Olympus, along with Panasonic, helped to create the Micro Four Thirds standard and now they’ve attempted to perfect it with their new model that improves both on the predecessors and other cameras in their lineup—it even includes the same 16 megapixel sensor as their flagship model, the OM-D E-M5.
But for their fourth update to the PEN line, the Olympus E-PL5, combines a compact body and a wide range of features that make it perfect for professionals who want to leave their bulkier DSLRs at home but still want high-quality results. The sacrifices are the same as those you’ll face with many pocket cameras—there is no optical viewfinder, and in low light conditions you’re likely to find noise to be an issue.
Compared with top-end pocket cameras, like the recently reviewed Nikon Coolpix P7700, we were impressed with the performance-to-price ratio. The PEN E-PL5 might not be the smallest or lightest camera, but it is one of the fastest—in fact, they claim that it offers the world’s fastest auto-focus system.
Olympus E-PL5: Body And Design
The feature list is solid:
• 16MP Four Thirds sensor
• Touch-sensitive screen
• Full HD video with stereo sound
• 460k dot 3" LCD screen (16:9 aspect ratio)
• In-body image stabilization
• ISO 200-25,600
• Up to 8fps continuous shooting
• RAW file processing with presets
• AP2 accessory port for accessories such as an electronic viewfinder
In the box, you not only get the camera body, but a kit lens—a small and slightly plasticky 14-42mm. We were also surprised at the inclusion of a separate hot-shoe flash, which comes complete with a cute case. You’ll likely forget it at home—but as there is no pop-up flash on the body itself, if you need extra light then this one is handy and easy-to-use. Olympus also included an optional screw-in grip, which adds some nice texture to the front, making it easier to hold.
The controls are fairly simple—a single primary dial on top, plus a scroll wheel and a few major buttons handle the major functions, and there is a dedicated movie recording button. As usual, the scroll wheel is a bit finicky and user reactions were mixed.
|The controls on the Olympus are easy to use and access.|
The LCD screen deserves some special attention—unlike many models, it doesn’t swivel and fold. This would have been nice—you can protect your screen against scratches—but the compromise is interesting. It folds out on a pair of hinges, thankfully solid ones, but with some restrictions and a limited range that made it confusing at first. You’re able to get a better viewing angle, especially helpful during daylight shooting, and you can even switch it to face forward for use while taking self-portraits. But the screen doesn’t lock or stay completely flat and the slight wiggle is distracting, especially on a touch screen.
|The Olympus PEN E-PL5 screen folds out using a hinge-like system instead of a swivel.|
Olympus E-PL5: User Experience and Performance
Right out of the box, the Olympus PEN E-PL5 doesn’t make an incredibly great first impression. In fact, one major downside of the lens is that it requires you to unlock it first. Powering on the camera and removing the lens cap isn’t enough, you also have to twist the lens manually as well. This takes a couple of seconds, and if you leave the lens extended, it takes up a fair bit of extra space (adding almost an extra third to the width) and also makes the unit feel a little breakable.
But once you start shooting, the lens issues take a backseat. This is speedy, lovely camera that requires very little effort to create excellent results. There are a few weaknesses—the white balance can be off, and we found some colors to be blown out and unnatural—but for the size, it offers a DSLR-like experience that is hard to come by.
There is little noticeable shutter delay, and about an impressively short two second period to take, save, and process a RAW shot. Battery life is quite good, rated at 360 shots, 10% more than the E-PL3. We appreciated that Eye-Fi cards are not only supported, but boosted with an onscreen icon and menu items specially for their functions. Plus, the camera will stay on until wireless transfers are complete.
|The Olympus Pen E-PL5 doesn't require much effort to capture stunning images.|
We did have some qualms about the power button—it’s too close to the shutter, and more than once, when we handed the camera over to a novice they pressed the wrong button. Also, we did notice accidental shutter releases while the camera was powered on and being carried around—an oddity that we couldn’t replicate on demand but did happen on two or three occasions and led to sets of random, blurry images.
The touchscreen offers a few fun features—lots of color tweaking options, and the ability to press to focus or even capture an image. But, for the most part, we found it an unnecessary addition, as it’s fairly slow and not quite responsive enough to be readily usable.
One nice thing about the flash is the multiple modes: auto, red-eye reduction, slow sync or 2nd curtain, fill-in, and manual. In addition to the external unit, the Olympus E-PL5 also has a hot-shoe for other flashes. Plus, the new image stabilization system works impressively well, even when shooting on the fly at slow shutter speeds.
The Olympus E-PL5 produced images of excellent quality. Colors are vibrant, only rarely dipping into oversaturation, and the camera’s dynamic range is very good. From ISO 200 through to ISO 1600, noise is virtually undetectable, and even ISO 3200 and 6400 have only limited noise. It’s only at the upper range, 12800 and 25600, that noise becomes visible and a potential issue.
|Colors are vibrant with the Olympus PEN E-PL5, but on rare occasions are oversaturated.|
We did notice that the E-PL5 would vary widely in lighting adjustments and white balance depending on where we focused—note the two building images taken moments apart from the exact same location, with very little change in external conditions.
Overall, images were sharp, crisp, and worthy of the price tag. The kit lens had some slight issues with only minimal distortion at the upper and lower ends of the zoom range.
Olympus E-PL5: Conclusion
Olympus has created a fairly unique camera, taking the essential DNA of the PEN series and pushing forward on image quality and speed. There are some quirks here—the touch screen isn’t necessary and the tilt mechanism not fully-baked. You may love the scroll wheel, or dislike it, but the control scheme isn’t bad and menus are for the most part intuitive. Any downsides are relatively minor though, considering the snappy focus and solid, satisfying shutter and body. The images are good enough to compare with most DSLRs, in a body a fraction of the size and weight. An included external flash is a nice touch, and the kit lens a perfect starter model—plus, you can always switch it out, unlike with a regular pocket camera. Even considering the $600 price tag, the E-PL5 is one of the best Micro Four Thirds camera on the market.