Cameras

Olympus PEN E-PL5 Review

Olympus has infused its mid-range PEN with OM-D DNA to positive results.

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Introduction

Olympus, one of the originators of the Micro Four Thirds format, has refined its mirrorless system over the past five years. What started with a single camera, the PEN E-P1, soon grew into three product lines (PEN Lite and Mini) along with a mature selection of lenses (not to mention plenty of adapters for new and old lens mounts). Today, we're in the middle of a mirrorless renaissance and it's fair to say that Olympus's retro-styled PEN series paved the way.

Announced in 2012, the latest member of the mid-range Lite family is the Olympus PEN E-PL5 (MSRP $699.99 with a 14-42mm kit lens, $549.99 body-only). Olympus has blessed the E-PL5 with some technology previously only found in its top-tier Micro Fours Thirds camera, the OM-D E-M5. The E-PL5 inherits quick autofocus, new image processing, and an acclaimed 16 megapixel sensor. On paper, the E-PL5 looks like it might be the bargain-basement version of the OM-D, but our experience showed that it is a different beast altogether.

Design & Usability

Olympus has designed a camera that's a little modern, a little retro… and a little cramped.

It's too big for most pockets, but it's too dainty even for smaller hands.

The E-PL5 is a dead ringer for the E-PL3, save for the new optional front grip. The new model is fairly thin and light, but that's not entirely a good thing. Its smaller body lacks the chunky, grippy bits that make the OM-D a pleasure to shoot with. The thumb grip on the backside is not as flared, and even with the detachable grip on the front, the E-PL5 doesn't feature the kind of curves that feel natural to hold. The smaller size of the E-PL5 might be a draw for people shopping for a compact camera, but it doesn't strike a great balance between comfort and compactness. The E-PL5 is too big for most pockets, but it's too dainty even for smaller hands.

The ergonomic issues don't end there, either. You can easily nudge the mode knob when handling the E-PL5, which might lead to missed or botched shots. The preview and delete buttons are both awfully small, not to mention set flush against the camera's body. There aren't many programmable buttons (five options compared to nine on the OM-D) and it's missing the OM-D's DSLR-style secondary control dial. A few of the editors polled in the DCI office took exception to the feel of the E-PL5's shutter button, citing its gummy half-stop and indistinct full-stop.

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Self-portraits are a snap with the 170º screen.

But it's not all bad—the hinged touchscreen on the back has been upgraded. Instead of angling up or down like the OM-D and E-PL3, this 3-inch LCD can flip up 170 degrees, facing frontward. That lets you frame and take self-portraits without any fuss. On top of the screen is the Accessory Port 2 (AP2) interface. Olympus bundles the E-PL5 with a detachable AP2-compatible flash, but other accessories like an electronic viewfinder or the Bluetooth-enabled PENPAL attachment are extra.

There's one other notable usability curveball: the Olympus Micro Four Thirds menu structure, to put it kindly, is not very intuitive. There are plenty of options, but they aren't very clearly labeled and many are deeply nested in the complex menu structure. For advanced users, the Super Control Panel is an excellent tool, but it's inexplicably disabled by default.

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Features

This is Reaganomics for camera technology.

The E-PL5's features are similar to those of previous PEN cameras. It treads the line between being a point-and-shoot and being capable of so much more when called upon. Taking some of the best features from the OM-D, the E-PL5 gets a great 16-megapixel sensor paired with the same TruePic IV image processor. Because of the inherited processor, the autofocus speed is breakneck, locking focus in the blink of an eye. The E-PL5 shoots JPEG and RAW (or both, with the +RAW setting) and includes a speedy burst mode (we saw around 7.5 fps at full image quality) with custom timer settings.

What's not the same as the OM-D? Well, Olympus saved some money in the E-PL5 by using a slightly less effective three-axis image stabilization system instead of bringing over the OM-D's five-axis system. The kit lens is one of the lower-end M43 lenses (the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6), and while it's decent to start with, more advanced users will want to diversify their lens portfolio with some other lenses and adapters. On the plus side, the E-PL5 finally allows Panasonic lens fans to choose which image stabilization they want to take priority—in-body or lens-based stabilization.

Tap-to-focus is a very user-friendly way to choose your subject.

Although Olympus didn't completely replace its button-driven menus with a more touch-friendly system, it has still made good use of touch on the E-PL5. Tap-to-focus is a very user-friendly way to choose your subject. It's an intuitive, 21st-century feature that enables quick, precise focus selection. There's also an option to also focus and take a photo with a single tap, boiling the usual two-step shutter operation down to one simple, fast, direct action. Smartphone users will love flicking through their photos in the playback mode, although the omission of pinch-to-zoom is a little frustrating at first.

Video features are a little lacking—it seems video isn't the E-PL5's raison d'être and Olympus knows it. The camera has a stereo microphone built in, there are some video effects and in-camera editing, and the E-PL5 takes decent 1080/30p video, but on the whole it's an average achiever in this category.

Performance

The E-PL5 breathes new life into the PEN series.

The inclusion of the OM-D's 16-megapixel sensor in the E-PL5 is a long overdue change—the crusty 12-megapixel sensor in the E-PL3 had been outclassed by the chips in competing mirrorless offerings for some time. Going by the spec sheet, the sensor is identical to the OM-D's, and we found through our testing that it's no lie—the E-PL5 is a mini-OM-D under the hood.

Color reproduction is a strong suit, improving on the OM-D's results. Across the different color modes, the E-PL5 has better saturation and less error when shooting JPEGs. Although the auto white balance was sometimes a little slow to figure out different lighting conditions, we found that the manual white balance function did an excellent job. Noise was well-controlled at all ISO settings, and seemed to be on par with the OM-D, even handling higher ISOs a bit better than before.

The quick autofocus worked brilliantly in brightly lit conditions, but when shooting in a dim art museum it took a bit more time for the AF processor to figure out exactly what to focus on. The tap-to-focus and tap-to-shoot came in handy, for instance, when tracking a fast-moving squirrel. Because a shot is just a touchscreen tap away, action is easily selectable and quickly captured. Overall, the E-PL5's autofocus capability is impressive any way you choose to wield it.

For those wanting a fast burst mode, the E-PL5 delivers. Although Olympus quotes 8 fps, we found that the rate was a little closer to 7.5 fps in our tests. After around 25 shots, the E-PL5 slowed down to a rate around 1 FPS. The similarity to the Energizer bunny was a little uncanny—the E-PL5 kept going and going and going.

Video captured with the E-PL5 looks good but on our sharpness tests we noticed a good deal of moire. Chalk it up to the pixel binning required to step down a 16-megapixel image to 2-megapixels, or the native resolution of a 1080p video. Although there aren't frame rate choices, the E-PL5 does well with a native 30 fps mode; video is smooth and free of obvious artifacting. In the end, the E-PL5 will do in a pinch, but those looking to take a ton of video might do better with another Micro Four Thirds camera like Panasonic's GH3.

Conclusion

The E-PL5 is an excellent option for intermediate users looking for a compact system camera.

Although we had some issues with the camera's ergonomics and menu system, the E-PL5 nevertheless impressed us on its technical merits. There's just enough power here for point-and-shoot users who want to stretch their legs a bit, though more advanced users will likely get frustrated with the rather limited physical controls and the mediocre implementation of those that are available.

Those kinds of people should still invest in the OM-D. The weather sealing, extra customizable buttons and dials, five-axis image stabilization system and built-in electronic viewfinder make it a much better option for the hands-on photographer. But the price difference between the two is pretty steep—around $600 based on MSRP when buying with a kit lens. Considering the components at work inside the E-PL5, it's a real performance bargain.

Color Accuracy

Olympus has blessed the E-PL5 with surprisingly accurate color and a bunch of fun filters.

The E-PL5 is capable of superb color accuracy, depending on what color mode is being applied to photos. Using our trusty GretagMacbeth ColorChecker chart and Imatest, we found that the E-PL5's most accurate mode, Muted, produced a corrected color error of just 2.18, which is among the best we've seen in this price range. Across all its color modes, the E-PL5's output exhibited similar saturation levels to the OM-D's, but much better color reproduction with less error.

(Note that we recently changed the way we score color accuracy. Read all about it here.)

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The E-PL5 has very good accuracy according to Imatest. The "Muted" setting will net the best color reproduction out of all the color settings available.

For those who don't care about absolute accuracy, Olympus's Art Filters are a ton of fun. Of note are both the Instagram-esque Pin Hole filter and the dark, contrasty Grainy Film setting. In total, there are 12 filters (Watercolor, Key Line, Dramatic Tone Gentle Sepia, Cross Process, Diorama, Pin Hole, Grainy Film, Light Tone, Pale & Light Color, Soft Focus, and Pop Art). There's also a handy bracketing mode which will capture a single shot and output versions with each filter applied. It's perfect for people who just can't choose which one they like best.

Resolution

Sharp images and a little distortion from the kit lens

The tried-and-true 14-42mm kit lens we tested with the E-PL5 isn't a great lens but it isn't terrible either. We saw a fairly normal amount of distortion off the lens, meaning straight lines show a little barrel distortion at full wide-angle, but flips to minor pincushion at full telephoto. Bear in mind, though, that Micro Four Thirds cameras autocorrect distortion and chromatic aberration in-camera without telling the user. RAW photos do not have this autocorrection applied.

Our controlled lab testing revealed that the E-PL5's output was at least as sharp as, and in some cases even better than the OM-D's shots. Unfortunately, the sensors and lenses at work are a little different since OM-D comes with a different kit lens (the 12-50mm weatherproof model) and the E-PL5 omits a low pass (anti-aliasing) filter. Maximum sharpness with our test unit was around 2410 lw/ph at MTF50, achieved when shooting with the lens wide open at f/3.5 and at full wide-angle (14mm). When zoomed we in or closed down the aperture significantly, resolution dropped off a little.

Noise Reduction

Noise reduction is customizable and consistent

The E-PL5 has as good range of ISO settings available. Out of the box, you can shoot from ISO 200 to ISO 25600. Olympus includes two different types of noise reduction in the E-PL5's software. Confusingly, the setting for Noise Reduction is actually what other camera makers call long-exposure noise reduction. Noise Filter, on the other hand, is conventional high-ISO noise reduction.

We found that even when Noise Filter was set to Off, the E-PL5 still applied some noise reduction to JPEGs. Noise reduction was applied starting at base ISO and increased steadily as we raised sensitivity settings, regardless of which Noise Filter setting we were using. At the base ISO setting of 200, noise levels start at a relatively high 0.92%, but by choosing the Standard Noise Filter setting, you can bring this down to 0.62%. When Noise Filter is Off, noise doesn't cross the 2% threshold until ISO 3200 (a rough cutoff we use for an image that will be acceptable for print purposes). But, if Standard is selected, the 2% threshold isn't approached until ISO 6400.

We found that Noise Filter does an acceptable job when used on the Standard setting and doesn't compromise too much detail for the sake of removing noise at higher ISOs.

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Continuous Shooting Speed

Burst mode captures more than 20 shots before slowing down

The E-PL5's burst mode didn't let us down. It includes full-res JPEG, low-res JPEG, and even JPEG+RAW options. Using its full-resolution JPEG mode, we saw results of around 7.5 fps, which is slightly lower than the 8 fps that Olympus advertises. The E-PL5 must have a fairly sizable built-in cache, because the full-speed burst rate didn't start slowing down until after more than 20 shots had been collected. Even after it slowed down, camera kept shooting at around 1 frame per second. Keep in mind that we did see lower burst rates when image stabilization was turned on.

Video Performance

It seems that video was a bit of an afterthought with the E-PL5. Although it sports a built-in stereo microphone and has a dedicated video record button, it doesn't have a whole lot to offer videographers. 30 fps is offered across a few different resolutions (HD 1080p and 720p as well as SD). There's H.264 (in MOV guise) and Motion JPEG on tap instead of the superior AVCHD. To top it all off, there's no additional mic port—users are stuck with the built-in microphone only.

When we played back our sharpness videos, we observed that found the small sensor in the E-PL5 preferred a well-lit environment. In bright light, the E-PL5 resolved 525 line pairs per picture height on the horizontal and 800 lp/ph on the vertical whereas we saw a 500/650 lp/ph score in low light. In our dedicated low-light video test, the E-PL5 needed 17.5 lux in order to reach 50 IRE (a minimum brightness standard for broadcast video). All in all, the results aren't terrible for a stills camera, but not anything to phone home about.

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