Camera Review: The Olympus E-PL5

It was the iPhone that convinced me to buy a better camera.

My son was born in February of 2012. Later in the year — some time after our summer vacation to the Colorado mountains — as I was looking through the photos we had of him, I realized I wasn’t giddy about hardly any of them.

There were many great snapshots of some very fond memories. But none of the images were of a quality where I wanted to print them out and frame them. They pretty much only looked good on the small screen of my iPhone.

That’s when I decided my iPhone shouldn’t bear the burden of being the best and only camera in the house.

I began researching mirrorless cameras looking for a rig I could easily take with me anywhere I went, and which cost under $1,000. I wanted the camera to have an Auto mode so I could just point and shoot if I wanted to, or so I could hand it to a family member to point and shoot with. But it also needed to have good manual modes so I could learn and grow into the manual controls as I learned more about the technical details of photography.

The rig I chose was the new Olympus E-PL5 and the world-famous Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens.

The Olympus E-PL5

The Olympus E-PL5

After 6 months shooting with the E-PL5, I continue to be impressed and pleased by the quality of the images this small and sturdy rig is capable of.

(Note: Click the images to zoom them.)

The B and B Cafe in Castle Rock, CO

Though my skill behind the lens still leaves much to be desired, my slow-growing collection of great images has long since proven to me that getting a nice camera was a good idea. The photographs I’ve taken with the E-PL5 juxtapose themselves against my iPhone pics because the images from the E-PL5 are ones which look better when on a big screen or printed out and framed.

This isn’t something exclusive to the E-PL5, of course. Any decent camera with good sensor and quality glass will take some great shots. At $900 — the price for the E-PL5 body and the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens — I would be upset if this rig did’t produce some great images.

Noah

Anna

Siphon Coffee

There are a few reasons I went with the E-PL5 instead of the many, many other options out there in the mirrorless category:

  • I didn’t go with the RX-1 because its price tag is 3 times what my budget was.
  • I didn’t go with any of the Sony NEX line because I wanted a better lens selection and smaller camera body.
  • I didn’t go with the Panasonic GX-1 because I could afford a better camera if I could find one.

In short, the E-PL5 was the smallest camera I could find with the best possible sensor inside and most features.

As I’ll talk more about below, this camera is basically the guts of the E-M5 put inside a smaller body with a few less pro features on the outside. And that, my friends, is why I consider the E-PL5 to be one of the best-kept secrets in the Micro Four Thirds category.

Aside regarding the King of the M4/3 Hill, the OM-D E-M5

I didn’t want to write a review of the E-PL5 without at least a little bit of context and experience with some of the other offerings out there. So I rented the Olympus OM-D E-M5 along with the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens for a few weeks.

The E-M5 is widely regarded as the best Micro Four Thirds camera out there.

When I bought the E-PL5, it was so new to the market that I could hardly find any hands-on reviews. But what made it so special is the fact that its sensor and processor are the same as what is found in the E-M5. Because of all the great reviews I’d been reading about the E-M5, I felt confident buying the E-PL5 on blind faith, trusting that it would be able to perform admirably.

I rented the E-M5 to give myself some context for how the E-PL5 compares against the best M4/3 camera out there, and also to find out for sure if I had made the right choice in getting a smaller and cheaper camera with a few less features and controls.

The most significant differences between the E-M5 and the E-PL5 are the pro-level features the former has which the latter does not. The E-M5 has a built-in electronic viewfinder, two manual dial controls, and a slightly larger hand grip. The E-M5 is also weather proof (meaning you can take it out in the rain without fear of ruining it), while the E-PL5 is not.

On the inside, the E-M5 and E-PL5 are much more similar. They have the same 16MP sensor and image processor that made the E-M5 so famous. They both have in-body image stabilization (though the E-M5 has 5-axis IBIS, while the E-PL5 uses conventional 2-axis), and they both have a dust reduction system that silently vibrates the sensor each time you turn on the camera to help “fling” any dust which may be there.

In my usage and comparisons, the two cameras produced nearly identical images. In several situations I took images with both the E-M5 and E-PL5, even switching lenses so as to try and take the exact same image with both cameras. To my eye, the shots look like they’re from the same camera.

Below: taken with the E-M5 and 45mm lens, 1/100sec at f/1.8, ISO 500 Taken with E-M5 and 45mm lens

Below: taken with the E-PL5 and 45mm, 1/80sec at f/1.8, ISO 400 Taken with the E-PL5 and 45mm lens

Below: taken with the E-M5 and 20mm, 1/60sec at f/1.7, ISO 400 taken with the E-M5 and 20mm

Below: taken with the E-PL5 and 20mm, 1/50sec at f/1.7, ISO 400 taken with the E-PL5 and 20mm lens

In my opinion, the advantages of the E-M5 over the E-PL5 are almost entirely in the bells and whistles and not in the end-product capabilities. For photographers who have used bigger DSLR rigs, or who really want a viewfinder, then the E-M5 will probably feel more comfortable. But for everyone else, the $400 you’ll save by buying the E-PL5 instead of the E-M5 is probably better spent on a nice lens.

E-PL5 Overview

With the Panasonic pancake lens attached, the E-PL5 is small enough to fit in my coat pocket, the glove box in my Jeep, or alongside my MacBook Air, iPad, and Moleskine inside my extra small Timbuk2 bag.

The build quality is excellent. The camera is sturdy but not heavy, weighing just 1 pound with the 20mm pancake lens and wrist strap attached (body only, the E-PL5 weighs a mere 12 ounces). And because of its smaller size and lack of a viewfinder, the E-PL5 doesn’t look too intimidating.

The humble appearance of the E-PL5 is one of its best features. With it I feel less like a “wannabe pro photographer” and more like a “casual photography enthusiast” when I have the camera out in public.

My goal with the E-PL5 wasn’t to get my toe in the waters of professional photography. I just wanted a high-quality camera nearby for when I would have otherwise reached for my iPhone.

Having a non-giant camera makes it far more likely that I will take it with me when I’m leaving the house and to actually use it while I’m out. Coat-pocketable means “it will get used” in this case. And isn’t that the whole point?

Sans Viewfinder

The E-PL5 does not have a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) — to frame your shots, you use the view screen.

For some people, this may be a deal breaker. What’s nice about having a viewfinder is that you can hide behind it, and also you can steady your camera a bit better by holding it up to your face. But in my few weeks with the E-M5 (which does have a viewfinder), I found myself using the E-M5′s view screen instead of its built-in EVF.

For me, sacrificing a viewfinder is worth the tradeoff because it means having a smaller camera body. However, since the E-PL5 supports add-ons via its hotshoe connection, you could buy the Olympus VF2 or VF3.

The View Screen

On the back of the camera is a 3-inch, tilting, LCD touch screen.

You can tap to focus, tap to adjust color settings, and more. There is a dial control “d-pad” placed just to the right of the screen which also evokes the menu and is used to navigate through all the levels of settings.

The screen isn’t stationary either — it flips out and can tilt.

The Flip-out view screen on the E-PL5

I was worried about the fragility of the flip-out screen. But to my relief, the hinges are incredibly sturdy and well built. I am often taking shots with the camera held down near my waist, and it’s easy to just flip the screen up 90 degrees and look down into the view screen. In short, it moves easily, holds in place just fine, and is a considerably useful feature.

The quality of the display itself is excellent as well. Though Olympus does not say what the actual screen resolution is, they do say it’s a 3-inch diagonal screen with a 16:9 aspect of approximately 460,000 dots. If “dots” means “pixels,” then the view screen would have a resolution somewhere in the neighborhood of 904×507 pixels with a PPI density of 345. Now, the view screen is certainly nice, but it’s not that nice.

On Twitter, Milosz Bolechowski pointed out that the “dots” are likely referring to each of the 3 RBG dots in a single pixel. Which I agree is most likely the case. Meaning the 460,000 or so dots in the view screen equal approximately 153,333 pixels.

Thus, the view screen most likely has a resolution of 533×294 with a PPI density of 200.

To protect the screen, I bought one of these plastic screen covers. It’s sized for the NEX cameras, but it’s a near-perfect fit for the E-PL5 as well — I never even notice that it’s there. Highly recommended.

The Grip

The E-PL5 comes with a small, removable hand grip. Without the grip attached, the camera has a bit more of a classic look to it, akin to the thin and simple rangefinder bodies of old.

But I can’t imagine not wanting to attach the grip. It adds hardly any size and makes the E-PL5 significantly easier to hold with one hand. When attached, the grip stays quite secure, as if it were built in as part of the camera body from the start.

Manual Dials and Shooting in Manual Mode

As expected, the E-PL5 has several different shooting modes: Auto, Program, Aperture-Priority, Shutter-Priority, and Manual. As well as Movie, Scene, and Art modes.

I mostly shoot in Aperture-Priority mode and am happy to let the camera pick the shutter speed for me in order to get the right exposure.

The Movie and Art modes allow you to choose an artsy filter to apply to your movie or photograph — it’s like having Instagram built in to your camera. I’ve never used these in real life (I prefer to edit my images in Lightroom 4), but here are two sample shots I took for this review: one using the Pin Hole filter and one using the Grainy Film filter. Both of these shots are the out of camera JPGs, but the E-PL5′s in-camera filters are applied to the RAW image file as well, so I could take remove them in Lightroom if I wanted.

What I most wish the E-PL5 had was a few dedicated manual dial controls. When shooting in Aperture-Priority Mode, Manual, or the like, having a few dials that give you quick and instant access to adjust the aperture, shutter, and/or ISO are very nice. The E-M5 had these dials and I found myself using them all the time.

On the E-PL5, when I’m shooting in Aperture-Priority mode (which is the most common setting for me), adjusting the aperture number requires a tap “up” on the menu D-Pad to highlight the aperture setting, and then a tap left or right in order to increase or decrease the aperture. Moreover, the D-Pad is pretty small (smaller than a Dime) and therefore is not easy to navigate. This is not nearly as nice or fast as having a dial that you can click left or right without having to lean back and look at the camera for a few seconds.

Battery Life

Battery life is absolutely fantastic. On the very first charge, after 4 days of shooting and about 500 images, it was low on battery. After that first charge I didn’t need to charge the battery for over 2.5 weeks, and that was with near daily use.

The camera seems to go forever. The battery is one thing I’ve never once worried about, nor have I been out shooting and had the battery die on me. If I know I’ll be using the camera a lot over the weekend or something then I’ll charge it up ahead of time.

The only thing I don’t like about the battery is that it comes with its own charging station. This means when traveling there is one more cable and trinket to pack. I’d prefer to be able to charge the battery by plugging a USB cable into the camera itself.

Low-Light Performance

For what I know about low light performance, the E-PL5 performs wonderfully. Low-light images have very little noise, and can generally be doctored just fine in Lightroom.

With the default white balance settings, I’ve noticed that images straight out of the camera tend to have a bit of a warm tone to them, giving portraits a bit more orange-colored skin tone than is to my liking. This can be adjusted in the camera’s white balance settings to have a more “cool” tint to them, or the orange skin can be easily fixed in Lightroom.

The biggest downside of low light shooting is not the image quality, but the autofocus. The 20mm lens already has a tendency to hunt at times, and in low light situations you can sometimes wait 2 or 3 seconds for the autofocus to find a contrast point and snap the image.

There have only been a few low-light situations where the lighting was so dark that I was frustrated with the E-PL5′s ability to focus and snap a shot. One of those times was when we all went out to dinner for my dad’s 60th birthday. We were at a fancy steak restaurant where the lighting was extremely dim.

The E-PL5 comes with a flash that attaches via the hotshoe port on top, but I’ve never used it. In a setting like the steak restaurant, using the flash would have been rude; in most other settings the flash isn’t even necessary.

For most low-light settings (such as indoors in the evening), the camera does great with very little noise in the images.

Speed

  • Startup speed: From the time I press the power button to when the camera is ready to snap a picture, it’s less than 2 seconds.

    The E-PL5 is usually up and ready to go before I even have the lens cap off. Which means if the Olympus is nearby, it’s actually faster for me to grab it, turn it on, and snap a shot than it is for me to pull my iPhone out of my pocket and launch the Camera app. Even when racing against the Lock Screen Camera app shortcut, the E-PL5 wins by about 1 second.

  • Shot-to-shot speed: If you want to manually shoot several shots in succession, in decent indoor light or better, the the E-PL5 takes just 1.5 seconds to autofocus, snap a picture, write to the card, and then be ready to focus again.

  • Autofocus speed: The Olympus is well known for its fast autofocus. As I mention below in the section on lenses, the autofocus on the Olympus 45mm lens is so fast it seems instantaneous; with the Panasonic 20mm the autofocus is a bit slower.

    You can hold the shutter button halfway down to have the camera autofocus on either an area within the viewfinder grid, or the camera can automatically find a face and focus on the nearest eyeball. Then, pressing the shutter button all the way down snaps the image. But, if you want the camera to snap a photo as soon as it’s grabbed focus, you can press the shutter button all the way down right away and it will snap as soon as it has focus. In decent light, this is almost instantaneously.

    Moreover, you can focus and shoot an image using the touchscreen. You can set the camera to tap to focus on any area of the screen, but you can also configure it to snap the shot as soon as it locks the focus.

    Using the E-PL5′s touchscreen reminds me a lot of using the camera on my iPhone. The camera’s software is responsive, clever, and useful. Well done, Olympus.

Camera Straps

The stock camera strap is lame. It’s not detachable, nor is it long enough to let the camera rest at a comfortable distance when over one shoulder and under my other arm.

DSPTCH makes some pretty awesome shoulder straps. I ordered one from them that I really like, but after a couple months of use I felt like I didn’t always want a shoulder strap attached. In fact, I often don’t — most of the time the camera is in my bag or in my jacket pocket and I’m not walking around with it around my shoulder. (Of course, now that summer is approaching, that may change.)

So I ordered yet another strap. This time a small leather wrist strap from Gordy’s. The wrist strap is small enough to not be in the way when just grabbing the camera, and I think it looks great.

I probably should have ordered one of DSPTCH’s wrist straps which use the same clip that their shoulder straps use. This would have made it easy for me to swap out the shoulder strap and the wrist strap depending on my need. But the leather straps at Gordy’s were too cool to pass by. Whatchagonnado?

One of Gordy's leather camera straps

Lenses

A Micro Four Thirds sensor has a crop ratio of 1/2. So, for example, a 20mm lens on a M4/3 rig is actually a 40mm equivalent when compared to a full-frame sensor. Which is why shooting with the 20mm as my daily glass is not as fishy as it sounds, because it’s just a bit bigger than shooting with a good ole 35mm lens.

I’ve used 3 of the most popular Micro Four Thirds lenses:

  • Panasonic 20/1.7 lens: This is the lens attached to my rig. Though this lens is certainly no slouch, perhaps it’s greatest advantage compared to the lenses below is its size. The pancake lens looks great on the small body of the E-PL5 and affords the rig to easily fit in coat pockets, etc.

    The disadvantages of the 20mm is that because of its compact size it doesn’t grab quite as high-quality images as a “regular sized” lens. But, at least to my eyes, the difference is barely noticeable and the advantages in both size and cost far outweigh the very slight disadvantages in image quality.

    Unless you know that you want a different lens, this is the one I would start with.

  • Panasonic 25/1.4 lens: Compared to the 20mm pancake, this 25mm produces higher quality images, has faster autofocus, and is capable of a better and creamier depth of field. But it’s also a larger piece of glass and it costs $150 more (so, obviously it had better take better images).

    Though this is my favorite lens of the 3 I’ve tried, the size turned me off to the 25mm as my daily glass — it is too big to allow the camera to easily fit in my coat pocket. And the focal length is too similar to the 20mm to justify owning both lenses (as much as I would love to own them both). So I returned the 25mm and kept the 20mm.

  • Olympus 45/1.8 lens: This is the portrait lens of the Micro Four Thirds world. One thing Olympus lenses are known for is their lightning-fast auto focusing, and it’s true. This lens hunts far less than the 20mm, and its images are so clear and crisp.

    If and when I decide to buy a second lens, it will likely be the 45mm. Compared to the 20mm pancake, the 45mm is not nearly as compact or attractive (seriously, a silver lens on a black body?). If the 45mm were my only lens, I know I’d be using the E-PL5 less often.

Editing Workflow

So far my editing workflow is simple and straightforward. I plug my camera’s SD card into my MacBook Air, import the photos into Lightroom 4, and then make some minor edits using one of VSCO’s Film packs.

During one of our B&B shows, my pal Ben Brooks told me how he uses a 0-based rating system which I’ve also adopted. When going through the latest lot of imported photos, I flag all the blurry, crappy, or duplicate images for deletion. Then I go through and rate what I think are the best photos with a 3-, 4-, or 5-star rating.

I then upload my favorites to my Flickr account. We’ve had a few printed and framed so far, and I think it’s just great to have my own pictures of my own family up and around in my home. Printing through Shutterfly is cheap and easy enough that with a few easy-swap frames, we can change out our 8×10 prints pretty much as often as we like.

Perhaps a more-detailed writeup on this subject is in order because there are a few things about my editing workflow that I’m still not happy with. Primarily:

  • Archiving old images — right now they’re all on my MacBook Air and quickly encroaching on my disk space.
  • Posting my favorite images — while Flickr is nice, I’d like a spot that’s a little bit more my own. I’ve been considering setting up my own image portfolio website just so I can have a spot that encourages more regular posting of images.

Real-Life Usage

One of the most rewarding parts of photography is when, after a lot of shooting, I plug the card into my MacBook Air, import all the most-recent photos, and begin to look them over. If there are 1 or 2 (or even 3) shots that turned out awesome, then all the energy that went into capturing those few photographs was worth it.

When I find those few great images from the batch, I lean back in my chair. Looking at one of them, I take a deep breath and smile. Then I call my wife to come downstairs and check out the latest photos, and we talk about what it is that we like about it. Maybe it’s an image of our son, Noah, that captured one of his many funny faces. Maybe it’s a shot that’s framed just right, or has light that’s doing some incredible thing.

I’m still learning, and so right now maybe 1 in 500 shots turn out that good. But when they do, I love it that the quality can be there to match the times when the composition is just right. When I compare moments like that with the times I’ve gone through my iPhone’s photo library, though I have lots of pictures, they are all more like snapshots and not photographs (if that makes sense).

Shots like this are the rare ones which justify my camera purchase a hundred times over.

Anna and Noah reading

Images like these are, of course, not going to be exclusive to the E-PL5. There are many other amazing cameras out there. For me, going with a small rig instead of a large DSLR (or even a medium-sized NEX) means I’m much more likely to actually take the camera with me.

And that is the entire point: The E-PL5 is an extremely capable and delightfully portable camera.

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