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The Olympus E-PM1 is the entry point into the company’s 2011 interchangeable lens PEN lineup, complementing the higher-end E-PL3 and E-P3 options. The E-PM1, also known as the PEN Mini, is the smallest and most affordable of the group, but it retains many of the same features and roughly the same innards of its companion models.
That gives it performance similar to the more expensive PEN cameras, with some manual controls and features given up in the name of keeping the price down. The camera’s available in silver, white, purple, brown, pink and black, and debuts with a 14-42mm kit lens at a MSRP of just $499.
Design & Usability
The E-PM1 sports the PEN retro look in miniature, and sometimes style takes precedence over substance.
While we can appreciate the aesthetic motivations of 2011's minimalist cameras, we’re perplexed as to why manufacturers like Nikon (the J1) and Olympus continually eschew any form of front grip.
Olympus made the grip optional on the E-P3, utilizing a neat screw functionality that allows users to attach and detach custom grips at will, but the E-PM1 is left with a barren, slippery, brushed metal front. A long vertical strip of rubber is included on the back of the camera, but it doesn’t do much to provide secure handling.
The E-PM1 offers quite a bit for its entry level price, with a metal body, a hot shoe, a bundled external flash, a 14-42mm kit lens, and a Micro Four Thirds sensor/lens mount—features that both novice and advanced shooters can appreciate. The Micro Four Thirds lens family has grown substantially, too, with many options from Olympus, Panasonic, and third-party manufacturers (not to mention adapters to other lens mounts). The camera itself has a high build quality, with a durable feel to it, though it lacks the higher quality LCD monitors of the Olympus E-P3 and E-PL3.
The Olympus E-PM1 offers the same level of control you’d expect from an entry-level DSLR, all in a compact size.
Control on the E-PM1 is decidedly entry-level. There is no traditional physical mode dial, forcing users into the menu instead. Pressing the menu key is necessary to access all of the shooting modes, and then users will find art filters, full automatic modes, scene modes, traditional program auto, manual, and aperture/shutter priority modes.
For quality, users may select JPEG, RAW, and RAW+JPEG, at a maximum resolution of 12.3 megapixels, or various compressions and resolutions for JPEG images. The E-PM1 also offers in-camera RAW developing, which will produce a JPEG image that you can then edit in-camera.
On this topic, “JPEG edit” offers the following alterations: shadow adjust, redeye fix, cropping (with just a crop symbol), aspect ratio, black & white, sepia, saturation, resizing (again, with just a symbol), and e-portrait. Disappointingly, there aren’t options for applying the camera’s numerous art filters in playback, so you must select one of these before you take your shot.
You can definitely get some great images out of the E-PM1, but only if ISO is kept as low as possible.
The E-PM1 went through some ups and downs in testing. At its maximum ISO of 12800, the E-PM1 put up one of the worst noise scores we’ve ever seen. Thankfully, its noise reduction settings reined that in significantly, but for the best results, stick with lower ISOs.
We found the E-PM1 to be a very fast shooter, happily, with serviceable white balance accuracy and great long exposure performance. It also offered great sharpness results with its 14-42mm kit lens, though not without adding a heavy dose of digital sharpening after the fact, and therefore a heavy haloing effect around areas of contrast, as well.
As for color, the E-PM1 offered solid accuracy for a camera of its type—while not superb for an interchangeable lens camera, it’s an acceptable result for a camera that clearly favors more vivid, saturated colors. The camera struggled with blues and magentas, but skin tones remained natural and flush in the natural color mode, which we found to be the most accurate.
Since Olympus unveiled their 2011 PEN camera lineup, all eyes have been on the so-called “PEN Mini,” but we're not sure we like what we see.
The E-PM1 is the cheapest, most compact PEN yet, but it still comes with an image sensor that is nearly identical to Olympus’ top-of-the-line E-P3. When you add in all that for a debut price (with lens) just south of $500, you’ve got a very enticing package.
However, the E-PM1 doesn’t quite perform up to the same standard as the flagship E-P3. We think the lack of a grip is a serious design oversight, but at least the E-PM1’s menu system is far better than on older PEN cameras. In general, the E-PM1 offers enough automatic, creative, and manual control to generate mass appeal, and the control scheme shouldn’t intimidate beginners.
In terms of image quality, the E-PM1 struggles the most in low light. A maximum ISO speed of 12800 looks great on a spec sheet, but in this case, without noise reduction, anything above ISO 800 is practically useless. Noise reduction will allow users to shoot at ISO settings as high as 3200, but that will result in the loss of some fine detail, so it's a bit of a pickle, really.
In our select awards, we named the flagship model of this line, the Olympus E-P3, the mirrorless camera of the year. If you’re looking to save some cash and you don’t mind compromising here and there, the E-PM1 is an acceptable alternative. You'll save some money, but you'll also wind up with a mediocre LCD, a flimsy grip, and poor low light performance.
The mini-sized Olympus E-PM1 (MSRP $499) is a compact, entry-level system camera that rests at the bottom of Olympus' 2011 line-up. For a mirrorless system camera, it performed decently on our image quality tests, but it struggled through its ISO range where noise reduction was concerned.
While the E-PM1 performed very well in automatic white balance testing, we found it struggled a bit in custom white balance accuracy.
The Olympus E-PM1 produced a much cooler image than we like to see, even after testing multiple times. The camera struggled particularly in setting a custom white balance under fluorescent lighting, though it was still accurate under tungsten and daylight conditions.
Further, the E-PM1’s automatic white balance was not the most accurate we’ve seen in compact white fluorescent and daylight testing. The E-PM1’s high score was accomplished in incandescent lighting, which is often so warm that cameras fail to even come close to adjusting properly on the fly. The E-PM1, however, managed to adjust for tungsten lighting with a color error of just 75 kelvin, far more accurate than almost every camera we’ve tested.
The Olympus E-PM1 had difficulty managing noise at ISO speeds above 3200, relying on noise reduction to produce satisfactory images.
We found that the noise reduction was very much a necessary evil on the E-PM1. With no noise reduction applied, noise began to spike dramatically as soon as ISO 800, registering a staggering 9% chroma and 11% luma noise measurement by ISO 12800. For comparison’s sake, we would usually recommend users avoid any ISO speed that registers more than a 3% noise measurement, let alone three times that amount.
As you ramp up noise reduction, another stop of sensitivity becomes useable, producing acceptable images at ISO 1600 with low NR, 3200 with standard NR, and 6400 with high NR. The higher options are available too, but they all show more than 2.5% noise in the image, which is far from ideal.
The E-PM1 reproduced motion satisfactorily, with decent sharpness results that set it in line with its peers.
Motion was rendered quite smoothly on the E-PM1, though ghosting and signal interference was apparent on the RGB and monochrome pinwheels in our motion test. We did not notice a great difference in the motion results between the E-PM1 and the E-P3, so those looking only for video functionality may want to opt for the cheaper E-PM1.
The Full HD Fine 1080/60i shooting mode proved the best on the E-PM1, but we did notice artifacting throughout our motion test. There was some signal interference, but it was right in line with what we were expecting.