Shooting with the Olympus E-PL 2

There are a bunch of reviews of Olympus’s E-PL 2 micro four-thirds camera.

For those of you considering a point and shoot that has a sensor that’s bigger than the fingernail on your pinkie (really they are about that small on most ordinary point and shoot cameras) the micro four-thirds format sensor is about nine times bigger. While about 30 to 40 per cent smaller than an APS-C sensor using in most cropped DSLR’s (DX format), the micro four-thirds sensor is certainly large enough to yield startling good images.

So much depends on the quality of the camera and especially the lens that the main question comes down to what kind of shooting do you really do?

The smaller sensors and lack of a moving mirror (as found on DSLRs) makes for a pretty good camera in a pretty small body. Add to these camera the ability to change lenses and you’ve got a point and shoot that goes way beyond point and shoot capabilities.

But let’s get back to the question of what do you really shoot with your current camera?

This is an important consideration when buying a new camera. For example some of the reviewers have called this an entry-level camera and that might be true if you’re an entry-level photographer. 🙂 In my hands, I can get the camera to produce photos that are easily capable of printing up to 11″X17″ and perhaps even 16″X20″ (the  limit of my Epson 3800 printer). The camera has a 12 megapixel sensor and at ISO settings up to 1600 is virtually noiseless (okay at 1600 you have to add some noise reduction but still anything less than 800 for sure is great). It also records Hi-Def movies at 720p which I never use but might be a factor for you.

One really great feature is in addition to the tiny pop-up flash which can save the day in dark places, the camera has a hot shoe which will accept my Nikon flash units in manual mode. (When I use flashes I almost always use manual flash mode as I want to be the one who is in control. I almost always bounce my flash and I can better control the result on manual.)

Let’s talk about modes for a minute.

When I hand the camera to my dear wife, it’s set in AUTO mode and likely will never leave there. And guess what? With a little camera instruction from yours truly my wife knows enough to get in closer than she thinks she should get and not to shoot with a window or mirror in the background and she gets great snapshots. She wants snapshots. She wants photos of her mom and her sister and our soon-to-be 16-year-old niece. Best of all, if she turns the camera on and off in auto mode, the Olympus resets itself back to factory specs in AUTO mode. Cool.

The camera also has built-in stabilization in the body which is important in such a light, small camera. It’s critical if you’ve got the Olympus 75-300mm lens (which is the equivalent to a 150 to 600mm 35mm lens). If you could buy a 150-600mm 35 mm lens it would cost well over $10,000 and be the size of a small telescope. On the diminutive micro four-thirds camera, the lens is the size of pop can. But, at 600mm the magnification is so great that the photographer would be smart to put it on a tripod or at the very least shoot at 1/1000 of a second. Oh and BTW the cost of the Olympus lens is $899 and I’m saving my allowance for this beauty.

Also when it comes to getting sharp images, most amateurs blame everything else but themselves. If you’ve got the stabilizing system on and you’re shooting outdoors with the highest shutter speed the lighting conditions will allow then you’re bound to get sharp images. What happens on AUTO or PROGRAM modes is the camera sets an average aperture and matching modest shutter speed which should yield a sharp snapshot under average daylight conditions. But when the photographer steps into the shadows or shoots later in the day or tries to shoot indoors without a flash there is a better than average chance that the image will be soft or downright blurry.

APERTURE mode where the photographer controls the depth of field can result in a slow shutter speed which can result in blur. And thus the invention of the tripod. SPORTS (or shutter priority) mode allows the photographer to set the shutter speed and the camera sets the appropriate aperture and is useful in situations where stopping action or allowing creative blur is the objective. (Remember to turn off the stablizing system when using a tripod as the system keeps trying to work even when on a tripod and this can cause some unsharpness.)

Micro four-thirds cameras due to the physical size of the sensor and the actual built of the camera don’t offer the same ability to quickly create shallow depth of field in some images. For most point-and-shoot photographers this doesn’t matter but there is a reason why pros use DSLRs that cost anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000.  DSLRs can shoot RAW images (just like the E- PL2) but they can do it really, really fast (think sports photography) all day long. Smaller cameras…not so much. Now the situation isn’t so bad that it’s impossible and most point-and-shoot and micro four-third cameras are fine for shooting your kids baseball game but will struggle (a lot) in the darker hockey rink. Amateurs who use DSLRs have problems shooting sports unless they have bought expensive fast lenses and know how to use them.

Some reviewers lament the relative slowness of smaller cameras but that’s like saying my VW Bug can’t keep up with a Shelby Cobra Mustang. Duh!

I find the Olympus starts and fires fast enough to keep up with anything I’m shooting when I am in “amateur” mode 🙂

For some of the micro four-thirds cameras there are adaptors that allow the photographer to use their old DSLR lenses in manual mode. (Some may allow autofocusing but not autoexposure. I need to check this.) This is neat but it’s not a solution for pro photographers who want their cameras to work fast, flawless and consistently.  For fun photography by amateur shooters, this is fabulous.

Speaking of lenses, the micro four-third lenses are smaller and cheaper because the manufacturer doesn’t need to use so much expensive optical-quality glass and metal. Smaller doesn’t mean inferior but it does mean lighter and cheaper. Olympus also has a 9-18mm lens (18-36mm 35 mm equivalent) that I am buying soon at $700. At 18mm this is getting into super-wide territory and is superb as a walk around vacation lens. Put the fast f/2.8 17mm lens in your pocket and you’re good for all lighting conditions you’re likely going to run into on vacation.

Years – okay decades – as a professional shooter has me shooting wider than longer and closer than far away. Telephotos lenses are fun but I find wides way more useful especially when shooting special events where there are loads of people crammed into a small space.

Let’s get to the bottom line: How good is the E-PL 2? For my wife, it’s a 10 out of 10. She puts the camera in AUTO with the standard 14-54mm lens and she’s a happy camper.

For me, I start with the camera on AUTO (but I’m ready to go to APERTURE, SHUTTER PRIORITY or PROGRAM mode) with the 17mm pancake lens and the 9-18mm and 14-54mm plus the 40-150mm (80mm to 300mm 35mm equivalent) telephoto and maybe the 9-18mm and 150-300mm super zoom and I’m ready to travel.

So for me, for weekend fun shooting and vacations, it’s a 10 out of 10 based on the quality of the images and ease of shooting.

BTW all the shots on my SmugMug gallery of ECO FEST 2011 held last weekend in Oakville, Ontario were shot with the E-PL 2. The other guy in the shots is my shooting buddy Mike of Appleby Media.

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