Since 2009 the world of digital photography has been changed with the introduction of pocket-sized cameras that use interchangeable lenses like those used on DSLRs, but don't have the bulky viewfinders. The Olympus E-P1 was one of the first of this new breed and offered a high-quality image sensor and the ability to use premium lenses for less than $1000. Many of these "compact interchangeable lens" cameras hit the market in the months that followed. The new Olympus E-PL2 is the latest member of this camera family that promises to deliver DSLR image quality in a compact camera for an affordable price.
With so many entry level and enthusiast DSLRs priced between $500 and $800, it's harder than ever for consumers to determine the best camera to fit their needs. The Olympus E-PL2 hopes to make life a little easier by using a littler camera. Low cost DLSRs like the Nikon D3100 or the Canon Rebel T2i are smaller than most DSLRs, but they still weigh more (1.1-1.2 lbs.) compared to the diminutive E-PL2 (0.79 lbs.). Combine that with the fact that traditional DSLRs aren't always the easiest to use in live view mode (using the LCD to frame the image instead of the viewfinder) and you can start to see the advantages of a camera like the E-PL2. Is the E-PL2 worth the $599 price tag? Let's find out.
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:
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.
At first glance, the E-PL2 looks like it offers virtually identical performance to last year's E-PL1. Upon closer examination, well, the E-PL2 offers virtually identical performance to last year's E-PL1.
You have to look extremely close to find areas where the new E-PL2 offers even a marginal step up from the older camera. That's not necessarily a bad thing since the E-PL1 still holds its own against other Micro-Four Thirds cameras and budget DSLRs. Still, I doubt many current E-PL1 owners will see an obvious reason to "upgrade" if the only major gains in performance come from a new high ISO setting (ISO 6400) and a new maximum shutter speed (1/4000 sec.).
As with the rest of the digital Pen series cameras, the single Achilles Heel of the E-PL2 is auto focus. First, let me start out by saying that the E-PL2 is among the fastest focusing Micro-Four Thirds cameras we've tested and is only bested by the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 and the Sony alpha NEX-5. Unfortunately, that still isn't quite as fast as DSLRs in the same price range.
To put the AF speed into context, you'll be able to quickly get a focus lock and snap a photo of your child if he or she is relatively still, but if your child is moving quickly then you'll probably end up with a photo that's out of focus. That means the E-PL2 gives you DSLR quality images for portraits and landscapes but isn't always going to deliver when it comes to candid photos of fast action or sports. Of course, the same can largely be said for any compact interchangeable lens camera currently on the market, but it's worth keeping in mind if you're trying to decide between this and a budget DSLR for family photos.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2||0.01|
|Sony alpha NEX-5||0.05|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2||0.34|
|Sony alpha NEX-5||0.39|
The 11-area contrast detection auto focus system inside the E-PL2 uses the image sensor to determine auto focus (similar to a point-and-shoot compact digital camera) rather than a separate phase detection auto focus system such as the ones used inside DSLR cameras. The contrast detection AF system is generally reliable, but not particularly fast (per my earlier comments).
Continuous focus mode suffers from similar performance limitations: It's suitable for slow moving subjects under bright light if the subject has enough contrast for accurate subject tracking, but low contrast, low light, or high speeds can all make the E-PL2 fail to obtain a focus lock.
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2||60||3.4 fps
|Samsung NX10||12||3.3 fps
|Olympus E-PL2||16||3.2 fps
|Sony alpha NEX-5||∞||2.6 fps
*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.
Continuous shooting is pretty good when compared to a point-and-shoot digital camera, but compared to similarly priced DSLRs, the burst shooting performance is a little flat. The top continuous shooting speed in our lab came in at 3.2 frames per second (faster than the advertised 3 frames per second) with a fast class 6 SDHC memory card. The maximum number of images that you can capture at this speed is limited to 10, so that's something else to consider if you do a lot of sports photography.
Built-in flash performance on the E-PL2 is basically identical to the E-PL1. As near as I can tell, this is the same built-in flash that was used on the E-PL1 with a different top plate to match the exterior of the new camera. It's fine for close-range snapshots or outdoor photos that need some fill flash to balance shadows under bright sunlight, but just like DSLRs, you'll get far better flash results by using an external flash in the camera's hot shoe.
The E-PL2's hot shoe provides full TTL communication with Olympus's current flashguns. Just like the E-PL1 and the latest Olympus DSLRs, the E-PL2 allows you to use the camera's built-in flash to wirelessly control multiple external flash units.
It's unlikely that most of the photographers who purchase this camera will use the wireless flash feature (since it requires purchasing one or more compatible flash units) but it's a nice feature to include with this camera and increases the likelihood that professional photographers who use Olympus DSLRs might purchase the E-PL2 as a travel or backup camera.
As noted, an in-body sensor shift mechanism provides image stabilization for the E-PL2 - a welcome feature on any camera this small. The IS menu (which is buried among the clutter of the rest of the camera's menu options) can be used to engage or disengage IS, and select from one of three (normal, plus two panning mode) options for the system.
We used the new 14-42mm kit lens and the 40-150mm f/4.0-5.6 telephoto lens during our testing period. I also used a Micro Four Thirds to Four Thirds lens adapter to take photos with the professional-grade 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0. lens. All three of these lenses performed flawlessly with the E-PL2 and produced good overall image quality.
The new 14-42mm kit lens feels a little cheap with its all-plastic construction compared to the almost premium fit and finish of the E-PL2. The 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens is obviously a piece of consumer glass, and although the results are far superior than what you can expect from a compact point-and-shoot camera, the kit lens doesn't produce images with the same contrast and sharpness you'll see in images from the more expensive 12-60mm lens.
Like all Four Thirds models, the E-PL2 registers a 2x crop factor, meaning the 14-42mm kit lens performs like a 28-84mm zoom in familiar 35mm terms.
Another thing to keep in mind about the E-PL2 is that it doesn't remain particularly "compact" when any of the zoom lenses are attached to the camera. In fact, the only way to make the E-PL2 a truly "compact" or "pocketable" camera is to use a pancake style prime lens such as the Olympus 17mm f/2.8 or one of the several Panasonic Lumix pancake lenses.
What modern digital camera would be complete without the ability to record HD video? The E-PL2 has the ability to capture 720p HD video clips up to 7 minutes in length or standard definition video (640 x 480) clips up to 14 minutes long. Like all Olympus cameras the E-PL2 uses AVI-format for video capture and an onboard HDMI out makes getting this video to your preferred playback source comparatively easy. To get a handle on baseline video quality, we've included samples of the video playback below. Overall we found the video quality to be quite good - smooth, crisp, and highly detailed.
To download the original file in its native resolution and format, click the link below.
Sample Video File Download
As with any modern DSLR, the E-PL2 gives the ability to capture video in aperture priority for depth of field control and allows AF with compatible lenses when shooting video. Our initial results on the latter, however, shows that it's still possible for the camera's AF system to get confused when there are multiple high-contrast objects moving in the foreground and background ... resulting in moments of video where your subject is out of focus. Yes, you can still shoot video in manual focus mode if you don't want to deal with the possibility of auto focus problems.
One other thing that the digital Pen series cameras have going for them is the ability to add complex digital filters to your footage in camera. Video can be shot using any of the camera's Art Filters, meaning you can get film-esque black-and-white or high-saturation video straight from the camera.
The new E-PL2 uses essentially the same 12.3 megapixel image sensor that Olympus first used in the E-30 back in 2009. On one hand, this isn't a bad thing because that sensor continues to deliver fantastic images. Unfortunately, every other major camera manufacturer has released cameras with newer, higher resolution image sensors since 2009. You can still produce some fantastic large prints with a 12-megapixel image file and if you only display your images online you'll never notice the difference between a screen-sized image from a 12-megapixel camera and a 20-megapixel camera. At the end of the day, the relatively low resolution of this camera shouldn't be a concern to most people.
Another reason we're probably not seeing a big increase in resolution from Olympus is the physical limitations of the Four Thirds sensor format. The Four Thirds sensor is smaller than the size of the APS-C sensors used in most DSLRs. Engineers can only squeeze so many pixels into that smaller space. The more pixels you pack into a space, the less efficient they become at collecting light (image data). That's one of the reasons that cheap compact cameras with even smaller image sensors have worse image quality than cameras like the E-PL2 or the Nikon D3100.
The bottom line is that although the E-PL2 image sensor is good, you should expect to see more high ISO noise and less dynamic range compared to physically larger image sensors.
White balance is generally good on the latest generation of Olympus cameras, but I did notice that the auto white balance is more accurate under sunlight or flash than it is under incandescent lights. Auto white balance under incandescent light is about as expected with the E-P1. As is somewhat common with Olympus digital cameras, the tungsten preset takes the correction too far for typical indoor light, resulting in an unnaturally cool cast.
Both measured and Kelvin temp custom white balance options are available, and in this case, I found the user-set modes more accurate than the presets for getting natural looking white balance.
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light
Shots are surprisingly clean through ISO 800. There is some smoothing and softening of fine details showing up at ISO 1600, and detail gives way to some noticeable noise at ISO 3200 and 6400. The image quality is actually quite similar to what we see in the Olympus E-30, E-620, E-P1, E-P2 and E-PL1.
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
ISO 6400, 100% crop
On paper the Olympus E-PL2 is a modest upgrade to the E-PL1. In your hands, that might be a completely different story. The more professional-grade build quality, the larger screen and the modest improvements in performance are compelling reasons to purchase the E-PL2.
Can I honestly recommend that current E-PL1 owners "upgrade" to the E-PL2? No. However, if you're currently shopping for a new camera there are plenty of reasons to consider this one. The E-PL2 offers a small, light camera and plenty of features at a competitive price. If a compact, lightweight camera matters more to you than pure speed, then the E-PL2 makes perfect sense. If you haven't already invested in lenses for another camera system then you have another reason to consider the purchase of the E-PL2.
The E-PL2 is the latest attempt from Olympus to create a "pocket-sized DSLR." The only places where the E-PL2 fails to hit the mark are the same issues that other cameras in this class face (slow AF, limited burst shooting performance, and lenses that aren't as "compact" as many people want). If you know about these issues in advance and can live with them, this camera can produce some fantastic photos.