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Operation and controls

Like its predecessor the E-PL1, the E-PL2 is designed to offer the convenience and (relative) portability of a digital compact camera with the sort of versatility and image quality that you'd normally expect from a DSLR with a larger sensor. Despite similar dimensions the E-PL2 lies a little bit better in the hand than the E-PL1, mainly due to the slightly modified, more E-P2-like shapes and button layout and a more pleasantly shaped hand grip. The E-PL2's new kit lens also has a smaller diameter than the old one but is actually a little longer. This gives the camera-lens package a slightly less bulky appearance but in terms of portability there's not much between the E-PL2 and its predecessor. Last but not least the E-PL2's new 3.0" (4:3 aspect ratio) screen offers a higher resolution of 460,000 pixels which makes both framing and reviewing images just a touch more pleasant than on the E-PL1's 230,000 pixel display.

The E-PL1 had an entirely button-driven interface, but the E-PL2 moves closer to the E-P1 and E-P2. It has all of the same buttons as the E-PL1, albeit in a physical layout that closely resembles the E-P2, but crucially adds a rear control dial (integrated with the four-way controller) for changing exposure parameters. A typical 'auto everything' compact shooter might not recognize the distinction, but for a more ambitious user, such as someone looking for a second camera alongside their DSLR, it makes the E-PL2 rather more usable in its PASM modes. Trying to take full manual control over the E-PL1 could sometimes feel like using an early 90s Nintendo Gameboy, but the operation of the E-PL2 is a lot more fluid.

Some things have stayed the same though - the E-PL2's labyrinthine menu system will look familiar to anyone that has used an E-PL1 (or indeed any recent E-series DSLR or PEN model) and the basic method of navigating to, and adjusting key shooting parameters is almost unchanged. Pressing the 'OK' button at the center of the four-way controller brings up a function menu from which you can get access to almost all main shooting settings.

The E-PL2 is a half-way house, then, between the entirely modal interface of the E-PL1 and the dial-driven operation of the E-P1/E-P2. On the whole, we think that it represents a decent compromise between simplicity and operability. But whilst we welcome the rear control dial, in actual use it's something of a dual-edged sword. Yes it makes changing settings easier, but its small size, coupled with the fact that the rim of the dial doubles as the buttons of the 4-way controller, makes it unusually prone to accidental changes too. It can also be particularly hard to manipulate precisely with cold hands, which we found to be a real problem when shooting in wintry weather.

It's worth pointing out here that the function of the rear dial can be customized in the PASM shooting modes. We generally found it more useful when set to control exposure compensation, although that's probably a question of personal taste. The advantage here is that, because you only tend to move the dial a few notches at a time in this mode, you're less likely to click one of its buttons and activate a different function accidentally. You can also disable the dial (somewhere) in the menu if you really don't get on with it at all, but then you end up effectively with the E-PL1's control layout all over again.

Ultimately, though, we can't help but think Olympus has added the 'wrong' dial from the E-P1/2. We'd much rather have seen the movie record button moved to make way for the excellent vertical thumb dial that's found on those cameras. Alternatively a top-plate dial (such as is found on the Canon Powershot G12 for instance) would - we feel - fall more conveniently to hand and make the camera quicker to use, especially in the PASM exposure modes. It's not that the E-PL2 is bad to use - rather that other small cameras are better.

Rear of camera controls

The back of the E-PL2 is home to most of the controls, and the resemblance to the higher-level E-P2 is obvious. The four-way controller is the main control interface, and on its four cardinal points are dedicated hard buttons for AF point selection, exposure compensation, flash mode, and continuous shooting/timers; the latter two buttons can also be re-assigned to control ISO or white balance if you prefer. The 'Fn' button, by default, toggles face detection mode on and off, but can be customized to operate a range of functions including AEL/AFL, depth of field preview, and switchover to manual focus. This level of configurability means you can set the camera up pretty well how you please for your personal style of shooting, which is always a good thing.

The exposure compensation button works in a rather unusual way, inherited essentially from the E-PL1. By default, the rear dial changes the primary exposure parameter (e.g. aperture in A mode), and pressing '+/-' changes this to exposure compensation. So far so conventional, but at this point the entire four-way controller also changes mode, like on the E-PL1, such that the up and down arrows change the aperture while the left and right arrows set exposure compensation (neatly locking you out of the ability to change anything else until you press the 'OK' button).

This curious behavior has both positives and negatives. Because the controller stands proud of the rear of the camera, it's all-too-easy to change settings accidentally. However on the plus side, it's also a bit easier to change exposure settings while wearing gloves than on most competing models (or the E-PL1 for that matter), by pressing '+/-' then using the 4-way controller rather than the dial. Overall, the interface is only slightly slower than the higher-end PENs for changing fundamental shooting parameters (such as aperture and shutter speed), but faster and easier to get to grips with than the E-PL1.

Top of camera controls

There are only three controls on the top of the camera - the power button, the shutter release and a mode dial. Like the E-PL1 the E-PL2 boasts an iAuto mode, which combines the Live Guide simplified interface with automatic scene recognition and the iEnhance selective color and contrast enhancement feature for point-and-shoot creation of punchy images.

  • iAuto - Intelligent Auto mode,
  • ART - Use one of the camera's six creative 'Art Filters'
  • SCN - Manually select from the camera's 19 scene modes
  • Movie mode - Gives simple control over movie shooting settings
  • P, A, S, M - user controllable auto, semi-auto and manual exposure modes

On-screen controls and menus

In terms of its on-screen operation and controls, the E-PL2 works in almost exactly the same way as the E-PL1. The E-PL1's 'Live Guide Mode' is updated though, and compatibility has been added with movie capture (making it Live Guide II). Simply put, Live Guide is a results-orientated interface for the iAuto mode (you specify that you want a brighter image, not that you want to change exposure compensation, for instance). However, the existing user interface options are also available and can be used alongside or instead of the Live Guide if you prefer (you can choose which control methods are available in each shooting mode).

More advanced photographers will probably prefer to change the E-PL2's various shooting parameters manually. By default, the live control screen (see below) serves this function, and is activated by pressing the 'OK' button at the center of the camera's four-way controller. Also available is the 'Super Control Panel' which was first introduced in Olympus' E-series DSLRs. This shows key settings in a grid, overlaid onto the live view image. Which you prefer is a matter of taste, but Olympus clearly doesn't think that you'll be interested in the Super Control Panel, since the custom option which turns it on is bizarrely well hidden.

Activating the Super Control Panel is inexplicably complicated. First, you must enter the menu and scroll down to the custom settings line, then across to the 'D' section, which deals with display/live view functions, and then across again to 'Control Settings', then across to whichever exposure mode you want to allow the Super Control Panel to be visible in (you can't select 'all'), then across again, and down to the teasingly abbreviated 'SCP', and then - finally - across again and you'll see an option to turn it 'on'.

Please note that because of the similarity between the two models, some of the screen grabs on this page were taken from the E-PL1.

By default, changing 'top level' shooting controls in PASM shooting modes is achieved using the compact-camera-like icon-driven 'Live Control' screen. Just press 'OK' then navigate using the 4-way controller. This is is quick and simple - exactly as it should be on a camera of this type, and at this level. There's also an option to use the Super Control Panel if you prefer a DSLR-like at-a-glance status screen. Once activated, pressing the INFO button cycles between this and whichever other options you've enabled in the 'Control Settings' tab of the 'D' custom menu.

Menus

The E-PL2 inherits essentially the same menu system that we've seen on all the company's current DSLRs and PENs and, like the most recent models, you can keep everything nice and simple by hiding the custom settings menu (which the camera does by default). If you elect to show the custom settings menu, you're confronted with one of the most comprehensive (and in our opinion rather excessive) range of customization options of any camera this side of professional-level sports models. Our advice is to keep the user manual handy though - some of the E-PL2's 'lower tier' controls are oddly designated and pretty well hidden.

Ultimately, although we welcome this level of customizability, we have concerns about the way in which it has been implemented. The E-PL2's custom menu is impressively comprehensive, but by no stretch of the imagination could it be called 'user friendly'. The option to turn entire menus on or off, for instance, is a good idea in principle (it protects the inexperienced user from the worst excesses of the Olympus menu designers' art), but this option itself has the potential to confuse a beginner.

To be honest, with the custom menu activated, we suspect that even experienced photographers will scratch their heads at some of the available options. A good example is 'anti-shock', found in the exposure tab of the custom menu. This is an exposure delay mode, designed (according to the manual) to reduce "camera shake caused by vibrations". Presumably Olympus considers that the E-PL2's shutter causes enough vibration by itself to warrant the feature, but our testing shows minimal benefit to using Anti-shock over the (much more easily set) self-timer at a range of different shutter speeds.

Another oddity is the dial lock function, found in section B of the custom menu, which claims to disable/enable exposure compensation using the rear dial. In fact, this option does no such thing - it is just a simple dial lock, so when turned 'on' you cannot use the rear control dial to adjust aperture or shutter speed (depending on the mode set). Curiously, though, once you press the '+/-' button, you can then use it to adjust exposure compensation, meaning the function does almost the opposite of what it claims.

These aren't even particularly isolated examples: the menu has more than its share of options which seem unnecessary or confusing. To be fair this isn't a major complaint against the camera - you don't have to spend much time in there after all - but we can't help but feel the E-PL2 would be friendlier even to more experienced users with a trimmed-down, more focused set of options. Sometimes less really is more.

The first shooting menu rarely has to be visited and is mainly used for formatting cards and changing other fundamental camera functions. The second shooting menu plays host to more useful (and more often changed) settings, such as continuous shooting options and multiple exposure/exposure bracketing.
This menu covers direct printing settings and slideshow options. The custom menu is hidden by default, but once activated, a plethora of additional options become available, arranged in 10 groups. These allow customization of just about every aspect of the camera's behavior.
For example, the direction of the manual focusing ring on compatible lenses can be changed, if necessary, to match a user's experience of other systems. Finally, the setup menu allows you to adjust the 'nuts and bolts' of the E-PL2's operation. This is where you'll find firmware information, date and time, and language settings.

Record review & play displays

Like the E-PL1 the E-PL2 also gives a choice of two different methods of zooming into an image during playback mode. Close Up Mode 1 is the default, but another mode - Close Up Mode 2 - can be activated in the DISP section of the custom menu.

Close up Mode 1 (called 'Zoom Mode' in the E-PL1) simply uses the zoom/thumbnail buttons to zoom in and out of the image. Close Up Mode 2 first presents a box showing the area to be magnified. Pressing INFO lets you change the level of magnification.

Just as the E-PL2 offers a variety of record modes, it also gives a wide choice of playback options. You can select which you want available, then cycle through them using the INFO button. The last-used playback mode then becomes the record review mode.

Default view Image Only (Optional)
Overall (Optional) Flashes over- and under-exposed regions Histogram (Optional)
Highlight and Shadow (Optional) Light Box (Optional and only available when Close Up Mode 2 is enabled)
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