The New Kid on the Block, a review of the Olympus E-P2
Sorry, if you already are humming along to "Step by Step" and scanning the page for images of Donnie Wahlberg, you are in for a bit of a letdown. 90s pop music aside, the Olympus E-P2 is the New Kid on the Block in the world of photography representing a brand new, very exciting camera class. So what exactly is this New Kid?
Here is my video walkthrough of the new E-P2 in two parts:
So what exactly is this New Kid?
In a couple of previous posts I have touted these new kinds of cameras, so actually shooting and testing one of them was very thrilling to say the least. Essentially, the cameras are a happy marriage between DSLRs (bringing image quality, sensor size, and lens selection) and point & shoot cameras (bringing style, portability and LCD shooting mode).
Showing just how new the class is, the industry has not yet come to an agreement on a name for this class. So far EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) and MILC (Mirror-less Interchangeable Lens Camera) are amongst the candidates.
Saying that the E-P2 delivers DSLR quality doesn't really make sense, since it essentially is a DSLR minus the mirror action. Olympus' traditional DSLRs (like the E-620) feature a fourthirds sensor that is slightly smaller than the traditional entry-level DSLRs, such as the Canon T2i and Nikon D5000 that uses an APS-C size sensor. The E-P2 uses the same fourthirds sensor as Olympus' DSLR models.
Despite the slightly smaller sensor, the E-P2 delivers beautiful images comparable to images from entry-level DSLRs. Click on a thumbnail to view the larger images.
The fact that you can get such great image quality and the same amount of control, both in terms of shooting settings and lens selection, in such a small package still boggles my mind. Maybe it is because I am use to logging my D700 + multiple lenses around, that the 'freedom' of having such a small camera just makes it that much more attractive. On the other hand, point & shoot users may pick one up and think: "geez! this camera is bulky and heavy".
To put the E-P2's size and weight into perspective, it weighs 20g less than a Canon G11 camera. If you put the 14-42mm kit lens on the E-P2, it weighs (oddly enough) exactly the same as a Nikon D3000 without lens. Size-wise it is still too large to fit in a (normal) pocket, but by putting it over your shoulder or in your purse/bag, you almost forget you are carrying it around.
Well, it's like a DSLR. Just a tad smaller to match the smaller form factor of the E-P2. You get a 14-42 (28-84mm equivalent in 35mm terms) kit lens which corresponds to the 'classic' 18-55mm entry-level DSLR kit lens. The E-P2 has built-in stabilization, so you don't need to worry about that with the lens. Great choice!
You can even fit any of Olympus' newer lenses on there with a simple ring adaptor. Here is the 150mm f2, effectively a 300mm f2 lens on the E-P2. This is the stuff dreams are made of.
Like most newer kit lenses, the 14-42mm doesn't disappoints exhibiting good sharpness and contrast. As a bonus, it focuses relatively close for semi-macro with a magnification close to 1:2.
As much as I like the image quality and shooting still images with the E-P2, I almost like the video functionality and quality better. Having previously reviewed the Nikon D300s and Pentax K-x, both which shoot video, I have not been a big fan of DSLR video. Main reason: focusing is simply too slooooww.
Not so with the E-P2. Because the camera doesn't have a mirror tipping up and down (as opposed to the DSLRs), it doesn't have to worry about a separate autofocus module, but relies instead on contrast-detected autofocus directly off the sensor. Meaning the focus off the LCD (and electronic viewfinder for that matter) is very smooth and quick for both video and stills.
With Olympus' firmware 1.1 update (of April 22, 2010) the autofocus even got a bump up in speed for both still and video shooting. Olympus claims 10-15% speed increase. I cannot verify that claim quantitatively, but did notice an increase in the speed after updating the firmware.
With the video you really feel the marriage between pocket camera (quick autofocus directly off the sensor) and DSLR (shallow depth of field because of larger sensor and large aperture lenses). I love it!
The quality 720p @ 30 fps, not 1080p video as some may be looking for. Doesn't really matter. It looks awesome and is fast and easy to shoot. With my current videography skill level I will take this any day of the week over a T2i or another 1080p-enabled DLSR. The stereo sound is decent with some a minimal noise from the focus motor.
Probably the least tangible element of the camera: the coolness factor which is not to be disregarded. This is a new camera class that most people haven't seen yet, so you will definitely get lots of looks and comments like: "wow! what kind of camera is that?", and "the lens comes off?". You will definitely have something new and cool if you get an E-P2.
Before the recent firmware upgrade (version 1.1 of April 22) one of my grievances with the electronic viewfinder (EVF) was that it didn't act like a optical viewfinder on a DLSR. Concretely, you could only either use the EVF or the LCD, not both at the same time. Meaning that if you are shooting through the EVF, you would have to review the images in the EVF and change shooting settings there as well. Not user friendly at all.
But not so with the new firmware that allows you to shoot with the EVF, but review and set shooting settings via the main LCD without toggling back and forth. Very nifty and very practical photographically.
Admittedly, I was a bit sceptical shooting with the electronic viewfinder at first. Would it be too bright, too uncomfortable for long duration of shooting, would it be clear enough? Well, I am happy to say after shooting with the E-P2 for some time I am a big EVF-convert now. Photographically, it feels more steady and DSLR-like to hold a viewfinder up to an eye for a shot than holding the camera at an arm's length shooting off the back LCD. And the fact you can now review images and fine-tune settings off the back LCD as easily as you can on a DLSR, just makes the experience that much more complete.
Olympus seems to be listening. They were pretty quick to upgrade the firmware to address the autofocus speed issue and improve the usability of the electronic viewfinder. Way to go! So, here is my input on how to make the E-P2 (or E-P3 for that matter) an even better camera. Are you taking notes, Olympus?
Suggestions for improvements
1 -- One element that is crucial in my photo work is the ability to easily and effortlessly select the focus point needed for a given composition. The better entry-level DSLRs allow me to do that. The E-P2 does as well, but at a price. Once you have activated the "move focus points" option, you cannot use the four way selector for ISO, WB, etc. as that is being used to select the focus point.
Suggestion: make the focus points adjustable by holding down the fn-button, so it doesn't affect ability to set other important shooting settings. Also if you can, please make the points smaller for more accurate, critical focusing.
2 -- Clean up the clutter in the LCD display options. The camera has eight different display options. Wow! Normally I wouldn't be complaining about more options. The problem, though, is that if you accidentally pass the option you wanted it takes forever to get back to it by having to cycle through seven others. And the moment may be gone.
Simple suggestion: just gives us two or three options with basic shooting information and histogram. That's all we really need.
3 -- Along that line is that fact that Olympus chooses to lock the custom settings in the menu. Even to turn it on is not intuitive, as it is hidden in the setup menu (depicted by a wrench). So be sure to do that when you pick up the camera.
Suggestion: C'mon, Olympus. You gotta have a bit more faith in your users, so go ahead and turn on the custom settings per default.
4 -- Yes, the E-P2 takes great images. But you have to keep the ISO at 800 or below. 800 is not super crisp, and looks like ISO 1600 on many entry-level DSLRs, such as the Nikon D3000 or Canon XSi. Meaning you loose one stop of light on the E-P2 compared to most entry-level DSLRs when holding image quality constant. If you crank up the ISO to 3200 or 6400, the images start to border on useless, unless you really do not mind digital grains. This is a bit surprising. True, the 4/3 format is a smaller sensor, compared to the APS-C size found in entry-level DSLRs, but not that much smaller. Again, I have not shot with any of Olympus' DSLRs, so I don't know how the E-P2 ranks against them, but I would suspect you would see similar characteristics in terms of image quality.
Suggestion: this is a tough one due to Olympus having so much invested in the fourthirds technology in terms of lenses and sensors, so they can't easily switch to a larger sensor. But they can, and probably will, continue to develop their sensors for even better image quality.
5 -- The last improvement suggestion is also a bit sensitive, as it really can't be improved, just changed. It is the price. The E-P2 is roughly 30% more expensive than comparable entry-level DSLRs. And ironically, the camera is roughly 30% smaller, and takes the same or worse pictures than most entry-level DSLRs. Hm! strange. I can't imagine that Olympus' production costs are that much higher for an E-P2 versus, say, their E-620.
Suggestion: well, suggesting Olympus to lower their price is a bit optimistic. Instead I suggest potential buyers to hold onto their credit cards just a couple more months until more manufacturers have entered the niche market space. At the moment only Sony is definite with two EVIL/MILC cameras to be released prior to the World Cup Soccer starting June 11. Hopefully, some healthy competition from Sony (and who knows what other manufacturers longer term) will help drive the price point down.
All in all
The E-P2 is an awesome camera. The lightness, form factor and coolness factor is to die for. Coupled with great image quality (@ ISO 800 and below), truly functional video recording, and the lens freedom of the DLSR-word, you have a very admirable and capable camera. Only thing holding me back from buying one is … ugh … the price.
Personally, I am holding my breath seeing what Sony (and potentially other manufacturers) drops into the market space this year. And then, an EVIL/MILC camera will most likely make its way under my Christmas tree. Ho-Ho-Ho!
All product shots are taken with the Nikon D700 and Nikon 105mm f2.8 VR Micro lens. Additional light was added on top of the natural light streaming in from a big window. All the other shots was of course with the Olympus E-P2 and the 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens. For this review I would really have liked to test other lenses. Especially, the 17mm f2.8 pancake lens and 25mm f2.8 lens. On top of that, Olympus also recently announced two new lenses, the wide angle 9-18mm f4-5.6 (18-36mm in 35mm equivalent terms) and the 14-150 f4-5.6 (28-300mm in 35mm equivalent terms). Pretty cool! If you even want to get more wild, there are several adapters produced allowing you to mount Leica, Panasonic, and other lenses onto your E-P2 camera.
Regarding price, I should mention that the E-P2's 'little brother', the E-PL1, sells for roughly half the price. Most notably, the E-P2 features a more rugged construction, a nicer design/styling, a larger LCD, better button layout, and an included EVF. Here is a quick comparison between the two.
- 85mm f1.4
- San Francisco
- shutter speed