BUILD AND DESIGN
The Micro Four Thirds (MFT) standard is still a relatively new camera form factor, but it’s quickly becoming popular with photo-savvy shoppers. By eliminating the mirror box and optical viewfinder of an SLR-style camera, the idea goes, a MFT camera functions like a point-and-shoot (with all shot composition taking place on the LCD) but allows for a camera that uses interchangeable lenses and an SLR sensor (with the superior image quality that a DSLR offers) in an extremely compact camera body.
Olympus was the second manufacturer to launch a camera using the Micro Four Thirds standard (which the company jointly developed with Panasonic). The most obvious difference between the MFT cameras available from Olympus and Panasonic is that Panasonic uses lenses that have built-in image stabilization while Olympus puts the image stabilization system inside the camera so that every lens (even old manual-focus lenses) benefits from image stabilization.
The E-PL2 continues this trend by including built-in image stabilization, but raises the bar in terms of design compared to last year’s E-PL1. The new E-PL2 looks and feels like a premium compact camera similar to the original E-P1 and the E-P2. Somehow the engineers at Olympus figured out how to build a low-cost camera without making it look like a low-cost camera.
Where the E-PL1 feels a bit boxy and hollow, the E-PL2 feels rounded and solid. Yes, the E-PL2 still uses a lot of plastic parts like the E-PL1, but you’ll find the metal pieces on the newer camera just feel more durable. As someone who owns the older E-PL1, I have to confess that the design of the new E-PL2 is quite nice. In addition to the premium fit and finish, the E-PL2 has a larger 3.0-inch HyperCrystal LCD with anti-reflective coating. This display has 460,000 dots (twice the resolution of the screen used on the E-PL1) and takes up significantly more real estate on the back of the camera.
In terms of carry-overs from the E-PL1, the new E-PL2 covers the essentials. You get the same 12.3 megapixel Live MOS sensor and TruePic V processor. You get the same 11-point auto focus system. You also get art filters, multiple aspect ratio shooting, wireless external flash control, continuous shooting at 3.0 frames per second and the previously mentioned mechanical image stabilization. The bottom line here is that the old E-PL1 and the new E-PL2 have largely identical specs. Without getting into technical minutia, the only major differences between these two cameras (other than the exterior and the display) is the fact that the new E-PL2 has a maximum ISO setting of 6400, a new top shutter speed of 1/4000 sec. and the ability to use a few new accessories like the recently announced PENPAL (PP-1) Bluetooth transmitter.
While we’re on the topic of the PENPAL, let me just say this accessory gave me more trouble than any Bluetooth device I’ve ever tested. The PENPAL (PP-1) is a Bluetooth transmitter than plugs into the camera and allows you to wirelessly transmit low-resolution copies of your images to a mobile phone over Bluetooth. In theory, that’s a great idea, but in practice, it’s simply more trouble than it’s worth.
Not only is the menu option for controlling the PENPAL hidden by default in the camera menu, but Olympus doesn’t provide anything close to the level of instructions that most people need for properly transmitting images using the device. Pairing the PENPAL with a Bluetooth-capable phone is simple enough, but if you don’t know the specific menu options that have to be changed on your specific phone then you cannot get the images to transfer.
Not only that, but in the amount of time that you can properly setup the PENPAL to work with your mobile phone, you can take the memory card out of your camera and either slip the card into your laptop’s memory card reader or you can use a MicroSD to SDHC adapter so you can just transfer the images directly to your phone that way.
The E-PL2 gets its power from a new proprietary lithium-ion battery – the BLS-5 – but the camera is apparently backward-compatible with the same BLS-1 battery used in the E-P1, E-P2, and E-PL1. We were able to use the old BLS-1 in the E-PL2 during our testing period without any problems.
Ergonomics and Controls
The “P” in the E-PL2 is a reference to the original “Pen” 35mm film cameras. Like those classic cameras, all of the modern “Digital Pen” cameras have a remarkably simple button layout. Yes, the E-PL2 has mode dial located next to the shutter button and there is a four-way control dial on the back along with several other buttons, but the E-PL2 is about as close to “point and click” as you can get with a modern digital camera. You can just leave the camera in “Auto” mode and take pictures or you can change the shooting mode to give yourself a little more control. It’s possible to start taking some fantastic photos without ever pressing the menu button to access more complex camera features.
Menus and Modes
Unfortunately, if you do decide to jump into the menu you’ll find an almost overwhelming array of options that aren’t always arranged in the most obvious manner. Whether you want to change the image stabilization setting, adjust JPEG compression, or activate the controls for wireless external flashes, chances are you’re going to have to open the printed camera manual and spend a few minutes struggling to figure things out.
The menu becomes all the more complicated if you want to use some of the optional accessories that connect to the E-PL2 via the camera’s accessory port. The menu for the accessory port is locked out by default and you have to enable the accessory port menu via a menu option that isn’t remotely intuitive.
If you’re familiar with Olympus camera menus then the menu for the E-PL2 won’t be completely alien to you. Unfortunately, it’s reasonable to assume that many new customers will be interested in a camera as compact, light and affordable as the E-PL2, and Olympus isn’t doing a favor for those customers by using this type of menu interface.
In short, Olympus gets an A+ for the standard camera controls on the exterior of the E-PL2, but the Olympus firmware engineers get a grade of C- for designing a camera menu system that isn’t remotely user friendly despite the fact that it gives you access to all the controls you’ll ever need.
Like most consumer DSLRs, the E-PL2 offers a mix of novice-friendly auto exposure options and full manual control for enthusiasts – with the added twist of Olympus’s Art Filters technology. Olympus’s latest version of Art Filters serves up nine photo effects, including filters mirroring the look of shooting with a pinhole camera, a soft-focus filter, or on high-speed monochrome film. A complete list of the camera’s shooting options is as follows:
- iAuto: Camera selects all exposure values
- Program: Auto exposure mode with user control for flash settings, metering mode, etc.
- Shutter Priority: User selects shutter speed, and camera calculates aperture for correct exposure
- Aperture Priority: User selects aperture, and camera calculates shutter speed for correct exposure
- Manual: User selects both aperture and shutter speed
- SCN: 22 scene presets (landscape, portrait, macro, sport, night scene, night portrait, landscape + portrait, children, high key, low key, DIS mode, nature macro, candle, sunset, documents, panorama, fireworks, and beach/snow)
- ART: The aforementioned art filters, are accessed via a menu from this position (Pop art, Soft focus, Pale & Light Color, Light Tone, Grainy film, Pin hole, Diorama, Cross Process, Dramatic Tone)
- Movie Mode: This mode allows you to record video with audio at 30 frames per second in HD (1280 x 720) or SD (640 x 480) resolutions
As previously mentioned, the E-PL2’s 3.0-inch LCD is a noticeable step up compared to the 2.7-inch screen used on the E-PL1. Not only is this screen larger, but the higher resolution means that you can zoom into your images on the back of the camera and see whether fine details are in focus or whether you need to retake the shot. Granted, this isn’t as good as cameras like the D7000 (which sports an LCD with 921,000 dots), but the screen on the E-PL2 is more impressive than what was used in the previous generation.
We’ve seen color reproduction inaccuracies on Olympus displays in the past and the screen on the E-PL2 was no exception. The display on our review sample showed slightly higher color saturation than the actual final results, so if you lowered the color saturation in the camera menu the colors in the final image might look washed out. On the other hand, if you like the slightly oversaturated colors on the camera’s screen and leave the camera settings where they are, then you might not be happy with the more natural-looking colors in the final image.
We measured the LCD’s peak brightness at a bright 575 nits. The screen had a good overall contrast ratio of 809:1
As for the viewfinder … well … there is none. All of the Olympus “Pen” cameras lack any type of optical viewfinder. You have to use the LCD on the back of the camera to compose your images. If you’re someone who hates using the camera’s LCD then you can buy the optional digital viewfinder that connects to the previously mentioned accessory port. Unfortunately, the optional viewfinder is just a miniature LCD and doesn’t offer the same type of optical viewfinder experience you get from a traditional DSLR.