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Olympus E-P2 Review
by Howard Creech -  2/3/2010

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.

Olympus E-P2


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.

Olympus E-P2

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.

Olympus E-P2

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.

Olympus E-P2

Olympus E-P2

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:

Display/Viewfinder
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.

Olympus E-P2

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.

PERFORMANCE
The Olympus Pen E-P2 is NOT a DSLR. The E-P2 is about the same size and has the same look and feel as the classic Olympus Pen F, but the E-P2 also calls to mind the classic 35mm Leica rangefinder cameras of an earlier era when street photographers haunted the fashionable avenues, narrow alleyways, and busy boulevards of the world's great cities with small inconspicuous cameras like the Leica IIIG, the Olympus Pen FT, and the Rollei 35S to document and define urban culture of the twentieth century. Small, versatile, and unobtrusive jacket pocket cameras (with superb optics) designed to capture the decisive moment with as little fuss as possible were used to shoot many of the iconic images of the twentieth century. The EP-2 does a pretty good job of updating that genre's primary tool for the twenty-first century.

Shooting Performance
Some E-P1 purchasers complained that the AF was not as fast as Micro Four Thirds offerings from Panasonic. The E-P2 has essentially the same AF system as the E-P1, but Olympus says they've added a new AF mode (continuous AF with focus tracking) that should make it easier to keep up with rapidly evolving action - like photographing active children at play.

The E-P2 comes in right in the middle of the pack in terms of timing - pretty much equivalent to its competition in every area except AF. As regards AF, the E-P2 is the slowest camera in the group. This is due primarily to the lack of phase detection auto focus. Slower contrast detection AF (and the need to supply a video feed to the LCD/EVF to provide a TTL live view) cause the E-P2 to behave more like a point and shoot than a dSLR. The E-P2 is quick enough to capture most general action (in good light), but not quick enough for truly rapid action like extreme sports.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon D5000 0.02
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 0.02
Olympus E-P2 0.02
Pentax K-x 0.03

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon D5000 0.19
Pentax K-x 0.25
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 0.32
Olympus E-P2 0.89

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames* Framerate*
Pentax K-x 17 4.4
Nikon D5000 30 3.9
Olympus E-P2 12 3.5
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 10 3.14

* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

Personally, I didn't have any problems with the E-P2's AF outdoors and in decently lit indoor venues - especially those with some window light in the mix. I did experience some difficulties in one indoor setting - a local coffee shop with dark (wood paneling) walls and incandescent lighting challenged the both the E-P2's AF speed/accuracy and the precision of its auto white balance mode.

So what's the deal here? Realistically, camera users shouldn't expect to capture consistently excellent pictures in problematic lighting. The demo photo below was taken just after dusk on an overcast winter day - yet the E-P2 did a pretty good job of freezing my exuberant model in mid leap. The E-P2 wasn't designed to replace either a DSLR like the Nikon D90 or an advanced compact like the Canon G11 - it was designed as a third option - an imaging tool that combines many of the best features of both.

Olympus E-P2

Image stabilization is almost ubiquitous these days. The E-P2 features an internal (body) sensor shift mechanism to ameliorate camera shake. The E-P2 provides three standard IS options plus IS off and two panning IS options. The EP-2 doesn't feature a built-in flash although the very similar and soon to be released E- PL1 does. Olympus provides a small retro look hot shoe mounted external TTL flash unit, the FL-14, for use with the E-P2 and E- P1. Olympus' other current external flash units can also be used.

It appears that Olympus has finally jumped off the proprietary memory media bandwagon. No more SM or xD cards - the E-P2 stores images/video to industry standard SD/SDHC memory media. The EP-2 draws its juice from the same relatively compact 1150 mAh lithium-ion BLS-1 battery that powers the Olympus E-420 and E-620 DSLRs. Olympus says that a fully charged BLS-1 is good for about 300 exposures - I only needed to charge the battery twice during three weeks of relatively heavy use, so I'd say that figure was fairly accurate.

Olympus E-P2

The EP-2 features an 11 point contrast detection auto focus system which utilizes the image sensor to determine auto focus (like point and shoots) instead of the phase detection AF systems used on most DSLRs. Contrast detection AF system are usually reliably accurate, especially in good light or in low light on subjects with good contrast, but certainly not as fast as phase detection AF systems. The EP-2's AF performance is faster than most point and shoots, but not as fast as most DSLRs, which seems reasonable since the EP-2 is neither a point and shoot nor a DSLR. The E-P2 also provides single point AF and manual focus with an enlarged area focusing aid. Focus modes - Single AF (S-AF), Continuous AF (C-AF), Manual Focus (MF), S-AF + MF, and AF tracking (C-AF + TR).

Lens Mount/Kit Lens
Currently, dedicated Olympus Micro Four Thirds lens options are pretty slim - The E-P2 kit comes with a Zuiko f/3.5-5.6 14mm-42mm (equivalent to 28-84mm) zoom. There's also a Zuiko f/2.8 17mm "pancake" prime lens. New lenses (an f/4.0-5.6 9-14mm zoom and an f/4.0-5.6 14-150mm zoom) are in the works and should be available around April/May 2010. Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras can also (with an adaptor) use Panasonic/Leica Micro Four Third lenses. Adaptors are also available to mount full-size Four Thirds Olympus lenses (most supporting AF) and OM (Olympus 35mm) mount lenses.

The E-P2 kit comes with a very good quality Zuiko f/3.5-5.6 14-42mm (equivalent to 28mm-84mm) zoom. The E-P2's kit lens is collapsible (like some old school Leica lenses) - when you've finished shooting, simply push the lock button on the lens barrel and twist - the zoom becomes noticeably shorter making is easier to drop the camera in a jacket pocket. The E-P2's kit zoom is fairly slow - the f/3.5 maximum aperture may cause a little heartburn for some shooters in dim/low light situations.

Zooming is fairly smooth and lens operation is very quiet. The Zuiko f/3.5-5.6 14-42mm zoom does show some very minor corner softness, but center sharpness is surprisingly good, especially so for a kit zoom. Barrel distortion (at the wide-angle end of the zoom range) is well controlled and Pincushion distortion (at the telephoto end of the zoom range) is essentially invisible.

Video Quality
The E-P2 records 720p HD video at 30 fps. Our sample video has a decidedly warm cast, though the video itself is fluid and the quality is nice. The E-P2 offers manual exposure control in movie mode as well as the use of the camera's art filters. The E-P2 records AVI motion JPEGs.

Image Quality
Default images show very good color, contrast, and sharpness. Overall image quality (with the kit zoom) is dependably very good to excellent - outdoors in good light. Shadow detail is decent, but there is a slight tendency to clip highlights and some noticeable chromatic aberration (purple fringing).

Olympus E-P2

The E-P2's auto exposure system is a bit better than average and the Program and Auto modes make taking very good to excellent images simple, even for beginners, but there is a tendency toward minor underexposure. More experienced shooters can manually tweak image parameters including saturation, contrast, and sharpness via the super control panel.

The camera provides a more than adequate selection of White Balance options, including: Auto, Lamp (3000K), Fluorescent 1 (4000K), Fluorescent 2 (4500K), Fluorescent 3 (6600K), Daylight (5300K), Flash (5500K), Cloudy (6000K), Shade (7500K), Custom (one setting can be registered at Kelvin temperature (2000-14000K); WB compensation of +/- 7 steps in each A-B/G-M axis.

Olympus E-P2
Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light

The E-P2's auto white balance setting does a reliably good job outdoors. Indoors, the E-P2 (in Auto WB mode) sometimes struggles to get difficult hues (like purple) just right. Default colors are bold and bright and just barely cooler than real world colors. The EP-2's auto WB mode doesn't do very well under incandescent/tungsten light, but it does a pretty decent job under fluorescent light.

Olympus provides an impressive range of sensitivity options including Auto: ISO 200-3200 customizable (default 200-800), Manual: ISO 100-6400 in 1/3 or 1 EV steps, Movie: ISO 160-1600.

Image noise levels are below average at all ISO settings. Images shot at lower ISOs show very low noise levels, vibrant color, sharp resolution, slightly hard contrast, acceptable highlight detail, and decent shadow detail. Visible (but very negligible) noise/graininess (at full size) begins to show at the ISO 400 setting.

Olympus E-P2
ISO 100
Olympus E-P2
ISO 100, 100% crop
Olympus E-P2
ISO 200
Olympus E-P2
ISO 200, 100% crop
Olympus E-P2
ISO 400
Olympus E-P2
ISO 400, 100% crop
Olympus E-P2
ISO 640
Olympus E-P2
ISO 640, 100% crop
Olympus E-P2
ISO 800
Olympus E-P2
ISO 800, 100% crop
Olympus E-P2
ISO 1250
Olympus E-P2
ISO 1250, 100% crop
Olympus E-P2
ISO 1600
Olympus E-P2
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Olympus E-P2
ISO 3200
Olympus E-P2
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Olympus E-P2
ISO 5000
Olympus E-P2
ISO 5000, 100% crop
Olympus E-P2
ISO 6400
Olympus E-P2
ISO 6400, 100% crop

Above ISO 400 noise is more noticeable and there's a barely perceptible loss of fine detail. Shutterbugs with realistic expectations should encounter few problems with the E-P2 in auto ISO mode - even when shooting indoors.

Additional Sample Images
Olympus E-P2 Olympus E-P2
Olympus E-P2 Olympus E-P2
Olympus E-P2 Olympus E-P2

CONCLUSIONS
Camera makers have attempted, several times, over the past fifty years to combine the creative potential and flexibility of an interchangeable lens SLR camera with the convenience and usability of a pocket-sized point and shoot camera. Unfortunately, that's sort of like trying to combine a sports car with a minivan - it usually doesn't work. The new Olympus Pen E-P2 may be one of the few exceptions to that rule - it really does a very good job of merging the creative flexibility of a DSLR with the convenience and ease of use of a compact point and shoot.

The E-P2 and its predecessor the E-P1 were designed to meet the needs of a remarkably broad demographic. The E-P2 should appeal to pro and semi-pro shooters looking for a pocketable back-up camera with lots of creative potential, casual shooters looking for a stylish and easy to use camera with lots of automatic capability, and amateur photographers looking to move up from their consumer and prosumer point and shoots. The EP-2 is compact, unobtrusive, responsive, easy to use, and capable of consistently and dependably delivering "pro" quality images.

I had an Olympus Pen FT (with Zuiko Auto S f/1.4 40mm lens) for many years and I also had a Pen EE (fixed lens ultra-compact 35mm) for a while - I liked both of them, but I like the EP-2 more - it is a 21st century reincarnation of the "street" cameras of yore. After spending some quality time with the E-P2 I believe it is a first rate image making tool for adventurous shooters who want to channel the spirits of great street shooters like Henri Cartier-Bresson or compelling documentary photographers like Dorothea Lange.