Olympus PEN E-PL2 Micro Four-Thirds camera
EVIL by design
Review When the original Olympus PEN E-P1 came out in 2009 it arguably marked the start of a revolution. Its mirrorless design meant that it was far smaller than a DSLR, yet its relatively large sensor meant it took considerably better quality images than compact cameras; besides that, its retro Japanese styling also made it a far more tempting proposition for consumers everywhere.
Retro refresh: Olympus' PEN E-PL2
A year and a half later and Olympus is still attempting to lead the mirrorless pack, despite the likes of Panasonic, Sony and Samsung throwing their hats into the ring, and rumoured entries in the EVIL (electronic viewfinder interchangeable lenses) marketplace from Nikon and Canon likely later this year.
The Olympus PEN E-PL2 attempts to build on the excellent year-old PEN E-PL1. The grip has been redesigned slightly, and the LCD on the back has grown from 2.7in to 3in. Its Micro Four Thirds sensor remains at 12.3Mp, though.
The gently redesigned body is as good-looking as ever, and at 115 x 42 x 73mm it remains small enough to slip into a jacket pocket. Olympus has made the E-PL2 more comfortable to hold, with the curvier, slightly larger-feeling grip better suited to adult hands. The body is made from a combination of plastic and aluminium, and as a result feels sturdy and shock-proof. Even the slightly fussily designed pop-up flash feels like it should resist its share of abuse.
The body controls are nicely laid out, with everything falling quickly to hand. The mode dial on the top clicks smoothly around, while the button arrangement on the back, in combination with the smooth, intuitive menu, makes setting the camera up simple.
Dial M for manual
Almost, anyway. Flicking through settings - shutter speeds, for instance - is controlled by the wheel on the back, and this is the only place where the E-PL2’s usability falls down. The dial doesn't turn terribly easily, yet give it too much pressure and you'll trigger the shortcut keys at each of its compass points.
Compare and contrast
For example, you might be trying to dial in a slower shutter speed, but you'll accidentally call up the focus zone screen instead. It's a definite annoyance, and one that will make itself felt all the more keenly for photographers who make heavy use of the E-PL2's manual modes.
At 3in, the LCD screen has grown and there's a viewfinder attachment option too
The improved screen is large and bright, and besides adding a third of an inch relative to the E-PL1 it's also doubled in resolution from 230k pixels to 460k. The difference is obvious when you hold the two cameras side by side - the E-PL2's display looks far smoother. This isn't just an aesthetic frippery - flick the E-PL2 to manual focussing and the added definition on the LCD makes a definite difference to focus accuracy.
Those who can't live without a proper viewfinder are out of luck, as the E-PL2 doesn't come with one. You can buy either an optical or an electronic viewfinder as optional accessories, although the excellence of the screen and the high price of the accessories (£100 and £200 respectively) mean neither is terribly appealing.
The electronic viewfinder plugs into a port immediately under the hotshoe. The port and hotshore are normally covered by a thin slice of plastic, which needs to be more snug-fitting if the speed with which I lost mine is anything to go by. Shore things up with a tab of duct tape.
One of the major ways the PEN range initially distinguished itself from compact cameras was its performance, and the E-PL2 doesn't put a foot wrong. Like all mirrorless cameras it uses contrast detection to autofocus, but is none the worse for it. There's also a decent range of focus options, from fully-automatic to manual. In between, you can opt to pre-select a focus zone.
Navigation is still with buttons and wheels, that's no touchscreen
With the viewfinder showing the entire scene, you get 11 focus zones to choose from, clustered around the middle of the frame. Zoom in, though, and you can move the view around the frame, giving you 225 focus points to choose from - although this takes a long time to set up and is best saved for painstakingly created still life shots. You can also opt for a semi-automatic autofocus mode, in which the camera attempts to focus when you half-press the shutter release, but you can take over at any time by twisting the focus ring on the lens.
14-42mm kit lens test
Diorama (miniature) effect
The E-PL2 underlines its suitability as a low-end DSLR alternative with its continuous shooting performance. Olympus claims 3fps, and checked against a stopwatch the E-PL2 actually performed very slightly faster. In top-quality JPEG mode the E-PL2 grabbed 13 shots in a little over 14 seconds before slowing down. It was just as fast capturing RAW files, although the buffer coughed its last after just nine frames.
Unlike the early PEN models, this one squeezes in a flash
All that performance is worthless if the E-PL2 doesn't produce decent images, and my initial reaction on seeing the results was one of slight disappointment. Where other manufacturers - namely Nikon and Sony - have made spectacular strides in image quality over the years, the E-PL2 doesn't offer a significant improvement over its 18 month-old sibling.
Compare images taken at ISO 3200 from both cameras, for instance, and telling them apart is tricky. The disappointment is compounded by the fact that the E-PL2 offers a stop more ISO (a maximum of ISO 6400) than the E-PL1, but the improvement is moot without a corresponding jump in image quality.
However, just because little apparent progress has been made doesn't mean the E-PL2 takes bad pictures. Instead, the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens (equivalent to a 24-84mm lens in 35mm terms, thanks to Four Third's 2x conversion factor) proved superbly sharp, and test images taken at less than ISO 1600 gave no cause for concern.
This macro illumination accessory plugs into the versatile hotshoe mount adapter that has a variety of uses
It's particularly pleasing to note the lack of chromatic aberration, and those with roomy pockets will appreciate how the extending portion of the E-PL2's kit lens can be retracted into its own barrel for stowage. There's compatibility with Micro Four Thirds lenses, and standard Four Thirds lenses with an adapter. For those who don't want to invest in entirely new glass, Olympus is promising screw-in filters for macro and fisheye effects in the coming months.
For those happy to stick with the out-of-the-box version, the E-PL2 brings a decent number of built-in effects, such as a Pinhole effect and a tilt-shift-lite effect called Diorama. These are accessible through the menu system, or, if you prefer to let the camera do the work, the "Art" setting on the mode dial gives you a menu of effects to flick through, complete with miniature previews. The only thing to beware is that using these effects adds significantly to the amount of time it takes to process and store each frame, but the results look good.
Numerous accessories, compact size and great styling, PEN cameras are certainly an attractive proposition
Olympus claims the lithium-ion battery is capable of taking 280 images, if you use the flash 50 per cent of the time. The E-PL2 did well over the course of my testing, managing around three days of intensive use, including plenty of stills photography, plus a few minutes video capture along with plenty of chimping at the back of the camera.
With the E-PL2's RRP around £530, it has its work cut out for it. For instance, compare its high-ISO images with those from the Sony NEX-3 and it's clear the latter has the edge in terms of image quality. Meanwhile, more serious photographers should consider the Nikon D3100, which will set you back around £100 less, besides offering superb image quality as well as 1080p H.264 movie capture to the E-PL2's 720p M-JPEG mode.
The E-PL2 is a great camera. It's a huge amount of fun, is highly usable, and I'm a big fan of its retro design. It's also an enormously capable performer - simple enough that beginners will be able to pick it up and use it, while offering enough power for more advanced photographers to get what they need. For now, those looking for a mirrorless camera will be better off going for the cheaper Sony NEX-3, but that doesn't mean the E-PL2 isn't up there with the best. ®
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