Camera manufacturers have been slugging it out in an entirely new product category this year: the micro sharpshooter.
Much as the revived Mini Cooper helped change the compact car category in the last decade by offering style and performance in a small package, Panasonic, Sony, and Olympus are hoping their compact system cameras (CSC), which use tiny interchangeable lenses, will present a pint-sized alternative to digital SLRs.
Earlier this summer, I shot with the petite Sony NEX-C3 at a dress rehearsal of the Broadway musical Chicago and generally liked the results. Recently, I had a chance to use the similarly diminutive new 12.3- megapixel Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1, which, as with other cameras in this category, doesn’t have a DSLR’s internal flip-up mirror, allowing for the miniscule body size.
But how small are these camera systems, really? As I mentioned in my review of the NEX-C3, when you put a large zoom on a mirrorless CSC, it may be smaller than a DSLR, but it’s still not going to fit in your pocket. The same is true of the Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1, a camera capable of producing some surprisingly splendid images given its small size. But with the PEN Mini, as with the NEX-C3 and Panasonic’s Lumix GF3, to enjoy the full promise of compactness, you have to use them with a “pancake” style prime lens.
During an Olympus press event at the US Open tennis tournament in New York City, I got to shoot with the PEN Mini E-PM1 and four M.Zuiko lenses: a 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens, a 12mm f/2.0 prime lens ($800), a 40-150mm f4.0-5.6 zoom ($260), and a 75-300mm f4.8-6.7 zoom ($750). Of course, the one I liked best happened to be the most expensive: the 12mm f/ 2.0. The 12mm lens — which converts to a 24mm because the PEN Mini’s Micro Four Thirds-size sensor magnifies by 2x — provided a nice, compact tool to shoot stills and 1080i HD video of the US Open’s racket stringing room, but I switched to the 40-140mm and 75-300mm lenses to cover the action on the court.
Like much with the Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1, the camera performed surprisingly well in capturing the frantic, stop-and-start movement of the tennis players. It shoots an impressive (maximum) burst of five frames per second at full resolution, which was just quick enough to keep up with an opening round match between Andy Murray and Somdev Devvarman. In comparison, some of the professional photographers I was sitting next to in the court dugout behind the players were using Canon and Nikon DSLRs that were firing at around 10fps.
One somewhat distracting feature of Olympus’ PEN models when shooting at long range is that their image stabilizers are built into the body of the camera, not in the lens. Consequently, when you’re zooming in at 300x (or 600x thanks to the 2x magnification of the Micro Four Thirds sensor) the image you see on the LCD or optional electronic VF-3 viewfinder ($180) is going to look mighty shaky even though photos came out relatively sharp. This was most evident when I photographed a female tennis player down on the court from up high on the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium. The end result was crisp, but I felt a little nauseous from the shaky subject matter. Speaking of shooting from the roof of the stadium, I got a nice simulated tilt-shift effect using the E-PM1’s Diorama art filter, which made portions of the court look miniaturized (see the image in the gallery).
The PEN Mini uses the same, vastly improved autofocus system employed on Olympus’ latest flagship PEN model, the larger PEN E-P3. Called FAST (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology), the silly-named system lets you choose between 35 separate focus points to help zero in on action in different parts of the frame. The AF did a good job of keeping up with Andy Murray as he wound up for a colossal serve or charged the net for a volley.
Later, when I tested the autofocus system in more difficult, darker lighting, it felt half a step slower. This is not surprising for a contrast-detection-based AF system — which is what all these types of cameras use — and a marked improvement over previous models. This is in part because of the E-PM1’s AF illuminator LED, which helps lock in on subjects in low lighting. On the other hand, there’s no built-in flash on the tiny PEN Mini, so if you want to further light up your subject, you need to attach the small electronic flash included in the kit. It fits into the accessory shoe on the top of the camera.
Where the PEN Mini really struggled was in its frustratingly slow start-up time. It took me over three seconds to power the camera on and get to first shot. This got annoying as I walked the grounds of the USTA National Tennis Center and spotted pro tennis players I wanted to photograph but had to wait for the camera to be ready to shoot. Hopefully a firmware upgrade down the line for the Mini will improve its start-up speed.
Image quality, in good light, was positively sparkling. My shots of the tennis players captured with the PEN Mini E-PM1 were close to the sharpness and quality of photos I shot at the US Open a few years prior using a professional DSLR and pricey lens. It’s worth noting now that the PEN Mini and the 14-42mm kit lens retail for very reasonable street price of $500.
Colors were slightly on the oversaturated, “warm” side, which is not unusual for a consumer camera. If you find this a bit much, you can tone down the Color Saturation in the Mini’s software. Conversely, if you want more saturation, crank it up or just choose the “Pop Art” mode under the Art Filters.
I wouldn’t depend on this model for high ISO, low light shots, though. As with its big brother, the E-P3, which uses the same 12.3 Live MOS sensor, the Mini produced images that were noticeably crunchier than the Sony C3 at over ISO 1600. The Sony, it should be said, uses a slightly larger, 16.2MP APS-C size sensor.
In terms of design, the polycarbonate and metallic E-PM1 has a clean and luxurious look and feel to it, despite its affordable pricing. If I had one gripe, it’s that the Mini’s smooth body is a little on the slick slide. And there’s no handgrip, so make sure you keep a good hold on it. Also, while the 3-inch LCD screen on the back was larger, its 460,00 pixels of resolution made images look on the soft side in playback. But if you want a better screen, there’s always the larger and more expensive E-P3.
Overall, the E-PM1 was a fun camera to shoot with, producing surprisingly sharp, high-quality images of fast-moving action at the US Open. It also fared well as a little video camera, capturing crisp 1080i footage of the racket-stringing room with stereo sound. You can start shooting video via a single touch of a button on the back of the camera. If the camera has a few drawbacks, such as its annoyingly slow start-up time and its confusing menu navigation set-up, which requires too many button pushes and knob turns, those are relatively minor quibbles for this sprightly Mini.
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