Body & Design
The PEN Mini lives up to its name by being one of the smallest large-sensor mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras on the market. It's a fraction bigger than the Nikon 1 J2, despite having a sensor twice the size. The much-copied Olympus retractable zoom also helps keep the size down and produces one of the better kit-zoom performances.
The body itself is predominantly metal, though it's relatively thin, so don't expect pro-DSLR style impregnability. The rubber rectangle on the front of the camera offers improved grip compared to its predecessor, and intentionally conjures-up the image of the original digital PEN, though it's not as striking or handsome as that camera was.
Like its predecessor the E-PM1, the new PEN Mini has very few external control points, underlining at its primary point-and-shoot intentions. In its automatic exposure modes the PEN E-PM2 is essentially a point-and-shoot camera, and an apparently pleasant one. You don't even have to use the shutter release button if you don't want to - using the touch-sensitive screen, pressing to focus or shoot works exactly as the average smartphone user would expect.
And arguably, the Mini is at its most well-behaved when you don't try to take too much control. The Mini does have PASM modes and a customizable function button, but it takes a fair amount of work to learn how to make the most of it. The small rear dial retains the same rather convoluted control logic as the previous PENs - with multiple button presses required to change most settings.
The default function of the Fn button is engaging the Live Guide results-orientated touch-screen menu. The Live Guide has five virtual buttons allowing you to adjust saturation, the warmth of the image, image brightness, background blurriness and motion blur. You can only control one at a time, which could be a touch limiting, but it's a system that allows more control over the final image without having to learn about apertures and other photography settings.
It is possible to take more control over the camera - even the most basic Olympus camera tends to have the same level of customization as their higher-end models. If you engage the custom settings menu, you can customize several of the buttons and fine-tune much of the camera's behavior. It's clearly not the camera's main focus, but the option is there. For instance, the Fn button can be reconfigured to have a number of functions.
Settings assignable to Fn button:
• Live Guide
• Digital Teleconverter
• HDR BKT
• Off (no function)
• Depth-of-field Preview
• AF Area Select
• AF Home (centralises AF point)
• Raw/JPEG Quality
• Myset 1/2/3/4 custom shooting modes
• Backlit LCD
• Underwater Wide/Underwater Macro modes
• Exposure Compensation
If you're the sort of person that wants manual exposure control you'll probably also want access to the E-PM2's key features without having to go menu-diving. The customizable Fn button will help, but we'd also recommend activating the Super Control Panel. This can be turned on in any or all of the Mini's main shooting modes - iAuto, Scene, Art, and PASM. Turning it on is a pain (once you've activated the custom settings menu, turning the SCP on is an easy eight clicks away, folks!) but it's worth it.
Once activated in the menu system, the SCP can be engaged by pressing 'OK' and then 'Info'. At this point you'll see most of the camera's key shooting settings pop up on screen. This display is interactive, and settings can be selected and changed using either the 4-way controller or by touch. Olympus has not taken the opportunity to really optimize this display for touch, however, and many of the individual options are too small to hit with much accuracy using a fingertip.
It's not all frustrations though - we're very pleased, for example, to see that Olympus has changed the default 4-way controller/dial behavior in playback mode compared to the original PEN Mini. In the EPM-1, in playback mode, pressing the left/right positions on the 4-way controller would zoom in and out of images. To scroll through your pictures, you had to use the control dial. This could be changed in the custom settings menu, but as default behavior, it made very little sense. Now, the default is reversed - arrow keys to scroll through images, and the control dials zooms in/out. Much more sensible (but you can change it back if you're weird like that).
|Unlike its predecessor, the E-PM2 sports a touch-sensitive screen. This is effectively optional (you can just use the camera's physical controls if you want to), but touch-to-focus shooting is addictively easy, in PASM modes as well as fully automatic shooting.|
|A new 'Fn' button on the E-PM2's top-plate can be assigned to serve several different functions (see list above), though it is a little tricky to redefine its function.|
|The E-PM2 has a dedicated movie button on the back, which allows you to start recording at any time (you don't have to switch the camera into a separate movie mode).|
|The Mini's AF illumination lamp can be disabled if you're trying to be unobtrusive in your shooting, but can really help with low-light focusing.|
|The Mini has the AP2-spec accessory slot, allowing use of add-ons such as the PENPal Bluetooth image sharing unit.
It also means you can use either the VF-2 or the less expensive, lower-resolution VF-3 electronic viewfinder. These are handy for working in bright light and encourage a more stable to-the-eye shooting position.
|The E-PM2 uses the same BLS-5 battery as used in all the recent PEN models, but is also fully compatible with the older BLS-1 type as used in several previous PENs and E-system cameras.
The memory card slot as usual is beside the battery, and accepts SD, SDHC and SDXC types.
The PEN Mini is unequivocally intended as a point-and-shoot camera and our first impressions are it should fulfil that role well. Given the difficulty of configuring (and the fiddliness of then using) the more-manual controls, we don't think it's going to be much fun to take extensive photographic control over. But the Live Guide interface, now bolstered by the addition of the touch screen, looks like it might do its core job well. Indeed the interface encourages more experimentation with settings than most point-and-shoots, so it should offer a little more creativity than a conventional compact camera, if not necessarily a stepping-stone to full photographic control.
The issue is much more acute for the PEN Lite - the addition of a mode dial implies a degree of seriousness that is undermined by the small control dial and its awkward control logic. But the flip up screen makes it a more flexible camera than the Mini, whether you're looking to shoot self-portraits or are looking for something discreet that can be shot at waist level. (Only the relatively loud shutter might hamper its suitability for such role).
Being enthusiast photographers ourselves, and having really liked the OM-D, we were perhaps a bit disappointed that the latest PENs don't provide all the same capabilities for around half the price. But, of course, it would be disastrous for Olympus if they did. If they live up to the promise and manage to offer an approachable shooting experience for beginners, with the E-M5's excellent image quality, in some of the smallest and least expensive models on the market, then it's far too early to write-off the PENs.