occasionally technical tuesday: the olympus pen e-pm1, and point-and-shoots vs. slrs

Olympus PEN E-PM1


Nikon D300


Remember Occasionally Technical Tuesday? Where I would occasionally share photography thoughts, tips and tricks?  I also, apparently only occasionally do them on Tuesday!

Ahem.  Anyway.

For most of this month I've been shooting exclusively with an Olympus PEN E-PM1 kindly given to me by the Olympus people as part of the PEN Ready Project.  My plan has been to give a review of the camera at the end of the month, and then, that would be that.  But as I was trying to think about what I would say, I realized that in a lot of ways it would be impossible to write this without a comparison between these little 4/3 hybrid cameras (which ostensibly give you "the creative freedom of a sophisticated digital SLR with the simple controls and portability of a point-and-shoot") and my big Nikon D300 SLR.  So this weekend, I went outside and shot a few things around my neighbourhood, twice:  in each of the couplets in this post, I framed the best shot I could, first with the PEN, and then with the D300.  Then, I processed each of them the best way I possibly could in Photoshop.  So as you read my thoughts, you can also take a look at the difference in images (keeping in mind that the Nikon has a superior lens to the lens that came with the Olympus, and will account for the difference in the depth-of-field, but not in overall image quality, if you catch my meaning).


Olympus PEN


Nikon D300


When I first got the Olympus, I was really excited about the prospect of having, essentially, a tiny SLR camera.  I mean, really excited.  You see, while I love the concept of having a camera on me at all times (and when you're a photoblogger, a camera is something you'd really like to have on you at all times), my desire was tempered by the fact that my Nikon is a heavy bugger.  The thought of lugging it around everywhere was sometimes disheartening, but I often did it -- and in the odd instance when I decided I didn't want to take it with me, I would invariably come across the most perfectly photogenic moment on the planet that would continue to move into the past, never to be recorded by me (I do have an iPhone, and with apologies to my incredibly talented iPhoneographer friend Stephanie, I've never been able to get an image out of it that was of similar quality to what I could achieve with my Nikon).  And so, based on the "creative freedom of a sophisticated SLR" language from the Olympus site, I jumped at the chance to use the camera just like I use my Nikon.

This was, frankly, a mistake.  The PEN, it is true, has all of the controls necessary to adjust white balance, ISO, aperture and shutter speed, but dear Lord in heaven, it is a pain to do.  As one reviewer I read said, it requires almost an archeological-style dig into the menu to adjust those four things -- so much so, that when you finally get it right, the moment has passed (and if you get it wrong and have to go back and adjust, the moment has really passed).  My Nikon is built so that you can adjust all four of those attributes quickly and on the fly -- the PEN just isn't.  In my mind, it's truly a point-and-shoot camera:  where you, at most, set the ISO, and maybe put it on aperture-priority, and then just let the camera do all the thinking for you. 

(And incidentally, for time comparison's sake, it took me just as long to frame and shoot each of the PEN images you see in this post, with the camera on aperture priority, as it did to shoot each of the D300 images fully manually, making adjustments on the fly with each subject.)


Olympus PEN


Nikon D300


Once I figured that out, and started really treating it like a point-and-shoot, honey, I really fell in love with this camera.  It really is, by far, the best point-and-shoot I've ever shot with:  the image quality (and by this, I mean, the crispness and clarity of the shots) is really amazing (see also: the images I took of some tulips earlier this month.  Every time I go back to that post, I'm blown away by how sharp the petals look).   The images are always invariably sharp, the colour is always beautiful, and as long as I have really good light, the shots I get are indistinguishable from the kinds of shots I can get out of my Nikon. (Note, again, the aperture of the lens that it came with isn't all that impressive.  But they do sell a 1.8 lens for this baby, and considering the price, they're proud of it, too).  The camera is tiny and light and imminently portable, so I've had absolutely no issue with having it on me at all times.  To be honest, I shouldn't be surprised by this:  in my mind, Olympus has always made great point-and-shoots.  My first point-and-shoot was an Olympus, and I loved it -- far more than I loved the Nikon Coolpix I got in recent years.  Olympus just got this right.

Which brings me to a general discussion of point-and-shoots vs. SLRs:  I often see people with really beautiful SLRs, but they never move the camera off of "Program" (that is, fully automatic) or Aperture-Priority.  Don't get me wrong:  I've certainly shot my Nikon this way, and there are some instances (like shooting weddings or children playing) where things are happening so quickly you don't have time to change settings.  But, to be quite frank, if you never even attempt to shoot manually, I would say that you're missing out on at least 50% of the creative things that you can do with photography and the manipulation of light in your shots.   Of course, I understand that not everyone has the inclination to learn the technical side of photography -- and obviously, cameras like the PEN prove that you don't have to, and you can still get insanely good shots -- but if you are interested in photography, learning about the relationship between ISO and aperture and shutter speed will give you a ton of power over your resulting shots.

(And for what it's worth, I've written extensively about the relationship between ISO, aperture and shutter speed right here.)


Olympus PEN


Nikon D300


And so, my final conclusion:  if you

(a) are someone who is in the market for a good camera that will take amazing photographs, but really couldn't give a whit about the technical side of photography; or

(b) are a photographer who has a big huge SLR and you know and understand photography, but you also want a nice small camera that's really portable, but enables you to take shots of equal quality to your SLR

then run, do not walk to buy yourself this little camera.  The Olympus PEN, in my opinion, is perfect for these types of uses, and I'm certain you won't be disappointed.

If, however, you are not a photographer, but you're someone who already has a point-and-shoot, and are looking to learn about photography, then I would really give this PEN camera a pass.  Trying to learn the different settings that you need to learn with photography would likely prove very exasperating with this camera, and I think your $500 would be better spent on a true SLR, even if it's second-hand.  SLR's are just designed to better access the settings you need to change on the fly, and you'll learn and understand photography far more easily this way.  I think, anyway.

(And also for what it's worth, I've written a lot about how to purchase an SLR camera here.)

As for me, if I'm traveling somewhere I've never been before, or am going somewhere that I know will be chock-full of photo opportunities, I'll continue to lug my Nikon D300.  But this cute PEN will be my always-in-my-possession camera for sure, whether the Nikon is with me or not.  It's an awesome little camera, and I'm very grateful to Olympus for including me in their PEN Ready project.

And with that, happy shooting friends. 


SongF-stop blues by Jack Johnson