Review: Olympus Pen E-PM1

Our score: 4/5
Reviewed: October 17, 2011 11:00 PM
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Published: October 17, 2011 11:00 PM
By Franck Mée
Translated by: Catherine Barraclough
Alongside its P-series expert-level cameras and more affordable PL models, Olympus has also launched the Pen E-PM1, a simplified camera with fewer controls than its advanced counterparts. The E-PM1 is aimed at a wider range of consumers, including novice users who are used to the simple controls typically found in compact cameras. On the inside though, the E-PM1 is pretty much identical to the Pen E-PL3 and is therefore is likely to offer similar performances to this and other Olympus micro four-thirds cameras. Note that the E-PM1 is lined up as an almost direct rival for the Panasonic GF3.

Handling

With the large-format sensor and bulky zoom lenses imposed by the micro four-thirds format, making a camera that's compact, stylish, practical to hold and—above all—light, is no mean feat. Although there's no easy solution, Sony's NEX-5N and Panasonic's GF3 haven't done a bad job. Olympus has done pretty well here too, with a PM1 that's plain, simple, classic and timeless—especially this satin black model we tested. That said, grip could definitely be better, as the super-smooth camera body does tend to slip out of your hands. It's therefore practically impossible to use with just one hand.

That's all the more disappointing since, apart from that, the materials are pleasant, the product build and finish are very nice and the camera is a nice-looking piece of kit.

Olympus Pen E-PM1 test review

The same style prevails on the back of the camera, with simple round buttons and a large rubbery section on the right-hand side—unfortunately though, that's not quite enough to make up for the camera's slippery overall design.

The screen is nice and sharp and perfectly pleasant for lining up shots. However, it's not quite so trustworthy for sorting through and deleting snaps, as a darker shades have a blue overtone and light greys are soon washed out to white. Plus, colour fidelity is way off the mark with an average deltaE of 10.9.

The camera's interface can be quite contradictory. On the one hand, Olympus is clearly aiming this camera at novice users, as there's the same 'TV-style' page-based GUI as found in other PL cameras. Plus, the Live Guide mode offers beginners the chance to play around changing settings like 'brightness', 'colours' and 'background' rather than 'exposure', 'white balance' and 'depth of field'. However, you can only change one such setting at a time. Olympus really needs to do something about this interface (and soon!) to allow users to change more than one option, as combinations like high brightness and high saturation can be even more interesting.

On the other hand, the simplified camera controls can be counter-productive. In particular, as the E-PM1 doesn't have the same zoom buttons as other Pen cameras, you have to use the left and right arrow keys to zoom in on part of a picture in playback mode. In any other camera on the market, (including other Olympus models), these arrows are used for flicking through pictures from left to right (which can now only be done using the scroll wheel that surrounds the four-way arrows).

In our office, the jury's still out on the general menu, which displays the different shooting modes with a colourful illustrated background that changes from one mode to the next and with a pop-up bubble of handy information to help you choose the right mode ('it's like the Windows Vista of camera menus', according to our graphic designer). The Set-up menu, on the other hand is classic Olympus fare. Although it has been treated to a makeover and now too has help bubbles for assistance choosing the right option (which is a bit too intrusive, by the way), it still has endless lists of options, particularly when you activate the interminable customisation options.

Similarly, the PM1 sometimes has settings that aren't very clearly explained, such as the stabilisation modes IS2 and IS3. The information bubble tells us can that these can be used to create panning effects but we're still not sure how they actually do that.

Responsiveness

The Pen E-PM1 is nothing special in this field. It takes just over a second to start up (making it fair bit slower than the Pen E-P3), and the autofocus works well and reasonably consistently, even if it does get slower in low light. The burst mode shoots at four frames per second.

All in all, no-one is likely to lose patience with the E-PM1 as it's not painfully slow. However, you won't be blown away by its incredible speed either. It does its job, but nothing more.

Picture Quality

The E-PM1 isn't likely to hold any surprises here, as it has the same sensor as the rest of Olympus' Pen cameras, electronics taken straight out of the E-P3 and the same micro four-thirds kit lenses as other models in the range.

Olympus Pen E-PM1 review - ISO picture quality

Visibly, this camera handles noise in exactly the same way as the E-P3, a model aimed at more advanced users. The images above are practically interchangeable with those of the E-P3, with just one small difference: the 200 ISO shot isn't quite as sharp. This is no doubt caused by a variation in quality between the two different 14-42 mm kit lenses supplied with the cameras. Otherwise, you can happily snap away up to 1600 ISO and even the 3200 ISO setting can be used. Although the sensor is still relatively new, Olympus manages to put it to good use taking good-quality default Jpegs that are much better than those of the firm's previous generation cameras.


Strangely, another difference we noticed between the E-PM1 and the E-P3 was the stabilisation system, which actually turned out to work better in the E-PM1. It's still rather basic though—for example, it can't automatically detect when the camera is still or moving. In other words, when using the camera on a tripod or placed on a wall, you need to make sure you deactivate the stabilisation function manually. That seems a bit archaic when rival cameras take care of that kind of thing automatically.

Video

The first annoying thing we noticed was that the field of view is tighter in video mode than in photo mode. The 14-42 mm lens gives a maximum wide-angle setting that's equivalent to 28 mm in photo mode (a horizontal field of view of 64° in 4:3 format), while the maximum wide-angle in video mode drops to 33 mm (60° in 16:9 format). Worse still—with the stabilisation active, the wide-angle becomes an even tighter 38 mm and the E-PM1 barely 'sees' a scene any bigger than the average camcorder (products we often criticise for their less-than-wide angles). Plus, the stabilisation system distorts the image when you move the camera round to take in a panorama, for example.

Another thing we found was that when you press the photo shutter-release button while shooting video, the camera stops the video, switches to photo mode, takes a photo, then goes back to video mode and starts recording again. This rather complicated procedure cuts around a second out of the video. Given that the Olympus SZ-30 MR takes a picture while filming video with no interruption, that's a bit disappointing.

Other than that, the picture is clean, pretty sharp and detailed, and the autofocus works well in spite of an occasional pumping effect. Different sounds can be heard distinctly and are well positioned thanks to an effective stereo effect. There's a slight buzzing noise in the background of very quiet scenes, which could possibly come from the stabilisation system but, on the whole, it's not much of a problem.
4/5 Olympus Pen E-PM1 DigitalVersus 2011-10-18 00:00:00

Pros

  • Compact, stylish and well-made
  • Simple interface for beginners with fewer confusing controls
  • Good picture quality up to 1600 ISO
  • Screen is nice to use
  • Full HD video with decent stereo sound

Cons

  • Smooth, slippery surfaces and no grip handle
  • Interface can be annoying (e.g. pressing a button to activate ASM modes)
  • Menus are still too long, particularly with all the custom options
  • Video mode with no custom settings, no wide-angle and an image that's sometimes distorted
  • No built-in flash (external flash supplied)

Conclusion

The Olympus Pen E-PM1 is a decent little camera. We don't think it's been quite as successfully simplified as Panasonic's GF3 (we would have almost preferred no ASM modes at all!) and grip could definitely be improved. However, with the camera held in both hands and used in Auto mode, it's a simple and pleasant-to-use compact that takes decent pictures.

OUR SCORE 4/5
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