The PEN E-PL2 is the latest PEN offering from Olympus. Aimed at enthusiast consumers, the E-PL2 is designed to offer a host of creative controls and DSLR-like image quality in a compact body. So does it deliver the goods? The Olympus PEN E-PL2 review finds out...
Olympus PEN E-PL2 review – Features
The Olympus PEN E-PL2’s resolution remains the same as the E-PL1, with a 12.3MP Live MOS chip at the heart of the camera, managing a decent sensitivity of ISO 200-6400 – increased by a stop over the E-PL1‘s ceiling of 3200, but at the expense of the low-end sensitivity of ISO 100 on the outgoing PEN.
The rear screen has increased in size from 2.7in on the E-PL1 to a more competitive 3in, with a decent resolution of 460K-dots. There’s no viewfinder, but the E-PL2 will allow you to attach the dedicated VF-2 electronic viewfinder, which will set you back a fairly hefty £225 extra. This sits on your hotshoe and via a small connection just above the rear screen, and allows you to get a live feed through to the view that mimics the display on the rear screen.
Built into the body is a small pop-up flashgun, with a range of controls (even being able to control the flash power) and provides a modest kick that’s suitable for a range of close-range subjects. There’s also the ability to control flash wirelessly should you wish with compatible ‘guns – a relatively high-end feature not normally seen on a camera of this class.
Olympus has opted to feature in-camera image stabilisation, so any lens attached benefits from the feature, and claims to offer a 3-stop advantage compared to not having it active.
As well as the typical manual modes you’d expect to find (shutter priority, aperture priority, program and manual), there’s also an Intelligent Auto mode, in which all settings are under the control of the camera. There are also 22 Scene modes to choose from, along with a selection of Art filters. The are six in total – Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama and Dramatic Tone – all there to add an extra creative twist to your shots and make the whole process of image taking fun and hassle-free.
Like all Compact System Cameras, the Olympus PEN E-PL2 relies on contrast detect AF for focus acquirement, with an 11-point wide-area AF arrangement.
Finally, the bundled lens is also new. The 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II MSC is 25% lighter than the original incarnation, but like the old model, collapses down into a more compact and portable size when not in use. Because the Micro Four Thirds system requires a 2x focal length conversion, the 14-42mm lens offers a 35mm equivalent focal length of 28-84mm, providing a broad shooting range. If you can stretch your budget, then the lovely 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens is also worth exploring. That’s not forgetting the growing range of Micro Four Thirds lenses – both from Olympus and Panasonic (and even forthcoming from Sigma too).
Olympus PEN E-PL2 review – Design
The original PEN E-P1 sported a distinct, retro design that harked back to the first film PEN models of the 1950s, but this was diluted somewhat with the design of the PEN E-PL1. The design of the E-PL2 has been refreshed, taking some inspiration from the E-P1, but with a more modern twist that makes it, in our opinion, one of the best looking PEN-series camera yet, while also having the visual edge over the Panasonic GF2 and Sony NEX-5. That said, it’s a bit chunkier than both those cameras – it’s slightly taller and fatter, due to the protruding handgrip and mode dial on the top plate. This isn’t much of an issue, especially when you take into account the relatively compact 14-42mm kit lens compared to the larger Sony NEX 18-55mm lens that dwarfs the NEX-5’s body. The E-PL2 is also very comfortable to hold – the grip is a good size and finished with a high-quality rubberized coating, while the weighty construction of the camera adds to the overall solid feel.
Missing from its closest rivals, but nestling on the top of the E-PL2 is the inclusion of a mode dial, allowing you to quickly switch between shooting modes rather than dive into a menu, while the built-in flash is neatly stowed away in the body.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 review – Performance
Though it might only appear minor at first glance, one of the most welcome developments over the E-PL1 is the inclusion of a scroll dial at the rear of the camera. Compared to the 4-way button arrangement on the E-PL1, the scroll wheel makes life a lot easier for quick camera setting adjustments – such as shutter speed or aperture, though it’s possible to touch too much using wheel itself, though this is a minor niggle.
The main menu is relatively clear and easy to navigate, while hitting the OK button during composition will allow you to toggle through a range of settings, including ISO, WB, Metering and Image Quality. There are also dedicated buttons for AF, exposure compensation, flash and drive modes, making the E-PL2 a nice little camera to shoot with.
AF is very responsive for a camera of this class (though not quite on par with that of a DSLR) and appears to be faster than the previous E-PL1. The 11-point AF arrangement occupies a broad area of the frame, though you may find you have to focus and recompose when want to isolate subjects towards the edge of the frame. Focus tracking also performs well, doing a decent job of keeping up with your subject. During manual focus, the display automatically zooms in on the point of focus, allowing you to confirm focus before reverting back to the full image before firing the shutter.
The rear screen sits flush with the body, but is crisp and bright, providing a decent coverage from a range of angles. There’s no viewfinder as already mentioned, so in bright sunlight this can be an issue but, on the whole, there’s not to much to quibble about here.
If you’re after video, then the E-PL2 supports 720p HD video at 30fps, with a built-in mono microphone, though a dedicated stereo mic can also be attached via the E-PL2’s accessory port. You can record in Aperture Priority and Manual modes if you wish, though all settings have to be set before you start filming.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 review – Image Quality
Olympus PEN E-PL2 review – Tone & Exposure
The E-PL2 delivers a consistent set of exposures – the multi-zone metering delivering well exposed images, though you may find you want to play around with the exposure compensation, underexposing between 0.3 and 0.7EV to get the most pleasing results.
Images provided a smooth tonal graduation, though shadows can block out a bit if you’re not careful in tricky lighting conditions.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 review – White Balance & Colour
Set to Auto WB and the E-PL2 delivered no nasty surprises – results were generally neutral. There’s also a wide range of Presets: Sunny, Shadow, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Underwater, WB Flash & Custom.
The E-PL2 produced natural-looking images, plus there’s also a host of colour modes to choose from to boost or mute colours depending on your subject, while the Art filters also add some extra fun too.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 review – ISO sensitivity and Image Noise
The E-PL2 has a native ISO range of 200-6400 and for a Micro Four Thirds sesor (that’s smaller than that found in most DSLRs and the Sony NEX-5), performs very well. At low ISOs, results are very clean, with only very minimal image noise being noticeable. It’s above ISO 800 that noise becomes more prominent, but it’s far from unusable, though ISO 3200 and 6400 can’t compete with an APS-C sized chip. Still, a very solid performance from the E-PL2.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 review – Sharpness & Detail
With regards detail, the 12.3MP sensor used by the E-PL2 delivers plenty of detail that means high-quality A3 prints are easily achievable. The new 14-42mm II kit lens that’s bundled with the E-PL2 is a solid performer, producing a respectable set of results, though the 17mm pancake lens is still the one to go for.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 review – RAW/JPEG
Adobe has just announced its Camera Raw 6.4 update to support the E-PL2’s Raw files, so CS5, Lightroom 3 and Elements 9 users will be able to convert their files with ease once their software has been updated. The E-PL2 also comes bundled with its own Raw conversion/organisation software to get you started if you’re new to image editing.
JPEG images displayed a touch more contrast and sharpness than their Raw counterparts before processing, but naturally the extra flexibility that a Raw file provides once converted will allow you to push the image even further.
Value & Verdict
Olympus PEN E-PL2 review – Value
At £479 for the standard kit at launch, the E-PL2 is competitively priced against the competition. It’s roughly £30 more than the equivalent Panasonic GF2 kit, and £30 less than the Sony NEX-5 kit, while the Samsung NX100 is the most affordable of them all at £299.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 review – Verdict
There’s no denying that the E-PL2 is a welcome development over the E-PL1 and, in many ways, is the most rounded of the non-viewfinder Compact System Cameras.
Starting with its looks, it’s a balanced blend of retro and modern that eclipses its rivals, with a solid build that belies its price. There’s plenty of features to satisfy both beginners and enthusiasts alike, while the images from the 12.3MP sensor should please even the most discerning photographer, just as long as you recognise its ISO limits.
Unlike the touchscreen of the Panasonic GF2, the body-mounted controls of the E-PL2 may make it look a touch over-complicated, but that’s not the case. In fact, its all the better for it, making it intuitive and quick to use.
Overall, the Olympus PEN E-PL2 is a lovely little camera to take pictures with, both for first-time users upgrading from a compact as well as those looking for a more compact camera to partner their DSLR.