There is an excellent and very detailed technical review of the EP1 and a much shorter review of the EP2 in dpreview.com. I’m sure professional reviewers are more thorough and knowledgeable than I could hope to be, but I wanted to offer a “field” assessment aimed at anyone who already has a DSLR and is thinking of a lighter alternative for travel / “pocketable” uses.
Olympus has a long tradition of making small cameras and was the first to market a new type, the Micro Four-Thirds format in the EP1, which was a runaway success despite its flaws. Panasonic came out with a technically superior model of which I have little knowledge, unfortunately.
The Micro Four-Thirds format is an attempt to achieve contradictory goals: a camera as small as a compact offering DSLR quality and the ability to change lenses to fulfil a photographer’s dream – small good and versatile cameras. TIPA (the camera trade association) has decided to call them “compact system” cameras. Olympus was the first off the starting block, closely followed by Panasonic. Samsung and Sony have recently announced their own offerings. Expect Canon and Nikon to respond soon.
Micro Four-Thirds (MFT) is supposed to be an industry standard, which means in theory you can attach lenses from other manufacturers. In practice, the choice of lenses is very limited compared to DSLRs, but the standard is relatively young. However, buy a Samsung or Sony equivalent and you are locked into their technology, although this may not be such a bad thing.
I purchased an upgrade to the EP1 known as the Pen 2, which offers more features and some improvements to the EP1, no doubt in response to the Panasonic offering. Olympus recently released a low-cost version, the EPL1 at about half the price. The EP2 and the Panasonic offering are priced under $/€1000, which puts them in the same category as a fairly good entry-level DSLR and more expensive than the starter DSLRs now on the market.
These are the “headline features” (some of which I “adapted” from dpreview) of the EP2.
• 12 megapixel sensor (crop factor: 2x)
• Accessory port for add-ons such as electronic viewfinder
• ISO 100-6400
• 720p HD video with stereo sound
• 3.0" 230,000 dot LCD screen
• Virtual-horizon level adjustment
• Contrast-detect autofocus (the same AF technology used in compacts)
• RAW / jpeg output
• In-camera image stabilisation
• No integrated flash
• 14-42 mm (full-frame equivalent: 28-84 mm) kit lens
• Add-on electronic viewfinder (sometimes optional)
Read the professional reviews for a detailed description. This is intended as a ‘how it feels’ review. First off, the EP2 is not “pocketable” (unless you have enormous pockets), but it does fit far more neatly in a suitcase or bag, which makes it more practical for travelling than a DSLR.
The EP2 is beautifully constructed and feels nice and solid. The slightly retro and minimalist design is helpful. I love the practicality of the knurled thumb button on the right. I have rather large hands and fingers, so I find the 360 dial irritating. Women should find it much easier to use.
The LCD screen’s low resolution (230,000 dots) doesn’t bother me, but forget using it in bright sunlight (use the beautiful electronic viewfinder). In low light and in video mode, there is “tearing” and some lag, but the same applies to all compacts anyway.
I chose the 14-42 mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens for the reach. The alternative is a 17 mm f/2.8 pancake. Reviews berated the pancake for image softness. The 14-42 mm zoom is only slightly better, but the design is clever. The zoom ring is reasonable, but the manual focus ring is useless. If you come from a DSLR, you’ll find it next to impossible to focus manually. The lens thread is 40.5 mm (no filters available), which doesn’t matter anyway because the lens rotates when focusing, so you can’t use them even if they existed. The lens cap falls off and can be lost very easily.
There is no integrated flash unit. Do not buy the expensive and rather useless, but cute flash unit designed for EP1/EP2/EPL. It can’t be tilted and has little reach. In the end, I bought the slightly more expensive but much more versatile FL36R. As Olympus flash units use only two AA batteries, recycle times are very, very long.
A word on the electronic viewfinder (EVF): I hate LCDs and EVFs, but the one that comes (sometimes as an option) with the EP2 is just brilliant: clear, sharp, bright, almost no tearing and no lag. The only downside is that it fits on the flash hot shoe (so it’s either one or the other just when you typically need both) and reduces the battery life. Also note that it is incompatible with the EP1.
My experience is with high-end Canon DSLRs (5DII and 7D), which means I am used to carefully thought-out menus and interfaces. The Olympus one is crap. You have to be a techno-freak like me to do without the user manual, which is hardly any better. Luckily, once you’ve found the vital “custom” functions buried in the sub-menus, you can use an on-screen command menu to make the most frequent changes (ISO, burst, jpg/RAW, white balance) just by pressing the OK button. If it’s any consolation, Sony’s NX offering has just been slammed for an even worse interface. I didn’t think that was possible.
The complexity and clunkiness of the camera’s interface are all the more surprising when you look at the software shipped with it, which is surprisingly powerful and easy to use. As a RAW shooter, I use Lightroom and Photoshop, but I find myself using the Olympus offering quite often. For beginners, I would thoroughly recommend Olympus software, which also manages firmware upgrades very easily. One mild irritation is the camera cable. The camera’s USB port is non-standard, so don’t lose the dedicated cable. There is also a mini HDMI port.
The tripod screw is off-centre (goodbye panoramas) and, as with most compacts, will make it impossible to open the battery / card compartment when a tripod is mounted.
Handling and performance
God, this camera is slow to focus. If you want to shoot children or animals, drug/glue/nail them in place. Entry-level DSLRs at half the price focus much, much faster. High-end compacts also do slightly better, although they use the same contrast-detect AF technology. Olympus has released several firmware upgrades to address this problem, but it is still the one major weakness. Manual focusing – with the 14-42 mm kit lens at least – is next to impossible and not made any easier by the crap camera interface.
Compared to my DSLRs, the EP2 has poor white balance and noise issues at anything above 400 ISO, but I may be unduly severe. If you shoot in RAW, they are easy to correct. The camera features some nifty in-camera corrections for distortion and camera-shake, but image quality is not this camera’s strong point. It certainly does a better job than most compacts but then it ought to at two/three times the price.
The slow AF, poor noise reduction and arms-length method of composing (common to all compacts without a viewfinder) will all reduce your keeper rate. Olympus Pen cameras also feature “art filters”, which are cute, but apply post-processing in-camera and take so much time that the camera is unusable in these modes.
Optimum shooting conditions: sunlight, low contrast, buildings, landscapes, low ISO (under 400), continental drift
Tricky, but still possible: high-contrast situations, artificial light (shoot in RAW), macros, anything moving faster than a crippled snail
Nightmare conditions: low light / night-time, sports, same as compacts.
I paid too much for this camera and have definitely missed out on the MFT philosophy, which must be quite subtle (i.e., pointless) if I did. As an expensive toy, it’s great; as a viable alternative to a DSLR, go for the much cheaper EPL1 (which hadn’t come out at the time). I didn’t want a compact with a tiny sensor and thought at that price I’d get an AF system that was at least passable. Olympus and Panasonic are now extending their range of compatible lenses, but at pro prices (the wide-angles are retailed at €700), it’s a waste of money.
No doubt I’d be happier if this was my only camera, but it isn’t. Still, image quality is passable and the camera is fun to use, but the dream of an interchangeable-lens compact camera to meet demanding requirements has not come true in this camera.
This is a nice – but expensive – camera for holiday snaps, but I’d take this one to Costa Brava holidays, not ‘dawn in the Serengeti’ ones.
If upgrading from a compact, size has to be the most important reason for buying an EP2. In fully automatic, “idiot” P mode, it is passable, but I expected more for my money. A and S modes need a lot of getting used to. M mode is beyond my abilities as a photographer.
If downgrading from a DSLR, the high-end compacts (G11, Panasonic LX3, TZ and equivalents from Sony and Samsung) offer comparable image quality at half the price and size with extra goodies such as waterproofing or GPS-tagging. Today’s limited and expensive choice of lenses does not justify MFT claims of being a ‘game changer’. For now, I suspect the EP2 is not alone (Panasonic G, Sony NX, Samsung N, etc.) in remaining an expensive and bulkier compact.