Mirrorless compact cameras are worth considering if you want DSLR-like photo quality without the bulk. There are many options out there, with the most basic models priced almost the same as entry-level DSLR cameras, which is close to Rs.28,000. Olympus is one of the key players in the mirrorless compact segment. Out of the three new models announced by Olympus last year (E-P3, Lite – E-PL3) and Mini (E-PM1), the Mini is the smallest, lightest and most affordable model. Here’s a closer look.

Design and Build Quality
The 12.1 megapixel E-PM1 is available in six body colours – black, white, silver, purple, pink and brown. The build quality of the body is good, but almost the entire device has a glossy finish, which attracts fingerprints too easily. The front has a mild matte finish, but that doesn’t keep the smudges at bay. The bundled M.Zuiko 14-42 mm (3x optical zoom) lens sports a metallic finish and the grainy texture on the zoom ring lends a good grip. We would have liked it more if the lens’ shell was of a better quality as it has a rather plasticky feel to it. Since the E-PM1 uses a Micro Four Thirds system in which the size of the sensor is about half that of 35 mm film format, the effective focal length of the lens would be 28 mm at the widest end and 84 mm at full zoom. This is similar to the focal length you’d get with an 18-55 mm lens on a budget or midrange DSLR. The maximum aperture at the wide and telephoto ends is F3.5 and F5.6 respectively.

The front of the body bears a shiny logo, AF assist lamp and a button to release the lens. The top of the camera has a silver strip that compliments the design. Along with the on/off and the shutter release button, you’ll find a tiny grille for the speaker, apertures for stereo mics to capturing sound, while recording videos and a hot shoe for external flash strobes and optional EVF. The E-PM1 comes bundled with a clip-on flash.

Large display for easy capture and review

Large display for easy capture and review

A 3-inch LCD with a resolution of 460k dots pretty much makes up for most of the entire rear panel. The control panel located to the right is sized quite averagely and comprises of a 5-way d-pad with a jog dial and only three other buttons – Info, Menu and Playback. A dedicated button for video recording is placed at the top right corner. To the extreme right is a vertical patch of rubber with a dimpled surface designed to offer a better grip. The USB and mini HDMI ports reside under a plastic flap on the right side. The Li-ion battery and SD card use a common compartment at the bottom.

Features
Except for the through-the-lens viewfinder, the EP-M1 offers everything that a DSLR does. Full and semi-manual shooting modes, RAW support, a big bunch of scene modes and six Art filters to get creative shots without the need of post-processing.

Avilable in a range of colors

Available in a range of colors

The scarcity of buttons must have made designing the user interface challenging, but Olympus has done a decent job, although operating the camera would need some time getting used to. The main functions and shooting modes can be accessed via the Menu button. The main screen lets you select from Art filters, Intelligent Auto, Scenes, Video recording, PASM and Setup. The first three sections are for those who aren’t well-versed with exposure parameters. Here, the user can rest assured that the results will be good because the camera automatically determines the optimal values depending on the lighting condition and the type of subject. The OK button at the center of the d-pad lets you choose from Art filters and preset scenes. You make your selection by rotating the jog dial or using the up/down buttons on the d-pad. As you navigate, a thumbnail gives you a visual idea about the filters or the ideal situation/subject for the scene preset along with a brief explanation. There are 36 preset scenes to choose from which includes Panorama, Candle, Nature Macro, Low Key, Dual IS and 3D.

Videos are captured at full HD resolution at 60 fps and you can manually adjust the exposure, image stabilization and focus (single, continuous, manual and tracking). The camera allows selecting Art filters for video recording, but when selected the frame rate drops considerably resulting in unacceptable jitter.

Small but quite adept

Small but quite adept

It’s the PASM modes in which the Olympus E-PM1 can tend to become unfriendly in certain situations, and this is mainly due to the lack of buttons. For example, in the Manual mode, each time you wish to adjust the aperture or shutter speed, you first have to press the up button and then use the left/right button to adjust the aperture and up/down to adjust the shutter speed. It’s not as simple as just using the jog dial.  Also the stack of settings, which comes up when you press the OK button, has 14 parameters which makes navigation painful, especially when you want to frequently cycle between two or more parameters. But a good thing is that when you bring up the settings, the last accessed parameter stays active. For example, if you last accessed ISO, the stack will spring up with ISO active. Also the d-pad offers one-touch access to focus area selection, drive mode, flash and EV. Out of these the right and down button can be customized to access functions that are more useful to the user such as white balance and ISO. The video record button can also be customized to instantly access functions such as custom white balance, manual focus, RAW mode and DOF preview.

Performance
Starting with the handling of the camera, what’s lacking is a hand grip on the front plate, which is a feature of the E-P3. This, in addition to the glossy surface feels awkward and it gets worse when your palm and fingers start sweating. The spacing and tactility of the buttons on the control panel is good, but it would have been nice if the buttons and the d-pad were larger.

ISO sensitivity test

 ISO performance (Click to enlarge)

ISO performance (Click to enlarge)

The PEN E-PM1 allows setting the ISO value between 200 and 12,800 in 1/3 step increments. The noise is pretty much under control at up to ISO 800 after which things take a sharp turn. ISO 1600 also produces acceptable results, which are good enough to be uploaded to social networking websites and online photo albums. However, ISO values higher than 1600 should only be used in dire situations, such as poor lighting conditions, as the results are very grainy and lack details.

Other tests

 Good outdoor performance

Good outdoor performance

We used the camera for a week to shoot various types of subjects both indoors and outdoors and we were very pleased with the overall performance. What we liked very much is the quick focusing speed – it’s almost instant. Also the reproduction of colours and details is very good, particularly RAW results, which look fabulous after a bit of post processing. Also, the quality of video recording and the image stabilization while shooting is very good.

Verdict

 Easy to manage

Easy to manage

The only mirrorless compact that falls within the price bracket of Rs.30,000 is the 14 megapixel Sony NEX-5k, which is currently retailing for Rs.24,500. The advantages it offers over the E-PM1 are tilting display and larger sensor. Given a choice between the two, the Sony NEX-5k is clearly a better bang for your buck. But if you want something really light and compact, then the Olympus E-PM1 is the only mirrorless compact in this price bracket.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,