Olympus PEN Mini / E-PM1 Review
Conclusion - Pros
- Good low ISO image quality and resolution
- Fast and responsive operation
- Fast, accurate autofocus
- Full HD AVCHD video
- AF assist lamp
- Comprehensive in-camera raw editing capability
- High degree of camera and menu customization
- Art filters offer fun, creative effects
Conclusion - Cons
- High ISO noise performance lagging behind competitors' newer sensors
- Overly aggressive default noise filter setting for JPEG output
- Digital IS for video capture can introduce unnatural-looking footage
- Lack of a hand grip can make handling awkward with heavy lenses
- 16x9 format LCD is less than ideal for viewing 4:3 still images
- Use of clip-on flash precludes use of an EVF or any other accessory port item
- No live view in continuous shooting mode
- No touchscreen interface
- No orientation sensor means you have to manually rotate images shot in portrait orientation
- Complex menu system (for its target audience)
- Movie mode preview is inaccurate (field of view narrows when recording is initiated)
The E-PM1 shares all its best traits with the E-PL3: lots of custom options, a capable sensor, fast AF and in-camera raw conversion wrapped inside a small, stylish body. In terms of image quality and core photographic functionality, the two cameras are near-twins. Despite the many similarities, however, they are designed to appeal to somewhat different markets.
The E-PM1's control layout has become noticeably 'streamlined' over the E-PL3, which should help to make it immediately more accessible to the 'compact upgraders' market. This, coupled with the E-PM1's relatively low cost (compared to small interchangeable lens camera systems like the NEX and Lumix G series) places it in between those cameras and enthusiast compacts like the Canon G12 and the Nikon P7000. For compact shooters who are tempted by the image quality of a larger sensor and the creative flexibility of an interchangeable lens system, the E-PM1 could fit their needs very well.
To keep the overall size of the camera down, the hand-grip and built-in flash that we liked in the E-P3 are absent from the E-PM1. The built-in flash has been replaced with a (supplied) clip-on flash unit. But by necessity, the flash unit occupies both the hot shoe and the accessory port, making simultaneous use of both flash and the optional EVF impossible. To be fair though, these omissions are not likely to cause great concern among users looking to upgrade from a compact camera. The E-PM1's AF speed, camera responsiveness, and of course 'large sensor' image quality will be revelations for these users. It's also worth noting just how many features the E-PM1 shares in common with its more expensive sibling, the E-P3.
The E-PM1's 12MP Micro Four Thirds sensor has been around for a while but it is still capable of very good low ISO output in both JPEG and raw mode. The competition has not stood still, however, and rival low-end system cameras like the Sony NEX-C3 offer higher-resolution sensors and superior noise performance at high ISO settings. The E-PM1's image quality is virtually identical to that of the E-PL3 and the E-P3 and you'll note that our comments in this regard match those of our recent Olympus E-PL3 in-depth review.
We've long found in-camera JPEG processing to be one of Olympus's strengths, producing pleasing color balance and accurate metering right out of the box. The E-PM1 carries on this tradition. At the pixel peeping level, however, we're less impressed by the default noise reduction and sharpening settings Olympus has chosen for the E-PM1 (and of course the E-PL3). We find the noise reduction to be overly aggressive even at lower ISO settings. This problem is solved by adjusting both noise reduction and sharpening to taste, but these steps may be a bit beyond the level of user for whom a camera of this type may be intended. To be fair, when viewing small prints, the effect is much less objectionable.
In terms of handling, theE-PM1 offers a more or less conventional experience compared to a typical mid-range compact camera. Upgraders from a travel zoom or 'luxury' raw-shooting compact are very unlikely to face much of a learning curve - in fact, the E-PM1 offers greatly simplified handling compared to some high-end compact cameras like the Canon Powershot G12 and Panasonic LX5.
The largest adjustment for users coming from a previous PEN series camera will be the lack of a hand grip on the PEN Mini. The camera is still eminently usable without a grip, particularly with the kit lens, and compact-camera upgraders will no doubt feel right at home with a smooth camera front plate. It can be an issue, though, with larger, heavier lenses, where it is harder to take a firm grip on the camera. The lack of external controls on the E-PM1 compared to higher-end PEN cameras can be frustrating though.
We wish the E-PM1 had dedicated ISO and WB buttons, although these functions can be assigned to already-existing buttons on the camera and are easily accessible from the Super Control Panel. As noted in our E-P3 review, we'd like to see Olympus move beyond its multi-screen live view interface. In its current implementation, you can only add information to live view by switching to a different screen entirely, rather than simply adding useful shooting or compositional aids one at a time to a given screen. This inflexibility stands apart from Olympus' otherwise highly customizable interface.
Of course, the PEN Mini does not exist in a vacuum, and as its chief rivals offer compelling touchscreen capability, we would have liked to have seen this functionality trickle down from the E-P3. The lack of a tilting rear LCD, to our minds, creates a deficit in usability when compared to the E-PL3, but crucially, the E-PM1 is much more competitive in terms of price.
The Final Word
With the E-PM1, Olympus offers sleek design and fast AF performance in a package priced to appeal to users looking to trade in their compact-camera for higher image quality without adding too much bulk. To consumers for whom the E-P3 is literally too much camera at too high a price, the E-PM1 offers identical image quality and very similar performance with a compelling feature set. While the PEN series menu system still requires a painfully steep learning curve for new users before it is completely mastered, most will find that after one or two initial visits, they don't need to spend too much time scrolling through menu trees.
The E-PM1 is a small, light, pleasingly-designed camera that handles well and makes everyday picture-taking a fast, intuitive process. Overall, the PEN Mini conveys the feel of a well-executed simplification of the E-PL3, offering nearly all the features of its sibling while reducing the price (albeit to an extent that will vary depending on where you are in the world). Basic image quality remains essentially unchanged, without making the lower-end unit feel like a stripped-down budget model.
Ultimately the PEN Mini is a well-thought out attempt to lure compact-camera upgraders to both higher image quality and the opportunity to explore manual controls while providing a non-intimidating day-to-day handling experience.
Olympus PEN E-PM1
Category: Entry Level Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Movie / video mode
The Olympus PEN E-PM1 offers good image quality and manual control in a small, compact body. The E-PM1 offers nearly the same level of customization as its siblings, which should appeal to enthusiast shooters, but for compact upgraders it is easy to use in its out-of-the-box configuration.
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