Olympus pushes harder to catch newcomers to interchangeable cameras. (April 2nd, 2011)
The Olympus E-PL2 is a still-rare sequel to a MILC (mirrorless interchangeable lens camera). It promises to once again offer a way for relative beginners to get into serious photography as well as a possible sidearm camera for veterans. Now in its fourth iteration, has this series of Micro Four Thirds cameras just scratched the surface or run its course? Our E-PL2 review finds out.
Product Manufacturer: Olympus
Price: $599 (14-42mm kit)
- Good image for the price.
- Sharper LCD.
- Better controls.
- Dedicated video record button.
- Excellent fit and finish.
- Pop-up flash.
- Penpal Bluetooth add-on.
- Cheap lens options.
- Fun art filters.
- Still no dedicated viewfinder built-in.
- No changes to the sensor.
- Not ideal in low light.
- Penpal not quick for big photos.
- "Jell-O" wobble in panning video.
The Olympus E-PL2 goes head-to-head with such competition that includes the Panasonic GF2, the Samsung NX100, and the Sony NEX-5. Available with a kit lens, all of them are roughly priced in the $599 range depending on your choice of glass; the E-PL2 is there, but can be found for $550 on the street. As with all Micro Four Thirds models, double the focal length of the lens for the actual 35mm film camera equivalent. In this case, the 14-42mm zoom lens would be the film camera equal of a 28-85mm zoom lens, or good enough for some up-close shots and bokeh (shallow depth of field) images but enough range for medium distances.
With a derivative body of the Olympus E-PL1, the E-PL2 is still part of that new breed of digicam trying to shrink in size yet maintain all of the features of the big guys that they are trying to grab market share from. It still has a 12.3-megapixel MOS sensor that shoots 12-bit color images in JPEG, ORF RAW, and RAW+JPEG modes. Video is still captured at 720p in Motion JPEG format that consumes a large amount of space but is easier to edit for most. A sometimes uncommon bonus allows continuous autofocus and face detection during the shoot; we'll touch on those later.
Beautifully finished in matte black on our version, the E-PL2 has all the control placements we became familiar with in the previous model. We won't say we became comfortable with it after years of shooting with full DSLRs, but it is still an impressive looking camera.
The camera is handsomely finished across the top with a contrasting brushed chrome button, an on/off switchm and the mode dial, which features the usual settings for iAuto (full auto), Manual, Program, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority. Additionally, there are settings buttons for Art, Scene (SCN) and Movie mode. The only other button is the flash on/off switch at the opposite side of the camera. We note here that on the previous model, the E-PL1, that an array of buttons was in place to control various special functions. Although you would think the reduced controls would be a step back, we think the scroll wheel, as seen on the E-PL2, is a much more elegant solution.
Micro Four Thirds system lenses are easily interchanged by pressing the lens release button located at three o'clock on the lens mount. After a quick counter clockwise quarter-turn, the lens can be pulled straight out and replaced with an accessory lens such as the Olympus 40-150mm f4-5.6 zoom lens, which offers the equivalent of an 80-300mm zoom.
Accessories available for the E-PL2 include the usual hot-shoe flashes, electronic viewfinder, and similar add-ons, but Olympus has a unique contribution of its own: the Penpal PP-1. The communications unit uses Bluetooth to send images from your camera either to your computer, or to an Android or Windows Mobile phone and then on to the social network of your choice. Using its straightforward enough, but any caveats are inherent to the design; since it uses the hot-shoe mount, you can't use an external flash or another accessory at the same time. We'd also advise against using Bluetooth for any high-speed or RAW shooting, since the sheer amount of data will take a long time to send over Bluetooth's 3Mbps connection.
Shutter speeds run from 60 seconds all the way up to 1/4000 of a second, a speed relatively fast for a camera this size. There's also a bulb setting, and exposure compensation settings of one-third, one-half or one EV increments. On the illumination side of things, a built-in pop-up flash spreads enough coverage for a 14mm lens and offers wireless sync controls for an aftermarket accessory flash, which you sometimes don't see even in bigger cameras. Power for the camera and the flash is supplied by a lithium-ion battery which Olympus says will produce approximately 280 shots; that's short compared to many DSLRs and compacts, though it's using its LCD virtually all the time. Using a combination of flash and a fair amount of chimping actually had us close to the estimate, so Olympus is at least testing real-world conditions and not switching everything off.
Handling the camera was pretty straightforward. Much ado has been made over its new rubberized grip. It actually does feel pretty good. Our problem now is just that we have larger than average hands, which tend to engulf the camera quite easily. A little lip has been built up around the new video capture button, which is highlighted by an orange dot, and located approximately where your thumb would rest on the camera's back. It's a safety feature that Olympus designers included to prevent larger than average thumbs (like ours) from triggering the video capture simply through a natural grip.
On the down side, the camera, like most other mirrorless interchangeables models out today, is lacking a dedicated viewfinder. It instead goes for a three-inch LCD screen on the back. Fine for most static situations, it presents problems when trying to follow focus and panning with sports cars, as we found during a day at the Rolex Series Grand American race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. You can get the viewfinder attachment, but as with the Penpal, you're once again locked out of using a dedicated flash or other extras as long as it's present.
Operations with the monitor on the camera's back in tabletop situations were spectacular; it now has 460,000 pixels, or exactly double the resolution of the E-PL1's display. The E-PL2 is a camera that requires you to take your time in setting up a shot, though. It's not an action camera, and we question offering such a long-ranged 40-150mm telephoto lens in a non-DSLR format.
Image quality in bright to normal lighting was excellent, as you'd virtually expect. If you're not used to anything more than a compact camera, the speed and relatively low noise will be a delight. When pushing the speed to the extremes at ISO 3,200 and above, however, the noise was very much intrusive. Olympus didn't upgrade the sensor here, so if you're looking for a visual output upgrade, you'll still want to look elsewhere. Dim lighting also brings another set of vices to the fore: the TTL (through the lens) contrast AF system seemed to hunt around considerably when in less than optimal lighting situations. This included low-contrast rooms, like the one at our favorite jazz club, where the face detection system was clearly locking on items that weren't faces.
We surprisingly enjoyed shooting in the Art mode, which offered several settings ranging from pop art, soft focus, grainy film, pinhole, and dramatic tone options. Our favorite special effect though came in the E-portrait mode located in the SCN menu. An intelligent function, it managed to keep eyes sharp while softening the rest of the face of our portrait subject. In today's world where looks are everything, we'll take all the help we can get. Keep in mind that some of these effects can still be implemented in software on your computer, but effects like the grainy film are appreciated since they're difficult to reproduce off-camera without either a readymade filter or good Photoshop skills.
The stock 14-42mm lens is much as you'd expect from a kit lens: not terrible, but it won't be revolutionary. Our 40-150mm companion lens wasn't spectacular and had some of the expected minor lens artifacts (such as chromatic aberration) at maximum range, but at just $300, it's an exceptional deal. We'd add that there's already a fairly burgeoning lens ecosystem, with an ultra-wide angle 9-18mm lens, all-purpose 14-150mm lens, and 17mm pancake in the current batch. Panasonic's lenses will mount here, as will the small number of third-party lenses.
One thing we have to note immediately is just the existence of the dedicated video record button itself. Apart from letting you start recording sooner, it means you don't have to flip over to a special movie mode and necessarily lose the settings you had just a moment earlier.
Exposure is determined by the metering determined in the video mode. As a result, you have the option of recording in the various automated modes for still shooting as well as the Art and Scene modes. Video quality is generally good, including the audio quality, although there's curiously no audio recording in the Art or Diorama modes. We're guessing the video, filter, and sound would consume too much of the camera's internal bandwidth for all three to work at once.
On playback, it's clear that the "leaning tower of Jell-O" syndrome still exists in video, where the line scanning in the camera's sensor isn't fast enough to keep up with quick movement. Panning with race cars clearly shows light poles that seem to be moving as rapidly as the cars themselves. We have shot and seen video from this camera's predecessor, though and know that generally the quality is top shelf if you're involved in slow pans or keep the camera still.
Continuous autofocus may be the biggest addition for many, though we wouldn't rely on it for action-loaded scenes. Like even many DSLRs above it, it will take a short moment before it refocuses on a new subject, possibly leading to awkward moments when someone walks into the shot but is temporarily blurred out. Face detection is be more useful, since it knows which subject to center on.
We suspect the intended audience will be very happy with the E-PL2. Apart from its jewel-like construction and finish, it's an amazing piece of hardware for the price and size. The image quality is good for the class, and we saw some important steps forward in the control and visual output. Penpal is something of a novelty, especially at its $60 price, but it could be handy if you're more interested in uploading to Facebook than an edit in Aperture or Lightroom.
Our only core wish is for a way to include an optical viewfinder in the box, at which point we would find ourselves taking many more dynamic photos. Ultimately, too the E-PL2 is also more of an evolutionary upgrade than a true rethinking of the design. We'd like to see a faster, more low light friendly sensor, 1080p video, and just an overall rework when it's time for an E-PL3.
Still, that $599 kit price and lower street price are hard to ignore. That makes it one of the more affordable MILC models available, and it's fairly easy to recommend if you're looking for a step up from a 'prosumer' camera like a Canon G12 but want something that won't weigh as heavily or have enough bulk to require another bag at the airport. A Panasonic GH2 will offer a more advanced sensor, and a Sony NEX-5 will have an even tinier design, but few achieve what Olympus does in this price range.