Olympus E-PM1 Review

Is your dad still using his 5 year old point-and-shoot to take vacation pictures? Or has he abandoned it for his iPhone because it’s small enough to fit in his pocket? It’s time for you to pull your dad aside and tell him to father-up and get a camera that can record some serious family memories. If you’re looking for a camera that’s lightweight but not underpowered, check out the 12.3 megapixel Olympus PEN E-PM1.

With interchangeable lenses, a small form factor and beautiful image quality, the PEN E-PM1 is perfect for dads that aren’t looking to go headlong into professional-level dSLRs. With a price tag of $499, this camera may not be on your radar for a solo purchase, but if you’ve got a couple of siblings, it’s an awesome group gift. And if you’re the father we’ve been talking about and need an impressive camera for your own vacation pictures, this is it.

Many families have made the jump to dSLR cameras; the prices have come down on the entry-level models, and the “Micro Four Thirds” (MFT) class of cameras have driven body size down even more. As a result, you’re able to find really capable cameras at affordable prices.

If you want a really good technical review of the E-PM1, check out Mike Perlman’s review at TechnoBuffalo. He’s a photographer and knows the ins and outs of the whole Olympus PEN series. Here, you’re going to get a more practical review for guys like me – fathers who want to take great quality photos without having to buy a giant, professional camera.

Pros & Cons

Well, we know the Olympus PEN E-PM1 isn’t perfect, so let’s take a look at some of the stand-out rights and wrongs.

Pros

  • Awesome image quality (thanks to the high speed Live MOS Sensor)
  • Tons of shooting options, tweaks and preferences
  • Works with almost every other Olympus (and some Panasonic) lenses
  • Hot shoe allows for other attachments (such as external flash or viewfinders)

Cons

  • Included art filters/modes are tempting and trendy but mostly lame
  • Advanced controls can be tough to find on menus
  • Interface: not many buttons on body, no touch screen
Olympus E-PM1

Taken with the PEN E-PM1's Pinhole art filter.

I’ll be the first to admit – the Cons list is not as strong as the Pros, and I kind of cheated by mentioning advanced controls and interface as separate bullet points. There’s not a lot wrong with the PEN E-PM1. As mentioned, it’s got some “art” filters you can apply during shooting – Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama and Dramatic Tone. They’re very tempting to use, but aside from Pin Hole and possibly Diorama, you won’t have much luck nailing a shot on-the-fly, and you’re better off applying effects later in your favorite photo editing software. Sure, the filters are fun, but you’ll kick yourself if you miss the perfect shot because you were stuck in Grainy Film or Dramatic Tone mode.

The other Cons are all interface and control-related. The E-PM1 has an incredible amount of options, and its impressive specs allow for a myriad of shooting modes and tweaks. Shooting high and low ISO, adjusting f-stop, even adjusting how much flash you’d like is all accessible from the small wheel/4-way button on the back of the camera. Buried in the options, however, are ways to really make your pictures shine – and sometimes you wish you could just tap an option on a touch screen instead of figuring out what combination of wheel-spinning and 4-way button-pressing it’ll take to get the cursor one option to the left. As well, if you’ve got a larger dSLR camera already, you’re used to having some of the fine-tuning options bound to buttons on the body of the camera. The E-PM1 unfortunately makes you find these options (such as f-stop) on menus instead of putting them at your fingertips.

Aside from those small complaints, the PEN E-PM1 packs an awesome punch in image quality. Firing photos off at 12.3 megapixels utilizing the high speed Live MOS Sensor, you’re going to have beautifully-big pictures. And because of the MFT system, you can use almost any other Olympus dSLR lens with this camera as long as you’ve got an adapter. There’s also a hot shoe for a flash; the PEN E-PM1 doesn’t have an internal flash, which is a small bummer, but does include an FL-LM1 flash in the box. On-screen controls even let you decide how much flash to use, with the ability to use full or a fraction (1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64) of the flash.

You can shoot in five aspect ratios – 4:3 / 3:2 / 16:9 / 6:6 / 3:4 – and you can shoot in RAW or JPEG up to 4032 x 3024. You can also shoot in RAW+JPEG, where it saves one of each format to your card. You can also shoot video in either AVCHD or AVI modes at 1080 60i HD if you’re so inclined. And if you’re into novelty, Olympus added a 3D photo mode. According to the Olympus site, “by simply selecting the 3D Photo Mode, releasing the shutter, and slowly panning, the camera will automatically take a second image from a slightly different perspective. The 3D data is processed in-camera for easy display on 3D televisions or laptops.” No thanks!

Form Factor

One of the biggest bummers of having a dSLR as an amateur photographer or typical family man on vacation is that you’ve got to commit a ton of space in your bag and on your person for the camera and lenses. For professional photographers, this isn’t a problem. But for a father who’s juggling kids, plane tickets and itineraries (or maybe just a coconut full of rum and your spouse’s hand), you’d prefer a lighter and smaller option hanging around your neck. The PEN E-PM1 is very lightweight, and even with a lens attached, isn’t as unwieldy as its bigger dSLR cousins.

(Check out the Sample Pictures section below for size comparisons – would you believe that without a lens and flash connected, the E-PM1 is about as big as an iPhone?)

The hot shoe flash adds a bit of height to the camera, possibly more than an internal or permanent pop-up flash would, but it’s not obscene. Lenses are of assorted sizes, and because of the MFT standard (and adapters), you’re able to connect everything from suitably small lenses all the way up to $7,000 large aperture telephoto lenses to it. Most of you will want to stick with the included one, which is an M.Zuiko MSC Digital ED m14-42mm f3.5/5.6 zoom lens.

If you’re into style, the camera comes in six colors – white, silver, black, brown, purple and pink.

Sample Pictures

Here are some pictures of the Olympus PEN E-PM1, as well as test pictures utilizing different shooting modes and filters, all shot with the Olympus E-PM1 and uploaded with no post-processing other than a resize:

Do we recommend the Olympus E-PM1? We do – that’s why this was titled “Father’s Day Gift Idea”! The E-PM1 is an awesome camera for photographers in both entry level and intermediate levels. Pros might want something with more power and fewer cute bells and whistles (like 3D mode, filters, etc.), but even weekend warrior photographers can find something to love about this camera. And for those who’d prefer to let the camera do the work, Auto mode will choose fairly spot-on options as long as you’re shooting with plenty of light. At low light, as with any camera, you should know how to tinker with options – but with multiple flash strength settings, you’ll be able to adjust to night shots with less effort than other cameras.

In short – the Olympus PEN E-PM1 packs a big punch in a small package. And at a hair below $500, it won’t destroy your bank account.

If you’re already yelling “DO WANT” or thinking about getting it for your dad for Father’s Day, check out more of the technical specs and accessories on the Olympus website.