When I head out the door to shoot I usually have a Pen camera configured like this.
The VF-2 electronic finder is not an optional accessory to me. It should be part of every package.
It's small, light and unobtrusive. Perfect for the street.
Ergonomics. When you read through this keep in mind that I'm five feet, eight inches tall and have medium sized hands. If the camera feels just right to me it probably won't matter to you if you are six foot, six inches tall and have hands like big baseball gloves. Go to a store and handle it yourself if you know your build falls outside the general norm. Some people like big cameras and some like small cameras. If you are considering the EPL2 I hope you've sorted yourself into the second category.
A word about payola and full disclosure. What did I hope to get out of writing this review besides a little ego boost and the chance to decide whether or not I want to buy one of these before everyone else? Well......I want Olympus to give me a Porsche and it's okay if they put their logo on the back bumper. As long as the logo type is no bigger than twelve points. In the real world the best that I can hope for is Olympus to give me a hearty handshake, perhaps a mousepad or a pen and the vague promise to let me review something in the future. I'll have this camera and lens boxed up and back in the Federal Express to them this coming Friday. Ultimately I hope you'll like the writing and be predisposed to buy a book or two of mine in the future.
Another happy benefit might be that you click thru a link to Amazon and buy something. If you click thru from my blog I'll get a small amount of money and you'll pay no more or less. But for all intents and purposes I'm putting this out there for free and that's the extent of my disclosures. I make the bulk of my income from photography assignments and I can't think of very many clients who come here to read about the latest cameras. I wish. So enjoy. Let's get started.
I passed on the EP1 camera, the first of the new Pens, for one reason: No electronic or optical viewfinder, and no provision to add an electronic one on. I've spent decades looking through viewfinders and I can't get used to using a rear screen as a focusing and compositional tool unless the whole deal is locked down on a tripod and I've got a loupe with me to block out the surrounding light. I bought the EP2 because it had the EVF and it was very beautiful. Of all the Pen cameras it feels the best in my hand, and, truthfully, it's the one I like to shoot with the most. Here's the rub: While the EP2 is the best designed and has the right heft the EPL1 obviously has a better sensor implementation. It's sharper and cleaner (in the image files) than the EP1 or the EP2 and it was priced so well I couldn't help myself.....I snapped one up. And less than a year later, along comes the EPL2. Styling that looks more like the EP2 but performance like the EPL1. Throw in a better screen and........?
The smaller sensor means that the lenses have different angles of view relative to what fussy old timers are used to from the 35mm days. Ostensibly, smaller lenses are easier to design and manufacture so that should mean good glass at a lower cost.
Why did Olympus create the Four Thirds and then the micro Four Thirds standards? Because in the early days of sensor design and manufacture it was ruinously expensive to make bigger sensors because the failure rate in manufacturing was so high. The catering analogy is caviar. You might get some on your deviled eggs or on your sushi but the unit cost would break a restaurant if they decided to chunk a few ounces on every plate. A bigger sensor is still more expensive and it still requires bigger optics but now we have choices again. Just like the film days we can choose a day in day out format that works well for everything that will go into electronic media ( the smaller than 35mm frame size) or we can choose cameras with sensors that are the same size as a frame of 35mm film and now more or less take the place of the medium format cameras of the film era, or we can take the bitter and frightening plunge and grab for all the gusto of a medium format digital system (for around the price of a nice car) and have the ultimate in resolution and dynamic range. 80 megapixels anyone?
But the thing that attracts me to smaller cameras is the same thing that led photojournalists to gravitate to 35mm for the bulk of their work with film: They are the perfect fit for most of the media they'll serve. I've made the point before that, with current HD TV standards, and iPad-like tablet sizes, the maximum most of us need to deliver to clients is 12 megapixels. And, indeed, that still gives us lots of room to crop with quality to spare. I make a pretty definitive demarcation between my two main camera systems. The full frame Canons are for paying jobs and my collection of Olympus Pen cameras and lenses is for art and play. And it's nice, as a working pro, to have that division. I play more with my art cameras. I get all technical and detail oriented with my work cameras.
Chef from the W Hotel taking a break. Shot downtown while walking around for fun. I'll remove the orange cone if I decide to use the image for something else....
I've owned lots of different compact cameras and while they are really pretty darn good there are three things that have made me divest most of them and stick with bigger, more robust cameras. 1. They are pretty noisy at every setting over ISO 200 and the noise processing makes them look sloppy and unsharp. 2. They shoot too slow. When I've used them in raw the buffers are too small and the focus is too slow. 3. You better like the lens the manufacturers put on the front because it's not coming off.
Ever since I picked up my first Leica rangefinder camera I've been intrigued with compact cameras that deliver great images. The Leica M series and the Leica CL were great in that they stripped photography down to its essence. They were small and subtle and yet the images that gushed out of them were superior to the bulky, motor driven Nikon F2's, F3's, and F5's of their day. And they were equally superior, when it came to on film performance compared to the professional Canons as well.
When I first picked up the EPL2 I hoped it would be the Leica of our era (never mind that Leica is still the "Leica" of our era....) but it's not. It's just a very, very good small camera that can accept a wide range of lenses and do a really great job generating very, very good 12 megapixel files.
The EPL2 is pretty perfectly sorted. It's a massive step up in flexibility and image quality from the fixed lens crowd. Under most shooting conditions it's in the same handling and quality ballpark as the under $1,000 traditional DSLR's like the Canon Rebels or the Nikon 3100's. At ISO 200, given good light and equivalent lenses I think you'd be hard pressed to see the difference between the cameras.
When I consider that the $5,000 Nikon D2x I bought in 2004 is in the same IQ ballpark as this $599 camera (with lens) I have to stop and consider how far we've come. And when I see how hard the EPL2 spanks the Nikon D2x at ISO 1600 I am actually amazed.
So let's delve into a comparative quality discussion. First I'd like to compare the performance of the EPL2 to the EPL1. In a nutshell......they are pretty much equal across the board. In sharpness, ISO performance and color rendition I would not be able to tell the difference on a full screen blow up on a 27 inch Apple monitor. While the EPL2 has higher ISO settings available it's really the same thing as taking a Honda Element and putting in a speedometer that goes to 160 MPH. Just because you have the setting doesn't mean the performance has changed. I'm sure there are small tweaks to the firmware between the two cameras but I've been told that the sensor chip set is identical. It's also the same sensor as is used on both the e620 and the e30 from Olympus. If you have the EPL1 and you are thinking of upgrading there are really only four reasons I can see to do so: 1. You like the styling better. 2. You always wanted a control dial on the back. 3. You don't plan on using the VF-2 electronic viewfinder so the screen real estate is important to you. 4. You like the "distressed" filter in the art filter pack.
I forgot, they've also added wireless flash control to the new model. You might want that too. (Although I always use mine as an available light camera.....). That's all the difference. So don't be persuaded that by trading in your EPL1 and getting an EPL2 that you are suddenly going to start shooting stuff at 6400 that looks like your older Pen at ISO 400. The guts that count are pretty much the same.
While the EPL2 is a good, all around art camera there are some things I wouldn't use it for based on my overall experience with the whole family of cameras, and this one in particular. I wouldn't use any of the Pens to shoot fast breaking action in low light. That last phrase is basically a euphemism for "WEDDINGS." While the files might work out well in terms of quality and color the slow, low light focusing will eat your lunch and crater your craft. If pressed into using the Pen cameras at a low light reception I'd default to a wide angle lens, stopped down to at least f8 and zoned focused in manual focus mode. Then I'd add auto flash and go to town. The shoot and review function and the focusing is too slow for action sports. Okay for outdoor swimming races but not football or soccer. While I can see improvement over the EP2 and even over the EPL1 it's still not anywhere near the same league as that of the Canon 1d series or even the Canon 7D or the Nikon D300s. Not close. Add to that the very limited selection (none) of fast optics and it's a collision course for a career change. But be rational, that's not what these cameras were made for.
Fadya. Taken in the studio with the EPL2 set to monochrome. Lens: 40-150mm mFT's. ISO 400. Lit by LED panels diffused thru a Chimera 4x4 panel.
Where these cameras shine is in day-to-day street photography, art photography, portraiture, still life and food photography. Any area where you aren't shooting at fast frame rates, under lousy conditions. In fact, it may be the perfect travel camera system. Small and light and yet extremely flexible, with lenses ranging from 7mm to 300 or more. And most of them small, light and sharp.
When we talk about ISO performance the first thing I want to do is compare it to two cameras I've been shooting for a while, the Canons 7D and 60D. They both share the same sensor although the 60D has newer firmware and maybe a newer processing chip.
At ISO 200 All three cameras are essentially noise free. In Jpeg files, straight out of the camera, everyone I've shown images to strongly prefers the color palette of the Olympus camera. Especially landscape photographers.
At ISO 400 the field is still even.
At ISO 800 you start to see a rising noise bed in all three cameras. With the menu setting for noise set to standard the EPL2 has the appearance of keeping up with the other cameras but on close inspection you see that the camera is starting to reduce sharpness in order to keep the appearance of noise low. The Canons have more detail overall and a lot of the difference is probably due to the bigger file sizes. In effect, when comparing between files you are reducing the noise when you reduce the overall file size in order to do a direct comparison. But that's one of the realities of the megapixel race.
At ISO 1600 the EPL starts to look more noise "treated" than the other two cameras. The 60D in particular still looks very good. The 7D has a definite grain noise in the shadows.
At ISO 3200 the EPL should just pick up the marbles it has left and go home. This is still a desperation setting for this camera. Use it for effect, or if aliens have landed in your back yard and they are sponsoring a chess game between Barrack Obama and Sarah Palin and you're the only photographer on the scene. And you left your flash at home. And....
There's a certain level of physics in play and, I think, some engineering decisions.
So, what do we have so far? Great camera for shooting in good to mediocre light. Great color in the Jpegs. The focus has been improved but it's still not in the uber-professional ballpark. The camera is small and beautiful. Let's move on.
The EPL2 is a stealth camera. It's got more flex and better imaging capablity than anything I could have bought for under $5000 just four years ago and yet you can wear it all day long without the camera becoming a burden.
It doesn't scream "professional camera" when you point it at a subject so you are less likely to be challenged by authorities or refused by cute girls or threatened by vicious bikers.
The camera does great work while flying under the radar in so many ways.
All of this devastatingly good imaging potential is hidden under a price tag that is eminently affordable by students, artists and even freelance photographers.
It's so un-intimidating that you can hand it to just about anyone, set to program, and they'll be able to take great images with it.
If you take it into a war zone and it is rendered asunder by bullets, bombs or bludgeons you'll be able to replace it without teetering on the edge of insolvency and insanity.
Whether you buy the EPL2 or the EPL1 or the EP2 you really need to consider getting the VF-2 viewfinder. While it's not the same as looking thru an really good optical finder it has its own charm and its own special powers. And it's the best of its kind. I have one for both of my Pen cameras. The finder uses a 1 million+ pixel density display and under almost all light conditions is bright and well color corrected vis-a-vis the final file. I like it because I can access the menu with the camera up to my eye, make changes, and never slow down my shooting.
Take exposure compensation, for instance. I can hit the top part of the rear control wheel (it acts like a series of buttons when you click at noon, three, six and nine) and the graphics for the compensation scale pop up in the bottom of the finder window. A click to the left or the right side of the wheel or a spin of the wheel in either direction gets you a 1/3 stop correction, plus or minus. Three clicks is one stop......and you can see the effect in the finder, real time, as you manipulate the control. It's not the iterative process you go thru on a DLSR. It actually guides you to the "right" compensation.
Ditto for color settings, AF point shifting and pretty much anything else you can access thru the "super panel control." People complain about the complexity of the scroll menu when setting up the camera but pretty much all of the most commonly used settings can be set on what Olympus calls the Super Control Panel . One push of the button inside the back wheel will pull up the SCP on either the external screen or right in the finder. Use the new control wheel on the back as a series of buttons (up, down, left, right) and you can quickly navigate thru the menu with ease. I can set the frame rate, the color setting and the files size without ever taking my eye from the EVF. Can I do that with my Canon 5Dmk2? Not a chance. Does it make shooting easier? Without a doubt.
|French Fries from P.Terry's. MMMMMM.|
And once you've taken the shot you can see an instant review in the finder. You can also choose the turn this off and you'll get faster shot to shot performance.
My only gripe at all with the implementation of the electronic viewfinder is that it takes up the real estate of the accessory shoe on the top of the camera and keeps you from being about to use the shoe for all the other things you usually use a hot shoe for. Like.....flash. I hate shooting studio flash with my EP2 because I want so badly to use the EVF. If I do there's no way to trigger the flashes (maybe that sparked my inquiries into LED lighting....???). At least, with the EPL family, you can always keep the EVF firmly in place and use the built in flash as a low powered, white light trigger for your bigger flashes. You can set the flash to fire manually at various ratios all the way down to 1/64th power. The flash is also articulated so you can point it up toward a white ceiling for bounce flash. Admittedly, this is a last ditch technique as the built in flash is small and quite under powered for that kind of work. But as a flash trigger it works quite well.
Can we talk lenses for a minute? I've been using Olympus lenses for a long time and for the most part they're really good. I think some of the zooms they've been making for their e system are the best in the market. See my review of the 35-100 f2 and the 14-35mm f2 on Michael Johnston's site Here.
So what can we say about the Micro Four Thirds lenses? I've mixed and matched. I've got the first gen, kit lens and I've been pleased with it's performance but I've also gotten some Panasonic lenses and they're a great addition to Olympus's still meager line up of dedicated optics. My favorite autofocus lens to use with the system is the Panasonic 20mm 1.7. It's tiny, super sharp and fast. Also from Panasonic, the 45-200 mm tele zoom is very sharp and handles quite well. With that lens you have the choice of using Image Stabilization from the body or from the lens. Whichever one you choose, be sure to turn off the other.
In the last week I've been able to play around alot with the 40 to 150. It's the only lens I took with me on my walk around downtown today and I must say that it makes the whole thing look too darn easy. You look thru the medium to long setting of the lens and everything looks good. Coupled with the body IS I'm able to shoot wide open at the longest telephoto setting handheld at a 60th of a second, reliably. Just remember to pay attention to subject motion. At the other end of the catalog, Panasonic makes a lens that is so beautiful that it is a must have for anyone using this camera for serious work. It's the 7-14mm. It's like a tiny piece of industrial sculpture. And according to both my architectural photographer friend, Paul, and all of the lens testing websites; it is magnificently sharp wide open and at all focal lengths. It's the miniature counterpart to Nikon's legendary 14-24mm. but with a bit more range......
But the neat thing about these small cameras is that they've developed a new standard that calls for a much shorter distance between the sensor and the lens mount. What that means on a practical level is that
just about any lens created for 35mm cameras can be used on the front of the camera by compensating for the distance differential with an adapter ring for each brand. I've mounted Nikon macros and high speed fifties and I mounted a Leica 35mm 1.4 Aspherical to the front of my Pens (pretty funny to see a $5000 lens cobbled onto the front of a $500 camera body) and all have worked flawlessly, albeit, only with manual focus and exposure.
There is also an adapter that will allow you to use most of the Olympus e system lenses as well, and those work in autofocus and with full metering capabilities. This make the system incredibly fun and flexible. And I know many a Leica M shooter who sees the EPL2 and it's cousins as a quick and sensible digital back end for large collections of M series lenses.
But for me the greatest pleasure in testing the new camera was in using my collection of ancient Olympus Pen F lenses. Many years ago Olympus introduced a revolutionary line of smaller cameras that came to be called "half frame" cameras. That's because they used half of a full 35mm still frame and gave the photographer 72 shots on a standard roll of film. Olympus designed a fairly extensive line of lenses for the cameras and famous photographers like Eugene Smith swore by them and routinely used them on assignments for some of the biggest magazines in the world.
I became fascinated by the system back in the 1980's and started collecting the cameras and the lenses. You can read more about them in one of my older blogs here. My collection includes some lenses that are just naturals for the EPL2, including: the 20mm f4 ( a great street shooter with a manual focus ring that reminds you what fine machinery was all about). The 38 1.8 and the 40 1.4 (great short tele lenses with high image quality when stopped down two stops and a mechanical feel that will make you want to focus manually for the rest of your life). There are also two very sexy lenses. The 60mm 1.5 and the 70mm f2. Both are great optics, optimized for this sensor size (albeit, originally to film) and faster than anything you can get in the current system. Fortunately, when you use any of these lenses on the EPL2 you can get full exposure automation in the A mode.
A quick note about manual focusing. Several other photographers have noticed this and conveyed it to me. When you rack in and out of focus with a manual lens you'll get a slight shimmer in the finder when you hit the point of "in focus". If you watch for the shimmer you have a built in autofocus indicator. Makes the whole process much quicker than zooming in to high magnification to check sharpness......
There are so many ways to go with lenses. What would I do? If I were just starting out in the system I would go one of two ways. Probably the smartest thing to do if you have lots of different kinds of subjects you like to shoot is to get the EPL2 with the kit lens (14-42) and also pick up the 40-150mm. I could go on a trip around the world with these two and not miss much. But I'm greedy so my real plan would be to cover my ass with the fun stuff too. I'd put together a system like this: 7-14mm f4 Panasonic, 14-42 kit lens, 20mm 1.7 Panasonic, and then the Olympus 40-150mm. With four lenses I'd have a really powerful shooting system that I could stick into a Spiderman lunch box with lots of room left over for batteries and memory cards.
To recap this section I'd say that all the available lenses are good. Some are great. You get to pick and choose on your own because I know I'm a real lens addict and I could probably make a good case for you to adapt a bunch of Zeiss stuff to your EPL2. Know your uses and test, test, test.
Let's move on to another aspect of the camera. The art filters. I won't recap the ones that came on the older cameras. I like the grainy film one just fine and, in some instances I like the pinhole as well but the one that's intriguing and weirdly cliche on the new camera is the distressed filter. It's a cross between cross processing and HDR. A right unholy alliance if I've ever heard of one.
Here's the scene with the diorama (or LaForet effect) filter:
See? Things get blurry on the top and the bottom of the frame.....
But here's the one I'm calling the distressed filter:
Let's try another one:
And here's what the scene really looked like (below)
I also like what it does in this image:
The camera has some other controls called "scene modes" and a setting called iAuto that's just perfect for people that don't want to know squat about how to take photos.
And that's okay because that's a big market for cameras like the EPL2. In fact, one of the great things about cameras now is that manufacturers can hit two ends of the market with the same product. It's almost as if cameras have become scalable imaging solutions. It's all in the feature set.
But I'm not going to spend much of our time on scene menus or beginner menus. I figure we've both got that covered and we're using the camera in its highest and best use scenario. If you want cheat and use the fireworks setting that's fine. You just don't need to tell me about it.
Now. Let's go thru all the stuff people asked me about when I first announced the test.
1. Is this camera less sharp than its predecessor, the EPL1?
A: No. It's the same sensor, and the same basic software and firmware for the imaging systems. If you like the sharpness (and color ) of the previous camera you will also like this one. It's also the same sensor as the ones in the e30 and the e620.
2. Is the new kit lens better, sharper, faster?
A: While the whole camera system seems to focus faster and with more assurance than all previous Pens I can't say whether the kit lens is responsible. It does extend more firmly but, in truth, I haven't noticed a performance difference in practice.
3. Can I shoot tethered to a bluetooth enabled Mac with the PenPal?
A: I couldn't get it to work with my studio laptop but the menu indicates that the biggest file you can transfer has 1900 pixels or so on the long end so I'm not sure it would help much in a real production environment. The real use seems to be intended to get them to your phone or other "upload to the web" devide to share, etc.
4. How's the video?
A: I covered that whole subject in an earlier post, here: Kirk's Video Appraisal
5. Does it look sexier and more professional than the EP2 or the EPL1?
A: No. Yes. The EP2 is still a very gorgeous camera. But the EPL2 is much better looking that the EPL1.
6. Will I be rushing out to buy one right away?
A: I'm still on the fence. If I didn't have the two other cameras I'm sure this is where I'd start. The price is great and performance is wonderful.
7. Will I please shoot a thousand test shots at every ISO with every lens?
No thanks. I shot some stuff at 1600 and I wasn't really happy with it. Like most of my cameras (including the Canon 60D and 7D) I'm happiest if I keep all of them under the 1600 mark. The closer to 200 the better it is for everyone and every camera.
8. Did the addition of the little wheel on the back make any difference at all in the performance of the camera?
A: Not really. Once you learn the menu system of the EPL1 it's pretty much the same thing on the two but with the option to use a wheel instead of a button. Not much difference in speed or complexity.
Finally, I get to eat crow. I was able, today (the first totally clear day in the time I've had the camera) to make the dreaded and catastrophic red dot/spot problem show itself.
I shot a sunset last week and none of those shots showed any dots. Just to be thorough in the review I took the camera out in the blazing sun this afternoon, put on the 40-150mm lens, aimed it directly at the sun and shot in program (knowing that the camera would underexpose the sky by at least three stops.
I hit the review button and there it was. The red dot disaster. But I stick by my original article on the issue. And I will also quote from page 95 of the English version of the owner's manual under "Safety Precautions": "DO NOT LOOK AT THE SUN OR STRONG LIGHTS WITH THE CAMERA"
Now we know this can happen. It's not a manufacturing defect, it's just the way digital cameras are. I would suspect that the proximity of the rear element to the sensor and the directly collimated light rays are the two factors that cause this to happen. You are forewarned: If you point the camera directly at the sun this might happen. If this is something you fear or distrust. DO NOT BUY THIS CAMERA.
The rest of use will probably be able to use the camera for a good long time and not see anything like this. But in the interest of a totally honest review I just had to include this finding. Again, Don't shoot directly into the sun or strong lights.
What have I missed? Why do I like this camera? Let me sum the whole thing up. There are guys who like to pack up like mules and drag all their stuff around with them when they go out shooting. You've seen them. Big, professional cameras over each shoulder, 70-200 on one, 24-70 on the other. A waist bag filled with fast, prime lenses. Black Rapid straps crisscrossed over one another. A camera backpack with a tripod strapped on for good measure, and a couple of flashes on sticks just in case. Add a vest with special pockets and some sort of backward facing baseball cap and you've just drawn the cartoon of someone who's sucked all the joy out of photography for themselves and everyone around them.
If you have style and a vision you've probably been able to narrow your shooting down to a concise set of three primes or two zooms. And if you're going to spend time on your feet, in the heat or the cold, you know that every piece of gear demands your attention and every extra pound saps your energy like a vampire.
I want to shoot as discreetly as possible. I want people to believe I am a hapless tourist or a rank amateur so that I don't become part of a distracting, self sabotaging center of attention. And you can't do that if you are a walking camera store.
I want to emulate Henri Cartier Bresson or Elliot Erwitt. One small camera. One or two little lenses. Nothing too noisy. Nothing too bright or precious. For a long time HCB used screw mount Leicas that are not bigger than the Pens. In fact, the collapsible 50 Elmar lens he used is smaller than any of the current lenses for the Pens. In his later life he "graduated" to the smallest of the M mount Leicas, the CL ( which stood for Compact Leica).
All of that reportage skill depended on an unobtrusive camera and leveraged access and vision. One can't help but think that these things were foremost in the minds of Olympus designers when they sat down to re-invent their Pen cameras.
While I like the EP2 I find that the real reason to want the EPL2 is its sheer stealth. The matte black finish is less showy and more businesslike. The lines of the design serve to visually reduce it's profile. It fits in my hand with very little to spare around the edges and when I wear it against my chest on a black sweat shirt its aspect nearly vanishes. I can barely feel its weight on the strap. Little more than the premium compacts in size and weight and price but a huge step up in performance. At $599 it's hard to make a case against it.
In the right hands it can be an amazing tool for the creation of extemporaneous art. There are other cameras for heavier lifting. I can do portraits in and out of the studio with this camera. It allows me to select the shooting aspect (I like squares) and I can shoot video as well. Amazing how far the m4:3 cameras have come in so little time.....that's it.
Two Corrections added at 6:25 PM Central time: 1. I forgot to mention that the camera's top shutter speed has been increased. The EPL1 went to 1/2000 while the new, EPL2 goes to 1/4000th of a second. This is pretty important as the lenses are at their best under f8. 2. I wrongly suggested that flash control was added to this camera and labeled it an improvement. Readers have corrected me and reminded me that the EPL1 also had this ability.
A great link about getting better high ISO from the EPL's: http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2010/06/iso-6400-from-an-ep1.html From Michael Johnston's, The Online Photographer, blog. (see VSL hotlinks on the left side).
Several posters in forums suggested that I did not supply enough "good" information about the camera. What is your opinion?