My Long, Final Rambling Review of the Olympus EP-2 Camera.

I'll start by saying that I've been seduced by a number of cameras over the last two decades so any reader should take this review for what it most certainly is:  an infatuation with an exotic new stranger.  That can't be helped.  What I'd like to do is talk about the way the camera works, what are the weak points and what are its strengths.  What is it good at and what kinds of things it will let you down on.  Don't bother asking because I'm not going to run out and buy a Panasonic GF-1 and run hours of esoteric tests in order to tell you the differences in the way it focuses with extreme telephotos.  I won't put up charts that prove or disprove the levels of noise in the files.  I will tell you what is annoying as well as the attributes that led me to pull out my wallet in one of the worst years I've suffered thru as a professional photographer and plunk down for a new camera.  So with all that in mind I'm ready to begin.

I've used a bunch of different cameras and different systems over the years and there are a few systems that are very well designed for ultimate user pleasure.  The best I've used are the Leica M series cameras and I used them to shoot for business and pleasure, in conjunction with medium format cameras, for many years.  The immediacy of the finders and the Spartan control interface made shooting very straight forward.  I also loved the Contax ST SLR film camera in conjunction with the 50mm 1.4 lens and the 85mm 1.4 lens.  And in my opinion usability comes before ultimate image quality in the hierarchy of features.  The EP-2 is good here and bad here.  The good:  When the camera is set up the way you want it and all the controls have been customized there are usually only two controls you might need.  One is the +/- exposure compensation and the other is the aperture control.  If you shoot manually you might add a third to the list and that would be shutter speed.  If you can shoot without constantly changing controls, aspect ratios, quality settings, color settings and more then you'll love the camera and you'll be able to use it the same way people use their Leicas.  Look through the finder, let the camera find the focus and then shoot.

If you are obsessed about constantly trying to shift parameters to match small nuances in scenes or you just can't make up your mind you may be doomed to float through the Olympus menu structure for a while till you get the hang of it.  And while Olympus has their own logic and it is learnable it is very different from Nikon's sensible interface and almost as bad as Canon's nearly indecipherable GUI.

I tend to use the camera the same way when I'm shooting for my own enjoyment.  I set the focus for the center sensor, shoot in single shot mode instead of continuous, and I have the camera set for to lock the exposure and focus with a gentle, but not complete push of the shutter button.  I set the noise reduction to off and the noise filter to low.  I generally shoot in aperture preferred mode and usually choose to work one stop down from wide open.  I think the kit lenses and most of the e series lenses that I use with an adapter are sharpest at that setting.  If I'm walking around during the day I'll set the WB at "daylight" and if I'm inside I'll set the WB at "auto".  If I use the camera after dark I'm almost certain to use a custom WB of 2800.  It works well for most interior lights (fewer florescents in Austin and more MR16 and other tungsten track lights).

I love image stabilization and keep the camera set at IS #1 unless I'm using a tripod.  Then I turn off IS altogether because I'm convinced that it degrades the image slightly.  If I'm out in the sunlight I use the custom color setting called "#1 enhance" which seems to try an in-camera HDR kind of thing that brings up the shadows and tramps down a bit on the highlights.  I'll add a little black back into the mix with levels or curves when I process the images.

When I'm shooting out in the streets I generally use the electronic viewfinder all the time.  I think it's the real step forward for all of these cameras.  In this regard I consider myself an early adopter as I have two of the Sony R1 cameras that also came with decent (but light years worse than the EP-2 EVF) electronic viewfinders.  I hardly every use the rear LCD screen unless I'm showing a frame to someone.  Which is rare in itself.

Controversy Alert:  I know this is going to sound scary to all the people who've been doing digital for a long time, but I tend to use the camera almost exclusively in SHQ (super high quality) Jpeg.  Now before you get all lathered up please understand that I'm using the camera to do my own art.  If a corporate client puts money on the table I always fire up the whole RAW workflow deal to make sure I've covered all my bases.  But for the most part it's totally unnecessary.  One of the main reasons I switched systems from Nikon is that I found that Jpegs straight out of the camera were really nice from the Olympus cameras and always a bit problematic with the Nikons.  For my taste the Nikon ones had too dark a midtone curve and too red a skin tone.  Yes, I know I can spend hours in Lightroom making exactly calibrations.  I know I can spend hours creating and uploading custom curves in Nikon Capture and uploading them to the camera but the whole point was that I didn't have to do any of that to get pleasing color and contrast from the Olympus cameras.  And the EP-2 might be the best of the bunch from O just by dint of being the most recent.  Somehow the same people who depend on RAW are the same people who denounce using a meter.  Go figure.  I shoot Jpeg. You can shoot raw.  The Olympus does a big, fat 12 bit raw file.  It's less compressed than raw files from their competitors.  Whether that makes it better I have no clue.  I just know that the EP2 EVF gives great feedback for color and density, letting you get a Jpeg just right in the field and saving you a lot of butt time back home in the Photoshop saddle.

Also, you can denounce me as a heretic if you like but nothing beats the Olympus blue.  You can shift curves and play with hue and saturation with other brand files but every time you change a setting you mess up another part of the curve.  First Controversy Alert Over....

I've now spent over a month shooting daily with the EP-2 and I find the ergonomics of the camera just right for my admittedly small hands.  I buy medium sized gloves.  I wish I had big paws because then I could swim faster.  But I don't and it seems that the EP-2 is aimed at medium and small sized people.  I can imagine it might feel a bit small to all the 6 foot, plus people in the world.  That's what makes camera choice so damn subjective:  everyone is different sized!  The camera is solid but even with the attached kit lens it's still half the weight of a Nikon D300 with a similar lens.  Maybe even lighter than half!  And that means that a tromp around downtown Austin for three or four hours doesn't wear me down or hurt my shoulder.  I wish Olympus would make a micro 4:3rds version of the 25mm 2.8 e series lens.  I like it pretty well and use it frequently on the camera with the MMF-1 adapter but it would be great if it was reduced down in size equal to loosing the adapter.  That way the camera and lens would be about the size of most cheezy point and shoot cameras and would, at that point, become almost invisible to the rank and file subject on the street.  Two of these cameras, a 9-18 and the 14-42 lenses and one longer focal length would be the absolute perfect travel system.  No question.

IS.  Image stabilization.  I use it whenever the camera is in my hands.  When I'm using the kit zoom I can handhold really sharp stuff reliably down to around 1/13th of a second.  If I stopped drinking coffee for a month I bet I could hold that rascal still at 1/4th of a second.  We're down in the zone where the tripod is almost vestigial for this camera.  I keep one in the car but the nice thing about the way I like to shoot is that I can kill two problems with one tripod.  Since I almost always set the aspect ratio on the camera to 6:6 (or square) I use a fluid head on my tripod.  This allows means I'm prepared to go either way: Stills or Video!

So, now that I've brought up the video let's talk about that for a second or two.  Remember when you switched to digital in 2000 or 2001 and a bunch of your friends kept saying that digital wasn't ready for prime time and that film would be around for years and years?  Well, they were largely wrong and no one in the film or photo industry could believe how fast the curve of adaptation changed and accelerated.  It took Kodak completely by surprise and Fuji is still catching up.

Well, that's where we are with video and digital stills today.  Most older (post 35) photographers profess to have little interest in video and instead are waiting for the market to turn around.  Good luck with that. The market has already turned and it's now voraciously devour the advertising market for single image still work.  Those pros who are waiting are going to be waiting a long while for everything to come back to the way it was.  But then maybe time is a big moebius strip and everything will be the same somewhere on the continuum.  I think we're heading down the big slide of video at the water park of imaging and it's pretty hard to put on the brakes when you are going 60 MPH surrounded by torrents of rushing water.  But we could argue this point forever.  I may be totally wrong but I'm so happy that Olympus put just the right kind of video into this camera.

Are there things they missed?  Sure, but they'll add em to the next model.  Here's where I vent:  Those dim product managers at Olympus have a really nice video tool here but I can't really leverage all the power locked up in this tool for want of a $50 plastic adapter that should have been ready to roll at the launch.  It's called an EMA-1 and it fits in the accessory slot in place of the beautiful EVF.  It provides an interface that allows you to plug in just about any kind of microphone you might want to use.  I'd love to plug my friend, Will's Sennheiser shotgun microphone in the plug and get great voice recordings alongside the video footage.  But I can't because these unfortunate dunderheads didn't bother to get all the product synced up.  I hope Charles Garcia or someone else from Olympus reads this and gets on the stick to get me an EMA-1 because I'm stacking up projects that need to have sound and it's so last century to use a separate digital sound recorder and a clapper board to do modern video.  It's just not right.

On to the video.  It works well.  You can set focus, shutter speed and aperture in manual.  With the enormous number of manual focus lenses that can be used with adapters, from the original Olympus Pen's to the AIS Nikkors, there are tons of lenses that you can do follow focus with.  I haven't done big projects with the camera as a video camera yet but I see one big pitfall.  You have to remove the EVF and use the EMA-1 in it's place if you want to have external microphone capability.

I've shot test footage in a number of different lighting situations and, as long as your exposure is on the money, the footage looks great with very little to none of the jello effect that plagues other c-mos type DSLR hybrids.  Everyone else seems to be chasing 1080p resolution but I'm very happy that Olympus chose to go with 720p and here's why.  The vast majority of markets going forward are going to be web based communications and some on site display footage at trade shows and retail stores.  We're not going to broadcast with this stuff just yet.  It may be years until my skills are up to speed as a video producer for the big time.  But in the meanwhile 720 is actually many levels of overkill for the web but much less of a hassle to edit because the files sizes are so much smaller and the non-jpeg compression algorithm is much more efficient.  That means that, compared to say Canon 5Dmk2 HD files the edits will be fast as lightning.  And time is money.

Before I leave the video part of the camera I want to tell you what  a pleasure it is to work with Olympus'  really wonderful 35-100mm f2 zoom lens.  The thing is, this monster is sharp wide open and the out of focus areas have a beautiful, round quality to them.  Stop this lens down to 2.8 (which is where most of its equivalent competitors start) and you've got an optic that is as sharp as the other guy's dedicated macro lenses.  Honest.  While that lens and the EP-2 look like the marriage of a hummingbird and a python you'll undoubtably be using the pair on a rig or a fluid head tripod, using the tripod socket on the lens.  When used in that fashion it's a perfect balance.  But maybe you're not considering the EP-2 for video........

Let's talk DPreivew style performance metrics for a second to keep the IT guys and the pro's happy.  Here's where the Canon people and the Nikon people can crow about the parameter inequality.  The EP-2 has acceptable noise levels at proper exposures, right up to about ISO 800.  Maybe ISO 1000 and then you start to see color splotching.  And noise.  The Olympus people will jump up and start talking about Noise Ninja and Define but let's be frank;  the camera has noise that a D3s and a 1Dmk4 won't see until you hit 12,000 ISO or some other astronomically cool level.  Don't buy this camera if you love doing super high ISO in low light or if you have your heart set on a collection of fast primes (but don't write off the primes too quickly---more on that below).  In good light this camera is a champ.  When the light drops too far down (about where the human eye has trouble focusing a manual camera) the focusing falls apart and the noise comes along for a ride.  This is not the ultimate low light camera by a long shot.

It doesn't do fast, continuous focus either.  If you shoot sports you'll find that using this camera for fast moving stuff is like wearing cowboy boots at a track meet.  OUCH.  Gotta be honest, if I'm headed out to shoot some competitive swimming I'm going to borrow my friend's Nikon D3 or I'm going to try my luck with the Olympus E3 and a fast piece of specialty glass, like the 90-250 f2.8.  Pretty much the equivalent of a 180-500 mm f2.8.  (And yes, they are equivalent when we're talking about exposure!!!--don't even start with me about the 4:3rds lens being two stops less light.  It doesn't make any sense.)

Next on the list of things you might not want this camera for is shooting in the studio with studio flash.  Why?  Because there's no sync socket on the body.  You have to use the hot shoe to trigger flashes; either with an adapter or a radio trigger.  That means you don't get to use the wonderful EVF and if I can't use the EVF I really don't want to use the camera.  Tonight I shot portraits of Ben with the camera but I used florescent devices from Westcott, called TD-5 Spiderlights.  I put them in 30 inch Chimera lanterns for a soft, even glow.  But it made sense since I was trying to shoot wide open at f2 with the Olympus macro lens.

The other thing you don't want to attempt with the camera is shooting any wedding that requires focus in low light or flash.  Again, with the flash in the shoe there's no EVF and I don't like the camera without the EVF.  For all these reasons I would suggest the EP2 as an art camera or a second system but not as a primary camera systems for a busy professional or a photographer who wants to shoot in a wide range of conditions. Oh, and it is not waterproofed or weather proofed so don't sit in the "Splash" section at Seaworld and expect to be using the camera later at the dolphin pool......

With all these faults why do I like the camera at all?  Well, I spent 20 years getting to know big, square, medium format cameras inside and out.  They were slow to operate and required you to work at getting everything just right but they rewarded you with little squares of perfection.  Jewel like photographs that filled every square millimeter of the frame with subject matter and crucial negative space.  I use the EP-2 in just the same fashion.  My favorite way of working is with the 50mm Olympus Macro lens attached and in the manual focus mode.  When you have the camera set up this way, and you've enabled "manual focus assist" in one of the menu menus here's what happens:  1.  You look through the camera and get a general idea of your composition.  2.  You touch the focus ring of the lens and the image jumps up to seven time magnification.  3.  You focus on eyelashes or irises that fill the frame and when you let go of the focus ring the camera image snaps back to normal size. 4.  Shoot the image.

I also love to play around with my favorite old Nikon 50mm 1.1.2 lens on the front of two different adapter rings.  I try to shoot it wide open or at f2 or f2.8.  The whole reason to use that lens is the narrow depth of field.

Which brings me to a very interesting facet of the camera and one that few people will get to experience. You probably know that this camera system was/is based on the old Olympus Pen half frame cameras made from the 1950's until the early 1970's but you probably don't know much about that system if you are relatively new to photography.  Oh hell, even the old timers didn't really pay attention to that system (except for Eugene Smith.....).  But here's the deal:  Olympus made a half frame SLR with a full line of lenses.  They've always been a leading edge optics manufacturer and they had their work cut out for them with the half frame.  The lenses had to be twice as sharp as the lenses designed for 35mm work in order to equal the resolution when photographers enlarged them.  The lenses they made were really, really good.  Breathtakingly good!  You've got to remember that Olympus has always been considered second only to Leica in making world class microscope lenses.  And they brought that expertise with them when they designed the half frame lenses.

Surprise, with the right adapter you can use all of these lenses with the new EP1, EP2 and Panasonic M4:3rds cameras.   So what can you get?  How about a 60mm f1.5?  Maybe you'd rather have a (sharp wide open) 70mm f2.  Or a 25mm f2.8.  Or a 20mm.  How about a 150mm 3.5 that weighs next to nothing.  I've even got a 2X Olympus teleconverter that works with that.  Then there's the 38mm 1.8 and the 42mm 1.4 and even a 50 to 90mm zoom lens.  But the glass everyone wants are the fast lenses.  Because, in this format they'll give Leica and Zeiss a run for their money.  They really are that good.

If you aren't into 50 year old glass you'll be happy to know that you can buy an adapter to use most of the Leica M glass with the camera as well.  I ran into my friend, Paul, the other day and he was hauling around a Panasonic GF1 with a ASPH Summilux 35mm on the front.  Very sexy.  Extremely sharp.  Maybe sharp in a way that only Leica M9 shooters can only rival.

So, by all measures this camera is enigmatic.  Not a top performer.  No usable as a sole business camera. Not a sports machine.  Not a D3s rival by any stretch of the imagination.  So why do so many people love this camera and why are they rushing to use them? At the risk of sounding "new age-y" again I'll say that it's because the camera has some soul to it.  It sits right in your hand.  For me, it's about so many good usability features.  I like the accurate, bright and convenient EVF.  I like the ability to define my own favorite aspect ratio.  I like the quality of the video.  There's no mirror slap and the camera is very stable which makes it a natural for image stabilization-enabled long exposures.

But the bottom line is that it's so fun to use that you find yourself ignoring things that would bug you in other cameras.  Just like a romantic relationship you make excuses for the things you can't change and embrace the things you love.  And really, when you get right down to it so many of the images we love and have loved were made with the simplest equipment, the simple cameras of the day.  In the 1940's the images from Henri Cartier Bresson came from screw mount Leica cameras with separate windows for viewing and focusing, not the big Speed Graphics used by the pro's of that age.  In the 1950's the work of Robert Frank speaks for the decade.  Again, he used a small 35mm rangefinder because the goal was to capture the raw emotion not to map the ultimate potential sharpness of the time.  He used a small camera while the professionals used Rollei's and 4x5's.

If they built a camera that captured emotions and feelings instead of enormous numbers of sharp pixels would you buy one?  If the camera became transparent in your hands would you use one?  If your work calls for seeing things in conservative angles of view (28mm-100mm) and you don't usually print bigger than 11 by 17 do you really need to carry around something the size of a small cat to do your work with?

But again,  I have other cameras.  If I desperately need shallow depth of field I can still shove a 180mm lens on a Rollei medium format camera and show you REALLY shallow depth of field.  But it's sure nice to have something I can carry everywhere and know that, for 90% of what I like to shoot (as opposed to what clients want me to shoot) I can do it with this camera.

Now.  Where the hell is that EMA-1?

We've got a comment section below.  But before you hit it please know that if you tried an EP2 (or a Canon G11, etc.) and you didn't like it that doesn't mean I can't like it.  Also know that neither you nor I can really test lenses at our houses or studios in any meaningful way so it's kind of futile to argue about which brand of lenses "rules".  Your idea of photography may be all about shooting football games and you'll never use a camera like this but that doesn't mean that everyone shoots football games or should be in a state of constant readiness to shoot football games so let's not go into that either.

I like the camera.  The lenses are good. The ability to use everyone else's lenses is even better.  The Panasonic GH1 may  be better but I've never played with one.  Etc.

That sums up my whole thought process about the EP2 to date.  Next time we'll branch out a little bit.
Thanks for reading.

All of the images in this article were done on my EP-2 using an MMF-1 adapter and a 50mm Olympus e series Macro lens.  All of the images are ©2010 Kirk Tuck Photography.  I bought all the gear used in the shooting and production of the article and I don't get money or other consideration from Olympus or any retailer to write these articles.  They are solely my opinions.

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