You want better shots than your smartphone gives but the same convenience in terms of effects filters, Wi-Fi and selfie-enabled screen. Could the retro E-PL7 make for an ideal step up?
The Olympus 'Pen' series E-PL7 – the 'L' denoting a 'Lite' or entry-level version – arrives hot on the heels of the E-PL6. It doesn't deviate massively from its sibling, which it joins rather than replaces. This is still a stylishly constructed 16 megapixel, Four-Thirds sensor camera that can fit in a coat pocket – thus being as easy to transport as a 'pen' itself – yet with the obvious advantage of being able to swap the lens in use if desired. Naturally that description would broadly fit a number of competing compact system cameras, from Fujifilm's X series and Panasonic's GM1 and new GM5, through Sony's A5100 and the Samsung NX Mini, so what makes this Olympus worth considering?
Well, while the LCD screen now flips downwards to face the subject in front of your lens to enable selfies rather than through an upwards arc as usual, the E-PL7 initially feels short on stand outs. It appears that the selling point here is the whole package, rather than a specific set of features. The approach is 'if it ain't broke don't fix it.'
Here we're again getting a larger than average sensor in a smaller than average Wi-Fi enabled camera – even if the chip is physically smaller than Sony and Samsung rivals (excepting the latter's NX Mini) – but also included is a motorised retractable zoom lens for a reasonable £499. The provided focal range is the standard-issue 14-42mm, which gives us the 35mm film camera equivalent of a 28-84mm. That makes this package your jack-of-all-trades option out of the box, even if the aperture range of f/3.5-5.6 doesn't mean that it's especially bright or fast for low light work. Then again there is the opportunity to upgrade or expand your lens reach with this model simply by buying an additional optic. So how does the E-PL7 handle in practice?
Olympus E-PL7: Controls
Handling wise, the E-PL7 feels immediately familiar when you first pick it up – which it will do more to anyone who has handled a previous generation Olympus 'Pen' or OM-D series camera. Official measurements of 114.9x67x28.4mm means that this is a camera that will slip in that jacket pocket even with the supplied lens attached. It looks like a classic camera and so the controls mix minimalism with classicism.
Start up times, response times and reading/writing times are swift; if you foresee the image you want to capture in your mind's eye, the camera is quick off the blocks to make it a reality before the moment passes. Recognisable elements include a bottle top type shooting mode wheel on the upper plate and the usual array of tiny buttons at the back, which require fingernail operation. Falling under the thumb is a red record button for nigh instantly commencing video capture. Physical controls aside, this camera offers touch screen operation too, which means that there's the ability to simply tap the screen to direct the camera's focus and subsequently take the shot. Alternatively there are enough hard keys ranged alongside it to provide sufficient alternative and a best of both world's approach: we found ourselves occasionally tapping the screen but more often simply using the actual buttons already beneath our fingertips.
It's worth mentioning that there is no built-in flash here: a clip-on miniature flashgun is instead provided out of the box that sits on the E-PL7's accessory shoe and is angled upwards to fire. That's fine and maintains the unit's clean lines and smaller form factor. But obviously we had to remember to carry it with us, or clip it onto the camera, before heading out. You never quite know when you might need to resort to a flash in our opinion, so having one built-in is, ideally, always better than not.
Olympus E-PL7: Screen
One of the talking points of the E-PL7 is that the 3-inch LCD screen can be swung downwards through 180° to face the subject in front of the lens, rather than being flipped through the more common upwards arc. On a practical note, if taking selfies this avoids the view of the LCD being partly obscured by whatever accessory has been fitted to the camera's hotshoe – but for most other applications it made little if no difference to us whether the flipped screen hangs off the base of the camera or sits atop it. It's also worth noting that there is no eye level optical or electronic viewfinder built in with this camera, so we're reliant on the screen for all aspects of operation. With the LCD offering up more than a million dots of resolution, we found visibility more than acceptable, and the screen didn't seem to suffer unduly even in bright autumn sunlight.
Olympus E-PL7: Battery
The performance of the lithium ion rechargeable cell that slots into the base of a handgrip is average for this class of camera, and one falling within this sub £500 price bracket. It's a respectable rather than exceptional 350 images from a full charge.
Olympus E-PL7: Picture quality
The still images we got out of the E-PL7 were naturalistic in the main, revealing a slight tendency to underexpose if anything in order to maintain detail and avoid blown out highlights. This meant that on dull days we fell back on the camera's array of built-in filter effects, such as high dynamic range and miniaturisation options, to add some punch and pep to shots. Still, the supplied 14-42mm kit zoom did manage to maintain edge-to-edge detail and deliver results nigh comparable to an entry level DSLR. The camera is consistent, which is just what we want from any entry-level device.
For Full HD 1920x1080 pixels video capture complete with stereo sound, the combination of thumb operated back plate record button plus motorised zoom lens, whereby it glides back and forth in response to our touch rather than us having to manually twist it this way or that, has an obvious advantage in avoiding jerky transitions.
Coupled with this the E-PL7, like all Olympus CSC's, offers a plethora of built in Art Filter special effects for more dynamic results and an opportunity to give full vent to creativity in-camera rather than having to rely on Photoshop later. It all adds up to quite a comprehensive package for those who want to achieve interesting visuals without having to lug around a DSLR and bulkier lenses to do it.
Olympus E-PL7: Verdict
OK so there's no enthusiast-baiting eye-level viewfinder supplied with the 16 megapixel E-PL7 but we do get a tilting LCD screen that offers a degree of flexibility, even if it does appear to be set up for self-portraiture first and foremost. Throw Wi-Fi connectivity into the mix and we have a smaller form factor compact system camera with the facility to change lenses that will allow anyone trading up from just using their smartphone for snaps to achieve more 'professional' looking pictures and video, for which the compact motorised zoom really comes up trumps. The sub £500 asking price also feels fair for what is an entry-level class of camera. Though there may not be anything revolutionary here when put up against recent releases, the E-PL7 is a good starting point for anyone looking to get a little more creative with their photography without investing in a DSLR and bag of lenses.