Compact. Speedy focus and 7.3fps burst rate. In-body stabilization. Tilting touch LCD. Add-on EVF available. Wi-Fi.
Video tops out at 1080p. No mic input. Lacks built-in flash. Only one control dial. Slow shooting rate when tracking action.
- Bottom Line
The Olympus PEN E-PL8 is a repackaged version of the E-PL7. It's a solid camera, but beginning to show its age.
By Jim Fisher
The entry-level Olympus PEN E-PL8 ($549.99, body only) was overshadowed by higher-end products when it launched last fall at the Photokina trade show. But it's essentially an E-PL7 with a slightly more retro exterior shell. Most of the underlying interior tech is the same, with a few tweaks here and there. Even though it doesn't offer a bunch of upgrades, it remains a solid performer, if not the best in its class. Our favorite entry-level mirrorless model is the Sony a6000, which sells for less and packs more resolution and a stronger autofocus system.
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The PEN E-PL8 is a small mirrorless camera with a Micro Four Thirds lens mount and image sensor. It measures 2.7 by 4.6 by 1.5 inches (HWD), weighs 13.2 ounces without a lens, and is available in your choice of a black, brown, or white leatherette finish with silver accents. The front handgrip is an oval strip, a far cry from the larger grip of the E-PL7. It looks great, but isn't quite as comfortable to grab. There's no integrated flash, but a clip-on accessory is included. It mounts in the hot shoe.
We're reviewing the E-PL8 as a body only. You can get it with the 14-42mm zoom lens for $649.99. There's no built-in viewfinder, but you can get an add-on EVF if you want—the VF-4 is the current option. But if you want an Olympus camera with an EVF, the OM-D E-M10 Mark II is a better choice—it has one built-in and costs just $100 more.
The E-PL8's slim body has a definite appeal for photographers weaned on smartphones. For the younger set, looking at a big, tilting screen to frame up a shot is second nature. In addition to the touch interface, the camera sports some physical controls. The top features a Mode Dial with standard options, as well as an iAuto setting, Art filters, Scene modes, in-camera collage (similar to the Instagram Layout app), and a dedicated Movie mode.
Also on top is the lone control wheel. It adjusts different settings based on the shooting mode—the f-stop in aperture priority, and the shutter speed in shutter priority. At its center is the shutter release, and next to it is a small On/Off button.
All of the rear controls run down a column on the side, to the right of the EVF. Fn and Magnify buttons are at the top, with the rear thumb rest right under. A dedicated Record button for video sits next to the rear grip (you don't have to be in Movie mode to start a recording).
Below it, Menu, Info, Delete, and Play buttons flank a four-way control pad. The pad itself has directional presses that change EV compensation, flash settings, the Drive mode and Self-Timer, and a button to select a focus point (though I found it easier to tap on the screen to set a focus point). At the center of the pad is an OK button.
Pressing OK launches an overlay menu with additional settings. It runs along the right and bottom of the display and adjusts the color output, focus mode, image format, ISO, metering pattern, stabilization mode, white balance, and others.
The display itself is 3 inches in size and quite sharp—1,040k dots. It's sensitive to touch, but touch doesn't work everywhere. You can use it to perform some useful functions—tapping an area of the screen to set focus or focus and fire off a picture, or to swipe through photos in playback mode for example—but not to navigate through menus. The directional pad and OK button are used there.
The LCD is hinged, so it can angle up or down. It can also face forward for selfies, but instead of flipping up above the camera, it flips underneath the lens. It's a concern if you want to shoot selfie videos or images using a tripod, but not a big deal for handheld use.
Wi-Fi is baked in. The PEN E-PL8 communicates with Android and iOS devices using the free Olympus O.I. Share app. There's no Wi-Fi button on the body itself; instead you launch the system by tapping the Wi-Fi icon on the rear LCD.
It's possible to copy videos and images shot in JPG format to your phone. You can't transfer Raw images, but you can create a JPG copy of a photo in-camera in order to transfer it. Remote control is also an option; the app shows a live feed from the lens, and you can adjust exposure settings and tap on your phone's screen to set focus. It's a very solid remote control interface.
The E-PL8 supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory at UHS-I speeds. The memory card slot is in the battery compartment—CIPA rates the battery for about 350 shots per charge. In-camera charging isn't supported, so Olympus includes an external charger to replenish the battery.
There are only a couple of physical connections. The hot shoe and accessory port sits on the top and supports an external flash or EVF. Micro HDMI and proprietary USB ports sit under a flap on the right side. The proprietary port can be a sticking point if you travel with a laptop without a memory card reader and need to offload images. But for a home computer, I highly recommend getting an external SD card reader if one isn't built in.
Performance and Image Quality
The PEN starts, focuses, and fires in about 0.9-second, a good mark for a mirrorless camera. Its autofocus system locks on very quickly, in about 0.1-second in bright light and about 0.3-second in very dim conditions—also good results.
Burst shooting is available at 7.3fps with focus, with the maximum shooting duration limited to 14 Raw+JPG, 18 Raw, or 40 JPG shots. There's a continuous focus mode available as well, with or without tracking, but the E-PL8 doesn't reacquire focus when shooting at its fastest burst rate, even with tracking enabled.
At the lower speed setting, 3.5fps, the focus adjusted as our test target moved toward and away from the lens, but only after I changed an option deep in the AF menu, setting the camera's behavior in AF-C to prioritize getting a shot in focus rather than maximizing burst speed. If you want to shoot fast-moving subjects, you are much better served with the Sony a6000, which manages 11.1fps, or the a5100, which has a top speed of 5.9fps but isn't as expensive and features a form factor more similar to the E-PL8.
The E-PL8 sports a 16MP Micro Four Thirds sensor, a design that Olympus has used for a long time now. The sensor is stabilized, which is a big plus for a camera of this size. It's a 3-axis system, so it's not as strong as the 5-axis IS in pricier Olympus cameras—CIPA rates it for 3.5 stops. Like most in-body solutions, it's more effective at wide angles. This isn't a body that will pair particularly well with a really long telephoto lens.
I used Imatest to check the quality that the 16MP sensor delivers at varying ISO settings. The camera ranges from ISO 200, which it uses in bright light, to ISO 25600, a setting that comes in handy for shooting in very dim conditions without aid of a flash.
Noise is kept under 1.5 percent through ISO 6400, which is an excellent score on paper. When you push the camera that far its JPG noise reduction system wipes away a good amount of detail, smoothing fine lines to the point where they smudge together. At lower settings, through ISO 800, there's no evidence of this effect, and it's fairly mild at ISO 1600 and 3200. Images shot at ISO 12800 have a waxy quality to them, and at ISO 25600 the output is simply blurry.
Switching to Raw capture certainly gets you better detail—you can see that even at ISO 200 in the crop from our studio scene that's included in the slideshow. The Raw image shows texture in the printing on a film canister, while it's absent from the JPG output. The sensor captures strong detail in Raw images through ISO 12800, although grain is quite heavy at that setting. You don't get as much fine resolution as you do out of a more modern 24MP image sensor—that's simply because of the number of pixels, and the fact that 24MP imagers are typically larger APS-C chips.
Video is recorded at 1080p or 720p quality at 30fps only—there are no options for cinematic 24p or action-friendly 60p capture. Video is quite clear, and the camera changes focus quickly—it can automatically detect a change in the scene, or you can tap to set a focus point. Audio is OK, about as good as you get from any internal mic, but if you want to record with better fidelity you'll want to add the SEMA-1 microphone, which is priced around $100 but regularly sells for about half of that. It uses the accessory port to add a standard 3.5mm mic input, and also includes a small stereo mic.
The Olympus PEN E-PL8 isn't really a new camera, but it's still a solid option if you're invested in the Micro Four Thirds system and want a small camera at a relatively low cost. Shoppers without an investment in lenses can do a bit better, however. Sticking with Micro Four Thirds, we give preference to the OM-D E-M10, which features very similar performance and image quality, but offers stronger stabilization and a built-in viewfinder and flash. Our favorite entry-level mirrorless camera is still the Sony a6000, which puts a larger image sensor, EVF, flash, and superlative autofocus system into a body that's about the same size as the E-PL8.
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By Jim Fisher Senior Analyst, Digital Cameras
Senior digital camera analyst for the PCMag consumer electronics reviews team, Jim Fisher is a graduate of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he concentrated on documentary video production. Jim's interest in photography really took off when he borrowed his father's Hasselblad 500C and light meter in 2007. He honed his writing skills at retailer B&H Photo, where he wrote thousands upon thousands of product descriptions, blog posts, and reviews. Since then he's shot with hundreds of camera models, ranging from pocket point-and-shoots to medium format… More »
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