Lion of the Blogosphere

Review of the Olympus E-PM2 Micro Four Thirds camera (with IBIS tests)

The E-PM2 is the newest, smallest, and least expensive (of current models) Olympus Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens camera.

For those of you who normally read my blog for contrarian analysis of politics, economics, and sociological issues, you may want to skip reading this post which just contains nerdy stuff about cameras. However, I do feel I have something important to contribute to the internet conversation about cameras.

Olympus, a camera company that has struggled to find its way in a digital age dominated by Canon and Nikon, finally had a huge hit with the OM-D E-M5 introduced about a year ago. Olympus was so swamped by the unexpected demand for the E-M5, you couldn’t even find one available for sale for months.

The E-PM2, which is the replacement for the E-PM1, had a much quieter release in September. No one has been praising it as the camera of the year. Yet it is said to have the same Sony sensor and thus the same image quality as the E-M5, plus three key advantages:

Advantage 1: size matters

In the picture above, the E-PM2 with the 14mm f/2.5 pancake lens is in the center, surrounded on either side by the E-M5 with the 14-42mm II R f/3.5–5.6 lens (note that I have the official Olympus square lens hood), and the Panasonic LX7, an enthusiast’s compact camera which I highly recommend. With the pancake lens, the E-PM2 is only slightly bigger and heavier than the LX7, and is a size that can fit comfortably in a typical coat pocket (but not a pants pocket unless your pants have unusually large pockets). The E-M5 may be small and light compared to DSLRs, but in my opinion, it’s just too big and heavy to be a pocket camera, even with the pancake lens. The extra five and a half ounces of weight makes a difference you can definitely feel even if you have a coat with a big pocket.

One of the main selling points of Micro Four Thirds (m43) is supposed to be that it has the same image quality as DSLRs but the cameras and lenses are a lot lighter and smaller. Thus in my opinion, the E-PM2 captures the spirit of m43 better than the E-M5. And let’s not even bring up the oversized 12-50mm kit lens that came with the E-M5 (not shown in the photo) that totally kills the pocketability of any camera it’s attached to.

Advantage 2: smaller focus points

One of the complaints about Olympus m43 cameras has been that the focus squares are too large, making it difficult to get exact focus, because the camera would focus on something else within the square than what you might have wanted.

The E-PM2 fixes this problem with an optional setting for small focus squares!

Advantage 3: nice price

The E-PM2 has been selling for only $449, which is a real bargain considering that you get the same image quality and electronics as the E-M5 for $500 or so less.

Unless you’re really rich, you have to consider the benefit of the lower price. Isn’t it better to have two E-PM2s instead of one E-M5? Why would you want two of the same camera? One reason is if you like to use prime lenses, then you can have a different prime on each body and save yourself the annoyance of changing lenses.

Advantages of E-M5 over E-PM2

To be fair to the E-M5 and those who love it, here are the advantages of the E-M5:

  • Built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF). And it’s a really nice one, better than the add-on VF-3 EVF that fits viewfinderless Olympus cameras. Plus, the E-M5 is the first Olympus m43 camera where you can use a viewfinder and an external hotshoe-mounted flash at the same time.
  • Tilting LCD. This is very useful feature, allowing you to frame photos without having to hold the camera in front of your face.
  • 5-axis image stabilization. This is supposed to be better than the 2-axis image stabilization in the E-PM2. I have no clue exactly how much better it might be, but it does seem to be a lot less buggy, because as you can read below, the E-PM2 seems to have some problems.
  • Bigger LCD. Bigger is better for viewing photos and framing, but it comes at the price of a bigger camera.
  • Weather sealing. Theoretically, you can use the E-M5 in the rain without worrying about it getting damaged, if you also have a weather sealed lens. I say “theoretically” because although I did use it in the rain once, I still worried.
  • Two control dials on top instead of one rear dial. This is somewhat more convenient for changing the f-stop in aperture priority mode, or the shutter speed in shutter priority mode.
  • Built-in electronic level. I always forget to use it when shooting with the E-M5 because you have to switch view modes to see it, but it’s nice to have it and I should probably use it more often.
  • Mode dial. I don’t change from S to A mode that often, so I don’t think that not having this dial is a big deal at all. I’m not sure why some people on the internet make such a fuss over it.

Look and feel

We are talking here about the look and feel of the camera bodies and not the software. (But about the internal software: it’s nearly identical between the E-PM2 and E-PM5. Many people complain about the complicated menus, and the “MySet” feature is poorly implemented, but the “Super Control Panel” works nicely.)

Based on what has been written elsewhere on the internet, one might get the impression that the E-PM2 is cheap plasticky junk, while the E-M5 feels like the most expensive camera ever. In fact, I think the two cameras are very similar in that department. The E-M5 does weigh more, but otherwise it feels equally plasticky or unplasticky as the E-PM2. Both are a cut above the typical cheap compact camera, but neither compares to the solid metal body of an old-school high-end film camera like a Contax G2.

The E-M5, of course, has a retro 1970s SLR look that has captured everyone’s attention, and I have to admit that it was a brilliant marketing decision by Olympus to make the E-M5 look that way. However, I think the E-PM2 is decent looking in its own functional way and a little more classy than the E-PM1 it replaces because of the addition of the front grip and the silver horizontal line. Also, the front grip is a huge improvement in ergonomics over the E-PM1.

First shutter shock test

This is an issue on which the professional reviewers have really dropped the ball, but it’s well known on internet forums that m43 cameras have all sorts of shutter shock issues, which are said to be worst at around 1/100 sec shutter speed.

My E-PM1 had had a really bad problem with the in-body image stabilization (IBIS) when used at that shutter speed. Sometimes it would work OK, but other times, I would get really blurry photos with the IBIS turned on. Was it some manufacturing defect in my camera, or are all E-PM1s like that? I’m still not sure.

For the test above, I took three sets of five photos each of a wall clock, using the 25mm f/1.4 lens and a shutter speed of 1/100 sec, which as noted above is generally known to be the worst, or one of the worst, shutter speeds for having shutter shock issues.

The first row has IBIS and anti-shock turned off. The second row has IBIS set to IS1 and anti-shock turned off. The bottom row has IBIS set to IS1 and anti-shock set to 1/8 second. Why 1/8 second? Because it’s the shortest anti-shock setting allowed by the camera, and according to various internet forums, it’s all you need to prevent shutter shock problems in most cases.

The results above show that the camera does not have a problem specific to IBIS. The second row, with IBIS turned on, looks the same to me as the first row with IBIS turned off.

However, both of the top rows look less sharp than the bottom row which has the anti-shock turned on. The conclusion here is that if you want the sharpest photos, you need to use the anti-shock trick. This does add an extra 1/8 second of shutter lag. The results without anti-shock turned on are OK and the blur might not be noticeable if you’re not viewing the photo at 100%, but if you want to best results from this camera, you should keep anti-shock turned on, which is what I intend to do.

Does the E-PM2 have an IBIS problem at 1/160 sec?

Despite the promising test above, looking at my photos, I think this camera may have some sort of IBIS bug like previous m43 cameras, because I am seeing blurriness in some, but not all, of my shots taken at 1/160 sec, even with anti-shock turned on. You can blame my technique, but the whole point of IBIS is that it’s supposed to overcome bad technique, and I don’t see this problem in shots taken with the LX7 or E-M5 (which has superior 5-axis IBIS).

2/4/2012 update: IBIS bug revealed

The above series of shots were taken from about 20 foot distance of a book, using the 14mm f/2.5 lens and a shutter speed of 1/80 sec. Anti-shock was ON and set to 1/8 sec. There is a little bit of noise because we are shooting at ISO 2500.

You will notice that the series of five shots on the left, with the IS turned OFF, are all sharp.

But the series of five shots on the right, with IS set to IS1, the last four shots look sharp, but the first shot is seriously blurry. You can say it’s bad technique on the part of the photographer, but I thought the purpose of IS was to protect you from bad technique. And I don’t think I held the camera any differently for the blurry shot.

I also think it’s significant that the first shot was blurry, because I’ve seen this happen in other series of shots that I’ve taken. It’s always the first shot that has blur. It’s as if after the IS warms up, then it’s good until you stop taking shots and give it a chance to cool down. The problem is, I don’t know what the cool-down period is. If you are trying to capture the decisive moment, and your IS has cooled down, there goes your decisive moment ruined by IS blur.

The outdoor shots above were both taken with the 14mm lens at 1/160 sec with IS set to IS1 and anti-shock turned ON and set to 1/8 sec. As you can see, the first shot was blurry, but then the second shot I took very shortly afterwards looks fine. Once again, you can blame bad technique, but I never seemed to have any bad technique problems like this when using the E-M5 or the LX7, and it should have been pretty easy to hold the camera steady for a shot at 1/160 of a second with a wide angle lens like the 14mm.

Unfortunately, what I learned here is that the E-PM2 very likely has the same sort of IS bug which plagued the E-PM1. You cannot count on the IS to work for you even if you use an anti-shock delay, so you should always keep IS turned OFF unless you are shooting at slow shutter speeds, in which case you should always shoot twice in case the first shot is ruined by the IS bug.

This is a good time to mention a new feature of the E-PM2, a new menu item called “Lens I.S. Priority” which, if set to ON, is supposed to use the optical image stabilization in Panasonic lenses instead of the in-body image stabilization. So if you want to use this camera with a kit zoom, maybe you should be looking at the Panasonic kit zoom.

Image quality

DxOMark’s camera sensor database gives the E-PM2 a score of 72 and the E-PM1 a score of only 51, where every 5 points is supposed to be equal to 1/3 EV of goodness. I think that what I see in the images is consistent with such a large score difference. The Olympus cameras like the E-PM1 with the old 12MP sensors were unfortunately noisy in the shadows, and the new sensor greatly improves the shadow noise situation. Even the sensor in the LX7 appears to be at least equal to the E-PM1 with respect to shadow noise at the lowest ISO, even though the LX7’s small sensor has only approximately one-sixth the surface area.

I tried to do a comparison using real world images, but inconsistent settings and light metering between the cameras sort of ruined it and made it less than useful. I did learn some lessons about how to do this better in the future. If only it weren’t so darn cold outside this weekend.

You may want to see my comparison of Panasonic and Olympus JPEGs, where I used the E-PM2 to represent Olympus, but that comparison doesn’t say anything about the true image quality.

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Click here to shop for an Olympus E-PM2 at Amazon.com

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Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

February 2, 2013 at 9:21 PM

10 Responses

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  1. When I saw the title of this post, I was going leave “NERD” in the comments. Then I noticed that you categorized this post under “Nerdy stuff,” which means that you already know that you are a nerd.

    I’m glad you wrote this. I am in the market for a camera now, in preparation for a trip to India. I thought that DSLRs would be too large and inconvenient to carry, but the E-PM2 with the pancake lens seems manageable. Of course, the price is perfect too. You just sold a camera.

    Blog Raju

    February 2, 2013 at 9:47 PM

  2. It’s interesting that you tagged this post “Nerdy stuff.” I’ve never thought of photography as a nerdy activity at all. True, it’s not as uber-Alpha as the NFL, but it’s hardly in the same category as D&D or Star Trek.

    Peter

    ironrailsironweights

    February 2, 2013 at 9:54 PM

    • Obsessing over gear is the nerdy side of photography. Cooler photographers just use their iPhone.

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      February 2, 2013 at 11:17 PM

      • I’m not sure I follow the reasoning. It would seem to me that if the underlying activity is not nerdy, obsessing over its gear or other details does not somehow become nerdy. In other words, it’s the character of the underlying activity (nerdy/non-nerdy) that controls.
        Consider an example. I’m sure you’ll agree that woodworking is a non-nerdy pastime, indeed it’s the sort of thing that many well-adjusted men with families enjoy doing in their spare time. Would you say that engaging in a debate about the best brand of lathe transforms woodworking into something akin to WoW or LotR? I didn’t think so.

        Peter

        ironrailsironweights

        February 2, 2013 at 11:36 PM

      • Actually, woodworking was probably something that nerdy people did before D&D and computers were invented.

        Lion of the Blogosphere

        February 3, 2013 at 12:04 AM

      • iPhone photography is not cool; it is just convenience.

        Blog Raju

        February 3, 2013 at 2:25 AM

    • Seriously, there was a guy in my high school class who was big into the technical/gear side of (film) photography and he cleaned up on the hottest girls.

      That was a couple years before digital photography hit the mainstream, though, so maybe it would be different now.

      Jokah Macpherson

      February 3, 2013 at 12:12 AM

  3. Personally, there is no such thing as a pocket cam if studiously on the hunt for a sought after picture. If I know, I’m going to Tribeca to photograph linguini or street scenes, I make the photo happen and tailor it to the camera, which would be the bitchinist cam I own.

    Pocket cams are for the unexpected – they are make-do; The difference between a Steyr SSg and a Seecamp.

    A target-rich environment like The Big Apple (RIP mssr Koch) – demands you expend the largest amount of photos on safaris. Quench the urge, then, when searching out other interests, let it rest.

    On the 8th Day…I wonder
    If God used his
    Olympus?

    Firepower

    February 3, 2013 at 1:58 PM

  4. Forgot my choice ha… I’d pick the E-M5.

    The “once” advantage of digital over SLR is gone. Now, we are burdens to our myriad lenses – the same as Avedon and that ancien regime.

    Telephoto, Zoom, fisheye – the fstop never stops.

    Now, unburdened by the darkroom wait, we are free to revel in our dailies.
    So, then let us revel. A weather resistant cam with gigabytes of storage is the fantasy realized.

    Firepower

    February 3, 2013 at 2:05 PM

  5. Thanks, very informative. Always better to read the experiences of a thoughtful, opinionated user as opposed to some fill-in-the-blanks type DPR review.

    Jonathan

    February 4, 2013 at 1:39 PM


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