The Lightweight Photographer:
Olympus PEN E-PL2 Real World Camera Review

by Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen on March 16, 2011

The Olympus PEN E-PL2 is simply a better camera than its predecessor, the E-PL1. And, as often happens in these days of rapid technical progress it’s even superior in some ways to its big brother, the E-P2. Where the E-PL1 had “amateur” written all over it, the E-PL2 is worthy of a pro.

Olympus PEN E-PL2 Mirrorless Compact Digital Camera Review - Front Right View

UPDATE: There’s a newer edition of this camera!
Click here to see the new Olympus PEN E-PL3.

Olympus PEN E-PL2 Buyer’s Guide

The Olympus PEN E-PL2 with 14-42mm lens is available is several colors for an average price of about $599. Because the E-PL2 is so new, some colors may not yet be in stock.

Click any of the links below to learn more and to check current prices:

Olympus PEN E-PL2 Camera Review Black Olympus PEN E-PL2 Camera Review Silver Olympus PEN E-PL2 Camera Review White Olympus PEN E-PL2 Camera Review Red
E-PL2 Black
E-PL2 Silver
E-PL2 White
E-PL2 Red
Olympus E-PL2 from Amazon Olympus E-PL2 from Amazon Olympus E-PL2 from Amazon Olympus E-PL2 from Amazon
Olympus E-PL2 from Adorama Olympus E-PL2 from Adorama Olympus E-PL2 from Adorama Olympus E-PL2 from Adorama

Purchase a camera – or anything else – through any of the links on this page and you’ll be helping to keep the lights on here at PhotoCitizen. Thanks.

Olympus E-PL2: First Impressions

The Olympus E-PL2 has a lot in common with its predecessor, the E-PL1. So, in this review I’ll concentrate on the differences. To read more about the E-PL1, read my review of that camera, “The Lightweight Photographer: Olympus PEN E-PL1 Real World Review.”

In that review, I proposed that the “L” in E-PL1 was short for Lite. In many ways, the E-PL2 is a lite version of its big brother, the Olympus PEN E-P2. But unlike the E-PL1, the E-PL2 is a serious camera worthy of a pro.

Olympus E-PL2 vs E-P1 Comparison - front view

E-PL2 vs E-P1/E-P2

The E-PL2 feels good in the hand. Despite its plastic body, it feels sturdy. Like the rest of the Olympus PEN line, the E-PL2 is stylish. It has the classic good looks of an old rangefinder film camera.

Even the red version looks sharp – great for you attention-seekers.

What’s New

Here’s a quick summary of the most significant changes versus the older E-PL1:

Olympus PEN E-PL2 Mirrorless Compact Camera Review - Rear View

E-PL2 Rear View

    • Olympus completely redesigned the controls on the rear of the camera. Gone are the amateurish buttons of the “arrow pad.” Now, there is a full-fledged control dial.
    • The other buttons on the back and top of the camera now look identical to those on the E-P2 although some of their functions are different.
    • The new, and physically smaller, 14-42mm kit lens zooms and manually focuses smoothly and silently so that movie audio is not marred by lens noises.
    • Faster shutter speed: up to 1/4000 second in all modes.
    • Faster flash sync speed (compared to E-PL1) of 1/180 second.
    • The accessory port is now labeled “AP2.” It will work with new accessories such as a dedicated macro light and with the old accessories like the VF-2 electronic viewfinder.
Olympus E-PL2 Hands On Review - Dramatic Tone Art Filter Mode

Dramatic Tone

  • Art filter mode includes a completely new mode called “Dramatic Tone” which replaces “Gentle Sepia” found on the E-PL1. Many of the Art filter modes now offer various settings to control effects intensity and some offer a nice ragged border effect.
  • There are a few new menu items.
  • Olympus has introduced three new converter lenses which attach to the front of the kit lens: fisheye, wide-angle and macro.

Olympus E-PL2 Real World Hands-On Review

To get a good feel for the E-PL2, I used it in the field for a few weeks. On many shoots, it was my only camera. Here’s the equipment I used:

Image Quality and Noise

One thing that has not changed since the introduction of the Olympus PEN digital line is the image sensor and processing engine.

Olympus E-PL2 Camera Review - ISO 200 Noise

ISO 200 Noise

The 12.3 megapixel, Live MOS sensor and Truepic V processor are the same as those found on the E-P1, E-P2 and E-PL1. So, image quality is identical across the PEN line. The E-PL2 captures images every bit as good as the top-of-the-line E-P2.

Raw images captured at ISO 200 are just a tad noisier than those captured by a DLSR with an APS-C sized sensor such as my Nikon D300.

At ISO 800, you’ll need to be a bit more aggressive with post-processing noise reduction and, above that, images are too noisy for publication work but still clean enough for less demanding work.

Olympus PEN E-PL2 Hands On Camera Review - ISO 800 noise and fringing

ISO 800

Color aberration is minimal. I did notice a fringe of magenta color in one series of photos of a bright white cross set against a medium blue sky, but in many other high-contrast photos I found no fringing at all.

Even DSLR’s are subject to color aberration in high-contrast lighting, so I’d say the E-PL2 is no worse in this respect than any other camera – and much better than some I’ve tested.

For more details about noise – and other common features – read reviews of the other Olympus PEN cameras in my series of articles called The Lightweight Photographer:

Better Buttons and A Real Control Dial Too!

The E-PL2’s rear controls are greatly improved over the amateurish feel of the button-only control system found on the E-PL1. Physically, the new layout is exactly the same as the top-of-the-line E-P2, except there is no top thumb wheel on the E-PL2 – it’s replaced by the movie record button – and the functions assigned to each button are different. For example, where the E-P2 has an Info button, the E-PL2 has a Menu button.

Olympus E-PL2 Hands On Camera Review - rear controls

Rear Controls

The biggest improvement over the E-PL1 is the addition of a real control dial. Gone is the pseudo-dial comprised of five individual buttons. Turning the dial – which Olympus calls the Arrow Pad/Control Dial – offers an easy way to quickly change settings. While in Aperture-Priority mode, for example, the dial adjusts the aperture.

The dial doubles as a keypad. Its four positions (top, bottom, left and right) control, respectively, Exposure Compensation, Sequential Shooting/Self-Timer, AF Target and Flash. These can be customized to control different functions.

This double-function, button/dial combination emphasizes the one weakness of the E-PL2’s control dial. It’s sensitive, so it’s easy to inadvertently push a button when you meant only to rotate the dial. I found it best to use my fingernail to turn the dial so as to exert as little pressure as possible.

Most functions that can be adjusted by the dial can also be adjusted by pressing the left or right arrow pad. So, use whichever method works best for you. I much prefer the E-P2’s single-function, spindle-shaped sub dial and would rather have seen Olympus implement it on the E-PL2. But having a dial of any type is preferable to none at all.

Olympus Zuiko14-42mm II Lens – Now with MSC

The other big change is the new kit lens. It has the same basic ingredients as the old one: 28-84mm (equivalent) focal range, f/3.5-5.6 maximum aperture. But MSC gives it that little extra kick.

Olympus E-PL2 Mirrorless Camera Review - 14-42mm lens comparison

Lens: New vs. Original

MSC stands for Motion & Still Compatible. What it means is that this lens zooms and manually focuses silently.

This feature is mainly of interest to videographers. Now they can zoom or pull focus during video recording without marring the clip’s audio track with lens noise.

Where audio tracks from the old kit lens would be ruined by noise from the lens, tracks recorded with the new lens are noise-free.

Auto focusing, however, is a different story. The internal mic does pick up the sound of the lens hunting for focus and it can easily ruin your audio track.  I’ll talk about this some more in the Movies section below.

Olympus E-PL2 In the Field camera review - lens size compared

Lens Comparison

What MSC means to a still photographer who occasionally shoots a movie (like me) is this: smoother lens action. It’s also smaller and lighter. Weighing in at an even 4-ounces, it shaves 1.3 ounces off the original lens. Some of this difference is attributable to the plastic lens mount versus the metal lens mount on the original.

(NOTE: the second version of the 14-42mm lens with the L designation which was packaged with the E-PL1 also has a plastic lens mount. The new lens, even with its II designation, is really the third Olympus micro-four-thirds lens of this focal length.)

Unlike the old kit lens, the new one does not rotate as it focuses. This makes a polarizing filter easy to use: it stays put even when refocusing.

The new lens uses 37mm filters, so none of the 40.5mm filters I had on hand for my E-P1 (with the original 14-42mm lens) will fit it. On the bright side, it does include a front mount for new Olympus fisheye, wide-angle and macro conversion lenses.

The new 14-42mm II lens will fit any micro-four-thirds mount camera including the entire Olympus PEN line and some cameras made by Panasonic and other manufacturers.

Focusing Speed

As with all contrast-detection auto-focus systems, focus speed depends on the amount of light falling on the subject.

Under good light, the kit lens focuses nearly instantaneously. Under dim light, focusing performance degrades: the lens may hunt for several seconds and, in really poor lighting, may not auto-focus at all.

There is no built-in focus assist lamp.

Raw Capture Speed

Olympus claims the E-PL2 can capture images at the rate of 3 frames per second. That’s darned fast for a camera in the E-PL2’s class.

I tested continuous raw capture speed using a SanDisk Extreme 30MB/s SDHC card.  I found the Olympus E-PL2 will capture 11 raw-only images in about 4 seconds before bogging down. That’s a fast 2.75 frames per second. It takes another 9.2 seconds to write the 11 images to the card for a total of 13.2 seconds.

Super Control Panel

As with all of the Olympus PEN cameras, the Super Control Panel (SCP) makes fast work of changing camera settings. It displays all commonly used settings on one screen. Changes are made by moving across the screen to the desired setting.

Olympus E-PL2 Compact Camera Review - Super Control Panel vs. Live Menu

Super Control Panel vs. Live Menu (animated)

The E-PL2’s new control dial really shines when using the Super Control Panel. Use the arrow pad to move to the setting you’d like to change and then use the dial to adjust it. In the SCP, if you do accidentally press the dial instead of turning it, the only thing that happens is that you move to a different setting. Press the arrow pad again to move back to your intended setting and try again.

With the E-PL1, every time you changed a setting, the Super Control Panel would close. You’d have to access it again in order to make additional changes. On the E-PL2, using the dial does not close the SCP. Sometimes, it’s the little things that make a camera easier to use.

Olympus E-PL2 Camera Review - ISO 1600

ISO 1600

The Super Control Panel is disabled by default. Enable it by accessing the Custom menu – the one with the gears icon. Within that menu, go to the DISP/PC option and then the Control Settings submenu.

Once enabled, you access the SCP by pressing the OK button in the center of the rear control dial. If only the live menu is shown, press the INFO button to toggle to the SCP. This setting is “sticky:” it will not change unless you press the INFO button again to toggle back to the live menu. So, next time you can access the SCP with only one click of the OK button.

The Super Control Panel is the best way to operate the E-PL2. In Aperture-Priority mode, the SCP gives you instant access to 19 settings: ISO, white-balance, focus mode, AF area, sequential shooting/self-timer, metering mode and many more.

Flash

The Olympus E-PL2 offers a pop-up flash and a hot-shoe, just like the E-PL1. Flash sync speed has been boosted to 1/180th second.

I did not have an Olympus flash for testing, but was able to get reliable exposures by using my Nikon SB-800 flash – set to Auto or Manual mode – in the hot-shoe.

The built-in flash can be used to wirelessly control certain off-camera Olympus flash units such as the Olympus FL-50R and the Olympus FL-36R.

Other Features and Improvements

    • Maximum Shutter Speed is now 1/4000th sec. – twice as fast as the E-PL1.
    • New 460,000 dot LCD Screen doubles the resolution of the E-PL1’s rear LCD and it’s bigger too: a full three-inches.
    • The new AP2 Accessory Port works with new accessories such as the PenPal Bluetooth transmitter and the Macro Arm Light as well as the old ones like the excellent the Olympus EVF-2 Electronic Viewfinder.
    • ISO Range from 200 to 6400. ISO settings below 200 have been eliminated.
    • Certain Art filter modes are processor intensive and cause the LCD display to drop frames and appear jumpy while preparing to capture an image.  The E-PL2 adds a new Art LV Mode setting which can be set to give priority to a smooth display rather than a completely accurate one. The actual image captured is not affected.
    • Like the E-PL1, there is no Orientation Sensor in the E-PL2. You’ll have to manually rotate any vertical images after importing them into the computer.
    • Automatic Exposure Bracketing range from 2 to 7 frames. When set to seven frames, exposures can be up to .7EV apart. At other settings, the maximum is 1EV.
    • Copyright Settings allows text to be recorded automatically to two different metadata fields: EXIF Artist and IPTC Copyright. Up to 63 characters can be entered in each field – including the © symbol. Upon import into Lightroom or Photoshop, these fields are automatically populated for still images (no metadata is recorded with movies).

Unfortunately, the Copyright Status field remains set to “unknown.” So, to make sure all pertinent fields are correctly populated, you’ll still want to use a metadata preset when importing photos into Lightroom.

    • Redesigned USB Port is compatible with the Olympus RM-UC1 Remote Cable Release. This makes the E-PL2′s Bulb exposure mode (up to 30 minutes) easier to use. On the E-PL1, you had to hold the shutter release during a bulb exposure: Not very practical.
    • The E-PL2 uses a battery with a new model number (BLS-5), but it is functionally equivalent to the battery used in previous PEN digital cameras. During testing, I mostly used the battery from my E-P1 to power the E-PL2. They are interchangeable.
    • The E-PL2 can use SDHC or SDXC cards. SDXC is a new format allowing for large storage capacity. Currently, the largest available is the SanDisk 64GB Ultra SDXC card.
Olympus E-PL2 Camera Review - Lensbaby

Lensbaby

With a transfer speed of only 15MB/s, the SDXC cards are much slower than the older SDHC cards which run at 45MB/s. This slow speed will reduce the performance of your camera and it will take longer to load your images onto your computer.

I’d recommend sticking with the SDHC format. If you need a large capacity card, try the SanDisk 32GB Extreme Pro SDHC UHS-1. It costs only a few dollars more than the SDXC card and it’s three times faster.

For complete details visit the Olympus website.

Customization

Via the Custom Menu and its ten submenus, 64 different operating parameters of the camera can be customized. The Custom Menu is not meant to be accessed regularly – it’s more of a set-it-and-forget-it kind of menu.

In addition, Reset/My Set allows saving commonly used shooting settings. MySet allows you to save up to four sets of shooting settings and access them quickly via the Reset/My Set menu. On the E-PL1, this option was called Custom Reset and only two saved sets were available. Reset sets the shooting data back to default settings.

Movies

High-definition movies are recorded in the AVI Motion JPEG format at 30fps at a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels (720p). Movie picture quality is very good.

Audio is recorded in mono. With an external microphone like the Olympus SEMA-1 Mic Adapter Set, stereo recording is possible.

Auto focusing during movie recording is typical of this type of camera: in continuous auto-focus mode, there will be a second or so of blurred video when refocusing. The E-PL2 also offers continuous auto-focus with tracking where focus is locked onto an object in the frame, single auto-focus which focuses at the beginning of the clip only and manual focusing.

As I mentioned earlier, though, noise from the focusing motor is recorded with the clip’s audio track and, in most cases, renders it unusable for any serious work.

If you’d like to be able to record usable audio with your movie while using the E-PL2’s continuous auto-focus or continuous auto-focus with tracking modes, you have a few options:

1)      Use the optional SEMA-1 Microphone Kit (or a third party microphone) off-camera. Way off. The microphone will have to be out of earshot of the lens. In a quiet environment, this is not possible with the short off-camera audio cable included with the SEMA-1, so you’ll need to find a longer extension cable.

2)      Shoot in a noisy environment where the lens noise won’t be noticed. Not too practical when filming an interview, but it might work for other scenes.

3)      Use a separate sound recording device which you can sync to the video in post-production. This is the way the big boys do it, so it’s probably the best option.

Olympus E-PL2 Review: From Still To Motion book.For simple, practical advice about capturing audio and video with your camera, I recommend a book called “From Still to Motion: A photographer’s guide to creating video with your DSLR.” Most of the advice in this book applies to compact-camera users too.

The authors devote a chapter to capturing quality audio. The takeaway lesson is this: don’t use the camera’s built-in microphone for anything other than reference audio which you can use later to sync the real audio recording.

The E-PL2 makes no provision for in-camera editing or trimming of movies. Video editing will need to be done afterward in the computer. Olympus has included several editing features for still images, so is it too much to ask to be able to at least trim the beginning and end of a clip in the camera? I guess so.

Olympus E-PL2 Camera Review - Top Controls

Top Controls

Movies can be recorded while the top mode dial is set to a still-photography mode. The movie will be recorded in the format specified by the dial. Options are limited when recording movies this way: the movie is recorded using settings specified by the camera. If the mode dial is set to one of the Art filter modes, the movie will be recorded using the same Art filter mode.

For more control over movies, turn the mode dial to the Movie setting. In the Movie mode, you can choose to capture movies in Program, Aperture-Priority or Manual Exposure modes as well as any of the Art filter modes. Other available settings include white balance, focus mode, resolution (HD or SD) and sound recording (ON or OFF).

In Movie mode, movie recording is activated using the red movie record button. Pressing the shutter release button allows a still image to be captured while the movie is being recorded. The movie clip be temporarily stopped and a new clip will automatically begin after each still image is captured. In effect, the still image capture splits the video into two clips.

Specifications

  • Sensor: 4/3” Live MOS Sensor
  • Effective pixels: 12.3M
  • LCD monitor: 3” TFT Color LCD
  • LCD Resolution: 460,000 dots
  • LCD coverage: 100% of image area
  • Included lens: Olympus M. Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 (37mm filter threads)
  • Lens angle of view (crop) factor: 2X. (14-42mm lens covers same area as 28-84mm on a full-frame 35mm camera.
  • Shutter: computerized focal-plane shutter
  • Shutter speed: 1/4000 – 60 sec. plus up to 30 minutes in Bulb mode.
  • Auto focus: contrast detection system with 11 focusing points. Focus point can be selected manually or automatically.
  • TTL Metering system: Digital ESP, center weighted or spot metering.
  • Shooting Modes: iAuto, Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, Manual, Art, Scene, Movie
  • ISO: 200 – 6400 in 1/3 or 1EV steps
  • Exposure compensation +/- 3EV in 1/3, 1/2 or 1EV steps.
  • Movie format: AVI motion JPEG.
  • Audio: Wave format, PCM 44.1 kHz mono (stereo-capable with external microphone)
  • Drive mode: single-frame/Sequential shooting (3 fps)/Self-timer (2 or 12 sec.)
  • Built-in Flash: TTL-auto/auto/manual, sync speed 1/180 sec. or less
  • Flash attachment: hot shoe
  • Dimensions (camera body only): 4.5” W x 2.9” H x 1.7” deep
  • Weight (including lens, lens cap, strap, battery and card): approx. 18.7 ounces.

For complete specifications, download the Olympus E-PL2 Instruction Manual.

New Accessories

Olympus has announced several new accessories for the E-PL2. Click on any of the links below to check availability and prices:

Olympus E-PL2 Camera Review - Fish Eye Converter Fisheye Converter (FCON-P01): Attach to the front of the 14-42mm II lens for 20.8mm (equivalent), 120-degree fish eye images.
Check the latest price at Adorama
Olympus E-PL2 Camera Review - Macro Converter Accessory Lens Macro Converter (MCON-P01): Fits the 14-42mm II lens for focusing as close as 24cm (9.5″). Magnification = .28x. Also fits a few other Olympus lenses.
Check the latest price at  Adorama
Olympus E-PL2 Camera Review - Wide Angle Converter Lens Wide Converter (WCON-P01): Attaches to the 14-42mm II lens to convert it to a 20.8mm (35mm format equivalent) with 89-degree field of view.
Check the latest price at Adorama
Olympus E-PL2 Camera Review - Macro Arm Light Accessory Macro Arm Light (MAL-1): Two flexible LED lights attach to the accessory port to light small objects.
Check the latest price at Adorama
Olympus E-PL2 Camera Review - Penpal Accessory Penpal Bluetooth transmitter (PP-1): Send pictures wirelessly from your E-PL2 to your mobile phone.
Check the latest price at Adorama

The E-PL2 also works with previously released Olympus PEN accessories.

Conclusion

The Olympus PEN E-PL2 is a huge improvement over the E-PL1. With it’s new controls, the E-PL2 is easier to use. Image quality is excellent for a camera this size.

Although the top-of-the-line Olympus E-P2 is superior in most respects, the E-PL2′s built-in flash (which the E-P2 lacks) makes it more convenient when you need a little fill flash.

For beginners, the E-PL2’s Live Guide system takes the guesswork out of photography and video with easy non-technical controls and shooting tips.

Advanced photographers and pros will want to disable the Live Guide and take full advantage of the E-PL2′s controls and menus.

Whether it’s meant to be your only camera, or a second camera to backup your pro DSLR, the Olympus PEN E-PL2 deserves a place in your camera bag.

Olympus E-PL2 from B&H Photo
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Print Friendly

{ 4 comments }

1 Daniel March 30, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Hi,

this is a nice review on the E-PL2.
I own the GF1 and am very tempted by the new Pen camera.
Which would you prefer to use? Especially for travel and street shots?
Would you say that the AF speed on the PL2 is now up to teh speed of the GF1?

I personally would love a comparing review on both cameras.

Thanks

Daniel

2 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen March 31, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Hi Daniel,

I no longer have access to the GF1 to do a side-by-side comparison with the Olympus E-PL2. No compact camera can match the focusing speed of even a cheap DSLR. So, if you really need fast focusing, get a DSLR. But I found the E-PL2 to be fast enough for the travel photography that I do.

Your best bet is to try the E-PL2 at a local camera store or order it from a company that offers a generous return policy. This way you can test it to see if it meets your needs and return if it doesn’t.

Both Adorama and Amazon offer 30-day return policies that I have used myself. In most cases, all you’ll end up paying is the shipping.

Here’s a link to Adorama’s return policy (scroll down a bit on that page to see it) and one for Amazon’s return policy.

If you do try the E-PL2, I’d love to have you leave another comment here and let me know what you think of it.

Alan

3 jim September 9, 2011 at 9:52 am

Read your review a few days ago and picked up the dual lens kit, they are practically giving them away in Canada, nice cross between point and shoot and my pentax k5 outfit, can’t wait to try out some of the new primes olympus just came out with. Color and exposure is dead on, even better than my pentax or my wife’s nikon’s. I’m covered from 28mm to 300mm in two small lenses,that weigh nothing,and the 40-150 is super sharp. Nice to read reviews that don’t take photos of playing cards or newspapers and blow them up 300%, great review.
Jim

4 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen September 9, 2011 at 11:03 am

Hi Jim,

Olympus just released the new E-PL3. That’s probably why the E-PL2 prices are so low.

I haven’t had a chance to check out the new camera, but I’ll bet it’s an improvement over the old one. Of course, it costs a lot more. Trying to keep up with all of the latest models is a short path to the poor house. Glad you got a good deal.

Alan

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: