The Olympus E-PM1 may have the body of a point-and-shoot, but the 12.3 megapixel Live MOS is something you’d traditionally see in a prosumer full-sized DSLR. Don’t get me wrong, this is no pocket point-and-shoot camera. The included M.Zuiko MSC Digital ED 14-42mm f3.5/5.6 zoom lens makes this little photographic wonder a difficult fit in most pockets, but still gives it the lightweight profile of one.
My first impression when unboxing the Olympus E-PM1 was that it couldn’t possibly take photos that could even come close to the kind of quality and precision of my Nikon D3000. As I soon discovered, my assumptions were completely off the mark.
What is a Micro Four Thirds System?
Before we dig in to the performance of this camera in particular, it’s important to understand exactly what this unusual hybrid class of still cameras actually is. While they may not be true DLSRs, these relatively small devices pack many of the features you might expect from one. Interchangeable lenses, external flash, HD video recording, and RAW capture options are all present on most models within the Micro Four Thirds family.
Olympus and Panasonic announced the new standard in 2008 in response for demand of a thinner and lighter frame for an interchangeable lens camera. Like the existing Four Thirds standard (also created in cooperation with Olympus), the Micro Four Thirds system uses a larger sensor than typically found in point-and-shoot systems in order to achieve better photo quality. What makes the Micro Four Thirds frame smaller is the absence of a mirror and pentaprism which power the viewfinders typically found on full-sized DSLR and Four Thirds cameras.
This doesn’t mean you can’t find a viewfinder on Micro Four Thirds systems. Electronic viewfinders can be purchased that fit directly on an accessory point typically used for camera flashes, also an optional component on the standard.
What’s cool about the Micro Four Thirds standard is that though it might not be as open as the four thirds standard, you can use any four thirds lens with it through a simple adapter.
Essentially, what you get with Micro Four Thirds systems is almost all the power and functionality of a larger DSLR in the slim profile of a smaller point-and-shoot.
The Olympus E-PM1 is the cheapest and smallest of the Olympus PEN Micro Four Thirds family. Nicknamed the PEN Mini, the E-PM1 is indeed quite small. At just 9.34oz with the battery and memory card installed, this little camera packs a lot of functionality into an extremely lightweight package.
Upon taking the unit out of the box, I was pleasantly surprised to see just how modular it is. The interchangeable lens system is perfect for testing out new lenses and making sure that you’ve got the perfect setup for the job. The included M.Zuiko MSC Digital ED m14-42mm f3.5/5.6 zoom lens is actually a remarkably high-quality piece considering the relatively low price of the system.
The included external flash (FL-LM1) connects directly to the unit via the hot shoe and accessory port, providing both power and a stable mount. This allows you to leave the flash at home if you don’t think you’ll need it, making the device itself even smaller.
The E-PM1 supports SDHC, SDXC, UHS-I, and Eye-Fi cards. Class 6 or better is recommended for HD video capture, though not required for standard picture taking.
Like many Olympus cameras, the E-PM1 features a classic look and feel coupled with sturdy hardware that would appear to be capable of surviving a nuclear blast. That said, the small size takes a little getting used to if you’re more accustomed to larger DSLR systems. I found myself babying it on the first day, afraid I would break it if I held it the wrong way. Don’t worry though, the E-PM1 is built like a tank.
At 5 FPS sequencial shooting, the E-PM1 is also fairly quick on the draw. It’s especially good with action scenes such as sporting, taking pictures of rambunctious kids, or energetic pets. My Nikon D3000 seemed just a touch faster, but not by enough to convince me there’s any clear advantage.
You can see highlights from our test shoot with the Olympus E-PM1 on the Flickr Album.
The real measure of any camera comes down to how good the images look. Though the E-PM1 is the smaller of the PEN product family, it has roughly the same hardware specs as the significantly more expensive E-PL3, making it a great buy for photographers looking to get their hands on a Micro Four Thirds system without breaking the bank.
Over all: I found the picture quality of the E-PM1 to be remarkably good, even when compared to a full-sized DSLR. The sensor itself, arguably the most important component in the picture-taking process, is well matched to virtually anything you’ll find on the market today.
Olympus boasts that the PEN line has the fastest auto-focus system found on any current camera. The FAST (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology) AF System has 35 different focus points spread across the entire sensor, making it easier to focus on objects both near and far away. In our real-world test, I was extremely surprised at just how fast this little camera locked focus and was ready to shoot. The one downside I noticed was that the AF Illuminator, though it did work on nearby objects, failed to help in dim lighting when attempting to lock on to a large wall clock just seven feet away. This falls three feet short of the boasted 10 foot range for low-light areas.
Image stabilization is one area where the E-PM1 absolutely exceeds expectations. Not only are there several options available to the user for various situations, but the E-PM1 features stabilization built-in to the body, allowing for any Micro Four Thirds or Four Thirds lens to be used without compromising stabilization. Even dimly lit situations were remarkably free of blur out in the field.
You know a camera has decent face detection built-in when it detects your dog’s face. The E-PM1 not only detects faces near and far, but you can customize this feature to focus on someone’s left, right, or closest eye with remarkable accuracy.
Face detection didn’t slow down the auto-focus either. In fact, it seemed to speed the process up in almost every case.
Our first test came during the morning dog walk. I decided to test out a few of the included art filters on some of the shrubbery near the apartment. To my surprise, the built-in special effects filters provided by Olympus are actually quite good. Typically, cameras ship with corny and/or poorly implemented image effects, but from the first few shots (one pictured above) it quickly became apparent that the E-PM1 was no slouch in this area. These artistic filters are a great time saver for amateur photographers wanting to transfer their photographs directly from the camera to Flickr their favorite social network without having to spend copious amounts of time tooling around in a photo editor.
Art filters include: Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama and Dramatic Tone. I found each of these filters to be remarkably good out of the box. You can see a couple sets of shots where I zip through these filters in the linked Flickr set. So, whether you’re looking to give your subject a gritty black-and-white look, more of a vignette focus, or even a soft dreamy glow, this can be done on-camera without the need of an extreme amount of post editing.
The built-in scene modes are fairly standard but impressively implemented. Usually, these scene presets are just a little off the mark and rarely actually useful. With the E-PM1, I was surprised at just how well the presets worked in these given situations. There are 23 of these scene modes in total, including three scenes that are designed just for the Olympus conversion lenses.
Depth of Field
One important component to many photographers is how the camera performs depth of field. Thankfully, the E-PM1 does this remarkably well, even with the included kit lens. Comparing it to my Nikon D3000, also with a kit lens, the Olympus E-PM1 is leaps and bounds better at capturing depth of field.
Night shots are iffy on this system. While the ISO can be cranked up to 12800, the noise ratio anywhere above 1600 is fairly significant. The default automatic sensitivity settings range from 200-1600, so you’re fairly safe running the system on auto. You can choose to take 60 second exposures for those epic night shots that look great and have a great deal less noise, and for that the camera performs above par.
File Type and Size
Where the E-PM1 really shines for power users is in its ability to save images to 12-bit lossless RAW, a popular format used by professional photographers to maximize control over how the picture looks while editing in post. Essentially, it takes the image directly from the sensor as-is without any compression getting in the way of quality. RAW images saved at native resolution typically take up 13.9MB of your storage capacity.
You can also opt to save images in high-quality JPEG formats in variety of aspect ratios including 4:3, 16:9, 3:2, 6:6, and 3:4. If quality isn’t your primary concern, you can get image sizes down to about 0.3MB on a 1024×768 image (1/8 compressed).
The E-PM1 also supports 3D MPO captures so you can create 3D stills with a single lens by taking the shot and shifting the camera to the side.
Movie recording can be done in either AVCHD or AVI Motion JPEG. You can record in up to 1920×1080 60i at 20Mbps quality, with 60p 1280×720 also available if you’re not a huge fan of interlaced video.
The image sensor has an output of 30fps and the maximum size for AVCHD files is 4GB and 2GB for Motion-JPEG files.
The Olympus Pen Mini E-PM1 has a remarkably robust set of video features for such a small camera. This is one area where I’m not terribly convinced the E-PM1 brings great value to the table. Image stabilization built-in to the sensor means that having it on while walking, driving, or performing any other activity where the entire camera is subject to some jostling can result in a warbling effect. I drove around a parking lot with the camera and to my surprise the continuous autofocus was spot-on and absolutely flawless, but the wobble caused by various bumps and dips in the road (along with turning) was very obvious and difficult to get over. Even at the 720p setting, this pretty much rules out the Olympus E-PM1 for use as a field camcorder.
That said, if you have a tripod and just want to capture the moment at home without a lot of movement on the part of the camera operator, the video captured by the E-PM1 is on-par with the Kodak PlaySport, iPhone 3GS, and the Flip Ultra HD. You’ll probably see better results (albiet with less options) from the iPhone 4S and any traditional handheld camcorder from Canon or Sony. The Sony NEX cameras (from brief testing on my part) appear to be superior in the area of video.
1080 60i video is possible, though interlaced video presents a number of challenges during editing. Whether or not this small sacrifice is worth the 1080 60i capture is up to the user. I’d assume most video editors would prefer sticking with 720p capture at 30fps from a tripod.
The E-PM1 clocks in at about $450, making it one of the least expensive systems in its class. With hardware specs almost identical to the $200 pricier E-PL3, it is actually a good bargain for anyone wanting to get in on the new standard without spending an arm and a leg.
Similarly priced to the Sony NEX system, the decision becomes more about which specs matter most to you. The E-PM1 has a slight edge in terms of compatible lenses to choose from, being based on the open Four Thirds standard and having compatibility with a simple adapter, while the comparably-priced NEX packs a bit more in terms of on-body specs.
The Olympus E-PM1 continues to amaze me with both its incredible portability and impressive image quality. It features many of the manual controls that enthusiast photographers love while maintaining a simplicity that makes it a viable candidate for beginner photographers looking to expand their horizon beyond what point-and-shoot systems can deliver.
Olympus continues to be embroiled in a legal scandal involving an alleged scheme to cover up losses. As such, it is unclear what the outcome of that story may be, though one can only hope that these remarkable little cameras will continue to thrive in a market presently dominated by large, bulky DSLRs.
You can pick up an Olympus E-PM1 for yourself on Amazon for less than $450.