The Pen Lite revisited: my first mirrorless camera
A few weeks ago, I got my hands again on my very first mirrorless camera. Not one like it, mind you, exactly the same. A white Olympus Pen E-PL2. I couldn't have known it at the time, some three and a half years ago, but this camera signaled the beginning of my personal mirrorless journey.
Like the majority of current mirrorless users, my main cameras were DSLRs at that point. And like everyone I know, DSLRs were far too heavy and unwieldy to carry around all the time. Now, I always liked the Pens of old, which, to be honest, were an technologically and stylistically astonishing line of cameras. Here is the great Olympus commercial, perfectly presenting the ethos of that camera; and its new namesake:
To cut a long story short, when I decided to get an economical, but decent, carry-around camera, getting a refurbished (i.e. virtually brand new) E-PL2 was almost a no-brainer. I got it with the venerable kit-zoom, bought an additional third party battery, threw it in my daily bag, and expected to use it the way I used pocket compacts or smartphones in the past.
Then a curious thing started to happen.
Suddenly, I was taking much more pictures than before. Whenever I saw something interesting, the Pen was there to deliver. Admittedly, with loads of limitations, versus a "proper" DSLR, but with a number of nice advantages too. I relished the beautiful out-of-camera JPEGs, using the included "Art" filters was interesting, in short, I started having FUN using a camera again. You can see several photos taken with the E-PL2, accompanying this article. The Pen also turned me more heavily into Street Photography, since even the smallest Canon DSLR was way too problematic for this discipline. Even today, the large percentage of my Street portfolio is from this camera.
I soon added the Sigma 19mm f/2.8, which I got second-hand (but in mint condition), virtually for pocket money. This gave me another degree of expressive freedom; although the 19mm is far from being a top MFT lens today, it resulted in shots that had little to give to a picture taken with a similar DSLR.
In order to avoid misunderstandings: the E-PL2 was far from being a "top" camera, for general "enthusiast" use, even at its time. Its controls were rudimentary, to say the least. The back LCD was rather dim and difficult to use in bright daylight. The video record button being in the absolute worst position it could be. This resulted in me pushing it unintentionally all the time, which resulted in a number of seriously avant-garde short movie clips that will probably make me famous post-mortem as an unknown abstract movie maker. Also, although it had the same sensor as the, then flagship, E-5, ISO and DR performance were subpar re the majority of APS-C sensors of the time.
Of course there were a lot of -objectively- good points also. I think the E-PL2 is of the absolute perfect size; anything bigger gets annoying and anything smaller is hopelessly small to use with ease. The grip is almost ideal, for me, at least. This and the Fuji X-M1 are, in my view, the perfect small, non EVF-equipped camera formats. It was also great to use with adapted manual lenses.
But all these were nothing in the context of one actually using the camera every day. Did I mention it was great fun? Right.
It was some time later, that the OMD E-M5 was announced, and me deciding I would turn to mirrorless. So I started selling my Canon gear. And, in fact, because the E-M5 was in pre-order and I had a good chance to sell the last of my DSLR gear, the E-PL2 was my only camera for about a month or so. I used it with the lenses at hand, as well as a number of adapted lenses, for travel photography, street, still life, etc. Even sold a number of photos from that period. Which cemented my belief that the E-M5, in comparison, would be totally astonishing. The gamble played out; it was.
My E-PL2 experience was an experiment in freedom of expression, that mirrorless photography offers. In time, I added several great system lenses and started using mirrorless exclusively. The E-PL2 ended in my kid's hands, to be replaced recently with a more capable camera; which made it possible for it to return in my hands.
I am pondering on how much mirrorless has progressed these short 3 years. The E-PL2 seems archaic compared with today's mirrorless cameras, even the cheapest of them. Furthermore, MFT especially has grown tremendously during these years. A vast selection of nothing short of outstanding glass is now available. Image quality and professional features are now the standard. But the lowly Pen still represents the philosophy of mirrorless quite well.
And, don't be mistaken, it's still capable today, in a number of photographic scenarios. Kudos to Olympus for making this little camera a proverbial small tank; it has suffered through a lot all this time, and still works as if it just left the factory. And, using more modern lenses, such as the 17mm f/1.8 or the 45mm f/1.8, still keep it a small, but highly competent package. For good light photography, it can easily hold its own against low-level DSLRs and it effortlessly outperforms modern small sensor compact cameras, except perhaps for the most recent/expensive examples.
Personally, I shall continue throwing it in my bag for as long as it lasts. Which, I hope, will be a long time. I am really fond of that little camera.