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Product Review: Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini
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Product Review: Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini

Surprising performance by a camera designed for snapshooters

If the E-P3 is the fulfillment of the promise of the original Olympus Digital Pen camera concept, the E-PM1 brings much of the same capabilities to the masses at an attractive price.


 

The Olympus E-PM1, also known as the Pen Mini, is at $500 with the 14-42mm IIR kit lens Olympus's lowest-priced—and smallest and lightest—mirrorless interchangeable-lens compact camera to date. But did Olympus compromise on function and ease-of-use to get there? Let's find out.

What it has in common with the E-P3 and E-PL3

Despite its slim, more “point-and-shoot-like” look and feel, the Pen Mini's guts are essentially the same as its pricier siblings. The 12.3MP Four Thirds Live MOS sensor and processing engine are identical to the high-end E-P3 and mid-range E-PL3. Externally, the Pen Mini has the same flash mount/data port to accommodate EVF and optical finders that you can find on the E-P3 and E-PL3. That means both image quality and performance, which were impressive in the E-P3 (read my review) are just as impressive in the Pen Mini—and you have the option of eye-level shooting rather than just the 3-inch, 460k dot resolution  LCD screen. Can you shoot RAW as well as JPEG, and 1080i/720p HD video? Yes!

 

 

What's different?

The difference between the Pen Mini and higher-end Olympus Pens is that it is designed and priced primarily for casual users. It has a polycarbonate exterior (although the lens mount is metal). Assuming the 80/20 rule (80 percent of users will use 20 percent of the features and controls), Olympus placed features of less interest to snapshooters (such as manual exposure control) deeper in the menu structure, while the auto-everything settings are front and center. Olympus clearly expects most users will use the iAuto (intelligent autoexposure) most of the time and that's the camera's default, and occasionally play with the art filters.


Features

In addition to the iAuto mode, in which the camera makes all of the exposure control decisions, the Pen Mini offers all the typical variations of manual exposure control you would expect—Program AE with shift, Aperture or Shutter Priority AE, and full manual exposure. It has over 20 scene modes (including 3D) and six “Art” filters (instead of the E-P3's 10). The ISO range is 100-12,800 when set manually, and 200-1600 as the auto default.  The default Digital ESP metering calculates exposure based on a 324-area multi-pattern, but it can be set to center-weighted, 1% spot metering, or metering based on highlight or shadow spot metering. Again, nice features to have but most of the intended owners of this camera will ignore them and stick with the defaults. Same with White balance, which includes the usual options as well as custom presets based on precise Kelvin temperature settings.

 

Fun with art filters: A fairly mundane New York street scene is transformed in Pinhole mode.

More fun with art filters: Popart filter produced exaggerated color of this cityscape.

 

Even more fun with art filters: Diorama transformed New York's Flushing Meadow Park into something that looks like a tabletop model.


When in Art Filters, bracketing based on saturation, sharpness, contrast, and gradation (which can also be controlled outside of Art Filters) can be set up. The Art filters are Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, and Dramatic Tone.

Fashionistas would feel comfortable with the Digital Pen: It comes in Brown, Pink, Silver, Purple, White, and Black.

 

Default colors are bright and saturated, which should please amateurs. Reds are particularly strong. In camera settings you can dial down the color if it's too pumped up for your taste.


In the hands

Grasp the Pen Mini and you'll immediately notice its minimalist control layout: There are a half-dozen buttons and dials, which is less than usual. The front surface is smooth with no protruding grip, although there is a raised rubberized thumb rest in back of the camera, so it's comfortable to hold even with a big zoom lens mounted. A hot shoe atop the camera also accommodates an optional EVF, which I used and recommend for eye-level viewing. The control buttons are tiny, but can be easily operated. Same with the small control dial. There is no built-in flash; you need to attach an external one, which means you can't use an eye-level viewfinder and flash at the same time, which may be an inconvenience for some users.

 

iAuto easily handled this street scene's tough light.


Controls and menus

While the camera's default settings are designed for the typical user, if you are more advanced a higher degree of control is not far from the surface. Hit the Info button to select from the Art, iAuto, SCN, Movie, Manual and Setup menus. Let's say you want manual exposure. Click on M, then press up or down on the 4-way toggle switch to change shutter speed and right or left to adjust the aperture. Want manual focus? That's a bit tricky. Hit “OK” to bring up the Super Control Panel (see below) and use the up/down right/left buttons to navigate to the focus mode, which is near the bottom left corner of the screen. Press OK then select the focus mode. Accessing these features is not as intuitive or as easy to access as on the E-P3.

One of the camera's nice features is the Super Control Panel, which displays pretty much every setting on screen. Use the 4-way toggle button to navigate and make changes in any feature. Cool. I also like the live control: press the center “OK” button and a list of settings appears across the bottom of the screen that are relevant to the control setting listed on the right. Simply scroll down the list to find the camera setting you want to change, move right or left to change the setting on the bottom, and hit “OK.” After a few minutes of practice this is easily mastered.

It is a bit disconcerting that if you are in iAuto, many of the control panel options are disabled, but it's not obvious. If you forget that you are in iAuto, you might think the camera is having problems but it is not. An on screen “can't change in iAuto” reminder would help here and I hope Olympus addresses this in a future firmware update.

With the camera pumped up to ISO 12,800 in Grainy B&W Art Mode I decided not to fight the grain, but to use it creatively. I captured this impressionistic moment at a dance marathon under dim light—note how the these fast-moving dancers are frozen thanks to the high shutter speed I was able to use!


Performance

As with many members of the photographic press, I had an opportunity to use the Pen Mini to photograph tennis action at the US Open in late August, and Olympus proved its point: This camera is fast enough to do sports photography (especially when using the 75-150mm tele zoom, which becomes a 150-300mm sports lens thanks to the small sensor's crop factor) and you can read more about that here. There was no lag time, although I found autofocus to be somewhat searchy when using longer lenses, and I recommend using manual focus if you shoot with the long zoom. AF worked quickly on short tele, normal and wide-angle lenses.


If the Pen Mini can rock the US Open, it can handle just about any type of action photography and of course anything slower.

 

The Pen Mini's lag-free shutter is responsive enough to handle the split-second demands of street photography, especially when matched up with the 12mm f/2 Zuiko, as it was here.


Image Quality

While RAW image quality test results were less than spectacular, Olympus's online noise suppression does a good job producing acceptable images at higher speeds (although the artifacts of this noise suppression are apparent to experienced eyes).

At ISO 200, fine image detail is evident with no visible noise (see 100% detail below). However, shadow detail is limited due to 10-stop dynamic range. Any blur in detail shot is due to hand-held exposure.

 

 

At ISO 6400 action in interior-lit scene is frozen but noise is obvious but, thanks to Olympus's hard-working noise suppression, doesn't really look so bad in black-and-white (see 100% detail below)!

 

Lab test results (Provided by DxOMark)
Since the Pen Mini's sensor is the same as the E-P3's, here are the DxOMark ratings for the E-P3 sensor.

Maximum ISO for acceptable image quality (digital noise): 500
Maximum ISO for acceptable dynamic range: 400
Color depth: Very Good (20.8 bits on a scale of 1-25)
Overall image quality: Good (51 on a scale of 1-100)
Dynamic range: Up to 10.1 stops

The Olympus E-P3 shares a sensor with the E-PL2 and the scores are similar: It shows an improvement over previous Pens in ISO, but the overall performance is modest compared to other APS cameras based on color depth and dynamic range, both of which drag the overall score down. However, the differences, according to DxO, are barely noticeable in actual prints. Actual ISO is approx. 2/3 of a stop lower than the indicated speed.

Test results are copywright DxOMark; Used by permission.


Conclusion and recommendation

I  recommend the new VF-3 optical viewfinder to give you the option of eye-level shooting. Although the image in the 3-inch LCD monitor is visible in sunlight you lose a lot of detail, and an eye-level finder will give you a more realistic idea of what you've got. Yes, it adds $180 to the cost but it is worthwhile. Also if you intend to shoot in manual modes frequently, keep in mind that they are somewhat buried in the menus and  you may want to consider ponying up an extra couple of hundred bucks for the E-P1, which puts those controls on the surface. 

So yes, Olympus compromised on ease of use if you're an advanced photographer who prefers manual control. But if you're stepping up from a point-and-shoot, this camera's a breeze to use. Overall, I found the Pen Mini to be a fun, easy camera that can handle many challenging shooting tasks with a bit of effort and more casual shooting situations with ease. If you have a limited budget but want a small, light, blazingly fast interchangeable lens camera, the Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini should be at the top of your list.

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