Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5 review

The Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5 delivers the performance of the top-end Olympus OM-D E-M5 in a smaller package and at a fraction of the price.
Photo of Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5

The Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5 ($699.99 direct with lens) is the mid-level entry in the company’s line of compact Micro Four Thirds cameras. It’s a bit bigger than the PEN E-PM2, but doesn’t quite have the advanced control layout found in the PEN E-P3 . Under the hood, the camera has the same 16-megapixel image sensor and processing engine found in our Editors’ Choice for high-end compact interchangeable lens cameras (CILCs), the Olympus OM-D E-M5 , so it’s no surprise that its image quality and performance are excellent. It isn’t quite enough camera to knock our entry-level Editors’ Choice CILC, the Sony Alpha NEX-F3  from its perch, but Micro Four Thirds shooters will be hard pressed to find a better compact body than the PEN Lite.

Design and Features
The E-PL5′s body isn’t that much bigger than a large point-and-shoot camera. At 2.5 by 4.4 by 1.5 inches, it’s actually smaller than the fixed-lens Fujifilm X10 , although the PEN’s size advantage is diminished when you attach a lens. It feels a little heavy for its size given its 11.4-ounce weight. The E-PL5 is available in black or silver with a black handgrip, or in white with a tan grip. If you aren’t happy with the color of the grip, you can replace it with a gray checked or brown striped grip, each available for around $45, or simply remove it and use the camera sans grip.

The bundled lens is a 14-42mm zoom (28-84mm equivalent). It’s the same collapsible design that Olympus has bundled with previous generations of PEN cameras. It’s about 2 inches shallower when collapsed, which makes it easier to squeeze into your camera bag.

The 3-inch rear LCD supports touch input, so you can select a focus point, fire the shutter, and swipe through photos during playback. The display is hinged so that it tilts up or down, making it possible to use the camera above your ahead or at your waist. Its 460k-dot resolution is adequately sharp, but it’s not as crisp as the 921k-dot display found on Sony’s NEX-F3.

The control layout is more robust than that of the PEN E-PM5, but still leaves a bit to be desired. There’s a mode dial on top, as well as dedicated buttons to control Exposure Compensation, the Drive Mode, and flash control. If you’re shooting in Aperture or Shutter Priority mode you’ll first have to tap the EV Compensation button to gain access to aperture and shutter speed control. Other cameras with a similar wheel simply let you move it to the left or right to adjust the aperture or shutter when shooting in those modes.

Additional shooting settings are adjusted via an overlay menu, accessed via the OK button in the center of the rear dial. From here you can adjust Metering, Autofocus, ISO, and other common settings.

The PEN Lite supports the same art filters built into the E-PM2. Changing the top mode dial to the Art setting gives you access to numerous in-camera effects, all of which are previewed in real time. You can capture grainy black and white photos, emulate a pinhole camera, apply a sepia tone to monochrome images, and use the miniature effect to make real-life scenes look like scale models. When in Art mode your photos are saved in JPG mode, but you shoot Raw and JPG simultaneously an unprocessed Raw image will be saved as well.

There’s no Wi-Fi support, which is becoming more common in both point-and-shoot and compact interchangeable lens cameras. Olympus recommends that you use a Toshiba FlashAir card to add wireless support, and is offering one for free via mail-in rebate with the purchase of the E-PL5 through the end of 2012. If you want a mirrorless camera with integrated Wi-Fi, consider the Samsung NX1000 . It offers one of the best implementations of the technology, one that lets you post photos directly to Facebook and other social networking sites directly from the the camera.

Performance and Conclusions

In terms of performance, the E-PL5 does not disappoint  It starts and shoots in 1.5 seconds, delivers a short 0.1-second shutter lag, and can rattle off shots at about 8 frames per second. The continuous shooting mode is limited to about 18 JPG shots or 16 Raw photos, and can keep shooting after the buffer is filled up at a slower rate. It takes about 5.4 seconds to clear the JPG buffer, 10.3 seconds to clear the Raw buffer, and 16.5 seconds to write all files to the memory card if you’re shooting Raw+JPG. It’s a better performer than the Samsung NX1000, which requires 2.2 seconds to start and shoot, records a lengthy 0.5-second shutter lag, and if you want to shoot continuously you’re limited to 3 frames per second.

We turned to Imatest to check the sharpness of the included 14-42mm lens. It’s sharp throughout its zoom range—hitting 2,263 lines per picture height at 14mm, 1,867 lines at 25mm, and 1,821 lines at 42mm, all better than the 1,800 lines required for a sharp image. Distortion is minimal throughout, a departure from the so-so kit lens that is included with the Sony NEX-F3—it is a bit soft unless it’s stopped down, and shows a great deal of barrel distortion at its widest setting.

Since the camera uses the same sensor and imaging engine as the E-PM2 and OM-D E-M5, it’s no surprise that the noise performance is identical to those models. Noise can rob an image of detail and make it look overly grainy, and generally increases as you up the sensitivity to light, measured numerically as ISO. The E-PL5 keeps noise below the threshold of 1.5 percent through 3200, and does so without losing too much detail. Images do look better at ISO 1600, which is the top setting if the ISO is set to be automatically adjusted—but you can adjust that setting if you’d prefer a higher or lower limit. The NEX-F3, which has a larger APS-C image sensor, still holds the edge in high ISO performance, keeping noise under control through ISO 6400.

Video is recorded in QuickTime format at 1080p30 or 720p30 quality. Footage looks very good, and the camera does a great job refocusing as the scene changes. Because its lens is zoomed manually, it’s nearly impossible to change the focal length without adding some audible noise to the soundtrack. Even though there’s no standard mic input, you can add a microphone accessory that communicates with the camera via its accessory port. The standard SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards are supported, and there are micro HDMI and proprietary USB ports on the camera. A dedicated battery charger is included, so if you opt to buy a spare battery you’ll be able to charge one cell while using the other to power the camera.

The Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5 isn’t the best Micro Four Thirds camera you can buy—that’s the weather-sealed Olympus OM-D E-M5—but it’s the best one you’ll get for under $1,000. It’s fast to focus and rattles off shots at an impressive speed, it’s kit lens is quite sharp, and it has a tilting rear display with touch input support. It doesn’t have a whiz-bang feature like the Wi-Fi connectivity that is built into the Samsung NX1000. Even though the E-PL5 outshines other cameras with the Micro Four Thirds lens mount, it doesn’t quite equal our current Editors’ Choice in the more broad entry-level compact interchangeable lens camera category. That’s the Sony Alpha NEX-F3, which does a better job at very high ISO settings and also features a built-in flash.

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Specifications
Dimensions 2.5 x 4.4 x 1.5 inches
Interface Ports Proprietary, micro HDMI
Megapixels 16 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.13 seconds
LCD dots 460000
LCD size 3 inches
Lines Per Picture Height 2263
Touch Screen Yes
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 25600
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
Sensor Type CMOS
Optical Zoom 3 x
Boot time 1.5 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 28 mm
Weight 11.4 oz
Lens Mount Micro Four Thirds
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
Image Stabilization In-Body
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 84 mm
Shutter Lag 0.1 seconds
Sensor Size 18 × 13.5 (4/3") mm
GPS No
Viewfinder Type None

Verdict
The Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5 delivers the performance of the top-end Olympus OM-D E-M5 in a smaller package and at a fraction of the price.
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