A Field Review
Regular readers might recall that I have not been a big fan of the Four Thirds format. The reason was simply that it seemed when the format was introduced, and subsequently, that the smaller format did not allow for significantly smaller cameras. But with the introduction of Micro Four Thirds the format has found its niche. MFT does away with prisms and reflex mirrors but retains the same size sensor as its larger predecessor. Instead we have cameras with Live View LCDs, and also built-in or accessory electronic viewfinders (EVF). This allows for considerably smaller cameras than the 1.5X to 1.7X "reduced frame" formats from Nikon, Canon and others.
I was quite positive about MFT cameras in my reviews of the Panasonic G1, GH1 and GF1. The other MFT camera, the Olympus E-P1, was never reviewed here. Not for any nefarious reason, just that one was never offered to me for review, and when I went to a local dealer and spent an hour checking it out I was somewhat underwhelmed. I was unenthuisiastic about the camera's cosmetics, low res rear LCD, and compared to the Panasonics the autofocus seemed too slow.
But the Olympus E-P2, which has just begun shipping, though very similar to the E-P1, has the ability to mount an accessory EVF, and when Olympus sent one my way for testing just a couple of days prior to a shoot in Joshua Tree National Park, I was intrigued.
Here are my impressions based on a couple of weeks of field use and casual testing. As always, be aware that this is not a full test report. There are several web sites that feature comprehensive 30+ page reviews that detail every knob and screen. I recommend you to them if this is what you're looking for. I am more interested in exploring how the E-P2 performs as a tool for photographers working in the field.
Olympus E-P2 with Lumix 7-14mm @ ISO 200
As we'll see, the E-P2 is quite similar to its predecessor the E-P1, but a major change is the look of the body. While the E-P1 had a white / silver body (which I found to be a bit ofey), the E-P2 features a much more handsome black metal body. Still a bit too stylish for my taste, (black satin chrome), and especially with unnecessary fripperies such as "OLYMPUS PEN Since 1959" engraved on a top panel. But its still much preferable to the somewhat effete look of the E-P1.
Build quality and material finish appears to be quite high, in keeping with the camera's price (U.S. $1,100). There is a leatherette padded area where ones right hand's fingers grip, and it feels good, but the overall cosmetic appeal of the camera is somewhat diminished by there being too many different surface types, textures, and colours. There is a glowing green ring surrounding the shutter button when the camera is powered on, but unfortunately it isn't bright enough to be seen in bright daylight.
Olympus E-P2 with Lumix 45-200mm @ ISO 200
The size of human hands is a limiting factor in the design of many products, and in the case of digital cameras its necessary to strike a balance between small size, the ergonomics of the devices controls, and practical issues such as screen and control size and positioning. The E-P2 gets it pretty much right, offers a good compromise by being large enough to hold comfortably yet not so small as to make control use problematic.
The camera's Mode dial right on the top left of the chassis is a model of proper design. It is clearly visible, yet because the adjusting ring is buried underneath the top panel, with only an edge to be turned by thumb, it will never be accidentally mis-positioned. Kudos to Olympus for an elegant solution to a problem that all too many cameras have.
The knurled thumb wheel on the right side of the body, on the other hand, is far too easy to turn accidentally. It would have been much better (though a bit more costly) to make it a push-in-and-turn design. The now ubiquitous circular thumb wheel is a bit too small, and many times the difference between wanting to spin it with ones thumb, or press it inwards to select a setting such as ISO or AF modes, is made by accident. It's hopeless with gloves on.
The accessory electronic viewfinder (discussed below) is a very solid design, and though larger than the one for the Panasonic GF1, is much sharper and also seems more substantial. Unfortunately it is all too easy for it to slide out of the accessory shoe when being taken in and out of a bag, as there is no lock or latch.
The button to switch viewing between EVF and LCD is on the rear of the viewfinder, a position with which I don't really have a problem. But, its location on the right side of the GF1's viewfinder is a bit more ergonomic, as it can be pressed with ones hand in shooting position by simply extending the index finger. A small matter, to be sure, but this is the kind of thing that makes a difference when working quickly or over a period of years of regular use.
Olympus E-P2 with Lumix 7-14mm @ ISO 200
In addition to the cosmetic issues discussed above, the E-P2 is fairly straightforward. HDMI and USB connectors are under a door on the right side, and battery and SD card are in the usual place under a door on the base. The tripod thread is not located centered to the lens, which may be an issue for those doing critical panos.
The LCD screen is bright enough in everything except direct sunlight, but as with that on the E-P1 is quite low res compared to much of the competition. Not to the point of being unpleasant, just not up to the current standard.
The real strength of the Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras over their competitors (Panasonic) is that the bodies have built-in stabilization. This means that any lens used on the E-P2 is stabilized, including wide angles. Panasonic's approach of putting stabilization in the lenses works just as well, but only of course if they have done so. Many of their medium and wide angle lenses are not stabilized.
Because I also use Leica M lenses on my Panasonic cameras it was quite a revelation for me to use them on the E-P2 stabilized. Food for thought for anyone that is considering using a MFT body with Leica glass, or any of the other third-party lenses that can be mounted via adaptors.
Along with stabilization the Olympus has a vibrating sensor plate for dust prevention, and after several days of shooting in the desert, freely changing lenses, I saw not a spec of dust on any images taken, so its a system that works well.
The E-P2's menu system is quite possibly the most disorganized and unintuative that I've seen in a while. It's not actually terrible. Just not as clearly laid out and logical as one would wish. For example, when I first picked up the camera I wanted to format the SD card. I went though each of the five menu screens and could not find the FORMAT commend. I then discovered it under an item called Card Setup. Another example is that many of the camera's more sophisticated functions are in a sub-menu that is turned off by default. If you don't know where it's located you'll have to explore the 160 page manual before you learn how to unlock it and access these functions.
Another annoyance is that when working with Auto ISO, the ISO selected by the camera is not displayed on the LCD or the viewfinder. Why not? The camera knows what it is. Why not display it? I want to know, because though there are shooting situations where I'm happy to allow the camera to set the ISO automatically, I may not agree with the choice.
Otherwise the controls all work quite well and the various display options are well executed.
The camera can take about nine raw frames in three seconds before the buffer fills; pretty good performance for this class of camera. After the buffer fills the E-P2 can take about one additional frame every two seconds. These timing tests were done with a 16GB Class 6 SDHC Transcend card.
I found exposure with the E-P2 to be spot-on most of the time. When it isn't (and there's a live-view histogram available), the exposure compensation button and the right-rear thumb wheel fall nicely to hand.
Autofocus is, how shall I put this delicately, somewhat lethargic. It's par for what most small cameras that have contrast detection AF offer, but not in the same league as Panasonic's quick AF on its G series cameras. Olympus has some new lenses coming in the spring, which the company claims will focus faster. But the issue, I'm afraid, isn't really the focus speed of the lenses, it's the AF system itself.
One area where the E-P2 is deficient is that there are no Custom setting modes – no way to memorize combinations of settings for frequently encountered situations. This, combined with the confusing menu layout means that it can take a while to set the camera up for changing shooting situations, even when one has become reasonably familiar with the camera's controls.
There are quite a number of "Art" modes. I didn't try any of them as this just isn't of interest to me. What I did note and appreciate is that raw files can be converted to JPGs with various "artistic" adjustments applied. For those that like this sort of thing being able to do it after the fact is likely going to be found preferable to shooting a single JPG image with a certain effect baked in and no ability to alter it afterward.
The E-P2 is sold as a kit; body, electronic viewfinder, and a Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom. Optical quality seems quite fine, but I am not a big fan of this lens for several reasons.
Firstly, it is a collapsing design, which needs to be manually opened for the camera to be able to shoot when turned on. This helps make the camera smaller during transport, but is an extra step necessary when shooting. It take a bit of study to figure out how to activate the lens quickly. It means a quick twist counterclockwise. Then, one should remove the lens cap, because trying to do so before the lens is extended is a niggly process because the font element is snugged up inside the lens barrel and the cap's tiny tabs are as well.
When retracting the lens for transport its necessary to locate the release tab, somewhere on the left side of the zoom (depending on the zooms position), and then to slide it forward so that the lens can be collapsed.
There is no lens shade provided with this lens, and with the front element always exposed I would suggest a UV filter for protection. As for stray light protection, you're on your own.
Frankly, the lens is slow by most standards. Maybe not when compared to most pocket cameras. But the E-P2 wants to play in a less junior league, and here the slowness of the lens makes it problematic for most uses except outdoors.
For indoor use one will have to shoot at high ISO, use a faster lens, or use a flash. Unfortunately, unlike its prime competitor the Panasonic GF1, there is no built in flash. Quite a nice little flash, the FL-14, is available as an accessory, but it does cost extra (<> $160), and of course can not be used at the same time as the VF-2 electronic viewfinder.
The Electronic Viewfinder
Olympus E-P2 with Lumix 45-200mm @ ISO 200
The included electronic viewfinder is very good. It is high resolution, has a high eyepoint, and is bright. It's also a bit bulky (more so than the one for the Panasonic GF1). The VF-2 has a well designed diopter adjustment, rubber surround for comfort and eyeglass protection, and it tilts 90 degrees for downward viewing.
EVFs are not yet as good as the better SLR viewfinders, but quite honestly, when compared to the small and dim DSLR viewfinders found on many of the lower-end cameras today, the one on the E-P2 has a lot to recommend it.
One of the things that I particularly like about EVFs is that one can have a live histogram visible.
On the downside, if you're shooting fast sequences you'll have to turn off Review mode, because of course this will interrupt visibility, unlike with a DSLR.
My two weeks working with the E-P2 were spent in the cold of a Toronto winter and the warmth (relatively speaking) of the California desert. After some 500 frames in both situations I found the E-P2 to be a solid shooting companion and an enjoyable camera to use.
I did no formal testing per se, but found image quality to be on a par with the Panasonic Four Thirds cameras that I have been working with for the past 18 months. High ISO shots, up to about ISO 1600, were fine for non-critical prints, and up to ISO 400 produced exhibition quality images even in gallery sized prints.
For anyone comparing the E-P2 to its prime competitor, the Panasonic GF1, the choice may well come down to in-body stabilization vs lens-based stabilization. Olympus' solution is preferably for me, but I find the Panasonic's controls, menus, and rear LCD quality preferable.
The electronic viewfinder on the E-P2 is much better than the one on the GF1, and is included in the kit price, but on the other hand it is larger. The GF1 has a built in flash, while with the E-P2 one has to buy an accessory flash and forgo the use of the electronic viewfinder when it is being used.
I liked the E-P2, notwithstanding some of my complaints. It's an enjoyable photographic tool. Between it and the GF1, if it comes down to a choice between them, it's a tough one, with neither camera offering a clear edge over the other. It will eventually come down to issues of flash, EVF quality, stabilization, and ease of use, all of which will vary from one person's needs to another.