Olympus EPL2. Final Installment. Kirk's Definitive Opinion.

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.

This is a fun camera.  But before we get to the meat of the matter I'd like to lay down a few ground rules and make a few disclosures.  Everything I write here is my opinion.  You may disagree with me but I won't post your comment unless you disagree in a courteous and helpful way.  I may profess undying love for this camera and, if I do so, please understand that it's the passion of the moment and next month a new camera may come along that I love more.  This is not a marriage, it's a fun job that changes quicker than a model at a runway show.  When I make a declarative statement I generally mean that this is how something applies to ME.  Not to everyone.

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........?

Well.  Let's start at the top and go thru this step by step.  First of all, what is the EPL2?  It's the latest distillation of what Olympus has learned from making this family of cameras.  The camera is one of the family of Micro Four Thirds cameras which use a sensor that is about 20% smaller than an APS-C sized sensor used in a Canon Rebel or 60D.  Sounds scary but the sensor is six times bigger than the sensors in cameras like the Canon G 12 and the Lumix LX-5 from Panasonic.

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

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.
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