Olympus EPL2: Is the video good? Do we care? Do you care?

If you want to see it bigger (full res but with compression artifacts around the edges....go here: http://gallery.me.com/kirktuck#100264

I can hear it now.  A certain percentage of readers will grouse about "having to pay" for video they'll never use.  And I get the sentiment but the reality is that the inclusion of a tiny, crappy microphone and an extra button probably added about $2.50 (USD) to your total camera purchase price so you might just want to get over it.  The rest of you have heard the call from Canon shills like Vince LaForet and you're thinking you might just want to see what all the fuss is about.  Bottom line?  The EPL2 is a nice, clean video platform.  I'd hate to have to sit thru stuff that was made handheld but if you put it on a tripod it's nice and clean, and sharp.

I almost hate to get into this but........it's not full on HD.  It's 720.  That means the frame is 1280 by 720 pixels.  Full bore ultimate HD is 1920 by 1080.  Will it make a difference in the final product?  Yes and no.  My use for video coming out of these cameras is for interviews and programming that will be part of websites and blogs.  A typical commercial use would be a medical practice where a physician walks you thru a procedure that you might have scheduled.  The highest imbedded res is probably going to the be one in this embedded video which is something like 640 by 360 pixels.  That means that when we shoot at the highest res we're always going to throw some pixels out.  Anecdotally, I've heard that Disney used a bunch of EPL1's as second unit cams in a feature film and that noise had to be added to the video frames and they had to be downsampled as well because the video looked better than the first unit film.......

I looked at the footage pretty carefully in FCP and I think it's sharp and pretty much noise free at ISO 400.  If you are shooting with the intention of creating programming for HD television you might be aiming a bit high using this camera as a production tool since everything else in the chain, including some connecting cables, is probably going to cost more.

Here are my gripes about shooting "movies" with this camera:

1.  It's easiest to view, compose and focus with the VF-2 finder in place....BUT....with the VF-2 finder in the one accessory slot you won't be able to plug in the external microphone adapter.  The solution is to do what everyone does with the DSLR's,  use the back LCD with a Zacuto or Hoodman finder strapped on and keep the port ready for external mic'ing.

2.  You don't get a lot of video configuration choices in video.  You can choose standard SD footage at 640 by 480 or HD at 1280 by 720.  Both settings lock you into shooting 30 fps.  Would I like more?  Sure.  How about 24 fps or 60 fps to help with slow motion effects?  But it keeps things simple.

The only other choice is microphone on or off.  I'd just leave it set to "on", that way I'll never forget.

3.  It's too light.  This is a silly gripe and it's one I could level at just about any of the small cameras on the market.  The lens and body are just to light to hold steady if you are shooting hand held.  One cup of coffee will separate the men from the SteadiCam rig.....  But that's a trade off of all hand held cameras.  If it's not shoulder mount it's only as good as your jangling nervous system.

But here's what I like about it:

1.  Olympus actually thought about how we'd use the camera and gave us a microphone port.  That's pretty darn cool.  It's true that you'll need to buy and adapter to accept the 1/8 stereo plug and interface with the proprietary plug but it's not expensive.  Once you've got that piece the sky is the limit for microphones.  I get good results from the middle priced Rode microphones intended for amateur video production.  My favorite is their Stereo VideoMic.  It runs on 9V batteries, it's what Ben and I used to do sound for this video and, with the supplied "dead cat" windscreen, it even looks professional.  I like the way it sounds but I wouldn't be too quick to judge it from my room's acoustics:  It's kind of "bouncy and bright" in here.

2.  It's easy to focus the lens between takes and even during takes a half squeeze on the shutter button will drive the lens to re-focus and, in my experience, quickly and accurately.

3.  The combination of the camera, the new 40-150mm zoom and the mic adapter is so light and small there is never an excuse to be without a capable video camera.

4.  It's really so cheap that you don't need to fret if you are doing commercial work and the client wants to put the camera somewhere dangerous (strapped to a car, or under a moving car, bolted to a skateboard or in a shooting war).  You break it and you can always get another one.  If you don't make a living with your cameras then it might be better to not hot glue it to a helmet and go bungie jumping......

5.  The image, within the constraints of the format, is very, very good.  And the sound is as decent as whatever microphone you stick out there (and how good your mic'ing techniques are.....).

6.  With inexpensive adapters you can use the complete line of Olympus E lenses or with a Nikon or Leica adapter you can use maybe 60 or 70 years worth of legacy lenses on the front of the camera.  Want a nice, compressed shot with lots and lots of "bokeh"?  I'm sure you can find an old Nikon 300 2.8 that will do the trick quite nicely.

The camera is not the limiting factor for most video projects and it certainly won't be for this unit either.  What you'll really need as you polish your "reel" for commercial success is a good script, good story boards, good direction, good lighting design, good acting and good sound engineering.  The Olympus just makes the actual shooting easier...

So, would I buy the EPL2 just for it's video chops?  No, probably not.  Unless I was on a low budget and I could make movies without expectant clients hovering around.  Would EPL2 movies be as good as movies from all the other under $1,000 cameras out there?  Yep.  The only place you'll see a difference is on the shots that require high ISO.  It lags at least a stop behind the Canon 7D and two stops behind the Canon 5D2.  But isn't that why we have lights?  Finally, is it a step up from the EPL1 for video?  Well, the LCD screen is nicer but the image quality seems about the same.  So....not really.

That's it for the video part of the review.  The review of the actual camera comes Monday.  Stay tuned.
Have you visited my website yet?  It's here:  www.kirktuck.com


Craig said...

Hmm... video may add only a couple of bucks to per-unit manufacturing costs, but it adds more to the R&D expenses. Someone has to decide what the user interface is going to be like (what buttons do we include, what menu options, where does everything go), someone has to do market research to figure out what the right specs are for the market segment, engineers have to design and test the hardware and software... and all this does end up adding to the retail price. You're probably right that doesn't make a huge difference, but $2.50 per unit seems a bit low.

kirk tuck said...

Craig, they're going to do all that stuff anyway and spread it across every product in the line. If this were a "one off" I think it would be a different story. All the tough R&D was done with the EPL1. And I'm going to bet most of the program was resident on the CPU they bought as part of the imaging chip set from Mitsubishi or Panasonic. All in all though, some day you'll find a use for that video and you'll be happy. Or not.

Calvininjax said...

Always a pleasure to read your thoughts, Kirk. I have no interest in video whatsoever but you held my attention.

As a former newspaper editor, I have to point out your closing line -- Have you visiting my website yet?

Professional habits die hard. :-)

kirk tuck said...

Dear Eagle-eyed Calvininjax,

Correction complete. Thanks for the proofing!!

Justin said...

Thanks for your write-up here Kirk. I've been trying to get more of a feel for video on this camera and only recently took it seriously (after I heard about and saw the Secretariat). If they can use it and have to degrade the image then I know it will be more than suitable for what I am getting paid to produce. Now you should review Sony Vegas or some other editing software. ;)

Anthony said...


Just wondering if there is a max length of video. Also wondering how large a memory card needed for 1 hr of video, and lastly, what class or speed of card for best video. Any recommendation on memory card brands or types?

Thank you


kirk tuck said...

Total time in HD is 7 minutes. Any SDHC card should work.

Seth Ellis said...

Thanks, Kirk, for your well thought out review. The reason I was not attracted by the E-PL1 was the low max shutter + viewfinder port + low rez. LCD. The E-PL2 has remedied all these weaknesses and imo is the best Micro to date. Cheers, Seth

zaph said...

"The lens and body are just to light to hold steady if you are shooting hand held. One cup of coffee will separate the men from the SteadiCam rig..... But that's a trade off of all hand held cameras. If it's not shoulder mount it's only as good as your jangling nervous system."

There was a video with the GH2 linked on 43rumors.com that used the Cam Caddie. At under $70 it would likely be a great addition to the E-PL2 at well if looking to do video often. (I don't work for Cam Caddie, just looks pretty useful, etc)

Curt Schimmels said...

I hate to be a nitpicker, but 720P is HD, as was originally defined by the Grand Alliance. At that time (1993), the two choices were 1080i, and 720p. For fast moving action, 720p, which is progressive scann, was actually preferable to 1080i which interlaces and thus only draws 540 lines at a time. Both FOX and ABC use 720p for their transmissions (although your set may convert it to 1080i/p). Yes, we now have 1080p (which sometimes is referred to by the marketing term "Full HD"), and that is clearly better, but 720p should look just fine on someone's TV set.

With regard to your review, I would agree with your other points regarding video choices as negatives, and the issue of stability when shooting. It also only uses electronic IS for video, so that's another reason to put it on a tripod.

On your positives, I really like your approach with the Rode microphone and think this is one place where an amateur can shine, since the Olympus will do full 44.1Khz 16bit PCM audio (CD quality). This should make it a great choice for someone wanting to record musicians at work/play.

Anonymous said...

Is it true that the EPL2 can only record 7 mins of video in HD format. That is a serious limitation.

kirk tuck said...

You're serious, right? I think you are "miscomprehending" the nature of video in DSLRs and mirror interchangeable cameras. It's philosophically more akin to shooting movies and commercials where it's rare that a "take" is longer than 30 or 40 seconds and a tracking shot that lasts for more than two or three minutes is remarked on in those industries as "unusual". Don't buy any of the new DSLR's to use as video documentary camera to tape a four hour meeting. They are not the right tools.

If you want to make a movie that's watchable this camera can do it. That's astounding for the price point and the size of the package. I would like my Honda Element to be able to go 200 mph but that's hardly rational.

ushamoyouno said...

"It also only uses electronic IS for video, ..."

Do you mean the in body image stabilisation is NOT used when shooting video?

kirk tuck said...

Nope. That's why they invented tripods with fluid heads. I can't imagine handholding this form factor and getting smooth shots, even with IS on all the time.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk

Well written articles. I am on the verge of buying a PL2 and have a couple of questions

1. Am I able to do manual focusing?
2. Am I able to achieve decent cinema type DOF?

I understand it's not a break the deal for me but would like to understand more.
Was also deciding from GF2 and Nex5. Coming from a Canon 7d setup, this will be quite a change for me


kirk tuck said...

Yes. Manual focusing is available with the regular lenses and with a wide range of lenses from older manual focus cameras.

"Am I able to achieve decent cinema type DOF?" Yes. if you keep in mind that actual 35mm movie film is about as small as the sensor in the m4:3rds cameras you should be able to mimic films shot on 35mm cine film perfectly. Will it do as shallow a depth of field as a Canon 5D2 or a Nikon D3s? No. Those sensors are twice as large as a frame of movie film. That's why so many people are drawn to those cameras. But that can be a curse too as many scenes need deeper DOF which means adding more light to FF cameras in typical scenes.

JMG said...

Hi Kirk, quick question about the EPL2 and the lenses. Would i be able to use my old Konica Minolta lenses with the EPL2? the Minolta AF 70-210 "Beer Can" lens ?

sad_noodle said...

Concerning the 7 minute video thing, I think lots of people think they have only 7 minutes recording time on on SD, maybe? They don't know that it's limited to 7 minutes of continuous shooting time.

As you pointed out, Kirk, it's VERY uncommon to shoot more than 1 or 2 minutes continuously.
I can't wait to get this camera! It's already come down $50, so maybe I'll wait another month and see what happens....

Anonymous said...

I appreciate both this review and your full epl2 review. The writing focus is great for us amateurs who are upgrading from P&S. I just bought the epl2 today. A bit driving factor was my impending fatherhood. It's great to get some confirmation that the video will probably be good for my purposes (not a fan of the hour long continuous video...).

And after reading that you're a fellow Element owner, I just had to give you a shout out. :)

Anonymous said...

well jus to add a little of my experience with video in e-pl1 which should be equal to this camera

the stabilizer hits a little of sharpness and makes long shots have a strange feeling that is different from the camera shake you see without the IS so turn it off in a tripod

second: use noise filter at low it makes your video more detailed without introducing noise and at high iso its still usable (normal setting makes thing a little blurred and undetailed) except if you have very good lighting and iso 200 you can use noise filter at OFF

or you like film grain but like very high detailed scenes... so noise filter at low is a compromise

if you dont want to deal with moiré and aliasing buy this camera since its fantastic compared with e-p1 (i have both and e-pl1 deals with that mosquito jagged lines so good and eliminates all purple and orange color moiré)

use contrast at -1 (if you sue at -1 images have a lack of punch that seems difficult to deal with in post and dont give you more in the highlights), since it will open shadows a little bit but still natural and reveal a little better the highlights

you get fantastic olympus colors in this camera and that is amazing too they feel organic, its a brilliant tone curve and jpg color engine. natural mode its what you should use without tweaking in colors but if you really want very vibrant colors use ienhance at low

the image quality with 20mm f1.7 is amazing as wll as the IQ with canon FD f1.4 shot at f2 are really great with shallow dof and with enough contrast at f1.4 for being usable

sound quality has so good definition and no distortion!!!!!

it lets go till iso1600 in video mode (with very good results till iso1000 with no colour noise in the shadows or banding) and define white balance and you can see an histogram at the start of the frame

they really need a 1080p camera with their jpg engine

safeashouses said...

"... I almost hate to get into this but........it's not full on HD. It's 720... " What do you think HD means if you think 720 is not "Full-On HD? Just a cursory search finds this, "The number of lines in the vertical display resolution. High-definition television (HDTV) resolution is 1,080 or 720 lines". I've already heard people say that the Epl2 video is junk because it's 720 not 1080. Does one being better make the other one bad?-not that you've said that.

kirk tuck said...

All depends what you're going to use it for. There is a resolution and quality difference. If you want to do webcasts then go right ahead. If you'll be playing from blu-ray or computer into a full 1080 system you'll be fine as long as you don't compare it directly to full bore HD. The chip is capable of much, much more resolution so I don't understand why they didn't just ramp up and do it right in the first place. (And yes, the standards are a moving target. 720 was full HD a few years ago, when compared with SD but the targets moved and I now consider 720 "HD Lite."

Eric said...

"use contrast at -1 (if you sue at -1 images have a lack of punch that seems difficult to deal with in post and dont give you more in the highlights), since it will open shadows a little bit but still natural and reveal a little better the highlights"

I assume you meant use contrast at +1?

Anonymous said...

I want to shoot anamorphic - can the e-pl2 be set to capture a 4/3 ratio in video? I know I can alter the still aspect ratio but for high def video it seems to be limited to 16:9..

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