The Olympus PEN E-PL9 Review

Olympus PEN E-PL9 with Olympus 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens

Olympus PEN E-PL9 with Olympus 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens

I dropped some hints recently that I had a new mystery camera with me, on my recent trip to California. And here it is, the Olympus PEN E-PL9. This is Olympus’ newest camera, announced a few months ago, but just became available in the U.S. I received this test unit from Charles, who works for Olympus, just before my California trip. I had about a week to play with it, before I sent it back.

Over the years, Olympus has greatly simplified their camera line. With the exception of two water-resistant compact cameras, all other cameras use the micro 4/3 system with interchangeable lenses. Within the micro 4/3 system there are two lines, The PEN and OM-D. The three OM-D cameras conveniently fall into the good, better best categories with increasing features and size. They have a traditional, though slightly retro, small DSLR like styling.

The PEN cameras consist of the very stylish, and my favorite, PEN-F, and this new E-PL9. All five cameras are compatible with the large set of Olympus, Panasonic and third-party micro 4/3 lenses — the most comprehensive selection of lenses for any mirrorless system.

Downtown - San Francisco, California

The E-PL9, in a nutshell

The E-PL9 is similar to the two-year old E-PL8 but with some notable improvements. First, it offers 4K video recording and bluetooth connectivity, which is handy for wirelessly transferring photos to your smartphone. The front grip and controls have been beefed up. There’s a built-in pop-up flash, which is more useful than it sounds, which I’ll talk about later.

Like all Olympus micro 4/3 cameras, there’s in-body image stabilization, though a reduced 3 axis system. A flip-down rear LCD allows for easy selfies. This stylish, retro inspired camera works well for daily use and for travel. It also gives you the option to attach any micro 4/3 lens.

The camera is available in black, white and brown. All have a simulated leather covering and along with machined aluminum controls, gives a high quality feeling. Even though this is the least expensive model, there is nothing cheap feeling about the camera. With the low-end of cameras decimated by the smartphones, Olympus have moved their cameras up-scale both in image quality, build-quality and design.

I’m guessing, if you are willing to carry a dedicated camera, you want a high quality purpose-built device. With its un-intimidating, friendly looks, the E-PL9 is aiming to be a cute, retro, purpose-filled photographic device. One that would feel at home with a fashionista. It covers a niche not addressed by any other camera manufacturer.

Apple Store Union Square - San Francisco, California

I shot all photos in JPEG. I didn’t have a RAW converter for the camera, though I’m sure the software companies will be releasing one, in the near future. Given its relatively compact size, pairing with the Olympus 14-42 EZ lens is a natural, and it works aesthetically as well. The 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 EZ features an electronic zoom and a pancake lens like slim profile.

The inexpensive kit lens 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 (the non-EZ version) works as well, though it’s not quite as compact. Since I don’t own the 14-42mm EZ, I used the standard 14-42mm to create these photos.

Note: You can click on a photo to see a larger version. On a computer, with a mouse, if you hover over the photo, you can see the exposure settings I used to create the photo.

Image Quality

I currently use the Olympus PEN-F and Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II as my primary cameras. Anyone familiar with recent Olympus micro 4/3 cameras will feel right at home with the E-PL9. I suspect the image quality is about the same too, especially compared to my 16MP OM-D E-M5 Mark II. The newest image processor might have subtly improved high ISO JPEGs, perhaps, but I have not tested this.

Downtown - San Jose, California

The truth is, for most of the photography that I do, the Olympus image quality is more than enough. I’ve used the E-M5 Mark II extensively and it’s featured on nearly 250 blog posts. Click that link to see the huge variety of photos I created, in many styles under many different conditions. In most cases, I could have made the same photos with the E-PL9.

More than the sensor, in marginal conditions, it’s the lenses and in-body image stabilization that makes the bigger difference. When it’s dark, nothing beats a lens with a larger aperture, which collects more light. The good news is the E-PL9 is compatible with all of the Olympus lenses. In addition to the 14-42mm EZ lens mentioned above, a nice second lens will be the 25mm f1.8, with a larger aperture and classic 50mm equivalent focal length.

Downtown - San Jose, California

The E-PL9 features 3-axis in-body image stabilization, instead of the 5-axis version available on more expensive models. I also suspect that it doesn’t quite offer as much overall stabilization, measured in stops. My E-M5 Mark II and PEN-F, for example, features 5-axis and 5 stop image stabilization. That said, the E-PL9 is still very capable.

In the photo above, shot at night, lit by street light, I used a 1/6 of a second shutter speed. This is hand-held without a tripod. Clearly, even the 3-axis system works very well. Incidentally, I used the standard 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 “kit” lens to make this photo, as well as all of the other photos on this review. No exotic lenses used. I shot this with ISO 1000, which looks great on the E-PL9.

Two Features I like

The E-PL9 has two features lacking from my current Olympus cameras. The first one is a flip down LCD that makes it easy to take selfies. It’s decidedly not a serious photography feature but something that’s handy, especially for a potentially smartphone replacing social camera. With the rear LCD flipped down, I can compose myself or a group at a famous tourist attraction, such as the Golden Gate Bridge. Or to just take a nice group photo. The swing out LCDs that I have on the PEN-F and E-M5 Mark II, don’t work nearly as well. Somehow, the LCD positioned to the side makes it harder for me to compose a selfie, not to mention that it’s more awkward to hold.

The Path to the Golden Gate Bridge - San Francisco, California

Some cameras, like my Canon G7X Mark II, has a swing up rear LCD that’s also selfie friendly. But, I actually found the swing down version to work better. When making selfies, it’s best to look at the lens, instead of the LCD. With the shorter distance from LCD to lens, swing down works better than swing up.

I wish I had this feature on my recent trip to Japan. Frequently, I’m alone on my photo excursions and most helpful tourists offering to take photos, can’t seem to frame adequately. The slightly embarrassing yet useful selfie seems to work better.

The second useful feature that I don’t have on my Olympus cameras is a built-in flash. While the PEN-F and E-M5 Mark II includes a small, external flash, I almost never carry it with me. Keeping it attached to the camera makes it noticeably bulky so it ends up being left at home. On camera flash is not intended for serious portraits, but for those quick snapshots in really dark places, they are invaluable. Also, during sunny days, they can work nicely for fill flash. Having the built-in flash on the E-PL9 seems like a small thing, but is actually very useful.

Apple Store Union Square - San Francisco, California

Aging Menu System

The menus on the E-PL9 are about the same as other Olympus micro 4/3 cameras, but with some subtle tweaks. I like that the card format option is now lower on the menus and not on the first page. As an entry-level camera, with novice users, it’s good that the format SD card option is not the first menu item.

There’s also a couple of attractive, graphic menus that make some advanced modes easier to use. I think it’s a 1/2 step forward in usability but it doesn’t go far enough. Ultimately, it feels like yet another simpler menu layered on top of an already complex menu system.

If I had any gripes about the camera, it’s all the features that are stuffed into an ever growing number of menus. I own and still use Olympus digital cameras from 15 years ago. When I play with my ancient camera collection, I see the genesis of the current menu design.

Over the years, even as models added more features and menu options, much of the original menus structure remains the same. While it will take a major user interface investment, it would be ideal if Olympus revamped and greatly simplified the menus. All camera models would benefit, but more so for the entry-level E-PL9, where new users are probably intimidated by the plethora of options.

Apple Store Union Square - San Francisco, California

Comparisons

Compared to Premium Compacts

Some premium compacts, such as the Canon G7X Mark II or the Panasonic Lumix LX10, featuring a 1 inch sensor, are priced in the same ball park as the Olympus E-PL9. So how does a premium compact camera compare with this Olympus? If you need the best possible image quality in a pants-pocketable size, then these cameras work well.

I own the Canon G7X Mark II and find its small size very convenient. However, image quality wise, the Olympus, with its larger micro 4/3 sensor is clearly superior. You can also change lenses on the Olympus, so it’s a true system camera.

However, while the E-PL9 is currently the smallest micro 4/3 camera from Olympus, it is not pants-pocketable. And, while it might fit in a large jacket pocket, this Olympus is designed to be carried around via it’s neck strap or in a small bag. Size wise, it sit in the middle between a compact camera and a small DSLR. If you are seriously into photography or need a high quality camera, the E-PL9 is certainly superior.

Lobby, The Sainte Claire Hotel - San Jose, California
Compared to Other Olympus

The biggest competitor to the E-PL9 may come from another Olympus, the OM-D E-M10 Mark III. Both are priced around the same. The E-M10 Mark III gives you more features, including an Electronic View Finder. On the plus side, I think the E-PL9 is built a little better and is more stylish. In may ways, comparing the E-PL9 to the E-M10 Mark III is like comparing the PEN-F to the E-M5 Mark II. The Olympus PENs are the stylish lifestyle cameras. The few things they may lack may arguably be offset by the build quality and style. It’s a left brain / right brain thing. A left brain analytical person may be drawn to the value of the E-M10 Mark III. A right brain creative might be seduced by the cute E-PL9 design.

Compared to Panasonic

Panasonic, the other micro 4/3 camera and lens manufacturer, also have some inexpensive models, specifically the G7 and GX850. I think they are solid cameras with a great deal of value. They have that no-nonsense utilitarian, black Panasonic design. The G7 echoes a traditional DSLR look. The GX850 sports a slimmer range finder like profile. I’ve played with both models at Precision Camera but never warmed up to them, personally. They feel cheap compared to the Olympus. My general rule of thumb is that I prefer Olympus for still photography while for video, Panasonic seems to be better.

Lobby, The Sainte Claire Hotel - San Jose, California
Compared to APS-C mirrorless

There are a few mirrorless cameras, with a larger APS-C sensor, which are also worth considering, especially since these three models are in the same price range as the Olympus E-PL9. With a larger sensor, you generally should have higher image quality, especially in low light conditions.

The Sony A6000 was a well regard camera when introduced in 2014. But being 4 years old, it doesn’t have the latest Wifi and Bluetooth connectivity features. I can’t say definitively without direct image comparison tests, however, with a four-year old sensor and image processor, its image quality probably doesn’t match the latest technology. The Canon EOS M6 and Fujifilm X-A5 are recent designs and I would consider them more seriously over the aging Sony.

Over the years, Canon’s mirrorless offerings have improved dramatically and now worthy of consideration. I still think they lack the finesse of the more established mirrorless players, however. Their biggest disadvantage is the small selection of dedicated mirrorless lenses.

Fujifilm’s X-A5 is a solid offering of their entry-level mirrorless. Unlike their higher priced X line, the X-A5 features a standard CMOS sensor and not their well-regarded X-Trans sensor. Fujifilm has some excellent JPEG processing with their film-like Fuji color profiles.

On the plus side, the Olympus has a highly effective in-body image stabilization, which none of these APS-C mirrorless cameras have. Depending on the type of photography, the image stabilization can offset the better image quality of an APS-C sensor, by shooting at a slower shutter speed and with a lower ISO. The build quality of the E-PL9 is also superior and the camera and lens combination is smaller. There are also more interchangeable lenses for the micro 4/3 system.

My Likes

1. Stylish, cute camera
2. Great build quality
3. Comparably compact design
4. High quality photos with great Olympus color
5. Fast performance
6. Effective in-body image stabilization
7. Selfie compatible flip down LCD
8. Built-in flash
9. Great lens selection

My Dislikes

1. Aging and complicated menu system
2. No Electronic View Finder
3. Premium build makes it relatively more expensive than other options

Conclusion

Olympus has been making mirrorless cameras for nine years. Over the years, they have refined their cameras and they are well position within their premium range. There are currently five cameras that use the micro 4/3 sensor and share the same lens mount. And each camera now occupies a defined niche. The three cameras in the OM-D line are the no-nonsense small DSLR like offerings. They generally have more features and at slightly lower prices than the PEN line.

The PEN cameras offer more style and better build quality. They are lifestyle cameras that eschew the ubiquitous, practical DSLR styling and competes with a more jewel like, old-world design. Which you prefer will depend on your personality.

While my PEN-F features more direct controls with extra dials, in reality, I can probably shoot photos of about the same quality with the E-PL9. The PEN-F has a slightly higher resolution 20MP sensor instead of 16MP, which is not a big difference. I also get the special, contrasty monochrome setting, exclusive to the PEN-F, which I would miss. But truthfully, my photography won’t materially change, if I were to exclusively use the E-PL9. In fact, I get the handy and decidedly snapshot/touristy selfie feature, which, I embarrassingly admit, helps in certain cases. I also like the built-in flash.

Downtown - San Jose, California

Should you get the E-PL9? Yes, if you want a reasonably priced high quality cute and stylish camera. There are less expensive or more fully featured cameras from Olympus and other camera companies. But those models don’t have the same level of design and build quality.

Would I get the E-PL9? No. Between the Olympus PEN-F and OM-D E-M5 Mark II, I’m already set with my go anywhere small mirrorless setup. For selfies and built-in flash, I also own the small and rather expensive Canon G7X Mark II. However, if I didn’t own those three cameras, the Olympus E-PL9 would be a good way to get much of the same features in one reasonably priced package.

Downtown - San Jose, California

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