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Review | Olympus Pen E-PM1 Mini Micro 4/3 Camera User Review

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The Tiny Titan, the Olympus PEN E-PM1

In the latter part of 2011, Olympus launched three Digital PEN Micro 4/3 cameras at the same time. The top of the line Olympus PEN E-P3, the mid-tier PEN E-PL3, and the new Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini.

The three Olympus PENs share a lot of things in common internally. Most of what you get in the flagship Olympus E-P3 is available on the Olympus PEN E-PM1 as well, but with some key features omitted in the most affordable model such as the touch-screen feature, for example.

The key differences between the three models are primarily physical size, the features, as the sensor and image processor aren’t all that different, and the price.

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini Intro

The Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini caters to those who are looking to step beyond traditional pocket point-and-shoot camera but want the flexibility of interchangeable lenses and all the features than a larger sensor format brings without sacrificing portability.

Moving from a traditional, fixed-lens point-and-shoot, a Micro 4/3 system camera you’ll find that the image quality difference is very obvious, particularly in low-light. The response of the camera is much quicker, and the ability to change lenses open up a lot of creative opportunities as well.


The Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini is one of the smallest interchangeable lens camera in the market right now and has a sleek profile that doesn’t intimidate beginners as well.

The main advantage the flagship Olympus E-P3 has over the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini would be the controls, built-in flash, ergonomics, and touch screen interface. The main advantage of the Olympus E-PL3 over the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini would be having a better build, swivel/tilt screen. The main advantage of the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini over the two would be its size and weight.

Lastly, it’s an incredibly affordable package starting at under $450 for a basic body and kit lens.

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini Specs

Here are the key features and specifications of the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini:

  • Effective Resolution – 12.3 million pixels
  • Body Type – Interchangeable Lens Type Live View Digital Camera
  • Dust reduction – Supersonic Wave Filter (dust reduction system for image sensor)
  • File format – RAW (12-bit lossless compression), JPEG, RAW+JPEG, MPO (3D still)
  • Video Recording format – AVCHD / AVI Motion JPEG
  • Image stabilizer – System Built in (Imager shift image stabilizer)
  • LCD, AR(Anti-Reflection) coating, 3.0 inches 16:9, Approx. 460,000 dots, 100% coverage
  • AF system – Imager Contrast Detection AF system – 35-area multiple AF with the contrast detection system
  • Metering system – TTL Image Sensor metering system with (a) Digital ESP metering (324-area multi pattern metering) (b) Center weighted average metering; and (c) Spot metering (approx. 1% for the viewfinder screen. Highlight / shadow bases are available)

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Package

The Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini comes with the following:

  • Olympus PEN E-PM1 Body
  • Clip-on Flash Unit
  • BLS-5 Li-Ion Batter
  • BCS-1 Charger
  • USB/Video Multi cable
  • Shoulder strap
  • OLYMPUS Master CD-ROM
  • Paper Collaterals (Instruction manual and Warranty card)

Exterior

The Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini has a very minimalistic design – and very pretty too. A nice, streamline front that resembled pocket digital cameras and a large screen at the back are pretty much its main features in design. The buttons and dials are a little small to be used efficiently, but given that the camera is designed to replace a pocket digital camera, that is expected.

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Review

The camera to the right is a Panasonic Lumix TZ3 pocket digital camera for size comparison.

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Review

The top of the camera features a proper hotshoe that accepts the supplied tiltable small flash, any external Olympus, Panasonic, or third-party Micro 4/3 flash unit such as the Nissin Di466 for Micro 4/3. You can also see a pair of microphone holes as the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini records audio in stereo, as well as the power button, indicator, and shutter button. The blue power indicator is a bit on the bright side though.

The side hides the data connectors like the multi-purpose USB/AV out/remote control socket where you can use the Olympus’ RM-UC1 cable release, for example, and a mini-HDMI connector if you want to view the photos directly in your HDTV.

The bottom section contains the battery and memory card compartment as well as a tripod thread mount.

Build quality wise, the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini is decent and well built, but the case feels thin and hollow compared to the Olympus E-P3 and E-PL3, and even the Olympus XZ-1 point-and-shoot. I guess that keeps the weight low for the camera too.

The clip-on flash is rather interesting and useful, though I’d prefer to have an on-board flash since it kind of defeats the small, portable body of the Olympus PEN E-PM1. The clip-on flash looks very slick and pretty and it goes in via the standard Olympus accessory port where you can install the clip-on flash, the VF-2 viewfinder, or the PENPAL WiFi adapter. The clip on flash tilts up and down for some degree of control for bounce as well.

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Review

Lens

You can purchase the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini as a standard kit with the M.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 II R zoom lens or as a stand-alone, body-only package.

For all intended purposes, the standard kit lens package will be more than sufficient for most users. In this review, I used the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini with the M.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 II R zoom lens, M. Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f4.0-5.6 “R” Zoom Lens, as well as the superb M. Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f/2.0 prime lens.

The M.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 II R zoom lens focuses pretty quickly and accurately while providing more than respectable image quality and sharpness. There certainly isn’t too much to complain about other than the complex flaring pattern and a bit of a lens wobble that’s common in cheaper zoom lens. You can see some samples of this lens in my Olympus PEN E-P3 review as well.

Handling

The small size of the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini gives up handling and comfort that are present in the larger Olympus E-P3. The lack of hand/finger grip can be problematic if you’re wearing gloves or if you’re on-the-go as the smooth front doesn’t offer you a lot of traction for a secure grip.

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Review

Having said that, the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini was designed with a streamlined body in mind to mimic the look of a pocket digital camera. I just wished there’s a gentle rubber groove or something that lets my right fingers dig into for more confidence during one-hand shooting.

The rear of the camera is dominated by the large LCD screen, so the controls, already quite limited due to the small body size, pretty much rests where your thumb goes. That means quite a lot of accidental presses on the sensitive touch-wheel.

The rotating touch wheel also acts as a 4-way rocker button panel for most of the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini’s functions. The lack of physical buttons, like the Sony NEX series, for example, mean that changing frequently-used settings like ISO, white balance, etc. may take longer than necessary.

Again, something you have to accept with smaller cameras with no real-estate for more physical buttons.

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AF and Control UI

The Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini shares the same updated auto-focus system as the Olympus E-P3 and E-PL3, that means, it’s lighting fast and accurate in most situations. The auto-focus is really close to DSLR-fast in good light, and even in poor light, it’s acceptable even without an AF assist light. A far cry from what the first Olympus PEN E-P1 can do where the E-P1 can’t even lock focus as soon as the light is dim.

The face recognition does struggle a bit, however, and isn’t as ‘smart’ as other cameras I’ve used (even point-and-shoot) as it misses the face quite often and puts more weight on high-contrast areas. It works, but if you’re shooting a group of faces, it’ll most likely lock on the face with highest contrast rather than the face closest to the camera.

Olympus Pen E-PM1 Review

Again, due to the lack of more intuitive user interface, choosing focus points require you to press the AF-point selector button, then moving the focus square around the displayed grid, then pressing OK afterwards. A 3-step process that isn’t very quick in operation because the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini offers you 11-AF points to play with.

Compared to the more intuitive touch-screen AF point selector of the Olympus E-P3, it can be quite cumbersome if you like using just one AF point. Your best bet is to either leave it at full-auto AF selection or center-AF point only and then use focus-recompose technique.

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini User Interface

The user interface of the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini is still quite complex, like the other PEN series, but since it actually has a little less features in the menu system, it’s slightly easier to navigate. It’s still not an intuitive UI though.

Image Quality

As mentioned previously, since the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini shares most of its internals and lens options with the other two PEN cameras (E-P3 and E-PL3), there really aren’t that much surprises or differences. You can to revisit my opinion on the image quality of the Olympus E-P3, the results are practically identical for the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini.

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Review

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Review

The images are typical Olympus, particularly the JPEGs with rich, deep color saturation without clipping the main colors, great details in lower ISO and very pleasing out-of-the-box JPEG images.

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Review

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Review

I personally prefer the “Muted” color setting for most cases. I believe that setting matches reality the most, but for most scenes, the “Natural” color setting is indeed quite pleasing.

I’m not a big fan of the ART FILTERS of Olympus as they just destroy the original image too much for any recovery options if you want an ‘accurate’ original. In addition, it slows down the camera tremendously as well, so if you like to tinker with image settings, might as well do it on your computer with the supplied software.

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As an exception, however, the Monochrome Art Filter of Olympus never fails to impress me. The contrast and midtones are well rendered, as always.

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Review

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Review

Noise and Artifacts

Again, it’s the same as the Olympus E-P3 reviewed previously.

The noise reduction feature comes on by default and while it claims to be defeatable, it still applies some degree of NR, meaning, you’re actually losing some image sharpness just to maintain the clean, noise-free image. While for most people this is a good thing, those who want to control image noise manually on their computers (in return for more details), you’re out of luck.

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Review

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Review

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Review

The balance between noise and details hold up very well up to ISO 800 for larger prints, but starts getting smudgy and color starts to shift at ISO 1600. Do note that the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini still gives you very good photographs up to 8R even with ISO 3200, so for most people considering this camera, this should not be a big deal.

Verdict

The Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini is a wonderful package at a really superb price point. For about the same price as a prosumer fixed-lens digital camera like the Canon G12, Nikon P5100, Olympus’ own XZ-1 (review soon), you’re getting a lot for your money.

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Review

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Review

A large Micro 4/3 sensor, interchangeable lenses, great image quality, lighting-quick auto-focus system, Olympus is bound sell a lot of the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini. There’s not much to criticize about it if you just remember what segment of the market the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini targets, and if you’re looking for your first interchangeable lens camera that can fit in your jacket pocket, there’s no better option right now at this price than the Olympus PEN E-PM1 Mini.

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