrow) buttons are customizable. More camera functionality could be made directly available to the user if more of the buttons were customizable. In particular all of the arrow buttons and the exposure compensation (+/-) button should be customizable. It is worth noting that the White Balance function (assigned to the (Right Arrow) button) is not needed when shooting raw, and that the Exposure Compensation (+/-) button is not needed if either the Main Dial or the Sub Dial is set to directly change the the exposure compensation.
2) Make the focus assist zoom display more easily accessible for manual focus lenses. Using manual focus assist with Micro Four Thirds lenses is straightforward. The zoom display can be set to automatically activate when the focus ring is rotated, and the zoom display automatically deactivates when the shutter button is pressed.
Unfortunately using manual focus assist with non-MFT lenses (OM system lenses, for example), is not nearly so straightforward. Zoom display can only be activated by pressing the OK button when in the Zoom Display Info mode. To access the zoom display for manual focusing you need to press the INFO button repeatedly until the zoom frame is visible and then you need to press the OK button. This is awkward and also means that other information display (for example the histogram) is not available when using manual focus assist. I propose that Zoom Display can be assigned to a Direct Button and that Zoom Display is deactivated when the Shutter Button is pressed.
3) Make exposure bracketing more easily accessible. Exposure bracketing is currently hidden deep in the menu system. It should be made more easily available by adding it to the Sequential Shooting/self timer function. This would make exposure bracketing readily available from a Direct Button, from Live Control and from the Super Control Panel.
The Sequential Shooting/self timer function currently hosts: single frame shooting, sequential shooting, 12 second self timer, and 2 second self timer. I propose that an automatic exposure bracketing option is added.
4) Add more automatic exposure bracketing options. There are two main reasons to use exposure bracketing: to ensure that you have a properly exposed picture (especially in difficult lighting conditions) or to obtain several exposures to combine into a high dynamic range (HDR) image. Digital cameras have advanced metering, instant feedback and live histograms so exposure bracketing isn’t really needed to ensure that you have a properly exposed picture; the primary purpose of exposure bracketing for digital cameras is HDR photography.
The EP-1 allows AE bracketing of +/- 0.3, 0.7 or 1.0 stops. For HDR photography a larger exposure compensation is desirable: 2.0 or 3.0 stops is not unreasonable. Additionally for HDR photography an underexposed frame is not necessarily required. I propose the AE bracketing options allow up to +/- 3.0 stops and also have an option of only taking 2 frames (correct exposure and overexposure, or correct exposure and underexposure).
5) Move the Level Gauge setting into the LV-INFO menu. The Level Gauge setting currently sits directly in the (D) menu of the Tools Tab. It belongs with all the other Information Display items (histogram, zoom, multi-view etc), that is in the LV-INFO menu under the INFO SETTING menu on the (D) menu of the Tools Tab.
6) Use upper and lower case letters in the menu system.The EP-1’s menu system is all in BLOCK CAPITALS. This is less readable and less attractive than mixed case.
7) Improve the selection of information displayed in Playback mode. In Playback Mode there are two options that display shooting information: Simplified Display and Overall Display. Unfortunately the Simplified Display doesn’t show some important image information, instead it elects to show some less important information. This means the user often needs to use the Overall Display (with its smaller image) to review photos in Playback Mode.
Things would be improved if the Simplified Display showed the focal length, shutter speed, aperture value, and exposure compensation instead of the much less useful pixel count, compression rate, aspect ratio and record mode.
8) Let users add star rating and other metadata to photos in Playback mode. I’d like to be able to start the process of organizing my photos on my camera, rather than waiting until I have transferred the photos to my computer. Often I have access to my camera when I don’t have my computer (for example traveling back from wherever I took the photos) and I could save a lot of time by starting to organize my photos before I got home. A basic minimum would be the ability to add a star rating to the photo (eg 3 stars or 4 stars etc).
9) Allow the user to disable display animations. Although animated displays can be attractive, they can also delay feedback to the user. This slows things down and so can be extremely irritating. The worst example of this is the animation that occurs when the mode dial is changed. But the delays cause by animation when the OK button is used to enter Live Control mode and when Direct Buttons are pressed are also extremely irritating. There should be an option to disable all of these animations.
10) Produce a software development kit to allow development of third-party installable camera applications. Olympus makes its money from the sale of cameras and lenses, not the software inside the cameras. Enabling the development of camera applications would increase the market for Olympus cameras and would result in all sorts of novel uses for those cameras.
There is precedent: camera phones, notably the Apple iPhone, but also Google Android and the Nokia phones, have development kits that enable third party camera applications.
Many Canon Powershot cameras have been hacked so that additional functionality can be added to these cameras, see: CHDK. This has enabled things like time-lapse photography, motion detection photography and even the addition of a BASIC-like scripting language to control some of the camera’s functionality.
Photographic software, such as Lightroom, supports third party application development and third party plugins.
Thom Hogan has called for Nikon to do a similar thing with its cameras in his article “The Inverted Razor Blade” here
It’s time for camera manufacturers to open up their camera APIs to third party developers – there will be considerable first party advantage to the first manufacturer to do so. The market leaders Canon and Nikon are not going to take the initiative (market leaders never do), so there is a considerable opportunity for a second tier camera manufacturer such as Olympus to take the initiative and really increase their market share.
Actually I think Olympus should go further than just support third party applications. I think they should open source all the camera user interface (UI) software. Olympus gains no competitive advantage from its UI software, indeed its UI puts it at a competitive disadvantage to other camera manufacturers that have better UIs (notably Canon). Open sourcing its UI would allow community led improvements to that UI – for example if the UI was open source I could implement most of the improvements I suggest in this blog post myself.
I’m not advocating that Olympus open source the entirety of its camera software, just the UI. Clearly Olympus gains considerable competitive advantage from its photo processing and camera control software – these can remain closed, but the interfaces to this software should be published.
But this is all a bit radical – I don’t expect Olympus or any other camera manufacturer to open source any of its software in the near future. But I don’t think supporting third party camera applications is radical, and I repeat, the first camera company to do this will find itself gaining considerable market share.
1) Produce a lighter variant. The E-P1 is already available in two colour variants: silver and white. I’d like to see a lightweight variant that shaves at least 50g off its weight of 335g. The E-P1 has a stainless steel shell – while this is attractive, it adds unnecessary weight. Let’s have a variant with a lighter plastic shell (or a thinner steel shell). I’m sure some people will prefer the current stainless steel variant, but I am also sure that some people (perhaps a minority) will prefer the lighter variant. Olympus are helping create a new market segment, and it is good marketing to expand that segment as much as possible.
2) Improve the screen resolution from its current 230,000 pixels to at least 460,000 pixels. The E-P1’s screen resolution of 230,000 pixels trails that of its competition. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1, DMC-GF1 and DMC-LX3 all have screen resolutions of 460,000 pixels. The Canon PowerShot G11 and PowerShot S90 have screen resolutions of 461,000 pixels.
3) Support remote liveview. For certain photographic applications the ability to have liveview on a computer attached to the camera via a USB cable is extremely useful.
This facility is supported by the Nikon D300, D300s, D5000, Nikon D90, D700, Nikon D3, Nikon D3X, Canon EOS-1D Mark III, EOS-1Ds Mark III, EOS 5D Mark II, EOS 40D, EOS 50D, EOS 500D/Rebel T1i, EOS 450D/Rebel XSi and EOS 1000D/Rebel XS only cameras.
4) Move MyMode Settings onto the Mode Dial. The ability to store frequently used settings is extremely useful, but the E-P1’s implementation is confusing and difficult to use. It would be much better to add two additional settings (say C1 and C2) to the Mode Dial, and provide a means for the user to configure these settings.
5) Use a 18mm by 15.3mm image sensor to better support different aspect ratio photos (including square). The micro four thirds standard specifies an image diagonal of 21.63mm. So a square image within a micro four thirds image circle would have a dimension of 15.29mm by 15.29mm. This means a 18mm by 15.3mm sensor would allow image ratios of 1:1, 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9 all with the same diagonal field of view, that being the maximum allowed by the micro four thirds standard.
The raw image should store the entire sensor output – this would give the most flexibility in post capture processing.
Even more radically a 18mm by 18mm sensor could be used – this then allows post capture changing from portrait to landscape in all aspect ratios.
6) Standardize the MFT battery. The advantages that are achieved by having a standard lens system are enhanced by having a standardized battery. The need to duplicate spare batteries and battery chargers is a disincentive to buying more than one micro four thirds camera. This is true whether it is a single person or a family contemplating more than one camera, or a person thinking of upgrading their camera. If Olympus and Panasonic MFT cameras shared the same batteries, then it would be more convenient for users and both manufacturers would sell more cameras.
7) Standardize the MFT electronic viewfinder interface. The advantages to users and manufacturers of having a standard battery also apply to external viewfinders. If Olympus and Panasonic electronic viewfinders were interchangeable then both manufacturers would sell more cameras and more viewfinders. The fact that something as expensive as an electronic viewfinder may become obsolete is a powerful disincentive to purchase.
1) Produce a 12mm prime lens. The EP-1 lends itself particularly well to landscape and architectural photography. For these applications a 12mm prime lens would be useful. My preference if for a lightweight lens – I would sacrifice maximum aperture for weight, but there are certainly users who would sacrifice weight for maximum aperture. There is probably sufficient demand for a 12mm prime lens to produce both lightweight and large aperture variants.
2) Produce a tilt-shift lens. An E-P1 with a tilt-shift lens would be like a mini-view camera. The small size of the MFT sensor would presumably make it possible to produce a reasonably cheap tilt-shift lens, opening this area of photography up to many more people.
I’m placing all these ideas in the public domain: I’d be more than happy if Olympus adopts them – indeed that’s the whole point of stating the ideas.
Update 21st January, 2010
On Saturday 9th January, 2010 Amateur Photographer reported that Samsung is planning to incorporate part of its camera line up into the list of products supported by its App Store, see:
Apps for Samsung NX series in future
If it is not careful, Olympus might find Samsung steals its newly found market niche. If the choice is between Samsung NX with Apps, or Olympus Pen without Apps, then I can see a significant segment of Olympus’s potential market opting for the NX.
Update 11th May, 2010
The specifications for the Sony NEX-3 and NEX-5 are now available. It seems Sony has understood the demand for a compact light quality camera. The NEX-3 and NEX-5 are considerably smaller and lighter than the Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras. The 16mm pancake lens is admirably small and light.
The 230,000 pixel screen of the Olympus models is looking increasingly uncompetitive.
I renew my call for Olympus to produce a smaller and lighter variant (keeping the in-body image stabilisation). The Micro Four Thirds lenses are smaller than the equivalent Sony lenses, so Olympus could produce the smallest and lightest overall package.
Here are the weights (including batteries) and sizes of the various mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras:
|Olympus E-P1||355g||426g||121 x 70 x 36 mm||230,000|
|Olympus E-P2||355g||426g||121 x 70 x 36 mm||230,000|
|Olympus E-PL1||334g||406g||115 x 72 x 42 mm||230,000|
|Panasonic GF1||315g||415g||119 x 71 x 36 mm||460,000|
|Sony NEX-3||297g||371g||117 × 62 × 33 mm||920,000|
|Sony NEX-5||287g||361g||111 × 59 × 38 mm||920,000|
|Samsung NX10||414g||499g||123 × 87× 40 mm||614,000|
The Sony cameras are the lightest of the bunch. They are even lighter than the Canon PowerShot G11. It seems like someone has finally got it: size and weight are important. The best camera is the one you have with you, this means a camera small and light enough that you don’t have to think about taking it with you.
Here are the weights and dimensions of the pancake lenses available for these cameras:
|Sony E 16mm f2.8||74g||62 x 22.5 mm||49 mm|
|M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f2.8||71g||57 x 22 mm||37 mm|
|Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7||100g||63 x 25.5 mm||46 mm|
|Samsung 30mm f2||85g||61.5 x 21.5 mm||43 mm|
Sony has done a great job with its lens. E-mount lenses are inherently larger than micro four thirds lenses, since they have to cope with a larger sensor. Despite this, the Sony 16mm f2.8 lens is only 3g heavier than the comparable 17mm f2.8 Olympus lens.
Here are the weights and dimensions of some of the high end compact cameras:
|Canon PowerShot G11||375g||112 x 76 x 48 mm||461,000|
|Canon PowerShot S90||195g||100 x 58 x 31 mm||461,000|
|Leica X1||306g||124 x 60 x 32 mm||230,000|
|Nikon Coolpix P6000||280g||107 x 65.2 x 42 mm||230,000|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3||265g||109 x 60 x 27 mm||460,000|