Olympus PEN E-PL7 Digital Camera Review
One mighty PEN.
While the jury is still out on the long-term viability of mirrorless cameras, that's not slowing Olympus down. The success of its excellent OM-D series has helped the company net new fans and earn serious prestige.
But while the enthusiast models like the OM-D E-M1 have remade Olympus's image, the more consumer-friendly PEN models are the real sellers, offering an attractive blend of features, image quality, and affordability. The E-PM2 hit a new low price earlier this year, selling for around $300 for several months. The worst thing we can say about the PEN series is that the flagship, the E-P5, was too expensive for what it was.
That's why the Olympus PEN E-PL7 (MSRP $599.99, $699.99 as tested) could be a tempting option for mirrorless shoppers. While it pares back a few of the E-P5's more advanced features, it retains the vast majority of what you'd expect from a flagship camera—for way less money.
We can't help but wonder if an E-PM3 will soon come along soon and steal the E-PL7's thunder, but for now the E-PL7 is powerful, stylish, and a great way to get your feet wet in Olympus's system without breaking the bank.
Design & Handling
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Of all Olympus's mirrorless cameras, the PENs adhere most closely to the company's retro roots. Like the E-P5, the E-PL7 ditches the Olympus wordmark for a classic 60s script that reads "OLYMPUS PEN"—an obvious hat-tip to the camera's film-era namesake. It's a nice touch that also helps make the camera more outwardly recognizable. This digital PEN gains extra retro points for adopting an eye-catching faux-leather texture on its front and new front grip. Subtle chrome trim around the lens mount adds just enough flair to keep the camera from blending into the background.
Even though you can't detach the grip from the body—as you could on previous PEN Lite models—the E-PL7 is a pleasure to hold. The resculpted grip offers a well-placed ledge where my middle finger could securely nestle between the lens and the grip itself. I found this camera easier to hold than even the OM-D E-M10, which is a bit flat in comparison. Really, the only gripe we have about the E-PL7's handling is its rear d-pad: The right arrow (a shortcut for flash settings) is too easy to accidentally press when shooting one-handed.
So it's more stylish and somehow also more comfortable to hold. But what about the controls? Well, Olympus has clearly taken user feedback into consideration when designing its new PEN. Instead of a rear-facing vertical control dial, this pared-down PEN uses a single control dial that encircles the shutter button. It's a better solution, and it feels much more natural—not surprising, since this is where just about every other manufacturer puts their main control dial.
Otherwise, there are few new ideas in the E-PL7's physical design. Just about the only other talking point is the new flip-down LCD, which lets you swing the screen down under the camera for the all-important selfie. The new angle keeps your arm out of the shot, while the LCD itself also has a selfie-specific touch shutter button that automatically triggers a timer when the screen is in position.
And though we surely sound like a broken record at this point, the usual Olympus menu is still as convoluted and confusing as ever. It's tricky to master, intimidating for newbies, but rewarding when you get the hang of it. Just don't forget to turn on the Super Control Panel to get one-click access to the E-PL7's meat-and-potatoes settings.
Everything but the kitchen sink
One thing we love about Olympus is that it isn't shy about sharing all of its software features among its entire lineup of cameras, be they top-tier, or, like the E-PL7, firmly in the mid-range. For $600, the E-PL7 gets you most of the tools and performance that you might see from the $700 OM-D E-M10 and the $800 E-P5. You miss out on only a couple of minor features that won't greatly affect image quality.
The most notable omission here is 5-axis image stabilization. In our opinion, the extra two axes (usually linear) are generally unnecessary. The included 3-axis image stabilization will be enough to help even the most shaky-handed people keep from getting blurry shots.
Focus peaking makes manual focusing a snap, and a slew of fun art filters keep your photos looking fresh. New in this latest PEN Lite is WiFi for image transfer and remote control. Compatible with Android and iOS (WP fans are out of luck once again), it's a clear win for those who love to share shots via Instagram and VSCO.
There are a couple of notable missing hardware features, though. One is an electronic viewfinder, which can be added on later. (Or you can just get the OM-D E-M10 for $100 more.) The other is weather sealing—a perk only the top two ponies in the Olympus stable enjoy.
More than $600 worth of image quality
If you're tired of your slow, chunky DSLR, Olympus has one heckuva sales pitch for you: Not only does the E-PL7 give you image quality virtually indistinguishable from current APS-C DSLRs, it can also focus lickety-split thanks to Olympus's Fast AF engine. Moreover, the E-PL7 is smaller and lighter than even the smallest DSLRs, such as Canon's Rebel SL1.
Of course, there's an endless list of cameras these days that provide stellar image quality at a sub-$700 price point. Samsung and Sony cameras all have larger image sensors, Nikon's 1 system cameras shoot at ridiculously fast speeds, and Fujifilm has a stable of affordable, fast prime lenses. But that said, the Micro Four Thirds system has a strong claim to owning the sweet spot for price, performance, lens selection, and image quality.
In our labs, the E-PL7 performed just about on-par with its near-twin, the OM-D E-M10. That's not surprising since it packs a very similar sensor and a processor that just a little quicker. These aren't hand-me-downs in the traditional sense, because these shared Olympus parts have so much life left in them. Image quality hasn't changed, but performance is up in a few other areas, including burst shooting. We were able to eke out 8.5 frames per second from the E-PL7, a half-frame faster than the E-M10.
Some spec-sheet obsessives might cringe at the seemingly inferior 3-axis image stabilization in the E-PL7, but worry not. In our experience, the 3-axis image stabilization found in both the E-PL7 and OM-D E-M10 is just about as useful as the 5-axis stabilization in the E-M1, E-P5, and E-M5—in both the lab and the field. It's spookily effective in low light, and can provide a gently guiding hand even when you think you might not need it.
Video remains a pain point for Olympus mirrorless cameras. While good enough for the average home video enthusiast, the E-PL7 certainly isn't fit for professional video production. You're limited to a shooting resolution of 1080/30p, and you won't find a headphone jack anywhere. Sharpness and motion performance in our test footage were merely average for this sensor size.
Our enthusiasm is dampened only by the superb competition.
We're glad to see how far Olympus has come in the past couple years. From the OM-D E-M1 to this little wonder, the company knows how to make a camera like few others can. Whereas early Micro Four Thirds cameras struggled horrendously in low light, the new crop of Olympus and Panasonic bodies are speedy and accurate no matter where you are. Though the competition can generally outperform them at ISOs of 6400 and above, the M43 family more than makes up for its sensor-based weaknesses in other ways.
The E-PL7, in particular, is a handsome little camera at a very attractive price point. It has access to a huge and affordable lens system, it's fast, it takes great images in all but the most challenging conditions, it's stuffed with features, and it's small enough to never be a burden. Video isn't the best, and the lack of a viewfinder is a turn-off, but these are minor quibbles given everything else it has to offer.
That isn't to say that the E-PL7 is a slam-dunk, even at its low starting price point. Midrange mirrorless cameras have improved at an astonishing rate, and prices are in an ongoing race to the bottom. We haven't tested Sony's new A5100 yet, but it's a full APS-C mirrorless camera with on-sensor phase-detection autofocus, starting at just $700. If those terms mean anything to you, you probably understand why it's a big deal.
You can even pick up last year's Sony NEX-6, which has a viewfinder and E-PL7-beating image quality, for right around $400. Same with the Samsung NX300, which we wholeheartedly recommend over this camera if you're just after the best performance bang for your buck. But even though the Sony and Samsung lens systems are ever-growing, it's still slim pickings at the moment.
Micro Four Thirds is simply something special. The sheer variety of solid cameras and premium yet affordable lenses provides a well-rounded quality that other mirrorless systems just can't match. Though there are smaller M43 cameras (like the petite Panasonic Lumix GM1 and aging Olympus E-PM2) and better cameras (the aforementioned OM-D E-M10 and the Panasonic Lumix GX7), the E-PL7 is an excellent compromise that feels like anything but.
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