Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5

The Olympus E-PL5, otherwise known as the "PEN Lite", is the fourth iteration of the E-PL series. It's been a bit of a roller-coaster ride since this Micro Four Thirds series' conception: we've had moments of brilliance such as the retro design; but brilliance occasionally marred by apparent madness such as the removal of a built-in flash. 

For the money the E-PL5's features list looks pretty much air-tight, largely thanks to the excellent 16-megapixel sensor that the camera has drawn from the top-spec OM-D E-M5 model. Imaging excellence assured, how does the E-PL5 cope in the performance stakes?

Design

The very point of a compact system camera is to deliver top-notch image quality in a smaller-than-DSLR package. The E-PL5's body size is small, yet there's enough bulk for it to sit sensibly in the hand. The 14-42mm lens also has a lock mechanism that means it can partially collapse into itself for stowing away -that's the size box ticked.

Now for style. Here's something that that original Pen had in abundance, and although the E-PL5 doesn't quite match up to those levels, we still think it looks like a suave piece of kit. The build quality is excellent, largely metal in construction and reassuringly weighty.

To avoid any slipping when in the hand - an issue with the smooth-fronted E-PL3 predecessor - the front of the camera has a new screw-in grip. It's a grand idea, mimicking that of the OM-D E-M5, but the plasticky finish of this part of the model doesn't match up to the more solid, metal-built body. It looks cheap by comparison, though we suspect that additional and third-party versions available in different finishes will crop up in the future.

READ: Olympus E-PL3 review

That in-the-box blip aside, there's little to moan about. Some may find that no in-built flash is a nuisance, but we found the included clip-on hotshoe flash to be ample enough when required.

The camera's rear screen is mounted on a tilt-angle bracket for vertical movement, right up to the point that it can face forward for self-portrait snaps. New to this model is also is a touch-sensitive LCD panel for hands-on control, though this hasn't diminished the presence of physical buttons and dials in any way. The mixture of the two is preferable in our book, as it can help speed up the shooting process without getting too bogged down with forcing touchscreen use.

Although the E-PL5 has no viewfinder built in, it does, just like its predecessor, include a hotshoe mount and an AP2 accessory port which means it is possible to add one - and it's that kind of expansion that a lot of other compact system cameras at this price point often fail to include. Good show Olympus.

Performance

Put to use and the E-PL5 certainly has its quirks. Olympus users will be more familiar with the layout, but it has certain settings that are adjusted in a manner that's slightly different from most of the competition. Changing the aperture in aperture priority mode, for example, doesn't use the rotational feature of the rear d-pad, instead it uses the d-pad's up and down cursors instead. It takes a little getting used to. There's also no second dial on the front which, although not a deal breaker on the controls front, would have helped make for a yet more fluid control system.

The E-PL5's autofocus system has 35 square points to select from and it's quick to snap a subject into focus. The same is true even when in low-light conditions. Olympus has honed this system to perform better than it ever has. The only issue of note that continued to rear its head was when close focusing - the system will spend that bit longer hunting through the range, sometimes because the subject is close to the limits of the lens' focus capabilities.

As well as single autofocus the E-PL5's continuous autofocus system builds upon that of its predecessor. It's okay for slower moving subjects, but faster moving ones will be out of reach - the E-PL5 isn't going to match up to, say, a Sony SLT or higher-spec DSLR in this department, an area that all compact system cameras continue to struggle in. Tracking focus, too, struggled to always maintain subject focus in our tests.

ISO 6400 example image

Although it's still not possible to use the touchscreen to select options from within the menu - and we're still perplexed as to why this is the case - the touch-sensitive panel works extremely well for selecting the focus point. A slider to the right of the screen can be used to adjust to focus point size through four different sizes, ranging from teeny to medium sized for that extra precision. It's possible to deactivate the touch feature and instead use the d'pad's left direction to open up focus point positioning, though it's a slightly more rigid experience than the hands-on equivalent. Embrace the touchscreen and get hands-on we say.

Image Quality

To see a 16-megapixel sensor in a Pen model might set alarm bells ringing, as after the OM-D this is the first generation of Pen models to run with a higher-than-12MP sensor. But worry not, the E-PL5 has very impressive image quality. Despite the higher resolution output the sensor manages to outperform its predecessor across the board.

READ: OM-D E-M5 review

We still find it a frustration that there's no ISO 100 setting, as the minimum ISO 200 is a stop above where we'd like to be. Still, the ISO 200-400 range produces clean and clear shots where image noise is no issue whatsoever, and even through to ISO 800 shots are still very good.

Beyond that sensitivity image noise is handled well by processing, but it does begin to show: there's slight softness and some grain visible in shots, particularly in the middle grey areas, but right through to ISO 3200 or even ISO 6400 shots are still usable enough.

Push into the ISO 8000-25,600 territory and results aren't quite so positive, but at least these high sensitivity settings are there should you have to use them.

ISO 1600 example image

There is a caveat to these positives however: the lens. The 14-42mm kit lens that comes loaded up with the E-PL5 is ok, but it's not the very sharpest Micro Four Thirds glass available and image edges at the wide-angle setting suffer from both softness and purple fringes (chromatic aberration). To get the utmost out of this camera you'll want to invest in one of the more premium lenses, such as the excellent-yet-affordable 45mm prime which is only around £220.

One of the best things about Olympus' Pen range is the inclusion of Art Filters. We know, we know, these tend to be cheesy, not-so-worth it settings, right? Well, not entirely. Olympus has managed, more than any other manufacturer, to hone in on the good stuff. Settings that have genuine use straight from the camera. Presets such as dramatic tone - which mimics an HDR-type scene - are immediately striking, while more subtle filters such as pop art add extra pomp to colours. Grainy film, sepia, soft focus and plenty more also feature, and it's only really the key line and watercolour modes that we find less useful for day to day shots.

Dramatic Tone Art Filter example image

For this price point, it goes without saying that the E-PL5 delivers stonkingly good image quality. We were already impressed with the OM-D E-M5's 16-megapixel sensor, and it performs just as well in this Pen Lite body, depending on the attached lens of course. To put that in perspective: we've not yet tested a better sensor in any other compact system camera at this price point. It's really that good.

Verdict

The E-PL5 may at first seem like a small series of steady improvements rolled into the one camera and, in some respects, that's all it is. But the combination of these subtleties merges into one much greater whole than any E-PL model before it.

Image quality is a leap forward for Micro Four Thirds at this price point, which is a huge selling point. Add a decent build, fast autofocus system and, of course, wide selection of Micro Four Thirds lenses and there's not much to dislike.

Our limited moans are that the plastic front grip looks cheap, there's no built-in flash and that continuous autofocus still isn't up to scratch. Otherwise Olympus has really pulled this one out of the bag. The E-PL5 is a fine example of how a compact system camera should be. Top stuff.