Sunday, October 4, 2009

Battle of the Brethen

They are almost of the same size, using the same sensor and conforms to the same m43 format. To many confused buyers, deciding between these two cameras is as tough as choosing tomatoes in the market. However, apart from the apparent similarities, these two cameras have significant differences which will sway buyers one way or another.

In this post, I will try to summarize the core differences between these cameras and hopefully highlight that deciding factor which will help buyers make up their mind.

Why would one buy the E-P1?
  • Great color rendition - Following the tradition of Olympus cameras, the color rendition of the E-P1 is vibrant and very attractive to many of its fans. Colors are just sufficiently saturated and at the same time still pleasing. The GF-1 on the other hand is said to have a weird tone for yellow and orange. In some sample studio shots I have seen, the color produced by the GF-1 looked a little on the yucky side. Having said that, apparently the color issue can be fixed with post processing...
  • Greater ISO settings (100-6400) - Sometimes, the ability to move up the ISO alone is a good enough feature. In times of emergency, that would be precious. In terms of high ISO performance, I think it wins some and loses some. I see the E-P1 doing very well in high contrast black/white patterns at high ISO but the GF-1 on the other hand wins on certain color patterns details. All in all a neck to neck fight to the line.
  • 4/3 compatibility (AF) - The Olympus 4/3 adapter for the E-P1 preserves the AF capabilities of these lenses. That means that users get a bit more choices in terms of lenses. However, AF speed remains an issue across all the lenses.
  • 3rd Party Batteries - To begin with, some dealers in Asia actually bundle an extra battery with the camera. Batteries are a very important part of the m43 system. Why? Think 'full time LIVE VIEW', which translates to 'battery draining device' in any language. The certified 200 or so shots for such a cameras mean that a backup battery is not a luxury, it is a necessity. While Olympus graciously allowed 3rd party batteries to be used with the E-P1, Panasonic decided to intentionally create an artificial shortcoming in their otherwise flawless camera by disallowing 3rd party batteries to be used with them. Yes, you heard me right ... and they even took the pain to code it into the firmware.
  • Stereo Mic and Jack for external mic - This is another area that the Panasonic engineers seem to have fallen asleep while designing the camera. As you will read later, despite all the features that they manage to squeeze into and the technical marvels that they have achieved with the Panasonic GF-1, they left out a simple feature that puts a dent in the otherwise flawless video capabilities of the GF-1, an external microphone jack. Video enthusiasts worldwide will scratch their heads and wonder why they would buy the GF-1 for the supposed superior video capability (with silent, fast continuous AF) but are left with a sub-standard mono soundtrack to go with it.
  • Art Filters - The E-P1 comes with several simulated filter modes. Apparently it is attractive to some users who do not want to spend time doing these effects in post processing.
  • No RAW File Post Processing - The Panasonic cameras include PP information in the RAW files that the converters cleverly apply while converting them. This fixes lens and other issues quietly without the user's knowledge. Many photographers cry fowl as they feel that Panasonic has robbed them the ability to fully control RAW file processing. Some others also feel that Panasonic uses in-camera processing to replace true efforts in creating superior lenses. If in-camera processing bothers you, then the E-P1 would be the ideal choice.
  • In Body Image Stabilizer - One of the main draw of the m43 is the ability to mount Leica M and other old lenses via adapters. However, with a crop factor of 2, many medium focal length lenses becomes tele. In body IS means that any lenses, manual or autofocus becomes IS enabled. Yes, any lens new or old, AF or MF all become IS enabled. Although some may feel that optical IS is slightly superior to in body ones, I think that is a small price to pay given the amount of savings you enjoy since OIS lenses are much more expensive than non OIS ones.
  • Compact Kit Lens - The E-P1 comes will a cleverly retractable kit lens, giving the total package a smaller footprint than the GF-1. The reason why anyone is interested in the m43 is definitely because of size. Anything feature that decreases the size of the system, even if it is only for transport is welcome. Do note that this retractable feature comes at a price... please read the GF-1's 'Kit Lens' section for the trade-off.
  • Exterior Design - Many fans out there already describe the E-P1 as the camera their heart would tell them to buy, rather than one that their mind would tell them to. The retro PEN design is the deciding factor for many. I mean, if anyone wants to buy a black chunk of a camera that works flawlessly, they would have bought a dSLR right?
Why would one buy the GF-1?

  • Speed and Performance - The AF speed of the GF-1 is very close to the other G series cameras, the G1/GH1. If tested with the same lense, I suspect it will equal the GH1 which is close to or exceed the best entry level dSLRs out there. That means it could be about three times faster than the E-P1. If you are shooting any living things apart from very old people and plants, I think the AF speed of the GF-1 would really come in handy.
  • AF in Video and other Video Features - The GH-1 was dubbed the Video Cam and dSLR hybrid. the GF-1 aims to provide similar features. The video mode on GF-1 supports continuous AF and subject tracking. Currently, no dSLRs supports this feature in practical terms. The E-P1's AF speed in video mode is definitely not acceptable by any standards. The GF-1 also supports AVCHD light and a lot more several frame rates vs resolution settings than the E-P1. However, when it comes to sound recording for video, it is a different story.... (please read the E-P1 section)
  • Features - There is no denying, the GF-1 was designed by engineers while the E-P1 seem to have been designed by a bunch of romantics. Feature wise, the GF-1 handily beats the E-P1 by a very huge margin. Here are some of the highlights:
  1. The 460k LCD screen, the super high-tech built-in flash, the AF assist beam and an optional electronic viewfinder. While some may feel that the LCD screen does not help users take better photographs, I tend to argue that seeing a better representation of what was taken would quickly allow users to adjust settings and nail the next shot. While the 230k LCD screen of the E-P1 is pretty good, it loses out to the Panasonic's LCD screen.
  2. As for the Built-in Flash, some argue that it would be pointless as the result would never be acceptable by any decent photographer. In my opinion, many GF-1 users will be users upgrading from Point and Shoot (PnS) and one of the main functions of PnS are lowlight party snapshots. If m43 cameras want to fill that gap between PnS and dSLR, it has to be good at being both. Why would anyone buy a camera that is larger and much more expensive than their PnS when they can't even do regular things like party snapshots? So although the flash is a little weak at GN6@ISO100, it is already much better than many buil-in flash from PnS.
  3. AF-Assist Beam - This is a small but very useful feature in my opinion. Olympus can claim that they do not need a built-in flash because the E-P1 can handle high ISO very well. However, high ISO does not solve the issue with low light AF speed. In low light, the E-P1 AF system hunts frantically for a lock on, sometimes without success. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to take a shot at all because the camera's AF system fails. This is a situation that AF-Assist beams would really help.
  4. Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) - The external EVF is most useful in situations where there is bright sunlight. Under bright lights, most LCD screens would be almost useless. Being able to compose using an EVF would be helpful. Compared against the optical viewfinder (OVF) shipped with the E-P1, the EVF provides an almost 100% screen coverage and supports all lenses, including zoom ones. The OVF from Olympus only supports the 17mm fixed lens. However, do note that if one attaches the EVF, the GF-1's size would be closer to the GH-1. I am sure we all agree that feature wise, the GH-1 is definitely more desirable than the GF-1...
  • Kit Lens - Whether it is due to in-camera processing or otherwise, the 20mm f1.7 kit lens of the GF-1 has been very highly rated. AF performance is very good, it is very sharp edge to edge, bokeh is nice and the lens is very well behaved in terms of CA and Vignetting. Almost a perfect pancake lens. The 14-45mm zoom lens which was first seen with the G1 is also a very good lens. Imaging-resource has found some front element vibration issue with the E-P1's 14-42 kit lens which causes blurring when the shutter moves. This tilts the scale to the favor of the GF-1's 14-45mm lens although it is more bulky than the Olympus lens which comes with a clever retraction mechanism. The 14-45mm has a 52mm filter thread while the 20mm f1.7 has a 46mm filter thread. The Olympus 14-42mm lens has a filter size of 40.5mm, while the 17mm pancake has a 37mm filter size. Comparatively, I think the Olympus filter sizes are a little less common than the Panasonic ones, at least in the dSLR world. This means that getting filters for these two Panasonic lenses are pretty easy (52mm and 46mm are very common filter sizes)
So which one should I buy?

I guess despite writing a lot of words, I have not made coming up with this answer any easier :D This is because everyone's answer would differ. It is due to this fact that coming up with one that suites everyone would be impossible. Only a personal checklist would make it easier for an individual to come to a conclusion. I would imagine your checklist to include items such as:

  • Do I need a speedy AF speed? The E-P1's speed is more like an slow PnS.
  • Do I need pop-up flash?
  • Do I need to focus in low light?
  • Do I like Olympus color?
  • Do I take a lot of videos and need AF in video mode?
  • Am I particular about video soundtrack?
  • Which camera design do I like more?
  • Do I have a lot of Olympus 4/3 lenses that I would like to reuse?
  • Do I need the EVF?
  • etc.. etc..
A closing note. There has been a rumor that Olympus will release the E-P2 by the end of the year. Given the short time frame between the E-P1 and the E-P2, here is what I think the E-P2 would be:

  • A marginal upgrade to E-P1. There is no time to develop many new features. I feel the E-P2 will fix the major quirks of the E-P1
  • I am not sure the AF speed will be much faster...
  • There may be a built-in flash and even an AF assist light
  • LCD screen resolution may improve
  • Oly does not seem to have a good EVF technology so I believe there will be no EVF
  • Oly will fix the kit lens front element vibration issue

1 comment:

  1. I love the looks of the E-P1 and its focusing performace has improved with Firmware v1.1 but it can still have trouble in very dim lighting. An AF assist light would have been useful and should have been incorporated into the FL-14 flash!
    I think I will eventually sell the E-P1 for the GF1, or E-P2, but I am now not in a rush since upgrading to the latest firmware.