On Assignment: Olympus E-P2 takes to the streets of Louisville, KY

by Reads (218)

My photographic heroes have always been “straight shooters” – documentary, street/candid, and environmental portrait photographers – so when I was offered the chance to take the snazzy little Olympus E-P2 out for an On Assignment feature to see how it handled as a “street” camera after I finished with my full review, I was excited.

Like environmental portraiture, street shooting is a sub-genre of documentary photography, and is primarily concerned with people in natural or candid situations that evoke some aspect of the human condition. Street photography also focuses on the metropolitan environments people move through and the complex societies in which they function. Famous documentary photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau used compact 35mm cameras to capture many of the archetypical moments that defined 20th century European and North American society, history, and culture.

Rangefinders are small and unobtrusive cameras, yet they are very responsive in the hands of a skilled shooter, capable of generating images that are every bit as good as those produced by bigger, bulkier, and more conspicuous cameras. The gold standard for “street” cameras has always been the Leica rangefinder (generally equipped with a normal or moderate wide-angle lens).

The new Olympus E-P2 looks (and handles) a lot like those classic Leica IIIFs and M4s and the nifty collapsible 14-42mm Zuiko kit zoom is, in an eerily retro way, similar to the collapsible Leitz optics of some of those classic cameras of yore. Olympus also offers an f/2.8 17mm prime lens, and there are two new lenses – a 9-14mm zoom and a 14-150mm zoom in the works. Both should be available in the late spring or early summer of 2010.

The elegant little E-P2 is a purpose-built reincarnation of the Olympus Pen “F” series of film cameras and it looks (and behaves) a lot like those classic imaging tools from the rangefinder era. The E-P2’s 3.0 inch (230k) HyperCrystal II LCD screen is large, sharp, hue accurate, fluid, and has a 176 degree viewing angle – which is just about perfect for surreptitiously framing and composing images.

Olympus includes a new clip-on electronic viewfinder, the VF2, which provides a 100 percent view with 1.15x magnification. Olympus also offers a clip-on, non-coupled optical viewfinder, (the VF1) similar to those featured on old rangefinder cameras. The E-P2 features a maximum sensitivity of ISO 6400 (good for available light shooting in dimly lit indoor venues), sensor shift image stabilization, and full manual control over aperture and shutter speed. Unlike photographers in the old days, today’s street shooters have the option to shoot HD video (AVI format – 1280×720 pixels at 30 fps) – and adjust color saturation, contrast, white balance, and sensitivity in-camera.

I had already learned a great deal about the E-P2 while shooting with it while I was writing my standard review of the camera. The most important of those discoveries was the E-P2’s dependable color accuracy and the precision of its metering and the efficacy of its white balance system.

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve had some really nasty weather in Louisville; unseasonably cold with more than a foot of snow. I shoot a lot at a handful of my favorite local spots; Cave Hill Cemetery, the local extreme sports park, and the Bardstown Road/Baxter Avenue corridor.

Cave Hill is buried beneath more than a foot of snow. The bowls, full pipe, and half-pipe at the deserted skate park are half filled with melting slush and the Highlands neighborhood is almost devoid of outdoor activity (aside from an occasional scurrying pedestrian bundled up against the bitter cold). Clearly, I was going to have to adapt to shooting with the little E-P2 in an almost arctic environment.

The E-P2 may look retro, but (like many of those supposedly unergonomic cameras from the golden era) it responds almost as if it were an extension of the photographer. In hand, the little E-P2 feels just right. All controls are logically placed and come easily to hand. The E-P2 hangs nicely and not too heavily around the neck when the included neck strap is used. Micro Four Thirds cameras, like the E-P2, behave as if they were a combination of a point and shoot digicam and a DSLR. They are compact and have a simpler user interface and are designed to primarily use the live view LCD for framing and composition – like P&S digicams. Like DSLRs, they have larger sensors than most P&S digicams (which means better image quality), the flexibility to shoot in manual mode, and the ability to mount interchangeable lenses.

The E-P2 works beautifully as a street camera. Simply put the camera in Program mode, choose auto White Balance and Auto Sensitivity (ISO) and hit the street. When compared to the classic Pen SLRs it is descended from, the E-P2’s menu system may seem a bit cluttered, but photography was much simpler back in the day and veteran 35mm film shooters didn’t have nearly as many options as photographers do now.

That said, users can shift into the E-P2’s super control mode by pressing the OK button at the center of the compass switch and then pressing the info button. The E-P2’s LCD screen displays all camera 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 through the compass switch.

When I took the E-P2 on assignment I decided that Bardstown Road, in the heart of Louisville’s old Highlands neighborhood, was the best place to start. During the ’60s and ’70s, Bardstown Road was the epicenter of our local counterculture. Times have changed, but here and there a bit of the old Bardstown Road survives. Street shooters have a two-mile collection of laid back bars, unique restaurants, and funky shops. The sidewalks are busy with shoppers, pedestrians, musicians, artists, skateboarders, and street people.

An early destination was the Leatherhead, owned by one of Bardstown Road’s original hippie entrepreneurs, a guy who’s been selling his handcrafted leather wares from the same shop for about 40 years. Nick is an interesting guy and he’s always been a good subject for an environmental portrait or two. When I walked in, I noticed him standing in a beam of bright window light toward the back of his narrow work area and brought the E-P2 up and framed tightly and snapped a picture.

Many digital cameras would have encountered problems capturing quality images indoors in a dimly lit indoor venue with bright window lighting, but the snazzy little E-P2 handled this available light situation very nicely, although there is some minor visible burnout in Nick’s beard.

I carried the snazzy little E-P2 around for several days and captured a broad range of pictures: street shots, street scenes, environmental portraits, and documentary images. The EP-2 is a 21st century reincarnation of the “street” cameras of yore. After spending some quality time with the E-P2 I believe that Jim Marshall would have felt right at home shooting The Rolling Stones up close and personal with this classy little rangefinder clone. I can imagine Gary Winogrand wandering the walkways of Central Park with the elegant E-P2 in hand and it’s easy to see Henri Cartier-Bresson wandering the back streets of Paris with the E-P2 hanging around his neck.

The Olympus Digital Pen E-P2 was clearly designed by photographers for photographers and it is a first-rate image-making tool for adventurous shooters who want to channel the spirits of compelling documentary photographers like Dorothea Lange – even high ISO indoor images are sharp and clean looking – with accurate colors and good contrast. Some reviewers have complained that the E-P2’s AF is a bit slow, but it didn’t cause me any grief; this is a very responsive camera. I give the classy little E-P2 this camera reviewer’s highest award: I really hated to send the camera back to Olympus.

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