My review of Olympus E-PM1

I recently purchased my E-PM1 as an “upgrade” from my 2-year old Olympus E-P1, which of course is a more high end camera in some respects, but was simply getting a bit old and felt slow to me. I put “upgrade” in quotation marks because the E-PM1 isn’t really meant as an upgrade from the E-P1 because the two cameras target separate customer audiences. But — and I hope my review will be able to demonstrate this — it certainly is possible to take this upgrade path if you’ve used the E-P1, as long as you’re aware of what you’re gaining and losing during the upgrade.

Olympus E-PM1 “Mini” with the new 14-42mm lens.

I’ll focus this review on the differences (good and bad) between the old E-P1 and this new E-PM1:

E-PM1 advantages:

  • Much faster focus algorithms – even with the same lenses, the E-PM1 focuses noticeably faster. With the new lenses, it’s faster than any non-dSLR camera I’ve ever used.
  • Extremely lightweight and small – I think I managed to shave off another 100 grams of total weight in my camera bag with this upgrade! (For our fine Americans, 100 grams is approximately 1/2 cup of sugar, or 3/4 cup of all-purpose flour. I’ll leave the mpg calculation as an exercise for the reader.)
  • Much improved kit zoom in terms of size and focus speed/noise. Although the lens mount is in plastic, it doesn’t seem like there will be any problems with worn out mount connections.
  • Slightly, slightly better high ISO performance, though this is only confirmed by reading professional reviews.
  • Up to 5 fps burst mode – really impressive.
  • Nicer menu interface (though menu layout is mostly unchanged).
  • Comes with a useful snap-on flash that I’ve really missed on the E-P1 at e.g. very dim party nights. Now I just have to remember to bring it along with the camera. :)

E-PM1 disadvantages:

  • I definitely preferred the retro design of the E-P1, but I was happy to give it up in favor of a much more portable package.
  • There is absolutely no grip on the E-PM1, making it a bit hard to hold. You can essentially forget about holding the camera with just one hand.
  • For some reason, Olympus leaves out a basic orientation sensor in their simpler models, which means that if you take photos in portrait mode, you have to manually rotate the photos on your computer. Not a big deal, but I can’t understand why they would take out such a basic feature — there’s not a single mobile camera phone out there that doesn’t include it, so it can hardly be a size (or cost) issue.
  • I really miss at least *one* more programmable Fn button, or at least the freedom to assign *any* feature to the one that exists (the Rec button). For some reason, Olympus decided to omit certain essential features that you can assign, which means that some combinations of direct button access aren’t possible.
  • The video mode is crippled in the sense that it’s no longer possible to re-focus while recording by e.g half pressing the shutter (or assigning the AEL/AFL lock button to focus). It’s possible to program the AEL/AFL function (which can be assigned to the Rec button) to re-focus while in Manual mode when taking photos, but for some reason Olympus forgot to inherit that feature when switching to video mode. So, the only way to re-focus while recording a video is to give the control over entirely to the camera’s hunting focus algorithms by switching over to continuous focus. This is a shame, really, and it makes the video feature much less useful to me.
  • The screen, while higher resolution than on the E-P1, actually ends up being a disappointing experience because of its aspect ratio. This is a widescreen (16:9), while the E-P1 had a lower resolution 4:3 screen. Because both screens are labeled as 3″ sized, the widescreen actually ends up being a lot smaller if you still shoot your photos using the sensor-native 4:3 aspect ratio. (This is the same thing that happened a decade ago when you compared an old 28″ TV with the, then, new 28″ widescreen TVs — the latter ended up being a much smaller screen in most practical purposes.) If would be nice if Olympus gave you the option of only seeing 16:9 cropped version of the view when framing a photo, while still actually recording the full frame (this is admittedly possible if you shoot in RAW, which I never do).

My old retro-looking E-P1 (sold).

All in all, by selling my old E-P1 and (with a little help from Michael Verdi) buying the new E-PM1, I ended up spending an additional ~220 USD, which, all in all, feels like a pretty cheap upgrade. The E-PM1 is better than the old E-P1 in many important respects (to me) such as overall size/weight, autofocus speed, and flash — but it’s admittedly a step back in some others. As an interim upgrade until the “next big thing” comes out, it feels like a good choice to me in the end. But if you own an E-P1/E-P2 and plan to hold on to your next camera upgrade for a long time, I would suggest you wait until sometime like a future E-P4 is announced, which may be a far more significant upgrade with (supposedly) a much improved sensor.

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