Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini review

4 out of 5
£449.99

For

Good value when bought with standard zoom, competent and consistent performance, quick and responsive for the most part

Against

No integral flash, rear operational controls and on-screen symbols are tiny, no dedicated delete button nor handgrip

The 12.3-megapixel E-PM1 - from a 13.1 MP Live MOS (or CMOS) sensor - is the new baby of the Olympus range of interchangeable lens compacts, or, as its manufacturer prefers, ‘Pen’ system. The other two models are the flagship E-P3 for just under a grand, plus the mid range E-PL3, which omits an integral flash but adds an angle adjustable back screen. Both were announced over the summer and are already covered here, on Pocket-lint.

So, for anyone looking to upgrade from a fixed lens point and shoot camera for the first time to ensure better quality images without going the whole hog and plumping for a DSLR, the E-PM1 is the most affordable Olympus Pen camera to date. As its ‘Mini’ suffix suggests it’s also the most diminutive, measuring 109.5x63.7x34mm and weighing 217g body only, or a still very manageable 265g with battery and card (all varieties of SD) inserted. And, seeing as the ‘Pen Mini’ is a lens swappable camera, more obviously aiming for mass-market acceptance than its two siblings, is it also the most accessible?

The kit

Olympus sent us a black-bodied E-PM1 kit that comes supplied with second generation matching black liveried f3.5-5.6 14-42mm zoom. This offers a focal range the equivalent of 28-84mm on a 35mm camera, so is a sound starter option if you don’t already own any compatible Micro Four Thirds lenses - of which there are currently 27 options.

The fact that the lens is the second-generation kit zoom means that this time there is less of an audible whirr when making its automatic adjustments during video capture. Aiding compactness, like its forebear, the lens features a retractable mechanism, which means it has to be first manually extended before a shot can be taken. Otherwise a press of the recessed power button set into the chrome strip on the top plate and the Mini is ready for action in just over a second. Suggesting a younger market for this Pen, Olympus has chosen to illuminate the power button in a cool blue, attention-attracting glow, especially for anyone attempting night photography.

In the box we also find a silver FL-LM1 flash that slides onto the vacant hotshoe, an accessory port for further optional extras like a wireless connectivity module located just below. As with the E-PL1, no actual flash bulb is included within the body, so you’ll have to remember to carry the one provided around with you.

Small and light

Whilst the lack of integral illumination seems to be going against the consumer friendly ethos for the camera, Sony does the same with its competing NEX models. Clearly, when it comes to making a sale, less, in terms of body shape and weight, is most definitely more. In fact, until the arrival of the Pentax Q, Olympus was pitching this as the world’s smallest and lightest system camera.

That said, the form and shape of the E-PM1 doesn’t stray massively from the solid retro look and feel of the E-P3 and E-PL1, which is a good thing, even if the narrower body - not much wider than your average travel zoom - makes the camera appear a little front heavy when the lightweight plastic kit lens is attached.

We would have also liked something in the way of a handgrip to enable one handed shooting, but get none here. Trying to shoot with just our right hand, we felt in danger of dropping the camera as the front surface is as smooth as slate, plus this inevitably introduces the possibility of soft shots in lower light, even if the camera does have in-body image stabilisation.

Good pedigree

The E-PM1 more expectedly shares a lot of previous Pen camera DNA, such as Olympus’ hand-holding Live Guide. Here, the making of adjustments to aperture to control depth of field can be previewed on screen in real time via a press of the ‘OK’ button before any shot is taken, and without needing to comprehend what such terminology means.

It also shares their lightning-fast auto focus system; in fact claimed to be the world’s fastest on launch, though Panasonic and Nikon have also since claimed similar.

In real terms it is operationally on a par with an entry level digital SLR - except in terms of sensor size of course - and in some respects, it exceeds their performance. This is partly down to the inclusion of TruePic VI image processor and the fact that the Olympus features 35 AF points spread over almost the entire sensor, so it is possible to direct focus onto subjects tucked away in the corner of the display. AF tracking and face detection then makes sure the subject remains in focus, even if it is on the move through the frame.

Effects

For low light shooting, without the use of the clip on flash, up to ISO12800 light sensitivity is offered, which seems somewhat incredible for a starter model, plus as noted we have the advantage here (over, say, Panasonic and Sony) of built in stabilisation. A further selling point comes in the form of Olympus’ digital effects art filters, a core feature of the Pen range since day one and now co-opted in some shape or form by almost everyone else.

As this is the junior model in the range we get just six art filters on the E-PM1, the effects of which can also be previewed before application. Here the choices include one of our favourites in “dramatic tone”, “diorama” a miniature effect by another name and the colour-enhancing “pop art”. There's also a self explanatory soft focus, grainy film look and pin hole. What’s more these effects can be applied to video as well as stills, and can be navigated with a spin of the scroll wheel at the Pen Mini’s back.

LCD, not OLED, screen

Both stills and video are composed via a fixed widescreen aspect ratio 3-inch, 460k-dot resolution LCD screen, as opposed to the OLED monitor of the E-P3 or the angle adjustable monitor found on the E-PL1. Here the LCD eats up most of the backplate of the E-PM1, with controls shunted over to the right hand edge of the camera.

These seem unnecessarily tiny and thus require fingernail precision to operate. Olympus gives a dose of spin to the control layout by referring to it as a ‘reduced button interface’ and we kind of see what it intends. We get a diminutive control pad encircled by scroll wheel, flanked by info and menu buttons, plus a dedicated playback control. The largest button here, which falls under the thumb at the top right-hand edge of the backplate, is one for recording video. There’s no dedicated delete button, which is an unexpected omission that no matter how great the camera is, always comes in handy.

Video

Like its Pen brethren the E-PM1 offers 1080i video, as long as the user has AVCHD compression format selected. Otherwise it’s 720p HD video recorded in the MPEG4 format, which offers more widespread compatibility, especially for those with older PCs.

As one might expect, HDMI output is included, port located under a side flap next to a shared hole for USB 2.0/AV out. Stereo sound is a further benefit, and one welcome feature we didn’t automatically expect to find on the entry-level ‘budget’ model.

Small is beautiful, or annoying?

Olympus seems to have opted for small is beautiful with every aspect of the camera, not only in the weedy back plate controls but also with regard to the on-screen display info, which we almost had to squint to make out at times.

The split-screen display you’re presented with, upon activating the camera and pressing ‘menu’ - in lieu of any dedicated mode button or wheel - seems more designed to look cool, rather than to provide a means of quickly and practically accessing shooting modes.

Image quality

In terms of image quality the E-PM1 is the very definition of a competent performer given its size, or lack thereof. It’s quick, it’s responsive, and if you can see the shot in your mind’s eye before squeezing the shutter release button, with the Pen Mini there’s a very good chance you’ll get it.

With kit lens attached we achieved some lovely DSLR-like shallow depth of field effects - keeping the subject in focus but throwing the background detail out to provide greater contrast. On the flip side, we did notice some obvious barrel distortion/fisheye effect when shooting closer subjects at maximum wideangle setting.

Art filters such as pop art proved a boon for enhancing winter colour. And while the results were not an exact match for a similarly-priced DSLR, with optimum glass, the form factor and optics combined meant that we were more likely to take the E-PM1 out with us, and therefore get that potentially winning shot in the first place.

For low-light photography without flash, we managed to achieve largely noise-free results up to, and including, ISO1600. Though from 3200 through to 6400 noise is more noticeable, images from the E-PM1 have a fine grain like consistency that is not too intrusive. At top whack ISO12800 we’re getting washed out colour, softened edges as well as grain. In other words, the tell tale “watercolour effect”, but it has to be said that the appearance of shots at this setting are no worse than most point and shoot compacts muster, sometimes as low as ISO1600.

Verdict

Although theoretically all Olympus digital Pen cameras have been targeted at compact “upgraders” since the E-P1 was unveiled in late 2009, the E-PM1 is the one that offers the most obvious step-up potential for happy snappers wanting to up their game.

Available in our black, white, silver, dark brown or purple, the fact that it’s the most diminutive Pen yet doesn’t, for us, unequivocally tip the balance in the Mini’s favour, as the old school Tonka-toy like bulk of the E-P3 has a certain appeal all of its own. Yet the fact that we could squeeze body and lens attached into a jacket pocket means the E-PM1 is destined to get more use by photographers on the go, perhaps wanting a back up for their DSLR, as well as consumers simply requiring better quality images and video.

Incidentally, for those looking for the most competitive deal, Olympus was offering a £50 cashback offer at the time of writing - effectively making the camera £399 - and running up until January 15th 2012. Though this is a digital Pen for those on a budget, the cheaper price has thankfully not meant a whole host of annoying compromises.

Additional product photos by Hunter Skipworth