Olympus E-PL9 In-Depth Hands-on & Gallery Review : A glamorous camera heads into the Talladega hills

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Specifications
name: Olympus PEN E-PL9
Resolution: 16.10 Megapixels
Sensor size: 4/3
(17.3mm x 13.0mm)
Kit Lens: 3.00x zoom
14-42mm
(28-84mm eq.)
Viewfinder: No / LCD
Native ISO: 200 – 25,600
Extended ISO: 100 – 25,600
Shutter: 1/16000 – 60 seconds
Max Aperture: 3.5 (kit lens)
Dimensions: 4.6 x 2.7 x 1.5 in.
(117 x 68 x 39 mm)
Weight: 16.7 oz (473 g)
includes batteries, kit lens
MSRP:
Availability: TBD
Manufacturer: Olympus

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An affordable, selfie-friendly mirrorless camera

The Olympus PL9 follows in the footsteps of the 2016-model year Olympus PL8, which was itself the seventh-generation model in a line which traces its heritage back to the PL1, back in April 2010. (Wondering why the disparity between generation and model number? Olympus skipped the fourth generation, likely because of the unlucky association for that particular digit in some Asian cultures.)

So who’s the PL9 for? Like every preceding model in the line, the Olympus PL9 is an extremely affordable camera aimed at the budget-minded photographer who nevertheless wants interchangeable-lens, mirrorless camera versatility, from bloggers and Instagram-lovers to artists and selfie fans. Priced at just £580 or thereabouts when sold body-only in the UK market (that’s roughly US$670 before tax, at current exchange rates), the PL9 is also available with the M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 EZ pancake zoom lens for £650 (US$750 before tax).

For your hard-earned cash, you net yourself a 16.1-megapixel Micro Four Thirds mount mirrorless camera with an articulated, tilting LCD monitor, but no electronic viewfinder nor any ability to add one. If you don’t mind shooting at arm’s length — and for the selfie set, that probably feels more natural than shooting through a viewfinder — then the PL9 gives you quite a bit for your money.

A brand-new body with a familiar control layout

So how does it differ from its immediate predecessor? Well for one thing, there’s a brand-new body — we don’t currently know the construction material — which is indistinguishably larger and heavier than before.

Total weight has increased by a scant 0.2 ounces (6g), to 13.4 oz (380g) including battery and memory card, and dimensions are 4.6 x 2.7 x 1.5 inches (117.1 x 68 x 39mm). Body thickness has increased by a couple of hundredths of an inch (0.6mm) due to new, slightly more generous front and rear grips, while half as much has been shaved off the top of the camera.

A pop-up flash strobe and hot shoe, but no more accessory port

As well as the new handgrips, Olympus has added a new built-in, pop-up flash strobe which replaces the bundled (but separate) flash strobe accessory of the preceding camera. While you can never accidentally leave the new PL9’s strobe at home, though, its guide number of just 7.6 meters at ISO 200 is a good bit less generous than the 10 meter guide number of the PL8’s bundled strobe.

The addition of an internal strobe comes accompanied by a switch to a standard flash hot shoe, rather than one equipped with Olympus’ Accessory Port 2 interface, a change that was likely made to free up space inside the camera for the new flash. The control layout of the camera is almost unchanged, though, with the addition of just one button that’s used to raise the flash. (This new button can be found directly above the tilting LCD monitor.) The other two buttons atop the right-hand side of the rear panel are also now angled almost directly upwards, where previously they were on a beveled portion of the camera body and pointed both upwards and backwards in equal degrees.

Wrap-around leatherette trim and new color-keyed controls

But while the controls are otherwise largely unchanged in their locations, those to the right of the LCD monitor diverge from the earlier design aesthetic by featuring trim rings around each button. The reason for this change is that the leatherette trim piece which lines the front and sides of the camera body now also wraps around to the right hand side of the rear deck, but a more durable material was clearly needed alongside the controls. Interestingly, the buttons are now color-matched to the leatherette material, be it white, brown or black. The trim rings match too on the brown version, but not the black and white ones.

The autofocus assist / self-timer lamp has jumped across the lens mount and now sits much closer to the lens itself, while rather curiously, the LCD monitor now no longer sits quite centered within its articulated housing, even though the panel and articulation mechanisms would seem to be the same types used previously. (Or perhaps the press images we’ve seen are renderings, and the LCD images have not been overlaid accurately.)

The tilting LCD flips down for handheld selfies

As before, the articulation mechanism allows you to tilt the LCD upwards by only 80 degrees but it can flip downwards by 180 degrees for viewing from in front of the camera. This remains our least-favorite articulation style, for the simple reason that it prevents you from shooting selfies with the camera on a tripod or nestled on a convenient surface, and could interfere with visibility when used with selfie sticks too. We far prefer side-mounted tilt/swivels, or failing that, screens which can tilt up by 180 degrees.

The rearranged Mode dial sports an Advanced Photo mode

The only other changes of note are that the top-deck speaker is gone, its location now occupied by the pop-up flash strobe, while at the same time the Mode dial has been rearranged, with modes both removed and added. New to the list is the same Advanced Photo mode we’ve seen previously in the E-M10 III, which is great at surfacing more arcane features for beginners, but can feel a bit limiting to more advanced photographers. This new mode replaces the frankly, rather bewildering photo story mode of the earlier PL8, while the PL9 also renames the iAuto mode of the earlier camera to just plain old Auto once more.

Minor changes to performance and sensitivity range

On the inside, the Olympus PL9 is based around a next-generation, double quad-core TruePic VIII image processor, the same type used in the flagship OM-D E-M1 Mark II, and a healthy step forwards from the previous-gen TruePic VII. However, burst capture performance has increased only negligibly by 0.1 frames per second, to a maximum of 8.6 fps according to Olympus’ own testing. And that slight increase in performance comes accompanied by a significant decrease in buffer depth, now down to just 14 raw frames, versus 20 in the PL8. The reduced-rate continuous burst mode option, meanwhile, has been given a healthy boost from 3.7 to 4.8 fps.

Also essentially unchanged from the previous generation is the Olympus E-PL9’s sensitivity range of 100 to 25,600 equivalents, exactly the same as in the previous camera. And as before, the lowest sensitivity is badged “Low”, denoting it as potentially having reduced image quality compared to the camera’s native sensitivity. (Specifically, dynamic range is likely reduced in the highlights.)

The only real difference from the PL8 in this respect is that Olympus now includes the ISO 100 (Low) option within the default sensitivity range, where previously it was an expanded sensitivity. At the upper end of the range, the maximum sensitivity by default is ISO 6400.

Contrast-detect autofocus, but now with more AF points

Like its predecessor, the Olympus PL9 achieves its affordable pricetag in part by foregoing a more sophisticated hybrid autofocus system in favor of a more traditional contrast detection-based system. The PL9’s AF system does, however, offer a whopping 121 autofocus points covering most of the image frame, a significant step up from the 81 points of its predecessor. You can, of course, focus manually, and you’ll now find that in addition to the manual focus-friendly live view magnification function’s existing 5x, 7x, 10x and 14x zoom levels, there’s now a 3x zoom level.

Just as in the earlier camera, the PL9 includes a five-axis sensor shift image stabilization system which banishes blur from shaky hands. And also just as before, the movie mode allows sensor-shift stabilization to be supplemented with electronic stabilization.

4K video, a choice of frame-rate and even slow-mo / time-lapse

Speaking of movies, you may have found yourself wondering earlier, “If resolution and capture rate are basically unchanged, what’s Olympus doing with the faster processor?” Well, for one thing, it’s providing support for ultra high-definition 4K video capture. A choice of 24, 25 or 30 frames per second capture rates are offered, a nice improvement from the fixed 30 fps video of the PL8. 4K footage is recorded with a 102Mbps bitrate, and you can still opt for lower-res Full HD and HD resolutions as well, with the same frame rate options as for 4K footage.

While there’s sadly no 60 frames per second option for Full HD or HD footage, the latter does support a swift 120 fps capture mode which allows for up to a 5x slow-motion effect while retaining a movie-like 24 frames per second. You can also shoot time-lapse movies for a quick-motion effect, although we don’t have specifics on interval times, etc. Movie mode battery life has decreased by some 10 minutes to 80 minutes with zoom and other adjustments, or as long as 140 minutes without.

Advanced Photo: Great for newbies, but may be limiting for experienced shooters

We mentioned the Olympus E-PL9’s new Advanced Photo mode earlier, by the way, but it bears a little more discussion since it’s a relatively new feature for the company’s cameras. Introduced with the E-M10 III last year, this new mode aims to surface and provide quick access to some of the features less experienced photographers would otherwise miss in the menu system.

If you’re a less experienced photographer then you’ll very likely appreciate the feature, which makes it easier to locate tools like live compositing and bulb modes, sweep panoramic capture (a new addition for the PL9), silent shooting, multiple exposures, exposure and focus bracketing, high dynamic range capture and keystoning compensation. Each tool is shown alongside pictures illustrating its function and why you might want to use it.

Presuming it’s been implemented similarly to its E-M10 III equivalent, though, more knowledgeable shooters may find it frustrating as there are artificial limits such as an inability to shoot with exposure bracketing and priority-mode capture together, or to use less than full stop-sized bracketing steps. Fingers tightly crossed some of these limitations which we described in our E-M10 III review have been addressed.

New scene modes and art filters for the PL9

Also new to the Olympus PL9 are a couple of additional scene modes and art filters. The new scene modes, which can easily be applied through a new touchscreen interface, include Light Trails, Backlight HDR, Silent Mode and Multi-Focus. To make way for these, the earlier High / Low Key, Digital Image Stabilization, Fisheye Converter, Wide Converter, Macro Converter and 3D modes of the PL8 have all been removed from the new model.

Meanwhile, there are now a total of 16 Art filters, with two new additions: Bleach Bypass and Instant Film.

Wi-Fi connectivity is joined by Bluetooth for always-on sharing

The earlier PL8 already included Wi-Fi wireless networking connectivity, but it’s supplemented by a Bluetooth radio in the Olympus PL9 for a low power, always on connection. You smartphone and camera remain connected, even when they’re on standby. When you want to transfer images, you can do so near-instantly, since there’s no need to manually reconnect devices each time.

A couple of important provisos, though: 4K content can only be transferred wirelessly to recent iOS devices. Phones including the iPhone 5 and 5c or earlier will not be able to transfer 4K content at all, while Android devices will do so only after first downsampling the footage to Full HD resolution.

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Olympus E-PL9 Gallery : A glamorous camera heads into the Talladega hills

The Olympus PEN E-PL9 has yet to be officially released here in the North American countries, but our contacts at Olympus Tokyo were kind enough to send a sample our way for the sake of IR readers in other parts of the world who now have the privilege of acquiring one. Having previously posted our signature laboratory First Shots, we wanted to now bring you a full sampling of real world gallery images for closer inspection from this latest Pen model, as well as some early notes on general handling.

The E-PL9 is an attractive little camera, and quite lightweight. Our sample model is white, though it also comes in tan and black. The camera has a rather luxurious look to it, right down to the gold-stenciled inlay branding, and would certainly be welcomed in the high-end worlds of Bond Street in London, 5th Avenue in New York City, and the renown Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
The Olympus PEN E-PL9 shown with the M.Zuiko 12mm f/2
Whitesides Mill Lake in eastern Alabama
This PEN’s particulars

I had an Olympus PEN film camera back in the day, and marveled at the blend of sleek lines and svelte size blended with 35mm capability. And yet, in my first year with Imaging Resource, I was surprised to lay eyes on the PEN E-PM1, which is the smallest line in the PEN digital world. This represented so much power to me, in such a tiny package, that I was (and frankly still am) blown away by that model and lineage. However, it does appear to have ended with the E-PM2, with all smaller PEN models now being PEN Lite (E-PL) models.

As my years with IR have evolved, and the Olympus PEN line too, I’ve been privileged to have had the chance to shoot with and write about many of them, including the E-PL7, E-PL8 and the nearly instant classic PEN-F. Having also written extensively on the OM-D E-M10 II, I certainly prefer the viewfinder and twin control dials of that line and the PEN-F more for all-purpose photography then the PEN-Lite line, and yet this one very much represents a different intended purpose in its elegant simplicity.

Before delving into the E-PL9 gallery, let’s take a closer look into handling as well as ergonomic comparisons with the predecessor.

Olympus PEN E-PL8 vs E-PL9
Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
Top deck comparison: PEN E-PL8 vs PEN E-PL9
While quite similar in many ways to the predecessor, the new E-PL9 does bring some welcomed additions to the table. The designers also thought to extend the metal edge out over the top of the rear swiveling LCD, making it appear less bulky. A small move to be sure, but noticeable for the overall clean look and feel of the camera.

The E-PL8 had ushered in some fairly significant physical changes to the PEN-Lite line as compared to the E-PL7. Now, with the E-PL9, much of the general rounded aesthetic remains, but there are some slight cosmetic tweaks to things like the top-deck beveling, as well as a few significant changes to discuss.

The most obvious immediate difference in these two models is the addition of a pop-up flash. I ended up using it several times for this piece, as seen below on a few occasions, and found it handy to have on-board. It’s certainly not an overly powerful flash, but that’s generally not an issue for me, as I find a little flash usually goes a long way. (And when you need a lot, I find external flashes like the Olympus 900R preferable anyway.) The only unfortunate consequence is the loss of the accessory port under the hotshoe, and you therefore can no longer mount the VF-4 viewfinder, for instance.

The mode dial has been beefed up, and some of the settings and icons tweaked or altered. Most notably, “iAUTO” or Intelligent Auto is now just plain “AUTO”, while “AP” or “Advanced Photo” has been added to help users gain immediate access to the deeper settings more directly. With both models there is only one control dial, and having only one is the single biggest thing I feel I am giving up with this line compared to the OM-D line and higher-end models like the PEN-F.

Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
Front comparison: PEN E-PL8 vs PEN E-PL9
The grip on the E-PL9 is still nice and sleek-looking, if not quite as avant-garde as the grip on the E-PL8, but it is certainly more user-friendly as a grip in the field.

A subtle but noticeable alteration with the E-PL9 is the addition of a slightly more pronounced grip. Admittedly the E-PL8’s looked more “sleek” or perhaps “artsy,” but the E-PL9’s is for sure more user-friendly as an actual grip. The rubber thumb rest on the rear, which I find useful, keeps the same “just enough” touch as before. And the rear controls remain virtually identical, so there are no surprises there to discuss.

One additional thing I’d like to mention is that the E-PL9 shares what I found in the E-PL7 and 8, which is a marked increase in precision when it comes to the general controls, especially the dials, as compared to the E-PL6 and previous models before that. It may sound like a small thing, but it’s not. The tighter feel of the controls is reassuring, feels professional, and also helps to ensure that modes and settings won’t get bumped too easily in a bag.

So there’s a brief overview of basic handling and some general comparisons. Now let’s grab a few lenses and hit the road!

Heading into the wild

Just a few days after our sample arrived, I was slated to head out with my son and his friend in quite a different direction from those glamorous towns mentioned earlier. We were heading out to hike and explore an area along the border between Georgia and Alabama, in and around the Talladega National Forest, nested in a remote area within the natural geographical triangle created by Atlanta, Chattanooga and Birmingham. And while Bond Street in London could not be a more distant cry from this area (trust me) the light weight and portability of the PEN-Lite series was exactly what I wanted for this little excursion.

Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
1/500s / f/4 / ISO 200 / 150mm eq. / 75mm f/1.8 M.Zuiko lens
Little Cedar Creek near Cave Spring, GA

(Images have been resized to fit this page, cropped and/or altered in post-production, primarily to balance shadows and highlights as needed. Clicking any image will take you to a carrier page with access to the original, full-resolution image as delivered by the E-PL9. For additional images, access to RAW files and EXIF data please see our Olympus E-PL9 Gallery page.)

We didn’t receive a kit lens with the sample sent from Olympus Japan, and still have no idea how it might be configured for sale here in North America if and when it comes this way, but I packed their most “standard” kit lens, the 14-42mm M. Zuiko, for the trip. I also tossed in a variety of additional M.Zuiko selections to spruce up the possibilities. It has been suggested that putting nice lenses on a mid-level line makes no sense, but to me it does. After all, some of you may be considering this model as your back-up to a PEN-F or an OM-D body. And others may simply want to save your money for lenses knowing that this camera is already plenty of firepower for most purposes.

Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
1/1600s / f/2.8 / ISO 200 / 28mm eq. / 7-14mm f/2.8 M.Zuiko Pro lens
Early spring: The berries were in full force on our trip passing through Borden Springs, AL. I appreciate the accurate, rich colors delivered by the PEN E-PL9, and generally feel Olympus cameras do a good job with overall accuracy in color reproduction.

 

Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
1/60s / f/14 / ISO 250 / 14mm eq. / 7-14mm f/2.8 M.Zuiko Pro lens
Middle Earth: Rock Run, Alabama, near the Indian Mountain Tract
Storm’s rolling in

As we moved farther west, the clouds started to roll in. This was OK, as it’s nice to show both worlds from a camera. This is especially true as natural sunlight fades into a cloudy late-afternoon, as we see in some of the shots down below. Smartphones are fine when the light is abundant, but as it fades, it’s nice to have a much larger sensor with you, as well as the potential for larger apertures, to capture the light.

Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
1/1600s / f/2 / ISO 200 / 50mm eq. / 25mm f/1.2 M.Zuiko Pro lens
Knights from The Kingdom of Aragon: These guys wanted to stop off at some major-league wood piles standing off the highway near Aragon, GA. It was an 8-year-old’s dream. (Well, hey, any excuse for fun and photography to meet works for me.) This was a far cry from the original medieval kingdom of the same name, and yet the sword certainly helps bridge the gap of centuries in between, don’t you think? (OK, so maybe I have been reading a bit too many Dan Brown novels lately.)

 

Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
1/250s / f/14 / ISO 200 / 28mm eq. / 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II M.Zuiko lens
Towering tulips: Shot near Spring Garden, AL, this photo employed the pop-up flash, along with the 14-42mm II standard PEN kit lens. I used manual flash control to try different settings, but eventually ended up using full power for this shot in order to balance the light on the flowers with the sky. Without flash here, the sky would be completely blown out in order to properly expose for the tulips.

 

Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
1/250s / f/5.6 / ISO 200 / 28mm eq. / 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II M.Zuiko lens
HDR in the Heart of Talladega: As the clouds grew thicker and the day turned darker, I decided to employ HDR in order to capture both the foreground and the rolling clouds here in the national forest. With the OM-D series and the PEN-F, HDR is a standard setting with multiple adjustments, but with the PEN-Lite line it’s still a Scene Mode called “Backlight HDR”. It does fire three shots in quick succession though, similar to those higher-end cameras, and stacks the output in-camera, making for a quick and easy HDR option when needed. I keep the Scene Mode set to this, so it’s just a quick turn of the mode dial to get to HDR as needed. (Note: This is the only shot in this piece taken on a tripod.)

 

Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
1/60s / f/4 / ISO 200 / 600mm eq. / 300mm f/4 M.Zuiko Pro lens
User Error: I had the right idea, at least in my head… toss the M.Zuiko 300mm f/4 Pro onto the diminutive PEN, which I’d brought along in the car for just such a chance occasion. But in the moment, I simply forgot to engage auto-ISO and let it float. So as the dimming overcast light was taking hold I was stuck with a 1/60s shutter speed for the fleeting chance at the shot before this Muscovy Duck quickly vacated the scene. Fortunately, the 3-axis IS allowed for at least a decent shot, but had I allowed the ISO to float to perhaps 800, it would have yielded a far preferable shutter speed, negating the slight motion blur and still not introducing much in the way of noise. (This image was taken handheld just off the highway near Cleburne, AL.)
More images from both sun and sunset
Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
1/500s / f/7.1 / ISO 200 / 14mm eq. / 7-14mm f/2.8 M.Zuiko Pro lens
The Twin Elms of Liberty Hill: I have no idea if that name is accurate, only that a very colorful passer-by noticed my interest in these inosculating gemels and offered up that colloquial name. (And, if by chance that isn’t the local name of this odd pairing, it’s fitting enough for me.)

 

Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
1/200s / f/4 / ISO 200 / 24mm eq. / 12-100mm f/4 M.Zuiko Pro
Sunset in Cedartown: The E-PL9 captured this scene as my eyes beheld it. If it seems too dark, so be it. This was the way it looked, and the exposure suits the colorful, fading sky from Cedartown, AL.
Closer to home

Before concluding this initial gallery supplement I wanted to show a few more shots from a Disney show, as well as a few from around the house to round out this initial gallery piece.

Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
1/1600s / f/1.2 / ISO 200 / 50mm eq. / 25mm f/1.2 M.Zuiko Pro lens
Lions in motion: The E-PL9 served as an inconspicuous camera to have ringside at Disney’s Lion King on Ice, and the award-winning 25mm f/1.2 Pro lens was certainly bright enough to capture the speed of the skaters while still remaining safely at base ISO.

 

Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
1/60s / f/1.2 / ISO 400 / 50mm eq. / 25mm f/1.2 M.Zuiko Pro lens
The Moulin Rouge: Still at the Disney event, a far cry from Paris, but still pretending at intermission. The bokeh quality from this award-winning lens is also impeccable.

 

Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
1/1600s / f/5 / ISO 200 / 14mm eq. / 7-14mm f/2.8 M.Zuiko Pro lens

 

Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
1/30s / f/1.8 / ISO 800 / 150mm eq. / 75mm f/1.8 M.Zuiko lens
Standard Maine Coon: It was fairly dark in my studio when I took this shot of my best mate in the feline world. He has posed for almost every piece I’ve penned at IR, enjoying his cameos immensely. There is some slight noise apparent in the background here at ISO 800, but not too bad. The four thirds camera world lies somewhere in between the smartphone world and the full frame world in that regard. But in this dim light, a smartphone image would look awful, as there simply wouldn’t be enough available light to avoid major noise.

Conclusion

And so, my brief few days with the attractive Olympus PEN E-PL9 came to an end. It is light, versatile and captures wonderful images when you consider the affordability of the PEN Lite line. The addition of a pop-up flash and a slightly beefier grip, while not diminishing the overall svelte ergonomics, are welcome. We’re hopeful this model becomes available here on North American shores soon, and if so we’ll bring you more to come. For more images, access to most RAW files as well as the original from-camera JPEGs, please visit our PEN E-PL9 Gallery page.

Olympus E-PL9 - Sample Image
1/60s / f/5 / ISO 250 / 24mm eq. / 12-100mm f/4 M.Zuiko Pro
Esom Hill: I rarely take shots in cemeteries. This may in fact actually be my first. But as mentioned earlier, I have been reading a lot of Dan Brown lately, and I couldn’t resist the juxtaposition of marble and sky here on the outskirts of Esom Hill, GA.

(imaging-resource.com, https://goo.gl/bpHA77)

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