(Pocket-lint) - When the Olympus Pen E-P1 flashed onto the scene in June last year, we knew we were looking at something special, not just from its distinctive looks, but also because it was so much fun to use. There were shortcomings, however, and the second coming moves to address some of those, significantly adding an accessories port on the back which most notably gives you the option of attaching an electronic viewfinder. (If you are interested in the E-P2, it is definitely worth reading our review of the E-P1 as well as this review.)
But the Micro Four Thirds landscape has changed rapidly over the last 6 months, most notably with the birth of the Panasonic Lumix GF1, which carried much of the same retro styling, but also packed in a pop-up flash, something that is still missing from this version of the Pen. Can the E-P2 compete, or has Panasonic stolen a march?
The Olympus Pen E-P2 brings a black colour scheme to the retro styling of the E-P1, with bold looks that you'll either love or loathe. Having hit the streets with both models of the new Pen, it seems that Olympus' styling gamble was worth it. People are drawn to the Pen and we think it looks cracking.
It measures 120.5 x 70 x 35mm, squeezing into that space the Micro Four Thirds occupies, somewhere between the dimensions of the largest compact cameras and the smallest DSLR cameras. Micro Four Thirds brings with it the benefits of interchangeable lenses with a larger Live MOS sensor, but leaves out the mirror block that would drive the optical viewfinder in a traditional DSLR. The result is a hybrid camera boasting great imaging quality, but reduced bulk.
The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is what should draw you to the E-P2, as previously you had to make do with the VF-1 optical viewfinder that married up with the 20mm pancake lens. This was one shortcomings we highlighted with the previous model. Now the VF-2 comes with the kit we tested here, including the 14-42mm zoom lens.
Switching between the EVF and the screen is simply a case of pressing the button on the back of the VF-2. It would have been nice if this was automatic, using a sensor, but it works well enough. The EVF gives you a live view display the same as you'd get on the 3-inch screen on the rear of the camera. That means you get all the same 100% field of view display, settings information, your aiming reticule, your image preview after you've taken a shot and so on. A dioptre ring allows adjustment to suit your vision.
You're probably used to snapping something, previewing, then putting the camera back up to your eye. Here you don't need to. Also, you can sit and view your photos or video through the EVF in playback mode, put if you are taking still shots on a tripod, remember to return to the live viewing, or you'll find yourself looking at the last picture you took of that scene, ahem, which did catch us out a couple of times.
The VF-2 is also jointed, so if you are lining up a low angle shot, or setting the camera up on the edge of a table, you can look down into it, rather than have to get behind. Some will never use this feature and it doesn’t have the same advantages as a swivel screen will in composing shots in tight situations, but it's a welcomed addition.
With the EVF in place, however, there is no way of attaching an external flash, which will immediately deter some buyers, making the Lumix GF1 a more compelling purchase. At the time of writing the new Olympus E-PL1 is waiting in the wings, which addresses some of these problems, which perhaps puts the E-P2 in an awkward position.
An accessory flash is available to purchase as extra as well as and external mic unit, for those that want to improve the quality of the sound they capture when shooting video.
Other headline specs remain the same as the E-P1, with a 12-megapixel (effective) Live MOS sensor and the option of JPEG and RAW shooting. It's easy to switch shooting aspect from the default 4:3 to 16:9 and various others, including square, for those that want to avoid the need to crop at a PC later.
Shooting modes on the dial sitting on the left-hand shoulder include i-Auto, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, scene (with 19 presets on offer), video (offering 16:9 HD 720p capture at 30fps as AVI Motion JPEG), and finally Olympus' Art Filter setting.
The Art Filters see the addition of two extra options over the E-P1: Diorama and Cross Process. We like the Art Filters. Some might see them as a little gimmicky, but they are easy to access and can create some dramatic effects that would otherwise involve fiddling with a lot of settings, or some post-processing back at your PC. You can also apply Art Filters to an image you've already taken. The downside is that when shooting with a Filter on, image processing does slow things down.
Controls presented on the E-P2 offer direct access to settings such as exposure compensation, exposure and focusing locks, ISO, focusing mode, self timer and white balance. An additional Fn button can be custom set to a range of functions depending on your preference, so you can use it to toggle manual focus, for example.
Other setting controls can be accessed by pressing OK on the back and entering a shortcut menu that scrolls down the side of the display. It means you can dive into settings like image stabilisation quickly and easily as conditions change. Some of the more advanced settings hide under the menu proper (via the Menu button), with an additional "Settings" area that needs to be manual enabled to define some of the characteristics of the camera that are otherwise inaccessible.
As we found with the E-P1, the E-P2 is a great performer. Metering and white balance seemed spot-on in our tests. Focusing is perhaps the weakness, as we found that left to its own devices the E-P2 would find something just off the subject to focus on. There are various focus modes to try: AF, continuous AF, manual and a combination which allows you to manually tweak after autofocus has picked its target. Manual focus automatically brings up a zoomed area for you to confirm your subject is in focus and it works here nicely.
There are 11 focusing zones too and the face detection is rather good at making sure the people are in focus, if that's your aim. We definitely think it is worth exploring the focusing options in more detail, as we weren't always entirely happy with the default options.
The ISO range runs up to 6400 and it gets noisy around ISO 1600, not always to the detriment of the photo, but you will find that some fine detail starts to disappear from here upwards. You can elect to set a maximum normal shooting range for Auto ISO with 1600 being the default. You aren't shown the ISO level in the display in Auto mode, but quick access through the shortcut menu will let you see the exposure setting for your scene as you move through the ISO range, which is helpful for deciding whether to hand-hold those low-light shots, or find support. In-camera image stabilisation offers 3 levels to increase handholdability.
Movie shooting has always impressed us with the new Pens. The 720p video capture produces great quality video, even in lower light conditions and you can apply the Art Filters if you like, but you also get manual and aperture priority shooting modes, giving you plenty of creative scope. You can opt for image stabilisation in video as well. Different focusing modes apply to video too, so you can have continuous focus, or manual if you want to try your hand at some detailed focus pulls if you are feeling adventurous. It's a shame that the AVI Motion JPEG format is limited to 7 minutes, but that keeps file sizes in check which leads to easier editing later.
The battery lives in the bottom with the SD card and will give you around 300 shots.
The Olympus Pen E-P2 is a wonderful little camera and you can't help feeling that this is the camera the E-P1 should have been. Even though we loved the E-P1, the additions to the E-P2 make it even more compelling; those who have invested in the E-P1 are probably now kicking themselves that they didn't wait around a little longer.
The fight between Olympus and Panasonic is set to run on and the E-P2 squares up nicely against the GF1. The big attraction of the GF1 is the snappy autofocus and the onboard flash, the E-P2 has the edge on design - it looks better - and we think is more fun to use.
The E-P2 comes in three options to buy - body only (£849), 17mm pancake kit (£949), and the 14-42mm zoom kit (£899), all prices RRP. The E-P1 (14-42mm zoom kit) can be yours for around £699, while the Lumix GF1 is now available for around £650 (although the viewfinder is an extra £160) so once you take online discounts into account, it's a fairly close call.
If the Micro Four Thirds camera system appeals to you, then you'll love the quality and handling that the E-P2 has on offer. The range of options is impressive, whether you are a novice attracted to the design, or an enthusiast looking for a more compact camera with plenty of creative control. Whichever you are, the E-P2 is immense fun to use, if a little pricey.