Cameras

Olympus PEN E-PL2 Digital Camera Review

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Introduction

The Olympus E-PL2 is an update to the PEN E-PL1, released in 2009 as the company's latest entry into the Micro Four Thirds market. The upgrades on this new model are relatively minor: a wider ISO range, some minor design changes (including a port for a new PEN accessory), and a quieter focus mechanism in the new kit lens—designed be less obtrusive during video capture. Despite the paucity of upgrades, the E-PL2 remains a good package for a compact camera. As with the E-PL1, we were disappointed by the necessity to purchase an add-on viewfinder and by the comparatively noisy images. At the same time, both PENs have solid overall performance, are easy to use, and have a compact form factor that's easy to love.

Front

Front Tour Image

Back

Back Tour Image

Sides

Right Tour Image

Bottom

Bottom Tour Image

Top

Top Tour Image

Size Comparisons

In the Box

Box Photo

As well as the camera, you get:

  • 14-42mm zoom lens
  • shoulder strap
  • lithium-ion battery (BLS-5)
  • battery charger
  • USB/composite video cable
  • Olympus Viewer 2/ib CD-ROM
  • Instruction Manual

There is no HDMI cable included; you'll have to purchase this separately (miniHDMI to HDMI) if you want to connect the E-PL2 to an HDTV.

Color Accuracy

Our color test looks at how accurately a camera can capture the 24 colors on our DSC Labs test chart. Some cameras produce oversaturated colors, which look overly bright and even cartoonish. That may be fine for a holiday shot on the beach, but it won't look good for a portrait. We found that the E-PL2 had the opposite problem: in most color modes, photographs looked a bit dark and undersaturated, producing almost gloomy looking images.

Click here for more on how we test color

The most accurate color mode in our performance testing was the E-PL2's Muted mode, although Natural mode came very close. The crops from our test chart shown below are from a full resolution image shot in Muted mode.

NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors.

The E-PL2 has a middling color score: slightly worse than the E-PL1, but better than the Samsung NX100. However, all of these cameras are beaten by the more expensive (and now outdated) E-P1 and many APS-C cameras, like the Canon T2i.

Color Modes

The E-PL2 offers a limited range of color modes, with five standard options: Vivid, Natural, Muted, Portrait and Monotone. A custom mode is also offered, which allows the user to adjust contrast, sharpness, gradation and saturation. A number of other picture modes are also on offer, such as an iEnhance mode (which matches the color processing to the scene mode), as well as several art filters that impact image quality.

Below are crops from our color chart taken in four of the color modes that this camera offers: Muted, Natural, Portrait, and Vivid. All of these modes (except Vivid) produced somewhat undersaturated results. An ideal saturation is about 100 percent, but the closest was obtained in Portrait mode, at 95 percent. Vivid mode was, unsurprisingly, oversaturated to about 105 percent.

NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors.

Long Exposure

The E-PL2 has three options for long exposure noise reduction: Off, On, and Auto. We shot our usual test using all three settings and found that Auto mode provided the best results in terms of color accuracy and noise. The tests show that the E-PL2 has about average performance when using long exposure to accommodate low light conditions.

Click here for more on how we test long exposure.

Color error was definitely improved when noise reduction was activated—in either On or Auto mode. The average color error with noise reduction off was about 3.30, while the average color error with noise reduction on was 3.03.

Noise levels during long exposure low light testing were definitely impacted by the E-PL2's noise reduction setting. Leaving NR off resulted in noise levels of about 1.80%, with a maximum noise percentage of 2.29%. That's considerably higher than the 1.68% average noise (and 1.88% maximum noise) achieved in the camera's Auto NR mode.

We did find that leaving the NR set to On resulted in slightly worse results: noise increased at the one-second and five-second shutter speeds. In Auto NR, the camera seemed to effectively enable noise reduction only where it was most needed: at exposures of ten seconds or longer.

Compared to other cameras in this group, the E-PL2 is right there in the middle of the pack. It will certainly perform fine in low light scenarios, but if you do a lot of shooting in those conditions, the Samsung NX100 is your best bet among these compact interchangeable lens cameras.

Noise

Noise is a particular problem for Micro Four Thirds cameras like the E-PL2. Because they use image sensors that are smaller than other types, the sensors are more prone to pocking up random electrical noise (the smaller the sensor, the less light it captures and the more significant the noise becomes). We found that the E-PL2 was slightly better in this respect than its predecessor the E-PL1, but only by a very small amount: images quickly became noisy as the ISO level increased, with the noise becoming very visible at ISO levels of 800 and above.

Click here for more on how we test noise.

The E-PL2 is a noisy camera, but the noise reduction does a lot to remove the noise: as the noise reduction (or the Noise Filter as Olympus calls it) is enabled at higher levels, the noise falls across the entire ISO range: even the minimum of ISO 200 is somewhat improved.

We also look at the noise in the individual color channels to see if any color is more prone to noise than others. We did not find any significant difference between the color and luminance channels here: the noise pattern is consistent between the channels.

If we compare the performance of the E-PL2 with the noise reduction off, we see that it has the same issues as other Micro Four Thirds cameras, like the E-PL1 and the E-P1. The noise climbs quickly as the ISO increases, maxing out at a very high 5.28 per cent noise at the ISO 6400 setting.

If we look at the performance of the E-PL2 against the other cameras with the noise reduction set to maximum (the setting of Noise Filter High for the E-PL2), we see that the E-PL2 does a little better, showing comparable noise levels with the other cameras. However, this comes at a cost: the noise filter also removes a lot of detail from the image. Example photos at all of the noise reduction settings are shown in the Sample Photos section of this review.

As you can see, the E-Pl2 had only a middling noise score. We did see a distinct improvement over the E-PL1, but the images were still noisier than those taken with other cameras.

ISO

The ISO range of the E-PL2 goes from a minimum of ISO 200 up to 6400, in steps of either 1 EV (200, 400, 800, etc) or 1/3 of an EV (200, 250, 320, 400, etc). This is a wider range than the E-PL1, which offered a range of 100 to 3200. There is also an Auto ISO function, which will make the setting automatically based on lighting conditions. The user can set an upper limit to the auto ISO, and a default value that the camera will start at when set to auto ISO.

We don't see a lot of cameras offering ISO bracketing, but it is provided as an option on the E-PL2, alongside the White Balance and Exposure bracketing. In a three-shot sequence, the ISO value is raised and lowered from the current setting by 0.3, 0.7 or 1.0 EV.

The examples below were shot with the Noise Filter on the Standard setting. Examples of other noise reduction levels can be seen in the sample photos section of this review.

NOTE: The images above are not used in our testing or scoring, but are included here to show real-world examples of the differences between cameras at the various ISO settings.

Section

Direct Print Options

Sensor

The E-PL2 is built around a 4/3-inch MOS sensor with a total of about 13.06 megapixels. The number that are actually used to capture images is about 12.3 megapixels. Like all Micro Four Thirds cameras, this sensor is smaller than cameras that use APS-C sized sensors, which helps keep the camera and lenses small.

Convergence areas of different sensor sizes compared

The sensor also includes a dust removal system, which shakes the sensor when the camera is turned on or off.

Viewfinder

The E-PL2 does not include a viewfinder, but an optional viewfinder is available.

LCD

On the back of the camera body is the LCD screen that provides the image preview and playback. This is a 3-inch LCD with a 460k resolution. We found it to be decent, but unspectacular: the image previews have good color, but they are not overly sharp and it is difficult to see fine details. The preview also gets somewhat jerky when panning the camera or shooting in low light. The Live View Boost feature does help somewhat by boosting the brightness of the screen, but it can still be somewhat difficult to see in some conditions.

The LCD screen is a big improvement from the E-PL1, with nearly double the resolution. This makes it much sharper, but it is not much brighter.

LCD Control Panel

There is no additional LCD panel on this camera.

Flash

The E-PL2 is one of the few Micro Four Thirds cameras to include a flash in the form of a small pop-up flash. The flash is small, but it pops up a good distance from the lens on a nicely designed hinged arm, and is pretty bright for its size (Olympus puts the guide number at 7 at ISO 100). What's impressive is the even coverage we found in our flash shots, with only a slightly hot spot in the middle.

The flash is a manual model: it will not fire until you manually press the release button and it pops up. We prefer this system to cameras that take it upon themselves to raise the flash and fire, causing potentially problems in flash-free environments. Flash output can also be adjusted manually, to full, 1/4, 1/16 or 1/64 power. And when shooting with the standard flash modes, you can adjust the intensity in a ±3 EV range.

Flash bracketing is an option, with a three-shot sequence and 0.3, 0.7 or 1.0 EV increments.

With compatible external flash units, the E-PL2 can control three units independently.

Lens Mount

The E-PL2 uses the Micro Four Thirds lens mount, which means it can use any lens that is compatible with this mount. There are a decent range of lenses available, from wide angle to long zooms, but the spread of lenses is not as wide as those available to Canon and Nikon lenses. One upside of this lens mount is that many of the lenses offer a locking feature, where a switch on the lens barrel collapses the lens down, making it smaller for storage.

The kit lens supplied with this camera is a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 MSC (Movie & Still Compatible) zoom, which Olympus claims has been tweaked for better video shooting

The 14-42mm kit lens of the E-PL2 offers a decent zoom range, as the examples below show.

Battery

The E-PL2 is powered by a 1150mAh battery (model number BLS-5) that fits into a cavity in the grip. Olympus has not released any details of the expected battery life, but we were able to do quite a lot of shooting from a fully charged battery, so it should not be a serious issue.

Memory

The E-PL2 stores images and video on SD, SDHC or SDXC memory cards. The cards fit into a slot above the battery.

Jacks, Ports & Plugs

There are two I/O connectors under a plastic door that closes tightly but works poorly; it has a plastic hinge that won't open completely, and feels like it will break if bent back too often. Inside is an Olympus proprietary connector for standard-def video (with mono audio) and USB data. Below that is a mini HDMI port for connecting directly to a high-def TV.

Other Features

Olympus_E-PL2_bluetooth.jpg

Bluetooth Adapter - one of the new features for this camera is the support for the Penpal PP-1 bluetooth adapter, which fits into the hot shoe. This allows you to connect the camera to a Bluetooth cell phone and copy smaller versions of images to the phone, which can then post them to the Internet. Images can also be sent to the camera, and albums can be created which can be displayed through a Bluetooth display device. Unfortunately, we were not able to get this device to work: the device failed to pair with several cell phones and laptops. One caveat here that severely limits the usefulness of this feature: it will not currently work with the Apple iPhone, as this phone does not support the required Bluetooth profiles. Olympus told us that they are looking into creating their own iPhone App, but this was not available at the time of writing.

Handling

The E-PL2 is a small camera, but it is well designed to fit into the right hand well, with the grip on the front providing a decent grip. It is a little shallow to get a really firm grip, though, so we would recommend the use of the included neck strap. The index finger falls naturally onto the still shutter button, with the thumb landing on an indentation in the back of the camera, but still within easy reach of the info button and the movie shutter. This does cover the small speaker, though.

Handling Front Image
Handling Back Image

Controls

The layout of the buttons on the back of the E-PL2 has changed somewhat from the E-PL1, with the square buttons replaced by smaller rounded ones and the addition of a control wheel around the directional pad. These changes are mostly good, though: the rounded buttons are easy to find by touch, and the control dial makes it easier to quickly scroll through settings such as shutter speed and aperture.

The E-PL2 offers three levels of menus: the live control menu, a "super control panel" the main menu. The live control menu shows on the right and bottom edges of the screen, with the right side turning into a scrollable menu when you hit the OK button, offering access to the shooting controls such as ISO, aspect ratio, drive mode, etc. The super control panel is only available when shooting in the art or scene modes, and it shows a lot of shooting info overlaid on the main screen. This screen is not available by default: it has to be enabled in the display options menu.

The final menu is the main menu, where Olympus favored a simpler approach than most. By default, the camera only shows 4 screens of options: camera 1, camera 2, playback and configuration. You can add two more (for custom options and display options) tabs by enabling them in the configuration screen.

Main Menu Picture

Manual & Learning

The printed manual supplied with the E-PL2 is 99 pages long, and is supplied in both English and Spanish. Although it is well illustrated, it is somewhat lacking in clarity, with many more complex features poorly explained, and a contents page that is about a third of the way through the manual. presumably to distinguish between the basic and more advanced guide sections. Combine this with the absence of an index, and you have a rather confusing manual.

Video: Color Performance

Color results weren't great on the E-PL2, but that's kind of what we expected based on how Olympus cameras have performed in our video testing in the past. The E-PL2 managed a color error of 5.9 and a saturation level of 78.37% when using its Natural color setting. These are marginally better than the numbers put up by the E-PL2.

Click here for more on how CamcorderInfo.com tests color performance.

The E-PL2 has a few color modes that are available during video recording, but none of them produced significantly more accurate colors than the camera's "Natural" color setting. The Vivid mode rendered colors with a higher saturation level (around 90%), while the Muted mode had the best color accuracy (5.77 color error).

When you look at the close-up color comparisons you can see that the E-PL2 produced a slightly grainier image than the E-PL1. This grain is particularly noticeable in the brown color patch at the bottom of this table. This issue is probably a direct result of the E-PL2's higher-than-average noise performance in our bright light video testing.

Video: Noise Performance

The E-PL2 managed 0.56% noise in this test. While this number isn't bad, it is quite a bit higher than the competition. Specifically, it is more than double the amount of noise measured on the E-PL1 in this same test. The E-PL2 does have a variety of noise filters and a noise reduction feature, but we turned these options off for our bright light test.

Click here for more on how CamcorderInfo.com tests noise performance.

Video: Motion Performance

Overall, the Olympus E-PL2's motion scores were similar to what we saw from the E-PL1, but the two cameras performed differently in individual categories. The E-PL2 had less artifacting, but its motion image was not as smooth and had more trailing than its predecessor. Overall, we wouldn't call its motion capturing impressive, but it performed on par with most Micro Four Thirds cameras.

Click here for more on how CamcorderInfo.com tests motion.

Video: Sharpness

The E-PL2 records at a maximum resolution of 1280 x 720, which, while still HD, is not as high resolution as most consumer HD camcorders (most record Full HD at a 1920 x 1080 resolution). Still, the camera managed a respectable sharpness value of 600 lw/ph vertical and 600 lw/ph horizontal. These numbers are a slight edge over last year's E-PL1 and the Samsung NX100—both of which also record 720p video. The Canon T2i can record Full HD, and, because of this, it managed a sharper image than the other three cameras we used as comparison models.

Click here for more on how CamcorderInfo.com tests video sharpness.

Video: Low Light Sensitivity

Low light sensitivity was disappointing on the E-PL2 as the camera required 22 lux of light to hit 50 IRE on our waveform monitor. This is just a tad less light than the E-PL1 needed, so at least Olympus showed a bit of an improvement here. Remember, though, with these interchangeable lens cameras it entirely depends on what lens you have attached when determining low light sensitivity. All of our testing was done with the E-PL2's kit lens, which is an f/3.5 lens.

Click here for more on how CamcorderInfo.com tests low light sensitivity.

The E-PL2 does not offer any alternate recording frame rates other than its regular 30p setting. Some cameras (and camcorders) offer multiple frame rates and often the low light sensitivity is different with each (because different frame rates allow for different shutter speed values). With the Canon T2i, however, its sensitivity was the same in both of its frame rates.

Video: Low Light Color Performance

Low light color accuracy on the E-PL2 was better than the camera's results in our bright light test. It earned a color error of 4.29 and a saturation level of 90.58%—both of which are better numbers than the Olympus E-PL1 managed in this same test.

Click here for more on how CamcorderInfo.com tests low light color performance.

As you can see by the images below, low light performance can vary drastically from camera to camera. The E-PL1 and E-PL2 offered similar results at first glance, but when you look at our numbers you'll see the E-PL2 had better color accuracy (and more vivid colors), while the E-PL1 had less noise.

Video: Low Light Noise Performance

We measured the average noise for the E-PL2 at 0.68%, which isn't all that much higher than the camera managed in our bright light noise test. This score is very good, although we often see top-notch scores in this category with video-capable DSLR cameras. As you can see from the images below, however, the E-PL2 still had some trouble with noise and grain in its low light image (particularly when compared to the E-PL1).

Click here for more on how CamcorderInfo.com tests low light noise performance.

The E-PL2 has a lot of noise reduction features including a variety of noise filters. In our video testing, we found the Noise Reduction setting did nothing to reduce noise levels in our low light test, while the Noise Filter option did quite a bit. Without any noise reduction or filters implemented, the E-PL2 managed a noise level of around 1.7%. The camera earned a nearly identical number with just its noise reduction turned on. Engaging a noise filter, however, brought the noise levels down to the 0.68% we noted for the score.

Video: Compression

The Olympus E-PL2 uses Motion JPEG (MJPEG) compression and the AVI file format, which is a bit outdated by today's standards. Few, if any, consumer camcorders use this compression system, and most video-capable DSLRs have switched over to AVCHD or MPEG-4 compression as well. MJPEG is usually reserved for point-and-shoot cameras that offer a video record mode. Olympus used this same compression system on the E-PL1 last year.

That being said, MJPEG compression is compatible with most editing programs and media players, and the format isn't overly taxing on your computer (like AVCHD is known to be). The Olympus E-PL2 has one HD record mode that captures video at a 1280 x 720 resolution and one standard definition mode that records a 640 x 480 image. All video is recorded with a 30p frame rate, and the camera has a maximum file size limitation of 2GB (a limitation of the AVI format).

Video: Manual Controls

The E-PL2's predecessor, the aptly named E-PL1, had a good set of manual controls available in video mode. Apparently, Olympus felt like this set was good enough, as the E-PL2 has the same amount of options: aperture, shutter speed, exposure, and ISO control. You can also set white balance and focus manually in video mode. We can't say the system for adjusting these controls is very good, but the extensive set of controls available in video mode is on par with the best video-capable DSLRs on the market.

Auto Mode

Auto mode on the E-PL2 is also relatively unchanged from what we saw on the Olympus E-PL1. New, however, is the "silent" autofocus system that provides continual autofocus during video recording. To Olympus' credit, the focus is very quiet, but we weren't impressed by its sluggish performance. It was less accurate and far slower than the autofocus you'd get from a good consumer camcorder.

Zoom Controls and Zoom Ratio

Since the E-PL2 has an interchangeable lens system, the amount of zoom you get with the camera is entirely dependent on what lens you have mounted. The kit lens is a 14 - 42mm lens, which corresponds to a 3x optical zoom.

Focus

As we discussed above, the E-PL2 has a new autofocus system. The new system not only allows for continual autofocus during video recording, but it also makes focusing quieter, which is a huge problem on many video-capable DSLRs. We like this improvement by Olympus, and the feature is also a noteworthy adaptation on the Samsung NX11, but we still don't think the autofocus on the E-PL2 is as good as a top-notch consumer camcorder. The focus isn't nearly as quick, and it was imprecise at times. Olympus is almost there, but we think there's room for improvement.

If the autofocus isn't good enough for you, there's always a manual focus option you can use with the E-PL2. Just rotate the lens ring to bring your images into focus in manual focus mode. You can also do a one-time autofocus by pressing the shutter button down halfway.

Exposure, Aperture and Shutter Speed

All three of these controls are available for adjustment in video mode, although none of them can be set during video recording. You can set basic exposure manually in any mode other than the full manual setting. In the full manual mode you have access to both aperture and shutter speed adjustment independently. There's also an aperture-priority mode where you can set aperture manually and the camera selects a corresponding shutter speed. You can also set exposure manually in aperture-priority mode.

ISO and Other Controls

ISO can only be set manually for video in the full manual mode that also allows for shutter speed and aperture adjustment. This is unfortunate, because we'd like to be able to change the ISO in other modes as well (it is stuck in auto for all other modes). We're also miffed that you can't set the ISO to auto mode in manual mode. Basically, it's either all or nothing with the manual ISO control on the E-PL2. The ISO range in video mode is smaller than for photos, as it only runs from ISO 400 to ISO 1600.

Other controls include manual white balance options and white balance presets, color presets and settings, and a few art filters that function somewhat like special scene modes or digital effects. Exposure can be set when using art filters, but aperture, shutter speed, and ISO cannot.

Audio Features

The E-PL2 has a built-in mono microphone that won't get you very good audio. There is an optional stereo microphone called the SEMA-1 that will run you around $90 and connects to the E-PL2's accessory port (and mounts to the hot shoe). If you're serious about recording good audio with your E-PL2, we recommend getting a separate audio recording system entirely (and definitely using an external microphone).

Audio Features Image

Yup, those two dots next to the "Olympus" logo represent the camera's built-in mic

Video: Handling

In terms of handling for video mode, the E-PL2 is not much different than the E-PL1. The kit lens is a bit smaller on the E-PL2, so you do get a slightly more compact camera when it is all closed up and tossed into your bag. But we're only talking about a few millimeters here and that's not really something that makes too big of a difference. The E-PL2 is still a fairly large product—you certainly won't be waltzing around with it tucked into your back pocket. Compared to true DSLRs, however, it is small and very portable.

Handling Front Image

We'd like to see the E-PL2 include an LCD that can rotate, tilt, or swivel because that is definitely something that would help with videography. It doesn't matter how large the LCD is, it's really the flexibility of the screen that affects handling in video mode. With a stationary screen you often have to crouch or position your body in an uncomfortable manner in order to shoot video. In addition, we're not too impressed with the manual control interface on the E-PL2.

Handling Back Image

There's no dial for making aperture or shutter speed adjustments, and the d-pad on the back of the camera clearly is not the best way to set these kind of controls. Olympus has done it this way for a couple of years (on the E-PL2 and E-P1), so we think it is time for a change.

Conclusion

The Olympus E-PL2 is an update to the E-PL1 which was released last year. The upgrades on this new model are relatively minor: a wider ISO range, improved video shooting and some minor design changes. However, we found the E-PL1 to be a very decent package in a compact camera, and our tests so far with the E-PL2 show that this does not seem to have changed with the newer model: it has the same pros (compact package, easy to use) and cons (no viewfinder, rather noisy images).

Performance

Our tests so far show that the color performance of the E-PL2 is relatively unchanged, but the noise performance seems to have been improved slightly. In our tests, we saw lower noise across the board, despite an increase in the ISO range from the 100-3200 of the E-PL1 out to the 200-6400 of the E-PL2. Our other tests are not yet complete.

Video Performance

Video performance with the E-PL2 wasn't anything better than what we saw from last year's E-PL1 from Olympus. The camera does have a top-notch set of manual controls available in video mode, and the new silent autofocus feature works quite well, but we'd like to see some better performance (and better handling in video mode) with the next effort from Olympus.

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