Olympus E-PL2 review

4.5 out of 5
£529

For

Compact, good build quality, Art Filters are fun, simple controls, some great quality results, growing number of accessories in the Micro Four Thirds arena

Against

Not much of a change over the E-PL1, some intermittent shadow noise at low ISOs

The Olympus E-PL2 replaces, or rather modifies, the Olympus E-PL1, Olympus’ Micro Four Thirds hybrid camera. As an “update” it doesn’t rewrite the book, it doesn’t usher in a new round of features or a new design, but it does make a few tweaks to keep it competitive.

Compact system cameras, or hybrids as we like to call them, fall into several categories. The likes of Sony’s NEX range opt for a minimalist approach and for some they will be just too small lacking the direct controls to really get to grips with the camera’s capabilities. Others, like the Panasonic Lumix G2 or the Samsung NX11 offer a more comprehensive hardware spec and a design like a mini DSLR. The Olympus E-PL2 falls somewhere in the middle, offering enough on the hardware front to mean that you don’t need to resort to accessories right from the off and a killer retro design in a compact body. 

As such, the Olympus E-PL2 comes equipped with an on-board flash that dramatically pops-up on a flick of the switch on the rear of the camera, but there is no electronic viewfinder built-in. A hotshoe on the top combined with a rear interface means you can add the Olympus VF-2 electronic viewfinder, but at around £200, it’s quite a price to pay for this luxury on top of a camera that already costs a pretty penny.

For many, especially those moving “up” from a compact camera (rather than “down” from a DSLR) the viewfinder has long been abandoned, so for those looking for a camera offering better performance and greater control than your average compact without swelling in size too much, the E-PL2 might just fit the bill.

The E-PL2 measures 115.4 x 72.7 x 42mm which isn’t quite the smallest, but it is certainly compact. It weighs 317g (body only) onto which you’ll have to add the weight of the lens. The lens also changes the status of the camera from pocketable to not. Attach the new 14-42mm M.Zuiko lens and you’ll just about squeeze it in a jacket pocket; the popular 17mm pancake lens makes it even easier to pocket, but you're still just out of trouser pockets.

But why would you want to hide such an elegant looking camera? Its design oozes retro cool, with Olympus staying true to the idea of representing the original 1960s Pen range of cameras, rather than the DSLR-alike models you’ll find elsewhere. It’s no wonder that people look at the Pen cameras and can’t help liking them. That’s an important factor for what is a relatively expensive camera: it costs as much as an entry-level DSLR, but offers much needed chic and won’t pull your shoulder out at the end of a day sauntering around a European city or when that wedding reception finishes.

From the front the Olympus E-PL2 looks the same as its forebear, but around the back, the layout of the controls is closer to the bigger brother, the Olympus E-P2. The top plate still offers the mode dial, shutter button and power, with the rear offering a range of controls to the right of the 3-inch 460k-dot LCD display. The battery (which slips into the bottom along with the SD/SDHC/SDXC card) will give you around 280 shots.

The biggest change here is the inclusion of a rotating dial where previously you had four directional buttons. The control still offers those four directions, but now gives you a method by which you can easily scroll through settings which makes the creative controls more manageable. This control is where you’d change the aperture or shutter speed when shooting on those modes, for example.

A lot of control lies at your fingertips in the E-PL2. The menu itself doesn’t hold too many options (and is context sensitive so changes as you alter the mode). Instead, most of the functions are accessed using the OK button in the centre of the dial, which pops-up an on-screen menu (again context sensitive) where you can change the majority of the shooting options.

Direct control is afforded to the flash, exposure compensation, self-timer/burst, and focus point selection from the grid of 11 points. Elsewhere there is an instant video capture button, which will on a single press start recording, picking up on some of the existing settings - for example, if you have the camera set to continuous autofocus, then you’ll get this in video too.

There is also a magnifying glass on the back that gives you a focal point zoom, which you can set up to 14x (we found the default 7x was the most useful). This then lets you do two things. The first thing is define the focal point on screen by moving the green box around, the second is view that point at magnification to see it is focused. You could, for example, want particular flower head in focus and this makes it swift and easy to do so.

The mode dial offers up the usual suspects of intelligent auto, program, aperture and shutter priority and full manual control. It then goes on to offer you Art filters, Scenes and finally video. Using the dial on the rear of the camera, setting aperture or shutter speed is easy, as is shooting manual, using the shutter speed at any given aperture to balance the exposure on the scale onscreen. Offering steps from 1/4000 up to 60 seconds and blub exposure thereafter, it makes the E-PL2 a camera that’s easy for setting up to take night shots.

To get to the real meat of video capture you’ll need to use the video mode. It is here that you can select the video shooting mode, from the default “program” through to aperture and manual, before running into all the Art Filters again. This means you do get some level of creative control over video that you won’t always find elsewhere, especially not on a compact. 

The Art Filters are one of the more defining features of Olympus’ cameras and a idea that is slowly creeping into rival cameras. It means you can create an image that is drastically different and you get the choice of Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama and Dramatic Tone. We’ve seen these before and we like them, the new addition of Dramatic Tone gives a sort of overzealous HDR effect, as shown below, with the option of borders effectively adding interest to a boring subject.

There is always the chance that Art Filters and the like can be seen as a little gimmicky, but we like the fact that it is so easy to create an image with a difference, without having to resort to Photoshop after the fact. Yes, if you have Photoshop then you could quickly recreate the effect anyway, if you have some familiarity with the software. Some of the Art Filters can be edited to increase the effect or layered with other filters. The Diorama - a miniature effect - we suspect will be the most popular (and the most difficult to recreate “manually”). 

Returning to the quick menus accessed through the OK button, you’ll find that the iAuto mode throws up a number of options in the Live Guide. You can tweak the colour and saturation, blur the background or change the settings to capture motions. Effectively it offers a guided approach to create some of the effects you’d find in the aperture or shutter shooting modes. We like the fact that you get these options with stepping out of iAuto, which all too often limits what you can do creatively, and is a great way for newcomers to create a particular effect.

The new 14-42 M.Zuiko Digital lens offers an average to slow F/3.5 max aperture, but now features internal focusing so it is quiet, relatively fast and you won’t get movement on the end which is useful for anyone who wants to use their own filters. It isn’t especially useful for macro photography as the minimum focusing distance is 25cm, but the design is compact and lightweight and well suited to refocusing in video without the customary whirring. There is a touch of distortion at the wide angle and some softening at the full zoom, but nothing you’ll worry about as it isn’t excessive. 

Video capture offers up 1280 x 720 resolution AVI (MJPEG) movies at 30fps. These are limited to 2GB, so you’ll get about 7 minutes in HD before you have to start again. The results are good, with nice balanced colour and plenty of detail resulting. It’s a shame that there is no Full HD option and the restriction on file size means duration is limited, which a different file format could have avoided. 

Continuous focusing is offered as an option in video, or a half press of the shutter button during recording will quickly refocus the camera with a little twinge in the video in its single focus mode. There are various other combinations thereof for focusing, but we suspect single or continuous will be the popular options. There is also a subject tracking focus option.

Audio capture quality is reasonable but like all in-built mics is prone to wind noise. There is an external SEMA-1 microphone (£89.99) that will slot onto the top, if high quality audio capture is important to you.

Shooting with the Olympus E-PL2 is a absolute pleasure. Focusing can be a little dubious at times, so taking control and manually the selecting the focal point will get you the best results in busy scenes. Fortunately this is easy to do as we detailed above, using the magnifying glass option on the rear.

iAuto will produce some very nice images, with Olympus’ tendency to produce rich blue skies, as some of our sample shots from Las Vegas show. Colours are perhaps a touch over-saturated by default and shooting on a gloomy day you might find that reds have a little more punch than is entirely natural. The Art Filters provide an effective way to make a dull scene into something much more interesting, and encourage you to step out and try something a little different, which is what photography is all about. For those looking to eke-out all the detail, RAW shooting is offered giving you an ORF file of around 15MB compared to the 5MB of a large fine quality JPEG, to then be edited using compatible software.

We were surprised to see shadow noise down at the lowest ISO 200 settings, which destroys some of the detail if you are interested in cropping down into these areas, a shortcoming of choosing the smaller hybrid system camera over a DSLR. It isn't entirely consistent however, so you might find a speckled pavement in shadow in one shot, and a fairly clear dark patch under the branches of a tree. The ISO range runs from 200-6400, with obvious noise marring texture detail above ISO 1600 where things become more of a smudge as you hit the higher sensitivities. The same applied to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2, which is probably the E-PL2's closest rival. High contrast scenes are handled reasonably well with the 14-42mm kit lens, with fringing well controlled so does not spoil edges as they might in most compact cameras.

The pop-up flash is okay, coping perfectly well with close range candid shots and makes a great addition as a fill-in flash when shooting in daylight, but if you want a serious flash there is always the option of adding an external model. One omission is the lack of an illuminator, so the E-PL2 will struggle to focus in very low light unless you give it something to pick out.

The E-PL2 is generally responsive, but using the Art Filters brings up a noticeable processing delay as it applies the filter to the image and writes it to the card. The effect is also evident in video and although you can shoot video with Art Filters it can change the frame rate. In the case of Diorama, the result is a nice time-lapse effect. Sequential shooting will let you capture 3 frames a second, up to around 17 JPEG or 10 RAW images.

Verdict

Priced at £529 at launch, the biggest problem the Olympus E-PL2 faces is being priced too close to more capable entry-level DSLR models, which ultimately will offer finer detail in the same conditions. However, the looks and the compact nature, along with the solid build quality, should mean that the E-PL2 appeals as an alternative to a high-end compact as a back-up camera, or as a step-up model for those interested in getting more control. There is no doubting, of course, that some will pick the E-PL2 just because it looks good.

The changes from the E-PL1 aren’t dramatic, but we prefer the control options with the rear rotating dial found on the E-PL2, but otherwise there is little between them. With a spec sheet that is very close to the larger Olympus E-P2, we can’t help thinking that Olympus has some sort of upgrade in the line for that model too, so we're likely to see an enhanced Pen later in the year at a higher price.

In the meantime, the Olympus E-PL2 offers a compact and attractive system camera with the potential to expand with a range of existing accessories. Baring some minor gripes about video capture and shadow noise, it is a fun camera and light enough to port around just about anywhere, so it should appeal to anyone who wants a little more than their compact camera currently offers.

Product shots and some sample shots have been reused from our original First Look of the camera when it was launched at CES 2011 in Las Vegas.