Camera review: Olympus PEN E-P2 DSLR

The nice folks at Olympus sent me a PEN E-P2 DSLR for me to review, and I got to use it for about a month. As I usually do with the cameras I review, the E-P2 became my primary camera. I took it everywhere with me, and I shot both photos and video with it. A succinct description of my thoughts on the camera goes as follows: superb design, diminutivewell-made, clearly thought outreliable and a joy to use.

Details

This camera made me think seriously about switching to it permanently, and using it as my primary camera all the time. I loved it so much I didn’t want to give it back (I did give it back in the end). I loved everything about it. Even its few flaws pale in comparison with the advantages it gives you. I’m not the only one who raves about it. My wife loved it too. Other photographers loved it. People on the street would stop me to ask about it. And it’s no surprise, because it looks really good.

Raoul, using the Olympus PEN E-P2. Photographer: Thomas Hawk.

All that wonderful design and the overall good looks wouldn’t mean much without actual performance, and boy, this camera really delivers! The photos are superb, wonderfully well exposed, details are great at 1:1 (100%), low light performance is beautiful, even with the fairly slow (f/3.5-5.6) kit lens, and auto white balance is right on the money (not too cool in low light, which was the case with earlier Olympus cameras, and not too warm, either).

The PEN E-P2 isn’t perfect. There are a few sticking points. The two you’re likely to notice are battery life and autofocus failure in low light.

I’m used to battery life that hovers around 500-700 shots per charge. Perhaps that’s why I usually take that many photos when I visit a place. Or perhaps it’s just a coincidence, I don’t know. I do carry a spare battery when I shoot with my usual camera, so that means I can usually take 1200-1500 shots before I’m out of juice. The E-P2’s battery runs out around 250-350 shots, and it may run out faster if you take a lot of photos in rapid succession. That was a bit of a surprise to me, and since I didn’t have an extra battery, it did limit the amount of shots I could take. So, my advice to you is to get an extra battery (or two) depending on your shooting habits.

In low light (and I mean fairly low light, with little contrast between lighter and darker colors) the E-P2 will keep searching, trying to focus, and it will finally give up after a few seconds. You can overcome this if you use a faster lens, or if you switch to AF+MF or MF. That way you can choose to focus manually after the camera says it can’t do it, or you can start focusing manually right away.

Expecting the E-P2 to shine all around is a mistake. No camera is going to be perfect. In every camera ever made, some features were taken out, or couldn’t be put in at all. I look at the E-P2 as I look at my MINI Cooper S. It’s diminutive, the design is gorgeous, and the performance is great for my needs. I didn’t buy my MINI expecting it to perform like a Hummer, and by the same token, you don’t buy a PEN E-P2 expecting it to work like a Nikon D3X or a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV. They’re different cameras, designed for different purposes. When you buy an E-P2, you expect it to be light, versatile, stay out of the way, take good photographs (great photographs, actually), and to shoot HD video. It does all those things beautifully, and more.

I thought I’d place some weight on the DxOMark ratings for the E-P2 after I saw them, but in the end, it wasn’t a concern. It’s like the iPad, you see. You don’t get it until you hold it in your hands. Then it clicks. It’s the same with the E-P2. After you begin using it, you get it, and you don’t want to let go of it, because you know you can get great pictures with it, and you love the way it works, and the way it feels.

Even my wife, who doesn’t like taking photos with my Canon 5D, because she thinks it’s too much work to get the camera set up and adjusted, and doesn’t like it even when it’s on full auto, loved the PEN E-P2 and was able to take great photos with it. That showed me that Olympus was able to strike a great balance between a DSLR that will cater to the needs of a pro through its many buttons and manual settings, and will also please the amateur by assisting them unobtrusively as they use it.

We’d do well to remember a few things about Olympus here:

  • First company to come out with a self-cleaning sensor for a DSLR
  • First company to come out with Live View for a DSLR
  • First company to come out with magnified view for TTL MF on a DSLR
  • First company to come out with the idea of capturing video and photos with same DSLR sensor. I call it the “idea”, because what they did was to capture Live View video shown on the camera’s display via the main sensor, and the leap from that to recording video from the sensor is a fairly small one.
  • First company to come out with the smallest DSLR on the market. The E-420 was the first one, and now the PEN picks up Olympus’ famed lineage of analog cameras and takes it digital.

Even though larger companies like Canon and Nikon are reaping the benefits of implementing things like self-cleaning sensors and live view and magnified focus assist, and HD video, it’s really Olympus who did the hard work to bring these features to the market. Their implementation of these features may not be the flashiest or the loudest, but they were first.

I’m going to repeat a few things I wrote in August 2008, in an article entitled “DSLRs and video to converge“, after the Nikon D90, the first DSLR that could also shoot video, had been launched:

As good as the [Nikon] D90 is though, it will soon be eclipsed. Why? Market forces. How long do you think it will be before we’ll have a DSLR that can record 1080p HD video? Or how about an even smaller and thinner DSLR than currently possible? How about a DSLR that looks and weighs about the same as a point-and-shoot, but gives you photo quality that’s equivalent to (or exceeds) today’s DSLRs? It’s all coming.

Keep in mind the time when I wrote those things, and what came afterward. Just a few short months later, the Canon 5D Mark II came on the market, and it could record 1080p video. The floodgates had opened. And now we have a smaller and thinner DSLR than ever thought possible (Olympus PEN), one that looks and weighs about the same as a point-and-shoot camera (Olympus PEN), but gives you photo quality that exceeds that of other DSLRs. And there’s a huge difference in sensor size between that of a typical digicam and that of a PEN camera, as you can see below. (The sensor of the PEN camera is on the right.)

Here’s what else I said back then…

You know where else I’ll be proven wrong? Back when I attended the Olympus E-3 launch party, I talked about the camera’s (somewhat) limited 10 megapixel resolution, and I thought they had reached the limitations of the Four Thirds 2x cropped sensor. I thought the sensor’s surface area was too small to get more resolution out of it. But now that Canon has proven you can get 16 megapixels out of a 1.6x cropped sensor, I don’t see why you can’t get 12 megapixels or more out of a 2x cropped sensor.

I had my doubts about whether or not the Olympus engineers would be able to squeeze proper low light performance out of the four thirds sensor while increasing resolution, given the sensor’s size when compared to a full 35mm sensor, but they’ve done it! The PEN E-P2 goes up to 6400 ISO if you want it to, and the photos taken at 1600 ISO are definitely usable. Even the ones taken at 3200 ISO look pretty good to me. I’d reserve 6400 ISO for daylight use, such as when you want to take a high-speed photograph. Nighttime photos taken at 6400 ISO were fairly grainy, but then again, I was using the slower kit lens, whose aperture stops at f/3.5.

One last quote:

Wait, it gets even better. The current aspect ratio of Four Thirds cameras is 4:3. The aspect ratio of Micro Four Thirds cameras will be 16:9. That’s the same aspect ratio used in movies. Where do you think that’s going? It means your photos and your videos will have the same aspect ratio, and the line between photography and videography will get even more blurred, and it’s quite possible that in the near future, we’ll have 1920×1080p HD video recorded by a tiny little DSLR with a tiny little lens on it.

Okay, I was wrong about that one. Things are even better now. The PEN E-P2 will let you shoot at the following aspect ratios: 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 and 6:6. It shoots 720p HD video at 16:9, and it’s only a (short) matter of time before the PEN will be able to shoot 1080p HD video, as predicted. Keep in mind it will still be the tiniest little DSLR on the market, with a tiny little interchangeable lens on it, and that will make all the difference.

While I’m on the subject of video, do you want to know what else sets the PEN apart from other DSLRs that can shoot HD video? The fact that you can choose between several auto-focus modes, or image stabilization modes, or adjust both aperture and shutter speed, and apply live art filters to the videos, in-camera. I don’t know of another DSLR that lets you do this. As a matter of fact, you can shoot video in P, A, S or M modes, and you can adjust the aperture live, as you’re shooting. You can adjust the zoom, and if you have AF tracking enabled, your subject will continue to stay in focus. And you can see or preview all of the adjustments you’re making, on the screen or in the viewfinder, instantly.

Hands-on Video Review

I put together a hands-on video review of the E-P2, which includes the unboxing, a run-down of the camera’s exterior and its accessories, initial impressions and sample photos and video taken with it.

Olympus PEN E-P2 Hands-on Review

Specifications

While you can find all the specs you’d want and more on the Olympus PEN website, I’ll point out the more important ones here:

  • 12.3 megapixels resolution (4032 x 3024 pixels)
  • SSWF (Super Sonic Wave Filter) dust reduction system
  • Micro four thirds mount (of course)
  • 17.3 mm x 13 mm LCD screen, 3 inches across, 230,000 dots, 100% FOV
  • 11-area AF System: Imager Contrast AF (S-AF, C-AF, S-AF+MF, MF, C-AF+TR)
  • Shutter, 60 – 1/4000 sec or up to 30 min in bulb mode
  • 3 fps drive, up to 10 sequential RAW images or 12 sequential JPG images
  • TTL Image Sensor Metering: 324-area multi-pattern metering, center-weighted or spot-metering, EV 0-18
  • Flash synchronization: 1/30 – 1/180
  • Photo ISO: Auto 200-6400 or Manual 100-6400 in 1/3 or 1 EV Steps
  • Movie ISO: Auto or Manual 160-1600
  • Color Space: sRGB, AdobeRGB
  • RAW, JPEG, RAW+JPEG for photos
  • AVI for videos, 30 fps, limited to 2 GB per file, 720p HD (1280 x 720 pixels), 480p SD (640 x 480 pixels), max recording time 7 min for HD, 14 min for SD video
  • Wave Format Base Stereo PCM/16-bit, 44.1 kHz for sound
  • SDHC memory card recommended (can use older SD cards, but they’re not recommended for HD video)
  • Live View, 100% FOV, 7x or 10x magnification assist for MF
  • Image Stabilizer for photos: 3 modes (2D, Vertical and Horizontal), up to 4EV steps compensation
  • Image Stabilizer for videos: shifting electronic image (aka Digital IS)
  • Aspect ratio: 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, 6:6
  • Battery life: up to 300 shots
  • Dimensions: 4.74in (W) x 2.75in. (H) x 1.37 in (D) / 120.5 mm (W) x 70mm (H) x 35mm (D) (excluding protrusions)
  • Weight: 11.1oz/335g (body only), 13.6/385g (body, battery and media)

Sample Photos and Videos

I took the camera with me to the Flagler Museum and The Breakers in Palm Beach, to the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, to the Boardwalk on Hollywood Beach, where I met with Thomas Hawk, and to the Vizcaya Museum in Miami. If I had gotten it sooner, I’d have taken it with me to Las Vegas as well. I also used it heavily inside and outside the house. I shot photos and video with it in all sorts of light conditions — like this video on shaving. After an initial winnowing process, I have 954 photos taken with it in my photo library, and 2½ (149 minutes) of HD video recorded with it.

I didn’t get the chance to edit and publish all of the photos and video clips taken with the camera yet, but I will get to all of them in the near future, and will post them here on my blog, so stay tuned for that. Until then, here’s a good selection of what I’ve already edited.

This first photo shows what you can get right out of the camera. I set the E-P2 on i-Auto, and as you can see, the light is a mix between strong daylight and shadows. With other cameras, you’d get more contrast between the light and dark areas, and you wouldn’t see so much detail on the tree bark, for example. But the E-P2 was able to keep the sky blue and still give me vibrant, light greens and browns in the shadowy areas, which is great.

Notice again how it was able to render great detail in the shadowy areas, even when shooting directly into the sun.

Notice the fine detail and soft bokeh in this macro photograph of a palm frond. This was taken with the 14-42mm kit lens. Even though the lens is said to focus properly only from 0.25 m/0.82 ft to infinity, when the camera was set to Macro mode, it could focus much closer, up to a couple of inches away from the subject. Keep in mind this is not a point-and-shoot digicam that you can set to Macro and be done with it, but a DSLR with an interchangeable lens, which is much more complicated and normally has limitations on what it can do. After all, that’s why these lenses are interchangeable, because they’re built for specific purposes. Yet this kit lens proved to be much more versatile than I thought.

These are colors obtained right out of the camera. If you’d like to see the specifics of a photo, feel free to download it and view the EXIF data, it’s included in each sample photograph.

This next photo is unedited once more. It’s what the camera gave me at 14mm (28mm effective) and 1600 ISO. It was a fairly dark room, and I shot this against a bright window with early afternoon daylight (2 pm) coming right at the camera. Notice the detail and lack of noise in the darker areas.

This was a particularly dark room. It appears well lit only because I shot this at 1/20th of a second and 1600 ISO. Notice once more how vibrant the colors are, and how good the auto white balance is.

This next photo shows that you can get some neat bokeh effects if you play with the manual focus. The photo is unprocessed, as the camera made it.

Another reason to like the PEN E-P2 is that I can take great portraits with it. Yes, you’ve got to love the bokeh you can get with really fast lenses like the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4, but you’ve also got to love the clarity of an Olympus camera. The whole face is in focus, and every minute detail can be seen if you zoom in. It feels like you can almost touch the skin of the person whose portrait you’ve taken. It’s a great characteristic, and I noticed this way back when I was shooting with the Olympus C-3000Z, as you can see in this photo from 2005. The photo you see below is of my wife, Ligia, and once again, it’s right out of the camera. It’s incredible how brilliant the colors are.

Here are a few more portraits I took of her with the PEN E-P2. I love this camera.

Here are a few more sample photos taken at Vizcaya, in Miami.

A few sample videos (shot in 720p HD) are embedded below. There are more on the way, as mentioned above. I used software motion stabilization on a fair number of the clips, as I shot them handheld, without a tripod or any other sort of external stabilization device, and I foolishly forgot to activate the in-camera stabilization.

Tea Ceremony – Morikami Museum

On the Beach at The Breakers

A Tour of the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens

Accessories

When you buy the PEN E-P2, I recommend you definitely get the following accessories:

  • Li-Ion battery (PS-BLS1) — get an extra one or even two of these, depending on how many shots you need to take per session
  • MMF-2 Four Thirds to Micro Four Thirds Adapter — this is a must-have accessory, as it lets you mount any four thirds lens onto any PEN camera
  • 16 GB SDHC Card — get whatever brand you like, but make sure it’s SDHC
  • VF-2 Electronic Viewfinder — if you didn’t get this in a kit with your PEN camera, it’s really worth getting, as it will pivot up and act as a WLF (Waist Level Finder); you can see me using the PEN E-P2 with the VF-2 mounted onto it and pivoted upward in the second photo from the top of the article.

These next accessories come down to personal preference. Get these if you like them:

The current selection of micro four thirds lenses is somewhat slim, but it’s growing. And the beauty of having adapters like the MMF-2 I listed above is that you can use any regular four thirds lenses with PEN cameras, so you don’t have to buy extra micro four thirds lenses if you don’t want to.

But what if you’re heavily invested in Canon or Nikon gear, and would love to get a PEN camera? That’s okay too, because there’s a Canon lens to Micro Four Thirds mount adapter. It’s the same if you’re a Nikon shooter. There is an adapter that will let you use Nikon lenses with a PEN camera.

Two companies out there make these kinds of adapters: Novoflex, a German company, and Fotodiox, an American company. Since I’m heavily invested in Canon EF lenses, I called Fotodiox and asked them what they have for me. They have a specific Canon EF lens to Micro Four Thirds mount adapter, but it does not let you control aperture, so you’ll be shooting wide open. They did tell me they’re working on a specific adapter for Canon EF lenses that will let you mount them to PEN cameras and control aperture and auto-focus, just like you would with a normal lens. They said the price for it would be around $300 when it comes out later this year. That would be a very cool adapter, if it indeed delivers on its promise!

Then I called Novoflex and asked them whether they have a Canon EF to Micro Four Thirds adapter, but they don’t. They do have a Canon FD to Micro 4/3 adapter, which if I’m not mistaken will let you mount EF lenses as well, but you’ll be shooting wide open, without the ability control aperture, and of course you’ll be focusing manually.

I also found out that Canon makes a nice, simple metal EF lens to Micro Four Thirds mount adapter, and it’s only $40! So if you don’t mind shooting wide open and using manual focus, then definitely get this adapter, because it looks sturdy and it’s inexpensive.

Summary

It’s time to wrap things up. What can I say, other than what I’ve already said? I’m in love with this camera!

A number of significant design and engineering ideas from Olympus came together beautifully in the digital PEN: diminutive size, great sensor, beautiful design, IS, SSWF, Micro Four Thirds, HD video, light and capable lenses, a whole host of features design to make things easier for the photographer, and beyond the hardware, a tangible sense of soul, a certain something that binds you to the camera as you begin to use it.

Just like the analog PEN revolutionized the way people thought of cameras and of how they took photos, the digital PEN is a wonderful continuation of the PEN legacy, a beautiful leap through time, from film to the digital world of today.

Images of PEN E-P2 used courtesy of Olympus. The PEN E-P2 can be purchased from Amazon or B&H Photo.


28 Thoughts

  1. Hi Raoul,
    I know you posted this ages ago now but I found the post as I am interested in buying this camera second hand…i’ve just started to get into photography and dont want to spend too much money – do you think i would be disapointed though if i got this camera rather than a more traditional dslr? The review you made sounds v positive and you have taken some lovely pics and i like that it is smaller ..the other option i was looking at is a canon 50d… Any advice on this would be welcome! thanks

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    1. If you like a smaller camera and you like the photos, then get it, you won’t be disappointed. The build quality of the camera (the body) is excellent. It is a beautiful, gorgeous little camera and it will help you get great photos. If, on the other hand, you want a traditional DSLR, which is bigger, has more lens options, a slightly bigger sensor, more megapixels, etc., then you should think about your choice more carefully. I think the E-P2 is a great camera but the choice is ultimately yours, so make it carefully.

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  2. Great review, I love it! I’m considering purchasing this model. Do you still consider it a good choice even there are a few other similar models available from Panasonic etc.?

    Thanks, Ben

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    1. I loved it when I had it, but it’s been a while. I think Olympus (and Panasonic) have improved the dynamic range and low light performance of the cameras since then, so you might want to do a price comparison between this model and some newer ones and see if it’s worth it for you. If I were to buy one of these cameras now, I would look for one that could do auto-focus while filming video, can record at 1080p and can go to 6400 ISO or higher. And I’d weigh all those capabilities against the design. Personally, I like the design of this camera a LOT. I find the Panasonic models a bit harder to like, but tastes differ from person to person.

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    2. An addition to my earlier comment… If you’re interested in going full-tilt in the direction of the four-thirds sensor, camera and lenses, then get the E-P3. But if you’d rather test the waters first, Costco has a great deal on the E-PL1, at $380 for the camera and two lenses, plus a 4GB SD card. It’s a great introduction to the system and it won’t take such a big bite out of your wallet. Later on, you can always get the E-P3 (body only) since you already have the lenses. I actually just bought it myself, I couldn’t resist the great price. 🙂

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      1. I’m actually considering to buy the Fuji x10. It has everything that I need, including a great look, except for the detacable lenses. But for that I still have my Canon Dslr.

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        1. The X10 is a nice camera but its sensor is tiny compared to the sensor in the Fuji X100 or the X-Pro1, or the PEN cameras. Which for me would be unacceptable. You just don’t get the same quality photos from a tiny sensor as you do from a larger sensor. They look flat and dull and crappy no matter how much post-editing you do.

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  3. Great review, as usual. A micro 4/3 is on my wish list for a smaller carry around camera. The 5D II is not always practical.

    Have you had any experience with the Panasonic GF-1? I have always liked the smaller Panasonics, and would be interested to know how it compares to the E-P2.

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    1. No, I haven’t, other than a short glimpse at it in a camera store. Not sure what to say about it.

      I did have a Panasonic DMC-FZ20 that I used for a while back in 2006. I liked the quality of the daylight photos. Low light performance was a bust. Anything above 400 ISO was unusable. The zoom lens broke after a thousand photos or so. The lens was nice otherwise, it was a Leica-branded one, with built in IS.

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  4. Fantastic review, thank you!! I got my E-p2 a few months ago and still love it. The old Zuiko OM manual focus lenses work very well on it too (with an adapter) Does anyone have any experience using the vintage PEN lenses?

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    1. You’re welcome, Cornelis! I’m glad to hear the OM lenses work great on the E-P2! I’d also love to know if it’s possible to use the vintage PEN lenses, that would be a wonderful link back to the PEN’s legacy. Does anyone know more about this?

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  5. That’s a great review. Can I ask, how did you get your hands on the unit? I got emails from Olympus inviting members of the public to apply for a month’s test of their first MFT unit – I didn’t get chosen, but I thought it was a great idea.

    It’s nice to read a review that focuses more on an enthusiasts experience with the camera, than one of the more common reviews which focus far too much on numbers and stats.

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    1. Thanks Gary! I got it because I asked, and I am a reviewer. I know there was great demand for the MFT cameras when first came out. I couldn’t get one back then, either. But I kept asking. Perhaps it helped me that I did reviews for Olympus before. I reviewed the E-500, and the E-510, and the SP-560 UZ, too. I was also invited to the E-3 launch in NYC. (I couldn’t get an E-3 to review hands-on, though.) It also helps when you’ve done a fair bit of other hands-on reviews — here are my camera reviews, and here are my lens reviews.

      And yes, I do focus on the real-world experience with a camera or a lens, because that’s what counts for me. The tech stuff is neat, but unless it translates into joy when you use the camera, or into great performance in the field, it’s pretty much useless.

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  6. Nice review – can’t wait to see more videos from this camera! Did you just use the internal mic?

    It would be great to show the video dslr community what this camera is like with its video capabilities – why not hit me up an email and we could get you featured on videodslr.tv

    thanks, Ross, http://videodslr.tv

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  7. Great review, thanks to Thomas Hawk for pointing me here via Twitter. I was just in the Delray area myself and visited the Morikami Gardens and Wakohatchee Wetlands. It was a nice, relaxing vacation. You can see some images on my flickrstream http://www.flickr.com/photos/edbrydon/ if you like. Anyway, back to the PEN E-P2, I’ve been wondering what to get for my wife’s 30th next year. I may just have found it. Bloggers and reviewers I trust love it.

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    1. Thank you Ed, I’m glad you liked my review! Now I have just one question for you: is your wife going to be happy about the fact that you revealed her age on the Internet? 🙂

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