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H2H Review: Two similar Olympus cameras

Posted by Angela Nelson, Boston.com Staff  April 12, 2010 01:06 PM

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Olympus PEN E-P1 vs. Olympus E-620

By Emily Raymond
Head2Head Reviews

For this Head-2-Head, we pitted two Olympus interchangeable lens cameras together that have the same image sensor but very different formats and philosophies.

On one side is the Olympus PEN E-P1, a Micro Four Thirds camera with a retro styling that omits a viewfinder, flash, and mirror box to fit into a pocket.

On the other side is the Olympus E-620, a traditional DSLR with an articulated LCD screen, optical viewfinder, and a Four Thirds lens mount.

These two Olympus digital cameras share the same 12.3-megapixel Live MOS sensor and many of the same manual controls, but the E-620 is marketed to hobbyists, while the E-P1 is presented as an ultra-compact interchangeable lens alternative. The question is, beyond size, where are the key distinctions between formats?

Face Off: Design & Features

The E-620 is a typical Four Thirds DSLR with a conventional, 35mm-derived look. The E-P1 is a Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens camera, which eliminates the mirror box and optical viewfinder in an effort to shrink down the overall size of the camera. It is not only much smaller and more portable than the E-620, but it looks much sleeker with a retro styling modeled on Olympus PEN film cameras from the Sixties.

Olympus camera photos

The two digital cameras come with 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lenses that differ in diameter. The E-620 has a Four Thirds lens mount that accepts standard Four Thirds lenses from Olympus, Panasonic, Leica, and others. The rangefinder-like E-P1 has a Micro Four Thirds lens mount that can accept the much smaller “micro” lenses as well as the larger Four Thirds lenses with a $209 adapter.

As far as the components go on the two cameras, the Olympus E-620 keeps things simple with built-in parts. It has a pop-up flash in front of its hot shoe and a fixed optical viewfinder. The E-620 also integrates a 2.7-inch LCD monitor that folds out from the camera body and swivels.

The E-P1 has a 3-inch LCD, but it doesn’t fold or swivel. The E-P1 does not have a built-in flash or viewfinder; those are offered as optional accessories on the E-P1, though they are packaged with the E-P2.

The PEN E-P1’s interface and design help to create a consumer appeal that’s likely to resonate more with general snapshooters than the E-620: the E-P1 has more scene modes, it has enough in-camera editing features to surpass most compact cameras, it plays background music with its slideshows, it has an HD movie mode, and it accepts SD/SDHC media like most compacts. The E-620, however, accepts CompactFlash and xD-Picture cards, and offers “true” DSLR autofocus, though it lacks some of the flashier elements of its interchangeable lens cousin.

The Olympus digital cameras offer the same modes and many of the same features. Each has a mode dial that is fully stocked with manual, priority, program, automatic, and scene modes. The E-P1 has more scene modes, a stereo audio recording mode, and a 1280 x 720-pixel HD movie mode that the E-620 skips entirely. Both cameras have an array of art filters – such as Grainy Film and Pop Art – and a multiple exposure mode that allows you to merge two shots into one file while recording, or to merge three shots in the playback mode.

Main Event: Performance and Image Quality

We put the E-P1 and E-620’s twin image sensors through a battery of testing in our lab. Although both models have the same 12.3-megapixel image sensor, the different processors and lens combinations yielded different “looks” to the files. In short, the E-P1 produced images with more visible detail through most of its sensitivity range. However, at its highest ISO settings, images from the E-P1 lost a lot of detail to noise smoothing. Still, the E-P1 had lower noise overall throughout the range when compared with the E-620.

When it came to capture speed, the E-620 won the sprint with its 4 fps burst. However, its buffer maxed out at five shots, whereas the 3 fps E-P1 went on to capture 10 shots at a time. As far as autofocus speed goes, the E-620 takes the cake with its true DSLR focusing system – a 7-point phase-difference detection system. It is fast and accurate and is easily the E-620’s greatest advantage over the E-P1. The E-620’s response is quick and DSLR like when not in live view, something that is not an option on the Micro Four Thirds cameras, and a chief reason for many point-and-shooters to upgrade to a DSLR.

When both cameras were set to use the contrast detection AF system, they performed equally fast – or slow, depending on how you look at it. When the live view is activated on the LCD, the E-P1 is faster to focus and snap a shot.

Olympus E-620 Flower SampleTaken with the Olympus E-620

Olympus E-P1 Flower SampleTaken with the Olympus PEN E-P1

The most apparent difference between the cameras’ images came out in the colors. The E-P1 rendered tones that were bolder than the E-620’s hues. Technically speaking, the E-620’s colors were more accurate – and would be somewhat easier to manipulate in imaging software. The difference is less striking in JPEGs from the cameras (compared to RAW files processed in Adobe Camera RAW), though it’s still apparent.

Key Advantages

Olympus E-P1
- More portable
- Retro design
- Captures HD video
- More scene mode options
- Musical slide shows
- Wider ISO range
- Less image noise
- More dynamic range
Olympus E-620
- Faster 4 fps burst speed
- Much faster phase difference AF
- Built-in OVF/flash
- Sync with wireless flash
- Illuminated buttons
- Cheaper $699 price tag
- More accurate color reproduction

Value and Conclusion

Speaking strictly in dollar figures, the Olympus E-620 is perhaps the better buy. The camera body and 14-42mm lens come at a relatively inexpensive $699 price. The E-P1, however, costs $799 for the camera and lens; it costs another $99 for a viewfinder and another $199 for a flash, features that are built into the E-620.

The two Olympus cameras performed well in our battery of tests, with the E-620 being the quicker of the two, while the E-P1 snapped more detailed images. The E-620 DSLR gears its performance toward photographers who will likely play with images in editing software, as evidenced by the accuracy of the colors. The E-P1 places its performance priority on getting shots straight out of the camera; its colors are rendered much more saturated, but they offer a punchy look right off the card.

When looks and usability are considered, the E-P1 has its strengths. The retro-styling is much more portable, which means that it will be used more often by street photographers, soccer moms, tourists, and others who value convenience just as much as image quality.

If you have some room in your budget for accessories and no current investment in Olympus lenses, then the E-P1 provides a high-quality portable camera with a growing format around it. On the other hand, if you own a collection of Four Thirds lenses or are on a tight budget, the Olympus E-620 supplies an impressive feature set and solid performance at a slightly higher value.

For more details on the comparative performance of the two cameras -- resolution, dynamic range, color accuracy, autofocus, metering, and dynamic range -- read the full review on Head2Head Reviews.

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