Olympus E-PL2 Review

 
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Olympus E-PL2 Image Quality


Color

Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Good color and very good hue accuracy, though most colors are slightly undersaturated.

In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located toward the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center.
Saturation. The Olympus E-PL2 pushes reds and dark brown a bit, but undersaturates most other colors. Default saturation is only 97.37% (2.63% undersaturated), which is still quite accurate, but somewhat muted overall. You can always boost saturation, or select a different picture mode if the default color is too dull for your tastes. Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life.

Skin tones. Here, the Olympus E-PL2 did well, producing natural-looking skin tones, just slightly on the pinkish side. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.

Hue. The Olympus E-PL2 did push cyan toward blue and red toward orange, but shifts were relatively minor to moderate. (The cyan to blue shift is very common among the digital cameras we test; we think it's a deliberate choice by camera engineers to produce better-looking sky colors.) Overall hue accuracy was very good with a Delta-C color error of only 4.57, which is better than average. Hue is "what color" the color is.

Color Modes
The Olympus E-PL2 offers twelve preset "Picture modes", including six "Art Filters". You can tweak contrast, saturation, gradation and other parameters (depending on the mode). Changes to each picture mode are saved separately, and you can define your own Custom setting as well. See the E-PL2 user manual for details.

Mouse over the links above to see the effect of the presets on our Still Life target. You can click on a link to load the full resolution image.

Saturation Adjustment
The Olympus E-PL2 lets you adjust the image saturation, contrast, and sharpness in five steps each. As can be seen below, the saturation adjustment was quite effective, covers a useful range, and does a good job of not impacting contrast.

Saturation Adjustment Examples
Click to see EPL2OUTBSAT1.JPG Click to see EPL2OUTBSAT3D.JPG Click to see EPL2OUTBSAT5.JPG
-2 0 +2

The table above shows results with the default as well as the two extreme saturation settings. Click on any thumbnail above, then click again to see the full-sized image.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sensor

Exposure and White Balance

Indoors, incandescent lighting
Very warm cast with Auto White Balance, but good color with the Incandescent and Manual settings. Average exposure compensation required.

Auto White Balance
+0.3 EV
Incandescent White Balance
+0.3 EV
Manual White Balance
+0.3 EV
2,600 Kelvin
+0.3 EV

Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, color balance was very warm with the Auto white balance setting. Results with the Incandescent setting were quite good and just a touch warmer than the Manual setting, which was the most accurate. The 2,600 Kelvin setting was quite cool with a blue-green tint. The Olympus E-PL2 required an average amount of positive exposure compensation here, at +0.3 EV. (Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.)

Outdoors, daylight
Natural looking colors overall, with good use of available dynamic range. Very good exposure accuracy in our Far-field House shot, but our "Sunlit" Portrait shot required slightly higher than average exposure compensation.

Auto White Balance,
+1.0 EV
Auto White Balance,
Auto Exposure

Outdoors, the Olympus E-PL2 performed well, with good color and good exposure in the outdoor Far-field House shot. The Olympus E-PL2 required an above average amount of positive exposure compensation (+1.0 EV) to keep facial tones bright on the "Sunlit" Portrait test. Default contrast was slightly high, but despite the bright appearance, there weren't as many blown highlights in her shirt, pendant and flowers as we normally see. The Far-field House shot had a few blown highlights along the edges of the white trim, but also less than we are accustomed to seeing. Shadow detail was pretty good as well, though there is quite a bit of noise lurking in the very deep shadows. Overall, better than average results here, with the base ISO of 200 helping to maximize dynamic range (over previous PEN models at ISO 100).

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Resolution
High resolution, 1,600 lines of strong detail in JPEGs with a bit more from processed RAW files.

Strong detail to
1,600 lines horizontal
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
1,600 lines vertical
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
1,800 lines horizontal
ACR processed ORF
Strong detail to
1,700 lines vertical
ACR processed ORF

In camera JPEGs our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,600 lines per picture height in both the horizontal and vertical direction. Complete extinction of the pattern didn't occur until about 2,700 to 2,800 lines. We were able to extract a bit more resolution by processing the E-PL2's ORF files using Adobe Camera Raw 6.3, up to 1,800 lines in the horizontal direction and perhaps 1,700 in the vertical, but ACR produced some strong color moiré and maze patterns (see the full image by clicking on the crops above). (Note: Adobe Camera Raw 6.3 does not officially support the E-PL2 at the time of writing and we got identical results from ACR 6.4rc.) Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sharpness & Detail
Good sharpness overall, though edge-enhancement artifacts on high-contrast subjects are visible. Mild noise suppression visible in the shadows.

Good definition of high-contrast
elements with some visible
sharpening artifacts.
Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast.

Sharpness. The Olympus E-PL2 captures fairly sharp images overall, though edge enhancement artifacts are visible on high-contrast subjects such as the branches, roof and trim in the crop above left. (Most noticeable on edges of white trim against the brick; note light halo there.) Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.

Detail. The crop above right shows some mild noise suppression artifacts in the darkest areas of the model's hair, smudging individual strands together, though quite a few strands are visible. Overall detail is better than average for a Four-Thirds model, and better than a few APS-C models as well. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.

RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Olympus E-PL2 produces fairly sharp in-camera JPEGs. As is almost always the case, though, more detail can be obtained from carefully processing RAW files than can be seen in the in-camera JPEGs. The Olympus E-PL2's JPEGs are very good straight from the camera, but it's surprising how much more detail is visible after processing in a good RAW converter. Take a look below, to see what we mean:

In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above, and clicking on the link will load the full resolution image.

As you can see, the Olympus Master 2.3 conversion resulted in an image very similar to the in-camera JPEG in terms of detail, color and contrast. The Adobe Camera Raw (version 6.3) conversion however contains more fine detail than the camera SuperFine JPEG or Olympus Master conversion at default settings, which is especially noticeable in the pine needles, though it does leave quite a bit more noise. (Default noise reduction settings were used, but ACR 6.3 doesn't officially support the E-PL2 yet and we got identical results from ACR 6.4rc, so future versions may still tweak default processing.) Nevertheless, like previous Olympus PEN cameras, the E-PL2 rewards RAW shooters with really excellent detail when using a good quality RAW converter.

ISO & Noise Performance
Low noise and very good detail up to ISO 400, moderate to high noise at higher ISOs, but good performance from a Four-Thirds sensor.

Default High ISO Noise Reduction
ISO 200 ISO 400 ISO 800
ISO 1,600 ISO 3,200 ISO 6,400

The Olympus E-PL2's images are quite clean and detailed at ISO 200, the base ISO. The E-PL2 performed the same or slighter better at ISO 200 than the E-PL1 did here. Detail is still very good at ISO 400, with just a bit more blurring and a hint more chroma noise creeping into the shadows. ISO 800 is quite a bit softer with more smudging due to stronger noise reduction, but detail is still pretty good for a Four Thirds sensor. At ISO 1,600, we see additional detail loss, as well as more obvious purple and yellow blotches in shadow areas. At ISO 3,200, noise grain is more visible blurring fine detail even further despite the weaker noise reduction. Noise and the effects of noise reduction are quite obvious ISO 6,400, obscuring almost all fine detail and making shadows quite purplish while lighter tones have yellow blotching. Overall color balance also became cooler, and colors less saturated at ISO 6,400. As always, see the Print Quality section below for maximum recommended print sizes at each ISO.

A note about focus for this shot: We shoot this image at f/4, using one of three very sharp reference lenses (70mm Sigma f/2.8 macro for most cameras, 60mm f/2.8 Nikkor macro for Nikon bodies without a drive motor, and Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/2.0 for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds bodies). To insure that the hair detail we use for making critical judgements about camera noise processing and detail rendering is in sharp focus at the relatively wide aperture we're shooting at, the focus target at the center of the scene is on a movable stand. This lets us compensate for front- or back-focus by different camera bodies, even those that lack micro-focus adjustments. This does mean, though, that the focus target itself may appear soft or slightly out of focus for bodies that front- or back-focused with the reference lens. If you click to view the full-size image for one of these shots and notice that the focus target is fuzzy, you don't need to email and tell us about it; we already know it. :-) The focus target position will simply have been adjusted to insure that the rest of the scene is focused properly.

Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
High resolution with good overall detail. The E-PL2's Auto Gradation feature resulted in good dynamic range, with few blown highlights. Good low-light performance, but metering struggled a bit at lower light levels.

+0.3 EV +0.7 EV +1.0 EV

Sunlight. The Olympus E-PL2 did fairly well with this shot, though more than the average amount of exposure compensation was required. The E-PL2 required +1.0 EV exposure compensation, and even then, the mannequin's face looks slightly dim and ruddy. Most cameras we've tested require about +0.7 EV for this "Sunlit" Portrait shot, so the E-PL2 required slightly higher than average positive compensation here. Dynamic range was actually pretty good with very few clipped highlights or lost shadows, though shadow noise was a bit high. (Compared some other cameras including earlier Olympus models, we prefer seeing a bit of noise in the shadows to the alternative of lots of detail lost due to noise suppression.) The good JPEG dynamic range performance was in part due to the camera overriding our Normal (default) Gradation setting to Auto in the above shots. We're not sure why this happened, but after resetting the camera, the Auto override was no longer occurring. (Auto Gradation divides the image into regions and performs local contrast adjustments to reduce brightness in areas that are too bright or increase brightness in areas that are too dark.)

Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)

Contrast Adjustment
The camera's contrast adjustment was some help in handling the harsh lighting in our Sunlit" Portrait and Far-field House shots.

Minimum Contrast
Contrast set to lowest,
+1.0 EV
Contrast set to lowest,
Auto Exposure

At its lowest contrast setting, the Olympus E-PL2 did a better job of preserving highlight detail and holding more in the shadows, while maintaining fairly natural-looking skin tones. There were just a few blown highlights to begin with in both these shots so the decreased contrast setting left most highlights alone, but it did bring out more shadow and darker midtone detail.

"Sunlit" Portrait Contrast Adjustment Examples
-2 0 +2

The shots above show the results of the minimum, default and maximum contrast settings. While you can see the extremes, it's pretty hard to evaluate small differences in contrast on small thumbnails like these, click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image. As you can see with the lowest contrast setting, highlights were toned-down a bit, while shadows and mid-tones were boosted. Good results here, though we wish the range at the low end was a little greater on the contrast setting.


Outdoor Portrait Gradation Comparison
Gradation
Setting:


Normal
(Default)



Low Key


Auto


High Key

Gradation
Similar to dynamic range optimization systems from other manufacturers, the Olympus E-PL2's Gradation setting applies local contrast adjustments in an attempt to preserve shadow detail and prevent highlight clipping with the Auto setting. Above are examples of the Normal (default), Low Key, Auto and High Key settings applied to our "Sunlit" Portrait shot. Mouse over the links to load the associated thumbnail and histogram, and click on the links to visit the full resolution image. As you can see, the Low Key setting applies Gradation for making subjects darker (in the thumbnail and histogram above, you can see that the camera shifted levels to the left, darkening the image dramatically), while the High Key setting does the opposite for brighter subjects (shifting levels to the right so that lighter tones are blown, but darker ones are opened up). The Auto setting did a good job at toning down highlights and bringing up darker midtones without making the image too flat-looking or washed-out.


Face Detection
Off at 0 EV On at 0 EV

Face Detection
Like most Point & Shoot cameras these days (and some DSLRs in Live View mode), the Olympus E-PL2 has the ability to detect faces, and adjust exposure and focus accordingly. The E-PL2 does it automatically in iAuto mode, when a Portrait scene mode is selected, or when Face Detection AF mode is selected. As you can see from the examples above, it really works, as the image with face detection enabled is much better exposed for the face without having to use exposure compensation. An excellent performance under very difficult lighting such as this.

Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)



  1 fc
11 lux
1/2 fc
5.5 lux
1/4 fc
2.7 lux
1/8 fc
1.3 lux
1/16 fc
0.67 lux
1/16fc
No NR
ISO
200
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1 sec
f2.8
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2 sec
f2.8
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4 sec
f2.8
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8 sec
f2.8
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15 sec
f2.8
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15 sec
f2.8
ISO
400
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0.5 sec
f2.8
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1 sec
f2.8
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2 sec
f2.8
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4 sec
f2.8
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8 sec
f2.8
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8 sec
f2.8
ISO
800
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1/4 sec
f2.8
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0.5 sec
f2.8
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1 sec
f2.8
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2 sec
f2.8
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4 sec
f2.8
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4 sec
f2.8
ISO
1600
Click to see EPL2LL16003.JPG
1/8 sec
f2.8
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1/4 sec
f2.8
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0.5 sec
f2.8
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1 sec
f2.8
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2 sec
f2.8
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2 sec
f2.8
ISO
3200
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1/15 sec
f2.8
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1/8 sec
f2.8
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1/4 sec
f2.8
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0.5 sec
f2.8
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1 sec
f2.8
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1 sec
f2.8
ISO
6400
Click to see EPL2LL64003.JPG
1/30 sec
f2.8
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1/15 sec
f2.8
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1/8 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL2LL64006.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL2LL64007.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see EPL2LL64007XNR.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8

Low light. The Olympus E-PL2 exposure metering struggled a bit in our low light test. We had to resort to trial and error in manual mode to get the exposure right at the dimmest light level, then adjusted shutter speed to match the increase in light at successively higher levels. Noise is well controlled up to ISO 800, though there are a few hot pixels visible here and there. (The PEN E-PL2 does offer pixel mapping, so hot/dead pixels can be mapped out without a trip to a service center.) A lot of bright pixels (we wouldn't call them "hot") are however visible when long exposure noise reduction is turned off at lower ISOs, but they blend into the noise "grain" at ISOs above 800. (Note: we've reshot these with Normal Gradation, as the previous set with Auto Gradation produced bright noise pixels at some lower ISOs with NR On, similar to what we still see with NR set to Off.) White balance is fairly neutral, with a slightly warm, reddish cast. There doesn't appear to be any significant banding at any ISO when properly exposed.

The camera's autofocus system was able to focus on the subject down to below the 1/16 foot-candle light level unassisted, which is very good for a camera using contrast-detect autofocus. The Olympus E-PL2 unfortunately does not have a built-in focus assist lamp.

How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.

NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Thanks to their phase-detect AF systems, digital SLRs tend to do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects. The E-PL2 uses contrast-detect autofocus, as is found in most point & shoot cameras, so its low-light focusing ability is less than that of most SLRs with phase-detect systems. That said, though, the larger, more sensitive pixels of the E-PL2's sensor do better under dim lighting than do the tiny pixels of most point & shoots, (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)

Output Quality

Print Quality

Great 16x20 inch prints; ISO 1,600 prints look good at 13x19 inches; ISO 6,400 images print well at 5x7.

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.

 

Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 Mark II studio printer, and the Canon Pixma MP610 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II review for details on that model.)

 

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