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Olympus E-PL5 PEN Digital Camera Review
Friday, August 16, 2013  

The PEN E-PL5 is Olympus' mid-range mirrorless compact system camera (CSC) based on the Micro Four Thirds standard. Cameras in this category are smaller than Digital SLR-style models, but larger and more powerful than ubiquitous pocket digital cameras. The goal is to offer the best of both worlds, reasonable portability with a degree of lens interchangeability and power-user functions. If you travel with a camera and find a DSLR to be too bulky or complicated, and a pocket digital too limiting, a CSC camera might be a good compromise.

 

The E-PL5 features a 16 Megapixel sensor that is slightly smaller than the one used by Sony in their NEX models and delivers a 4:3 image. The sensor can shoot at 8fps and produce video at 1080p30. The kit we tested came with a 14-42mm M.Zuiko lens with a 35mm equivalent of 28-84mm. This lens delivers a decent range of wide angle and telephoto options. Olympus PEN cameras have image stabilization integrated into their sensor, so any lens you attach to the camera will offer stabilization. That is something unique to Olympus CSC models.

There is a 3-inch 460 dot touch screen that can be rotated out, up and over to support self-portrait framing of shots, although the articulation is a little clumsy at first. It can also be positioned for waist-level shots and overhead shooting. There is a sensor that detects when the camera is facing forward so it will rotate the image for easy framing of self-portraits. The screen is very bright and offers good visibility even in bright sunlight. Thankfully, the touch-screen functions are intended to enhance, but not replace, the manual controls on the camera. There is a traditional mode dial on top of the camera for selecting PASM, Movie, Scene, Art and Intelligent Auto shooting modes. There is a rear control wheel and programmable function button which can be customized through the camera's menu system.



The camera is light enough, but large enough to be comfortable to hold and shoot. All of the buttons and controls are where they should be. My only mess up was occasionally turning the camera off when I intended to press the dedicated Movie button. The E-PL5's power button is located exactly where the Movie button on my daily-use camera is located. My bad. On the back of the camera you will find a four-way control dial with info and menu buttons above and below. Playback and delete buttons are top left on the camera back while the Fn and magnify buttons are on the top right.

On the far right is a dedicated Movie record button. There is an accessory port just behind the camera's hotshoe which can be used with the included pop-up accessory flash, or optional electronic viewfinders. A small plastic protective cover must be removed to access the hotshoe and port and yet another small plastic cover must be removed from the bottom of the flash unit. I was sure both of these would be lost before the end of my test period. Fortunately, they were not. Olympus does include a small pouch that can hold these bits and it attaches to the neck strap. For connectivity, there is a mini-HDMI, A/V and USB port hidden under a hinged door on the right side of the camera.

The BLS-5 battery (same as on other PEN models) and SD card are located on the bottom of the camera. Battery life was excellent for our tests. As mentioned previously, the E-PL5 comes with a small accessory flash unit that slips into the hotshoe and plugs into the accessory port. The flash has a range of nearly 10 feet at f3.5. The flash mode menu includes Auto, Redeye, Redeye slow, Off, Fill-In, Slow, Slow 2 and Full. The flash unit is manual, so it does not pop-up automatically, which I actually prefer. The PEN's flash unit is charged by the camera and it will begin charging as soon as you pop it up. It only takes a couple of seconds for the flash to charge and we got very good results from the flash photos we took.



Screen rotated for waist-level viewing


Screen rotated for self-portrait mode


Articulating screen

The only time you take full advantage of the 16:9 proportioned touch screen is when shooting HD video. During 4:3 photo shooting, you will see black bars on the left and right hand sides of the screen. The touch screen can be used to focus and even shoot photos. Fortunately, these functions can be turned off to prevent accidentally shooting a photo when you inadvertently touch the screen.

LENS

The Micro Four Thirds lens mount on the E-PL5 can support any of a number of lenses available for that format, including those from Olympus and Panasonic, as well as other third parties. The PEN E-PL5 is available as a "kit" with the 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 zoom lens, or as a body only. The kit lens is retractable when not in use, giving the camera a much smaller profile when hanging around your neck, or packed in a bag. While the kit lens produces good still shot and video images, it lacks the smooth operation needed for zooming while shooting video. Rotating the zoom ring on the barrel produces a notchy, jerky result.


   
Lens collapsed
Lens extended, ready to shoot

SHOOTING MODES

We do a lot of our shooting in Intelligent Auto or P mode because we feel that is what most of our readers will use 90% of the time. After all, the majority of our readers are not professional, or even semi-pro photographers. Our testing tries to reflect how a camera performs as a travel-use camera. That being said, the E-PL5 offers the full range of PASM modes with good access to exposure settings activated through the control wheel on the camera back. In Program (P) mode, aperture/shutter speed can be controlled easily with an up/down press of the control wheel. Exposure is controlled by pressing right or left sides of the control wheel. For those who demand the additional control, this will soon become second-nature.

Automatic exposure bracketing is available in up to 7 frames per shot in 1/3, 2/3 and 1EV increments. Compare that to the typical 3 frames of most other cameras in this class. Brackets can be set for white balance, ISO and flash. There is also an HDR bracketing feature that we unfortunately did not have time to test.

When in iAuto mode, the camera uses scene detection to make internal settings. Pressing the OK button on the control wheel displays image adjustments on the right side of the screen for color saturation, brightness, background blur and slow shutter speed.

MOVIE MODES

The PEN E-PL5 offers 1080p30 in two resolutions: Fine at 20Mbps and Normal at 17Mbps. 720p30 also has two modes at 10Mbps and 13Mbps. Movie files are encoded using H.264 and saved as MOV files.

There is a dedicated Movie shooting mode on the mode dial that lets you frame your shots using the full 16:9 view of the LCD screen. Of course, you can always begin shooting video using the Movie button regardless of the mode and if you do so, exposure and ISO are set automatically. When using the Movie mode (on the mode dial) you can adjust exposure modes for movie shooting.

The touch screen allows you to touch-focus during movie shooting for those pull-focus shots. Of course, the camera needs to be secured to a tripod for best results.

It is possible to shoot still photos while recording video, though images are limited to the 16:9 aspect ratio and the video clip will be separated into two clips, one before the still shot and one after.

The built-in stereo microphones produce good results; however, if you want a high-quality external mic you need the optional microphone adapter connected to the accessory port. After a trip to the camera's extensive, and somewhat complicated menu system, you can adjust audio recording levels to one of three positions and there's a 3-position wind-cut filter.

AUTOFOCUS

Auto Focus on the PEN E-PL5 is super fast. Even in low-light, all it takes is a half-press on the shutter release and the lens instantly acquires focus. By default, there is a 35 focus grid, but you can quickly select a focus point by tapping on the screen or using the control wheel. When set to C-AF (continuous AF) the camera will adjust focus as a subject approaches the camera (or moves away). S-AF and Manual focus modes are also available. With MF assist enabled, the screen is magnified allowing you to fine-tune the focus using the focus ring on the lens barrel. There is also a S-AF MF mode allowing you to fine tune the focus with the focus ring after the camera has acquired auto focus.

OUR EXPERIENCE

We used this camera extensively over a two-week test period during an editorial assignment in Turkey and Greece. As stated previously, the majority of still shots were taken using iAuto and Program mode. Both offered very good results in a variety of shooting conditions. We also shot a lot of HD video with the PEN and, for the most part, the video was good. However, there were some times in very low light where the camera recorded an annoying flicker. At first, I thought this might just be on the LCD screen, but later learned the flicker was recorded. Perhaps I had something set wrong in the camera, but it was on full iAuto mode. This could just be a characteristic of the sensor under certain lighting conditions. I tried to reproduce the problem, but was unable to.

One other annoyance was I never could figure out how to take a panorama shot. Panorama is one of the selectable Scene modes, but I was unable to get it to work. I even resorted to the manual, which says to refer to p31, but on page 31 it is the French or Spanish version of the manual! That was a little frustrating. The final frustration occurred when I tried to use the zoom lens during video shooting. The lens action is so notchy that it makes this virtually impossible, even on a tripod.


However, the camera does take excellent photos, and the included flash also does an excellent job, much better than you will get with any pocket digital. The articulating screen is a little clumsy at first, but once you get the hang of it, it makes sense and works as intended. Battery life was excellent and we never found ourselves running low on power. I would have preferred to see a recharger with a built-in wall plug instead of the long, clumsy cord. That's just one more thing to pack. There is a nifty little felt pouch included that attaches to the neck strap to hold the external flash and any little plastic covers.

Another big plus is the ability to save photos in RAW format as well as JPEG. The camera has a daunting setup menu system that can take hours to figure out. Of course, this would only be for advanced users and is not necessary for basic operations. But, power users will appreciate the PEN's customizable capabilities.


WHAT WE LIKE

  • Lightweight, lighter than a DSLR
  • Good flash operation
  • Fast auto focus
  • Tap screen to focus
  • S-AF MF mode
  • Great still shots
  • RAW file format
  • Image stabilization

WHAT WE DO NOT LIKE

  • Indoor, low-light video flicker effect
  • Notchy zoom rotation makes zoom during video impossible
  • Complicated menus
  • Never could figure out Panorama mode
  • No external mic jack

SAMPLE PHOTOS

Below are some photos we took during our Greek Isles trip using the Olympus PEN E-PL5. Click on an image to view the full size, hi-res version.

     
     
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