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Olympus E-PL2 Overview

by Shawn Barnett, Dan Havlik, Mike Tomkins
and Zig Weidelich
Hands-on Preview Posted: 01/05/2011
Review Posted: 03/10/2011

The fifth model in the Olympus Pen series is a much simplified version of last year's consumer mirrorless model, with a new lens and a no-nonsense design. Where the E-PL1 had a more modern, artistic appearance, the E-PL2 would fit in well with the company's line of E-series digital SLRs. Along with the new body style comes a redesigned kit lens with fewer moving parts and a new twist: a bayonet mount on the front that accepts accessory lenses. The lens has the same focal range of 14-42mm (28-84mm equivalent), but with a quieter MSC ("Movie and Still Compatible") focus motor, more compact dimensions and a more solid retraction mechanism.

The Olympus PEN PL2 differs from the previous PL1 model in a number of important ways. The body styling has been adjusted, providing a more comfortably sized grip, and features a recessed power button, direct movie button, and the familiar rear-panel control wheel seen on the P1 and P2 models.

The rear-panel LCD display on the Olympus PL2 has been upgraded to a larger 3.0-inch type with double the resolution of that on the PL1, at some 460,000 dots. There's a new Live Guide function demonstrating the effect of adjustments to shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, white balance, and saturation adjustments during composition, and this now works not only for stills, but also for movie capture. A new Dramatic Tone art filter has been added, simulating the look of a contrasty HDR image, and there are now post-capture filter variations available to tweak the look of any particular filter effect. Filter effects can also now be combined, for example to use both pin hole and soft focus effects on a single image.

The fastest shutter speed on the Olympus PL2 has been boosted from 1/2,000 to 1/4,000 second, making it easier to freeze fast subject motion, and the maximum ISO sensitivity doubled from ISO 3,200 to ISO 6,400 equivalent, though base ISO has also doubled to 200. Maximum flash sync with the built-in flash has also been increased from 1/160 to 1/180 second. There's a new cable release option, and the accessory port above the LCD display has been upgraded to provide for new accessory types not compatible with previous PEN cameras. This includes the new PP-1 PENpal Bluetooth accessory which allows wireless image transfer to other Bluetooth devices.

Face detection in the Olympus E-PL2 has also been upgraded, and now ensures that the camera will set focus specifically on your subject's nearest eye, rather than possibly focusing on a different area of the face, leaving the eyes unfocused. This should yield more pleasing results, since your subject's eyes are generally the most important part of the scene.

Other changes in the Olympus PL2 include support for the latest generation SDXC cards, as well as the previous SD and SDHC types, plus three added background music choices for slideshows (nostalgic, love, and beat), three new scene select modes, and a new battery pack type, the BLS-5 lithium-ion pack which is CIPA rated at 280 shots per charge.

The Olympus PEN E-PL2 is available now for around US$600 with the new 14-42mm kit lens. New accessories for the PL2 will include a PT-EP03 underwater housing for use at up to 40 meters (130 feet), Fish-eye Lens Converter (FCON-P01), Wide-angle Lens Converter (WCON-P01), Macro Lens Converter (MCON-P01), Macro Arm Light (MAL-1), and PENpal PP-1 Communication Device.

 

Olympus E-PL2 User Report

by Shawn Barnett

Olympus has revamped its consumer Pen compact system camera (CSC), or mirrorless camera, with a simpler design and a new, smaller kit lens that also allows mounting of relatively inexpensive accessory lenses. While it's arguable that the black version of the E-PL2 has lost some of the E-PL1's unique flair, those looking for uniqueness can choose from among the silver, red, and white versions.

Major physical changes to the E-PL2 include a better-sculpted grip with a leather-like rubber texture, and the noticeably smaller barrel on the kit lens. Though all features of the outer body are completely resculpted, the dimensions of the E-PL2 are almost exactly the same. An unfortunate change for video is the switch to strap lugs, which require noisy D-rings to attach a camera strap, while the E-PL1 was the only Pen to have larger steel lugs that connected directly to a cloth strap. Since I carry these cameras without straps, I just remove the D-rings and move on.

The most encouraging sign with the new lens design is that while it still compresses down for easier carry, it now consists of only one major moving barrel element when the lens is deployed for use. The original 14-42mm kit lens deployed three barrels, resulting in noticeable looseness that ultimately translated into image blur at certain shutter speeds, something we detailed extensively in the E-P1 writeup. This new lens design is much tighter, though we have not yet tested to see whether it causes image blur. The old 14-42mm lens design also focused externally, with the last element moving in and out as well as rotating while focusing, whereas the new design focuses internally. All of these are encouraging improvements.

Another prominent feature of the new kit lens is the bayonet mount on the front, which sticks out noticeably even with the lens fully retracted. Here's where users can attach three newly announced accessory lenses: the Fisheye (FCON-P01), Wide-angle (WCON-P01), and Macro (MCON-P01) lens converters. The 14-150mm and 40-150mm lenses can also accept the Macro conversion lens, though there must be some kind of step-down adapter for the 14-42mm lens to work with it, as the bayonet mount on the latter two telephoto lenses are larger, at 58mm, while the mount on the kit lens is spec'd at 37mm (that's actually the measurement of the internal diameter, but apparently it's close enough).

At right is the silver model of the E-PL2, which includes a silver-barrelled kit lens to match the body. The Wide-angle converter is shown attached to the 14-42mm kit lens. With the Wide-angle converter, it changes the minimum focal length to 10mm on the kit lens.

Also new to the kit lens is its MSC designation, which stands for Movie & Still Compatible. Each lens with this designation has a silent focus motor that is faster than past designs, and better for movie recording. Olympus says it makes the lenses "exceptionally fast and nearly silent" when recording movies.

The Olympus E-PL2, like its predecessors, employs the Supersonic Wave Filter dust-removal system which vibrates the coverglass over the sensor at 30,000 times per second to shake off dust. All lenses are also stabilized thanks to the E-PL2's integrated sensor-shift image stabilization.

The top view shows the E-PL2's new lens in its retracted position. Simply rotate the barrel to the left to deploy the lens, and slide the lock switch forward to retract it again. The pop-up flash is released manually with the slider on the back of the camera, where it swings up and forward. Just right of the hot shoe are two holes for the microphone, the Mode dial, the Shutter button, and the Power button. A small blue LED just to its left lights up when the Olympus E-PL2 is powered on.


PP-1 PENpal Communication Device

A few minor improvements to the consumer Pen design are found on the back, making some controls better conform with the rest of the Pen-series cameras. Covered in this shot is the new Accessory Port, which enables use with a couple of new accessories, and the port is labeled AP2 to indicate this broader compatibility. The PP-1 PENpal Communication Device is a Bluetooth accessory which allows the E-PL2 to transfer pictures wirelessly to other Bluetooth devices, such as cell phones, printers, other E-PL2 bodies with the PENpal attached to them, and even to your computer, so long as it has Bluetooth support.

MAL-1 Macro Arm Light

Another new accessory compatible with the AP2 accessory port (as well as the older port found on the E-P2 and E-PL1) is the MAL-1 Macro Arm Light, which includes two daylight-balanced LED lamps on the end of flexible arms that are a little over 6 inches long. Perfect for illuminating macro subjects such as auction items, the MAL-1 lets you preview its illumination on the camera's LCD display, since the LEDs are permanently illuminated. That makes it rather easier for amateurs to use, compared to traditional strobes used for macro photography. The lamp at the end of each arm can be enabled or disabled separately, and its brightness adjusted to one of two intensity levels.

Four round buttons now line the right side of the display, reminiscent of the E-P2's controls, except that they don't have the same functions as that model. Info and Menu buttons appear above and below the new control wheel. The E-PL1 had a four-way navigator, but the E-PL2's control wheel serves as both a four-way and a dial, again like those of the earlier two Pens. The upper right corner has the Record button, and just left of that are eight holes for the speaker. Another upgrade is the new 3-inch LCD with 460,000 dots, the highest resolution on a Pen camera yet, and also larger than the E-PL1's 2.7-inch display.

Overall, the E-PL2 seems like a more mature offering, and though it's lost some of its visual appeal (at least, for the black model), it's gained in utility and portability, thanks to the smaller kit lens, better grip, and higher resolution LCD. The display alone is a noticeable improvement over all of its predecessors, offering better manual focusing and image review. The other improvements are just icing on the cake.

 

Shooting with the Olympus E-PL2

by Dan Havlik

There are some out there who may think I've been too hard on Olympus's Pen cameras in the past. In my defense, I would say my basic criteria for a good compact camera are actually not that high: I need it to feel comfortable in my hand; it should operate fairly quickly; and it should be relatively easy to use. And while I liked the style and features of the Olympus Pen EP-1 and EP-2, I found them to be awkward, slow, and, at times, unnecessarily complex cameras to shoot with. They did sport a very cool retro look but I just couldn't depend on them for quick, candid shooting in variable lighting conditions.

Released last year, the Olympus E-PL1 was an arguably less stylish camera for consumers but one I found to be much more photographer-centric. Some additions to that camera I liked included faster autofocus, improved noise control when shooting at high ISOs, a built-in flash, and a camera build that while not as sexy as its predecessors, was lighter and more portable. Sure, the E-PL1 was aimed at consumers, but photographers looking for an affordable compact system camera would probably enjoy that less expensive model more than its fancier predecessors.

With the new 12.3-megapixel Olympus E-PL2, which like its predecessors uses a Micro Four Thirds sensor, the Pen line has been improved even further, offering a host of upgrades in a very enjoyable picture-taking package. While I still have some quibbles with its user-interface -- particularly its antiquated and confusing menu system -- the E-PL2 is another step in the right direction for Olympus' Pen line of cameras.

Black Adder. After getting a black-colored test sample of the Pen E-PL2, my initial impression was that Olympus had dulled down the appearance of the camera. But after shooting with it for over a month, I've come to like the less flashy exterior of the Olympus E-PL2 because it's much more functional. And, as noted earlier in this review, if you're looking for a more chic camera, the silver, red, or white versions of the E-PL2 should turn some heads.

Olympus has beefed up the textured faux-leather handgrip on the E-PL2 without adding extra bulk to the camera. There's more of a lineage to digital SLR cameras with the E-PL2 than rangefinders and, from a usability standpoint, that's a wise move. The Olympus E-PL2 is comfortable to hold, has good balance, and feels serious but not pretentious. There's a simplicity to the design of the camera and several small but important changes such as the recessed on/off button, a new dedicated movie button, and a control wheel on back instead of a circle of buttons as on the previous model.

A word about the buttons in general on Olympus E-PL2. They're frightfully tiny and while that is either an aesthetic choice or because Olympus' designers thought it might prevent accidental camera alterations, they really are too small for a western man's hands. The rear panel control wheel and its center OK button, is also miniscule and easy to fumble over when trying to make adjustments. (The discreet pop-up flash is also tiny but worked surprisingly well in actual use, though it didn't perform well in our tests.) On the other hand, the three most important controls -- the shutter button, the knurled control dial, and the direct movie button are larger and easy to use on the fly.

Also bigger and better is the Olympus E-PL2's 3-inch LCD screen on back which has 460,000 dots of resolution for image playback that is sharper and brighter than any of the previous Pens, which were limited to 230,000 dots. The increased resolution also helps compose images in live view on the rear display. Like the previous model, the Olympus E-PL2 has no built-in optical viewfinder, though Olympus offers an electronic viewfinder (VF-2, $249) as an optional accessory. I find the optional EVF, which slides into the accessory port on the rear of the camera below the hotshoe, makes the otherwise svelte camera too clunky.

New lens. The Olympus E-PL2's new 14-42 kit lens had better edge-to-edge sharpness, which is ideal for wide-angle shots.

Lens Upgrade. One "smaller-is-better" change I liked is the new and improved 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 (28-84mm equivalent) "mark II" kit lens. As with the previous kit lens -- which had the same basic specs -- you can compress this one down, making it more portable. When it telescopes out to its full zoom length, though, it uses only one major moving barrel element rather than three as on the previous version. The benefit is twofold: it has a shallower profile, and it doesn't loosen up like the previous kit lens, which resulted in image blur at certain shutter speeds. (This problem was detailed, at length, in our review of the E-P1 from last year.)

Macro. The new kit lens also did a pretty decent job capturing Macro shots of icicles.

In my testing of the Olympus E-PL2, the tighter lens produced generally sharper results than the previous model. Along with locking in (and staying locked) on moving subjects, the kit lens gave me better sharpness in the corners in wide shots I captured of the George Washington Bridge. I also liked some of the versatility Olympus has added to the 14-42mm lens, in particular the bayonet mount on front which pairs with three new accessory lenses: Fisheye, Wide-Angle, and Macro lens converters. I didn't get a chance to play with any of these converters but I like having them as an option. The bayonet mount on the front does make the lens a little longer, by about 6mm, but the circumference of the lens is reduced, along with the weight.

Video. HD video from the E-PL2 is a little soft, whether in bright daylight or at night. We can only suspect noise suppression is at work, as the files are quite large. (Click to download 65.4MB AVI file.)

Making Movies. Olympus calls the 14-42mm an MSC Lens, as in Movie & Still Compatible. That's mostly because it's designed to be quieter (and faster) when you focus in on a subject so no distracting focusing sounds are picked during HD (720p) video capture. In my testing this was fairly effective, though, as Shawn mentioned earlier in the User Report, the chattering metal D-rings that tie in the neck strap can get picked up in your video footage if you're not careful. Like its predecessor, there's only a monaural microphone built-in for recording sound. If you plan on recording a lot of video with the Olympus E-PL2, I highly recommend purchasing the optional SEMA-1 stereo microphone accessory ($65) but, like the EVF, it makes the camera slightly bulkier.

Overall, I was quite happy with the new lens, which benefits from the Olympus E-PL2's integrated sensor-shift image stabilization to help decrease blur. And like the previous models, the camera employs Olympus's Supersonic Wave Filter dust-removal system which vibrates the coverglass over the sensor at 30,000 times per second to shake off dust.

Night. Whereas the E-PL1's video was very noisy, the E-PL2's is much less so, though it's also quite a bit softer overall in low light. (Click to download 52.1MB AVI file.)

As an HD movie camera, the Olympus E-PL2 fared well in my testing, about on par with its predecessor which had the same 720p, 30 fps specs. As mentioned already, though, the direct movie button on back of the Olympus E-PL2 adds a lot to the user experience with this camera. If you want to shoot a movie, just hit the button and you're rolling; no need to touch the Mode dial. Of course, if you want to shoot video in Program, Aperture, Shutter speed, or any of six ART filters, you'll need to engage the Movie mode.

Speed Boost. When it comes to operational speed, the Olympus E-PL2 is significantly bumped up from previous models. I experienced no evidence of the sluggish (and nauseating) wobble on the LCD screen when the camera employed its contrast-detection autofocus system. That annoying AF jiggle on the screen, which marred previous Pen models, was not only distracting, I found myself often missing candid shots because of the wonky focusing.

With the E-PL2, I didn't have to even think while taking the camera on a stroll through my neighborhood in upper Manhattan on a snowy winter day. See an interesting scene, press the shutter, take the picture. I know that doesn't sound that complicated but when your camera is not cooperating, it can be very frustrating.

Diorama. The Diorama filter produces a look that's similar to a tilt-shift lens, making these people look miniature. For the best result, shoot from a high place looking down.

Full AF shutter lag was considerably better on the Olympus E-PL2 compared to its predecessor: 0.43s at wide-angle in single-area mode, compared to 0.95s. Very nice! While that may be slower than the average DSLR, it's still faster than most point-and-shoot cameras with contrast-detection autofocus. Our lab calculated the E-PL2's cycle time at 1.03 seconds per shot in single-shot JPEG mode, which is better than the E-PL1's 1.60 seconds per shot speed. In continuous mode, the Olympus E-PL2 is capable of three frames per second.

Even when photographing people, in particular fidgety small children, the Olympus E-PL2 did a good job keeping with the action. Speaking of photographing children, there's actually a Children mode in the Scene modes setting, which automatically increases the ISO and shutter speed to help freeze the action in photos when kids are running around. Another important bump up is the Olympus E-PL2's new maximum shutter speed of 1/4,000 second (from 1/2,000 second on the E-PL1.) For shooting sports or any kind of intense action, that faster shutter speed makes a difference in good light.

Dramatic Tone. We were also big fans of the new Dramatic Tone filter which simulates a crunchy HDR style. It worked great on overcast days, creating ominous looking clouds.

Getting Artsy. Admittedly, it took me a while to warm to Olympus' in-camera art filters on its Pen models but with the E-PL2, I'm really loving them. I think what really sealed the deal for me with these filters -- selectable in the menu system when you turn to the Art setting on the mode dial -- is the new Dramatic Tone function. The Dramatic Tone effect has been compared to HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography but it's done in one shot, not by combining a series of three. I'm actually not much of an HDR fan -- especially when it's done to create very surreal effects -- but Dramatic Tone has me hooked. When shooting with it on an overcast wintery day in New York City the effect was, um, quite dramatic. Dramatic Tone does a great job with adding darkness and contrast to clouds, making them seem particularly ominous. I captured brooding shots of the GW bridge, the surrounding waterfront, and nearby train tracks using this filter.

Moody. Art filters abound on the E-PL2. We liked the B&W Grainy Film filter for gritty street shots.

Some other camera companies have also adopted art-filter-like effects in their cameras but I think Olympus's are the best. I also liked the grainy B&W effect, the pinhole effect, and the pop art effect. Here's a suggestion for Olympus, though: I'd love to see an art filter that adds a blurry background to a portrait, similar to the creamy "bokeh" effect you get with a professional lens with a fast aperture. There's a way to create this effect using the E-PL2's Live Guide II system (more about Live Guide II below), but I think it'd be easier just to have it as a filter.

Pop! Colors really zing with the Olympus' Pop Art filter, brightening the graffiti on this wall.

Another nice bonus with its latest art filters: Olympus now allows you to combine two of them together and make other enhancements so you can, for instance, shoot a grainy B&W image and then overlay a pinhole effect for a very old-timey look. There's also a way to capture a Dramatic Tone image and then put an art frame around it. One knock against combining filters is it's not clear how to create the effect via the camera menus and the Olympus E-PL2's manual does a poor job of explaining it.

Live Guide II. Finding Live Guide II was a little frustrating at first, and then using it seemed cumbersome as well. It's designed to be easy, so you can only do one modification at a time, while experienced photographers will wonder why you can't do several things at once.

Live Guide II & Menu System. This is a good place to segue into my biggest criticism of the Olympus E-PL2: it's still unnecessarily complicated. A good example is the revamped Live Guide II, which offers in-camera adjustments and tips when shooting stills or movies. It's the one feature that shouldn't be complicated. While I can see some benefits to offering this sort of thing to beginners, users will have a hard time even finding the feature in the camera. I know I did, and I've been reviewing photo gear for quite some time.

I had to dig through the manual to find out that I had to be in the iAuto mode and then press the OK button to call up the Live Guide II. Then if you scroll down and pick one of the various options -- Change Color Saturation, Change Color Image, Change Brightness, etc. -- you can't go directly back to the choices, instead you have to go to the main menu and start all over again. Also, some of the Shooting Tips seem to suffer from a poor translation from Japanese, such as this advice for shooting flowers: "Shade of cloud or parasol makes shadow of flowers softer."

Grainy. Here's an interesting effect made with the Grainy Film Art Filter. Frame rate is reduced noticeably. (Click to download 25.2MB AVI file.)

Some of the menu system choices while in iAuto mode seem baffling as well. For example, when you press the menu button, the first thing that pops up is "Card Set-up" and the first option is "All Erase." For novices, this is playing with fire. I was also irked that there was no way to adjust ISO in this mode.

Live Control Menu. Scrolling through options is easy with the Live Control Menu; up and down arrows allow you to select what you want, while left and right select among options. The optional Super Control Panel brings up a grid that's also easy to adjust with the control wheel.

Adjustments. Making adjustments to the controls is cumbersome if you continually go back to the menu, because it's fairly antiquated, but thankfully Olympus has provided two options for quick access to most of the items you'd want to adjust on the fly, via the Live Control Menu, with the option of the Super Control Panel that appears on Olympus' digital SLRs. Activated via the Control Settings option in the Custom Menus (yes, you have to dig for it), the Super Control Panel is preferred by some, while the Live Control Menu serves just fine for others.

High ISO. When I saw that the Olympus E-PL2 can shoot up to ISO 6,400, I was a little uneasy. My experience with Pen cameras in that past was that despite the Micro Four Thirds chip, which is close in size to what you'd find in most digital SLRs, they struggled when shooting at above ISO 1,600 in low light. Yet even ISO 6,400 produces a decent 5x7-inch print. Unfortunately, though the E-PL2 performs admirably at all its ISO settings, its default noise suppression is more aggressive than past models, reducing detail a little when compared to the E-PL1. As a result, we recommend that those who want to get more detail out of their prints later should shoot RAW files. They'll get even greater low-light performance than our JPEG crops and printed results indicate.

In decent light at ISO 800 and below, the Olympus E-PL2 produces excellent photos. As mentioned earlier, the kit lens had solid corner sharpness at wide-angle and telephoto. There was very minor Chromatic aberration at telephoto, but at wide-angle it was a little more noticeable. There was very little, if any, geometric distortion at telephoto, and some at wide-angle. Overall, though, the Olympus E-PL2 produces very high quality photos in a range of lighting conditions, which is why you'd want a compact system camera to begin with.

For more about the E-PL2's image quality see our ISO 1,600 crops below, as well as the Print Quality, then visit the Image Quality and Optics pages, as well as the Performance pages.

 

Olympus E-PL2 Image Quality

Most digital SLRs will produce a reasonable ISO 100 shot, so we like to push them and see what they can do at ISO 1,600. Recent advances in sensor technology have made ISO 1,600 look a lot more like ISO 100, but there are still cameras whose quality starts to fall apart at this setting. I also choose 1,600 because I like to be able to shoot at least at this level when indoors and at night.

Olympus E-PL2 versus Olympus E-PL1 at ISO 1,600

Olympus E-PL2 at ISO 1,600
Olympus E-PL1 at ISO 1,600
Two aspects seem to have changed between the Olympus E-PL2 and E-PL1: Default noise suppression is stronger in the E-PL2, and sharpening has been turned down. There is slightly less chroma and luminance noise in the shadows in the E-PL2's images, and sharpening halos are less prominent. Detail in the mosaic image is also less distinct. The red leaf swatch is darker and less detailed, and the pink fabric beneath does not show the weave pattern that we see in the E-PL1. We can only imagine that you could approximate the results from the E-PL1 by reducing noise suppression strength and increasing sharpening.

Olympus E-PL2 versus Panasonic GF2 at ISO 1,600

Olympus E-PL2 at ISO 1,600
Panasonic GF2 at ISO 1,600
Despite the reduction in sharpness and greater noise suppression, the E-PL2 still manages to edge out the Panasonic GF2 in overall JPEG performance. Shadows are a little less noisy, while detail is slightly sharper at ISO 1,600. Color is muted in the GF2 shots, and yellows especially have a green cast. The E-PL2 even does a little better with the red leaf swatch.


Olympus E-PL2 versus Samsung NX100 at ISO 1,600

Olympus E-PL2 at ISO 1,600
Samsung NX100 at ISO 1,600
The E-PL2 does a better job with shadow noise, but it stomps on low-contrast detail in the mosaic image a bit more than the NX100. The E-PL2 does a little better with the red leaf swatch, though, and the pink swatch beneath it is more true to the color of the original swatch, even if detail is less pronounced.


Olympus E-PL2 versus Sony NEX-5 at ISO 1,600

Olympus E-PL2 at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-5 at ISO 1,600
The Sony NEX-5 does a little better overall, but its rendering of the background in the top crop shows considerably more aggressive noise suppression, making the background look out of focus. Even the gold bottle seems a little blurry, until you get to the letters, which are slightly oversharpened compared to the E-PL2. The NEX-5 retains more information in the mosaic file, though, and gives a little more character to the red leaf swatch.


Olympus E-PL2 versus Nikon D5000 at ISO 1,600

Olympus E-PL2 at ISO 1,600
Nikon D5000 at ISO 1,600
The E-PL2's more aggressive noise suppression manages to clean up more luminance noise than the Nikon D5000 does, yet the label text is cleaner. Detail in the mosaic image is soft in the D5000 shot, but there's still more to work with when sharpening afterward. Among the cameras we've looked at here, the Nikon D5000 also does the best with the red leaf swatch.

Detail: Olympus E-PL2 versus Panasonic GF2, Olympus E-PL2, Samsung NX100, Sony NEX-5, Nikon D5000

Olympus
E-PL2
ISO 200
ISO 3,200
Olympus
E-PL1
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
Panasonic
GF2
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
Samsung
NX100
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
Sony
NEX-5
ISO 200
ISO 3,200
Nikon
D5000
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
Detail comparison. Looking at high-contrast detail can also be informative, so we prepare these crops from the lowest ISO and ISO 3,200 in this case. There's a stand-out difference between the E-PL2 and the E-PL1, the latter having greater contrast overall between the white label and black letters, while the E-PL2 looks more like the competition: more true to life, but less punchy overall. The E-PL2 does better than the GF2 at ISO 3,200, and retains the red better as well. Likewise with the Samsung NX100. The Sony NEX-5, however, does better than the E-PL2 at ISO 3,200. The E-PL2 also seems to produce sharper image quality than the Nikon D5000 at both settings.


Overall, this is a little less than we expected from the E-PL2 at ISO 1,600. We were similarly disappointed with the Panasonic GF2's ISO 1,600 performance when compared to others, so be aware that raising ISO to 1,600 will cost you some detail when compared to the E-PL1 and E-P2, at least at default settings. We think the E-PL2 edges the GF2 at 1,600, but we'd still recommend capturing a RAW image for important shots so you can get as much detail as possible. As it is, though, the Olympus E-PL2's ISO 1,600 images look pretty good printed at 13x19 inches. Not bad for ISO 1,600 from a such a small camera.

 

Olympus Pen E-PL2 Print Quality

Peeping at pixels onscreen is only worth so much. It's when we print the images that we get to the relevant performance of a camera's lens and sensor.

ISO 200 shots appear a little soft on close inspection when printed at 20x30 inches, which is about right for a 12-megapixel image. A better starting point is 16x20 inches, where detail is crisp, and color excellent.

ISO 400 shots also look quite good at 16x20, with great color and detail.

ISO 800 images are surprisingly good at 16x20 inches, still. Only a slight bit of noise starting to appear in the shadows, while color and detail remain strong; naturally, reducing to 13x19 inches really tightens everything up.

ISO 1,600 are quite usable at 13x19, with softness only in the red leaf swatch.

Luminance noise starts to creep in more at ISO 3,200, making a somewhat noisy 13x19-inch print, but one that's still usable. Reduction to 11x14 leaves the feel of graininess in the shadows, but color and detail are quite good.

ISO 6,400 images are grainier still, and both color and contrast suffer at 11x14. Detail comes back to a usable level at 8x10, but color's still quite faded. At 5x7, though, the prints look pretty good. Reds are still soft and muted, but it makes a decent print nonetheless.

All told, prints from the Olympus E-PL2 look great. It's an impressive performance that a camera this small with a smaller sensor than most SLRs can produce 16x20-inch prints from ISO 200 to ISO 800 with only minor degradation in quality. And making a 5x7 from an ISO 6,400 print is also quite good. Last year's E-PL1 didn't offer ISO 6,400, but its prints were a little more comfortable being printed at 20x30 inches.

 

In the Box

The Olympus E-PL2 ships with the following items in the box:

 

Recommended Accessories



 

Olympus Pen E-PL2 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Less flashy but more functional redesigned camera body handles like a comfortable DSLR rather than an awkward rangefinder
  • Comfy, textured faux-leather handgrip
  • Contrast detection based autofocus system functions much faster than previous models without annoying image wobble on LCD screen
  • Faster overall operational speed
  • Faster top shutter speed
  • New pupil detection in Face Priority AF
  • New, tighter 14-42mm kit lens uses less moving parts, preventing problems with image blur that plagued previous model
  • Lens focuses quietly, focuses internally
  • Optical quality is above average for a kit lens
  • In-camera image stabilization
  • Fast flash recycle
  • Good Macro performance
  • Good detail overall
  • Very good hue accuracy
  • Auto Gradation effective at maximizing dynamic range
  • Good control over noise reduction
  • Bayonet mount on front of lens lets you add Fisheye, Wide-Angle, and Macro lens converters
  • Art Filters are a blast to use, especially new Dramatic Tone filter
  • 3-inch LCD screen with 460K dots of resolution is bigger, sharper and brighter
  • Optional electronic viewfinder
  • AP2 adds support for new accessories
  • Built-in wireless remote flash support
  • Live Control Menu allows quick changes to oft-used settings
  • Dedicated movie button helps get your videos rolling
  • Excellent print quality
  • ISO 6,400 prints a good 5x7
  • Archaic menu system is confusing and unnecessarily complicated
  • Live Guide II system should be easier to access and adjust, customize
  • Shooting tips in Live Guide II suffer from bad translation
  • Buttons are too small; no dedicated exterior control for ISO
  • ISO starts at 200
  • Default noise reduction a bit high
  • Accurate color, but somewhat muted at default settings
  • No built-in viewfinder
  • Weak manual; poor instructions for new features such as ways to combine Art Filters
  • Auto white balance leaves tungsten lighting too warm
  • Low power flash (though better than no flash and not a surprise given its size)
  • Mediocre battery life of 280 shots (not unlike an SLR used in live view mode)

Though I've admired Olympus' Pen-series compact system cameras in the past for their stylish designs and bounty of features, I didn't find them to be particularly enjoyable to shoot with. Until now. With the 12.3MP Olympus Pen E-PL2, the company has gone a long way to correcting many of the problems that have plagued this line in the past. In particular, the Olympus E-PL2 is a faster and more enjoyable camera to use all around; starting up quicker, focusing quicker, and capturing images quicker. Where the Contrast detection-based autofocus system on past models was slow and produced an annoying wobble on the LCD screen, the AF on the E-PL2 is smooth, fast, and responsive. The revamped and tighter 14-42mm kit lens that comes with the Olympus E-PL2 uses fewer moving parts, which prevents some of the problems with image blur that occurred at certain shutter speeds with the previous lens. Though it may not be as stylish looking as other Pen cameras, we came to really like the understated and more ergonomic design of the Olympus E-PL2, which reminded us more of a DSLR than a rangefinder. From a practicality standpoint, this is a good thing. Most importantly, image quality is still excellent and high ISO images remain quite usable, with even ISO 6,400 images producing a good 5x7-inch print.

The Olympus E-PL2 is not without a few issues, however, including a confusing menu system that doesn't seem like it's been updated in over a decade. Live Guide II, a menu-based system that's supposed help novices take better and more interesting photos, is difficult to access and some of the shooting tips suffer from a bad translation. Also, we weren't so keen on the small buttons on the camera or on the fact that there's no dedicated ISO button. (Note: you can program the four-way controller's down or right arrow pad to be ISO among other things, but then you lose its default function.) Of course, you can use the Live Control Menu or Super Control Panel to make quick onscreen adjustments with a press of the (tiny) OK button.

Overall, we were extremely pleased with the Olympus E-PL2's performance in most of the important picture-taking areas, and we're happy to name it a Dave's Pick.