Tag Archives: cameras

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.

Panasonic GF1 or Olympus E-PL1?

I’m currently owning an old superzoom (Canon Powershot S3 IS) and the Panasonic LX3 and am getting ready to move up to a “real” camera. emoticon - wink I’m convinced that the Micro Four Thirds (m4/3) system is the right choice for me, as I suspect I would never actually carry a full-size SLR with me.

Coming from the LX3, which is a camera I really love, I have a bit of Panasonic bias. I like the way it performs and handles, and that has at least up until recently made me convinced that I should get a GF1, especially since it has (had) a much better AF performance than the Olympus PENs.

So hard to choose!

However, I’m starting to slowly change my mind. I was recently playing with an E-P1 in a shop and was first very annoyed with the Auto mode which consistently chose slower shutter speeds than was possible to manage without a tripod. Then after about 20 shots, I realized that the in-body image stabilization (IBIS) was turned off. After enabling it, I suddenly got almost 100% sharp photos instead. (Btw, I guess this tendency to select too slow shutter speeds is a firmware bug or something? Shouldn’t it take into consideration whether IBIS is enabled or not?)

Unfortunately, Panasonic chose the route to put image stabilization in their lenses, but not in all of them (and obviously not in rivaling Olympus lenses). Olympys, on the other hand, chose the in-camera body stabilization instead, which means that any lens attached enjoys the benefit of stabilization. 3 stops of IS is pretty huge. In the Panasonic LX3, I can sometimes take sharp photos at 1/8 shutter speeds without a tripod I if set it to burst mode and take 3-4 photos at the same time.

This leads me to think that buying a camera without IBIS is a pretty bad idea, given that many lenses (20mm/1.7, 7-14mm, 9-18mm) don’t have IS in the lens either. Also, with the new firmware update, it appears that Olympus isn’t that far behind in terms of AF performance anymore, although the kit lens isn’t very fast of course (though I didn’t find it slower than my LX3).

So, I’m now a bit torn. I’m starting to lean towards an E-PL1 because it also has a built-in flash, and the out-of-the-box colors of the JPEG images are simply stunning. In general, it feels like it has many advantages over its bigger brothers E-P1 and E-P2 while at the same time being cheaper.

At the same time, I really want the Panasonic 20mm/1.7 lens and think I’d use that more than any kit zoom, and I realize that buying that lens separately ends up getting pretty expensive compared to buying it as a kit lens with the GF1.

Am I overrating the importance of IS here? It feels to me like buying any Panasonic m4/3 is a bad idea if you care about low light performance and want to also use the camera as a casual social setting camera.

It’s such a shame that Panasonic chose the in-lens IS route here, since it really makes me less interested in their cameras even though they seem to perform better in many aspects. At this point, I would even go as far as saying that I am hardly interested in what a future GF2 will look like, because I already know that it will force me to use 3-4 stops higher shutter speeds compared to any Olympus camera with the same pancake lens.