Olympus E-PL2 Review

 

Even the stone hearted online camera sites are having a hard time not currently sneaking a glance at Olympus. Consensus has it that their two latest cameras were the photo stars of CES, the world's biggest electronics show in Vegas... and they didn't even go! Maybe I'll get to talk about their ZX1 lens fetish compact soon but the main event was the E-PL2. A new Pen with a new style and a new lens. As it's an evolved E-PL1 I won't go over too much old ground, so it might be worth checking out that review for a some of the basics.

Spot the small new lens and more muscular, but very Pen style, body?

Oddly, having some mirrorless rivals seems to have strengthened the position of the Four Thirds posse. In a growing market it has served to show that Samsung and Sony haven't really got behind their ranges in the same way. Sharing the lens load has worked for Panasonic and Olympus and allowed them to crank out the cameras too. On top of that, there's a booming market in weird adaptors and interesting third party lenses to cash in on the creative fundamentalist movement which these bodies have fostered.

Silver Dream Machine

I got this camera in silver and now it's here in my hand I'd definitely go for it in black, but that's nothing but my formidable fashion sense in play. The silver painted back panel does look a bit bare on the left too. As a frustrated goth, black is always in mode but if I was in a spaceman mood, silver would make perfect sense. I prefer the look of the black model, for its street subtlety, and I might have even got silver fatigue.

Although any camera has to stand on its own, the E-PL2 benefits from the retro vibe which the rest of the Pen line is steeped in. It's a good looking camera from the front and sits between the ultra stylish P1 and the functional PL1. The front aluminium pressing has a pronounced grip which is complemented by a textured pad and strong thumb groove on the composite back. There's a neat video start/stop button embedded in the thumb grip, in just the right place to use but recessed so you aren't forever catching it. The whole lower right layout is a lift from the E-P1 – at the upper right the thumb dial was swapped for that video start/stop button.

The back is just like the E-P1, bar the dial swapped for a REC button

The video button was on the PL1 but the PL2 has added the E-P1's lower dial to its roster of controls. I'd have been thrilled to see a thumb dial, even lightly pleased with a front dial but the lower one is that most fickle of creatures, the cursorpad ring. More control is great but I think these blighters are tricky to say the least. This one isn't bad, but it is small and definitely more of a navigation aid than a shooting adjustment. I'd probably use it to work through setup rather than  apertures. Maybe I'm too much of an SLR bloke now, perhaps I should be applauding the elves who managed to fit this dial in. Real estate on the back panel is at a premium as the display is a 3” unit with double the pixels that the PL1 could muster. Intriguingly it's a 3:2 screen which someone has deduced is a fair compromise between the 4:3 native still ratio and the 16:9 used for HD video shooting.

A lot of the evolutions of the PL2 are video related, and the leading man is the new kit lens. The Pen kit lens always was a party trick and the new one still packs away and pops up. Somehow it has been made slimmer and lighter, shaving off about 20g. It's fractionally longer packed and slightly shorter in operation. The filter thread has reduced from 40.5mm to 37mm and it's sprouted a bayonet mount which means you can not only add a shade (which sadly didn't come in the box) but also a selection of accessory lenses. I haven't seen these in the flesh but there are three; a macro lens, wide angle adaptor and also a fisheye. Of these the fisheye widget intrigues me most, offering a 130 degree angle of view for very little extra bulk. Who wouldn't carry a fisheye everywhere if it only weighed 112g? These sprang out of leftfield, but as a Pen travel set up make some sense.

The E-PL2 is a good looking little beast

Internally Yours

The key change has been to take the optics for focussing inside the lens – those elements are smaller and easier to move quickly. The new lens is also noticeably smoother than its predecessor as you unpack and zoom too. Everything has to have a name so this is an MSC lens... no it's not certified as a sustainable fish stock by the Marine Stewardship Council (did I mention that I'm part of the Marine Conservation Society and working for the protection of our fishy friends?). MSC, in this case, stands for 'Movie and Still Compatible' and it makes a huge difference to several things. It is much faster to focus than the Mk 1 – feels like twice as fast for stills. It's also a great deal smoother and quieter, so its action is less disturbing during video shooting. You can set it to continuous focus but I think that the best way to use it is to shoot cinema style and dab the shutter button to refocus as the subject shifts. You can pull focus manually too of course. On the downside the strap mounts have swapped back to rattly rings which aren't so video friendly.

The MSC lens is very smooth to use and quiet to focus

Dark Arts

The smart new suit also updates the processing guts of the camera although the sensor remains the same, well proven 12.3 megapixel NMOS chip. Nowadays this is a modest dot count but really does have bite in the current setup. Digital cameras used to rely on a softening filter to reduce interference around fine details. Now image processing is allowing the strength of these to be reduced and apparently it's paying off as the big online tests are seeing lots and lots of detail and excellent sharpness.

It's the same sensor and processing as the E-5 Olympus flagship – which is getting good press. The other pay off is a boost in the maximum ISO rating over the EPL-2, matching the E-P1 on paper but the extra year's development actually yields the best low light performance of the whole Pen range. Unlike enthusiast compacts which mostly duck down to a lower res at these speeds the PL2 stays full size like SLRs. You won't find a Pen beating a 35mm sensor monster in the dark, but although fine details are understandably lost at this speed the luminance and colour noise are both very well controlled.  Gone are the days when you'd rue leaving ISO set to auto or fret about large prints from dark nights out.

So clean are current cameras now it's a somewhat creative choice whether you want to use flash or use ambient light. It's liberating to shoot without flash but the E-PL2 has one and while it's not big (guide number only 7, so the same size as a big compact), it springs up enthusiastically to a surprising height. Because of the way it's hinged you can direct it up for a bit of bouncing (this has to be with a spare finger, it's a shame you can't click it into that position). That's not the half of it though, as if you have a remote TTL flash (Olympus or Metz) the E-PL2 can can control it and many of its friends. I like this trick and it opens up lots of wacky options...

The cantilever flash can control multiple off board units too

Extra! Extra!

The accessory slot beneath the hot shoe will be familiar from earlier Pens and it is compatible with all the existing extras (mic socket and viewfinder) as well as some new ones. The new stuff hints at the accessory slot acting like a USB type bus for a whole world of wacky add ons. There's a set of flexi arms carrying a pair of macro lights and a bluetooth transmitter dubbed 'PenPal' which can relay pictures to phones and laptops. I don't pretend to have tried either but it feels like it will be fun to be a Pen person in the future, a Swiss Army collection of add-ons is building up.

Four of the rear panel controls are reprogrammable. The Fn button (obviously) but also the video start, right and down buttons. This makes up for the the noticeable lack of buttons on the left of the rear panel, It's really a bit quiet over there. Oh and I forgot the dial function can be tailored for each shooting mode too.

Garcon! Menus Please!

If you stay in the simple iAuto mode you get the cool Live Guide which gives you a goal driven menu – colour, white balance and background blur with sliders for the non-nerd. In fact the friendly easy to use front end is an extra upper skin to the menus which you can use as long as you want before digging deeper. There's loads you can set to suit your shooting style and preferences and the full menus on any Pen would make most SLRs blush.

iAuto and ART are both more worthwhile than usual scene modes

To get at those settings you'll have to enable the full menu system. Olympus menus really seem to divide reviewers (but not me!). The short menu contains all most folk will need but doesn't over do it. So no one has to get scared if they don't like fiddling. None of the four top menu pages even has to be scrolled so you can easily see what's on offer. If you're a red blooded photo fiend all you need to do is enable the full menus and the world is your lemon soaked filter feeder. The 10 colour coded groups give you the kind of options that recent photo forum posts would have us believe some disappointed SLR owners would kill for… apparently mapping out hot and dead pixels is on a lot of wish lists. The Pen didn't have any but it could cure them if there were. Brave fiddlers can add such niceties as their initials to filenames and embed full names and business details into the copyright details.

Some reviewers are always whining that this is too much. They claim you have to delve into the menus for basic stuff which you don't – shows how much they know. For the shooting menu you just click the OK button. The default is a standard looking two axis affair, up/down to choose your parameter and then left/right to select your choice. If you want more to hand you can turn on the Super Control Panel that the E-Series SLRs have, but that's optional.

One slightly nannying decision is the choice to bury the option of the Super Fine JPEG setting in the full menus. Given that Olympus JPEGs are pretty hefty it's not really a surprise that they opted not to worry mortals with the option of 8MB files when 6MB is available. Sensibly the menu for the PenPal is also concealed until you need it.

P.S. I do get asked whether I'm partial to Olympus, it's more that I'm just familiar with them, especially underwater. Unavoidably I know roughly what I'm doing, which is one up on some reviewers! :-)

Dramatis personæ

The art filters that Olympus makes quite a song and dance about have been boosted with the addition of one more called 'dramatic tone'. In earlier reviews I've been cool about their value but thought they'd add a bit of harmless fun. The new filter is, appropriately, a dramatic change from novelty to something I can see enthusiasts using more than occasionally. It's a mock HDR (High Dynamic Range) effect all done from one shot, so don't expect miracles, and it's a great way to add drama on a dull, grey day.

Even the most dreary scene can become dramatic

The combination of effects is quite complicated, and sadly there's still no style or strength controls but as you scan the camera around you can see the effect tuning. The clever bit is that it can selectively change level and contrast in different areas of the scene to give a stylized stark lightshock look. The secret sauce looks as though it lowers the colour resolution and turns up the saturation then searches out flat areas which are short of detail and increases the luminance contrast there. It gives a great stark, smoky look, but it pays to compose carefully as flat bright areas can become overdark if they are really boring in real life.

Dramatic Tone can dig interest out of the mundane and badly lit

The effect is recorded as a JPEG and as you have the option to shoot RAW with no real speed penalty, so you can have the effect and the undoctored shot to play with too. In fact you can also apply the effects in the bundled software, but it's a shot of instant gratification to have your masterpiece appear in your hand.

Conclusion

In truth the E-PL2 isn't a big step over the E-PL1 but does carry a whole load of good tweaks which will make your photo life better. The character of this Pen is still more lite than pure but it steers closer to the themes of the P1/2 while polishing the utility of the PL1.

The new accessories and the new lens are a boost to the world of the Pen people and any complaint that the range was too upmarket has been dealt with. It's now very accessible. Now I'd like to see a no holds barred big brother for the range – and there are hints that wish might come true.

I genuinely enjoy the Pens as they are unashamedly all about the feeling of capturing the moment. That elevates photography back into a passion above the mechanical harvesting of scenery - just as it should be. It's not a sombre thing... as the eccentric American poet Marianne Moore said:

satisfaction is a lowly thing,

how pure a thing is joy.

This is mortality,

this is eternity.

...from the poem What are Years?

She had more of a thing for three cornered hats and the Brooklyn Dodgers than cameras but I think she got the sentiment just  right. After reviewing a spate of serious, enthusiast bridge cameras, this one that's just for fun is just the ticket.

Ratings

Build 7.5/10 Good but not overwhelming like a P1
Handling 8/10 The new grip is great and the dial not a demerit
Performance 8.5/10 Pocket size SLR performance
Joy 8/10 Childish enjoyment is just the thing for adults

Overall

Another flavour of photo fun