Olympus recently launched their micro 4/3 line with the introduction of the E-P1, which was quickly followed by the E-P2 and now E-PL1. This line of cameras carries the “Pen” nickname, which is derived from a series of film cameras produced by Olympus from 1959 and into the 1970’s. The cameras utilized the half-frame format, allowing for a smaller size and lighter weight. The Pen cameras were incredibly successful, and thus give the “E-Pen’s” a large set of shoes to fill. So do they?
In short, this camera has revolutionized the way I shoot, liberated me as a photographer, and completely changed my view of what photography is, and more importantly, what it can be. I am not in any way exaggerating with such a heady statement, I really feel as though a new world of photography has opened up to me, which is why I decided to post this review despite my blog not really being an equipment blog. So what makes me feel this way?
First of all, let’s address what this camera is NOT. It is not a camera for sports or other fast action, nor is it a camera for extremely low light shooting. That’s about all I can see thus far when it comes to drawbacks. As far as why I feel this way, it is primarily due to focus speed. This system uses a contrast-detect auto focus system, which utilizes the imaging sensor to detect focus, much like most point and shoots. A typical DSLR uses a phase detection auto focus, which is significantly faster. What this means is that it takes a moment to acquire focus, as opposed to the near instant lock of a DSLR. Much has been made of the “slow” focusing of the Pen cameras, however I have not found it to be a problem for most every type of shooting. I simply wouldn’t use it at a sporting event, and it sometimes get bogged down in really low light. Otherwise it has not been an issue for me, and I think as long as you know what it can and can’t do the focusing isn’t an issue. I’ve been using it for street shooting, and have not missed any shots that were the cameras fault. Those I may have missed due to my own error, well that’s another story!
One other drawback (for me at least), is the battery life. This camera has me loving photography so much I shoot constantly now. Trouble is the battery can only handle about 200 shots using the EVF (300ish using the rear screen). I go through at least one battery a day, so an extended one would be welcome!
Now that we’ve covered the drawbacks of this camera, let’s get on to why I love it. First and foremost is the image quality. What Olympus has done with the Pen series of cameras is give you DSLR quality in an almost point and shoot sized body, all the while still allowing you to use interchangeable lenses. My E-P2 is 12+ megapixels, which is more than enough for anything really. I have made prints at 30X40 with a 12 MP camera, so resolution is capable of handling most needs that I can think of. The detail the sensor produces is astounding, and the dynamic range is impressive. This is a camera that I have been confident in shooting under a variety of conditions, and have yet to be disappointed.
Second most important feature, to me, is the size of the camera that this sensor has been packed into. I carry a camera with me EVERYWHERE, and until I bought the E-P2, that camera was a Nikon D3. With the D3 on my shoulder I would often see images that I might want to make, but end up not shooting it because the camera was just cumbersome. Other times I would not want to take a picture because people react to cameras that size (and usually not in a photogenic way), so I often found myself not shooting anything without an assignment for weeks. Every single day since I got the E-P2 I have shot anywhere from 90-300 frames of just everything. I no longer regret missing shots, because I no longer miss them! The camera feels like it was made to my hand, and I am continually reaching for it and shooting whatever it is that catches my eye. This is where I feel the E-P2 has revolutionized my shooting, and opened my eyes to new ways of photography. By having this camera with me at all times and it being so easy to shoot (honestly, pick one up and you won’t want to not take photos), I am now exploring areas of photography that I was previously uncomfortable with, such as street photography, and have been experimenting with everything from new angles to new techniques. Also, having a camera that wants to be used liberates you from classical photographic assumptions. With a DSLR, the moment you bring it to your face you have a desire to make a technically perfect photo. These photos also have a tendency to lack “life”. With the E-P2 I just shoot and shoot whatever it is I feel like at that moment without a need to be technically perfect, and my images have come roaring to life because of it.
Now I’d like to address the metering, color, and lenses. Quite simply, I could not be happier with the metering of this camera. It seems to know the image I am trying to produce, and meters for it. Give it a tough lighting condition and watch it shine. Here is a sample with a lot of bright and dark areas (Please note that all samples were converted from RAW to JPG using Lightroom, with NO processing done, not even sharpening and are simply to illustrate camera function and NOT meant as pieces of art, so no hating!):
And another, notice how the PEN has balanced shadow and highlights:
How about the white balance? Well, I tend to shoot in auto white balance mode (shoot me ok?) and fix it in my RAW converter. I have to say that the E-P2 has one of the most accurate auto white balance modes I’ve ever seen. Crappy light in an elevator? Crappy light in a school lab? Check it:
Now check out the skin tones that camera produced…nailed it if you ask me. Which brings me to the next major plus of this camera, those Olympus colors. Now I had heard Olympus fan boys shouting about the Olympus colors ever since I got my first DSLR and always responded with a resounding “So what? I can do color in Photoshop.” Both of my mentors were or are Olympus Visionaries, and both have raved about the color (even the one no longer with them). I didn’t know what people were talking about until I got this camera. The colors are stunning, very natural, right out of the box. This reduces workflow time tremendously, as your color already looks good and requires no adjusting. Here are several samples:
Call me a believer. And continue to call me a believer with regards to the Olympus Zuiko lenses. This is something else Olympus fans have raved about, and one which I felt had to be overrated. After all, I have Nikon, my glass is great! Right? Well, the Olympus glass is easily as good, and certainly smaller and easier to handle. I have both micro 4/3 lenses, the 17mm and 14-42mm (34mm and 28-84mm equivalent on full frame). I shoot primarily with the 17mm because I see the world at 35mm, but have to say both lenses are incredible. Sharp across all apertures, nice contrast, and help make those wonderful colors. If for some reason you don’t like the Olympus lenses, then no worries. You can get an adapter to put everything from your old Nikon glass to Leica lenses on your PEN. How’s that for a lens selection?
There’s also no need to worry about which lenses are stabilized, because Olympus uses sensor stabilization. I never thought this was a big deal, and I only worried about it on my big (and expensive) lenses. That said, the image stabilization has been a HUGE help to me. Here are two images I shot to illustrate what it can do:
Tat’s an exposure at 1/2 second…and it’s sharp! Handheld I can’t get close to this with my other setup. Still not impressed? Try this:
Now this image is not tack sharp…but it was handheld at 2 SECONDS! It’s a crappy picture of a window, but it’s acceptably sharp, and simply amazing to me for 2 seconds.
So enough gushing. I love this camera because it has enabled me to shoot my existence as I experience it, and have fun while doing it! I didn’t even get into the art filters (which are fun), or the HD video mode with amazing sound. If you want to shoot your kids football game, don’t buy this, but for everyone else I would say go buy it…and an extra battery! You’ll need it because I promise you the amount of shooting you do will increase dramatically!