One of my favorite events of the year is the one where Olympus invites me to New York to document the U.S. Open tennis tournament with one of their brand new Micro Four Thirds PEN cameras. This year, I happened to be snapping away in the press dugouts with the Olympus E-PM1, documenting the likes of Novak Djokovic and Caroline Wozniacki as they flailed about on the Arthur Ashe court. Before I delve into the Olympus E-PM1 in this review, I'd like to mention that a professional sports photographer with gargantuan Nikon telephoto that sat next to Chris Gampat (thephoblographer.com) and I seemed to be far more enraptured with the little PEN than he was with Djokovic's frolicking. "What sensor size?" "Does it do video?" "That screen is nice." 'Wow, you can put a 300-600mm telephoto lens on that thing?"
Yes, the fact that Olympus E-Mount lenses are cross compatible amongst a multitude of the company's form factors is a very good thing, despite the fact that the E-PM1 looked obscene with a 600mm (35mm equivalent) Zuiko ED telephoto. And why did the E-PM1 look obscene? Because the little bugger rivaled an iPhone 4 in terms of height and width. In fact, the Olympus E-PM1 was granted the same luscious sensor found in the Olympus E-P3, in addition to many of the same manual controls. The main sacrifices were less external controls and covertly hidden manual controls, but that's because the camera's intended audience is of the student/beginner persuasion. If you find yourself at the intersection of Fixed-Lens Avenue and Interchangeable Lens Boulevard, the Olympus E-PM1 is a highly capable chariot that will make you want to be chauffeured down the latter, never looking back.
Olympus PEN E-PM1 Pros
- Stellar image quality, parallel to the PEN E-P3
- Lightning quick startup time
- Most portable PEN yet
- Bodacious Bang for the Buck
Olympus PEN E-PM1 Cons
- Certain advanced controls require an archeological dig in the menus to find
- Tracking focus danced around like an unstable electron
- No built-in flash
Best For: Students, Budget Hobbyists, and any photographer looking to take the step from a fixed lens compact to an interchangeable lens system.
Company Website: http://www.olympusamerica.com/cpg_section/product.asp?product=1571
Suggested Retail Price: The Olympus E-PM1 body, 14-42mm M.ZUIKO zoom lens and modular popup flash retails for $500 for the whole kit and caboodle.
Olympus PEN E-PM1 Design
Olympus is doing something quite groundbreaking with its latest batch of PEN pals, and the E-PM1 is a lucky son of a gun as a result. The company is standardizing the brand new 12-megapixel Live MOS sensor within the most recent PEN cameras, meaning the E-PM1 gets the same chip found in the flagship E-P3. Therefore, the only differences between all three new PENs have to do with size and features. The Olympus E-PM1's body rivals that of the company's fixed-lens XZ-1, in addition to several performance point-and-shoot models. In fact, the E-PM1's length fell just below that of an iPhone 4's when stacked up together, showcasing the fact that this is the company's most compact and portable PEN to date.
With size as the main entrée, the Olympus E-PM1 must sacrifice certain external designs and shooting features in order to retain its petite figure. For instance, the camera is not equipped with a built-in flash, mode dial or other ancillary controls. Much to my surprise, Olympus included an external hot shoe flash in the kit, which is almost always a separate accessory that must be purchased. The circular Control dial/4-way directional pad located in back is the camera's only steering wheel with Video Record, Menu, Info and Playback buttons as second in command. In addition, the E-PM1 does not carry down the touchscreen magic found on the E-P3's LCD. We get a 3-inch widescreen LCD with a meager 460,000-pixel display that could have used a definite resolution boost.
Although shooting with the E-PM1 rang closer to a Canon PowerShot G12 or Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, the best part about the littlest PEN was that is accepted every single Micro Four Thirds Olympus lens within the family. That's why that 300-600mm telephoto was so obscene on such a tiny frame of a camera. Some of you may not know this, but since Panasonic and Olympus developed Micro Four Thirds technology together, there are Panasonic lenses that will fit on PEN cameras, and vice versa. I was lucky enough to get the 12mm f/2.0 Snap Focus lens, in addition to a 40-150mm telephoto and 14-42mm kits lens. Like its larger siblings, the Olympus E-PM1 has Mini HDMI and USB/AV Out terminals and captures RAW/JPEG images and AVCHD/Motion JPEG videos to SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards.
Olympus PEN E-PM1 Shooting Features
When I heard Olympus was spawning its most miniscule PEN to date, I immediately assumed that the camera would be a watered-down version of the E-P3 and E-PL3. But that was not the case with the E-PM1. I was still able to harness that 60-second shutter speed for long exposures, manually adjust Kelvin temperatures and dial the ISO all the way up to 12,800. These were shooting features that followed the 12-megapixel Live MOS sensor from the E-P3, and they were quite welcome this time around as well. Of course, there were a few limitations on the E-PM1 that held the camera back from the more advanced crowd.
First of all, there were certain controls that required prolonged trips into the bowels of the menus to access. I could not simply tap a shortcut to activate the on-screen grid—I had to make several spins and clicks with the Control dial to do so. Histogram, ISO/EV step and fps burst mode settings lived in that covert little cave referred to as the Setup menu as well. Although the more refined controls were difficult to access, the fact that they were available meant Olympus did not shortchange advanced photographers. While we're talking about whittling, Olympus granted the E-PM1 with the original 6 Art filters—the same ones found on the debut E-P1. While these Art filters were certainly fun to shoot with, some of our most prized favorites like Cross Process had run off to the E-PL3 and E-P3.
I did fancy the newly designed Main Menu, which was divvied up into columns containing Art, iAuto, SCN (Scene Modes), Movie, Advanced Modes (P, S, A, M) and Setup. iAuto mode included Live Guide, which provided aids for novice shooters such as Blur Background and Change Brightness. Like the E-P3, the E-PM1 had the ability to capture 3D images by taking two and combining them together, and the camera's Auto Focus was blazingly fast within its 35-point range. To make life easier, the side panel menu could be expended to expose a grid menu that featured all of the controls at once for rifling through and adjusting quickly with the Control dial. Gradation, Saturation, Sharpness, Contrast and Color Space could be adjusted on the fly, thanks to this menu, and I found myself using it as the primary menu.
Olympus PEN E-PM1 Image Quality
Any of you who saw my review of the Olympus E-P3 will be reliving the same thrills, chills and spills in this section. The Olympus E-PM1 retains the 4/3-size 12-megapixel Live MOS sensor with TruePic VI image processing. This is the same sensor found on the mightier two PENs, and once again proved that Olympus has a winner in the imaging department. With such a steep 12,800 ISO level and larger sensor, the E-PM1 was able to illuminate in several places where an advanced point-and-shoot with a 1/1.6-inch sensor would not be able to. I found ISO 1600 performances to be the optimal cap, though I was able to attain some fairly impressive images shot at ISO 3200. ISO 6400 and 12,800 were, of course, a bit of a blizzard fest in terms of noise and color loss, though certain shots were still usable for scaled-down web images.
The niftiest thing about the E-PM1's TruePic VI processor is that it's a dual-core, storing an image whilst simultaneously gearing up for the next shot. Despite this, I found that long exposure images still required the corresponding shutter speed time to process (a 45-second shutter will take 45 seconds to process before the next shot shooting RAW). In addition to RAW and JPEG images, the Olympus E-PM1 offered 1080i AVCHD video at 60fps and 720p video at 60fps and 30fps. Motion JPEG was available, but why would anyone in their right mind want to shoot in that deplorable format? Motion JPEG should be exterminated from the digital camera world.
As you can see in the sample images, I shot more like a novice photographer, relying on iAuto and Art modes to propel me throughout the testing itinerary. The Olympus E-PM1 performed just like the E-P3 when it came to image quality. And like the E-P3, detail and color were fantastic in optimal lighting. Gradation was smooth, thanks to the E-PM1's pixel binning technology, and overall image quality matched the E-P3, so you can use the test images in that review to cross-reference. I did have to dial down the Exposure Compensation in certain types of overenthusiastic illumination, so be sure to have a finger on that control. Also, RAW quality trumped JPEG a bit, but the included Olympus conversion software was buggy and I felt as though I could have gotten better RAW conversion results with a superior program. Other than that, the fact that a sensor configuration and glass combo exists at this price range is a very awesome thing.
AVCHD video quality was top notch, even in low light, and the stereo microphone succeeded in sucking up high quality audio. I loved the fact that I could shoot in various Art modes and apply manual controls like ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture while shooting. The only issue I had with the Olympus E-PM1 during video recording was the fact that its Continuous Auto Focus wandered a bit. I remedied this by taking advantage of the 12mm Snap Focus lens and manually adjusting. Overall, video quality is one of the most profound improvements on all of the latest PEN cameras this year. And now, without any further adieu, Noah Kravitz tests the low light capabilities of the Olympus E-PM1:
[hana-code-insert name='E-PM1 video' /]
Olympus PEN E-PM1 Conclusion
The Olympus E-PM1 is the Mini Me of the PEN persuasion. It's the smallest PEN to date, yet it retains the company's latest 4/3 sensor found on the most expensive model. And the fact that the Olympus E-PM1 is $500 with a 14-42mm lens and portable hot shoe flash is just absurdly delightful. Considering the fact that the company's fixed lens performer, the XZ-1 can be found for $450 online, the E-PM1 is a killer buy by any standards. Competition in this price range comes from the Sony NEX-3, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 and Samsung NX-100, but the Olympus E-PM1 is one of the best options in that lot.
My friend is a professional photographer and picked up an Olympus E-P2 a month ago after it went on sale with the release of the E-P3. The images he is capturing with that little PEN belong in magazines, so that's testament that wonderful things can be achieved with one of Olympus' 4/3 snappers. While the Olympus E-PM1 will most likely not fill the role of a ready, willing and able sidekick to a pro, the camera proved itself as a budget-friendly portal into the word of interchangeable lens cameras. Students, photography enthusiasts and any shooter looking to transcend the fixed-lens point-and-shoot neighborhood will be very happy with this little PEN.