Penning a retro style

WILL ROBERTS asks whether the latest Olympus PEN is as pretty on the inside as it is on the outside.

The first time I picked up an Olympus compact camera I fell in love with it. It was about 18 years ago and the camera was my uncle’s 35mm film mju. Even as a child, I remember being struck by its clever, slick design. I loved its pebble-like shape, its clamshell sliding action and the way the lens would come out with a pleasing zip. It felt rugged and ready for work.

Fast forward a few years, to the time when Olympus brought out its PEN series of Compact System Cameras, and I got the same rewarding feeling — a very different camera, but a familiar sense of excitement. Today, four years after Olympus first released the digital PEN, I got to spend some quality time with the newest incarnation, the E-P5. I’m eager to find out whether its performance matches its stunning 1960s-inspired body. Retailing at about £900, it needs to have brains as well as good looks.

I head out to Sheffield’s Tramlines music festival with the E-P5 to capture the colour of this inner-city event.

THAT BODY

I’ll cut to the chase, there is very little about the body of the E-P5 I dislike. Yes, it looks good, with its retro shape, well-placed rubber grip (which, tantalisingly, is also available in walnut) and large three-inch viewfinder. But importantly, it also feels good. The aluminium body is sturdy and strong and the buttons too have a metal finish and feel great to the touch. Even the plastic port cover feels durable as it clicks shut. There’s a lively built-in flash which jumps out with great speed at the push of a button, but there is also a shoe for an external flash, a microphone or an electronic viewfinder. For video recording, it’s nice to see stereo microphones.

The display is big and bright and while it is not fully articulating, as is a la mode for so many cameras today, it pops out and tilts up and down -especially useful when sticking the camera in the air to get above the crowds. Crucially, it sits snugly into the rear of the camera and doesn’t ruin those all-important sleek lines. My PEN comes with a 14-42mm lens, but there is a wide variety of extra lenses available as well as an adapter allowing you to use four-thirds lenses with the camera.

FEATURES

The PEN offers the flexibility and a breadth of features you would expect from a camera of this type, as well as the ability to be able to control shutter speed, aperture, exposure and ISO. The command dial also has a couple of extra settings such as the art filters, many of which are worth playing with. By selecting Art Bracket the camera will apply all filters to the picture you take allowing you to choose which one best suits the image after taking it. In fact, the wealth of bracketing options is quite remarkable — the user can set up the PEN to automatically take a shot with different ISO, flash, white balance, exposure and HDR values. The PEN also has an intervalometer setting for time-lapse photography.

The E-P5 has a 16-megapixel CMOS sensor with an ISO of up to 25,600 and a shutter which can fire at an impressive l/8000sec. Raw shooting is also an option and a five-axis image stabilisation system helps keep pictures sharp.

HANDLING

Both the menu and the external controls are easy to master on the E-P5.

I like the simple selector switch on the rear of the camera, which allows you to quickly use the front and rear dials to control ISO and white balance as well as the usual aperture and shutter speed. Unfortunately the display has limited touchscreen functionality, meaning that you often have to use the navigation buttons to make your way around the menus, rather than simply touching the item you want. But when it comes to using the touch screen for shooting, the E-P5 excels. Focus is fast and accurate, even in low light — the camera will fire the shutter once you’ve touched the desired focal point you want, but I much prefer to fire the shutter in the traditional way once I’m happy with the focus.

The camera is light and compact enough for me to sling around my shoulder as I make my way around the busy festivaL and, thanks to the body, I’m confident that the occasional knock isn’t going to do it any damage.

The settings and filters are practical and easy to use; the sports setting is great for objects which move around the frame, picking out sharpness effortlessly. However it’s in the dark nightclubs where the PEN really impresses, managing to find focus in dark and seemingly difficult circumstances.

IMAGE QUALITY

Shooting mostly in Raw and at a variety of ISO values and focal lengths,

I made my way around the festival. I was particularly impressed with the pictures from those dark and smoky venues, where the ISO was pumped up. There is a distinct lack of noise from the pictures and the colours and contrast is picked up well. Against a bright white cloudy sky, the colourful elements of a fairground ride are well defined, but anything which was over or underexposed was largely retrievable when it came to processing the Raw files.

CONCLUSION

The E-P5 is everything it should be and more. It’s practical, well-built, reliable, stylish and cool. It has well-thought-out features which will appeal to all levels of photographer. It boasts the Latest gadgets but also retains the essence of an SLR camera. It’s a fun camera, but it’s also a serious camera. It offers flexibility and ease of use and the picture quality can’t be sneered at either.

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