Olympus PEN E-P2 Review

Does the PEN E-P2 live up to the hype created by its retro chic styling and high profile adverts for the E-P1?

The Olympus PEN E-P2 was announced back in November, just a few short months after the fanfare surrounding the E-P1. Based on the original 1950s PEN, the Olympus branded camera is in the increasingly popular micro four-thirds category, and boasts a 12.3 Megapixel sensor, ISO 100-6400 and similar manual controls to a standard D-SLR. But does it deliver? Read on to find out more and let us know what you think in the comments box below.

Olympus has a history of making mesmerising ad campaigns, but its latest for its PEN cameras is probably the most memorable since the “Who do you think you are? David Bailey?” ads from the 1980s. The new pitch, fronted by Hollywood superstar Kevin Spacey, is more thought-provoking. It urges the current generation of digital photographers to get more serious with their picture-taking. “I don’t want to take 300,000 same-old pictures that break my hard drive,” says Spacey. “I want to take three that break my heart.”

E-P1 vs E-P2

But can the PEN live up to this creative promise? The second-generation version of the camera certainly comes a lot closer to this lofty ideal. The new E-P2 is, in many ways, a simple update to the original E-P1 – and much of the camera stays the same. But the new black and silver affair is ten times closer to allowing you to be a serious photographer, and less like a tourist, than the original. The big change is that the camera kit now comes with a clip-on electronic viewfinder (EVF) that enables you to use the PEN at eye level, rather than forcing you to use the large LCD screen at the back.

This not only pays dividends in bright light, where the three-inch display is unusable, but you can concentrate better on the wealth of exposure information the camera provides you with. The VF-2 viewfinder attachment slots into the hotshoe, creating a large bulge on top of the otherwise old-fashioned looking camera. You can take it off to make the PEN smaller, but for those who want to pursue Spacey’s promise, it is essential to leave it on. You can switch to the larger screen with just one press of a button, and the eye-level finder can tilt up through 90° for shooting subjects at awkward angles.

Interchangeable lens compact

Unlike other high-end compacts, the advantage of the PEN is that the lenses are interchangeable. It uses the Micro Four Thirds lens mount – also used by several popular Panasonic models. The available range of lenses for this camera is growing fast and, thanks to adapters, the PEN can be used with a surprisingly large number of lenses from other manufacturers, too.

The E-P2 kit comes with a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens, which gives the angle of view of an old fashioned 28-85mm (thanks to the 2x crop factor). This lens’s party trick is that it concertinas down to half its working length when you’ve finished using it, keeping the camera looking as sleek and miniature as possible. Although it shares similarities, the PEN is not technically an SLR – there’s no mirror mechanism. The eye-level viewfinder provides a video feed, rather than an optical view through the lens.

This is similar to the system used on the Panasonic G1 and GH1, but here the viewfinder is not built-in, so the basic body is significantly smaller and lighter. The changes introduced in the updated PEN have, no doubt, been influenced by the introduction of a third Panasonic model, the GF1, which brought about the concept of the clip-on electronic viewfinder. This viewfinder proves particularly useful when using one of the manual focus modes. As soon as you turn the focus ring, the display zooms into the centre of the image, allowing you to adjust the sharpness accurately.

The focus is servo-assisted, so isn’t particularly quick to use. However, as the camera’s autofocus system isn’t especially fast or accurate, this is a godsend for telephoto or macro shots. The PEN isn’t particularly cheap, and although its retro styling helps it to justify its selling price, you do need to weigh up its charms against those of a more traditionally styled digital SLR (which, after all, can be bought for around half the price of the PEN).

The small size is a bonus, but compared to Olympus’s own D-SLRs, say, it’s not significantly smaller, particularly when the EVF is in place and the zoom extended. The electronic viewfinder has advantages over most D-SLRs in low light or when manually focusing, but this can be found on Panasonic’s G1 and GH1 models.

Built in flash vs Flash accessory

One notable feature of the original PEN that hasn’t been addressed is the absence of a built-in flash unit. You can buy an accessory clip-on unit (around £150), as before, but now you have to ditch the EVF to use it. In our field test in winter daylight, and indoors, we found that this made you highly reliant on the camera’s high ISO settings. Fortunately, the quality of results taken at settings from ISO640 to 1600 looked extremely good. However, the basic set-up means you even lose the ability to add flash to fill in the shadows.

In terms of features and handling, however, the E-P2 compares extremely well to most budget digital SLRs – you get the full range of exposure and focusing modes. Use Aperture Priority, for instance, and you get a clear readout of aperture and shutter speed in the viewfinder, and a scroll wheel for changing settings that falls conveniently for your thumb. Exposure Compensation is also easily reached and controlled; what’s more you can see when it’s needed thanks to a small histogram that can be constantly displayed in the viewfinder.

Other key creative overrides can also be found without any major handling problems. And, if you delve into the menu, the camera allows you to customise more features than most; you can control the range of settings available when using Auto ISO, for instance, or decide whether the focus ring is turned clockwise or anti-clockwise to make distant objects look sharp. One handling gripe with the PEN is that you can’t see the ISO setting used in the viewfinder. This would be a particularly useful feature with this camera, as you end up having to push the ISO more than with other cameras to make up for the lack of flash.

See below for some sample images (click to embiggen):