Olympus E-PL2 review

Olympus Micro Four Thirds system Pen a DSLR alternative?

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Since 2008 we have witnessed a steady trickle of digital cameras that have removed the internal mirror mechanism of a SLR to bring lens and sensor closer together and enable physically smaller camera bodies. These cameras have been referred to as ‘hybrids’ or ‘interchangeable lens compacts’, with the latest term settled upon being ‘compact system cameras’, or CSC’s for short.

Whatever you want to call it, the 12-megapixel Olympus E-PL2 is its manufacturer’s fourth attempt to bring such a camera to public prominence. The pitch is again quality comparable with a digital SLR but a shape that is closer to a pocket compact, even though it won’t actually fit in one with lens attached. And yes, the lens on the front can be swapped, with a 14-42mm zoom provided in the ‘cheapest’ kit, which will set you back around £500. So that’s comparable with the expense of a beginner’s DSLR proper and standard 18-55mm zoom.

There are 15 further compatible Micro Four Thirds system lenses to choose from, and many more besides if using an adapter.

Other alternatives in its ‘CSC’ class include the Sony NEX-3 and NEX-5, the burgeoning Samsung NX series, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 and Ricoh GXR. Alternatively there’s Olympus’ own XZ-1 high-end compact if you don’t actually care about swapping the lens on the front.

Olympus E-PL2: Controls

At first glance the Olympus E-PL2 looks much the same as 2010’s E-PL1, with similar body proportions and roughly the same control layout. It feels altogether less obviously plastic however, and weighs slightly more because of it.

The shutter release button has been made larger and so has the rear LCD screen, which is now 3-inches. There’s no optical or electronic viewfinder, though both can be bought as extras. These attach via an accessory port at the back and vacant hotshoe just above, as on its predecessor, which will also hold an accessory flashgun or stereo microphone.

The newer model is more comfortable to hold than its forbear as the handgrip has been enlarged, and wireless connectivity is offered if buying one of Olympus’ new Penpal Communication units.

A halfpenny sized shooting mode dial on the top plate offers manual adjustments courtesy of program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual capture modes. We also scene and subject recognition via iAuto (intelligent Auto) mode as the default and very reliable option, allowing for easy point and shoot operation. There are additionally 22 scene modes to choose from and six Art Filter digital effects on the dial.

Olympus E-PL2: Features

Whereas the early Digital Pen models in the E-P1 and E-P2 mystifyingly omitted a built-in flash, like the E-PL1 the Olympus E-PL2 rights that wrong and has very coolly sunk its own bulb unobtrusively into the camera’s top plate. Much like on Panasonic’s more obviously modernist Lumix DMC-GF2. Give the manual switch behind a nudge and this pops up with a reassuringly solid sounding ‘clunk’.

Also carried over from its predecessor is an instructional ‘Live Guide’ toolbar, accessible only in iAuto mode. This shows the effects of adjustments to the likes of colour saturation and adding motion blur to images in real time, so encouraging experimentation among the less experienced of photographers. Like on the Olympus XZ-1, we also get a hints and tips section on how to take better snaps.

What we didn’t really like at all however is the scroll wheel operation added to the E-PL2 instead of the traditional four-way control pad at the rear. Intended to make for ease of use, we found this unhelpfully fiddly and so it affected the accuracy of what we were trying to achieve.

Olympus E-PL2: Image Quality

We really like the Olympus Art Filter digital effects selectable on the E-PL2, as they provide a point of difference to the competition that may just sway the purchase decision of the creatively minded. Here there’s a choice of the colourful Pop Art, contrast boosting Dramatic Tone, Soft Focus for ‘dreamy’ portraits, Diorama (miniature mode), or self explanatory Grainy Film for those who want to ape the moody look of rock photographer Anton Corbjin.

These can be added to 720p HD video clips as well as stills, so no specialist Photoshop skills are required. Otherwise the Natural Picture Mode is the one to go for more realistic results. Images with the kit lens are sharp and free of obvious distortions, but not quite as crisp as those from a DSLR proper with slightly bigger sensor and bigger lens.

Priced as high as an actual DSLR, you’ve got to want the added portability provided by the E-PL2 to consider buying one then. That said the smaller form factor makes this a camera you are much more likely to take out than a DSLR and lens combo. That’s got to be worth consideration.

Olympus E-PL2 release date: Out now
Olympus E-PL2 price: £499-£530 with 14-42mm kit lens