Hands on with the Olympus PEN system

I’ve been shooting with Olympus’ new Micro four thirds camera system, called the PEN, for a few months now. I started with the E-PL1 camera and then in early February, got my hands on the E-PL2 camera. I was even able to get E-PL2’s for my entire team to use while on our SXSW roadtrip.

Olympus E-PL2 PEN

What is Micro Four Thirds?
Micro four thirds (or u4/3) is a new format of digital photography that is basically a full size DSLR camera in the form factor of a point and shoot camera using a different kind of shutter system that does away with the mirror found in DSLRs. Some say it’s the future of photography and the best of both worlds. Using an interchangeable lens system with the size, weight and the ease of use that comes with a point and shoot, it’s hard to deny that this isn’t the future.

The body feels solid and like an old school 35mm body that is very comfortable in your hand. Complete with a mode dial and a quick, 1 button video record, it’s easy to navigate the options the camera has.

Olympus E-PL2 PEN

I found the kit lens (14-42mm) included with the E-PL1 to be a great lens in bright light but quite underwelming in low light…it’s slow (f3.5-5.6) and had a lot of trouble focusing in low light. The same lens included with the E-PL2 is much faster and quieter at focusing than it’s predecessor and seemed to focus better in low light. As you can see from the photo, this lens isn’t small…it protrudes quite a bit when closed and is almost comical when you unlock the lens and extend it fully which is required when the camera is powered on.

I was able to get the much faster 17mm f2.8 ‘pancake’ lens to play with and it quickly became my default setup for the E-PL2:
Olympus E-PL2 PEN

It was much thinner and didn’t require an unlock to use so I was able to pick up the camera and shoot almost instantly.

Olympus E-PL2 PEN

This really is the true benefit of this kind of system, the interchangeable lenses make it so much more versatile, at a much lower cost of entry than a full size DSLR. Unlike most DSLR lenses, Micro four thirds lenses from any manufacturer all work with each other so you have a lot of options at a fraction of the cost of DSLR equivalent lenses.

The built in flash pops up to resemble something that might pop up out of R2D2 but works great to avoid red eyes:
Olympus E-PL2 PEN

Launch Party Vancouver 10

Another cool feature the PEN has built in, is in camera Art modes. This is getting more common on DSLRs and is generally regarded as a gimmick but I found the quality of a number of the modes to be stunning and huge time savers instead of having to do a lot of work in Photoshop afterwards.

My favourites were the ‘diorama’ aka fake tilt shift mode:
YVRTwestival @ Vancouver Lookout
Having some fun with the E-PL2's built in tilt/shift 'diorama' mode

the ‘pop art’ mode:
Wilson's Arch, Utah
Vegas

and the ‘dramatic tone’ mode:
Great Salt Lake

I’ve been lucky enough to have done a ton of travelling lately and have taken the PEN system with me everywhere from freezing cold of the Yukon, the coast of Vancouver Island to the warm desert of Arizona and it’s performed perfectly everywhere.

Ukee Surf School

I found many instances when I had both the PEN and my DSLR with me, I’d grab the PEN to shoot with more often than I expected. I won’t be selling my DSLR anytime soon but certainly for most people, a camera like the E-PL2 will be more than adequate for almost any kind of shot…even high speed shots like one of Amber’s many jumping shots we took during our roadtrip:
Wilson's Arch, Utah

Unlike other higher end non-DSLR cameras, the PEN system is very easy to use and great for beginners or advanced users alike. A number of the people on the SXSW roadtrip had only ever used point and shoot cameras before and quickly picked up the PEN and have since fallen in love with photography, partly because the camera was able to capture what they saw in real life incredibly well.

Ukee Surf School

There is no optical viewfinder but an electronic one is available separately (I didn’t get to try it personally and was fine to use the large 3″ LCD screen to frame my shots). There are a number of other interesting accessories available including a bluetooth transmitter (the PenPal PP-1) that allows you to send photos to your smartphone or laptop, an underwater housing and a funky looking marco lighting kit with two LED arms that can be bent to illuminate objects close up.

PoCo Trail

I have to say, after spending so much time using the PEN system, I can easily see this camera being a backup to my DSLR and my primary walk about camera for almost any instance. Battery life has been fantastic, continuous shot mode very fast, HD video shooting (720p) and the portability of the camera can’t be beat. They even have a really affordable fisheye addon lens that I just might have to buy.

My thanks to Olympus Canada for providing the gear for review.

UPDATE: I expanded the explanation of micro four thirds and I somehow didn’t include my likes/dislikes points previously so here you are:

I liked:

  • the form factor – very solid and fits nicely in the hand
  • the satisfying shutter sound – it makes a very solid ‘thunk’ like you’d expect from a full size camera
  • great continuous shot mode with no shutter lag – you can get up to 7 frames per second…we made a few stop frame animation movies during our roadtrip simply by using this mode
  • the art modes – surprisingly good modes for in camera effects that are previewed in realtime as you shoot
  • one click instant HD video button – great for being able to shoot a bunch of stills then jump right into video without having to fuss with dials or modes and real time auto-focusing while shooting video as well
  • you can get the body in different metallic colors if that’s your thing

I didn’t like:

  • the extending/locking zoom lenses – a little bulky and almost negated the size benefits of a small camera like this with the extreme lengths some of the lenses needed to be extended to just operate, let alone zoom
  • lack of an included viewfinder – would have been nice to use it without having to use the large LCD on the back but an electronic viewfinder is an optional accessory

10 Comments

  1. Duane Storey says:

    Great write-up!

    Do you think the u4/3 lenses are much cheaper than Canon or Nikon lenses though? Most of the u4/3 lenses I’ve looked into are pretty low quality and are also slow. Any of the faster lenses that get good reviews seem to be almost as pricey as the non u4/3 ones. For example the f/1.7 Panasonic 20mm lens is almost $400, which is practically the same price as the 50mm f/1.4 by Canon. I think the added bonus of being to use it on a different body is worth the cost, but bouncing the prices (of the better lenses) haven’t seemed that much cheaper than dSLR lenses to me.

  2. John says:

    Point taken Duane.

    Perhaps I overstated the pricing…maybe not a fraction of the cost but for the average consumer, much less than larger zoom lenses would cost from one of the big DSLR companies.

    Certainly, there are quality lenses available for these cameras that are much higher end and desirable by photographers like us.

    Also, having a number of companies making the same mount format will also mean better pricing than we get from the big boys and their single model mounts.

  3. John says:

    I forgot to mention one thing that seemed to annoy everyone on the roadtrip about the PEN cameras: the lens cap is TINY and everyone lost/found theirs so many times during the trip.

  4. Duane Storey says:

    Isn’t the lens cap part of the lens? Or do they all have the same size cap? I’m just curious if the 20mm maybe has a larger/different cap.

  5. Henry Lee says:

    John, thanks for your review article. After spending some time in BA with Duane this past weekend and chatting with him about u4/3, I arrived at your review article from his blog entry about buying a u4/3 system in NYC.

  6. Great write-up and pictures! I’ve been thinking of getting a micro four-thirds camera. Seems like a good form factor evolution.

  7. Rocky says:

    Great sample pictures!

    what Duane said…we can get an EF adaptor to e-pl2..but i guess there is no Aperture settings control on the camera body?

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