Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1

The Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1, seen here with Aki Asahi skin, Flipbac G4 grip and Olympus 17mm lens with matching viewfinder.
The Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1, seen here with Aki Asahi skin, Flipbac G4 grip and Olympus 17mm lens with matching viewfinder.

After tiring of not having a camera on me when a photo opportunity arises, I took the plunge in late 2011 and purchased an Olympus PEN Mini E-PM-1 (PEN Mini hereafter). The PEN Mini certainly fitted the bill, giving me something compact, with interchangeable lenses and provision for manual control. As an added bonus, it has to be one of the single most fun cameras I have ever used. Frankly, this is what reignited my passion for photography, sparing it from the same fate as sailing and trumpet playing.¬†Incidentally, my Olympus PEN EE film camera is vying for the “most fun camera ever” title as well.

Boat on jetty at sunset. Ravensbourne, Dunedin. Olympus 17mm.
Boat on jetty at sunset. Ravensbourne, Dunedin. Olympus 17mm.

In terms of performance, it’s more than acceptable as an everyday camera. Sure, the high ISO noise performance and image stabiliser lack panache compared to more recent or more expensive offerings (read: Olympus OM-D E-M5), but in practice, this isn’t too noticeable. When you factor in how relatively affordable it was for a new, interchangeable lens camera, these faults tend to transform into “endearing quirks”. With increasing familiarity, these quirks become even more endearing.¬†(As a side note, Olympus have released its successor, the E-PM2, which features the sensor of the OM-D, solving much of the high ISO noise issue).

Car park entrance at sunset. St. Clair, Dunedin. Olympus 17mm.
Car park entrance at sunset. St. Clair, Dunedin. Olympus 17mm.

Handling-wise, I found the smooth surface of the body difficult to grip, especially with the petite form factor. This made the kit zoom lens (Olympus 14-42mm retractable) unwieldy under certain conditions.¬†After trawling the internet for solutions, I purchased an Aki-Asahi body skin and Flipbac G4 grip. I heartily recommend both to anybody with a small camera: affordable; simple, non-destructive installation and marked improvements in hold-ability and looks. Sadly, this hasn’t addressed the lack of a delete button on the body. On the flip side, I could always make a conscientious effort to take decent photos.

Disused industrial building at midnight. Central Dunedin. Olympus 14-42mm. Happily, this building is now being renovated into apartments, as well as offices for a prominent lab equipment manufacturer.
Disused industrial building at midnight. Central Dunedin. Olympus 14-42mm. Happily, this building is now being renovated into apartments, as well as offices for a prominent lab equipment manufacturer.

Being one who’s more readily confused when using a zoom than not, I found myself acquiring a second hand Olympus 17mm f/2.8 with matching external viewfinder. Many people complain about poor image quality with this lens, but considering how small and affordable they are (especially second hand like mine) I don’t think there’s any grounds for complaint. Besides, it’s sharp enough for most shooting situations. Like anything, it’s only “defective” if you go looking for “defects”. Good technique with a kit lens is often better than dire technique with an expensive lens. It’s also more affordable. Oh, and fitted to the body, the combination is exactly the right size for a Billingham AVEA 05 pouch. That bit isn’t so affordable, but we’re all entitled to enjoy ourselves once in a while.

St Clair Beach at sunset. St. Clair, Dunedin. Olympus 17mm.
St Clair Beach at sunset. St. Clair, Dunedin. Olympus 17mm.

PEN Mini build quality is great, too. Sure, you can tell it’s plastic, but it doesn’t feel like a fast food outlet toy to use. There are no untoward rattles, squeaks, or fragile components, which adds to the joy in using the PEN Mini. As an added bonus, the lack of broken bits in the bottom of my bag means I don’t have to play “What did this part break off of?”, a horrifically boring and tedious game I attempt to avoid for sanity reasons.

Drizzle rolling in from sea. Otago Peninsula, Dunedin. Olympus 17mm.
Drizzle rolling in from sea. Otago Peninsula, Dunedin. Olympus 17mm.

That has been a meander through my thoughts on the Olympus PEN Mini. One of my favourite cameras ever made, which has only endeared itself to me more with use. If you want to enjoy photography on a budget, or rekindle your fondness for it, I suggest trying one of these.