E-PM1 Pen Mini, the little Olympus that almost could.
The E-PM1 promised quite a lot when it was first launched. Image quality of a dslr all bundled into a compact little camera that looks like a proper camera should. It may have been the baby of the Olympus line, but it had the guts of its more expensive siblings and to that effect, while it may not have had the external controls of the bigger pens, the image quality should be exactly the same. And that was what drew it to my attention. As much as i favor my Nikon D200 dslr, it is one big heavy camera. I dont skimp on the lenses either , which makes it even more so bulky. In the recent past, as ardent of a hobbyist that i may be, i find myself lugging it about less and less often. With two active boys, who i primarily take pictures of, the speed of operation of a dslr is paramount. Quick focus and the near absence of a shutter lag of a dslr ensures that i get what i see at the moment i see it. That fleeting look on a childs face that will never keep still,… Ever.
The E-PM1 is quite a looker, sculpted to be a camera as much as a fashion accessory. It is considerably smaller than any dslr, not just without having a big old mirror out of the way, but its slightly smaller micro four thirds sensor lends itself to a smaller body and lens combination. The simplified uncluttered button layout will not intimidate even the most jittery technophobe. In fact it invites the user to pick it up and use it. On paper it was to be the perfect point and shoot solution for an enthusiast like myself. Something the wife and kids could quite simply pick up and use without giving much thought to the photographic process, yet provide me with as much creative control that i could want. Other review sites have given more in depth reviews including specs and detailed description of the physical camera and the firmware that lies within, so im not going to elaborate on any of that. This is merely my point of view of having used it for close to 8 months. If your needs are anything like my needs, then this opinion piece will help you decide if this is for you.
As i said previously, the camera itself is physically a joy. Its compact and exudes quality. No gripes at all except that Olympus could have added a bit of a grip to the front to aid in holding it better. It is a bit fiddly to hold at the best of times. I use a hand strap to give me piece of mind against accidental drops. You would think that all would be well and this was the perfect camera to tote along just about everywhere. Its collapsible kit zoom lens, while not really well spec’d starting at a measly f3.5 on the wide end more than made up for it by collapsing when not in use making it remarkably small. Its by no means shirt or pant pocket friendly but you could fit it in a jacket pocket easily enough. I went one further and got a Panasonic 14mm F2.5 lens to further reduce the over all dimensions. Its a fixed length pancake lens thats very definitely small.
It should have all come together quite nicely and i really should have been a very happy camper with the perfect small compact camera. Unfortunately, as nice as the thing was to hold, it was just as frustrating to get a good image out if in situations i used it most. Now heres the thing… The fundamental problem with reading reviews written by photographers/reviewers that helped clinch my decision on the Epm-1 and just how bad of a decision i realised in the end of it all that turned out to be, is that any photographer, enthusiast or professional will tell you that a camera is nothing more than a tool, and you can use any camera, digital or otherwise to take a great image. They will quote Ansel Adams, talk at length about F stops, shutter speeds and ISO settings.. and how one must work within its limitation,.. and if the image in ones minds eye is not realised, then it must be the tool behind the tool thats to blame. Well, i for one disagree. The new generation of cameras are perfectly capable of taking pleasing well exposed images by default, and the better the technology gets over time, the better it gets at doing it. No automated system is going to replace the creative eye of a photographer for composition etc, but for capturing everyday memories, scene recognition, face detection, high ISO capable sensors and powerful in camera image processing are imaging technologies that are well capable of handling the now mundane task of producing a well exposed, eye pleasing image even under difficult conditions. Canons HS system and Nikons D- Lighting are just some examples.
The Olympus Epm1 is a compact system camera, sporting a large micro four thirds sensor, interchangeable lenses and a comprehensive set of controls. The large sensor promised image quality far better than any small compact camera could ever produce. It seemed to be the perfect bridge camera, spanning the divide of small sensored compacts and large dslrs. My primary use for the little Oly is for social situations and for chasing after the kids, a people camera if you will. It was meant to replace my current point and shoot camera. It has fast focus, it is pretty snappy (although it still has some shutter lag), it has a very intuitive auto mode that made it easy for even my 7 year old to use,.. it checks all those boxes that would fulfill the role of a family compact camera. But what it does not have is a sensor that is any good at all where social situations most often take place… indoors and in less than stellar light. Unfortunately, as it turns out much to my disappointment the Olympus Epm-1, as good as it is on paper, is let down miserably by its sub par m43rds sensor. Photographers and reviewers on the interweb will produce all kinds of stunning images taken in good light or nothing more than ISO 400 (without post processing), which is all the Epm1 can practically handle to produce a pleasant looking image. What i am not doing is photographing trees, models, vistas, images of street life in black and white or buildings. I use it as a snapshot camera and from the reviews i had read, it should have performed admirably as a p&s and yet be capable of so much more. Shoot above ISO800 and the image that results will require post processing for it to look presentable. The noise is particularly offending. Dynamic range, whatever little of it it has, is terrible and the colours are all over the place. Now, that makes it slightly less useful than my archaic Nikon D200 digital SLR which actually does a better job at any given situation. Things werent going well.
The kit lens that comes bundled with is not particularly stellar either. Its a little soft. You literally have to beg it for a sharp image. Its only saving grace is the way it collapses into itself when not in use. Pretty neat actually. I got on to some of the popular photography forums and sought sage advice on how to get the best out if… something i really didnt think i should have needed to do. I mean, was i asking for too much, Is that all $500 buys you? And i was told categorically by these self proclaimed forum photo jockeys that i could not expect much from a “kit” lens. I disagree, Nikon makes a great “kit” lens… the 18-55VR lens thats bundled along with Nikons entry level digital slrs. I used one on my Nikon d60 dslr and never had the compulsion to change it for something “better”. Its that good. While i do use the more exotic 17-55 f2.8 constant when its convenient (mainly with my d200), i would never want to chase around after the kids with it.. its simply too bulky. The 18-55VR is perfect. Reasonably sharp, practical zoom length and the VR makes up for the slowish aperture when needed. Its not going to give you great bokeh or depth of field.. but these are kids were chasing mind you, and people snapshots, not studio portraits. And if it were to get damage in the process, at sub $200.. its has to be the greatest value in Nikons lens lineup. Now, if Nikon could pull that off (and im sure Canons bundled “kit” lens is no slouch either), why should the Olympus “kit” lens be any less of a performer? i dont honestly get it.
On a slightly unrelated note, is it just me or has the forums over at DPreview just degenarated into a bit of a mess?, Content included… Even the camera reviews are blandly neutral consisting mainly of 12 pges of detailed descriptions wiht no real objective opinion to sum it up. Amazons acquisition to blame?
The Epm1 also has a peculiar way of blowing the highlights.., i am not comparing it to a digital slr here but to my previous point and shoot.. which is what the Epm1 was suppose to replace, the venerable Fuji F20. The F20 honestly meters better than the Epm1. Go figure. (i suspect its got a lot to do with the face detect feature. It exposes for the face and gives less importance to the rest of the image.. ala center weighted metering) The colours between the two are also different. I seem to prefer the F20’s colour. The Epm1 has a peculiar red thats more earthy. This could be remedied in RAW or settings, but i never ventured that far. Its supposed to be a point and shoot and i did not want to have to work around it post processing each image. For what i had in mind, the images needed to come out of the camera just the way i liked them.
Another annoying quirk with the Epm1 was its built in image stabilization which introduced image blur at certain shutter speeds. Again another feature i had to work around. I got so annoyed by this that i had it turned off all the time.. making it all together pointless. While its a pretty responsive camera, as fast as it is, and it will feel really fast to a user upgrading from a small compact to an interchangeable mirrorless system, it still does not compare to even an entry level dslr such as the Nikon d3000, which can be had for just a little more than the Epm1’s asking price. The slight shutter lag, which may not be a deal breaker for most, is a nuisance when taking picture of kids. It makes itself palpably present and simply gets in the way.
The Epm1 could have been a whole lot more. Its got the near perfect form factor.. coupled with the smaller lenses allowed by the micro four thirds standard, this should have been the perfect point and shoot camera upgrade to provide high quality images. Not too big, but neither too small that it compromises image quality. Faster and better than anything below its class. The Sony APS-C sensored Nex cameras may be small but have honking big lenses that compare more to entry level digital slrs than something compact that can be comfortably carried around. I tried so very much to come to terms with the Epm1, but finally after 8 short months, gave up on it. I instead replaced it with a Fuji X100 (click on link to read my X100 review),.. which I dare say is a marvelous little camera. Its a few features short i’ll admit,.. focus acquisition is not as fast as the Epm1 and its got a fixed focal length, but my word, what a huge difference in image quality. Granted, im comparing an APS-C sized sensor to a m43rds, but the difference is night and day. The X100 takes ISO 3200 images that come out clean, colorful and frustration free even in difficult light. The lens is a gem, sharp as a tack. In contrast, the Epm1 struggles with ISO800, is soft and the jpeg engine over process to the point of artifacting when viewed at 100%. The Fuji X100 is near perfect as a social camera . Its meter always gets it right and the fill flash is uncannily always just enough. Except for its size and,.. well, it could be a little peppier in operation.
I have since parted ways with the Epm1 and it now quietly frustrates some other unsuspecting user who in all probability got charmed by its specs and the glowing reviews it gets on forums. The next generation of Pens have been released and the Epm1 has been updated and released as the Epm2, now sporting the much applauded sensor found in the Olympus flagship OMD-EM5. And you know what, it very simply checks all the boxes that i could ever need in a small compact camera,… but dare i? It does have competition now, and a stiff one at that in the form of Sony’s compact RX100, which sits on the top of my contender list. If its 1 inch sensor is anything to go by, it will fit my bill,… and my pocket to boot. Its still pretty new and im going to wait a little to see just what it can do before acquiring one. I was an early adopter of the Epm1 and got my fingers singed,.. once bitten, twice shy.
The Epm1 is the little Olympus that almost could… its capable but it simply couldn’t work for me. If your needs are anything like mine, give it a miss for something else. Its not all bad though, use it in the right circumstances and the output can be pleasing. It’s got a full set of manual controls to get creative with and comprehensive settings thats buried in the menu system. It can be a capable little performer and now that its available relatively cheap, it could have a place as long as you are willing to play to its strengths. At an asking price of $250 for a refurbished kit currently being sold at Cameta camera, it could be well worth it for what it can do.