By Vlatko Juric-Kokic
It's generally accepted that the best camera is the one you have with you. It's hard to have a decisive moment digital if the digital is not with you. On the other hand, everybody has their own idea of what they find acceptable in such a camera. There are those satisfied with a phone cam, while others couldn't be happier that the "micro" train is accelerating. As I said earlier, I'm firmly in the second camp. I'm particularly happy that Olympus decided to produce Micro Four-Thirds cameras. I'm a long-time Olympus digital user and I don't see a pressing reason to switch. I'm used to the way their cameras work. I don't have a long period of adjusting to different menus and camera adjustments. Accordingly, I've been watching Olympus development closely in order to see what happens with its second Micro 4/3 camera, the E-P2.
Before I start, a bit of messing with the files. At the moment of writing, Adobe Bridge and Photoshop CS4 (I suppose Lightroom, too) do not recognize the files from the E-P2. Try opening a photo and you'll get a message that it's not the right kind of document. Balderdash. Olympus didn't update Studio when E-P2 appeared; Studio normally opens the photos, so why would Photoshop not recognize them? The only thing Olympus apparently changed in E-P2 files was the camera identification. Instead of "E-P1," it says "E-P2"—and it was enough to stump Photoshop. But if you still want to open E-P2 photos in Photoshop before the official support, there is a way.
Open the photo in a proper text editor. Not Windows Notepad or a Mac equivalent. Something like TextPad, NoteTab or BBEdit. Possibly even the ancient vi would work. Find where it says "E-P2" at the beginning of the file and simply change the digit to "1". Do not touch anything else. Save under a different name. (Under a different name, I say.) Voilá. The file is visible and editable in Photoshop.
Furthermore, I cannot see any difference between E-P2 and E-P1 files in image quality, color rendering or anything like that.
What the eye sees
The lack of difference stretches to the way E-P2 operates. Dials in the same places as in E-P1, the same way of operating the camera, the same focusing speed and responsiveness.... Fortunately, there are some differences (otherwise there would be absolutely no point either in the camera or in this post) which might be welcome to photographers.
One of the objections to E-P1 was the lack of a proper viewfinder. E-P2 certainly remedies that with its electronic viewfinder, the VF-2. Specification-wise, the viewfinder has the resolution of 1.44 MP, a refresh rate of 60 fps and a magnification of 1.15x. To the eye, the viewfinder is as good as the viewfinder on my E-3. While the E-3 might not have as big a viewfinder as full-frame offerings from other manufacturers, its viewfinder is nice and bright, and good for manual focusing. It's exactly the same with the VF-2: Nice, bright and good for manual focusing.
I used the EP-2 at a conference, and you know how lighting is at conferences…for those who're not in the habit of attending conferences: ƒ/1.4, 1/80th sec., –0.3EV, ISO 1600. Those are the typical numbers, but it can go as low as 1/25th sec. with –0.3 EV. Absolutely no problems in focusing through the viewfinder. Yes, noise appears in the viewfinder in dim light, but the light has to be quite dim for the noise to prevent you from focusing manually. The dim light I tried, no problems.
During the day, you'll be hard pressed to notice any difference between VF-2 and an optical viewfinder. You use it the same way as you would an optical viewfinder as you have the same shooting info at the bottom of the viewfinder.
One more good point: when you press the button at the back of the viewfinder, you not only turn the screen off for shooting, you also turn the screen off for adjustments, chimping and photo viewing. The signal obviously completely switches to the viewfinder. Great thing for those who complained about the viewing scrren glowing in the dark.
On the negative side, once you plug the viewfinder into the camera, you cannot use either the port or the hot shoe to connect anything else. So if you want the viewfinder constantly on your camera, say goodbye to the flash or the external microphone. Also on the negative side—albeit only slightly—is the fact that if you keep E-P2 in a non-dedicated bag, expect the viewfinder to occasionally slide out of the hot shoe and the port due to the movement in the bag. It would be nice if Olympus came up with a way to fasten the viewfinder to the camera. For instance, like you fasten the flashes.
One more potentially problematic thing is that the viewfinder shortens the battery life. As I was told, instead of 300+ photos that you can take with E-P1 on one charge, the E-P2 can nominally take a bit more than 200 photos with the viewfinder attached. I haven't succeeded in draining the battery, but I didn't do extensive shoots with the camera. On the other hand, I also used stabilization and reviewed photos without trying to squeeze the last electron from the battery. Nevertheless, if you plan on carrying the camera around all day, a spare battery might be a good idea. That said, I've always casually wondered why Olympus doesn't supply a battery with a bigger capacity than the 1500 mAh of the BLM-1 or 1150 mAh for the BLS-1 you find in the Pens. I've seen replacement BLS-1 batteries of 1500 and 1800 mAh. I own two replacement 2200 mAh BLM-1 batteries for the E-series and they've been working fine for the last three years. There must be a reason....
Change in focus
The Olympus E-P2 also comes with a new focusing mode, AF Tracking. Let me describe it this way...when you use Continuous AF, you select a focus point (or points) and follow your subject with the camera which keeps it in the selected point(s). When you choose AF Tracking, you select a subject and then camera follows it through all of its focus points. Do not expect results in the terrific-sports-camera kind of way, though, because fast-moving subjects will confuse the mechanism. However, if you want to photograph a moving person or recompose your photo without fiddling about changing your focus points or without fearing the subject will go out of the focusing plane, AF Tracking is quite a good thing. And I'd also say it's good for shooting video. The only problem with AF Tracking is that at greater distances it sometimes gets confused about what it should focus on. I would say it has much more to do with the sensitivity of the focusing areas than with the AF Tracking itself. Still, as a useful—even a moderately useful—new feature, it is welcome.
Finally, there are two new Art Filters in E-P2. I've been avoiding the Art Filters ever since they appeared on E-30, and I still avoid them. If I want effects, there's Photoshop. I couldn't resist trying the new Diorama filter, though. It's cute. That about sums up the positive things I can say about it. On the other hand, it's hugely slow. Enormously slow. Geologically slow. Not only you wait ages for the camera to process the photo, the filter also slows the viewfinder almost to unusability. Avoid, unless you simply have to use it.
I don't pretend to know the exact reasons why Olympus does things the way it does them. Therefore, I don't know why an electronic viewfinder didn't come with E-P1. Judging by the Photokina interview over at dpreview, there apparently were some issues between Olympus and Panasonic on the matter of the viewfinder. I don't know whether some statute of limitations expired so Olympus got a viewfinder from Panasonic or Olympus developed its own. (I think the latter would be good for Olympus.)
The LCDs on the E-P1 and E-P2 are perfectly usable; however, I'm used to viewfinders. And therefore, the E-P2 is simply a better camera for me. I would buy it. And in fact, I plan on buying it as soon as the finances allow. Unfortunately, it may be some time....
Disclaimer: I received a test specimen of E-P2 from Olympus Croatia before the camera was available to the general public. It's one of the good sides of being a reviewer, or possibly the good side of being a reviewer—you get toys before anybody else. I also returned the camera after I was done playing, alas.
Editor's Note: It's rather curious—an accident of their close intro dates—but we're publishing this review of the E-P2 and its VF-2 electronic viewfinder in advance of a series of articles about the E-P1, written by Eamon Hickey, which will appear next Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings. However, when we get that far, you'll see why—a lot of what Eamon has to say applies equally to the E-P2 and the E-P1. —MJ