Olympus E-PM1 DSLR emphasizes value and performance
At a Glance
The baby of the Olympus PEN family, the 12-megapixel E-PM1, actually represents a new line of the company’s interchangeable lens cameras. Also known as the PEN Mini, this $500 entry-level model and s E-P3 and the E-PL3 sibling, is the least expensive of the PEN cameras. It’s also the smallest, the lightest, and has the fewest external controls. Despite that, the E-PM1 offers many of the same features as its more expensive siblings, including manual, semimanual, and automatic exposure modes. In fact, the E-PM1 is almost a slightly more slender clone of the E-PL3 but without a mode dial or articulated LCD. Essentially, this is a compact interchangeable lens camera that works best for snapshooters who will stick with the most basic picture-taking functions, but its extensive feature set will appeal to experienced shooters as well.
Design and notable features
Available in purple, silver, pink, white, black, or bronze, the E-PM1 comes in a kit with either the MSC (movie and still compatible) 14-42mm lens or a wide angle 17mm lens. Since there’s no on-board flash, Olympus includes a tiny flash unit that attaches via an accessory port where other cameras have a hotshoe. Optional accessories include an electronic viewfinder, a Bluetooth Pen Pal for wirelessly transmitting images to your Android or Blackberry smartphone (but not iPhone), or another Pen Pal equipped camera. An external stereo microphone and a very cool macro arm light are also available. Just keep in mind that each of these add-ons use the same accessory port, so only one product can be used at a time. The camera is compatible with Micro Four Thirds lenses from Olympus, Panasonic, and third party manufacturers and, using an adapter, standard Four Thirds lenses can also be used.
Measuring 4.31 by 2.50 by 1.33 inches, the E-PM1 is only slightly thinner than the E-PL3 but, at 9.34 ounces, it’s a tad lighter. Although compact, the body is sturdily built. Despite the lack of a hand grip, the rectangular body is pretty comfortable to hold although the strap eyelets can get in the way when you grasp the camera.
A 3-inch LCD has a screen resolution of 460,000 dots and offers +/-7 steps of brightness and color adjustments so the monitor can be tweaked when shooting under challenging lighting conditions.
The set-it-and-forget-it crowd will most likely be happy with the E-PM1’s minimal external controls. The shutter and on/off button are the only controls on the top surface, with a one-touch “red” movie button, an information display button, 4-way controller that provides access to features like flash, burst/self-timer mode, exposure compensation, and autofocus point selection. A dial surrounds the controller and a center OK button, and Info, Menu, and playback buttons round out the remaining surface controls.
No one is safe from the strange, and often confusing, world of the Olympus menu system. The basics, such as shooting mode and Art Filters are pretty obvious, but go into the Setup menu and even experienced photographers (other than those familiar with Olympus’ menu language and icons) will most likely be lost and confused. Fortunately, pressing the center OK button calls up an on-screen Quick menu. There’s a helpful Super Control Panel, which provides an overlay of setting options but it’s one of the features that is well hidden in the Setup menu. It’s important to read the camera manual and make use of the on-board help feature to navigate beyond the most fundamental features of the E-PM1.
Features and performance
Although the E-PM1’s body lacks the usual controls, its feature set goes far beyond entry level shooting. Manual and semimanual (aperture- and shutter-priority) exposure modes are available, along with a good balance of no-brainer modes. In addition to automatic, the E-PM1 offers an iAuto (intelligent auto) mode as well as 23 scene modes. The latter includes the standard portrait and landscape as well as macro, panorama, and 3D.
To make things easier for less experienced photographers, Olympus has implemented an on-board help system that provides a brief text description of many of the camera’s features—just press the info button while scrolling through the menus. The Live Guide, available in iAuto mode, uses plain language and slider bars to simplify certain photographic actions such as depth-of-field by allowing the user to control how much the background of an image is blurred.
On the creative side, the camera offers a half-dozen of Olympus’ trademark Art Filters. However, the PEN Mini doesn’t allow the flexibility within each effect that the E-P3 and the E-PL3 offer. Still, the filters—Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film (black and white), Pinhole, Diorama and Dramatic tone—are fun to play with and can produce some interesting photos. Also very cool is the ability to create multiple exposures by shooting in Raw mode.
Overall, the E-PM1’s performance is pretty speedy. Although autofocus sometimes searches in low light or low contrast, there’s little shutter lag and shot-to-shot times are brief. Best of all, the camera—with a fast card and image stabilization turned off—can capture around 5 frames per second in high speed burst mode.
You can capture Full HD video at 1920 x 1080/60i (in Fine or Normal mode) or 1280 x 720/60p (Fine or Normal) in AVCHD. The benefit of AVCHD is that file sizes are smaller, but the tradeoff is that the format is more difficult to decode and edit. For motion JPEGS, you’ll need to switch to 1280 x 720 HD at 30fps or standard definition at 640 x 480 at 30fps. Aperture and shutter speed can be set prior to recording video but cannot be changed while you’re shooting. Some art filters can be used while recording video to produce more artistic visuals.
The E-PM1’s still image quality is quite good. Colors are nicely saturated and well reproduced but if the default “Natural” look isn’t to your liking, color saturation can be adjusted up or down by a factor of 2 or adjusted via the Picture Control option.
Exposures were generally accurate and the E-PM1 does a pretty good job of maintaining details in highlights and shadows. ISO can be pushed to 12,800 but should only be used in absolute emergencies since images aren’t really usable due to image noise/noise reduction degradation. For the best results, keep the ISO as low as possible and make use of the camera’s image stabilization or a tripod in low light conditions. But for the Web and small prints, you can get away with ISO 1600. If you’re comfortable with post-processing, it’s best to shoot in Raw and then reduce the image noise on your computer; this helps retain details that can get smeared by the camera’s noise reduction.
Video quality is pretty good as well, with good color rendition, albeit the color isn’t quite as rich as it is in still images. Other than some clipped (blown out) highlights, exposures were better than expected. It’s best to use an MSC (movie and still compatible) lens for the most accurate—and quiet—autofocus. Although even the MSC lens does a little hunting for focus, it’s still the best option when shooting video with this camera.
Macworld buying advice
The Olympus E-PM1 offers just about all the same features as its more expensive sibling, the E-PL3 so you’re getting real value for the dollar with this camera. Above and beyond the wealth of features, the camera also offers good performance and above average image quality. However, the lack of external controls and confusing user interface may be an issue, especially for those who are used to the mode dial, buttons, and dials on most other cameras.
[Theano Nikitas, a full-time freelance writer and photographer, has been writing about photography for the past 19 years. Her digital imaging reviews, features, how-to articles, and images have appeared in a wide variety of publications and websites.]