Olympus Pen E-P2 review

Olympus updated its well received Pen E-P1with this, the E-P2 a Micro FourThirds model for the enthusiast snapper for those requiring the flexibility of a system camera without the bulk of a DSLR. But is it an improvement?

The Olympus Pen E-P2 arrives into a market much changed from that of the E-P1's introduction since the new model arrives with Panasonic pushing its Lumix GF1 and now with Sony introducing its new NEX compact interchangeable model.

The new camera also has a new signature black livery along with an aluminum and curvy stainless steel bodywork that oozes as much class as the Titanic's wine list. And so, Olympus’ second Micro FourThirds camera is very compact since the camera design does away with the mirror box normally found on a DSLR and which would usually direct light into the viewfinder.

This helps create a compact, interchangeable lens system camera, certainly compared with a DSLR, but as was found with the E-P1 it also means you're left using the screen for composition and viewing, which was one area of criticism from that model.

The E-P2 cures that issue to an extent thanks to a new accessories port positioned on the back, just behind the hot shoe above the large 3-inch screen and means you can use the superb, new, VF-2 electronic viewfinder (EVF), one of the best examples of an EVF I've used to date.

A button on the EVF allows you to quickly switch between the screen and the finder but an auto switching mechanism would be really helpful, particularly if and when you want to switch from the EVF to show mates the shots you've taken on the camera's screen.

Like the E-P1, the camera’s retro styling harks back to the '60s film Olympus cameras that are its namesake, but the hybrid camera you have here is of course much more advanced than those of old film Pen models.

The Micro FourThirds LiveMOS sensor provides 12.3-megapixel resolution a sensor double the size of sensors found in equivalent sized compact models, which helps maintain that all important DSLR image quality.

The kit includes the crisp, standard, 14-42mm F/3.5-F/5.6 ED Zuiko zoom lens providing the 35mm equivalent of a 28-84mm zoom as the FourThirds format requires a 2x crop magnification and the kit also includes the aforementioned VF-2 electronic viewfinder.

The E-P2 does however lack a built-in flash (incidentally something Panasonic's GF1 does have) and that presents another problem, you cannot use the EVF and a flashgun since both require the hot shoe, the EVF needing its associated accessory port in order to work.

Using the EVF means you get a 100% live view of the scene through the lens and the view is clean and sharp enough to asses focus, which is great, it's hinged too and that allows you to use it like a wait level viewfinder making it great on a tripod at low levels and it has a useful diopter adjustment for those that wear spectacles.

Everything that can be displayed on the large screen can be displayed in the EVF and so it provides a lot of useful information that is not normally visible through a “normal” pentamirror or pentaprism DSLR viewfinder.

The camera's interchangeable lenses mean it is extremely versatile as you can attach any lens made to fit it designed for the shooting task at hand and with an accessory adapter, E-Series lenses can also be used, but a downside is that can make the camera more bulky to sue.

Lenses are detached and attached using a lens release lug on the front of the camera, near the lens mount throat and an anti-clockwise quarter twist of the lens detaches/reattaches the optics quickly and simply.

Olympus’ renowned sensor cleaning system is built in and works well, particularly important given the sensor is immediately visible behind the lens once it's taken 0ff the body; I had no issues with dirt on the 12.3MP LiveMOS sensor.

Just like the E-P1 before it, the E-P2 has an identical control layout as the E-P1, a recessed mode dial on the left of the hot show, a large shutter release and on/off controls grace the other side.

The shape and design while retro is nice to use and of course, as well as the control layout, it contains the best of clever gadgetry and electronic systems of the Olympus’ E-series cameras with a few new twists.

These include the eight art filters (built in digital filters that allow you to shoot using grainy black and white, pin hole and soft focus modes to name a few. New Art Filters include the Diorama and Cross Process modes, all of these are fun to sue and because you can shoot RAW and JPEG at the same time, you have the RAW colour file to tinker with as well as the shot with the special effect in place. Art Filter processing does however slow things down as the camera chunks through the shot data and applies the effect, which is worth bearing in mind if you're snapping in a hurry.

Other controls include the Super Control Panel, activated by a press of the Info button on the back, while the OK button brings into play additional menus down the side of the display for fast access to settings that include metering, ISO Face AF and the like; the Super Control Panel and the vertical menu display can be toggled using the info button too, for even more options.

The one control that is slightly off-putting at first is the vertically placed control wheel on the right side of the back plate. This falls under the thumb nicely but takes a little getting used to if your used to the normal wheel style control from most other camera's makers; it's not that it's bad it's just different.

As with the E-P1, metering and white balance are excellent while the 11-point AF system is less good since when left to its own devices, it seems to want to pick anything but the main subject of your shot!

There are loads AF options however, including selecting groups of AF points or the central AF point only. Face detection AF is good however and can pick multiple faces in a shot optimising focus and metering for those rather than anything else in a the scene. AF tracking has also been included in the E-P2. One of the features I really like is the iAuto mode, present on the E-P1 as well, it picks what the camera “thinks” is the correct setting for the scene you're focusing upon, a mode common on many user friendly compacts from all makers that helps make this Pen equally as user friendly.

Olympus TruePic imaging engine – TruePic V – gives greater control over noise and image processing at higher ISOs, allowing the camera to achieve a top ISO rating of 6400 though at that setting noise is very evident in your shots.

Colour performance is very good too and while it can be adjusted (like most things on this camera) the emphasis is on natural reproduction, something I much prefer to the boosted colours often associated with many consumer digital compacts.

Image stabilisation has three modes to choose between for which Olympus claims up to four stops of advantage, this is a bit optimistic but certainly helps given the lack of a built in flash.

Using the camera is not quite up to the original Pen’s ethos, that of being as simple to use as a Biro, a simple “pen”, hence the name. The intelligent auto (iAUTO) mode nods in that direction but the rest of the camera, just like the E-P1, certainly posses a control set up nearer to a DSLR than a compact and certainly not a simple to use a Biro!

The main shooting options include four manual modes (P, A, S, and M) and a scene selection with a total of 19 settings ranging from landscape and portrait to text and sunset so you have more than enough “easy” shooting tools to hand particularly when combined with iAuto.

A 720i HD movie capture mode allows high quality movie clips to be captured even using the art filters although the AF system whirring noise does ruin the audio from the in-camera stereo microphones.

But as with still shooting, the TruePic V system does a great job of working to keep image noise down and the fact the camera has a mini HDMI out port, means you can connect the camera up to an HD TV and play movies and images direct from the camera.

Movie and still image captured detail is very good and with around two to three stops of exposure and detail headroom in the RAWs, there’s plenty of extra detail to pull out of shadows and highlights if you need to.

The rest of the camera is pretty much “as you were” in terms of the features of the E-P1 as in truth, while some are significant changes, this is really a minor upgrade to the E-P1 and as such and coming so quickly on the heals of the E-P1 it makes you wonder if the elements that drew criticism on the E-P1 were listened to and acted upon.

The VF- is a superb additional element to the Pen package and helps greatly using the camera in brighter conditions. The lack of a built-in flash still looks a little careless however given the new Sony NEX and Panasonic GF1 competition.

That said image quality is superb and the handling and other kit's sophistication all mean this is camera that can be picked up and used by the novice or enthusiast alike. My one worry however is the not so insignificant upgrade in the price compared to the E-P1, which had an RRP of around £700. At a quid shy of £900 the E-P2 looks very expensive and that might mean it does not do as well as it it deserves to.

Verdict: 
While the price of the Olympus Pen E-P2 might make some of your bank managers choke into their morning coffee when asking for the loan you might need to buy one, this otherwise modest upgrade of the E-P1 still sees significant improvements over its predecessor. The image quality, HD movies and handling are all superb, as is the EVF and the build quality plus that retro design, which all makes the E-P2 a lovely camera to have and to use and one that performs well, producing stunning images and video. But it all comes at a price.