The Olympus E-PL5 PEN Lite review: a mini-OM-D

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I make no secret of the fact that I’m a huge fan of the original Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini (full review here); it brought big-camera speed and image quality to a very compact package. However, the OM-D clearly demonstrated that the image quality potential of Micro Four Thirds could be taken quite a bit further without entailing any compromises. After enjoying a period of exclusivity to that body, the same sensor and imaging processor has now made its way into Olympus’ lower end offerings – the E-PL5 Pen Lite and E-PM2 Pen Mini, both recently announced at Photokina. I was given the opportunity to try out a final production E-PL5 recently by Olympus Malaysia.

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Removable grip.

The two cameras retain their original differentiation – a tilting screen and a few buttons. But the E-PL5’s screen now pivots through 170 degrees for self-portrait narcissists (I can’t personally imagine ever using this feature, though tilting it up for waist-level shooting is great for stealthy capture or a better angle without having to bend over). Both also gain the same capacitative touch screen capability of the E-P3 and OM-D, which I’m find increasingly useful and missing on my Nikons. Sadly though, the LCD on the two smaller cameras remains as a 3″, 16:9 aspect ratio unit, which is great for video but leaves a lot of unused real estate in the form of black bars when you’re shooting in the native 4:3 aspect ratio of the sensor. Useable area is probably closer to 2.5″.

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Bookstore abstract. E-PL5, 15/8 body cap

Aside from the 15MP sensor of the OM-D, the E-PL5 also gains a few additional art filters, and compatibility with Olympus’ new OI.Share SD card and app for smartphones and tablets (currently, Apple iOS and Android are supported). There are also interchangeable grips – similar to the E-P3. There are also some minor cosmetic changes that give the camera a slightly blockier, more textured appearance. Personally, I prefer the smooth look of the older cameras. Sadly, Olympus still hasn’t moved the strap lugs – they still dig into your hands in the normal shooting position. I can’t help but feel a narrow loop would be a much better solution for a camera of this size, as well as being silent during video recording.

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It’s grown in size a little, but it’s still roughly in the same ballpark as the original (and Pen Mini, in background.)

In use, the camera is snappy and responsive for all normal operations; AF speed remains excellent, if perhaps fractionally faster than the last generation. (I’m comparing it with my Pen Mini, since I don’t have an E-PL3 handy – they share the same innards anyway.) The menu system is redesigned and now looks very similar to the OM-D, complete with most of the custom functions and extensive customizability that is unusual for a camera in this class, which has become one of Olympus’ hallmarks. It also gains 8fps shooting, though without AF, of course. I use it as a single-shot camera, or at most in bursts of two or three shots to gain some added stability.

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Closed for the weekend. E-PL5, 15/8 body cap

On the subject of stability, the in-body sensor-shift stailization system is improved over the last generation; I actually turned it off on my Pen Mini because it tended to give odd double images under some conditions. I left it on on the E-PL5, but it’s worth noting that it still isn’t as effective as the 5-axis gyro system in the OM-D.

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Pirates can still be found in some parts of Malacca. E-PL5, 45/1.8

One of the things I missed from the OM-D was the configurable single-button magnify option that allowed one-touch enlargement of either live view or the playback image to your desired ratio at the focus point (10x is actual pixels) – until I discovered that you could just double-tap the screen to achieve the same result. Needless to say, score one for the touch screen. You can of course also use it to select the focus point and release the shutter; speaking of focus points, you can now select a smaller point size by default, which the camera remembers when turned off – something I sorely miss on the OM-D as the large boxes often aren’t precise enough. A good number of the other buttons are user-configurable, too.

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Sunset over the straits. E-PL5, 15/8 body cap

Something I had trouble getting used to was the feel of the shutter button. Since it’s probably the single most important control on the camera, the way it feels is actually quite critical in how you feel towards shooting it; in this respect, the pro Nikons and Canons get it right – a soft but distinct half-press, and no clicky transition but a firm increase in resistance to release. There’s enough travel between positions to avoid accidental releases, but not so much to induce lag. The OM-D feels pretty good, too. Other cameras get it wrong – the Sony RX100’s shutter release is far too soft; I’m always accidentally firing off a frame when I meant only to focus. The digital Leica Ms are far too notchy and difficult to press smoothly; it’s as though there’s something rough inside the button’s housing or something; perhaps to do with the three positions. Shame, since the mechanical Ms were fantastic. Unfortunately, the E-PL5 just falls on the wrong side of soft – it isn’t so much the pressure required, but the near-zero difference in travel between half and full press that feels off. And to make things worse, even though the travel is short, the pressure required is very firm – making it difficult to hold the camera steady when releasing. Lack of an eye-level finder only compounds this.

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Determination in the face of choices. E-PL5, 45/1.8

I don’t’ have a lot to say about image quality – if you’ve used the OM-D, you can safely skip this section. The files look exactly the same, and deliver the same amount of flexibility in postprocessing. Colors are typical Olympus – slightly warm, reasonably saturated, and biased towards delivery of very pleasing skin tones. Dynamic range is around 11-12 stops from a carefully processed raw file at base ISO, which also remains at 200. The tonal range tends to be somewhat midtone and shadow biased; the relatively small pixel pitch of the sensor makes itself known in the highlights; expose with care because there isn’t a whole load of recoverable headroom – perhaps a stop at most. Fortunately, there is a live shadow and highlight clipping display option, which allows for precise exposure adjustment at the time of capture. Noise is minimal to ISO 800, and I feel the camera is useable up to ISO 3200, or ISO 5000 under certain lighting conditions.

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Just your average chaotic street scene. E-PL5, 45/1.8

At this point it’s worth talking a bit about the Olympus Viewer software – I’ve never had to use it before since ACR always supported the files of cameras I’d purchased. This time, I use the built in raw converter to make a relatively low-contrast TIFF with accurate white balance and exposure, which I’d then take into Photoshop. The native environment is very familiar – it looks a lot like Bridge, from which you can develop and save your files in…you guessed it, something that looks a lot like ACR – or at least an early version of it, without the huge number of options the current version has.

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Late afternoon. E-PL5, 15/8 body cap

Previews are fast, and general responsiveness and usability was good. This is easily amongst the better own-brand pieces of software out there. (Nikon, I’m looking at you. For shame.) In fact, the only critical things I can find missing are shadow/ highlight recovery sliders and a gradient tool. I’m not so happy with the output, though – the files seem to have a decidedly magenta cast to them which is both difficult to remove, and renders color not as accurately as the JPEGs – especially skin tones, which I find my Olympus cameras generally excel at even via ACR.

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Harley after the rain. E-PL5, 45/1.8

Battery life is excellent; I estimate around 500-600 shots with moderate LCD use and power-off between shots. It uses the same battery as the E-PL3 and E-PM1, too, which is nice if you’ve got a few spares already lying around. Note that there are two models of battery and charger, some of which are compatible and some of which aren’t – the light gray model is the latest version of both.

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Where Elmo does his shopping. E-PL5, 45/1.8

Throughout the review period, I kept asking myself who this camera was aimed at; the DSLR user/ enthusiast/ amateur looking for a second, more compact body, or the compact upgrader? I personally think it fits the latter better, much like the original Pen Mini. Although it’s compatible with the various accessories that connect to the accessory port under the hotshoe (including an EVF) – the lack of a built-in viewfinder means that if youre going to keep the camera compact, you’re restricted to arms-length style shooting. The huge number of art filters – also useable in movie mode at the expense of reduced frame rate – and in-camera processing options offers a relatively simple (if slightly lacking in control) method for the amateur user to achieve their desired look without resorting to Photoshop. I personally don’t use any of these, but I do know plenty of friends and family who might. What I did really enjoy was using it with the new 15/8 body cap lens as a hyperfocal snapshot camera; in this configuration it’s lag-free, and lets you focus solely on timing and composition. It’s also just about pocketable.

Ultimately, success at this end of the market will depend heavily on the camera’s price point. The rich feature set and overall refinement in operation make me curious to see what will succeed the E-P3; now if only they’d make one with a built-in EVF like the NEX-6…

The Olympus E-PL5 PEN Lite is available here from B&H and Amazon.


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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Where are my customers? E-PL5, 45/1.8

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Somewhere in here is a human being. E-PL5, 45/1.8

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Abstract Kuala Lumpur skyline. E-PL5, 15/8 body cap