Olympus E-PM1 Review

October 5, 2011 | Mark Goldstein |


The Olympus E-PM1 (also known as the Olympus PEN Mini) is a brand new 12 megapixel compact system camera. Sporting a slim, stylish and very small metal body, the EPM1 also features the world's fastest auto-focus system, a high resolution 3 inch LCD screen, 5.5fps burst shooting, 1080i HD video recording, a maximum sensitivity of ISO12800, sensor-shift image stabilisation, a hot shoe and an accessory port. The Olympus PEN E-PM1 is available in brown, grey, pink, purple, white, or black for a retail price of £449.99 / $499.99 for the 14-42mm standard zoom lens and tiltable external flash.

Ease of Use

With Panasonic and Sony recently vying for the title of "World's smallest compact system camera", it comes as no surprise that Olympus have entered the fray with their take on the stylish, small and sexy DSLR replacement, the E-PM1 or PEN Mini. Measuring 109.5 x 63.7 x 34.0 mm and weighing 217g (body-only), the metal-bodied E-PM1 is about the same size and weight as its principal rivals, the Sony NEX-C3 and the Panasonic DMC-GF3. As with the Panasonic model, the E-PM1 uses the smaller Micro Four Thirds image sensor, while the NEX-C3 employs a larger APS-C sensor which potentially gives better image quality, but conversely the Micro Four Thirds models benefit from smaller comparable lenses than the Sony NEX system can offer.

In terms of how the E-PM1 fits into the Olympus PEN range, this is the smallest, lightest, cheapest and most uncluttered model to date in terms of its control system. The E-PM1 shares a lot of key features with its bigger brother the E-PL3, so some of the comments that we made about that camera will be repeated here. These include the headline resolution of 12.3 megapixels from a high speed Live Mos sensor, and a 3 inch screen which offers a widescreen aspect ratio and comes with a respectable 460k dot resolution, although it's not tiltable as on the E-PL3 or a touch screen model like the one on the E-P3.

Another welcome attribute that this model shares with the E-PL3 is a claim for the world's joint fastest auto focus system, thanks to 35 AF points spread over the entire LMOS sensor, plus a TruePic IV processor to keep performance zipping along. Full time AF and AF tracking also feature. Once again though there's no optical or electronic viewfinder supplied here as an alternative to the rear LCD screen, though like the recently reviewed E-PL3 and E-P3 there is an accessory port Version 2 to be found above the screen at the E-PM1's rear which will accept one of Olympus's optional external viewfinders.

The raison d'etre of the E-PM1 remains the same as its brethren: high quality images (and video) from an interchangeable lens camera that's perceived to be less fussy to operate and transport than a DSLR. For a suggested price of £449.99 / $399.99 with lens the E-PM1 comes bundled with a distinctly plastic-y feeling M.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II T lens (one of 20 available dedicated Micro Four Thirds lenses), with an interchangeable 'decoration ring' and the same sleek, chic retro styling we've come to expect from the PEN range.

Olympus E-PM1 Olympus E-PM1
Front Rear

Once again the hand-holding Live Guide mode to help novices achieve more professional results is included on the E-PM1 too, with, as on the E-PL3, its features selectable by tabbing up and down a visually-led menu that appears running down the right hand side of the screen. In this way the likes of depth of field/background blur can be adjusted in real time by dragging a simple slider bar.

As this is the entry-level Pen, it's no surprise to find that the E-PM1 doesn't quite match the flagship E-P3 in all respects. There are 'just' six creative Art Filters on the E-PM1(as on the E-PL3), all applied at the point of capture, compared with the E-P3's whopping 10. But thankfully included here are our preferred choices of pinhole and dramatic tone, joined by the tilt and shift lens ape-ing 'diorama' for rendering cityscapes as if on a toy town scale. Though the latter is a fun tool, we feel this miniature option works less well on the Olympus Pen than its competitors; for us the Pen seems to blur too wide a portion of the frame, so that occasionally the result can resemble a mistake rather than an effect. Once again, these filters can be applied to Full HD video as well as stills, recordable in AVCHD or reduced resolution Motion JPEG format. Just press the dedicated video record button when in the Art Filter mode.

Alongside body integral image stabilisation, something that gives it the Pen the edge over the Panasonic Lumix G range, Full HD video with stereo sound is included as standard, with left and right microphones positioned either side of a vacant hotshoe - the latter a feature that might also position it one step ahead of arguably Panasonic's closest rival in the Lumix DMC-GF3. If it weren't, that is, for the fact that what is more unforgivably omitted here is the luxury of a built-in flash of the pop-up variety - a feature that the E-PM1's intended consumer audience is surely going to miss.

Instead, with the E-PM1 a separate plastic-y clip-on flash is included in the box that we can see getting lost down the back of the sofa, or simply forgotten when you head out for the day with your shiny new camera. Admittedly the flash does look quite cool when slotted into place and works effectively, but it does inevitably add to the camera's bulk, and it also prevents you from using the optical viewfinder and flash at the same time. If the supplied flash unit with its guide number of 10 meters at ISO 200 isn't powerful enough for you, the E-PM1's hotshoe is compatible with the FL-50R, FL-36R, FL-50, FL-36, FL-20, FL-14, and FL-300R flashguns. The E-PM1 also supports wireless flash via the bundled unit acting as a master to control off-camera flash units, very useful for more complex studio work.

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Side Front

Just like the E-PL3, the E-PM1 also misses out on a proper handgrip, though as with the removable grip of the E-P3 in aesthetic terms we actually think the camera looks better without it. Its absence lends greater visual emphasis to the brushed metal faceplate and the camera's small proportions, but does make the camera much harder to grip, with only a small rubberized strip on the rear helping you to keep the camera steady.

Better news comes from the fact that low light sensitivity has been boosted on this latest Pen, incrementally extendable from ISO6400 to a semi pro-like ISO12800, as on the E-P3 and E-PL3. This is partly down, says Olympus, to the implementation of a noise reducing Venus Engine VI processor.

From the front then, and with or without the attachable flash fitted, the E-PM1 very much looks the part and worth the relatively modest outlay, exuding a cool sophistication, although we probably wouldn't opt for our brown test sample. It has that 'classic' Pen clean look, with an AF illuminator/self timer lamp top right of the lens, springy lens release button to the right, Micro Four Thirds logo bottom right and Olympus logo top left.

Moving up to the top plate, the E-PM1 locates a speaker complete with stereo microphones flanking the adjacent vacant hotshoe. This comes with a protective plastic cover that also loops over at the back to at the same time to protect the accessory port against dust and other nasties. Set into a strip to the right of the hotshoe - if viewing the camera from the back - are a small but obvious shutter release button and, lastly, inset into the top plate, the power button.

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Top Flash Unit

Give the latter a press and if you haven't first manually extended the bundled retractable zoom lens, an on-screen text message prompts you to do so. So getting ready for the first shot is a two-tier process: either extend the lens first then press the power button or vice versa. Once the lens has been unfurled the camera is ready for its first shot (or video) in just under two seconds. A half press of the shutter release and there's a very brief wait while the focus visibly resets. Go on and take the shot and with no discernable shutter delay, a Fine quality JPEG and Raw file are committed to memory in two to three seconds, which is nothing to complain about.

The rear of the E-PM1 is where most of the design changes have been made to help keep the camera as uncluttered as possible. In addition to the aforementioned accessory port which is dead centre above the LCD screen, there's a dedicated video record button positioned where it ergonomically falls under the thumb as the camera is gripped in the right hand, so ergonomically that on a couple of occasions we inadvertently started recording a video without noticing. Hit this and recording begins no matter what alternative stills shooting mode might be in play at the same time, the black bands cropping the left and right of the screen when shooting in default stills mode disappearing so that the entire screen is taken up with the image being recorded.

The OK button is also the means by which as a default the E-PM1's Live Guide feature is brought into play, and the order in which the offerings are presented and what they actually are is identical to that found on the E-P3 flagship Pen. The Live Guide options are presented as a colourful toolbar on the right hand side of the screen. From the top we have the ability to change colour saturation, from 'clear & vivid' to 'flat & muted', next down is the ability to alter 'colour image', which translates as shifting the tone between warm and cool via slider bar, with the third option shifting brightness/exposure between a simple bright and dark. The fourth option down is probably the most interesting/effective in that it provides the ability to incrementally blur the background of your shot by again dragging an indicator on a slider - thus providing a similar shallow depth of field effect to that achievable with a DSLR and suitable aperture.

For its fifth Live Guide option Olympus has retained the curiously named 'Express Motions', which to us has always sounded more like a bowel movement than the actual emphasizing of subject motion by introducing blur. Well, in fact, there's the option to both blur any movement or stop it in its tracks, again achievable by dragging a slider indicator. The last option on this tool bar is a on-board shooting hints and tips manual, with the usual 'suspects' of photographing children and pets given the most prominence ('take a picture at their height level' being a summation of the level of advice imparted). We even get tips, as a bit of closet advertising, for attaching Olympus accessories, such as lens converters.

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Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

An info button and separate menu button sit above and below a standard multidirectional control pad, encircled by Olympus' love-it-or-hate-it scroll wheel set up. At 12 o'clock on the control dial is an exposure compensation control (+/- 3EV), at three o'clock a compendium of flash settings (auto, red eye reduction, fill in flash, flash off, red eye slow sync, slow sync, 'full' flash and incremental adjustments running from ½ to 1/64th strength) and a zoom in button during playback, at six o'clock we get self timer/drive modes, and at nine o'clock the ability to manually specify the AF point by selecting a point on a 35-zone grid that is overlaid on the real-time image and also a zoom out button during playback. A small self-explanatory playback button completes the rear controls. There's no Delete button, shooting mode dial, or controls for commonly used functions like ISO speed, so the E-PM1 isn't such a good fit for those who like more direct access to a camera's key features.

While chunky lugs for attaching the shoulder strap hang at either side of the camera, thankfully out of the way of fingers and controls, on the right hand flank, if viewing the camera from the back, as with the E-P3 and E-PL3 we find a pair of covered ports for joint USB/AV output and mini HDMI output respectively. This cover, being a weaker plastic element amidst the surrounding brushed metal, is one of the very few flimsy points on the outwardly covetable camera. Again, we leveled the same criticism at the E-PM3's more expensive siblings.

Also plastic-y, but more reassuringly chunky, is the flip-open cover protecting the joint battery and card compartment at the E-PM1's base. The PS-BLS5 rechargeable lithium ion battery supplied with the E-PM1 is good for around 330 shots (the exact same performance as we got from the E-PL3). There is the option here to use all varieties of SD media card too, up to and including SDXC cards. Dead centre, but slightly off-centre of the lens, is a screw thread for attaching a tripod.

Overall the E-PM1 is a real challenger to its principal rivals, retaining most of the key features of the E-P3 and E-PL3 while wrapping them up in a sleeker, smaller, lighter and many would say sexier package. We're sorry to have seen the built-in flash sacrificed on the altar of style, even if a plastic-y clip-on alternative comes supplied in the box, although it is perhaps understandable given the target audience, as is the complete removal of several key controls in order to make the user interface less intimidating. But, handling aside, how does the E-PM1 acquit itself when it comes to image quality? Read on to find out…