Olympus E-PL 2

Well how good is the new Olympus E-PL 2?

The simple answer is it is better than good enough and most of the online reviewers who I read on a regular basis agree. The pixel peepers and equipment geeks may not be totally satisfied but you’re not likely to bump into them when you’re out shooting.

This is a “real-world” review focusing on “real-world” photographers. So let’s get on with it.

The Olympus E-PL 2 Micro Four-Thirds mirrorless camera does a lot of thing really well and it’s those things that is going to make this 12 megapixel point and shoot so successful. That’s the bottom line when it comes to this camera.

Back when I was a boy, Olympus had two amazing camera break-throughs. The first was the original half-frame Olympus Pen camera. Since it only used half of each 35mm frame on the film roll, the original Pen could get 72 images per roll. As the images were half size of a regular shot image, they weren’t as meaty as the full-frame image but they were plenty good enough for the person who wanted a smalls travel camera to tuck away in a purse or jacket pocket. Olympus sold a ton of these cameras and they are highly collectable today.

Move forward 50 years and Olympus is back at it again with the Micro Four-Thirds format which sees these cameras equipped with sensors that are five to nine times bigger than sensors in standard point and shoot cameras and are actually pretty close to sensors found in cropped (DX) format 35 mm DSLRs but still substantially smaller than sensors in full-frame cameras (which started at $1500 and rise quickly in cost). Talk about reinventing the past. Olympus has done a fabulous job here.

BTW the second big breakthrough for Olympus was its OM-1 series DSLRs which were really popular in the early 70s when Nikon especially ruled the professional world. Women photojournalists especially liked the diminutive OM series as it was an ideal fit for people with smaller hands or who didn’t want to carry a couple of heavy Nikon Fs around their neck. The OM series was a complete system and many photographers remember them fondly. 

So back to today and the E-PL 2.

For people wanting superior images while carrying a relatively small camera that takes interchangeable lenses and has a built-in flash that is activated with a push button (as opposed to automatically popping up or firing as is the case with most amateur point and shoots) and maybe would prefer the camera to do the all the thinking when it comes to photography, then this is one of the best choices out there (other contenders are Lumix GH2 and GF-2, Sony NEX-3 and 5, and others. All good cameras).

So guess who this camera is perfect for at my place?

Of course if’s a perfect camera for my wife. She is a pretty good photographer (She has the “eye”.) and is taking a lot of trips with her mother and sister and our niece in the next couple of years and I won’t be there (Women only!) to help her with her camera. I wanted her to have a camera that would take bigger images than our ageing Fujifilm F-30 six-megapixel point and shoot and it was the E-PL 2 that felt right in her hands. I was trying to get her into a NEX-3 because of its bigger sensor and ability to shoot panoramas by merely holding down the shutter and firing off a string of shots which the camera stitches together in software (cool feature) but it was not to be 😦

So, after much deliberation we bought the E-PL 2 with its new lighter, silent (the camera shoot 720 Hi-Def video and benefits from near silent zooming) 14-42 MSC lens (28-84 35-mm equivalent)  which collapses to store on camera and pops out when you’re ready to shoot and the tiny fast  17mm f/2.8 “pancake” lens. I also have my eye on the $199 (from Amazon) 40-150 (80-300mm 35-mm equivalent) zoom. And I’d like a dedicated macro and maybe a really fast f/1.4 lens around 14mm for shooting parties with available light.

If we go on a trip to do whale watching or an African safari I want the 75-300mm (150 to 600 35-mm equivalent) zoom but at $800 from Amazon that’s going to have to wait. (But the argument going around my house is a 600mm non-zoom Nikon lens sells for $10,000 and the 200-400mm zoom (in photo above) is over $6,000. So don’t you see what a deal this is Honey?? Honey!!  And the Olympus lens is so much more compact (thanks to the Micro Four-Thirds format). So far, no joy at home 🙂

Now the big complaint about the E-PL 2 is, IMHO, one of its biggest attributes.

Beyond turning the camera on and picking a shooting mode, almost all the other controls are to be found in the menu system. The techno-geeks are howling. The only other controls accessible on the body are the shutter button, the pop-up button for the flash, the standard playback button, a magnifier control and a delete button. With the multi-controller dial you can control the flash and the exposure equivalent depending on the mode, the self-timer and single shot or multiple shot sequence and how many focusing squares (single or all 11). Finally there’s a movie button,info button for the amount of screen information and finally the menu button.

While this may seem like a lot of buttons if you’re new to digital photography, trust me, this is nothing compared to cameras like my D-300.

(One of the best reviews on the Olympus E-PL 2 camera that includes photos of the body and design is at dpreview.com .

Essentially, if you know nothing about cameras, when it comes to the E-PL 2 you need to know how to turn it on (button marked on/off on top) and how to set the mode dial to AUTO. Then, if you’re using the 14-42mm zoom just extend it and you’re ready to shoot. If the photo taken indoors is too dark then pop up the flash (button marked UP). That’s it and it is pretty simple and it does a pretty good job of getting you your image.

But what happens if someone goes and fiddles with the controls? There are two answers: First make certain the camera is in AUTO mode and turn it off and on again. That resets the AUTO features in the camera back to factory specifications. Shoot in AUTO and be happy.

But let’s say you’re trying out shooting in the more advanced Program, Aperture, Shutter or Manual modes and you’re not sure if you may or may not have turned something somewhere and now the camera isn’t working right or the images aren’t what you expected. Then like all digital cameras you simply reset the controls back to how they were when you took the camera out of the box.

Since the camera automatically resets itself in AUTO mode by just turning the camera off and on again, a total reset isn’t available unless you get off AUTO mode. I suggest going to P mode (which stands for Program mode as you can now “program” the camera to shoot the way you want it to shoot while still retaining some automatic features as opposed to MANUAL mode where you are definitely on your own) and then pushing the MENU button. The second line that appears says RESET/MYSET. By going into this menu item (see your instruction book on how to do this….it’s easy) go to RESET and tap the OK button. The next screen will say RESET at the top and YES / NO. Highlight YES push the OK button and your camera controls will be reset.

Resetting your camera will not erase your images on your card. Only when you’ve safely downloaded your images to your computer and stored them in two separate places (an external hard drive) and maybe even burned a DVD (I do this with images that are precious to me or of commercial value.) is it safe to format the card in the camera it came from. This will permanently erase all images. If you merely delete them, the images remain on the card but the index is erased and if you wanted to recover the images from the card you’d need recovery software.

One caveat and this applies to many other manufacturers as well:

When you reset the camera, it resets the size of the image being recorded to JPG – Large/Normal. This is not horrible but if you want to print your images at anything bigger than an 8″X10″ size you really want to set your cameras to shoot JPG – Large/Fine. Now how will you know that you’ve set your camera correctly? First, the info on the LCD screen shows what size you’re shooting in. And you can tell by how many images the camera says you have left on the card. What you want to see is the least number of images (as these will be the biggest).

So if my camera is set at JPG Large/Fine I can get 1169 while at Large/Normal there are  2572 image spaces available on an 8-gig card (which aren’t terribly expense anymore and I’d recommend carrying at least one spare).

But this camera can also shoot in RAW format. Woohoo! And it doesn’t it pretty handily as well. Some advanced point-and-shoots can shoot in RAW but the internal process time can be a inhibiting factor. So far, I’m pretty pleased with the E-PL 2’s ability to shoot fairly quickly in RAW.

When the camera is in RAW mode, the eight-gig card can only hold 534 images. But these images are going to be BIG and MEATY and require the installation of the Olympus software to open and view on your computer because, right now, none of my current (expensive) RAW editing programs can open the Olympus RAW files (every manufacturer has their own formats). But I can use the Olympus software to open the RAW images and then save them as TIFFs (another format) that is universally accessible by all RAW editors like Photoshop, Lightroom 3 or Aperture (for Mac).

The disadvantage of handling huge TIFF files are their size. I can create a 40-meg file from one image when I save it as a TIFF. This means you’ve got to be using a pretty good computer to handle these files. The advantage of TIFFS (at least until one of my other editors upgrades their program) is I have unlimited control of my images in the digital darkroom.

For those of you who are new to this blog here’s the quick difference between shooting in JPG verses RAW modes:

When you shoot JPGs all the parameters around colour, saturation, sharpness etc. are set in the camera at the moment you shoot and can’t be changed much in software. In other words, if you shoot your friends having lunch at a restaurant by the ocean with the sunlight pouring in behind them (as my wife did) and you’ve shot the image as a JPG, I can’t do much with it as the people will look black compared to the bright sunlight outside. If you shot it in RAW format, I can actually change the exposure of the image in the RAW editor and make a new image that looks much better. This is amazing to see happen and in the case it would have saved the image.

So why not shoot RAW all the time as you can do a batch edit in a RAW editor and make  pretty good JPGs of all the RAW images at one time suitable for printing or viewing online? Because (A) the files are big and some cameras and some computers can’t handle them easily and (B) some people (me included) don’t necessarily want to spend the next two days editing RAW images individually on a computer after I’ve  finished shooting.

I shoot a lot of my professional work in JPGs. This is especially true for special events where there is plenty of light and the white balance is perfect. I shoot RAW when I’m shooting artistic images for printing or where the lighting is poor or I can’t control the white balance.

(JPGs need perfect white balance. RAW images you can change the white balance later in the editing process. Examples of bad white balance are those shot at the office where everybody has a green tint to their skin from the office lights or snow scenes where everything is too blue. In the E-PL s there are scene modes which change the white balance and other parameters in an attempt to make perfect JPGs. These scene modes – while never used by a professional 😉 – are perfect for newcomers to photography.

One of the trade-offs that smaller cameras bring to the table is they aren’t DSLRS. It’s not a Nikon D-90 (available for not much more money but a much bigger and heavier camera to carry around) or D-300 (even bigger and heavier and much more money) which can fire RAW shots all day long on one battery and can fire in JPG mode faster than you can count. These cameras produce top-quality images in the right hands.

So here’s where some reviewers say silly things like the E-PL 2 isn’t a camera for shooting sports or kids.

That’s true if you are under the illusion that having the ability to shooting 3 or 5 or even 8 frames per second is going to get you better images. Sometimes that’s true but most of the time it’s not. For example, try shooting a pro tennis player at eight frames per second. First, it will get you thrown out of the court by the officials. Second you might see the ball in two or maybe three frames max and there’s no guarantee the player will be posed in a pleasing manner.

Same thing with your kids. They move – fast – faster than a camera can keep up especially if you’re shooting indoors where there isn’t enough light to allow for high enough shutter speeds to stop the action.  All built-in flash units and most external flash units can’t keep up when shooting indoors either.

(BTW the E-PL 2 has a hot shoe mount that allows for big external flashes to be mounted on the camera. Bigger flashes mean more light. Bigger flashes that have pivoting heads means you can bounce your flash off walls and ceilings. Bouncing light means professional looking flash shots. This is very cool. Even better for me one of my older Nikon SB-28 flashes works just fine in manual mode. I don’t need automatic to control my flash and manual mode is the preferred mode of many professionals using flash anyway. Don’t mount really old flash units as the triggering voltages can damage the camera. Olympus dedicated flashes can also be controlled for off camera shooting which again is very cool and professional. Pretty sure the camera can handle remote Pocket Wizards too.)

So what’s the answer?

It’s the same one that worked for me back in my black and white days shooting sports at the dimly lit hockey arenas of the day. I anticipated the action. In other words I framed and focused and set my exposure and I waited until the perfect image was about to appear and I pushed the shutter.

How did I know it was the perfect image? I didn’t know until I had developed the film in the darkroom. But guess what? As time went on, I got better and better at anticipating the action. Maybe I was the Wayne Gretzky  of the photo world anticipating where the puck was going to be and not where it was. So you can the same thing with your camera regardless of how cheap or expensive.

This is how you learn to be a better photographer.

I encourage my students to play with their cameras before going out in the field with them. I do this my sitting on the couch with my camera in one hand, the dreaded instruction manual in the other and my cat Buffy at my feet and I shoot lots of shots of Buffy until I’m pretty sure I understand all of the important controls and feel confident in using the camera.

BTW this camera is pretty tough on its battery. On average you’re going to get 250-plus shots from a charge. For most of you that’s more than you need on a day’s shooting. For me, that’s about half a day, so I’ve got a couple of other backup batteries being delivered today. Consider buying your batteries online where it’s not unusual to see prices around $20 to $30 for batteries (including shipping) sold in camera stores that retail at $80 to $100. The more you use the LCD viewer or the movie mode the faster the batteries will run down. Recharging takes about three hours in the dedicated and charger unit provided with your camera.

I’d buy a new strap for my camera right away. The straps that come with most cameras are slippery and thin. A new strap with some grippy fabric is $25 and well worth the investment.

Okay so this is a camera that’s good for my wife who has no interest in photography but wants great images but what about me?

So far…I’m really pleased.

The camera shoots RAW quickly. It has a manual mode.

(Aperture and Sports or Speed Modes are nice but I can do anything they can do in Manual. My M4 Leica (which selling still haunts me) had no battery or lightmeter or mode except for manual. You manually focused the lens and manually set the aperture on the lens and shutter speed on the camera by either guessing or using an external lightmeter. And guess what: Almost all of my images were properly exposed, composed and focused because I was doing it manually. Can’t say I have ever reached the same level of success using digital cameras on the auto or semi-auto modes.)

I do like the “art filters” that can change a JPG image into something special right in the camera. This is fun stuff. I love the hot shoe which can also take a visual eye-piece which at $200 is only for dedicated street photographers and external microphone input for the movie mode. The overall size of the camera and its feel is about right as I will take it with me on trips as opposed to taking my D-300 and D-90 and all my lenses which I did when I went to Brazil where I worried about it being stolen and lugged the 30 pounds plus of equipment into the mountains and hot caves. Dumb!

So it’s a camera for both my wife and myself. Now this posses a problem 🙂 What happens when we go on a vacation together? I heard a rumour of a Olympus working on a more professional Micro Four Thirds body for release in a year or so. Oh dear me!!

Test photos from the E-PLS are on my Flickr site at www.peterwestphotos.com

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