CAMERA: Olympus PEN E-P2

A bit of background first

Skip this part if you just want to read the review!

I first got into micro four thirds cameras when the Panasonic G1 appeared, it was a fantastic camera with great lenses and superb output.  It was my re-entry into more advanced digital cameras after being disappointed with the Nikon D100 I’d purchased many years before.  Since then I’d continued to use film for more serious photography and only used compact digital cameras for recording family events – later on specifically I got the fabulous Panasonic Lumix LX2, which is the camera I still occasionally carry around despite it being 5 years old and several generations out of date now!

Moving on, I sold the G1 when I came across a Nikon D300s in the sales and couldn’t resist it – I was going through a period where I was really into wildlife photography and the D300s was the camera for that, robust, fast, and a better range of lenses for wildlife than the M43 series.  However, whist the D300s was great, I missed having a nice portable every-day camera.  To fill that gap I bought a Panasonic Lumix GF2 when it came out, ignoring Olympus as I’d liked the Panasonic G1 so much I thought I’d stick with the brand I knew.  I wasn’t all that impressed with the GF2, I can’t put my finger on exactly why, I just didn’t get along with the camera so sold it after about two months with it.  I stuck with lugging the D300s around thinking with it’s speed and great lenses it would be enough, but then came across an Olympus E-PL1 with a kit lens at an amazing 150€ (again in the sales!!) and couldn’t resist trying it out at that price.  I instantly fell in love with it!  I loved the retro styling.  Yes it was slow, the image quality wasn’t as good as the GF2 but there was something undeniably fun about using it.  It was this camera that made me realise that taking photos is as much about having a camera you enjoy using as it is the image and the image quality.  Having a camera you enjoy using encourages you to take it out with you, to take photos and to experiment.

This all brings me to the E-P2.  At this point the E-P3 had just been released, but after reading around it didn’t appear image quality had improved over the E-P2 or even the E-P1.  I enjoyed the E-PL1 but the manual controls were limited and it wouldn’t accept a remote, which is something I do like to be able to use.  I decided that a E-P2 would be good enough, despite the slower AF over the E-P3, which is the only real advantage that I could see given the sensor was really the same and sample images didn’t appear to be any better than previously.

I bought a second hand E-P2 as a body only, initially using the kit lens from the E-PL1, but later buying both the 12mm and 45mm Olympus prime lenses.  I now use these lenses exclusively on the E-P2.

 

The review!

Finally you may say, but I just wanted to give a little background as to how I came to love the PEN series of cameras.

The E-P2 is the camera I use for 90% of my photography at the time of writing this review.  I use it every single day, this isn’t a review based on a few hours with the camera as many other reviews are, it is based on using it extensively in real world situations.  I will point out that I use it with the 12mm lens for general shooting and the 45mm lens when I want to do more intimate portraits, or capture those spontaneous moments without having to get right in peoples faces.  I don’t have the kit lens that would normally come with the camera.

Build and body

The build quality is good, giving the camera a nice solid feel.  Personally I don’t find it too heavy to carry around all day, but it certainly isn’t what you’d call a lightweight camera.  The majority of the camera is plastic with an aluminium wrap around on the front.  There is a pleasant faux-leather grip on the right of the camera which provides a nice purchase to grip, making it feel secure in your hand.  There isn’t much space on the back for your thumb, sitting between the screen and the scroll dial, which can often lead you to operating the scroll dial by mistake, changing either the exposure compensation, aperture or shutter speed depending on which option you’ve assigned to it.  On the upside, the mode dial is buried into the body of the camera with a small portion poking out on the back, making it hard to change by accident, a welcome design considering how easy that is to do on many other cameras.

On the top of the camera is a standard flash hot shoe, with an accessory port below to allo the addition of Olympus accessories such as their EVFs, either the optional VF-2 or later VF-3 can be used on this body.

The screen on the back isn’t up to modern standards, but is adequate for quick image review, though doesn’t quite provide enough detail for zoomed in manual focus checking.

There are quite an array of buttons on the back, some of which can be customised, providing access to all the functions you’d want on a daily basis.  A good job as you’re unlikely to want to spend much time in the menu system, but more about that later.

The battery is a decent size, and will last for a reasonable day’s shooting unless you are into leaving the camera on permanently and like to take pictures of everything you come across from every angle!

Startup isn’t blazingly fast, but not annoying slow either, it takes about a second to get up and running.

Day to day use

The styling, the realtive easy of use, the fun art filters make this camera fun to use every day.  You just don’t get bored of it, it is not the fastest camera around, which makes you work with it, having to think a little more about your shot rather than spray-shooting.

The auto focus isn’t the fastest in the world, it isn’t the slowest either. It isn’t the best feature of the camera, but neither is it worst than any other camera of this vintage and doesn’t cause headaches unless you’ve got children bouncing around all over the place, but then not many cameras outside of a dSLR can cope with that either!  In every day use it isn’t a problem, a good deal better than your average point-n-shoot, but not as good as a consumer dSLR – about what you’d expect.

The auto-focus system features face detection, which is seen by many as a bit of a gimmick, but it appearing even in high end Nikon and Canon cameras now and is extremely useful as it means the camera focuses on the person you’re taking a photo of rather than some other random part of the frame, which is so often the case when you let the camera decide where to focus.  The E-P3 goes even further and will highlight the eye of the person, either closest, left or right to ensure perfect focus on the eye, which is the optimal focus point when taking portraits.

Metering is not the best and can get confused with bright highlights and shadows in the frame, fortunately exposure compensation is easy to dial in and can be assigned to either the dial or the scroll wheel.  I have it assigned to the scroll wheel, but it can be too easy to knock by mistake, though fortunately alterations are shown live so it is usually pretty obvious if you’ve changed it because the live preview on the LCD shows the image as it will be taken.

Image quality is good but not outstanding, the sensor in this camera is quite outdated by now and probably the least likeable part of the camera, but you have to get over the idea that image quality is everything and get on with enjoying taking pictures!  It might not be up to the latest professional standards, but you’re not paying those prices either.  The prime M43 lenses make the best of the E-P2, though that’s not to say the original 14-45mm kit lens with this camera is awful, it isn’t and I’m sure many people will be quite happy with that lens on their PEN camera.

 

Where images shine on this camera is in the JPEG processing, as it did in the E-PL1.  I don’t know what Olympus do, but this JPEG processing is the best I’ve ever come across, particularly in high ISO images.  They seemingly use magic to get the absolute very best possible out of the raw data, to allow even this sensor to produce good images at ISO 1600 without making things washed out and soft, which is a huge benefit for indoor shooting, especially as the camera doesn’t have a built in flash.  I can’t process the RAW image better than Olympus using Lightroom so I shoot exclusively in JPEG on this camera, something I don’t do on any other camera.  This has significant advantages in smaller files and much less post-processing work.

The menu system

The menu system on this camera is very comprehensive, in fact a little too much so.  There are so many options that you can get completely lost scrolling around trying to find the one that you want.  Just the settings menu, although separated into different sections is huge and the sections run from A,B,C all the way through to I!  That is 9 individual menus just for the settings, not including up to three levels of sub-menus – way way too many!  This is not helped by the fact that the control dial is hard to turn without accidentally pressing the buttons on the four corners of it, which then moves you into a sub menu when you weren’t wanting to.  The best thing to do is get it setup as you want it and then forget about changing things ever again!

Fortunately there is some respite from the complex menu system in the form of a quick menu by pressing the OK button whilst shooting.  This gives quick access to the most used settings such as metering, focus point, ISO, etc, and makes the camera actually useable outside of the over complicated standard menu system, but doesn’t get around the problem of the dial being too easy to push by mistake.

The Good

Retro styling – a great camera to look at and to hold.  Looks cool!

Fun to use – this is the biggest draw to the camera in my mind, it is fun to use.  You can’t help by want to take it out with you, take photos with it, and isn’t that the point of a camera?!

Lenses – ok, this isn’t strictly to do with the camera, but it is an important consideration and often too easy to overlook when buying a camera.  Of all the CSCs around, M43 has the best range of lenses available for the serious photographer.  The Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 is excellent, as are the newer 45mm and 12mm Olympus lenses, offering fast high quality optics at pretty reasonable prices.

The Bad

One of my biggest bugbears, a non-standards USB cable – aargh!

The over complicated menu.

Control dial is too small and too squishy!  The Nikon V1/J1 is much better in that regard.  Try them both and you’ll see what I mean.

Conclusion

It might look throughout this review as though there are more negatives than positives to the E-P2.  It certainly isn’t flawless, but all of those little problems can be totally overlooked by the amount of fun you can have with this camera and the final results if you shoot in JPEG, and accept that it isn’t the most modern camera around.  This is especially true if you manage to get a new one on a special run-down offer, or a good second hand one for a fraction of the price of an E-P3.  Now the E-P3 is out, price drops in the older PEN range do make it a bit of a bargain camera.  The PEN range of cameras are so popular you can still even buy the E-PL1 new!  With the E-P2 you’re basically buying an E-P3, just with a slower AF system.  Save yourself £400 and buy the E-P2 instead until Olympus release the E-P4 with a hopefully new sensor, or go for the OM-D instead if you really want top end M43.

In the real world you don’t spend all day buried in the menu system, you don’t change settings all that often, even on the quick menu, you just want to get on shooting photos and this camera is great for that.  When using this camera you can ignore its flaws, something about it is just ‘right’. It feels right in your hand, it looks right, it even sounds right, and the range of lenses available means there is something for everyone in the M43 system.

Rating

My rating for this camera 4/5.  If it wasn’t for recent reductions in price I’d rate this camera as 3.5/5 as it does have some annoying flaws that may put some people off.

If you own this camera, please rate it [kkratings]

Buy this camera at Amazon UK here
Olympus E-P2 – Digital camera – mirrorless system – 12.3 Mpix – Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm lens – optical zoom: 3 x – supported memory: SD, SDHC – black

Olympus E-P2 Compact System Camera – Silver (14-42mm Lens)

 

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