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Olympus PEN E-PL2 Digital Camera Review

John Riley takes a look at the PEN E-PL2, a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera from Olympus.

|  Olympus E-PL2 in Mirrorless Cameras
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Olympus PEN E-PL2 front
John Riley reviews the Olympus PEN E-PL2.

The development of the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera has been fast and led by keen consumer interest and demand. Removing the mirror box reduces the size of camera bodies and lenses considerably, giving us the promise of DSLR quality with compact camera size. Olympus has been at the forefront of this revolution, combining its Micro 4/3 format with the retro appeal of the Pen SLR design. We look at the latest offering in this range, the E-PL2, a light and compact alternative to the DSLR, providing of course that the quality level is there to match that of the larger cameras.

Olympus PEN E-PL2: Features
The E-PL2 is a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera of plastic and aluminium construction, utilising the Micro Four Thirds format. The 4/3in Live Mos sensor sports 12.3MP and the output is viewed in Live View on the 460,000 dot 3 inch HyperCrystal LCD.

Essentially if we take a DSLR, remove the optical viewfinder and mirror system and leave the Live View facility, we have the opportunity to reduce the size of the camera to the modest 317g body we have here, measuring only 115.4 x 72.7 x 42mm.

The expected DSLR features are all present, such as sensor shift image stabilisation, dust removal ultrasonic filter, exposure modes, 22 scene modes, Multi-exposure up to 2 frames, 324 zone metering, Art Filters, sequence shooting, movie recording in HD with 1280 x 720 pixels at 16:9 ratio, plus all the usual adjustments to the recording and playback of images.

Images are captured onto SD/SDHC/SDXC cards, with Class 6 recommended for movie shooting. Power is supplied by the BLS-5 Li-ion battery pack, rated at 7.2V and 1150mAh. A full charge is expected to deliver 280 images approximately.

The AF utilises a high speed contrast detection system provided compatible lenses are used. MF is also available and the screen snaps in and out of focus well enough to make this a usable option.

ISO range is from ISO200 to ISO1600, but this is extendible to ISO6400. White Balance offers Auto plus a wide choice of pre-sets as well as custom setting.

The pop up flash unit has to be manually deployed and offers high speed and fill flash as well as wireless flash options with compatible external flash units. Several channels are provided for use in group situations. The external flash units can be triggered by the camera's own built in unit.

Olympus PEN E-PL2 features: Click on the thumbnail for the larger image.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 rear   Olympus PEN E-PL2 lens
Live View is available on the 460,000 dot 3in HyperCrystal LCD.   The E-PL2 has been tested using a 14-42mm f/3.5 - 5.6 kit lens.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 top   Olympus PEN E-PL2 mode dial
On the top of the camera is the mode dial, on/off switch and shutter release button.   The mode dial has options which are similar to those available on a DSLR.

Olympus PEN E-PL2: Handling
The plastic outer shell feels substantial and the overall impression is of a well made piece of kit. The body is sculpted just nicely for the hands and all the controls are well placed. It is true to say that this is a very small camera and as a consequence some of the controls can be moved unintentionally. The control ring on the back is particularly vulnerable to this and great care has to be taken when, for example, changing aperture in Av mode. It is all too easy to enter a menu instead. This might not suit a casual user, who could well continually find that they have unknowingly changed major settings. I can see that users will have to pay careful attention until they are thoroughly familiar with all the features and controls.

The screen is excellent, in fact one of the very best I have come across. It is sharp and clear and refreshes very quickly. This is ideal for low level shots and for use on a tripod. Hand-held the technique is the same as for a compact camera, but even here the optical viewfinder is not unduly missed. The only slight negative about this is that the camera has to be switched on to even casually assess a potential shot, so battery power will be under some pressure.

Olympus PEN E-PL2: Performance
The exposure system of the E-PL2 is virtually without fault. It delivers correctly exposed images with just the right amount of saturation. Backlighting does not cause any problems, nor do especially bright objects within the frame. Exposure compensation can be quickly accessed and adjusted as required for particularly light or dark scenes. While it is a pleasure to find that images straight out of the camera coincide with my own tastes, if they did not then a wide variety of adjustments can be made to ensure that they do.

The contrast detection AF is surprisingly fast, snapping cleanly into focus and proving highly reliable. Even fast moving objects are focused correctly. Various points across the frame can be selected as required or the centre point only used to select the focus point. The one handling difficulty is the small size of the camera, and sometimes it can be slightly annoying to attempt to change an aperture and find we are actually changing the focus point instead. As previously noted, operation of the camera does need care.

The LiveMos sensor is a relatively modest 12.3MP, but this does not do justice to the gorgeous detail that is present in the E-PL2 images. The TruePic V imaging engine does an outstanding job at delivering richly detailed images with superb colour rendition. This reminds us that there is much more to digital imaging than just pixel count. Here we have a camera that does actually deliver that elusive DSLR quality, but in a much more compact package.

In terms of noise this is a very clean camera. It makes no attempt to follow the trend of ultra-high ISO values as found in some of the current DSLRs, but offers a relatively modest ISO200 – ISO1600 as its standard range. These values control noise very well indeed and although a rise in levels can be noticed even at ISO400, it is quite unobtrusive all the way through to ISO1600. The extended range of ISO3200 and ISO6400 does display high noise levels, but these are available if required and are better than most. It is I think much better to have a grainy (noisy) image than no image at all, so there is value in providing high ISO capability.

Olympus PEN E-PL2 Outdoor ISO speed test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 Outdoor ISO200
Olympus PEN E-PL2 Outdoor ISO200 Olympus PEN E-PL2 Outdoor ISO400 Olympus PEN E-PL2 Outdoor ISO800
ISO200 ISO400 ISO800
Olympus PEN E-PL2 Outdoor ISO1600 Olympus PEN E-PL2 Outdoor ISO3200 Olympus PEN E-PL2 Outdoor ISO6400
ISO1600 ISO3200 ISO6400

Olympus PEN E-PL2 Test chart ISO speed test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 Test chart ISO200
Olympus PEN E-PL2 Test chart ISO200 Olympus PEN E-PL2 Test chart ISO400 Olympus PEN E-PL2 Test chart ISO800
ISO200 ISO400 ISO800
Olympus PEN E-PL2 Test chart ISO1600 Olympus PEN E-PL2 Test chart ISO3200 Olympus PEN E-PL2 Test chart ISO6400
ISO1600 ISO3200 ISO6400

The image quality is maintained when we look at colour reproduction as well. Images look natural and the full gamut of colours is delivered with effortless competence. Images just look very good indeed. Flesh tones are smooth and natural, delicate hues are reproduced as convincingly as the more intense colours. Both the colour charts and greyscale are rendered well. However, rather than charts it is real-life subjects that we photograph and there is no area in which the E-PL2 fails us – it indeed shows a very high level of performance. I would describe its colour as warm neutral, which is certainly especially an advantage for pictures of people.

The dynamic range of the camera is also very satisfactory. Highlight detail is well held while even the darkest shadows reveal texture and detail. This far surpasses what is possible with film. In very bright sunlight it will be useful to use the built in flash as a fill light for portraiture. This will reduce the intensity of any shadows on the face and will result in more flattering daylight portraits. Fill in flash can of course also be used for a range of other subjects, including perhaps flower and plant photography.

White Balance is another area where performance is exemplary. The Auto setting covers very nicely for over 95% of the time, but for those situations where perhaps one colour is dominant the offered pre-sets deliver the goods. This of course assumes that we are discussing JPEG capture, as RAW shooters will be able to adjust the white balance to taste after the event. It is quite interesting that Auto White Balance seems to have a much wider range and can now seem to cope to some degree with even tungsten (incandescent) light.

Olympus PEN E-PL2 White-balance test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 Auto white-balance in incandescent lighting   Olympus PEN E-PL2 Incandescent preset in incandescent lighting
Auto white-balance in incandescent lighting.   Incandescent preset in incandescent lighting.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 Auto white-balance in fluorescent lighting   Olympus PEN E-PL2 Fluorescent preset in fluorescent lighting
Auto white-balance in fluorescent lighting.   Fluorescent preset in fluorescent lighting.

The battery is a substantial Li-ion pack, and needs to be. The only viewfinder is the LCD panel, so to even glance at a potential image the camera has to be switched on. This is bound to take its toll on the battery and 280 shots is rather low as an expectation. My own usage indicates that this figure is quite accurate, so at least one spare battery will need to be carried. The screen itself is a delight to use and presents no operational difficulties. It seems that the use of a continuous Live View is now perfectly acceptable, rather more so than electronic viewfinders are. One enormous advantage is in making ground level shots easier, without quite the same need to lie on muddy ground. Tripod mounted shots are also made very much easier with Live View, so those shooting products and still life may find advantages.

Write times are very fast and do not generally intrude on picture taking. I shot a continuous set of 25 images before the buffer filled up and started to slow down the frame rate. This is at the best possible quality JPEG setting, so is a good performance. The only difficulty is trying to track a fast moving object on the LCD as although the screen is pretty good it does have limitations. It is not the easiest camera to use for this purpose. To be fair, neither is it one of its primary design purposes. Start up time is also very fast and the E-PL2 is ready for use less than one second from being switched on. Shutter lag has also been tackled effectively and the camera is just about on a par with an average DSLR, maybe a whisker slower but we are splitting hairs.

Olympus PEN E-PL2 Performance: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 exposure compensation   Olympus PEN E-PL2 live view
Exposure compensation is readily accessible to render darker or lighter subjects correctly.   Live View is very helpful for ground level shots.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 colour   Olympus PEN E-PL2 skin tones
Colour rendition is warm-neutral.   Skin tones are smooth and flattering.

Lens Performance
Removing the mirror box from the design also means that there is no longer any requirement to make wide angle lenses retro focus designs. The rear element of the lens can be almost touching the sensor if necessary and this frees the designer to make lenses more easily so quality can in theory be improved and size reduced. The same applies when comparing Leica rangefinder lenses to any typical modern DSLR lens. The rangefinder lenses are much smaller.

Here, as expected, the Olympus 14-42mm lens is indeed very small, even taking 37mm filters, an unusual size. The lens is also very good. This is a high quality optic and will not disappoint.

It is unfortunate that no lens hood is provided, but fortunate that the lens is very resistant to flare. It is also commendably free of distortion. At wide angles there is little distortion and only very mild pincushion creeps in as we zoom towards the telephoto end. What distortion there is is not readily visible in most images, even architectural subjects.

Open aperture performance is excellent at all focal lengths, sharpening up still further as we approach f/8. It is a credit to the lens maker that by the time we reach f/22 the difference in sharpness is quite marked. This is due to diffraction effects and reveals that we have here a high quality optic. A poor lens would tend to get better the more it is stopped down, rather than the classic rise and fall pattern that we have here. Quality is well held across the frame.

There is a degree of chromatic aberration present, especially at the edges of the frame, but for normal subjects it is not obvious and not a major concern.

In summary this is a lens that takes advantage of the possibilities of the mirrorless design to offer a compact and high quality zoom.

Olympus PEN E-PL2 Lens quality: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 sharpness   Olympus PEN E-PL2 close-up
The lens is an excellent performer, delivering crisp images.   Rich texture and detail in this close-up shot.
Olympus PEN E-PL2 resistant toflare   Olympus PEN E-PL2 chromatic abberation
  (Above) The lens is very resistant to flare.

(Left) Chromatic aberration is well controlled in most subjects.


DxOMark provides objective, independent, RAW-based image quality performance data for lenses and digital cameras to help you select the best equipment to meet your photographic needs.

Visit the DxOMark website for tests performed on the Olympus PEN E-PL2.

Olympus PEN E-PL2: Verdict
On the one hand we have a small and rather fiddly camera that needs some considerable care in operation. On the other hand we have a very compact unit that can deliver the very highest quality of results, and this must in the end be what counts. For travel this has to be a very serious contender, offering as it does the prospect of lightening the load to be carried and reducing its bulk as well. There are alternatives as this market expands, but it may well be down to handling and the various options need to be handled to see what suits best. This camera is definitely worth its price and could be the basis of a very effective compact kit. Olympus traditionalists will I think be very pleased with the retro look, new users will be very pleased with the high quality results.

Olympus PEN E-PL2
Overall, this is an excellent camera that delivers the goods.
Olympus PEN E-PL2: Pros

Olympus PEN E-PL2 High quality results
Olympus PEN E-PL2 Compact size
Olympus PEN E-PL2 Value for money
Olympus PEN E-PL2 Stylish retro design

Olympus PEN E-PL2: Cons
Olympus PEN E-PL2 Fiddly operation of some controls
Olympus PEN E-PL2 Limited lens range


Olympus PEN E-PL2: Specification
Price: £529.99 (c/w 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens)
Resolution: 12.3Mp
Sensor size: 4/3in
Sensor type: Hi-Speed Live MOS sensor
Max. Image size: 4032 x 3042
Aspect ratio: 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, 6:6
Focusing system: Contrast detection
Focus points: 11 points / Automatic and manual selection
225 points / Manual selection in Magnified View Mode
Focus types: Manual focus, Single AF, Continuous AF, Single AF + MF, AF Tracking
Lens mount: Micro Four Thirds
File types: JPEG, RAW
ISO sensitivity: ISO200-6400
Metering system: TTL open aperture light metering
Metering types: ESP light metering, Spot metering, Centre weighted metering, Highlight, Shadow
Exposure compensation: +/- 3EV in 1/3, 1/2 and 1 step increments
Shutter speed range: 60sec - 1/4000sec
Frames-per-second: 3fps
Flash sync speed: 1/180 s / 1/4000 s (Super FP Mode)
White-balance Tungsten, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Sunlight, Flash, Overcast, Shade
Image stabilisation: Yes, sensor shift type
Live view: Yes
Monitor: 3in HyperCrystal LCD, 460,000 dots
Movie mode: HD 1280 x 720 (16:9) / SD 640 x 480 (4:3)
Media type: SD, SDHC
Interface: USB 2.0. HDMI
Power: Li-Ion battery BLS-5
Size: 115.4 x 72.7 x 42 mm
Weight: 317g (body only)

The Olympus PEN E-PL2 costs £529.00 with a 14-42mm lens and is available from Warehouse Express here:

Olympus PEN E-PL2

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Photographs taken using the Olympus E-PL2

Remember a dog is for life not just for ChristmasLooking at power from a different angleLone meadow tree IRYearningEvening's longing....Boats and DredgerAnd so it all begins againBank holidayBoy will be boys IR 720 nmClay manNed in the mid day IR sunThe Laundry RoomEscape AttemptRaindrops II ...Raindrops ...

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RV 11 1
25 Jan 2011 5:32PM
No viewfinder? Take it back.
Greytop 11 1
28 Jan 2011 10:09PM

Quote:No viewfinder? Take it back.

Not a problem, just add a VF-2 (currently the best EVF on the market).... it slips into the hot shoe/accessory port and locks securely in position. Also tilts for low angle shots.

Nice review btw John, the E-PL2 looks to be an ideal lighter weight travel system Smile

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