Learning to use to a ‘proper’ camera after just using a smartphone can look intimidating, but that’s the market Olympus is targeting with the PEN E-PL9. It has some interesting features for experienced photographers too, but it’s really designed to appeal to nervous first-timers who want to step up to the bigger sensor, better quality, more powerful features and interchangeable lenses of a mirrorless camera.
It follows the standard format for a beginner-friendly compact system camera. It doesn’t come with a viewfinder – you’d need the OM-D E-M10 Mark III for that – but the rear screen does have a tilting mechanism which lets it flip upwards and downwards. In fact it swings out on a hinge which offers a full 180-degree downward flip so that the screen faces forwards for selfies.
It’s a touch-screen display too, so that if you’re only experience of a camera so far is a smartphone, you’ll feel a little bit more at home.
Clearly designed with a fashion-conscious audience in mind, the E-PL9 comes in white, black or brown editions with an attractive silver and leather-look finish. You can buy it body only, but it’s best to get it as a kit with Olympus’s neat 14-42mm EZ ‘pancake’ zoom lens.
- Art Filters and Advanced Photo mode
- In-body image stabilisation
- 4K movies
Olympus has designed the PEN E-PL9 so that it’s easy for novices to pick up but has a full range of manual controls and features for when you’re ready to start taking control.
In full Auto mode you can leave the camera to choose all the settings automatically and just use simple sliders on the touchscreen display to change the look of your pictures, with adjustments for color saturation, brightness, warmth, background blur and more. It side-steps the usual jargon of photography to show camera adjustments in less technical terms.
Alternatively, you can switch to the Scene position on the mode dial to tap on the subject you’re shooting, like People, Nightscapes or Motion, or use the PASM (program AE, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual) modes for direct control over the shutter speed and aperture settings.
But Olympus adds in two more key features: Art Filters and its Advanced Photo mode. With new Bleach Bypass and Instant Film effects, there are now 16 different Art Filters, each with their own adjustable parameters. These go well beyond the sometimes cheesy and crude image effects seen on other cameras.
The Advanced Photo mode, meanwhile, includes features usually found on more advanced cameras, including Multiple Exposures, HDR, Sweep Panoramas and Focus Bracketing. They also include three Olympus specialities – a Keystone Compensation mode for correcting converging verticals in shots of buildings, a Live Composite mode for ‘light painting’ at night and a Live Time mode for watching long exposures build up ‘live’ on the rear screen.
It’s not all about stills photography, either, because the E-PL9 also offers some smart video features, including a standard video mode with the option of adding Art Filters and Movie Effects, a 4K video mode, a short Clips mode capturing 4 second videos (you can change the clip length) and an HS mode for slow motion playback.
The E-PL9 has a contrast-based autofocus system with 121 AF points covering most of the frame area, 3-axis in-body image stabilization (not the more advanced 5-axis system we've seen on other Olympus cameras) and maximum sensitivity of ISO 25,600.
It can also communicate directly with your smartphone via an always-on Bluetooth LE connection that can ‘wake’ your camera and Wi-Fi for full resolution image transfer and camera remote control.
Build and handling
- Handy Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and OI.Share app
- Well thought out exterior controls
- Advanced/expert features easy to access
The E-PL9 is designed to make the transition from a smartphone as painless as possible and it succeeds remarkably well. The screen is smaller than a smartphone’s but responds in a similar way, though if you want to share your images directly you will need to go through the slightly tricky process of making a Bluetooth and then a Wi-Fi connection. Once you’ve got the hang of that, however, it’s pretty much plain sailing.
The free OI.Share app is rather good. You can use it as a camera remote control, to import, edit and share photos and even geotag them with the phone’s location. There’s a handy Camera How To section with instructional videos and other help.
Transferring and sharing images isn’t completely painless, since many actions require a Wi-Fi connection rather than Bluetooth, so if you use an Apple device you will have to manually select the camera’s Wi-Fi network each time, but that’s a feature of Apple’s operating system and it’s the same for all Wi-Fi enabled cameras, not just the E-PL9.
All this might make it sound as if the E-PL9 is just for Instagramers and bloggers, but this camera’s ‘serious’ controls are never far away, thanks to its big, clear mode dial, quick on-screen settings options activated by the OK button on the back and buttons for focus area selection, EV compensation, flash mode and drive mode. There’s not a lot of spare space for external controls but Olympus has made the best use of it while still keeping the buttons obvious and the labels clear. A couple of buttons on the top feel a little cramped, but overall the controls feel well-designed and well made.
The touchscreen interface is very responsive, though a couple of the tap icons are quite small so you’ll need a good aim and a reasonably pointy finger to hit them reliably. It’s also a little too easy to activate options unintentionally – a potential pitfall with all touchscreens. We spent several minutes wandering about with the 2x digital zoom activated without realising it – and wondering why the 14-42mm EZ kit lens didn’t seem as ‘wide’ as we remembered it.
Actually, this lens is one of Olympus’s secret weapons. It gives you a very serviceable 28-84mm equivalent zoom range, but when it’s powered down it’s no bigger than a pancake prime lens, so the camera can easily pack away into a bag. The zoom action is electric rather than mechanical, so slightly slower to use as a result, but it focuses quickly and quietly, which is just what you need for grab shots and video.
- Contrast AF only but still very fast
- 121 AF points covering large area
- Smooth and silent continuous AF while filming
While most mirrorless camera makers have swapped to hybrid on-sensor phase detection autofocus systems for faster focusing speeds (Olympus too, on more advanced models), the E-PL9 uses a theoretically slower contrast autofocus system. We say ‘theoretically’ slower, because on this camera the static autofocus speeds are very fast indeed.
This may be helped by the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor, which is about half the area of the APS-C sensors used in some rival cameras. Panasonic also uses the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor and has its own highly effective contrast based autofocus system.
You have a choice of automatic area AF selection where you let the camera decide what to focus on, single point AF where you tap on the screen to set the focus point position, and a 9-point ‘zone’ mode where you select a larger area and the camera picks the focus target within that. It’s all very simple and straightforward.
- Fast startup time
- Fast autofocus, smooth and progressive for video
- Effective and reliable image stabilisation
The E-PL9 starts up quickly, focuses in an instant and generally feels very responsive. The autofocus does slow down a little in dim indoor lighting, but not to the point where it becomes a real nuisance.
Olympus’s 3-axis in-body stabilization is a real boon. Because it’s built into the camera, it works with all of Olympus’s lenses. It also gives a stabilized image on the LCD screen when you’re composing pictures and definitely increases your ‘hit rate’ of sharp shots when you’re taking pictures in low light – in restaurants, for example, museums and other dimly lit interiors. There is a pop-up flash, but the light from these is weak and harsh and you’re almost always better off using the available light where possible.
The stabilization helps a lot with movies, too, when there’s no time to mess around with tripods or other camera supports. It’s not going to give you a perfectly stable shot if you insist on walking and filming at the same time, but it will smooth out the jitters when you have to capture a video clip handheld.
- Great all-round image quality
- Surprisingly good at high ISOs
- 16 megapixels is less than rivals
The E-PL9 does have a somewhat smaller sensor than rival mirrorless cameras from Canon and Fujifilm, and the resolution is lower too at 16MP rather than the 24MP of some rivals.
However, 16 megapixels is still enough for very sharp, detailed images that can also be blown up to a decent size for prints, and are easily enough for any kind of social sharing or online use.
Technically, the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor should mean a slight drop in quality compared to APS-C cameras, but there’s not much evidence of this in the E-PL9’s picture quality, which is very good at low-medium settings and better at high ISOs than you might expect from a Micro Four Thirds camera. Detail does start to drop away by the time you get to ISO3200 and ISO6400 is probably about as high as you’d want to go before softness and noise become too obtrusive, but this is a really good performance for a camera of this type.
In our tests, we rarely needed to apply any exposure compensation, the auto white balance produced attractive, natural looking results in a variety of conditions and the colour rendition is great.
If you do want to add a bit of pizzazz to your images, you can swap to the E-PL9’s Art Filters, and the new Bleach Bypass and Instant Film filters are especially good. On most cameras, the effects filters are pretty poor, but these are very good indeed and rival the results you’d get from a dedicated photo app or a good image effects plug-in.
Expert photographers will be quick to point out deficiencies in the PEN E-PL9’s specifications. There’s no viewfinder, for example, the sensor is a little smaller than some rivals, and with fewer megapixels. It’s also not that cheap, costing only a little less than the brilliant DSLR-style Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III.
But the E-PL9 isn’t aimed at experts. It’s aimed at a new generation of photographers stepping up from simpler imaging devices and hoping to get the visual quality and control of an interchangeable lens camera without the jargon and the complexity.
And it does that brilliantly. No viewfinder? Well that’s no problem if you’re used to a smartphone. The modest sensor specs? They’re still a massive step up from a smartphone and in reality the E-PL9’s pictures hold their own with any similarly-priced DSLR or mirrorless camera. Too expensive? Well, most smartphones cost more than this – and for a camera like this to meet people’s expectations of features, ease of use and quality, it will cost a little cash.
In fact, the E-PL9 delivers a lot more than you might expect. Hidden behind that fashion-conscious facade is a seriously powerful set of creative tools. They’re not in your face right from the start, but they are there waiting to be discovered when you’re ready to try them out.
Most of all, the E-PL9 delivers an almost perfect hit rate of great-looking shots even in the hands of the most inexperienced users.