Shooting with the Olympus PEN E-PL7

By Richard Butler

The E-PL7 has all the pieces in place to be a great camera. Sadly, my initial impressions are that it isn't one. There's a lot to like: it's a small, well-priced camera with fast autofocus, a good sensor and a likeable JPEG engine. Add in a fairly easy-to-use Wi-Fi system, access to a strong but generally affordable lens range and (from the front, at least) pretty styling. And yet...

The E-PL7 sits in a difficult position in the market, where it needs to appeal equally to point-and-shoot users wanting improved image quality and more dedicated photographers expecting a more hands-on experience. In a perfect world, it should be the camera that makes photography so enjoyable that some of that first group are encouraged to become members of the second. It's a difficult balancing act that very few cameras get right - favoring one group too strongly over the other or failing to satisfy either type. The PL7 does a pretty good job of walking the line between these two extremes but, in my opinion, could be bolder in supporting the more committed photographer.

Point-and-shoot (and adjust)

For beginners, the Live Guide interface in the iAuto mode has been improved. Instead of being able to adjust one image parameter, it's now possible to combine changes to several parameters at once. This means you can change 'Brightness' (Exposure Compensation) and 'Color Image' (Color temperature) at the same time, if you wish. The camera makes it pretty clear when a change has been applied and makes it easy to reset everything to defaults. If anything it's possibly slightly too easy to reset everything - press the 'Menu' button and you'll have to start applying your settings changes all over again. Overall, though, it's pretty clever, even if it does indicate that you've changed a setting, simply because you visited one of the settings tabs.

The Live Guide interface provides several outcome-orientated icons on a touchscreen tab on the right-hand-side of the screen.

Each of the options is a proxy for a conventional camera setting and, if anything, this interface makes it easier to make tone curve adjustments (something that only the most committed Olympus scholars will be able to activate in the camera's other modes).
Unlike previous interactions, the E-PL7 allows you to apply multiple settings changes at the same time.

There's no way to disengage the camera's slightly over-enthusiastic 'iEnchance' color mode but you can dial back the saturation, if you feel it necessary.

Taking control (and the button pressing that goes with it)

As a more committed user who wants to take more control over settings and exposure, I found the PL7 to be something of a disappointment. It seems to have all the necessary elements: a well-positioned control dial, one of the best touch-screen settings panels in the industry and a good degree of button customization, to let you tailor the behavior to suit your shooting style. So why doesn't the PL7 add up to the sum of these parts?

Although you can't get such shallow depth-of-field with the kit zoom, the Micro Four Thirds system includes comparatively affordable options such as the ~$300/€250/£200 m.Zuiko 45mm F1.8, which allows for some photographic fun.

m.Zuiko Digital 45mm F1.8
ISO 1600
1/100th sec

The answer was revealed when discussing the camera with a colleague. I'd been frustrated that the E-PL7 isn't, by default, as quick to operate as an entry-level DSLR, or many of its mirrorless rivals. 'It's fine,' said one of my colleagues: 'it works just like a compact,' alluding to the reliance on the four-way controller to change exposure compensation. And I realised that's why I'm disappointed with the E-PL7: Olympus has built what can be a really hands-on camera but then lost its nerve and left it behaving like a basic compact, requiring that you constantly reposition your hands away from a shooting position, to execute some intricate button presses. And yet...

Time for a rethink?

With a little bit of customization, the E-PL7 can be turned into a very nice camera to shoot with: one that puts key settings at your fingertips, to give a quick and enjoyable shooting experience. It's not simple - customizing the camera means engaging the hidden 'Custom' menu. On a mass-market camera it's understandable that Olympus would hide the potentially daunting Custom menu but this is a problem when there is so much of an improvement to be gained over the default behavior. I'm not advocating that Olympus un-hide the Custom menu, I'm suggesting it should change the default behaviour in PASM shooting modes. Because, at the moment, the camera operates like one designed without a control dial.

The thing that inspires this thought is the way you change exposure compensation (arguably one of most common feature changes most users will want to make):

The Olympus way: My prefered alternative:
(Customizing one of the shoulder buttons to control exposure comp)

Reposition your hand from your normal shooting grip. Reach down to the four-way controller. Press 'Up'.

The four-way controller now enters a mode in which it operates exposure compensation (left and right) and the primary shooting parameter of the shooting mode you're in (up and down). The control dial also operates exposure compensation.

Pressing 'OK' or the shutter button exits this mode, allowing the use of the other button features.

Roll your thumb from the thumb rest onto the shoulder button.

Spin the dial.

Keep shooting (your hand is still in the shooting grip).

(Really cleverly, if you hold your chosen shoulder button down, it will disengage when you release it. However, if you just tap it, it will wait for another tap or a half-press of the shutter button for confirmation)

I've complained before about Olympus hiding the 'Live Super Control Panel' interface but it continues to sadden me, every time I pick up a new Olympus. I genuinely can't understand the logic in only providing button-driven interface (that looks like it was borrowed from a decade-old compact camera), when the camera has a well thought-out touch-sensitive screen with all the key settings available. I appreciate that the Super Control Panel could be a little intimidating for some users, but it should be easier to access, even if it's not made the default.

The Olympus way:
(Live Control)
My prefered alternative:
(Live Super Control Panel)
Press 'OK' in the camera's PASM modes and you're face with the Live Control interface.

It gives you access to 14 of the camera's main settings. Some amount of four-way controller pressing later, you can adjust them with the control dial. (The touchscreen isn't used).
The Super Control Panel shows you most of the camera's settings and allows you to simply tap the setting you want to change, then spin the control dial to change it.

I appreciate it can initially appear a bit more daunting than the default interface, but does that really mean it should take 26 button presses and several years of study to work out how to activate it?

Other, more niche, options such as shadow and highlight warnings (with customizable thresholds) are understandably not defaults. Nor are they accessible from the menus when you first turn the camera on. As I say: this is understandable and I'd rather these features were available, even if that means taking an advanced degree in Olympus Menu Studies, rather than them being left out altogether, as many other manufacturers do. But button customization and the Super Control Panel shouldn't be considered so niche. Look at recent Fujifilms: hold a customizable button down for long enough and the customization menu appears.

I strongly believe that Olympus should have a bit more faith in those users who engage PASM mode (or perhaps just M, A and S modes), and re-think which options they might want access to. Don't necessarily un-hide the Custom menu but have another look at what the default behaviour should be and which additional options should be easy to access. Because at the moment, the camera feels like its behavior has been inherited from a camera without a good control dial and without a touchscreen, just because no one thought to change it.

So what did I really think?

The E-PL7's sensor is pretty good, meaning it's possible to expose to protect the highlights in a high-contrast scene, then process the Raw file to create a well-balanced image.

The image on the left was created from the Raw file that accompanied the JPEG shown below.

m.Zuiko 14-42mm F3.5-5.6
1/160th, ISO 200, F4.5

And why do I care so much about feeling stymied by the default setup? Because, after a bit of tinkering and armed with a frankly unhealthy knowledge of Olympus menus, I was able to turn the E-PL7 into a camera I really liked. The autofocus is fast and continued to work for shots taken at ISO 25,600 (albeit too slowly for moving subjects). The image quality is very good for a camera that's so easy to carry around. And it can give quick access to everything I want to change, while shooting.

Olympus has done a really good job of addressing the hardware concerns we had about previous models: shutter shake, battery life and poorly-chosen LCDs, meaning the E-PL7 has it within it to be one of my favourite cameras in its class. And yet...