Olympus PEN E-P2 review
Olympus has a history of making mesmerising ad campaigns, but its latest for its Olympus PEN E-P2 camera is probably the most memorable since the "Who do you think you are? David Bailey?" ads from the 1980s.
The new pitch, fronted by Hollywood superstar Kevin Spacey, is more thought provoking.
It urges the current generation of digital photographers to get more serious with their picture-taking. "I don't want to take 300,000 same-old pictures that break my hard drive," says Spacey. "I want to take three that break my heart." But can the PEN live up to this creative promise?
The second-generation version of the camera certainly comes a lot closer to this lofty ideal.
The new E-P2 is, in many ways, a simple update to the original E-P1 – and much of the camera stays the same. But the new black and silver affair is 10 times closer to allowing you to be a serious photographer, and less like a tourist, than the original.
The big change is that the camera kit now comes with a clip-on electronic viewfinder (EVF) that enables you to use the PEN at eye level, rather than forcing you to use the large LCD screen at the back.
This not only pays dividends in bright light, where the three-inch display is unusable, but you can concentrate better on the wealth of exposure information the camera provides you with.
The VF-2 viewfinder attachment slots into the hotshoe, creating a large bulge on top of the otherwise old-fashioned looking camera.
You can take it off to make the PEN smaller, but for those who want to pursue Spacey's promise, it is essential to leave it on. You can switch to the larger screen with just one press of a button, and the eye-level finder can tilt up through 90° for shooting subjects at awkward angles.
Flexible lens mount
Unlike other high-end compacts, the advantage of the PEN is that the lenses are interchangeable.
It uses the Micro Four Thirds lens mount – also used by several popular Panasonic models. The available range of lenses for this camera is growing fast and, thanks to adaptors, the PEN can be used with a surprisingly large number of lenses from other manufacturers, too.
The E-P2 kit comes with a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens, which gives the angle of view of an old-fashioned 28-85mm (thanks to the 2x crop factor).
This lens's party trick is that it concertinas down to half its working length when you've finished using it, keeping the camera looking as sleek and miniature as possible.
Although it shares similarities, the PEN is not technically an SLR – there's no mirror mechanism.
The eye-level viewfinder provides a video feed, rather than an optical view through the lens. This is similar to the system used on the Panasonic G1 and GH1, but here the viewfinder is not built-in, so the basic body is significantly smaller and lighter.
The changes introduced in the updated PEN have, no doubt, been influenced by the introduction of a third Panasonic model, the GF1, which brought about the concept of the clip-on electronic viewfinder.
This viewfinder proves particularly useful when using one of the manual focus modes. As soon as you turn the focus ring, the display zooms into the centre of the image, allowing you to adjust the sharpness accurately.
The focus is servo-assisted, so isn't particularly quick to use. However, as the camera's autofocus system isn't especially fast or accurate, this is a godsend for telephoto or macro shots.
Olympus PEN EP-2: Features
As mentioned, the Micro Four Thirds system works in a different way to a conventional SLR.
The system avoids the need for a mirror and pentaprism, so Olympus can get away with smaller camera bodies and smaller lens mounts – so this camera immediately scores points for combining portability with flexibility.
Another big advance from last year's PEN is the inclusion of an electronic viewfinder (EVF).
So, you can frame the image at eye level rather than having to do everything via the rear LCD, as you would with a cheap compact. The new EVF is really good, crisp and clear, and a massive help in poor light, where it's really hard to see the rear screen. The EVF also really helps when shooting with one of the manual focus modes.
Turn the focus ring and the display zooms right into the centre of the image, enabling you to focus accurately.
Decent ISO performance
ISO performance is good under 1600, though cynics would argue it has to be, seeing as flash doesn't come as standard.
The basic setup means you even lose the ability to add flash to fill in the shadows. In terms of features and handling, however, the E-P2 compares extremely well to most budget digital SLRs – you get the full range of exposure and focusing modes.
Use Aperture Priority, for instance, and you get a clear readout of aperture and shutter speed in the viewfinder, and a scrollwheel for changing settings that falls conveniently for your thumb.
Exposure Compensation is also easily reached and controlled; what's more you can see when it's needed thanks to a small histogram that can be constantly displayed in the viewfinder.
Other key creative overrides can also be found without any major handling problems.
And, if you delve into the menu, the camera allows you to customise more features than most; you can control the range of settings available when using Auto ISO, for instance, or decide whether the focus ring is turned clockwise or anti-clockwise to make distant objects look sharp.
Olympus PEN EP-2: Image quality
We've been impressed by the quality of Micro Four Thirds-system lens, and the 14-42mm glass supplied with our Olympus PEN E-P2 is a great performer.
While not as fast and bright as the alternative 17mm pancake lens, its maximum aperture of f/3.5 is very handy in dodgy light, or just for blurring the background on portraits.
WIDESCREEN: The 16:9 aspect ratio option enables you to take shots for viewing on a widescreen TV, but note there is some distortion of vertical lines
Lens distortion is kept to the minimum, and despite our gripes about the locking system, being able to concertina the lens back into the camera helps portability. Image stabilisation is built into the camera, rather than the lens, but this is still good glass.
The Olympus PEN E-P2 has a similarly sized sensor to the similarly spec'd Panasonic Lumix GF1, so image performance is comparable.
POP ART: Rather than cheesy Warhol effects, we used the Pop Art filter to really boost primary colours on everyday shots, and it works well
The Olympus PEN E-P2's metering system is nigh foolproof, and JPEGs out of the camera are nice and sharp. So far so good, but we didn't find the AF as fast and reliable as the AF system on the Panasonic Lumix GF1.
It's not so much that the AF is sluggish and 'hunts', rather that it doesn't always focus in the most logical place – going for the foreground rather than the horizon or middleground in a big landscape for instance.
FILM GRAIN: The black and white film grain filter is also great for moody monochromes
Fortunately, the range of image options and widgets more than compensates for the slightly eccentric AF. A big selling point of the Olympus PEN E-P2 is the range of art effects.
In-camera image tweaks are hardly a new thing on compacts, but Olympus eschews the usual daft options (soft-focus food, anyone?) in favour of Cross Process, Diorama, Pop Art and other handy tweaks.
PORTRAIT: While the reasonably bright f/3.5 14-42mm is useful for portraits, the Auto White Balance sometimes struggles with accurate skin tones
As with the Panasonic Lumix GF-1 you can adjust the aspect ratio of the image, shooting in 16:9 ratio in order to display your shots on a widescreen TV.
Returning to exposure controls, you need to watch the Auto White Balance. It struggles to deliver consistently accurate skin tones, so we'd recommend adjusting it each time according to the lighting conditions. The bespoke modes are reliable enough.
METERING: The metering system is really reliable, delivering well exposed shots in a variety of conditions. The 14-42mm lens maintains sharpness and detail when zoomed out
Other useful features on the Olympus PEN E-P2 include a dust-reduction mode, Face Detection and Shadow Adjustment Technology. And as you'd expect in a camera of this price and calibre, you can shoot in RAW for maximum image detail and tonal felicity.
Olympus PEN EP-2: Verdict
There's a lot to like about the Olympus PEN E-P2. It's stylish, well built, relatively easy to use and takes great pictures out of the box, thanks to its Micro Four Thirds technology and quality lenses.
The ISO performance is impressive, which is just as well considering the lack of flash.
The metering system is nigh-on foolproof, and the new art effects, such as Cross Process and Diorama, are genuinely useful. This is a great looking camera and the lenses are of high quality.
The price – for what you actually get, it's pretty expensive at £899 with the 14-42mm lens.
For the same money you can get a mid-range SLR from Canon or Nikon; the absence of flash as standard on the Olympus PEN E-P2 rubs salt into the wound, too. The retractable lens mechanism can be infuriating until you get used to it.
To sidestep the major pricing issue, Olympus has also brought out an 'affordable', simplified version called the E-PL1 (thought it'll still cost you £500).
The E-PL1 actually comes with flash, and although it has less advanced controls than the Olympus PEN E-P2, it's still based on Micro Four Thirds, and still shoots HD video.
So if you're looking for an SLR backup, but are keen to keep costs down while gaining benefits of a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, this seems a wiser buy.
For people happy to pay top dollar for the full range of features on the Olympus PEN E-P2, the question is whether you buy this camera or the rival Panasonic Lumix GF1.
While we like the PEN, we'd probably go for the Panny. It's £200 cheaper, comes with flash, has a smarter AF and takes equally good shots (especially if you buy it with the wonderfully fast and bright pancake lens).
- Stylish and well built
- Quality lenses
- Impressive ISO performance
- Excellent metering system
- No flash as standard
- Washed out auto-white balance