This post concludes the three part series on my transition away from my normal Nikon digital SLR kit and toward the smaller and lighter micro four-thirds system. Part 1 contained the background and Part 2 the rationale for the switch. I had promised in this final piece to let readers know how it was going. My hope at that time was to wrap up this series in about a week’s time, expecting that it would take that long to put the new system (an Olympus E-PL2 and assorted lenses) through its paces and to gain a real world sense of whether the transition would ultimately make some sense for me. Unfortunately, the weather here in the Northeast U.S. didn’t fully cooperate and I didn’t have a chance to really test the camera. Freezing cold and snow storms got in the way. And I’m sure that no one wants to see 10 photos of my Lhasa Apso, Shadow.
I had some upcoming business (and some pleasure) travel booked and though I wanted to complete this review before leaving, it dawned on me that my review would be better if I actually waited a bit and had a chance to see what my new travel kit might be like on an actual trip. And so here goes…
A word of warning, however. Despite my goal to get off the gear merry-go-round as noted in Part 2, I remain a bit on the fence about this swichover. Quoting myself:
Getting off the merry-go-round. There’s an inherent problem associated with trying to optimize the equipment you own rather than always desiring the equipment you don’t. Camera makers and the multi-billion dollar support industry (including some of the most popular website forums) live and die off how fast the I-want-more-and-better merry-go-round turns. Unfortunately, the spin is perpetual and the ride never ends. Something better, that proverbial brass ring, will always be around the next turn and it’s easy to whip yourself up into a near maniacal frenzy thinking that as soon as you grab that ring, all will be well. All will be right.
I loaded up a few bags, the new micro four-thirds set-up (as noted, an Olympus E-PL2 and its 14-42 kit lens, the VF2 electronic viewfinder, an Olympus 9-18 wide zoom, a Panasonic 20/1.7 and a Panasonic 100-300 telezoom – all in all, a very complete system for travel) all stuffed comfortably into a Crumpler six million dollar home bag. I also brought an electronic version of the instruction manual… and I’m glad I did. What a complex interface! And though I’m accustomed to many digital camera menu and button layouts, I found the Olympus implementation to be daunting. My initial apprehension, however, gave way to appreciation as I wound my way through the comprehensive manual. There’s no Nikon style menu tips or Pentax descriptive language here. If you don’t understand exactly what the cryptic menu markings mean, you’re stuck. But, I found, with a bit of up front work, it all makes sense. Additionally, not only do they make sense, they’re quite logical. For example, Olympus allows for multiple saved user setting banks with one being able to be assigned to the function button. My top level user setting allowed for continuous shooting, Aperture Priority mode, and three shot +/-2EV exposure bracketing – all perfect for HDR photography. One simple push of the function button and voila, three quick bracketed shots (beautiful for handheld HDR). Take your finger off the button and you’re immediately back to where you were before. Nice.
Kit lenses aren’t supposed to be very good, but I found the tiny and collapsible Olympus 14-42 to be small, light and nicely sharp. The 9-18, similarly small and collapsible, was very capable (and probably most often on my camera). The Pany 20/1.7 was sharp and wonderful at night and in very low light conditions. The Pany 100-300 is nice and well balanced on the Olympus, but I consider the electronic viewfinder attachment to be essential for this lens. Holding your camera with outstretched arms with such a long telezoom lens is awkward and likely to introduce wobble and shake. Using the viewfinder requires you to plant the camera up against your face, thus introducing some stability. And it doesn’t look as weird.
Regarding the electronic viewfinder, I consider that to be an absolute must for the DSLR user moving over to this format. Not only is it more comfortable to use in many ways, but it’s a nice convenience to be able to shoot photos and review them in the viewfinder, all without moving away from the camera. Here’s where the electronic viewfinder wins over the optical version. The Olympus model is sharp and very clear. It’s expensive at about $250, but I wouldn’t shoot this system without it. This is also where Olympus trumps system partner Panasonic as their version is less refined.
Our trip began in Orange County, California, with stops up and down the coastline. Coming from frigid and snowbound New England, it was a delight to don shorts and crocs. This was the business portion of the trip, but there was an opportunity for some fun as well. The fun included a stroll along Crystal Cove, a beach area historically reserved for Hollywood movie making, long-term leased residents and summer long partying in makeshift tents. There’s a rich history in the area, but all that remains now are mostly ransacked cottages.
The above photo was taken using the Diorama Art Filter which Olympus includes. Though I had thought these filters were mostly marketing gimmickry and/or poor substitutes for proper post processing, I often found them to be useful. Grainy Black & White and Pin Hole were my favorites.
I also had an opportunity to take a short boat tour off the harbor at Dana Point and hadn’t realized the abundance of whales and dolphins we’d see right off the California coast. For the first half hour of the trip, we pursued a mid-sized gray whale, which despite my best efforts, I was unable to photograph. Though the Olympus focuses fairly quickly, there is a slight lag, even with the camera turned on, when the shutter is depressed and the viewfinder comes to life. When shooting landscapes, I hadn’t really noticed the lag, but when trying to capture something moving more quickly, forget about it. Each time, as the camera was finally ready to go, the whale had dropped back below the surface.
Shortly after this, we hit a very large school (or is it herd?) of dolphins who playfully swam by our boat for twenty minutes. The dolphins jumped like popcorn around us and I strained to capture at least one good shot of one as it leapt, in some cases, a few feet above the surface and just an arm’s length away from us.
Unfortunately, every shot I captured looked like this one, with the dolphin just landed or just pre-flight. Here is where a traditional DSLR would have shined, acting as a capable extension of the photographer’s eyes and shutter finger. You see the action, you take the shot. Unfortunately, with this micro four-thirds camera, the “extension” was just not the same.
For traditional landscape shots, the system was exceptional. Low light capabilities are right there with the APS-C competition and I found the electronic viewfinder to be highly responsive and easy to use when the light levels dropped… autofocus and wake-up issues noted above aside. I had no reservations letting the auto ISO function bring the level up to 1600, knowing the shot would be quite usable. Here, the camera exceeded my expectations.
From the warm, sunny weather of Orange County, we next departed for the North. It’s long been a dream of mine to shoot Yosemite National Park in winter and though Laguna Beach isn’t exactly convenient to the Park, we decided to give it a try. And though it was winter shooting we sought, a full-blown winter storm was not what we were hoping for.
The above shot was from the main restaurant at the Ahwahnee Hotel, the granddaddy hotel of Yosemite, built in the 1920s. The above shot was taken handheld – again, I was quite pleased with the lowlight capabilities of the Olympus and here you can see that the built in anti-shake feature works well (taken at 1/15 of a second and 1600 ISO and no additional noise reduction applied).
Our first evening was quiet, though we were watching the weather reports carefully as a major storm was expected to move in. The friendly woman at the front desk told us not to worry as storms are always expected there and perhaps we’d have pretty good visibility nevertheless. Well, as luck would have it, a full storm did move in. And visibility was zero for the entire day, save for about 30 minutes of gray light that broke through. During that time, we were at the base of the Lower Yosemite Falls and I was able to grab a few shots. Otherwise, the camera sat in the bag for most of the day.
The above image was taken from a famous overlook near the mountain pass tunnel by Route 41. It is a perfect view of Yosemite Valley with El Capitan on the left, Bridalveil Falls barely visible on the right and Half Dome above it on the right, again just about impossible to see in this shot. As we were planning to head out the next day, I expected that this might be the only view (and photo) of Yosemite’s impressive attractions that I’d be able to see on this trip. So much for shooting Yosemite in winter.
The next morning, we woke to overcast skies and debated whether to simply pack and head out to San Francisco for the conclusion of our trip. As we contemplated this decision, a dull illumination began to peer through the cracks in between the window shade and wall. Was this sunlight? We quickly grabbed our gear, with the battery of the Olympus fully charged just-in-case and headed out to drive the loop around the Valley. To our delight, we were greeted with about 90 minutes of decent light, and visibility.
The above shot is from the same spot as above. Here, you can more clearly see the Falls and Half Dome in the background.
Above, the first clear shot of Half Dome, beyond the Merced River. The white clouds lead to blown highlights and in retrospect, I should have bracketed several shots for an HDR attempt to try to gain more detail.
Over the course of the first snowy day in Yosemite, I found myself missing the better weather sealing of the Nikon D7000 that was lying in a bag at home. There were a number of interesting, more subtle, due to the overcast skies, photo opportunities in the Park, but the snow was quite heavy and wet and I didn’t want to chance it.
On the second day, I noticed after about 130 shots that the fully charged battery began to blink red, showing that it was almost depleted. This had happened on the beach walk day, but I didn’t recall that time whether the battery was fully charged or not. I was able to reel off another hundred shots or so, but remained worried the entire time that the camera would die from lack of juice at any moment. Because the camera is small, that constrains the size of the available battery and since the electronic viewfinder draws from the main battery, it’s not reasonable to expect this camera’s power supply to rival a traditional DSLR… but blinking after 130 shots? That seems problematic.
Another annoyance, Olympus doesn’t supply an orientation sensor in the camera. That means that every single shot taken vertically must be manually rotated after downloading into your computer. Odd for a camera in this price range.
So… what’s my verdict?
I loved the lightweight and small size of this camera and associated lenses. In truth, the camera itself is certainly smaller but not demonstrably so from smaller APS-C DSLRs. It’s the size of the lenses that really make the difference. Comparing the Olympus 9-18 with my Sigma 10-20 for Nikon, you can really size how it’s in the lenses that micro four-thirds delivers on its main promise. I also found the camera to be quite capable in terms of autofocus speed and lowlight/high ISO capabilities. Not quite up to the Nikon DSLR standard, but close. I found the overall hardware and software interface to be confusing at first, but more than capable and user friendly after a bit of use. This is one piece of gear where you’ll want to read the manual. Cover to cover.
The start-up viewfinder lag and slower to kick-in autofocus issue clearly means that micro four-thirds is not for the sports or birds-in-flight (in my case dolphins-in-leap) photographer. Additionally, if you like to shoot in less than perfect weather, then this system is not ideal. Finally, you’ll need multiple batteries if you’re inclined to want to shoot and shoot and shoot all day long.
I remain, as noted above, a bit on the fence about this format, however. I missed my full DSLR on a few occasions and wondered whether micro four-thirds truly could be my one and only system. I’m not inclined to want maintain and build out two distinct systems due to the expense, so… could micro four-thirds fully and completely replace my DSLR system? I’m still thinking about it. In reality, I think it’s a wonderful “second system” for the serious photographer who desires a way to travel lighter and who won’t miss all the functionality and responsiveness of their DSLR when moving about. Can it be that shooter’s only system? I’m thinking not.
And so I’m left standing in the line by the carousel. I see the colored horses whizzing by and their riders reaching up toward the elusive brass rings that lie just beyond their field of view.
I’m wondering if it’s time for yet another spin?
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The Olympus EPL2 can be found here.
Posted by Rey