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Olympus E-PM1 Review
by Jim Keenan -  9/22/2011

Along with two new stable mates (E-P3, E-PL3) the Olympus PEN E-PM1 (PM1) is the latest addition to the Olympus mirrorless fleet, targeting "first-time interchangeable lens digital camera users." The PM1 is the smallest, lightest, and most portable PEN camera to date - and has been dubbed the "PEN mini" by Olympus.

Olympus E-PM1


"Mini" also applies to the MSRP of $500, making the PM1 the lowest priced of the current PEN offerings (although Olympus has recently established a $500 "sale" price for their E-PL1 model). The three new cameras share image capture hardware basics: a new 12.3 megapixel CMOS sensor, the latest generation TruePic VI image processor, high ISO settings of 12800, full 1080i HD video with Dolby Digital sound recording and reengineered autofocus systems. The camera has a RAW shooting capability. Feature sets (and in the case of the EP-3 body shape) are the major points to differentiate the models with the PM1 being the least feature-rich of the three.

Olympus claims the new FAST (frequency acceleration sensor technology) autofocus (AF) system provides a "speed rivaling that of the professional Olympus E-5 DSLR" - the system features 35 separate focus points spread over nearly the entire sensor, "enabling pinpoint focusing accuracy on small subjects wherever they appear in the frame." Additionally, selectable 3 x 3 groups within the 35 point area are reported to be especially effective when shooting active subjects.

Elsewhere, the camera features in-body sensor-shift stabilization; a 3.0-inch LCD monitor; automatic, scene, full manual, and 3D shooting options as well as an accessory port that can accommodate a number of optional devices including an electronic viewfinder. High speed continuous shooting is at 5.5 frames per second (fps) at full resolution. The camera utilizes SDHC, SDXC or UHS-1 memory media, and comes packaged in kit form along with the M.ZUIKO Digital 14-42mm zoom lens. With the PM1's 2x crop factor that translates to a 28-84mm focal range (35mm equivalent) - here's a look from both ends of the zoom.

Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Wide Angle 24mm

Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Telephoto 42mm

Olympus includes a strap, USB and A/V cables, lithium-ion battery and charger, flash and flash case, basic printed instruction manual and CD-ROM software with each camera. A complete camera manual is available on the CD-ROM.

While the PM1 may have the most basic feature set of the three new Olympus mirrorless models, the image capture stream is composed of the same parts as the flagship E-P3. Let's see how this junior member of the new PEN offerings does in the field.

BUILD AND DESIGN
Absent a lens and any attachments in the accessory port, the PM1 body is basically rectangular with rounded edges measuring approximately 4.31 x 2.5 x 1.33 inches. The 14-42 zoom adds about 3.0-inches to that 1.33-inch figure with the lens fully extended, but the overall package is still quite compact, and weighs in at about 9.34 ounces with battery, lens and memory card on board.

Olympus E-PM1

The body is metal and available in six colors: purple, pink, brown, black, silver and white - designed to appeal to the "fashion-sensitive younger generation." Our review model was the black variation and its lightly textured black matte paint was nicely offset by brushed silver accents along the camera top and lens mount. Build quality, fit and finish looked good, and appropriate for the price point.

Ergonomics and Controls
While that matte black paint was attractive it also offered nothing to help improve the grip on the body. The PM1 has a thin strip of rubberized material along the right edge of the camera back, but it's fairly slick and too small to be of help. The right front of the camera body is an empty expanse of paint that would benefit from a patch of tacky rubberized stuff.

Olympus E-PM1

The Olympus website trumpets ease-of-use as a major PM1 feature, and in keeping with this philosophy external controls are at an absolute minimum: on/off and shutter buttons on the camera top; on the back dedicated movie capture, info, menu and playback buttons along with a an arrow pad/control dial incorporating exposure compensation, flash, sequential shooting/self-timer and AF target buttons.

Olympus E-PM1

All three of the new PEN cameras offer "live guide," but the target audience of the PM1 is apt to benefit most from its use: "Designed for users who do not have expert knowledge of photography but want to have creative control over their pictures, live guide lets users shoot the pictures they want by selecting an icon and operating a slide bar to control the major factors for the SLR photography including color vividness, color balance, image brightness, depth of field (blur background) and subject in motion." Live guide is available in iAuto mode and can preview the changes created by the inputs prior to image capture. Here's a quick tour of the live guide interface, starting with the iAuto shooting screen:

Olympus E-PM1

Pushing the "OK" in the arrow pad/control dial gives us the live guide menu, which in this case happens to be set on "change brightness."

Olympus E-PM1

Users can scroll to the icon of their choice (top to bottom: color saturation, color image, change brightness, blur background, express motions, shooting tips), but we'll stay with brightness and push "OK" again.

Olympus E-PM1

Live guide has given us a slider on screen that we can scroll up or down to lighten or darken the image. We choose to scroll to the brightest setting and can see the results.

Olympus E-PM1

Going the other way darkens the image.

Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image

Automatic shooting modes typically allow little in the way of user inputs, but live guide pushes that generally narrow performance envelope quite a bit further.

Folks shooting in P, A, S, M or movie mode have access to "live control" to adjust settings and preview the effect of the changes as well. Pushing the "OK" button in the manual or movie modes brings up a number of shooting setting icons on the screen and you can then scroll to items like stabilization mode, picture mode, white balance, single or continuous shooting, image aspect ratio, image size, movie capture mode, flash setting and compensation, exposure metering mode, autofocus mode, ISO and face/eye priority AF.

That image aspect ratio setting is pretty cool - the PM1 can capture still images in the following aspect ratios: 4:3 (default), 3:4, 6:6, 3:2 or 16:9. Here's a look at those choices, which can come in handy trying to capture subjects of unusual shape or size.

Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
4 X 3
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
3 X 2
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
3 X 4
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
6 X 6
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
16 X 9

Menus and Modes
"Ease of use," "simplified control," "excellent shots - effortlessly"- anyone see a pattern developing here? Despite sharing the basic sensor, processor, lens, and many of the features of its higher-priced siblings, Olympus has chosen to emphasize the easy factor with the PM1. Go to the Olympus website and bring up the E-PL3 and "professional image quality" is the headline for that camera (with "ease-of-use" relegated to fourth place behind "blazing speed" and "creative freedom"). I haven't been hands-on with the E-PL3 or E-P3, but since all three of the newly introduced PEN cameras feature redesigned user interfaces it's probably safe to assume that the menu structure of the PM1 will not be totally alien to folks shooting a PL3 or P3. Here's a quick look at portions of the new menu interface.

Push the menu button on the PM1 and you're taken to this screen, which shows the camera happens to be set in aperture priority shooting mode. The user can then scroll to the other shooting modes or the setup menu as needed.

Olympus E-PM1

Scrolling to "set up" and pushing the OK button in the control dial brings up this screen which provides access to shooting, playback, custom, accessory port and setup menus. The custom and accessory port menus may be disabled so they do not appear.

Olympus E-PM1

From the original screen, let's say we scroll to the scene menu.

Olympus E-PM1

Pushing the okay button produces our scene shooting options and shows in this case the camera happens to be set in portrait mode.

Olympus E-PM1

The PM1 menus are relatively simple and intuitive, and probably my chief complaint would center on the size of the typeface used in the setup menu - in bright light the relatively fine print can be difficult to see on the monitor. The other menus offer icons and explanations of the various settings and these are a little easier to see.

Shooting modes are typical for cameras in this class: automatic and scene shooting options along with full manual controls and HD video. Olympus divides these options into two groups - easy shooting consisting of the automatic, scene, and art filter modes and advanced shooting which incorporates the manual exposure modes.

Here's a peek at the six art filter shooting options:

Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Pop Art
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Soft Focus
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Grainy Film
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Pinhole
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Diorama
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Dramatic Tone

Display
The 3.0-inch LCD monitor has an antireflective coating and 460,000 dot composition. Area of coverage looks to be approximately 100% for image capture and 100% for playback. The monitor is adjustable for 15 levels of brightness. In our studio measurements the monitor recorded a 508 nit peak brightness level and a 1016:1 contrast ratio. The 508 peak brightness level is above the 500 nit threshold that we like to see for this value, and the contrast ratio is well above the 500 to 800:1 optimal range for contrast.

Olympus E-PM1

In practice, the PM1 monitor proved fairly useful in bright outdoor conditions although there were still occasions when Mother Nature was able to overwhelm the monitor and make image capture or review a difficult prospect. Since we started including peak brightness and contrast ratios in our camera reviews it seems the better performing monitors have a few things in common, notably a 3.0-inch size threshold and high dot composition - particularly 900,000 dots and up. High contrast ratios also seem to squeak better performance out of monitors that register relatively low in peak brightness. So while the PM1 comes up a bit short on monitor resolution, it size and high contrast seem to be helping out.

There is an electronic viewfinder available from Olympus that can be mounted on the camera's accessory port and would probably be my first add-on were I to purchase a PM1. The downside is by installing an EVF you lose the ability to mount the flash - but unless you're shooting the flash as fill light, you're probably not going to miss it in the bright outdoor conditions that make the EVF so nice to have.

PERFORMANCE
As a third generation PEN digital, the PM1 stands to inherit all that Olympus has learned through refinements to the earlier cameras as well as the inexorable march forward of technology. Let's see what the PEN offers in its third time at bat.

Shooting Performance
One thing the PM1 has not inherited is a DSLR-class start up time. The camera takes about 2.25 seconds to display the shooting screen, with a first shot coming around 2.6 seconds. Single shot to shot times with a 95 MB/second SDHC memory card ran about 1 second, chiefly because the PM1 monitor has a short blackout period after each shot.

The PM1 captured 11 fine quality, large JPEG files in 2 seconds at its continuous high-speed shooting mode of 5.5 fps before the buffer slowed. Write time for those 11 shots with the 95 MB/sec card was about 3.5 seconds. Make image quality a RAW/JPEG combo and you get 8 shots in continuous high-speed with about a 9 second write time.

Swap the 95 MB card for a 45MB/sec model and the camera manages 10 JPEG shots before things slow. Write time for the 10 shots is also about 3.5 seconds. Finally, a class 10 30MB/sec card produced eight JPEG shots before the buffer slowed, and also took about 3.5 seconds to write. Clearly, the PM1 benefits from faster memory media to a degree, but individual users will have to determine if the incremental gains are worth the added expense for that fast card. If you don't habitually shoot continuous high-speed captures, you might be perfectly happy with the money saving class 10 or slower card. The 5.5 fps continuous shooting rate is predicated upon image stabilization being switched off. With stabilization enabled the camera manages about 4 fps.

When to stabilize? Before the advent of stabilization the rough rule of thumb for hand holding a camera was to set a shutter speed that was the inverse of the camera lens's focal length - a 50mm lens would be 1/50th of a second, for example. With the field of view provided by the 50mm lens, the 1/50th of a second shutter would be quick enough to cancel camera shake induced by the user, assuming the user had a reasonably stable hold. In the case of the PM1 with its 14-42 zoom lens and 2x crop factor, we are looking at a focal range from 28-84 mm and so with a reasonably steady hold should be able to produce an image free from camera shake by pairing the actual focal length with a shutter speed in the 1/30th to 1/90th of a second range. If you're unable to generate a shutter speed to complement the focal length you're shooting at then it might be time to enable stabilization.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon 1 J1 0.01
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 0.01
Olympus E-PM1 0.01
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.05


AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-PM1 0.19
Nikon 1 J1 0.21
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 0.22
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.39

Continuous Shooting
Camera Frames Framerate*
Olympus E-PM1 11 5.5
Nikon 1 J1 28 5.1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 20 4.2
Sony alpha NEX-5 2.6

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

Shutter lag on the PM1 is a quick 0.01 seconds and AF acquisition time was nicely speedy 0.19 seconds. AF acquisition predictably slowed up a bit in dimmer light. There is a focus assist lamp.

The external flash provided with the PM1 has a guide number of 10 meters (32.8 feet) at 200 ISO, which translates into a flash range of about 9.3 feet at wide-angle and about 5.85 feet at telephoto with the 14-42mm lens used for this review. The guide number is about average for this class of camera, and not overly powerful, but the flash range increases as ISO levels rise and as we'll see later the PM1 can tolerate higher ISO levels without extracting too harsh a penalty in terms of noise. Flash recycle times ran anywhere from about 3.5 seconds to almost 7 seconds depending on the nature of the flash discharge.

As this review is being written the Olympus website has still not published a battery life expectancy for the PM1. The E-PL3 is listed with a 300 shot life expectancy and the PM1 uses the identical battery, so one would expect a similar performance. Carry at least one spare for all day shooting sessions just to be safe.

Lens Performance
The M.Zuiko Digital zoom that came with the PM1 turned in a pretty good performance optically - there was just the faintest hint of barrel distortion at wide-angle and an even slighter amount of pincushion distortion at telephoto. The lens was quite uniformly sharp at both wide-angle and telephoto with perhaps just a hint of softness in the corners. There was chromic aberration (purple fringing) present in some shots with high contrast boundary areas at wide-angle and in the worst cases the effect was noticeable at 200% enlargement. The telephoto end of the lens demonstrated little if any problems in this regard.

Video Quality
Full HD video quality was quite good in the PM1 and the camera features a handy one push video capture capability with the dedicated video button. The camera will record the noise of the zoom being manually operated, but Olympus offers Micro Four Thirds lenses that feature nearly silent autofocus for video capture - such lenses are designated as "MSC" (movie and still compatible). The camera's CMOS sensor showed a tiny bit of rolling shutter effect on some exaggeratedly fast pans, but in normal usage the camera does quite well with this aberration.

Download Sample Video

Image Quality
With Olympus marketing the PM1 towards an entry-level user base, I opted to shoot many of the still captures used for this review in the iAuto mode. Default images out of the camera were quite good as to color rendition and sharpness - photos produced by the iAuto setting seldom left me wishing for more sharpness or contrast.

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

I also grabbed a couple shots of the fireworks display at Disneyland using the fireworks scene mode.

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

The Olympus picture mode offers manual shooters five color options along with monochrome and custom settings. Here are the iEnhance, vivid, natural, muted, portrait, and monotone variations.

Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
iEnhance
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Vivid
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Natural
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Muted
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Portrait
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Monochrome

Auto white balance was used for all the images captured for this review and did a good job across the wide variety of light, including incandescent. Our studio shot with 5500K fluorescent lighting looks a little warm to me, but when I shot some subjects under fluorescent light at home the color balance looked good so I'm going to give the PM1 the benefit of the doubt. In addition to auto there are sunny, shadow, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent, underwater, flash, two custom white balance settings and a Kelvin temperature setting.

Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Digital ESP metering is the default in the PM1 and was used for virtually all the images in this review, with the exception of some manual exposures after dark. The system meters exposure in 324 areas of the frame and optimizes exposure for the current scene. There are center weighted and spot options available, along with spot options for highlight or shadow control.

ISO performance with the PM1 was good, up to a point - the difference between 200 and 400 was virtually undetectable and manifested itself primarily in minutely sharper fine details in some areas of the frame. ISO 400 to 800 offers a bit more dissimilarity, with the threads in the bear's nose just about lost as a brown blob. ISO 800 to 1600 is more of the same, colors overall remain bright and vibrant with fine details becoming just a bit softer but still fairly good overall.

Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
ISO 200
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
ISO 400
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
ISO 800
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
ISO 6400
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
ISO 6400
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
ISO 12800
Olympus E-PM1 Sample Image
ISO 12800

ISO 3200 looks to be the tipping point on the PM1 sensor - noise is visibly up all across the frame and fine details are more compromised than in any previous step. The jump to 6400 sees overall colors becoming somewhat faded and in the case of the deck of cards shifting almost from a dark blue towards black. ISO 12800 is clearly suitable only for occasions when nothing else will work - noise ramps up significantly over 6400, fine details are largely a memory, and the blue deck of cards is definitely looking black to me now. The PM1 does pretty well through 1600, so-so at 3200, with 6400 and especially 12800 best left in the camera unless there's absolutely, positively no other way to get the shot.

Additional Sample Images

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

CONCLUSIONS
Olympus started the mirrorless interchangeable lens digital movement and with three new entries into this market niche shows no sign of wishing to cede this territory to more recent arrivals. While the PM1 is nominally the entry-level model in this newly introduced triumvirate, a lot of the performance hardware and features of its higher-priced siblings are present in the PM1 as well.

There's a fairly quick autofocus system, good shutter lag time and full manual controls to go with the requisite automatic and scene shooting options. Still image quality is good and video performance is very good. Menus and controls are simple and intuitive, and the live guide feature allows users a degree of input into automatic captures not usually found in most digitals.


The finish on the camera body has a somewhat slick feel to it and does not inspire confidence in one's grip - the PM1 is a definite candidate to always wear its camera strap. ISO performance, while good in the lower sensitivities was a bit disappointing at 3200. It's also a bit slow to power up and get off a first shot, and single shot to shot times are slowed by a brief monitor blackout after each capture.

If you're already shooting a PEN camera you'll be the best judge of whether the latest generation brings enough to the table to get you to move into a new body. If you're looking to acquire your first mirrorless interchangeable lens model the field is getting more crowded with brands and models, but the PM1 offers some fairly impressive performance at a fairly bargain price.

Pros:

Cons: