It was really neat, in a nostalgic sort of way, to see the return of the Olympus "Pen" marque when the elegant little Olympus Pen E-P1 was introduced last year. From 1959 until 1983 Olympus produced a series of compact 35mm cameras wearing the "Pen" nameplate. The earliest Pens were 35mm half-frame SLRs and later Pens were ultra-compact point and shoot cameras. Now (less than six months later) the second generation "digital" Pen has been released.
Following up the E-P1 is the Olympus E-P2. The retro styled E-P2 bears a strong (and clearly not accidental) resemblance to the old Pen "F" half-frame SLRs. On the outside the EP-2 looks a lot like a vintage camera from the classic rangefinder epoch, but under the hood the E-P2 is a totally modern digital camera.
Cosmetically, the E-P2 is essentially the same camera as the E-P1, differing in color - the E-P1 was silver (there was also a white body option) and the E-P2 is black. There are only two other external changes. First is the connection port (under the hotshoe) for the E-P2's new high-definition VF2 electronic viewfinder or an Olympus microphone (like the ME51S or ME31) for improved video sound. The second external difference between the E-P1 and the E-P2 is that the E-P2's hotshoe has been elevated slightly (0.18 inch/4.6mm) to raise the height of the VF2 electronic viewfinder.
BUILD AND DESIGN
Canon and Nikon have dominated the DSLR market since the early days of the digital imaging revolution. A consortium of competitors introduced the ground-breaking Four Thirds system (referring to the aspect ratio of the sensor, which is 4:3 - the same aspect ratio as a computer monitor's screen) to try and break the big two's stranglehold on the lucrative DSLR market segment. Olympus and Panasonic refined this concept further by introducing the Micro Four Thirds format, which makes it possible (by doing away with the reflex mirror assembly and optical viewfinder) to manufacture a much smaller interchangeable lens camera with an unbroken light path and a live view LCD.
Presently there are only a handful of Micro Four Thirds cameras available. Micro Four Thirds cameras (like the E-P2) behave like a combination of a Point and Shoot and a DSLR. They are very compact, have a simple user interface, and are designed to primarily utilize the live view LCD for framing and composition - like Point and Shoot digicams. Like DSLRs they have larger sensors than most compact digicams (which means better image quality), more creative flexibility, and the ability to mount interchangeable lenses.
The EP-2's (18x13.5mm) 12.3 megapixel live MOS sensor and TruePic V processor generate images in JPEG, Olympus RAW, and RAW + JPEG image formats. The EP-2‘s classic Leica rangefinder and original Pen F inspired design doesn't just look retro - it is also built to old-school standards. The stainless steel body - with aluminum top and bottom plates - feels really solid, but it doesn't seem heavy. Weather seals and dust-proofing also appear to be first rate. Buttons, knobs, etc. feel like they were engineered to stand the test of time. In my opinion the EP-2 is tough enough to go just about anywhere above water - including taking pictures in extreme environments - like shooting winter sports or trekking through the desert.
Ergonomics and Controls
Some shutterbugs may feel that the EP-2's retro design is outmoded and un-ergonomic, but like many of the memorable cameras from the golden age of photography the EP-2 just feels "right" in your hand. When compared to the clean minimalist look of the classic Leica rangefinder and original Pen F the EP-2's control array seems a little cluttered, but photography was much simpler back in the old days and photographers then didn't have nearly as many options as shooters do today.
Some photographers moving up from consumer or prosumer point and shoots are put off by the steep learning curve presented by more complex interchangeable lens cameras, but the EP-2 is remarkably easy to use. Just put the camera in Program mode, set the ISO and white balance to auto and the camera behaves just like a typical point and shoot. For more demanding shooters, the EP2's generous controls are logically placed and easily accessed - plus the EP-2 provides direct access to white balance, ISO/sensitivity, exposure compensation, and metering options.
The only control I had any problems with was the sub-dial (positioned perfectly - near where your right thumb rests when holding the camera), which is very sensitive and takes some getting used to. In review mode the sub-dial is very useful for quick back and forth comparisons of similar saved images.
Menus and Modes
Olympus' digital camera menus always seem overly complex to me and the EP-2 is no exception. Shooters who've never used an Olympus before will probably find it a bit difficult to locate what they are looking for - things aren't always where you would logically expect to find them. Fortunately, the EP-2 provides enough external controls to avoid the EP-2's slightly messy menu system - here's a really nifty example - press the OK button at the center of the compass switch and then press the info button and the E-P2's LCD screen shows the super control panel (camera status readout) which displays all settings and exposure parameters at a glance (check quickly - the display doesn't stay up long) without resorting to the menu - allowing users to change settings via the compass switch.
I used the E-P2's menus only as a last resort, but that's no problem for veteran shooters - that's how it used to be back in the old days. So if you don't like menus - just enable the E-P2's super control panel. The sheer volume of information can be daunting, but it's well organized and less time-consuming than navigating through the innumerable menus.
Here's a breakdown of the EP-2's shooting modes:
The E-P2's 3.0 inch (230K) HyperCrystal II LCD is the camera's primary viewfinder. The screen is relatively sharp, hue accurate, and fluid and has a 176 degree viewing angle. Olympus includes a new (designed for the E-P2) clip-on electronic viewfinder (the VF2) which slides into the camera's hotshoe and mates with a connection port directly beneath the hotshoe. With the VF2 (which provides a 100% view with 1.15x magnification) mounted the E-P2 looks and behaves more like a DSLR.
I used the diopter ring to properly adjust the VF2 to my vision with glasses and the rubber ring around the optic port protected my eyeglasses nicely. The only real drawback to the VF2 is that it changes the E-P2's footprint radically. The E-P2 (in rangefinder configuration) can be easily slipped into a jacket pocket, but once the VF2 is mounted that is no longer possible unless you like Captain Kangaroo style jackets.
Olympus also offers a clip-on (hotshoe mounted) non-coupled optical viewfinder (VF1) sort of like those featured on old rangefinder cameras. The VF2 won't work with the E-P1, but the VF1 should work fine with the E-P2. I used the LCD screen most of the time, since it was much simpler to just frame and compose my image on the large LCD than to remove the VF2 from its nifty little carry case on the camera strap and slide it into the hotshoe. I didn't get to check out the VF1, but I'm guessing it would work very nicely with the Olympus G Zuiko f2.8/17mm prime lens.
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