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Review – Olympus E-PL2 Digital PEN Micro 4/3 Interchangeable Lens Camera Kit

Olympus E-PL2 with M.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f/3.5-f/5.6 II Zoom Lens

This is a long, overdue review as the Olympus E-PL2 wtth 14-42mm kit lens set has already been replaced recently by the newer Olympus E-PL3, but still, better late than never.

The Olympus E-PL2 is a natural successor to the Olympus E-PL1, Olympus’ second micro 4/3 interchangeable electronic view finder camera, offering a smaller size and a pop-up flash as opposed to the original, ground-breaking Olympus Digital PEN E-P1.

The Olympus E-PL2 boasts the following changes over the E-PL1:

  • Enhanced ergonomics through the use of more standard buttons and dials
  • A 3:2 ratio, 3″ LCD with 460K resolution
  • Faster max shutter speed (1/4000) and x-sync (1/180)
  • Auto-focus face/eye detection
  • ISO range up to 6400
  • Art Filter add-on features
  • Provision for Olympus RM-UC1 Cable Remote
  • Much improved 14-42mm kit lens with “Movie and Still Compatible” auto-focus

Key Specifications

Construction
Body Material Aluminum + Plastic
Lens Mount Micro Four Thirds
Sensor
Type TruePic V Live MOS sensor
Resolution 12.3 Megapixels
Native Aspect Ratio 4:3 / 17.3mm x 13mm
Sensor Cleaning Supersonic Wave Filter
LCD and Live View
LCD Type and Size HyperCrystal LCD – 3-inches
Resolution 460,000 dots
Adjustments +/- 7 levels
Recording Formats
RAW 12-bit
RAW + JPEG Simultaneous Capable
JPEG
Aspect Ratio 4:3 / 3:2 / 16:9 / 6:6
Movie AVI Motion JPEG®
HD Movie Resolution HD 1280 x 720 (16:9)
SD Movie Resolution SD 640 x 480 (4:3)
Frame rate 30 frame/sec
Max Recording Time 7 mins. in HD / 14 mins. in SD
Max File Size 2GB
Image Sizes (Approximate)
RAW 4032 x 3042 – 14MB
JPEG 4032 x 3042 Fine – 5.9MB
4032 x 3042 Normal – 2.7MB
2560 x 1920 Normal – 1.1MB
1024 x 768 Normal – 0.3MB
Internal Flash
Guide Number 7 (ISO 100)
Modes FP Manual, TTL-Auto, Off
External Flash Control
Max Sync Speed 1/180
High Speed Sync (Super FP) 1/4000
Adjustable Yes, +/1 3EV at 1/3, 1/2, or full stops
Wireless Flash Control Yes
Channels 4
Compatible External Flash Olympus FL-50R, FL-36R
Groups 3
Interface
Memory Media SD Memory Card (SDHC and SDXC Compatible) Class 6 Recommended for Movies
Connection Accessory Port 2
HDMI Yes (mini Type C connector)
USB 2.0 High Speed
Combined USB + Video Out Yes, NTSC/PAL
Sound Recording 
Internal Microphone Mono
External Microphone Ready Yes
Recording Format Stereo PCM 16-bit, 44kHz, WAV
Power Supply 
Battery Olympus BLS-5 Li-Ion
Sleep Mode 1, 3, 5, 10 minutes + off
Battery Capacity 280 Images with 50% flash usage
~500 Images with no flash
Size
Dimensions (WxHxD) 115.4 x 72.7 x 42mm (no protrusions)
Weight 362 grams with battery and memory card

Olympus E-PL2 – What’s In The Box

  • Olympus E-PL2 body
  • M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 II Black
  • BLS-5 Battery
  • BCS-5 Battery Charger
  • Body cap
  • Shoulder Strap
  • CB-USB6 USB Cable
  • CB-AVC3 Audio/Video cable
  • Operating Instructions
  • Warranty Card
  • Olympus Viewer 2 Software CD-ROM

Olympus E-PL2 Review-1

Exterior and Handling

I’ll go ahead and cover the review with the assumption that you haven’t used any of the Olympus Digital PEN cameras before so it’ll save me time from doing cross-product comparisons.

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The subtle grip protrusion with a fake leather feel on the grip of the Olympus E-PL2 offers very secure grip even for larger hands. Although I still dislike the ‘ear’ latches for the strap as they do get in the way most of the time.

The Olympus E-PL2 is no larger than most ‘bridge’ fixed lens camera like a Canon G series, Nikon P series, or equivalent camera with the exception of the lens protruding a little more than bridge cameras.

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The Olympus E-PL2 has a very high quality feel. The gaps and tolerances between panels are very solid and exhibits little to no flex or loose-fill. The camera body uses both aluminum and plastic materials for the outer shell, making it feel quite ‘serious’ instead of the light, plasticky feel on most smaller cameras (or even entry-level DSLRs).

The top portion of the Olympus E-PL2 is very straight-forward and clean in design. You’ll find the shutter and power button as well as the mode dial as the main controls on top. The pop-up flash is nicely hidden and the hotshoe is covered by a nice-looking cover as well.

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A 3″ 4:3 ratio LCD with 460K resolution dominates the rear panel with eight buttons, a 4-way rocker/dial controller, speaker and a flash switch occupying the rest of the space at the back.

The side covers the input panels for USB and HDMI, while the bottom houses the battery and memory card. Note that the tripod socket is slightly off-center to the camera lens mount.

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The Olympus E-PL2 hotshoe cover can be removed to reveal a port for the Olympus VF-2 Electronic ViewFinder, which allows you to use the small attachment for image composition instead of the full LCD at the back, also allowing you to shoot more traditionally with one eye viewing through a viewfinder instead of the full screen at the back.

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Display and Menu

The LCD on the Olympus E-PL2 is very good and suits the camera well.

While it lacks the touch-screen and swivel function of its rivals, it’s still very useful because of the overall size of the camera. When using the Olympus E-PL2 outdoors, it can get a little washed out when the sun is bright.

Using a screen hood like the Rainbow Imaging LCD Pop-Up Screen Hood Cover can be a big lifesaver if you shoot outdoors often. That applies to any non-DSLR cameras, however.

The menu system of Olympus offers TONS (yes, the bold and underline are intentional!) of options, especially when you move out of the auto and scene modes.

I feel that it’s still way too much information for a menu-based system (lacking in physical buttons) and the relatively non-standard naming conventions of Olympus menus make it difficult to navigate and understand without a user manual on hand.

The all the menu items on the Olympus E-PL2 are controlled via the combo 4-way jog dial and thumb wheel, which is a good thing.

However, due to the size and light touch of the wheel, making quick and precise selections is a challenge, particularly if your thumb is larger than a child’s. Still, I’d choose this over a touch-screen system.

Battery Life

The new BLS-5 battery is practically the same battery as the older BLS-1 with some subtle contacts changes due to its “smart battery” classification. That also means that the price of the BLS-5 got pushed up compared to the BLS-1, which is not that good news for users as you will need to buy at least one more battery if you plan to travel with the Olympus E-PL2.

As with most cameras that lack an optical viewfinder like a DSLR, the Olympus E-PL2 LCD drains a lot of battery whenever the screen is on for framing or reviewing images.

You’ll need to pack a spare when you don’t have an outlet available all the time. As with most ‘smart’ batteries, I strongly suggest you purchase an original Olympus BLS-5 Lithium-Ion Rechargeable Battery instead of 3rd-party ones.

Image Quality

Overall, the image quality of the Olympus E-PL2 is very good, especially with the new kit lens. Dynamic range is good, colors are vivid but natural in “Standard” and “Muted” modes as well, as long as you stay under ISO 800.

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Metering is exceptional on the Olympus E-PL2 even when you left all settings at default. These outdoor sea/shore images were shot at near noon (about 10:30AM in Singapore) and the exposure are bang-on, and most of these shots are taken using the iAuto mode.

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The images are sharp and well rendered with very low image flaws such as fringing on high-contrast edges.

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Art Filters

Try to avoid the silly “Art Filter” modes on the Olympus E-PL2 (or any Olympus products) if at all possible. These ‘filters’ are quite tacky and destroys whatever image quality the camera and lens can provide, not to mention it is incredibly slow to respond both while composing via the LCD or during file writing.

While they may be fun to use the first couple of weeks, but it’s best that you have a clean, ‘unprocessed’ original JPEG image then work on these Art Filter effects on your computer rather than capturing your original with these filters on.

In my opinion, these should be left on consumer-level pocket cameras with the exception of Olympus’ excellent black & white Art Filter mode.

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Grainy Film

White Balance

In outdoor conditions, the Auto White Balance setting on the Olympus E-PL2 works very well, even in parks or gardens where green foliage dominates. However, like most camera systems, it struggles greatly in artificial light, particularly tungsten. Luckily, the preset white balance settings make quick work in correcting WB.

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Auto WB

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Lamp WB Preset

ISO

Noise control on the Olympus E-PL2 is very similar to other Olympus releases recently, which means clean images from base ISO 200 to about 400, beyond that, it falls behind most DSLRs but still usable up to 1600.

The issue I do have with Olympus PEN series’ noise handling is the noise reduction feature where even the ‘off’ setting applies some noise reduction to the JPEG images. It’s best to leave the noise reduction settings at “Low” for a good balance between noise reduction in the shadows and detail retention as “Standard” and “High” tends to smear the images quite a bit.

Another issue I found, while not uncommon, is the color shift on images, particularly shadows as early as ISO 800. The dynamic range decreases when you increase the ISO, particularly at the upper end of the ISO range.

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ISO 200

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ISO 800

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ISO 3200

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ISO 6400

In decent light, however, the ISO 1600 range on the Olympus E-PL2 is still usable, particularly for web use and smaller print. The image below was shot at ISO 1600.

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ISO 1600

Auto Focus

A big improvement over the older Digital PEN series, the Olympus E-PL2’s auto focus system, paired with the new Zuiko 14-42mm II kit lens turns the Olympus E-PL2 to a proper, serious enthusiast camera.

While it’s still not close to a DSLR’s auto-focus system, it’s still very fast and it can keep up with most subject matter short of head-on, high-speed tracking.

No longer does the kit lens rack in-and-out every time you half-press the shutter button for AF lock, the new combination snaps focus as it should.

Low light focusing can be tricky at times with the kit lens since the Olympus E-PL2 still stubbornly lacks an AF-assist lamp for low-light shooting, however, it’s a HUGE leap in performance compared to the E-PL1 and E-P1.

The nice thing about this new lens is the ability for it to acquire focus when shooting in movie mode. Dubbed the “Movie and Still Compatible” (MSC) feature, the Olympus E-PL2 and the new kit lens allow you to re-acquire focus using the half-press shutter button during movie capture.

Here’s a quick sample on how the AF works in movie mode:

The lens’ AF motor is whisper silent and isn’t audible in the recorded video even when you’re selecting from near-limit to infinity focus points. This is a great feature on the Olympus E-PL2 compared to most DSLRs where only manual focus can be used.

Lens Characteristics

The new Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II kit zoom lens is very good and versatile. With the Micro 4/3 sensor rendering a 2x crop factor, the kit lens’ effective field of view is 28-84mm on a standard 35mm camera, typical of most kit lenses even on DSLRs.  The best thing about this kit lens is definitely the silent internal focusing motor. Which is a rarity on any kit lens.

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14mm

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42mm

The lens renders details well and offers good contrast to most scenes. As with most kit lenses, the center performance is pretty darn good all the way to f/8, however, edge performance suffers greatly unless you’re within the f/6.3-f/8 range, regardless of focal length.

If I must complain about anything serious, it would be the complex starburst flare pattern of the lens when a light source is within the frame, so be careful if you’re shooting with a strong light source such as backlit photos and night bokeh-induced photos.

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In terms of distortion, at 14mm, barrel distortion is very noticeable, but that’s common for most kit lenses. Beyond 28mm range, the distortion is practically non-existent.

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Distortion at 14mm

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Distortion at 42mm

Close Focus is decent for the kit lens, but nothing unusual. Here are two samples based on the minimum focus distance at 14mm and 42mm, respectively. You can add standard close-up lenses or a Raynox macro lens if you want to go macro on a budget.

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Maximum magnification at 14mm

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Maximum magnification at 42mm

You can see the lens’ performance up-close is not too shabby at all (this is a pineapple, by the way).

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Movie Mode

I must apologize for any movie section of cameras reviewed on David’s Simple Photography as I’m not a videographer at all and it’ll be a disservice if I expressed any opinions about movie quality beyond what I mentioned about focus mode above.

Flash

The main difference between the E-PL series to the E-P (1 & 2) is the provision of a pop-up flash for the E-PL series. The Olympus E-PL2’s pop-up flash can be opened manually using a hard switch at the upper-left corner of the back panel. The flash pops up very authoritatively and snaps back tightly when closed, it doesn’t feel flimsy or easily broken off, it seems.

As with any small, pop-up flash unit, the power is very limited and the lighting pattern is very flat since it’s so close to the lens’ axis. However, I do have to commend the Olympus E-PL2 for offering not only the usual full-auto, red-eye reduction, slow sync (rear curtain) flash option for the pop-up flash, but it also offers full manual power adjustment as well.

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A bigger problem I see with such a small flash positioned at the extreme end of the camera body is coverage. Let’s take a look at the images below to address both the flash position and metering of the flash as well.

In terms of metering, the Olympus E-PL2 flash tends to get fooled easily if you didn’t use flash exposure lock. In this instance, the image is underexposed due to the white wall, but it underexposed by almost 1.5 stops despite the dark horse in the middle of the frame.

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Adding some flash exposure compensation (+1.5) rectified the under exposure, but it also shows us the problem with the flash’s position.

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Since the flash is positioned towards the extreme left of the Olympus E-PL2 and it actually protrudes a little farther than the camera’s sensor plane, you can clearly see that the right side of the image is at almost a stop darker than the left.

The small flash of the Olympus E-PL2 just cannot cover the entire sensor even if the lens was zoomed-in as in this photo. The problem is more obvious at wider angles.

Granted that most pop-up flash illumination is hardly optimal to begin with, I’ll let this one slide.

Having said that, I do recommend that you purchase an external flash as you can bounce the flash for better light control as well as save your precious camera battery life as well. I don’t advice purchasing the Olympus FL-14 Flash that was launched for these Digital PENs as it’s nothing more than a larger pop-up flash. It can’t swivel and doesn’t offer enough power to begin with.

Instead, I strongly suggest getting an Olympus FL-36R or Nissin Speedlite Di 466 for Micro 4/3 cameras instead as they’re a lot more powerful and cheap too. I don’t advice getting the top-of-the-line Olympus FL-50R as it’s too big and defeats the purpose of a small Micro 4/3 system.

Conclusion

I find the Olympus E-PL2 a very good option for both a first-time interchangeable lens camera buyer moving up from a point-and-shoot camera, as well as a lightweight travel companion of any advanced photography enthusiast.

The combination of size, price, ability to change lenses, near-DSLR performance and more than acceptable image quality makes the Olympus E-PL2 an easy choice.

While it doesn’t have the visual appeal of its more expensive sibling, the E-P2, the E-PL1 boasts a better package and build quality as well as the inclusion of a flash unit and lower price.

The kit lens does not disappoint and should serve most photographers well enough to make you resist buying more lenses, except for the expensive but stellar Panasonic LUMIX G 20mm f/1.7 prime lens.

I would strongly suggest buying a flash for those ‘just-in-case’ dark moments where good light is needed so you can utilize the higher ISO range of the E-PL2 better.  Overall, I can give the Olympus E-PL2 a 7.5/10 stars, but don’t forget that as of this article’s writing, Olympus already announced the new Olympus E-PL3, and based on the initial specifications and previews, it’s worth the wait.

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