I recently tested the Olympus PEN E-PL5, a 16-megapixel compact, interchangeable-lens digital camera. In my line of work as someone who tests law enforcement products, I see many innovations, but few are completely outside the box.
Which is why I’m excited to recommend the PEN E-PL5 for consideration as one of the most innovative products of 2013.
The PEN E-PL5 is capable of several common still and video formats, including RAW without compression. It’s larger and only slightly heavier than some point-and-shoot cameras but tiny compared to most digital SLRs. Even with the Zuiko 14-42mm 3.5 - 5.6 lens, it was small enough for a cargo pocket. That’s pretty good for a camera that can outperform many pro-grade DSLRs in features and image quality.
Get up to Speed Quickly
The PEN EP5 excels in intuitive operation. A PEN E-PL5 user can — without reading the manual —jump from a perfectly good airplane and be able to capture great photos before deploying the parachute. The body is mostly thin metal and the grip and thumb panels add to the ergonomics.
The advanced features — essential for the crime scene photographer — have a learning curve, but the benefit is worth it. It took me a few minutes to figure out how to manually change the ISO and aperture, despite the prominent “menu” button.
Once I figured it out, I realized how much exposure control the user has. For example, the 35 focus points are accessed immediately by touching the LCD. Users don’t navigate to the settings, they just touch the LCD.
I immediately set the PEN E-PL5 to determine the focus and fire the shutter from the LCD. This feature is perfect for the investigator who wants to frame evidence in the context of the scene.
The LCD tilts up 170 degrees and down 65 degrees. This enables the user to photograph something level with the ground without laying on the ground. Olympus also has an optional viewfinder accessory (Olympus VF-4) for users who prefer them.
The PEN E-PL5 uses a digital ESP metering system and imaging autofocus. I found that the camera picked better metering, white balance, and focus on auto than I could ever achieve on manual override using a light meter. Furthermore, Olympus has eliminated a bête noir in this type of system: There is virtually no lag time in shutter release.
Excellent for Investigations
The PEN E-PL5 can combine video capture with stills. Every investigation has a walk through, and many investigators follow up with a video walk through. Users simply have to click the screen while filming, which insert still photos in the video. Consequently, an investigator using the PEN E-PL5 can record and then retell a seamless story for the jury.
The PEN E-PL5 uses a bundled external hot shoe flash, which is a matchbook-sized unit.
The PEN E-PL5 system is a Micro 4/3 system, which means a smaller, efficient sensor that is not set deep into the body, making it easier to keep clean. The sensor runs cooler — important for surveillance use because heat adds noise to an image — and high ISO image quality is good to excellent. The camera also uses a supersonic wave filter keep the sensor clean.
I did several image quality tests and found it renders colors faithfully.
Since the LCD is live view, the user can turn up the brightness on a low light image, giving a viewing advantage to the investigator on surveillance.
What didn’t I like about the PEN E-PL5? I would have added a few seals to protect it during use on foggy days or dusty conditions. I also would have recessed the LCD a little into the frame to prevent scratches.
However, it easily survived my outdoor photo sessions in dusty areas and high temperatures.
The Bottom Line
The innovations of this product, which is priced at about $600, make the PEN E-PL5 one of the best imaging investments for law enforcement, particularly for investigation work. Olympus should be commended on this engineering accomplishment.