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Conclusion - Pros

  • Good resolution and detail at base ISO
  • Compact camera/kit lens package
  • Nice screen with good resolution (460K dots)
  • Good build quality and handling
  • Generally responsive and snappy operation
  • Reliable metering
  • Good AF speed with kit lens
  • Decent high ISO performance and good control over noise reduction
  • Abundance of customization options
  • Some manual control in movie mode
  • Small and quiet kit lens
  • Art filters are fun to play with and also work in movie mode
  • Auto gradation extends highlight DR (but watch the shadow noise)
  • Comprehensive bundled software package
  • Easy live view magnification good for using manual focus lenses

Conclusion - Cons

  • Exposure control with the rear dial not great if you change settings frequently
  • Inefficient movie format results in very large file sizes
  • No orientation sensor means having to rotate every portrait image manually
  • Menu system can be a little overwhelming for novice users
  • Slightly underpowered built-in flash (but still better than having no flash)

Overall conclusion

The Olympus E-PL2 is very close to other E-series cameras such as the E-PL1 or E-P2 in terms of both specification and design, but it's arguably different enough to make it preferable over to in-house competitors for some users. Image quality is pretty much identical, but compared to the E-PL1, the E-PL2 hasa better build quality, an arguably more attractive design, faster AF (with the new kit lens) and an additional rear dial.

While the E-P2 is nominally higher up the PEN-hierarchy some photographers might nevertheless prefer the E-PL2 instead. It's smaller, has a built-in flash and comes with the faster focusing new kit lens. However, you'll have to make do without the E-P2's top thumb dial, which can make changing settings just that little bit more cumbersome.

Having said that, there's not much between the performance of all the current Olympus PEN cameras. The improved AF speed is arguably the biggest argument for the E-PL2 (although you can equally improve the E-P2's and E-PL1's AF speed by combining them with the new lens). The lack of the top dial, if you like setting your shooting parameters manually, is one against it. At the end of the day a lot of it is down to personal preference.

However, if you're in the market for a mirrorless camera it's hard to go wrong with the E-PL2. It doesn't just look good when compared to its Olympus stablemates, but also cuts a fine figure next to the mirrorless competition from other manufacturers. In addition the range of accessories and Micro Four Thirds lenses is continuously growing, making Olympus PEN one of the currently largest and most flexible systems in the mirrorless camera sector.

Image Quality

There is not much new to say about the E-PL2's image quality and that's a good thing. The camera's output is very similar to previous PEN models and shows very good detail at low ISOs. At default settings the colors are vibrant but still natural, and while dynamic range is slightly lower than on most of the APS-C competition, the Auto Gradation feature works well and can give you an extra stop or so of highlight range when required. Just keep an eye on the shadow noise.

The metering is very unproblematic and most of the time you get good results by just letting the camera do its job. You're much more likely to apply exposure compensation and manual settings for creative purposes rather than correcting the camera's metering.

At higher sensitivities the E-PL2 shows some low contrast detail smearing above ISO 400, and from ISO 1600 upwards there's visibly more shadow noise in the Olympus output than in some of the APS-C competition. Having said that the E-PL2's JPEG engine finds a very pleasant balance between noise reduction and detail retention and generates high ISO output that compares favorably to some of its direct competitors such as the Panasonic GF2.

All in all the E-PL2's image quality should satisfy anyone but the most serious-pixel peepers and low-light shooters, for whom a bulky DSLR is much more likely to be the most suitable tool anyway. For everyone else the Olympus offers very decent image quality in a remarkably small package.

Handling

The E-PL2's user interface is located somewhere midway between its PEN siblings E-PL1 and E-P2. While the E-PL1's button-only interface is very clearly aimed at upgrading compact camera users, the E-P2 offers almost DSLR-like controls with its two rear dials. The E-PL2 is in between, with only one dial which is located around the four-way controller on the back of the camera. While this is a step forward from the E-PL1 it cannot provide the same level of convenience as the thumb dial on the E-P2. The dial can also feel a little imprecise at times and if you tend to change your exposure settings frequently you should probably try the camera out before ordering to see if it's right for you. You also need to be careful when turning the dial, as it's possible to inadvertently press one of the buttons on the four-way controller and change settings accidentally.

If you can live with the omission of a thumb dial the E-PL2 is a nice camera to handle though. The build quality is excellent and it lies a little bit better in the hand than the E-PL1, mainly due to the slightly modified, more elegant shapes and the more comfortable hand grip. The E-PL2's new 3.0" screen with 460,000 dot resolution is also an improvement and makes both framing and reviewing images just a touch more pleasant than on the E-PL1's 230,000 dot display.

However, its compact dimensions are arguably the E-PL2's greatest plus in terms of handling. With the new kit lens the Olympus is as small as it currently gets for a large sensor camera/zoom lens combination and the camera fits easily into a coat pocket.

The Final Word

Life is full of compromises and buying a new camera almost always inevitably ends up in one. Before the arrival of the mirrorless camera you could either get a DSLR with lenses that would give you great image quality across the ISO range and a comprehensive control interface, but would require you to carry a camera bag and possibly result in severe back pain after a long day of photography. At the other end of the spectrum you'd find compact cameras that would easily slip into a shirt pocket but offer, compared to a DSLR, mediocre image quality at best.

Mirrorless system cameras have given consumers a third option, providing DSLR-like image quality in a more compact package. None of them have been able to totally solve the dilemma described above and buying into a mirrorless system might for many still be a compromise. However, in the case of the Olympus E-PL2 it's not a bad one at all.

Its image quality in good light is excellent and at higher sensitivities is pretty much on the same level as many entry-level DSLRs. The focus speed has noticeably improved over previous models and is now amongst the best in class. The camera is more customizable than many entry-level DSLRs and you get all of this in a camera/lens package that is currently as small as it gets if you want a large sensor in your camera. If you frequently change your exposure settings we would recommend that you try before you buy and check if the E-PL2's one-dial user interface is right for you. For everyone else the Olympus is a great combination of image quality and portability.

Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean.

Olympus PEN E-PL2
Category: Entry Level Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Performance
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
Anyone who wants a large sensor in a small package
Not so good for
Photographers who frequently change exposure settings or shoot a large proportion of their images in low light
Overall score
71%
If you frequently change your exposure settings or shoot in low light, you might want to try the E-PL2 out before you commit to a purchase, but for everyone else, the Olympus is a great combination of image quality and portability.

Samples Galleries

There are 24 images in the sample gallery. Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter / magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review), we do so in good faith, please don't abuse it.

Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution. A reduced size image (within 1024 x 1024 bounds) is provided to be more easily viewed in your browser. As always the original untouched image is available by clicking on this reduced image.

Olympus E-PL2 Review Samples

24 images • Posted 11th January 2011 • View album
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These are 40 additional sample images which were first posted with our preview of the Olympus E-PL2.

Olympus E-PL2 Preview Samples

40 images • Posted 5th January 2011 • View album
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