Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1
The cheapest Micro Four Thirds camera money can buy
Review The Olympus PEN Mini is a no-fuss, interchangeable lens camera created for the casual photographer that wants the respectable image quality of a Micro Four Thirds system at the price and size of a compact.
Affordable mirrorless marvel: Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1
Also known as the E-PM1, this camera is not only the smallest PEN available but also the cheapest at £400 with the 14-42mm II R lens kit. As fashion dictates, the PEN Mini is offered in several colours, including classic black or silver; stylish white or brown; or funky purple or rose.
Despite physical changes the PEN Mini shares a similar spec to the E-PL3, with high speed shooting of up to 5.5 fps; ultra fast Autofocus with 35 AF points and AF illuminator and Full HD video. The anti shake 12Mp sensor now benefits from increased sensitivity of up to ISO 12800 and a 3D photo option. Albeit similarly styled to the E-PL3, the smaller Mini loses the tilting screen, a few buttons and the mode dial from the top plate – shooting modes are menu driven now.
While the lack of shooting dial did not bother me, as I don’t tend to change mode all too frequently, the suppression of the delete button was more annoying for it makes deleting a picture a several steps operation, which you will have to repeat for each and every one of the picture you want to delete.
There is also no direct access to ISO settings or other commonly used functions, hence manual and creative shooting becomes more cumbersome. I actually found it quite challenging to locate the ISO setting in the menu and I had to resort to the manual in the end. Still, Olympus does provide the PEN Mini with several customisable buttons so that at least some of the frequent settings can be recalled at the press of a button.
The smaller you get, the more buttons disappear into menus
The main menu itself is quite complex to navigate, with a variety of sections and sub-sections. Thankfully, the OK button – located in the middle of the rear scroll wheel – brings up an easy version of the menu, which aids navigation. However, there is quite a long delay before the five different sections actually become active and they remain quite slow and erratic in responding to selection.
Olympus has also provided the PEN Mini with a Live Guide that aims to offer intuitive explanations of photographic functions and modes to complete beginners. The E-PM1 does not have a built-in flash unit but a clip-on tiltable external flash does come in the box as an accessory.
The nifty autofocus is a boon
The all-metal body of the PEN Mini is slim, small and slick but it is also extremely smooth without any sort of grip, which makes the handling of this camera a bit slippery and not as comfortable as that of its bigger brothers. The back is dominated by its 3in, 460k-dot LCD screen. The display itself is sharp and clear but is quite reflective and having an aspect ratio of 16:9 works very well for HD video capture but with 3:4 stills, much of its size is taken by the necessary black side bars.
Olympus flags up a fast autofocus system as one of the main selling points of this camera and it actually does work remarkably well. The 35 AF points system provides reliable and immediate focus in virtually all situations. Overall, the PEN Mini is a good performer and a fast snapper, with a continuous shooting speed of up to 5fps in RAW format and excellent in-between shots times, which is very good news for this level of camera.
The hotshoe also accommodates a range of PEN accessories
I tested the camera with the 14-42mm IIR f/3.5-5.6 kit lens which isn’t the fastest but delivers sharp detailed results devoid of significant aberrations. Image stabilisation is provided in-camera rather than on the lens but it is equally effective, with a system of sensor shift that Olympus calls Supersonic Wave Drive.
Needless to say, the E-PM1 is compatible with all the other brilliant PEN optics, meaning this diminutive model can be a very versatile shooter capable of semi-professional results when coupled with prime lenses. The mount is the same for other MFT manufacturers and I tried it out with Panasonic lenses too, with no problems.
14-42mm kit lens (35mm equivalent: 28-84mm)
Like the E-PL3 the PEN Mini is equipped with only six Art Effects but they are the most useful and the less quirky, producing some visually striking results that are creative enough to satisfy amateurs but not too overdone to look childish. The filters, which are applied before shooting to both photo and video mode, include Pin Hole, Pop Art, Diorama, Dramatic Tone, Grainy Film and Soft Focus. Another added bonus that blinks at amateurs is the 3D Photo Mode, which allows you to take superimposed picture for 3D effect just by panning the camera.
A good value snapper, so long as you don't mind menu fiddling for manual modes
The E-PM1 sports Full 1080p HD video recording in AVCHD format with a maximum video length of 29 minutes. Footage is sharp and smooth even in low-light, the sound provided by the stereo microphone crisp and videos take advantage of all manual controls and creative effects available to still pictures.
The quality of the images produced with the Olympus PEN Mini has no obvious differences to those of its bigger brothers. The Mini delivers equally beautiful, saturated, detailed, sharp images and handles noise extremely well. Noise does not start to appear before ISO 3200 and even at ISO 6400 is totally acceptable. The increased ISO sensitivity of 12800 is less useful, as noise certainly does show itself and is too visible for most uses.
With the E-PM1 Olympus has released a sexy, versatile, pocketable camera that manages to bring increased ease-of-use to the PEN family without sacrificing the creative and technical performance of its more expensive models. This is a camera that will surely appeal to beginners and amateurs alike. Thanks to its fast performing Autofocus system and undiminished image quality, it has also the potential to serve more accomplished photographers too. ®
Catherine Monfils is a professional photographer specialising in portraiture, lifestyle and fashion.
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