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Olympus E-PM1 - digital camera review: Olympus E-PM1 - digital camera

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Size and affordability remain the bane of the interchangeable-lens camera (at least here in the U.S.), but Olympus' PEN E-PM1 hits the closest to the target that I've seen thus far. It's not perfect, and in fact it's kind of hard to get excited about. But there's a lot to like if you want to upgrade to the speed and photo quality of an ILC but don't have a lot of cash to spend. Plus it comes in a handful of pretty colors.

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7.2

Olympus E-PM1 - digital camera

The Good

The <b>Olympus PEN E-PM1</b> has a relatively compact and appealing design, and operates similarly enough to a point-and-shoot that upgraders needn't be intimidated. Plus it's priced aggressively.

The Bad

If you're picky, the image and video quality may not completely satisfy you.

The Bottom Line

If you're looking for a step-up model that's still pretty compact, the Olympus PEN E-PM1 is a solid, affordable choice.

The camera's photo quality rates as good-to-very good, but I think most of my issues with it stem from the kit lens. It's the same lens that ships with all Olympus' PEN models, but for some reason it irked me more this time around.

Of course, that helped drive home the attraction of using an ILC instead of a point-and-shoot; when I couldn't get any landscape shots out of the 14-42mm lens that didn't look muddy, I switched to a Lensbaby.

Close-ups look pretty sharp and snappy, but detail at a distance generally looks oddly oversharpened or overcompressed when viewed at actual size. It seems independent of ISO sensitivity, and the camera can handle up to ISO 800 pretty well, depending upon image content. Shooting raw helps, but not as dramatically as it does in other cameras. I have no complaints about the color or exposure, though; it handles those very well.

Video quality is adequate. Unfortunately, you have to turn off image stabilization in order to prevent serious rolling shutter (wobble) artifacts, which seems to be a fact of life for video on all sensor-shift-based IS systems.

Plus it's interlaced, which exacerbates the normal video-compression artifacts; in busy scenes you can see a lot of blockiness when viewed at full size. Still, for the occasional vacation video clips it'll do.

Unsurprisingly given the similarity of their innards, the E-PM1 performs about the same as the E-PL3, solid but not stellar. While the camera is pretty fast overall and keeps up with the competition, it's slow on startup, with a big (and unusual) ka-thunk of the shutter: it takes 1.5 seconds to power on and shoot. It matches the rest of the crowd--except the significantly more expensive Nikon 1 J1--with 0.3 second shot lag in good light and 0.6 second in dim.

When CNET Labs compared the E-PM1 with similar cameras, none could keep up with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 on shot-to-shot speeds, though the E-PM1's 0.8 second time is quite respectable.

But at 2.2 seconds, the flash takes a relatively long time to recycle. It's very zippy for its class at continuous shooting, but without a viewfinder I find burst shooting awkward. Still, for the occasional action emergency, kids, and pets it should fare well.

Olympus PEN E-PM1 Olympus PEN E-PL1 Olympus PEN E-PL2 Olympus PEN E-PL3 Olympus PEN E-P2 Olympus PEN E-P3
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS
17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm
Focal-length multiplier 2.0x 2.0x 2.0x 2.0x 2.0x 2.0x
Imaging engine version TruePic VI TruePic V TruePic V TruePic VI TruePic V TruePic VI
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 12800 ISO 200 - ISO 3200 ISO 200 - ISO 6400 ISO 200 - ISO 12800 ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 200 - ISO 12800
Continuous shooting 4.1fps
n/a
(5.5fps without image stabilization)
3.0 fps
18 (LN) JPEG/10 raw
3.0 fps
17 (LN) JPEG/10 raw
4.1fps
n/a
(5.5fps without image stabilization)
3.0 fps
12 (LN) JPEG/10 raw
3.0 fps
unlimited (LN) JPEG/17 raw
Viewfinder
magnification/ effective magnification
None Optional plug-in articulating EVF
1,440,000 dots
0.58x
Optional plug-in articulating EVF
1,440,000 dots
0.58x
Optional Optional plug-in articulating EVF
1,440,000 dots
0.58x
Optional plug-in articulating EVF
1,440,000 dots
0.58x
Autofocus 35-area contrast AF 11-area contrast AF 11-area contrast AF 35-area contrast AF 11-area contrast AF 35-area contrast AF
Shutter speed 60-1/2,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/2,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes; 1/4,000 FP sync 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes
Metering 324 area 324 area 324 area 324 area 324 area 324 area
Flash Included optional Yes Yes Included optional No Yes
Image stabilization Sensor shift Sensor shift Sensor shift Sensor shift Sensor shift Sensor shift
Video 1080/60i AVCHD @ 20, 17Mbps; 720/60p @ 13Mbps 720/30p Motion JPEG AVI 720/30p Motion JPEG AVI 1080/60i AVCHD @ 20, 17Mbps; 720/60p @ 13Mbps 720/30p Motion JPEG AVI 1080/60i AVCHD @ 20, 17Mbps; 720/60p @ 13Mbps
Maximum HD clip length 4GB/ 29 minutes 2GB/ 7 minutes 2GB/ 7 minutes Stereo; mic input 2GB/ 7 minutes 4GB/ 29 minutes
Audio Stereo Mono Mono; mic input 3-inch tilting
460,000 dots
Stereo Stereo; mic input
LCD size 3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
2.7-inch fixed
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
300 shots 3-inch fixed
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed OLED
614,000 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) n/a 290 shots 280 shots 300 shots 300 shots 330 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.3 4.5 x 2.8 x 1.6 4.5 x 2.8 x 1.6 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.5 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 4.8 x 2.7 x 1.4
Body operating weight (ounces) 9.3 12.5 12.7 11 (est) 13.5 13.0
Mfr. Price n/a $449.99 (est, body only) n/a n/a n/a n/a
$499.99 (with 14-42mm lens) $499.99 (with 14-42mm lens) $599.99 (with 14-42mm lens) $699.99 (with 14-42mm lens) $799.99 (with 14-42mm lens) $899.99 (with 14-42mm lens)
n/a $699.99 (with 14-42mm and 40-150mm lenses) $799.99 (with 14-42mm II and 40-150mm lenses) $699.99 (est, with 17mm lens) n/a $899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens)
Ship date September 2011 March 2010 January 2011 September 2011 December 2009 August 2011

The E-PM1 has a solid build, with an attractive body that consciously looks like a point-and-shoot. My only real problem with its design is the lack of a grip on the front; its brushed metal chassis feels especially slippery as well. It also has a very point-and-shoot-like set of physical controls which should make it feel familiar to use for upgraders. These include a dial on the back with integrated buttons that control exposure compensation, focus area, flash and burst mode. There's also a thumb-operated movie record button. You adjust frequently-needed settings via the typical scrolling options around the edges of the display. In auto mode it uses Olympus' simplified slider-based scheme for adjustments.

Olympus bundles a small flip-down flash with the camera like the NEX-C3 rather than a built-in one like the GF3, and its connector supports an add-on viewfinder, microphone and other PEN accessories.

Nikon 1 J1 Olympus PEN E-PM1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Pentax Q Sony Alpha NEX-C3
Sensor (effective resolution) 10-megapixel CMOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 12.4-megapixel BSI CMOS 16.2-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS
13.2 x 8.8 mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3 x 13.0mm 1/2.3-inch 23.5mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 2.7x 2.0x 2.0x 5.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3200/6400 (expanded) ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 125 - ISO 6400 ISO 200 - ISO 12,800
Continuous shooting 5fps
n/a
(60fps with fixed AF and electronic shutter)
4.1fps
n/a
(5.5fps without image stabilization)
3.8fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
5fps
5 JPEG/n/a
(1.5fps raw)
2.5 fps
18 JPEG/ 6 raw
(5.5fps with fixed exposure)
Viewfinder
magnification/ effective magnification
None None None Optional optical for prime lens None
Autofocus 73-point
phase detection, 135-area contrast AF
35-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 25-point contrast AF 25-point contrast AF
Shutter speed 1/3-1/16,000; bulb to ; 1/60 sec x-sync 60-1/2000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; 1/160 x-sync 30-1/2000 sec.; bulb; 1/125 sec flash sync 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 flash sync
Metering n/a 324 area 144 zone n/a 49 zone
Flash Yes Included optional Yes Yes Included optional
Image stabilization Optical Sensor shift Optical Sensor shift Optical
Video 1080/60i /30p, 720/60p H.264 MPEG-4 QuickTime MOV 1080/60i AVCHD @ 20, 17Mbps; 720/60p @ 13Mbps/29 minutes 1080/60i/50i @ 17 Mbps
720/60p @17 Mbps AVCHD or Motion JPEG QuickTime MOV

1080/30p H.264 MPEG-4

720/30p H.264 MPEG-4
Audio Stereo Stereo Mono Stereo Stereo; mic input
LCD size 3-inch fixed 460,000 dots 3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed touch screen
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed touch screen
460,000 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 230 shots n/a 320 shots 230 shots 400 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.2 x 2.4 x 1.2 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.3 4.2 x 2.6 x 1.3 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.2 4.4 x 2.4 x 0.9
Body operating weight (ounces) 9.7 9.3 9.3 7.1 (est) 10.7
Mfr. price n/a n/a $499.95 (body only, est) n/a n/a
$649.95 (with 10-30mm lens) $499.99 (with 14-42mm lens) $599.95 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $649.95 (with 47mm-equivalent f1.9 lens) $649.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens)
$899.95 (with 10-30mm and 30-110mm lenses) n/a $699.95 (with 14mm f2.5 lens) n/a $599.99 (with 16mm f2.8 lens)
Ship date October 2011 September 2011 July 2011 Fall 2011 August 2011

As the least expensive of the current crop of compact ILCs, I wouldn't expect the E-PM1 to have a huge feature set, but it offers more than just the basics. As I've said previously, I really like Olympus' Art Filters, which are more flexible and render better results than most other implementations. It also supports up to seven frames for bracketing (and you can bracket the Art Filters). If you're into panoramas, though, I wouldn't recommend this; the E-PM1 has a clunky, old-fashioned interface for panoramas that isn't as easy to use as other cameras'.

Conclusion
The Olympus PEN E-PM1 is priced right for an entry-level interchangeable-lens model and it's a solid, if somewhat unassuming, model. I just found myself missing features like a touch screen and tilting LCD, and the photo quality is a bit too inconsistent for my taste. That said, it's better than a point-and-shoot, and if you're looking for a step-up model that's still pretty compact, this is a good, affordable alternative.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Nikon 1 J1
1
1.3
1.1
0.4
0.2

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3
0.6
0.6
0.6
0.6
0.3

Olympus PEN E-PL3
1
0.8
0.7
0.6
0.3


1.5
0.8
0.8
0.6
0.3

Sony Alpha NEX-C3
0.7
0.8
0.8
0.8
0.4

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

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7.2

Olympus E-PM1 - digital camera

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7Image quality 7