Olympus PEN E-PL2 £620

13th Apr 2011 | 16:03

Olympus PEN E-PL2

Retro styled and easy to use

TechRadar rating:

3 stars

It may not quite match the image quality from an APS-C format DSLR, but the E-PL2 produces high quality images, with plenty of detail and colour noise control at the higher settings is impressive.

Like:

Easy to use; Fun Art filters; Good chroma noise control; AF fast for a contrast detection system

Dislike:

No viewfinder built-in; Highest quality JPEG option buried in menu; Only 11 large AF points

Olympus Pen E-PL2: Overview

Olympus Pen E-PL2: Overview

Olympus's Pen range of Micro Four Thirds compact system cameras seems to have captured the imagination of more photographers than its Four Thirds system ever did. The main reason for this is likely to be that the Micro Four Thirds cameras and lenses are considerably smaller than the Four Thirds DSLRs, yet they have the same sized sensor.

Although the Four Thirds system promised smaller cameras and lenses than APS-C systems, it never quite delivered the size and weight savings that many people expected. This combined with the image quality compromises resulting from the cameras' smaller sensor meant that the Four Third system failed to attract the following that Olympus hoped for.

Capitalising on digital technological developments, live view in particular, has enabled (Panasonic and then) Olympus to omit the reflex mirror and optical viewfinder arrangement of a traditional SLR and produce significantly smaller cameras and lenses. After a period of indecision these hybrid cameras have become know as compact system cameras (CSCs).

The fact that Olympus is so far the only traditionally photographic manufacturer to produce a compact system camera may have helped the Pen series find favour with some experienced photographers looking for a smaller alternative to a bulky DSLR. However, it hasn't all been plain sailing and the omission of a flash from the Pen E-P1 and E-P2 was strongly criticised.

Olympus's most recent introduction, the Pen E-PL2, now faces fierce competition from Panasonic, Samsung and Sony, with rumours constantly circling that the two big DSLR players, Canon and Nikon will enter the CSC fray soon. It means Olympus has a lot riding on the E-PL2.

Olympus Pen E-PL2: Features

Olympus Pen E-PL2: Features

Olympus hasn't cast the net far for components for the E-PL2 as it has the same Four Thirds type, 12.3 million pixel Hi-Speed Live MOS sensor as the E-PL1 (and probably the E-P2) as well as the same TruePic V processor.

The most significant changes that the E-PL2 brings over the E-PL1's specification are a larger screen with greater resolution (3in and 460,000 dots rather than 2.7in and 230,000 dots), an expansion of the non-technical Live Guide available in the iAuto mode to include the HD Movie mode and the Dramatic Tone Art filter. The maximum sensitivity settings has also been pushed 1 EV to ISO 6400, but this is accompanied by an increase in the minimum setting from ISO 100 to ISO 200.

Olympus has also revised the Pen accessory port, dubbed the Accessory Port 2 for the E-PL2, and introduced the Penpal PP-1 Bluetooth device to simplify sending images to smart 'phones, laptops and other enabled cameras. The device automatically resizes images and prepares them for uploading to your chosen social networking site.

As with Olympus's other Pen cameras, the E-PL2 offers ESP light metering which uses information from 324 zones, plus centreweighted, spot, highlight and shadow metering. Images may be captured as raw or JPEG files (or both simultaneously) in the usual PASM exposure modes. There are also 22 scene modes and six art filters (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film,Pin Hole, DioramaandDramatic Tone).

Another significant change with the E-PL2 is more correctly attributed to its most popular kit lens, the Micro Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II MSC. Despite being slightly longer than the original Micro Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 when it is collapsed, this new lens is a little lighter and shorter when fully extended. More importantly, the new optic is an MSC (Movie and Stills Compatible) lens so the auto focusing is quieter and faster than before.

Olympus Pen E-PL2: Build and handling

Olympus Pen E-PL2: Build and handling

Olympus has stuck with its popular retro styling for the E-PL2, but the lack of a viewfinder or rangefinder window, along with the lettering on the kit lens gives the game away that it's a digital camera quite quickly. Its predominantly plastic body with an aluminium lens mount feels reasonably robust without being too heavy. The contours on the front and rear of the E-PL2 also provide just enough purchase for the fingers of your right hand, so it's comfortable to hold for long periods of time.

Being a comparatively small camera there isn't a huge amount of room for control buttons and dials, but Olympus has managed to squeeze in the essentials without sacrificing too much of the thumb rest. That said, those with very large thumbs may find that they occasionally press the magnify or information buttons accidentally.

Nevertheless, Olympus has introduced a control dial around the four-way navigation pad on the back of the E-PL2. This is useful for adjusting settings and scrolling through menu options quickly.

Although the E-PL2's menu is sensibly structured on the whole, there are one or two strange quirks. As with Olympus's other cameras, in it's default mode the E-PL2's custom screens are not available. This is arguably a good idea because it means the newcomer isn't immediately faced with an overwhelming arraying menu options. However, it is bizarre that it's only by activating the custom screens and accessing the seventh custom screen (G) that the E-PL2 user can enable the highest quality (Super Fine) JPEG option. Once this has been done, the option becomes available in the shooting menu.

Pressing the OK button at the centre of the control dial and four-way controller on the back of the camera brings up the Live Control options on the LCD. The number available depends upon the shooting mode, but in aperture priority there are 14 including features such as sensitivity, drive mode, image style and quality to name just a few. These are easy to navigate, select and adjust as required and after the camera is set-up initially, there are few occasions when it is necessary to dip into the main menu.

While Olympus has made the Super Control Panel seen on its DSLRs accessible on the E-PL2, the amount of button pressing required to activate it makes using it a bit of a chore. It's quicker to access the features you want via the Live Control system mentioned earlier.

Although with a bit of effort the Art filter effects can be created more effectively post-capture, they are fun and if you shoot raw and JPEG images simultaneously you have the best of both worlds as the effects aren't applied to raw files. However, it's worth remembering that using the art filter modes significantly slows down the camera and there's an enforced pause of a few seconds between each shot. Unless the custom menu option to prioritise a smooth on-screen display (mode 2) is selected, rather than the option to accurately preview the effect of the filter (mode 1), the drain on the camera's processing power when using the Art filters also makes LCD display very jerky.

Unless E-PL2 users buy the optional external electronic viewfinder (EVF) they must compose images on the LCD. This performs well and provides a clear view even in quite bright lighting conditions, though as we would expect, in direct sun there isn't enough detail visible in the magnified views when focusing manually to be sure that the focus is absolutely accurate. Also, when focusing automatically the AF box isn't always visible.

Olympus Pen E-PL2: Performance

Olympus Pen E-PL2: Performance

With just 11 fairly large AF boxes, it can feel a little imprecise, in good light the E-PL2's AF system performs well and finds it subject quickly. When light levels or subject contrast drops, however, it starts to struggle a little. Although it is designed for moving subjects, the Tracking AF system is often a good choice for static subjects as it allows you to recompose between shots without having to select an alternative focus box or use the focus-and-reframe technique.

When activated the E-PL2's Face Detection system quick recognises when a face (or faces) has appeared in the scene and bounds it with a white box. On some occasions it also manages to detect the subjects eyes as the shutter is half pressed, and it prioritises the focus to them rather than the face as a whole. As with the normal contrast detection AF, the face detection system works very well in good light.

In its Natural Picture mode the E-PL2 produces bright and vibrant images, however, the colours can benefit from a little tweak here and there to get them looking just right. In full sun both the auto white balance and sunny white balance setting have a tendency to overemphasise any yellow in images so they look a little too warm and patches of yellowish foliage tend to look a yellow. Blue skies are also a little bit cyan and look better for an injection of red.

It's clear from the images taken during this test that the E-PL2's multi-purpose ESP metering system is very capable and generally isn't overly influenced by very bright or dark areas within the scene. However, it isn't adverse to bowling in the odd surprise. Two images taken of the same scene in quick succession, for instance, can sometimes have noticeably different exposures.

The first thing that strikes you when looking at images (raw and JPEG) taken using the E-PL2 at the highest sensitivity setting (ISO 6400) is that there's hardly any chroma noise. Even in the shadows of images taken with the Noise Filter turned off, there's very little coloured speckling visible. There is however, quite a bit of luminance noise, which gives images a stippled texture. At actual pixels or 100% on screen, this texture is visible in images taken at ISO 800 and higher, though it is only really visible in even toned areas of images captured at ISO 800. From ISO 1600 upwards, there is slight smudging of detail, but the results at ISO 6400 are still pretty impressive at sensible printing sizes.

On the whole the best compromise between noise and detail is produced when the Noise Filter is set to low, rather than its default standard setting. This may be selected in-camera prior to shooting, or post capture with raw files using the supplied Olympus Viewer software.

As some colour noise is visible in the images while they render in Olympus Viewer, software must be stripping it out and the Noise Filter control only influences the luminance noise. This suggests that, as is often the case with Olympus camera raw files, straight from the camera raw files will look quite different when opened in Adobe's Camera Raw (once an update is issued).

Interestingly, though our laboratory tests conducted using DXO Analyzer show that the JPEG files from the E-PL2 have a slightly higher signal to noise ratio than those from the E-P2, up to around ISO 1600, the raw files from the two cameras have very similar values from around ISO 400 to 6400. This suggests that it is the processing in the E-PL2 that is helping it to produce less noisey JPEG images.

As our tests indicate that raw images captured with the E-P2 at ISO 100 have a lower signal to noise ratio than those taken at ISO 200, there may not be a disadvantage to the E-PL2 not having an ISO 100 option, other than the restriction exposure control.

With a maximum dynamic range of 10.56EV for JPEG files and 9.99EV for raw files at ISO 200, dipping to 6.94EV and 5.63EV respectively at ISO
the E-PL2 puts in a very respectable performance. In fact its low ISO setting performance is on a par with many APS-C format DSLRs. It can't quite match the impressive 11.76EV dynamic range achieved by the Sony NEX 5 at ISO 200 though.

Olympus Pen E-PL2: Verdict

Olympus Pen E-PL2: Image quality and resolution

As part of our image quality testing we shot our resolution chart with the Olympus E-PL2 and its M Four Thirds 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II MSC kit lens

If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the Olympus E-PL2 is capable of resolving up to nearly (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.

Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

Full iso 200 jpeg resolution chart image

ISO 200 jpeg resolution chart image crop

ISO 200 JPEG score: 24, full image

ISO 400 jpeg resolution chart image crop

ISO 400 JPEG score: 22, full image

ISO 800 jpeg resolution chart image crop

ISO 800 JPEG score: 18, full image

ISO 1600 jpeg resolution chart image crop

ISO 1600 JPEG score: 16, full image

ISO 3200 jpeg resolution chart image crop

ISO 3200 JPEG score: 16, full image

ISO 6400 jpeg resolution chart image crop

ISO 6400 JPEG score: 14/16, full image

Olympus Pen E-PL2: Sample images

Olympus Pen E-PL2: Sample images

Sensitivity range: JPEGS

Full iso 200 image

ISO 200 jpeg crop

ISO 200 JPEG, full image

ISO 400 jpeg crop

ISO 400 JPEG, full image

ISO 800 jpeg crop

ISO 800 JPEG, full image

ISO 1600 jpeg crop

ISO 1600 JPEG, full image

ISO 3200 jpeg crop

ISO 3200 JPEG, full image

ISO 6400 jpeg crop

ISO 6400 JPEG, full image

Sensitivity range: raw files

ISO 200 raw crop

ISO 200 raw, full image

ISO 400 raw crop

ISO 400 raw, full image

ISO 800 raw crop

ISO 800 raw, full image

ISO 1600 raw crop

ISO 1600 raw, full image

ISO 3200 raw crop

ISO 3200 raw, full image

ISO 6400 raw crop

ISO 6400 raw, full image

Magnolia image

Daffodiles from low-level

Pinhole image

Pop art image

Olympus Pen E-PL2: Verdict

Olympus Pen E-PL2: Verdict

Although it delivers on its primary aim of helping novice photographers make adjustments to the aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, white balance and colour saturation without them realising they are doing so, the Live Guide doesn't go far enough. For a start it doesn't allow the adjustments to be applied in combination, so the user must choose between blurring the background or adjusting image colour.

The E-PL2's Live Guide also doesn't explain how the camera settings are changed, it merely indicates their impact. This means that novices photographers aren't encouraged to progress on to more advanced shooting mode such as aperture or shutter priority and to explore more of the control available to them. This is a shame as the E-PL2 provides plenty of control and opportunity for customisation.

While it cannot quite match the image quality from an APS-C format DSLR all round, the E-PL2 produces high quality images. The level of detail present in low sensitivity images is high and noise control at the higher settings is impressive.

Score

Features 4/5

Build and handling 3/5

Performance 3/5

Value 3/5

Overall 3/5

Olympus Micro Four Thirds CSC
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