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Olympus PEN E-PL2: First Impression

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My entry into digital photography began with a high-end compact camera (Lumix LX3). I still have one in fact: The excellent Canon S90. I love it, but there’s no way around that tiny sensor. You have very limited control over depth of field, and detail suffers at higher ISOs in even the most advanced point and shoots. Naturally, I progressed to a DSLR, with a D700 as my main weapon of choice these days. There’s only one problem with the otherwise wonderful imaging machine that is the D700, however: It’s huge!

I’m the kind of person that carries my camera everywhere I go, and in many cases, especially if I’m going out with the purpose of photography, the D700’s mass doesn’t really bug me. On all day outings, simple trips to the store or on other errands, or just grabbing some dinner with friends, however, it can start to feel like a burdensome anchor over my shoulder after a while. I’ve been wanting something smaller for such occasions.

Ever since Micro Four Thirds cameras started appearing on the market, I’ve been pretty intrigued by the concept of a small, lightweight, large sensor (compared to a compact), interchangeable lens camera system. The technology has matured somewhat now, and these little cameras have become quite popular.  For me, the appeal is simple: compact body, DSLR-like image quality. A camera that I can grab when the size of my DSLR may not practical for a given situation, but that at the same time gives me more than my point-and-shoot does as far as image quality. Recently, I met up with a friend who let me take a look at her Panasonic GF-1. After playing with the camera for a few minutes, I was sold on the m4/3 system.

Enter the Olympus PEN E-PL2

I ordered the E-PL2 together with the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens, which gives me a 40mm full-frame equivalent angle of view through the viewfi—uh, LCD. I must say, the lens looks pretty slick on the camera’s silver body.

This little “first impression” review will cover a few of my thoughts about the camera since I received it last week. This is not a review unit. I carefully considered which camera I wanted to acquire to fill the gap between my point and shoot and my DSLR, and finally added the E-PL2 to my gear bag. I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the camera continually in future blog posts.

The EPL2 is a modest update to the recently released E-PL1, a camera that seemed to bring mirrorless interchangable lens cameras to the masses by offering a model at a much lower price point than the flagship E-P2. From what I’ve read, there’s not a whole lot of difference between the E-PL2 and E-PL1. I won’t bore you with an exhaustive list, but there are some key updates that do matter to me:

One difference is the rear LCD screen. Size and resolution have been bumped up to 3 inches, 420k dots. Can’t hold a candle to the 920k dot screen on the back of my D700, but it still looks great and I have no problems using the LCD for manual focus. The AP2 port (covered by the hot shoe cover above) accepts some pretty neat accessories, most notably a high-resolution electronic viewfinder that I didn’t order just yet for myself. I’m not one of those “I must have an eye-level viewfinder or I can’t take pictures” photographers. Maybe all my iphoneography has weened me off of the concept =)

Another change is the addition of a clickable command dial around the OK button on the back of the camera. Unfortunately, this is one aspect of the camera I’m not entirely thrilled about. For such a critical control point, the command dial feels a little fiddly. Likely to make room for the larger LCD, the dial is placed very close to the edge of the camera body, making it somewhat awkward and cramped to use at times. Not a deal breaker by any means, but rather a design quirk that takes some getting used to.

The E-PL2 comes kitted with an updated standard zoom, the Olympus M. Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 MSC (Movie and Still Compatible) lens. I have a feeling I won’t be using the zoom all that much. The 20mm f/1.7 is faster, more fun to use, and is more compact.

However, the kit lens does seem to perform pretty well optically, and focuses surprisingly fast. Zoom and focus ring action, as well as internal focus mechanisms, are smooth and silent in operation, preventing lens sounds from finding their way into the audio track of your videos.

This is my first Olympus camera since my film days! I’m actually planning on purchasing the Olympus OM to m4/3 mount adapter, which will allow me to use the F. Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 (shown right) on my E-PL2. Pretty exciting to be able to use legacy lenses on this new camera.

I didn’t want to spend all day on these product shots, but here’s a quick photo of the E-PL2 between my Canon S90 and Nikon D40. The E-PL2 is certainly not pocketable like the S90 is, but its size and weight make it perfect for either a large coat pocket or small bag.  With the 20mm pancake mounted, the size and weight of the E-PL2 feels similar to that of a high-end compact like the Panasonic LX3/5 or Canon G12. I keep mine in a little messenger bag, and walking around town I can’t even tell it’s in there.

The built in pop-up can remote-command off-camera flash guns. The strobist in me is very intrigued by this feature…

A slightly fiddly command dial aside,  the E-PL2 operates very well ergonomically. The grip is comfortable, and the camera feels solid and very well made. Performance is also very snappy, making the camera a joy to use overall. Ok, enough about the camera itself. I didn’t spend all weekend staring at it, I was out taking pictures! Below are a few samples. Enjoy!


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/4, 1/400 second, ISO200

Note that as of the writing of this post, Adobe Camera Raw does not support the E-PL2’s raw image files, so I don’t have the ability to process the raw image data from the camera in Lightroom 3 just yet. I guess it’s good that I did my recent JPEG experiment! All of these images are therefore processed in-camera. I’ve heard great things about the Olympus JPEG engine, and I must say, the E-PL2’s JPEG output does not disappoint. I love the way it renders colors, particularly blue skies:


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/3.5, 1/320 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/5.6, 1/800 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/5.6, 1/800 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/6.3, 1/1000 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/4.5, 1/500 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/6.3, 1/1000 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Olympus M.14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II | 14mm, f/9, 1/400 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Olympus M.14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II | 14mm, f/8, 1/320 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Olympus M.14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II | 14mm, f/10, 1/620 second, ISO200 (-0.3EV)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/6.3, 1/1000 second, ISO200

Olympus EPL2 + Olympus M.14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II | 21mm, f/10, 1/400 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/5.6, 1/800 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/3.5, 1/320 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/5, 1/500 second, ISO200

Metering is very dependable, consistent, and accurate. I very rarely have to nudge the camera with any exposure compensation.

Some Closeups:


Olympus EPL2 + Olympus M.14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II | 42mm, f/11, 1/100 second, ISO200 (-0.3EV)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/125 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/2500 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/500 second, ISO200 (-0.3EV)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/250 second, ISO200 (-0.3EV)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/125 second, ISO200 (Monotone)

ART FILTERS:

Since I’ve never really shot with an Olympus digital camera, this is my first experience with in-camera Art Filters. You could dismiss this feature as a gimmick I suppose, but I found the filters to be incredibly fun to use.

The filter effects are overlayed onto the view screen in real-time as you compose, giving you a preview of the Art Filter’s effect before you take the shot, and multiple filters can be stacked. It’s really cool!

I found myself gravitating towards the Pin Hole Filter:


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/5.6, 1/500 second, ISO200 (Pin Hole, -0.7EV)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/25 second, ISO200 (Pin Hole)


Olympus EPL2 + Olympus M.14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II | 14mm, f/8, 1/400 second, ISO200 (Pin Hole, -0.3EV)


Olympus EPL2 + Olympus M.14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II | 27mm, f/11, 1/400 second, ISO200 (Pin Hole)


Olympus EPL2 + Olympus M.14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II | 14mm, f/9, 1/500 second, ISO200 (Pin Hole)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/6.3, 1/1000 second, ISO200 (Pin Hole)


Olympus EPL2 + Olympus M.14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II | 14mm, f/9, 1/500 second, ISO200 (Pin Hole)


Olympus EPL2 + Olympus M.14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II | 14mm, f/8, 1/400 second, ISO200 (Pin Hole)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/5.6, 1/800 second, ISO200 (Pin Hole)

Another neat Art Filter is Diorama, which gives your images that tilt-shifted, miniaturized look:


Olympus EPL2 + Olympus M.14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II | 14mm, f/10, 1/500 second, ISO200 (Diorama, -0.7EV)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/3.2, 1/250 second, ISO200 (Diorama)

Perhaps my favorite would be Grainy Film. This filter gives you that high-speed, black and white film look:


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/125 second, ISO200 (Grainy Film)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/13 second, ISO200 (Grainy Film)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/1250 second, ISO200 (Grainy Film, -0.3EV)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/2.8, 1/200 second, ISO200 (Grainy Film)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/4, 1/400 second, ISO200 (Grainy Film)


Olympus EPL2 + Olympus M.14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II | 33mm, f/5.6, 1/100 second, ISO200 (Grainy Film)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/5.6, 1/800 second, ISO200 (Grainy Film)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/2.5, 1/800 second, ISO200 (Grainy Film)


Olympus EPL2 + Olympus M.14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II | 14mm, f/6.3, 1/250 second, ISO200 (Grainy Film)

I haven’t used this one that much yet, but here’s a couple snaps using the Pop Art filter, which boosts color and contrast to almost ridiculous levels:


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/125 second, ISO200 (Pop Art)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/4000 second, ISO200 (Pop Art)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/400 second, ISO200 (Pop Art)

One new filter that I haven’t shown here is Dramatic Tone. I have yet to take a picture using this filter that doesn’t look positively ghastly. I’ll keep trying ;)

Low Light Shooting

Over the weekend, someone asked me why I chose the E-PL2 over the Panasonic GF2, or even the highly regarded GF1. Indeed, it was the GF1 that got me hooked on the idea of a m4/3 system in the first place, so what gives? For me, there is one critical feature missing in the Panasonic GFs that is built into all of the Olympus digital Pen cameras: in-camera, sensor-shift image stabilization.

With a stabilized body, any lens you stick on the E-PL2, from a modern zoom to an old manual prime, gets the added benefit of stabilization. Combining a stabilized body, therefore, with a fast prime like the 20mm f/1.7, allows you shoot at wide apertures while using impossible-to-hand-hold shutter speeds. To get a better idea of what this can mean for low-light photography, check out some samples below, all taken hand-held. Note the shutter speeds as well as the ISO settings on each image:


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/13 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7,  1/20 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7,  1/10 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7,  1/10 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7,  1/30, second ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/13 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/13 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7,  1/10 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/4 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7,  1/8 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7,  1/20 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7,  1/20 second, ISO200

Notice that I’m hand-holding the camera at shutter speeds down to 1/4 second and getting getting clean, detailed night shots without having to boost ISO beyond base level.  I don’t expect the high ISO abilities of the E-PL2 to be anywhere near what my D700 is capable of, so the extra help I get from the sensor-shift stabilizer to keep my ISO as low as possible when hand-holding in low light is really appreciated.

Shots of Suki

Of course, no post would be complete with out some shots of Suki. The E-PL2’s continuous auto focus is not quite fast enough to keep up with Suki if she’s moving erratically, but you can still get shots of your pet with this camera.


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/6.3, 1/1000 second, ISO200

Can a fox become man’s best friend? Of course! My best friend is a fox =P


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/1000 second, ISO200

She IS a fox. =)


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/1250 second, ISO200


Olympus EPL2 + Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 | f/1.7, 1/80 second, ISO200

I absolutely love this camera so far. I find the image quality to be excellent, and the size and weight are refreshing. The E-PL2 is easy to carry around all day, it’s inconspicuous, and best of all, it’s downright fun to use. I can see myself traveling with just this camera and one lens and be completely satisfied. Stay tuned for more images, and some video testing as well! I’m off to do more shooting with the E-PL2.

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Product Shots: Nikon D700 + Nikkor AFS 24mm f/1.4G | Nikkor AFS 24-120mm f/4 VR II

Portrait of a Friend, and Goodbye Summer Night Shooting

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Nikon D300s + Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 VC at 50mm f/5.6, ISO900 1/8 Second

Nikon D300s + Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 VC at 50mm f/5.6, ISO900 1/8 Second

This is Snowflake Bear, and we take him everywhere! He’s even been to Japan and back with us last year (where our friends called him kuma-san, or Mr. Bear). I usually shoot in RAW, but this shot was processed by and imported directly from of the camera. The D300s produces some beautiful JPEGs I think. I took this photo to test out my Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8’s VC effectiveness in an indoor, low-light setting. This scene was actually much darker than it looks here, with natural light hitting him softly from the edges of a dark curtain over a window to my right. The VC allowed a super-low 1/8 second shutter speed at a reasonable ISO setting and at the longest (75mm equivalent) focal length for this lens, hand-held. Of course, this wouldn’t have worked if he was moving around though. ;)

In other news, the shot I took below was a quick one I took on the way to go grocery shopping over the weekend. It’s getting harder and harder to take the cityscape shots at dusk that I’ve been enjoying taking over the summer. The sun is setting sooner and sooner as Autumn sets in, and there isn’t much time lately to run out after work and capture the wonderful, deep blue sky color that lasts only 20-30 minutes after the sun sets.

A street light to my left was causing major flare issues for me that ruined my first couple of shots at this spot (using my Tokina 11-16 ultra wide). Since my wife was along, I actually had her stand to the left of the camera to shade the lens. Not only is she blocking light with her body here, but her hand is actually held very close (in fact just barely out of the frame) to the left of the lens to further reduce the glare.

We were only there for a few minutes and the dusky blue sky was gone. I noticed though, during this very quick shooting session, that the shutter speeds I needed to expose the shot the way I wanted seemed too short. After getting home I realized why: I had the camera set to ISO800 from some hand-held test shots I was taking earlier. Doh! Fortunately, ISO800 is very clean on the D300s, but it just goes to show, always double check your settings!

To prevent this from happening later, I’ve set up two custom shooting banks in my D300s, one for the tripod mounted night shots I love taking, where I shoot RAW with D-Lighting off and ISO set to base with Auto ISO off (among other things), and one for hand-held shooting, activating D-Lighting and Auto ISO etc.

Anyways, back to being sad about the seasons changing. I know that soon, as winter comes, I’ll be getting off work with the sun already below or close to being below the horizon, giving me no time for the shots I’ve been taking lately. There is hope, however. I’ve noticed lately that on my drive to work in the morning, the dawn’s blue sky here in San Francisco is simply incredible. I’m gonna have to start waking up earlier!

Wow, this post is full of my rambling. Oh well!

Tamron SP 17-50mm f/2.8 Di II VC

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Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC Mounted on my Nikon D300s

Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC Mounted on my Nikon D300s

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I’m extremely excited to have received my brand new Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC. VC, or Vibration Control, is Tamron’s version of optical image stabilization, which compensates for camera shake while taking photos, allowing more flexibility in low light photography. I previously owned the non-stabilized version of the Tamron 17-50mm, which I sold my cousin in order to nab this one. So, as a former owner of the last lens, there are some differences other than the new VC feature that I can note between this updated version and the older Tamron 17-50.

First of all, this new VC version seems very slightly larger and heavier, but the difference is hard to really feel in practice. To me, the construction/build quality of the lens looks and feels superior to the older Tamron, though still not as rugged as my Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. The VC lens also takes 72mm filters instead of the 67mm ring size of the older lens, which means I’m gonna have to go filter shopping now.

My new Tamron seems to make lots of interesting noises during shooting. First of all, while the zoom ring operated quietly on the older 17-50, the zoom ring on the VC version makes a strange sound that I can’t seem to describe any other way than as the sound of zipping up the zipper on a camping tent. Not sure if that description makes any sense, but the sound doesn’t really bother me and may fade in time. Focusing sounds are noisy like the older lens, and while this lens seems to focus very fast on my D300s (I never had a chance to mount the old one on my new camera), the noise that the non-silent wave motor makes during operation seems similar to the old one: noisy, but not objectionably so in my opinion. Then, of course, there is the noise coming from the VC system. You know the sound that a conch makes when you put your ear up to it? Yeah, kinda sounds like that.

About the VC system. I’m used to using optical stabilization on my longer Nikkor 70-300mm lens, where hand holding the lens racked out at 300mm and activating VR reduces the shake in the viewfinder significantly but not completely. When I look through the viewfinder with the Tamron mounted and VC active at these shorter focal lengths, the image in the viewfinder looks dead still….like scary still. It’s pretty awesome.

While out on the town this evening I decided to do a little practical test of the VC’s effectiveness. Here’s a shot I took on a tripod tonight with the new lens:

Nikon D300s + Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC at 18mm f/18, 8 Seconds ISO200

Nikon D300s + Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC at 18mm f/18, 8 Seconds ISO200

During the same shooting session, I took two shots from the same spot, but hand-held. One shot was taken with VC active and one without. Here’s a crop from each (cropped from the center window on the Castro Theater). Both these images were shot in RAW and converted to JPEG in Adobe Lightroom without any adjustments made. Note the camera settings in each shot:

Without VC:

Nikon D300s + Tamron 17-50mm f/ 2.8 VC at 20mm f/8.0, 1/8 Sec ISO 800 (VC OFF)

Nikon D300s + Tamron 17-50mm f/ 2.8 VC at 20mm f/8.0, 1/8 Sec ISO 800 (VC OFF)

With VC:

Nikon D300s + Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC at 20mm f/8, 1/8 Sec ISO 500

Nikon D300s + Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC at 20mm f/8, 1/8 Sec ISO 500

I made a little mistake in this test that actually made it turn out a little better in a way. Notice that the settings are identical in each shot except for the ISO settings. The non-VC shot is set at ISO800 while the VC shot is at ISO500. This is because when I took the camera off the tripod to start shooting hand-held, I instinctively set the camera to auto-ISO, so the camera started changing the ISO from one shot to the other (auto ISO effected not only by what the meter is seeing but also by whether or not VC is active). If I had manually kept the ISO the same in both shots, the blur in the non VC shot would have been more exaggerated.

But as you can see, even with a higher ISO sensitivity, the shot with VC off shows significant blur from camera motion compared to the shot with VC on at a lower sensitivity setting. These shots were taken at a pretty small aperture considering they were both taken at dusk, and the fact that the shot with VC was sharp down to 1/8 of a second combined with a pretty low ISO in this case is really promising. For static, low-light subjects (which make up a lot of the shots I take), the optical stabilization will allow me to take more usable photos when I don’t have a tripod. The VC will also give me more usable apertures in low-light, which is great if I decide I want more depth of field or sharpness in a hand-held low-light shot, rather than having to resort cranking up the ISO, shooting at f/2.8, and hoping the shutter speed is high enough to stop the shake.

Here’s the non-cropped version of the hand-held photo of the Castro Theater with VC active:

Nikon D300s + Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 VC at 20mm f/8, 1/8 Second ISO 500

Nikon D300s + Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 VC at 20mm f/8, 1/8 Second ISO 500

Overall I really look forward to using this Tamron. My favorite lens has still got to be my Tokina 11-16 f/2.8, but this one will probably come to be a very close second, and will probably be on my camera 90% of the time I shoot. Well, I don’t know about 90%…..we’ll just have to see!

Update 11/20/09:

Check out a few shots I took at a recent wedding with the Tamron 17-50 VC here.

Check out more hand held low light shots at a museum with the Tamron here.

Or, just click the 70-50 tag to see all the photos I’ve taken so far with the Tamron 17-50 VC.