Hands on: Olympus PEN E-PL9 review

Olympus updates its stylish entry-level mirrorless camera

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

The PEN E-PL9 looks as though it'll be a sound option for those looking for an easy-to-use mirrorless camera, but for the minimal price difference the OM-D E-M10 Mark III is still the better buy for most.

For

  • Attractive design
  • Easy to use
  • Effective and proven IS system
  • Compact proportions

Against

  • 16MP resolution looking dated
  • No accessory port
  • ISO limit is only 25,600

The PEN E-PL9 is the latest mirrorless camera from Olympus aimed at those looking for a stylish but accessible upgrade over their smartphone as they look to take their photography to the next stage. 

Whereas the OM-D line of mirrorless cameras is targeted at the enthusiast and professional photographer, the PEN range has always been designed to appeal to the more fashion-conscious snapper, and those who want to take nice-looking images without getting too bogged down with a host of settings.

Features

  • Micro Four Thirds Live MOS sensor, 16MP
  • 3.0-inch tilt-angle touchscreen, 1,037,000 dots
  • 4K video capture

The PEN E-PL9 features a tried and tested (we could also say 'ageing') 16MP Micro Four Thirds sensor that we’ve seen in numerous Olympus cameras in recent years – as we felt when reviewing the OM-D E-M10 Mark III, a boost in resolution to 20MP would have been welcome. This camera does, however, get the latest TruePic VIII processor (also used in the flagship OM-D E-M1 Mark II), with an ISO range running from 100-25,600. 

Rather than 1080p Full HD video capture, the PEN E-PL9 gets upgraded to 4K video capture at up to 30fps, while you can also shoot Full HD footage at up to 60fps.

There's no built-in electronic viewfinder (and there's now no accessory port to attach an optional one either), but there is a 3.0-inch tilt-angle touchscreen. As we've seen on previous E-PL models, the E-PL9 uses a fairly unusual tilt-mechanism, with the display flipping out under the body, rather than above it. For those who love taking a selfie, this is supposed to offer the best selfie-taking experience – perhaps because you're looking just below the lens rather than just above, although we couldn't see massive difference.

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To combat camera shake, the PEN E-PL9 takes advantage of the highly effective five-axis in-body image stabilization system we've seen on other recent Olympus cameras. The clever system has impressed before, and delivers a claimed four stops of compensation to reduce blur and shake in both stills and video.

Just as we've seen with the OM-D E-M10 Mark III, there's also the new Advanced Photo (AP) mode. This is designed to make shooting creative images that bit more accessible, with easy access to settings like Live Composite, multiple exposure, HDR, sweep panorama and focus bracketing. 

There's now a new nostalgic Instant Film art filter

Art Filters have become synonymous with Olympus cameras, and the PEN E-PL9 features 16 effects, including Bleach Bypass, which we first saw on the OM-D E-M10 Mark III, and a new nostalgic Instant Film art filter, which should come into its own when used at night with flash – darker areas becomes green, and skin is given a warm glow. 

Like many new cameras, the PEN E-PL9 combines Bluetooth Low Energy and Wi-Fi connectivity to provide a permanent connection to your smartphone or tablet via the OI.Share app. The app also features a new set of easy-access 'How To' video guides to help get the best out of the PEN E-PL9.

Build and handling

  • Larger grip and mode dials
  • Built-in flash
  • Weighs 332g

The design of the PEN E-PL9 follows on from both the E-PL8 and E-PL7, but there have been some subtle tweaks. For starters, the grip on the front of the camera has been enlarged, and it certainly gives a bit more purchase. 

The mode dials on the top plate have been tweaked and enlarged compared with those on the E-PL8, while Olympus has also managed to shoehorn a small pop-up flash into the camera (older models came with a separate mini- flash). 

Despite these additions, the PEN E-PL9 is still pretty svelte at 117 x 68 x 39mm, while the supplied 14-42mm power zoom lens complements the camera nicely with its compact proportions. 

The finish is pretty good overall, with a nice leatherette material in black, white or tan covering the majority of the camera. However – and perhaps we've been spoiled with the magnesium alloy construction of the OM-D E-M10 Mark III – the PEN E-PL9 comparison felt a little plasticky in parts in comparison with that camera. That said, the quality is certainly in line with its rivals.

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Autofocus

  • 121-point AF
  • Coverage across most of the frame
  • Face Priority AF and Eye Detection AF

The 81-point AF system in the PEN E-PL8 has been replaced by the newer 121-point system that's been used elsewhere in the Olympus range.

While there isn't the on-sensor phase-detection autofocus that other systems offer for speedier focusing, in our brief time with the PEN E-PL9 we found focusing to be quick and responsive in the lighting conditions we tried it under.

Early verdict

The PEN E-PL9 looks as though it'll be a sound option for those looking for a sleek-looking, easy-to-use mirrorless camera, although it's a little disappointing not to see a resolution boost, while removing the accessory port seems a bit of a backwards step. 

It's priced at £579.99 body-only and £649.99 with the compact 14-42mm kit lens (US and Australian pricing and availability have yet to be announced), which is only marginally less than one of our favorite mirrorless cameras, the OM-D E-M10 Mark III – and for the small additional outlay you get a brilliant built-in electronic viewfinder and sturdy magnesium alloy body, making the OM-D E-M10 Mark III the better buy.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.