Thursday, August 28, 2014

Olympus PEN E-PL7 Review

Important Note:
1. I am an Olympus Malaysia employee. 
2. This is a user experience based review, based on my personal opinion which can be subjective.
3. All images were shot in RAW and converted directly to JPEG (High Quality) via Olympus Viewer 3.
4. General camera settings, Noise Filter = OFF, Contrast/Saturation/sharpness = 0, White Balance = Auto (with an option maintain warm color = OFF), Gradation = Normal
5. Minimal post-processing applied to the images, with slight brightness/contrast balance tweak. All images were almost as good as straight out of camera, with minimal cropping for better presentation.


Olympus OM-D series cameras have been getting much attention and now, it is time to shine the limelight onto the original Olympus PEN series cameras. Currently Olympus PEN series are sub-categorized into the PEN Premium (E-P5) and PEN Lite/Mini (E-PL6/E-PM2). The new Olympus PEN E-PL7 which is launched today is not exactly positioned as a successor for the PEN Lite/PEN Mini category, but an upgrade to a level between the E-P5 and E-PL6. Therefore, the E-PL7 generally retains the important aspects of PEN Lite, such as being extremely small and light yet at the same time sports a solid and premium built, much closer to the flagship PEN E-P5 in construction. 

I have had the privilege to bring the PEN E-PL7 out for some quick shutter therapy action and based on that I am reporting my user experience review of the camera. This will be written from a non-technical point of view, and more emphasis will be given on how I feel and experience when I was actually shooting with the E-PL7 in real life situations. I have brought the E-PL7 to several locations at KL streets and the KL Bird Park. 

Here are some quick highlights of the camera features and specifications:
1) Designed and Optimized for Selfie usage - Flip down screen for self portraits
2) Smartphone Connectivity with Built in Wifi
3) Similar core performance and capabilities as the OM-D E-M10 
(Similar 16MP Sensor with Truepic 7 Image Processing Engine, 3-Axis Image Stabilization)
4) Small and Premium build
5) New Art Filters: Vintage and Partial Color

I will not bore you with the details, for full specifications, kindly visit the official Olympus Page here (click). 
The new Olympus PEN E-PL7 and M.Zuiko 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 EZ Pancake Zoom lens

E-PL7: Metal body build, Leathered body, high grade dials and buttons control




CAMERA SIZE AND BUILD QUALITY

If you place the PEN E-PL7 side by side with E-PL6 or E-PL5, you will immediately notice the huge difference in terms of build quality. In fact, I dare say that the E-PL7 build quality is very similar to the E-P5. The body is made of metal, and wrapped with leathered texture around the body, giving you that luxurious feel when you hold the camera. The leathered texture also provided much needed grip which was useful considering the body was made of metal which is smooth. The dials and buttons were made of high grade material, and no part of the camera felt cheap or plasticity which is the case for most competing cameras from other manufacturers at this pricing point. Furthermore, the E-PL7 managed to maintain the small size of the E-PL5/E-PL6 while featuring similar specifications as the OM-D E-M10 (minus the viewfinder), which is quite impressive. Inside the small body the E-PL7 has the 3-Axis Image Stabiliation, and if you have used the E-M10 you will know how effective it is. On the whole, E-PL7 is small and premium, yet having the ability to do mostly what E-M10 can do (minus the EVF) and more: E-PL7 can do selfie!

In terms of the camera design and style, the camera looks closer to the PEN E-P5. In terms of overall look, I do think that the design of PEN E-PL7 is more beautiful than OM-D series, but that is just my own opinion. To me, the E-PL7 looks even better than the E-P5. E-PL7 is simpler and cleaner in overall appearance yet elegant. What say you?


E-PL7: designed with Selfie warriors in mind



E-PL7: A SELFIE CAMERA

I will be honest here: I rarely take selfie photos, which is not a surprise since most photographers are always behind the camera, not in front of the lens. I also acknowledge that selfie is quite a huge phenomenon, and has been widely accepted by people everywhere, creating much buzz from celebrities to ordinary people like you and me. Olympus is also not the first camera manufacturer to come up with the selfiie functionality in camera. However, Olympus PEN cameras have been known to be small and portable, and easy to carry around, thus maintaining this philosophy it is easy to integrate some features that will aid in selfie taking. 

Think about this: you can now do selfie with many advantages that phone or lower level cameras do not have: reliably effective 3-Axis Image Stabilization to counter shake and help in single handed shooting, ability to use large aperture prime lenses to render blur background (shallow depth of field), and flexibility to use ultra wide angle lens (eg, M.Zuiko 9-18mm F4-5.6, or the 9mm Fisheye Body Cap lens) to capture yourself as well as that sweeping beautiful landscape in the background. Like all other newer Olympus cameras, there is the ability to use touch screen to capture in selfie mode, which actually mitigated camera rolling effect (shake when you press the shutter button). 



Taking this a step further, I was also thrilled to find many camera options and features being included in the E-PL7 that is catered directly for Selfie shooting. As shown in the picture/diagram above, once you flip the screen down (at i-Auto shooting mode), the E-PL7 is then transformed into a selfie camera:
1) If you use an electronic zoom lens, eg M.Zuiko 14-42mm F3.5-5.6, the lens will then automatically zoomed into the widest angle (14mm). 
2) The LCD Monitor is then turned into mirror display, as if you are looking at yourself in the mirror!
3) There is an e-Portrait mode to enhance skin tone and smooth-en imperfections
4) You can choose to immediately shoot the image by touching the screen, or you can use the 1 sec self timer (delay) button
5) There is also a custom self timer with interval shooting, which allows multiple shots to be taken at specified intervals
6) Considering the screen was flipped downward, you can then attach an external flash and capture selfie with flash
7) The screen was positioned downward so that your hands/fingers will not get in the way of the lens when you touch the screen (as opposed to flipping up, which is the convention for other camera manufacturers). 

WI-FI CONNECTIVITY

We all live in the world of social media now, and let's face it, the main reason Selfie exists is to be used in social network, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the likes. E-PL7 has built in Wi-Fi function to allow immediate image transfer from the camera to phone, and then to be shared across all social network platforms. The Olympus Image Share App (available for both Android and IOS devices) added plenty of useful features including remote shooting from the smart device, controlling the camera and shooting remotely. 

Similar function can also be found in E-M1, E-P5 and E-M10. I have done a video showing how the Olympus E-M1 built in Wi-Fi works, how convenient it is to setup and use. You can find the video for E-M1 (functions similar to E-PL7) here. 

(Unfortunately I was unable to fully test the E-PL7's wifi feature at this moment, due to local Wi-Fi certification pending approval from Malaysian authorities)

The selfie function on E-PL7  is so easy to use I started to ask strangers on the street to do selfie! Literally. 

All images from this point onward were taken with Olympus PEN E-PL7 and various Olympus M.Zuiko lenses, as mentioned. 

45mm F1.8, 1/100sec, F2.2, ISO200

12mm F2, 1/125sec, F2.5, ISO200

FUN WITH NEW ART FILTERS

I am jumping straight to the point here: I love the new Vintage Art Filter! I have not been as excited about Art Filters since Dramatic Tone was introduced in the E-5 (gosh that was so many years ago). I know, I know Instagram users can easily brush this aside considering unlimited choice of filters to adopt, especially those that simulate old film effects. But hey, somehow I think Olympus got the Vintage look right. There are three options of VIntage Art FIlter, Type 1, 2 and 3. I personally like all of them. Maybe these over-processed look is not for everyone, but hey, sometimes photography should be more about fun! And I think those Vintage Art Filters are so fun to use. 

12mm F2: Vintage Art Filter Type 1

12mm F2: Vintage Art Filter Type 2

12mm F2 Vintage Type 3

Oh and let's take a Selfie! 
12mm F2, 1/125sec, F2, ISO200

12mm F2: Vintage Art FilterType 2

12mm F2: Vintage Art FilterType 2

12mm F2: Vintage Art Filter Type 1
Say hi to Jackie!

12mm F2: Vintage Art Filter Type 2

12mm F2: Vintage Art Filter Type 3 


12mm F2. Oh and since I was so noob, Jackie was teaching me to do Selfie right!

75mm F1.8: Vintage Art Filter Type 2 with Pinhole

12mm F2: Vintage Art Filter (Type 1)

Besides Vintage Art Filter, the PEN E-PL7 also comes with another new Art Filter, called Partial Color. This processing effect is not new, and has been implemented by other manufacturers, even in compact point and shoot cameras. Partial Color allows you to select one specific color and desaturate or converting all other colors to monotone. 

There are three different types of Partial Color Art Filter

Original Image, no Art Filter applied. Control Image to show a mix of primary Red and Green colors dominating the frame. 

PARTIAL COLOR TYPE 1 
Type 1 Selected Primary Color and areas in the photo which is closely related to the primary color remained, while others converted to black and white. For example, if red is selected, skin tone which has a reddish tint, as well as hues of purple, pink and orange will be selected as well. This enables a wider range of colors to be included in Partial Color scheme, instead of just strictly one color, eg red. 

PARTIAL COLOR TYPE 2
Type 2 Selected Primary Color remained, and everything else desaturated, but not black and white. The desaturated zones of colors will still show tiny traces of the original color. I personally prefer Partial Color type 2, mainly because that minor trace of original color presents the image in a more realistic manner, rather than having parts of the frame in color and monotone. I also admit that the above photograph of the chillis is not the best image to demonstrate the use of Partial Color Art Filter. 

PARTIAL COLOR TYPE 3
Type 3 Selected Primary Color remained, everything else is black and white

The addition of the new Art Filters, Partial Color and Vintage surely added more options for Olympus PEN E-PL7 users to add beautiful effects into their photographs. The main advantage of using Olympus Art Filter? You can actually see the effects happening on the live view as you shoot, and compose. Also, more importantly, there is the flexibility to control all camera parameters (shutter speed, aperture, ISO, etc) while shooting with Art Filters. I understand that Art Filters may not appeal to everyone, but for those who treasure quick, beautifully done in camera creative processing, I am sure the Art Filters can make a huge world of difference. 

IMAGE QUALITY (SHARPNESS, HIGH ISO, COLOR)

I will not discuss the image quality of the Olympus PEN E-PL7 too lengthily, mainly because it uses the same image sensor (16MP Live MOS)  as well as image processing engine (Truepic 7) as the OM-D E-M10, and for longer description of image quality kindly visit my E-M10 reviews here (PART 1) and here (PART 2). You can expect similar image output. 

The images come out very sharp, full with fine detail, looking similar to the output I would expect from OM-D E-M10. Using the E-PL7 with M.Zuiko lenses such as 25mm F1.8, 45mm F1.8 and 75mm F1.8 gave me superbly crisp images. The Truepic 7 image processor did a good job at optimizing per pixel sharpness and applied relevant corrections and enhancements based on different lenses attached to the camera. The results from the E-PL7 requires very minimal if no processing at all, as shown here in this blog review. The white balance is almost always accurate and the colors are true to life. I have been using Olympus System for so many years now and the E-PL7 delivered image quality as expected. 

High ISO shooting was not a problem with the E-PL7, and I have no complain shooting at ISO6,400. However everyone has a different tolerance to high ISO noise level, so I may not be able to speak for everyone. You may examine my high ISO samples here and to me, at noise filter OFF, the images still retain good amount of detail. The chroma noise (color noise) is well suppressed, and the luminance noise did not pose much of a problem in overall image degradation. No, Olympus is not king when it comes to low light shooting, that is true. Nonetheless, with usable ISO6,400 and a plethora of available, affordable bright F1.8 prime lenses (or even wider) I do think the E-PL7 is capable of covering a wide range of shooting conditions. 

I do not have that many samples of high ISO images here for E-PL7, but if you do need reference, kindly look at the OM-D E-M10 high ISO image samples here (I have provided full resolution files for download too). 

AUTOFOCUS

The E-PL7 focuses quickly and accurately at all times. I find no issues focusing even in low light conditions. Also worth noting, I do not find any difference (at least I did not feel the difference) of the focusing speed in comparison to E-M10 or E-M1. All newer Olympus cameras focuses just as fast and they are so fast even if there is a difference I do not think I can tell any of that apart. Also worth noting, the E-PL7 has 81 focusing points spread out all across the frame, just like E-M10, which is useful for flexible composition when selective focusing (with super shallow depth of field) is needed. 

I did not test the Continuous AF, but I do not believe there is any improvement over whatever that is already available in the E-M10. 

75mm F1.8, 1/400sec, F2.8, ISO250

75mm F1.8, 1/250sec, F2.5, ISO400

100% crop from previous image

Hello Madonna
25mm F1.8, 1/320sec, F1.8, ISO500

Now here is an interesting story, which came as a surprise to me as well. I was at the KL Bird Park, shooting inside the House of Parrots. Visitors are allowed to purchase milk and bird food to feed them, which allows close encounters with the birds. While I was busy shooting all the colorful parrots, this white Cockatoo moved closer and closer to me, and suddenly said "HELLO" in a gentle, friendly voice. I was amused but I did not pay much attention at first because I was still shooting the other birds. Then the Cockatoo repeatedly said hello to me and moved even closer to me. She then bobbed her head up and down, again and again. Ok, she has successfully gained my attention, so I decided to shift my attention to her. I aimed my 75mm F1.8 lens at her but she suddenly moved so close to me it was too close for me to shoot with the 75mm lens! 

The bird keeper was nearby and told me that I can pet the Cockatoo. So I did. Gosh the feathers were soooo smooth!! Ok ok I know I am digressing but this was quite an interesting experience. 

Then it occurred to me, the Cockatoo was so close to me, and I have a Selfie camera. Well, I guess you know what happened next. 

Hey to be fair, I did not make this happen. Madonna (the name of the Cockatoo) came and stayed with me! She begged for a Selfie. How can I say no?

I thought Madonna was always friendly, but I was proven wrong when a few other strangers tried to touch her and she would threaten to bite their fingers. I stayed there for a while and I noticed Madonna only allowed me (out of dozens of visitors) to touch her, and be at that close distance! 

Small things like these can make me smile a long way. 

All the following Selfie images were taken with M.Zuiko 12mm F2 of course. 

12mm F2, 1/250sec, F2, ISO640

12mm F2, 1/500sec, F2, ISO640

12mm F2, 1/640sec, F2, ISO640

75mm F1.8, 1/160sec, F1.8, ISO400

75mm F1.8, 1/250sec, F1.8, ISO400

75mm F1.8, 1/400sec, F1.8, ISO200

CAMERA HANDLING AND CONTROLS

The E-PL7 lacks a large, beefy physical grip like any DSLR, or the OM-D E-M1. Unlike E-M5 and E-M10, the PEN series cameras do not have the option to add on an external grip. This could pose a problem using larger and heavier lenses such as M.Zuiko 75mm F1.8 and 75-300mm. That was the main reason I went shooting at the Bird Park, to test out the two long lenses, and see how the E-PL7 handles. 

I personally own an E-PL5, and in comparison to the new E-PL7, the E-PL7 is an improvement over the E-PL5. The E-PL5/E-PL6 handles just fine, but the E-PL7 just feels better in hand, especially for long hours shooting. I had no trouble hand-holding the 75mm F1.8 and 75-300mm lenses for several hours. I also think that the handling is just as good as the OM-D E-M10, without the external camera grip. Of course if the E-M10 has the external camera grip attached, it makes a huge difference. 

The E-PL7 feels solid and reassuring in hand, and that is to be expected from Olympus line of well built products. There was just the right amount of heft to aid in holding the camera steady, yet the camera itself was light enough for single-handed operation (which is important for Selfie). 

In terms of controls, there is only a single dial at the top of the camera (surrounding the shutter button). I am a fan of direct dual dial controls, much like what is found in the OM-D cameras. One may argue that the dual dial is not necessary for PEN cameras, but hey I think having that one extra dial can make a lot of difference. There are many customizable buttons, and I personally love to have one direct button shortcut for ISO. 

3-AXIS IMAGE STABILIZATION

To some people, Image Stabilization may not be the make it or break it criteria when considering a camera, but believe me when I say this is one modern miraculous technology for photography! Surely the image stabilization is not going to replace a tripod (a good tripod is needed for many reasons), but image being able to steady your shot and not having the need to use higher ISO numbers, keeping the images as detailed and noise free as possible. No matter how well your camera performs with High ISO shooting, no matter how noise free your high ISO files are from any cameras in the market, at higher ISO settings you do lose quite a fair bit amount of useful detail, and any sane photographers would recommend staying at lowest ISO setting possible to obtain best possible image quality. 

I have used E-M10 extensively, and now having used the E-PL7 for about two days, I found the 3-Axis Image Stabilization to be very effective. The following shot of Chilli Pan Mee was taken hand-held at 1/4sec. Not that I would encourage anyone to do ridiculously slow shutter speed with the E-PL7, but this confidently boosts your success hand-holding shooting rate of slower than comfortable shooting rate. 


25mm F1.8, 1/4sec, F5, ISO200

45mm F1.8, 1/25sec, F1.8, ISO320

25mm F1.8, 1/60sec, F1.8, ISO200

45mm F1.8, 1/50sec, F3.2, ISO200

45mm F1.8, 1/160sec, F2.8, ISO200

45mm F1.8, 1/50sec, F4, ISO10,000

100% Crop from previous image. ISO10,000

45mm F1.8, 1/50sec, F5.6, ISO6,400

100% Crop from previous image. ISO6,400

45mm F1.8, 1/200sec, F6.3, ISO1,000


So what is the Olympus PEN E-PL7? E-PL7 is surely an upgrade over E-PL5/E-PL6, not just a replacement model, and it offers similar shooting capabilities and performance as the OM-D E-M10 in general. E-PL7 is small and has solid, premium build, delivers images crisp and full of fine detail, and is equipped with 3-Axis Image Stabilization.  In addition, E-PL7 is designed primarily for the general market: people who are living in the social media world, constantly creating and sharing photography content online, thus having convenient yet powerful WiFi connectivity and at the same time being optimized to be used for Selfie captures. 

It can also be noted truthfully that in terms of image quality and AF performance, there really is no significant improvement over the current OM-D E-M10. After all the E-PL7 and E-M10 are using the same image sensor and image processing engine , Truepic 7. This is not necessarily a bad thing, considering that images produced from both E-M10 and E-PL7 are still on par if not surpassing many competition models, when you take into consideration of the entire system, what the lenses can do and how optimized image quality from Olympus is. 

There are a few small things that could have made the PEN E-PL7 an even greater camera.

An inclusion of a viewfinder would benefit the user. I admit I did attach the external Electronic Viewfinder, VF-4 for half of the shots shown in this blog entry, and for some people, a viewfinder is a must. Although the VF-4 can be bought separately, I think having it integrated into the PEN (without sacrificing the small footprint and light weight) will make this E-PL7 a more appealing camera.

Perhaps the decision to just use a single dial control on the E-PL7 was to clearly separate the camera from the flagship PEN E-P5, but I do find dual dial control to be extremely important and useful.

12mm F2, 1/400sec, F7.1, ISO200


On the whole, I did have plenty of fun shooting with the PEN E-PL7. Believe me, I am not done with the E-PL7 yet, and this blog entry is just the beginning. I know I may not have covered everything about the E-PL7 (not that I intend to, again, as a reminder this is a user experience, not an encyclopedia-esque kind of guide to the camera) but I do wish to shoot more with the E-PL7 soon and continue posting more photographs, and perhaps add on more thoughts about the camera.

There really is not much to complain about E-PL7, for an Olympus PEN. You get so much and can do a lot with such a small little camera, yet it is beautifully stylish.

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Olympus Macro Walkabout at KL Butterfly Park

Earlier this morning, I was leading a group of Olympus photo enthusiasts to shoot insect macro at Butterfly Park, KL, and boy it was a fun morning! Together with me was Amir Ridhwan, an Olympus enthusiast who shoots mainly macro, someone whom I have looked up to and learned a lot from (my own macro shooting techniques were derived from his own). We spent about 3 hours in the park, attacking all sorts of bugs and spiders. Most of the participants do not have the M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 macro lens, and was only using the humble kit lens 12-50mm F3.5-6.3 but I assured them that the lens was already very good to begin with, enabling quite decent close up shooting, something that kit lenses from other manufacturers cannot do. 

When the walkabout was happening I did not do much shooting myself. Instead I spent all the time doing demonstrations and guiding the group to get the shots. Therefore, only after the sessions ended at noon, that I stayed back a few more hours at the park shooting for myself, getting some shots as shown in this entry. I have not done macro for a while now, and it was nice hunting the bugs again. There was just something about shooting macro that gets me, and I shall save those thoughts for another blog entry perhaps. 

Also, if you have not known Amir Ridhwan, please visit his Flickr Stream here. He has so many amazing shots. 

Personally, I armed myself with the OM-D E-M10 with both 12-50mm and macro lens 60mm F2.8. I also work with the FL-50R external flash. For full description of how I got my macro shots (camera setttings, flash reflector, and shooting techniques) please visit my blog entries here and here

Before we start, lets take a selfie! Taken with E-M10 and the fisheye bodycap lens, 9mm F8. Trust me that body cap lens is built for taking selfie, it is so wide I can still do distortion correction to correct the curved lines (due to fisheye effect of the lens) and still have a very wide coverage for this group shot. And image sharpness was quite reasonable too. 

M.Zuiko 12-50mm kit lens, 1/400sec, F6, ISO200. macro mode enabled, no flash
Amir Ridhwan was using TG-3 primarily and demonstrating the microscopic capabilities of the camera. He got too up close and personal with that mantis. More photos later leading to this shot, at the end of this entry. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Taking a Moment of Silence to Remember MH17

Today is the first national mourning day for MH-17. To the families and friends affected by this tragedy, you have my prayers and thoughts.

Graphics and Photo Credit: Chi Kin

Monday, August 18, 2014

Photography Is About Fun

When we observe the general photography discussion over online photography community such as forums, Flickr groups and Facebook Group/Pages, the harmless discussion quickly takes dramatic turn and people obsess over technicalities and proving who knows what better, that I do not see how photography is fun any more. So what if that camera is better than that camera, so what if my lens is not as sharp as yours? What if I decide to break some rules of photography? Surely I do not want any bloodshed. 

Maybe that is why you do not see me in any forums or groups. If you have invited me to join forums or that cool new photography group you have set up on Facebook, I must apologize and respectfully decline the invitation. 

What is photography to me? It is my excuse to go out and have fun. I see photography as a form of therapy for my mind and soul and when I shoot, I will push aside all the complications and stressful thoughts. All I wanted to do with my camera was to enjoy myself, getting lost in the process of shooting nice photographs.

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