Olympus E-PM1 First Look: US Open 2011

by Reads (60)

The new Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini is the newest and smallest member of the Pen Micro Four Thirds family. With streamlined controls and fewer dials, it’s designed to appeal to a compact point-and-shoot user who’s looking for a little more. Or the advanced shooter who wants a small, minimally fussy camera to throw into a suitcase on the way out the door. Or a budding photographer looking for a lightweight system with lots of lens options. Or…

Olympus E-PM1

Clearly the E-PM1 has a lot of appeal. We gave the new Pen Mini a test run at the 2011 US Open, covering the grounds from the top of Arthur Ashe to the dugouts behind the courts. Read on for some full-production samples and first impressions.

The E-PM1 itself is remarkably small. My impression of the slimness of the camera never wore off. The camera weight is almost worth disregarding – what matters more is the lens you attach. It balances out nicely with the kit lens. Since size (or lack thereof) is the E-PM1’s biggest difference from other Pen cameras, know that those with big hands looking for a solid grip will not like holding the E-PM1. It’s designed for portability and mobility, and though I didn’t have any trouble getting accustomed to it for an afternoon of shooting, other shooters may find it hard to grip.

Olympus E-PM1

During my testing, I primarily used the M.Zuiko Digital 12mm f2 wide angle prime and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm f4.8-6.7 super telephoto zoom. Naturally, the 75-300mm is hard to keep stable in your hands. Use of the EVF accessory was helpful – bringing the camera up to your eye allows you to brace it and keep it steadier.

The sheer small-ness and range of the lens is impressive. It dominates the slim Pen Mini, but it’s small enough to be carried in any bag or purse. A 600mm lens at your fingertips just in case you need it? That’s a feat. And I was impressed by some of the images I was able to capture using that lens on the top walkways of Arthur Ashe Stadium. Sharpness is good, though in the samples below, the E-PM1 was responsible for some additional sharpening. A combination of ample available light and a good image stabilization system kept my images free of blur.

Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image

Bring the 75-300mm and Pen Mini down on the court though, and you’ll remember why the pros bother to lug around all of those heavy lenses. The 75-300 and Pen present some frustrations trying to keep up with fast sports action. While the AF system is much, much improved over previous Pen models, it’s just not robust enough for any serious sports shooting. Will it keep up with a child’s soccer game? Yes. Andy Murray’s backhand? Not every time.

Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image

The 75-300mm went a long way to provide great close-ups from the sidelines and the dugouts behind the court, but when action sped up, it was too slow most of the time. That said, hardly anyone shopping for the E-PM1 will have to worry about keeping up with pro sports. And no matter what you’re shooting, the variety that the Micro Four Thirds system of lenses offers is strong. 

More than pro sports photography, a feature that many Pen Mini users will be interested in is the selection of art filters. Using certain filter modes with previous-gen Pens was, at times, excruciatingly slow. The effects of the filter are visible on-screen, and some of the filters slowed down LCD framerates to a crawl. This problem has been all but eliminated in the E-PM1 and likewise the E-PL3 and E-P3. The art filters are fun, effortless and they function without slowing down the camera. I put the pinhole and diorama effects to use from the tip-top of the stadium.

Aside from the art filters, various processing modes are available in camera. The default setting is Natural. For a more saturated look, the vivid setting will make reds, greens and blues pop with some additional sharpening and saturation. It verges on overly saturated and had a tendency to clip reds, but the point-and-shoot consumer set may like it better. There are enough adjustments to saturation, sharpness, color temperature and contrast to please just about anyone.

HD video is easy to start and stop. The Pen Mini records full 1080 HD video at up to 60i or 60p in AVCHD format. One of the few physical buttons on the E-PM1’s back panel is a dedicated video record button. Frame, focus and start rolling. There’s only a couple of seconds’ delay switching into video, and you’ll have to be careful with your framing since the camera crops into the sensor for video. The results though are fluid and sharp.

Be careful, though, of which focus mode you use. Continuous AF will occasionally bring an in-focus image out of focus and back. For video shooting, select a single AF point and keep it there for best results.

We’ve covered the Open and now we’re off and running with a full review. Check back shortly for the full analysis, and until then, check out some more sample images below.

Additional Sample Images

Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image

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