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*November 5, 2009 *- Olympus today announced the E-P2, a compact Micro Four Thirds camera that looks and feels nearly identical to the E-P1 released just a few months ago (reviewed here). Closer inspection reveals one significant hardware alteration, though: a new accessory port located on the back of the camera, just below the hot shoe. And in the system box is the major upgrade that takes advantage of that new port, an electronic viewfinder provided as standard equipment.
The accessory port can also be also used to mount an external microphone adapter, the EMA-1, which will be sold separately. The microphone adapter adds a stereo jack to the system — any standard stereo mic can be connected. Pricing for this adapter hasn't been announced.
Under the hood are a few additional upgrades from the E-P1. Full manual control of shutter speed and aperture are now available in movie mode. A new continuous autofocus tracking system has been added, that follows subjects automatically as they move in both still and movie modes. Two additional art filters, Diorama and Cross Process, join the six existing choices. And a new picture mode has also been added, called iEnhance, that's supposed to improve the most prominent colors in a scene while leaving the others unchanged.
The E-P2 will be available in two kit configurations, each priced at $1099 and including the camera body and electronic viewfinder. One kit comes with an ED 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens. The other includes a 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens. The EP-2 is scheduled to ship in December.
Olympus provided us with a pre-production sample of the E-P2, which we were pleased to put through its paces. Unfortuantely, since this was not a finished model, we were asked not to post sample pictures taken with the camera, and to hold off on judging system performance until we get a final unit in our hands, both of which seem like reasonable requests. We do have photos of the camera itself, though, plus some initial impressions of the new features offered. With the exception of these handful of upgrades, the E-P2 basically works the same as the E-P1. Rather than rehash the entire feature set here, you can read our full review of this highly-rated model here.
Shown here are the E-P1 in silver and the E-P2 in black (the only available color; the E-P1 comes in silver and white). If you're not seeing a lot of visible difference here, there's a reason for that: the two cameras are the same size and shape, and indistinguishable except for color from the front.
The camera back is also basically a twin of the E-P1 layout, with one key exception: the small accessory port below the hot shoe, shown below in close-up.
Out of the box, this port is used to mount the included VF-2 electronic viewfinder. As shown below, this EVF is hinged at the front, allowing it to pivot up to 90 degrees.
It turns out this hinged layout is more than a convenience; it's basically a requirement. When we tried holding the camera up to our eyes with the viewfinder sitting straight across, the top left edge of the camera pushed right into the front right of our noses. Perhaps post-rhinoplasty this wouldn't be a problem, but it didn't work well with our unaltered proboscises. On the plus side, we found it perfectly comfortable shooting with the viewfinder at about the angle you see above. And the view is terrific, recreating the Live View display exactly with no smearing or blurring as we quickly panned the camera around. The field of view is 100% and, according to Olympus, the contrast ratio is 300:1 on a 1440K dot screen with 1.15x magnification. You can adjust the diopter setting by turning the outer ring left and right, and switch between LCD and EVF by pressing the button on the back of the viewfinder.
We didn't have a sample of the external microphone jack for our test drive, but since you'll be shooting with Live View when the mic is attached, we don't anticipate any nasal infringement issues there.
Even on this preproduction unit, we were impressed with the Continuous Autofocus Tracking System performance. As shown in the screen capture above, the system locks onto a focal point (shown in green) and follows it with dogged determination. In fact, we tried it out with a dog bounding around in the backyard, and she never managed to elude the focus lock as long as we panned the camera quickly enough, both shooting stills and movies.
As for movies, the manual adjustment of shutter speed and aperture is much appreciated. By simply turning the control dial (conveniently placed by your right thumb) we were able to quickly shift aperture from f/22, at which point the entire yard was in sharp focus, to f/4.0, when only a single branch was captured sharply.
In addition to the six tried and true Art Filters in the Olympus lineup (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale & Light Color, Light Tone, Grainy Film and Pin Hole), the E-P2 adds two newcomers.
The Diorama makes the scene look kind of like a toy train layout, blurring everything but the center of the image, pumping up the colors and raising contrast. It works as promised, though examples of situations where it might be useful don't leap to mind. Maybe the next time we're looking down from the top of the Empire State Building....
Marginally more interesting (and certainly mysterious to most people) is Cross Process. The name is a throwback to the days of film cameras. To achieve unusual visual effects, photographers would sometimes develop film using chemicals designed for a different kind of film stock. Our shooting results using this filter were, in a word, odd. Images picked up a greenish cast in most cases, and edges were enhanced. On a few shots the effect was fairly interesting, in a shooting craps kind of way; the results were unpredictable. As always when using an Olympus Art Filter, we're inclined to shoot RAW + JPEG, so we have a version free from the filter effect (the RAW file) plus one with it (the JPEG).
Rounding out the new features list is iEnhance, a film mode which will, according to Olympus, 'automatically adjust color and contrast for a more dramatic effect.' Shooting with our preproduction camera, the iEnhance mode photos looked quite close to those shot in Vivid color mode, with amped-up, oversaturated colors. The effect isn't unpleasant, if you like that Kodachrome style, though we are a bit concerned that iEnhance is used whenever iAuto mode is chosen.
Overall, our initial reaction to the E-P2 is postiive. Movie shooters will welcome the added flexibility of shutter speed and aperture control, and the option to use an external mic is a major step forward. The electronic viewfinder offers a handsome view of the scene at hand, and we've forgiven Olympus for the brief nose-mashing we experienced when we first tried the system.
As far as price is concerned, the $1099 system matches the cost of a Panasonic GF1 (reviewed here) plus the optional electronic viewfinder for that camera. The GF1 includes a built-in pop-up flash that the E-P1 lacks, which means you can shoot with an EVF and flash simultaneously, not possible with the Olympus. The other key question about the E-P2 is autofocus speed, a decided negative mark against the E-P1. Since we were shooting with a pre-production unit, we'll reserve judgment on that score until we get a final system in for review. We can say, though, that the new Continuous Autofocus Tracking capability worked very nicely, and made working with autofocus while shooting a moving subject much more practical.