I’m on vacation in Sicily. It’s absolutely not a photo trip, but Sicily can be painfully photogenic at all sorts of level, so good casual opportunities do come up.
WARNING: high levels of sarcasm ahead, may offend.
It started with a week on the island of Favignana, which was good enough for the likes of Selgado, Burri, and a gaggle of other Magnum photographers, so it should be good enough for me. But ... they, very luckily for them, did not have an Olympus Pen-since-1959 EP bloody 2 “camera” with them. I am coming to loathe this all style and no content device. It is by far the worst camera I have ever used. Considered as a device to prevent photography it would rank pretty highly. But that wasn’t what it was intended to be, alledgedly.
It’s difficult to know where to start, but perhaps I’ll be slightly unfair and start with the add-on electronic viewfinder. Now, this camera is unusable without the EVF. In fact it should be returned as unfit for purpose without it, because the screen is abysmal. I loathe using a back screen as a framing tool, but on my Ricoh GRD at least it can be done, quite effectively even. On the EP2, forget about it: the screen is dim and coarse. So, EVF it is. And this EVF is rated as one of the best in the business. But guess what, it still sucks. It doesn’t pixelise, it has very low delay, it even has pretty good dynamic range. But it doesn’t have enough. Under harsh contrast there is just no way I can get a fix on the highlights and shadows. It burns or blacks out stuff which my eyes do not, making it impossible for my brain to instinctively make exposure decisions. It just gets it the way. And of course, when I apply exposure compensation, it reacts. No! Don’t do that! I know you can, but if I’m sussed enough to understand what exposure compensation means, then it really is not going to help me if you keep moving the electronic goalposts around. And that’s just for starters. I could go on for a lot of paragraphs about how an EVF screws up DoF preview as well. And then of course there’s the idiot fact that the camera has to be turned on to look through the viewfinder (this is “progress”, I believe), which is unfortunate given the gusto at which the EP2 drains its battery (very easily twice as fast as the E400 with the same battery). Of course, all this applies to any EVF camera, not just the EP2, but the scary thing is that this EVF really is - relatively - very, very good. But it ruins photography as an enjoyable experience, and that’s scary.
So, what about some specifics? Let’s start with “manual focus assist”. This zooms the center of the VF area so you can focus more easily. Well fine, provided (a) the object you want to focus on is in the middle, which if you’re slightly beyound idiot level it quite probably isn’t, and (b) you’re not interest in the object’s context. Ok, so you can turn it off, provided you can remember where the option is in the labyrinthine menu system - I’d happily swap it for the “art filter” position on the mode dial - and it is genuinely useful in Live View mode, on a tripod, when you’re moving the focus point around. It is absolutely a pain when it engages when you as little as think about glancing at the focus ring, ruining another shot. And yes you can turn it off. If you remembered to, and if you’ve got several minutes to waste in the menu system.
Ah yes, the menu system: ever since the E400, Olympus cameras have had the “super control panel” screen for direct access to shooting parameters. It’s actually pretty useful and has been widely copied, like a lot of good innovations from Olympus. I’m fairly sure the EP2 has it to, but I cannot for the life of me work out how to get at it. If it is there, and not just a figment if my immagination, it is anyway but 1 of 3 completely seperate systems for configuring the camera. One well designed one would suffice.
(ok, finally I worked it out. Press “OK” several times to cycle through the modes.)
The electronic level is very nice. It would be even nicer if it could be combined with the display of basic shooting info, like Aperture, Exposure, that sort of thing.
Then there’s more general stuff about the ergonomics and user interface. In A-mode, which is pretty much all I use, if you press the exposure compensation button, the value highlights in the display and you can change it with either the thumbwheel or the control dial. I try to avoid the control dial. If you click the button a second time, both the aperture and compensation values highlight, and now you can change the aperture with the thumbwheel and compensation with the dial. Or is it the other way around? And why, anyway? The opportunity for error is endless, especially if you have to use the control dial.
The control dial is a truly stunningly bad example of industrial design. Like many similar devices, it also functions as a 4 way pad, with the 4 buttons providing a quick entry point to things like ISO and White Balance. Useful, but not when the thing is so fiddly and sensitive that when you just had that shot lined up of Elvis climbing out of his flying saucer, you discover that you’re in 12 second self timer mode. Or something even more obscure. Even when you’re intentionally using the dial, the slightest misapplication of pressure can have you at ISO 3200 in a microsecond. Reversing out, however, would take a while longer.
Finally, because otherwise this could go on for ever, a word about the standard 14-42 lens. In order to pretend that it is small, Olympus made it collapsible. This provides yet another potential roadblock in getting the shot. And attaching a filter to it, especially a polariser, is an exercise in frustration. Turning the polariser almost always throws the focus completely off, and triggers an error message. And when you remove the filter it feels like you’re in serious danger of dismantling the lens inner barrel. Yet another ghastly Pen experience.
Ok, you can get good results out of the EP2, all being well, but for me at least it provides little enjoyment and kills spontaneity. So much that the whole point of the thing seems weak.
On a general note, in 2 weeks, some spent in very photogenic tourist spots, where everybody has a camera, I have not seen one “compact system camera”. No micro four thirds, no Sony NEX, no Samsung. Plently of Lumix and Fuji bridges, plenty of Canikon DSLRs, even a sprinkling of Olympus DSLRs, some high end compacts and of course hordes of digicams. But the world takeover by compact system cameras? I see no evidence of that on the streets.
So, what ‘s the alternative? I don’t always feel like carrying a DSLR around, even a small one, and compacts have their own compromises and lack creative control. Film seems tempting. A small SLR, maybe, but even an Olympus OM isn’t all that light. Or maybe a Voigtlander or Zeiss Ikon rangefinder ... but again, these involve compromises. Maybe somebody will make a CSC actually designed to encourage photography, but I’m not holding my breath.
But as far as the Olympus EP2 is concerned, I think I’ve had my fill. The worst, and possibly the prettiest, camera I have ever owned. And it seems I’m stuck with it.