The Micro Four Thirds format has been kicking around for a few years, and it’s really hitting its stride in 2011. For those that are still unfamiliar, Micro Four Thirds is the most popular format of mirrorless camera. Mirrorless cameras like the Micro Four Thirds-format Olympus PEN E-PL2, reviewed here, are interchangeable-lens systems with big sensors for great image quality, but without the pentaprism mirror or mirror box that make full-fledged dSLRs so bulky.
These hybrids started out as a bit of a novelty -- the kind of still-maturing “next big thing” that only enthusiastic early adopters would buy. But starting with the Olympus PEN E-PL1 in 2010, mirrorless makers turned their attention toward the casual compact crowd. The bodies and price tags shrank, while the interfaces transformed into simplified, button-based affairs.
The PEN E-PL2 is one of the latest compact mirrorless models, also aimed right at the mass market. It’s only an incremental improvement over its predecessor, but still a lovable and effective camera. Read on to see why.
Body and Design
The PEN E-PL2’s throwback rangefinder aesthetic is an attractive alternative to the utilitarian dSLR look. It’s telling that other manufacturers have started aping the retro look, too. The E-PL2 is boxier than the more expensive E-P2, but a bit more contoured than the E-PL1 model. It’s predominantly plastic, too, but that’s to be expected at this price. In general, the weight and dimensions are midway between a compact camera and a dSLR, leaning toward the smaller end of the spectrum, like a chunky travel zoom. It’s worth noting however, that it’s still a little bit too big to fit in a pocket, even when it's equipped with a low-profile pancake lens.
The interface is likewise laid out more like a compact camera than a dSLR. A 3-inch, 460,000-pixel LCD takes up most of the rear panel, and just a few buttons comprise the rest of the interface. Crucially, there’s a selection wheel instead of a four-way selector, which makes navigation and settings adjustments much easier than they had been on the E-PL1. There are dedicated keys for playback mode, deleting shots, two function buttons (by default, they’re set for live-view zooming to check details or critical focus, and focus-point selection), Info mode, one-touch video recording, and menu access. Up top, from right to left, there’s a power toggle, shutter button, mode dial, hot-shoe accessory port, and a pop-up flash with a manual release.
Casual point-and-shoot users should feel pretty comfortable, though more hands-on users might find the lack of direct access keys quite limiting. There is no built-in viewfinder, though the accessory port accepts an electronic viewfinder for users who prefer eye-level composition. Anyone who shoots frequently in broad daylight would be well-served by the EVF.
The E-PL2 kit comes with a redesigned 14-42mm (28-84mm equivalent) f/3.5-5.6 lens. It’s noticeably smaller and quieter than the kit lens included with previous PEN models, which is nothing to scoff at. The E-PL2 has in-body image stabilization, so lenses don't need IS. This helps keep long-term costs down, because buyers won't need to plunk down the extra cash for stabilized lenses in the future. We won’t delve into the lenses here (though we did really like the 40-150mm f/4-5.6 superzoom that Olympus included in our review kit), but it’s worth noting that Micro Four Thirds lens selection has come a long way in just a few years. The selection is sure to become even more exciting now that third-party manufacturers like Carl Zeiss have announced plans for MFT lenses. And the MFT mount is perhaps the most versatile in the world, able to accept (with an adapter) just about any lens that’s ever been produced.
If there's a flaw in the E-PL2's construction, it's the sense that there were some cost-cutting measures taken, but that's probably unavoidable at this price point. And the cuts aren't as egregious as they were on the E-PL1, which retailed for the same $600 when it was launched. All cameras at this price are predominantly plastic, but this particular finish looks a bit lackluster, and shows fingerprints particularly well. The camera also lacks an orientation sensor, which feels like a cheap shot. It makes it ever so slightly more irritating to share pictures right out of the camera, and probably wouldn't have cost very much to include in the body. We're just nitpicking, though.
Performance and User Experience
The E-PL2 looks like a compact, and handles like a compact too. It’s easy to pick it up, set it to iAuto, and shoot to your heart’s content with solid results. iAuto allows for some simplified settings adjustments with very novice-friendly names like Change Color Saturation, Change Color Image, or Blur Background as a few examples. There are also in-camera shooting tips to help newbies handle the camera with grace. While it isn’t as fleshed-out as Nikon’s in-camera Guide Mode, for example, it’s never a bad thing to have some built-in tutorials.
As expected for a pro-sumer camera, the E-PL2 provides a full range of manual modes: Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual. White balance, ISO sensitivity, autofocus type, light metering, exposure compensation, noise reduction, and many other specialized settings are all adjustable, too.
A handful of art filters apply cool effects like saturated colors or a pinhole effect, which are all nice and fine and fun to use. Users can apply two at once, and even use them in movie mode, but they do slow down the performance.
The E-PL2 lacks some in-camera niceties that are becoming commonplace -- automatic high dynamic range (HDR) shooting, for example -- but they don't affect its ability to take great pictures. Users will just have to do some more post-processing if they want to achieve those looks.
It can be a bit cumbersome to fiddle with the settings since the interface is mainly menu-based, though as mentioned, the selection wheel is a huge help. To bring up the comparison again, the E-PL2 interface has a lot in common with that of a travel zoom. That's perfect for users moving up from fixed-lens all-in-one camera, but it's a step below from the nimble navigation of a dSLR, or even higher-end mirrorless cameras like the E-P2 or Panasonic GH2.
In general, responsiveness is satisfactory. Startup time is snappy (though not stellar) and menus respond to inputs quickly. Shot-to-shot times are minimal, as long as the autofocus cooperates. Continuous shooting churns out a modest but effective 3 frames per second, though for RAW shooting, it maxes out at 10 frames.
Autofocus is decently fast with the kit lens, certainly faster than what the original kit lens was capable of and very nimble for a live-view camera. But because it lacks a mirror for phase-detection autofocus, some lag is inherent to this kind of camera. There has been an obvious improvement since the first mirrorless models, though, and compared to a point-and-shoot, autofocus is very quick, so it’s a relative measurement, really.
The E-PL2 takes excellent pictures. Photo quality is the strongest feature on this camera. It far surpasses compact-camera quality and competes on the same level as entry-level and consumer dSLRs. Point-and-shooters who step up to the E-PL2 will be extremely pleased with still images, and enthusiasts and dSLR users will likely find that the quality makes up for some qualms that they have about the interface and performance.
Shots are crisp and detailed all the way through ISO 1600 (the Low or Standard setting for the noise filter seems to produce the most balanced results). Images at ISO 3200 are usable, and depending on your tolerance, ISO 6400 might work. Dynamic range is handled quite well, too, with subtleties in highlights and shadows coming out nicely, without much user effort. The E-PL2 also supports RAW capture for users who prefer a more hands-on approach.
For anyone who has followed the development of the Four Thirds sensor, it's impressive how well Olympus has adapted this sensor over the years. It's smaller than the APS-C sensor found in most compacts and even Samsung's mirrorless models. But this latest iteration of the 12.3 megapixel Live MOS handles noise and the dynamic range better than most similarly priced cameras, even if they are big-sensor dSLRs like the Nikon D3100. And it blows the performance of the Panasonic GF2, its closest Micro Four Thirds competitor, out of the water by a long shot.
Like most cameras, even though iAuto does produce good shots the majority of the time, the results can improve drastically when users tinker with manual settings. One issue we rean into is that iAuto tends to ramp up the ISO level to 1600 in even slightly low light. The E-PL2 does handle ISO 1600 quite well, and users can set a ceiling of ISO 800 if they want, but we got richer, more striking shots when we experimented with manual exposure modes in dim lighting. The in-body stabilization is a decent buffer against hand-shake, too, which opens up more possibilities for hand-held shooting.
Our biggest pet peeve is the E-PL2's tendency to add a yellow cast to indoor shots with Automatic White Balance enabled. The E-PL1 did this, too, so we're not surprised, and sometimes it adds a pleasant warmness to the shots. But for best results, experiment with white balance presets, or set it yourself.
Video mode is fine, but seems like a bit of an afterthought. While 1080p resolution is almost a prerequisite for any video mode that wants to be taken seriously, the PEN E-PL2 sticks with the same 720p resolution as its predecessor. Even so, Olympus filmed a television commercial with the PEN E-PL1, so it's good enough for the E-PL2 as well. But in any case, video mode is not one of the camera's main selling points.