The Olympus PEN-F Review

Olympus PEN-F with 17mm f1.8 lens

Olympus PEN-F with 17mm f1.8 lens


Update: PEN-F impressions, part 2, “Olympus PEN-F: Street photography on Austin’s 6th Street” A lot more street photography examples, in this second post.

Update: PEN-F impressions, part 3, “Olympus PEN-F: A personal performance on Rainey Street” A video sample and scenes from a dark bar.

 

I had the special privilege of playing with a pre-production PEN-F for the last few weeks, before the official announcement. A big thanks to Olympus for giving me a chance to use the camera. The following are my impressions of this beautifully retro and full modern digital camera.

The rebirth of a classic, the Olympus PEN-F makes its digital debut. Just when the PEN line looked relegated to play second fiddle to the OM-D, Olympus comes out with its most impressive PEN. In terms of build quality, I think it’s the best yet in the long line of micro 4/3 cameras. Even better than any OM-D.

The camera now sports a 20MP sensor, the highest resolution for an Olympus micro 4/3 camera. The Hi-res shot has been increased from 40MP to 50MP for JPEGs and to 80MP for RAW. And the PEN now has a built-in 2.36M pixel EVF. But the headline feature, dare I say, the entire reason for this camera, in my opinion, is its beautiful classic looks and direct access to creative features.

Mismatched Trees, Mayfield Park - Austin, Texas
Backlit Flower, Mayfield Park - Austin, Texas

See that new dial on the front, just left of the lens? That’s direct access to color, monochrome, art filters and film presets. I first thought it was just a gimmick to give the camera a more retro feel, but it turns out to be a useful and a fun way to change the look of your images. In the age of Instagram, filter effects and the analog film resurgence, this dial is your gateway to creative effects. Coupled with a lever on the back, you can easily customize these effects.

You can attach any micro 4/3 lens, of course, but I especially love the way it looks with my favorite, the Olympus 17mm f1.8. The all metal build of the lens compliments the solid metal build of this camera. The camera has some heft to it — in a good way. The way cameras felt back in the 1960s before plastic, unfortunately, became the go to material. I welcome this trend of increased quality.

I shot all sample photographs with the PEN-F in JPEG. You can hover over the picture with a mouse to see exposure details and if you click on the photo, you can see a larger version. Unlike my previous reviews, none of the PEN-F photographs were post-processed. I downloaded the images straight to the computer and uploaded them my website. So the composition and color you see are straight from the camera. Yes, many of the images are very colorful. That’s the way I like it and the PEN-F now allows me to get the look I like, in camera. Read on for more details.

B-Cycle - Austin, Texas
Evening Light, Seaholm Pump House - Austin, Texas

My background

I currently own 6 Olympus micro 4/3 cameras. 1 E-P1, 2 E-PL1s, an E-P3, an E-PM2 and OM-D E-M5 Mark II. I’ve also reviewed the OM-D E-M1, the OM-D E-M10, the Pen E-P5 and the quirky Olympus Air so I’m quite familiar with Olympus cameras. But I don’t shoot exclusively Olympus, I still have a Canon 6D DSLR, and a slew of digital cameras from every major brand.

The Birds, Seaholm Power Plant - Austin, Texas

I also have a number of classic film cameras and noteworthy digital cameras from the past. All told, I now own an embarrassing number of cameras, somewhere around 40, at last count.

I shoot a lot of architecture and urban life. I’m a product of the city and I like capturing life on the streets through street photography. So when I review cameras, that is the perspective I use. I mentioned that I like color, but I’m also shooting high contrast, moody black and whites. Often for street photography, to mimic that classic look but also for minimalist architecture.

Minimalist Overpass #1 - Austin, Texas
Minimalist Overpass #2 - Austin, Texas

A Historical Precedent

Olympus PEN-F and Film PEN FT

Last year, I began collecting cameras, especially the beautifully crafted ones. While I also started shooting film, I think my true attraction is to the hardware — the wonderful, old mechanical cameras. Mechanical cameras are like mechanical watches. There is a timelessness to them from an age before disposable consumer goods. This new Olympus PEN-F gives me that mechanical feel. True, it is a modern digital camera but the chiseled controls have a solid feel that I’ve never felt in a digital camera before. You really need to play with one, in hand.

See that camera on the left, that’s my PEN FT half frame film camera from 1966. I bought that one last year from Precision Camera and is part of my cherished camera collection. This modern PEN-F derives its name from this model and the one before it. Instead of being a faithful reproduction, styling wise, Olympus decided to echo the elements of the past. Notice that most of the controls, even the on and off switch have a rounded appearance.

What I discovered when I started collecting cameras is that Olympus have a long history of making smaller cameras. Micro 4/3 is just the latest incarnation of a philosophy that spans more than 50 years.

Olympus PEN-F and Film PEN FT

Here’s another view of both cameras. They’re like grandparent and grandchild. Over two generations separates them but the family resemblance is there. The philosophy, intact. High quality, interchangeable lens cameras with the versatility of full frame but without the weight and bulk.

Olympus PEN-F and Original Digital Pen

On the left, the Olympus PEN E-P1, the first digital PEN. When Olympus release it in 2009, they intentionally reached back to their roots. Printed on the top of the camera, the words “OLYMPUS PEN Since 1959”.

The Ergonomics

Olympus PEN-F Details
Olympus PEN-F Details
Olympus has two lines of micro 4/3 cameras, the PEN and OM-D line. While they share the same lenses, the two lines have a different focus. The OM-Ds are more DSLR like with a center hump and more substantial grip. All OM-Ds have a built-in EVF (Electronic View Finder). The PEN line is more compact and historically omitted the EVF. The PEN-F is the first PEN to have a built-in EVF while retaining its classic, non-SLR look.

I’m sure the Olympus marketing department won’t put it this way but this is the way I see it. If you want to shoot with the large zooms, particularly the Pro line like the 40-150 f2.8 or even the 300 f4, get the OM-D either the E-M5 Mark II or the E-M1. Their beefier standard grips plus the optional grips better suit the larger and heavier lenses. On the other hand, if you like the small primes, the 12mm, 17mm, 25mm or 45mm lenses, like I do, I would go with the PEN-F. The camera, I think, is better matched to these lenses.

The PEN-F is suited more to street and travel photography. Imagine a jewel like camera with compact lenses. That’s were I think this camera shines. The camera has two standard control dials but now has a dedicated exposure compensation dial. With effectively three dials, you can setup one of the dials to directly control ISO, if you like. In usual Olympus fashion, the controls are very configurable.

New on this camera are the easily accessible C1, C2, C3 and C4 options off the mode dial. You can pre-configure your camera settings and store them as presets in one of the custom positions and then easily switch settings via the mode dial. This is a feature Canon DSLRs had for years, and I find it really useful. For example, I may have one setting optimized for HDR with a low ISO, a smaller aperture and bracketing. Then I can quickly switch to settings better suited for street photography such as a faster shutter speed, and higher ISO and no bracketing.

Finally, the front control dial to set color, monochrome and art filters is a first for Olympus. I don’t know of any other camera that has this many creative effects within easy access. More about this new dial below.

The Design

Olympus PEN-F Details
Olympus PEN-F Details
Olympus PEN-F Details
While the OM-Ds are the workhorse, SLR styled cameras of the micro 4/3 line, I have a soft spot for the rangefinder looking Pens. Previously the E-P5 was my favorite design wise, especially the two-tone, black and silver model. The PEN-F takes the E-P5 styling and amps it up. The switches are higher quality and more firm. Each setting change is met with a stiff and exact click of the metallic dials. It seems like every thing was reimagined to give a high quality premium fit and finish.

Amazingly, there are no visible screws. Not even on the bottom plate, which is now smooth with the exception of the battery/SD card door — even it echoes the design cues from the past. Everything seems super well build. I am told the body is made of magnesium and the dials are a premium metal which seem like aluminum to me. Perhaps the only part of the camera that seems less than bullet proof is the bottom plate. It is certainly adequate and matches any modern camera. But it doesn’t quite have the “thick brass slab coated with chrome” feel from the camera of the 50’s and 60’s. But I’m being super picky here. Olympus should be applauded for their craftsmanship. I’ve played with premium camera such as Leica’s Q and X line and the PEN-F equals or beats it in terms of build — though Leica’s design aesthetic has moved minimalist and Olympus adds the classic film camera like flourishes.

There is a definite circles theme to the entire design. The dials, of course, are round. But the view finder and even the on and off switch echo this round aesthetic. This, I think, contributes to the retro feel. I also noticed that the black textured covering looks different, opting for a more granular faux-leather pattern.

The plastic/rubber cap that covers the ports on the OM-D E-M5 Mark II have also been upgraded. A plastic door on the PEN-F opens and closes easily to reveal the USB and HDMI Ports. Gone however is the microphone input.

The EVF, a first for the PEN line, tucks in more or less flush with the top plate. There is no EVF hump like the OM-Ds. Size wise, the PEN-F and E-M5 Mark II are roughly the same. The height of the PEN-F is lower since it omits the EVF hump. The camera, for me, is large enough that none of the controls feel cramped, though my hands are on the smaller side. However, since it omits a front protruding grip, the camera is harder to hold with larger lenses. There is an optional grip for the camera but I did not have access to it.

It’s the lack of a front grip that makes me say the PEN-F is geared towards smaller lenses. Perfect for that street or travel camera. Of course, any micro 4/3 lens will work. But if you frequently work with the larger telephotos, a OM-D E-M5 Mark II (with the optional grip) or the E-M1 will be better suited.

The Front Control Dial

Olympus PEN-F Details
I wanted to devote an entire section to the front control dial. After all, it’s one of the defining features of the camera. No other Olympus camera has one and I don’t know of many other camera companies that have something similar, except Pentax. Followers of this blog might remember that I really enjoy the Pentax Q7 that I bought in Japan. The Q, which is the smallest mirrorless system, has a similar front control dial, which is my favorite feature. Using the PEN-F’s front dial gives me fond memories of why the Pentax Q7 is so fun, Except, with the Olympus, I get better image quality, faster focus and a better design.

What makes this dial so special? It allows you quick access to another dimension of creativity. Certainly, like in all photography, the subject, composition and exposure are the main creative elements. But what if you can easily dial in effects that might typically be done in post processing? Or perhaps, like me, you are curious about the world of analog film photography. This new control dial allows you to easily set the effect you want while creating the image. And you can do it so easily, without digging into the menus.

Of course, you can shoot your photos in a neutral color and what you get is the same as any other Olympus micro 4/3. But wouldn’t it be fun to play with different effects? Better yet, shoot in RAW + JPEG. That way, you can experiment with effects, which will be recorded in the JPEG but you still have the RAW to post process in your standard way. The best of both worlds.

Here’s the same scene, moments apart. I shot the monochrome first and then dialed in the saturated chrome setting seconds later.

Runner in a Cage - Austin, Texas
Rusted Pedestrian Bridge - Austin, Texas

Image Quality

I found the PEN-F’s image quality to be comparable to other Olympus micro 4/3 cameras. The 20MP sensor resolved a bit more detail, especially when shot at lower ISOs. The colors also appear to have the same wonderful Olympus look which I originally fell in love with. So don’t worry about all these preset effects that I’ve talked about, if you’re not interested in using them. You can still shoot this camera, like any other Olympus camera.

I usually don’t pixel peep. I view my images on a 27” Apple Thunderbolt display to judge picture quality. I consider color and then exposure to be the most important. After that, I look at sharpness and noise. Given that this is the first time Olympus is using a 20MP sensor, I did more analysis than usual, at the pixel level.

Overpass among Green - Austin, Texas
Rusty Remnants - Austin, Texas
Low Light / High ISO

I didn’t do scientific DXO Mark type tests. But I did shoot photos from ISO 200 up to ISO 10,000 with both the PEN-F and OM-D E-M5 Mark II. I shot them with the same lens, the Olympus 17mm f1.8, and in JPEG (I didn’t have a RAW converter for the PEN-F) on a tripod. The result? The image quality looks very similar. As I mentioned, at ISO 200 or 400, the 20MP PEN-F resolved more detail. But only ever so slightly. It’s not a big difference. At higher ISOs, with the increased noise, I didn’t notice a resolution difference. I also didn’t see a noise penalty with the higher resolution 20MP sensor.

I was also surprised that the image degradation, as I increased ISO, was quite linear at least to 10,000. The JPEG noise reduction algorithms have really improved over the last few years. Sure, as the ISO goes up, the image gets softer since the image processor tries to compensate for the increased noise. In my “studio” tests, things didn’t seem too different between ISO 5000, 6400 and 8000. Viewed on my 27″ monitor, even 10,000 seemed OK.

But in the real world, I still like to limit my ISO to 6400. Keep in mind that noise characteristics vary by color and exposure. And more than noise, the dynamic range and color degrade as the ISO increases, which is true of any camera.

Warm Interior, JW Marriott Lobby - Austin, Texas
The Glitter Beyond, Seaholm Redevelopment - Austin, Texas
Resolution

The good news is that even with the 20MP sensor, at higher ISOs, I get about the same results as my 16MP versions. However when shot with low ISO, you get a slight resolution boost. This advantage should get amplified in the High Res mode, where JPEGS now are 50MP and RAWs are 80MP. I however, have not tested the Hi Res shot feature on the PEN-F.

Film Simulations

I’m really liking the film simulation feature of the PEN-F, especially for color. There are 3 preset modes which you can customize. And the customizations are quite sophisticated where each color can be increased or decreased in saturation. All told there are 12 colors that can be tweaked that are arranged in a color wheel. In addition, the tone curve can be modified to increase or decrease contrast for highlights, midpoints and shadows.

Leaf Assortment - Austin, Texas (standard color)
Leaf Assortment - Austin, Texas (saturated color)

I love saturated colors so I just used the vivd chrome preset (Color Profile 3) which gives the feeling of colorful slide film. If fact, all of the PEN-F color photos on this post, use this. Usually, I post process all my colors to increase contrast and saturation. With this preset, I just shot and did no post processing. Look at the leaves above. On the top, the standard color. On the bottom, the saturated chrome preset.

Lucky by the Couch - Austin, Texas

There’s a certain richness that digital typically lacks, which exists in film. I’m not saying the Olympus accurately simulates analog, it probably doesn’t. But I’m liking the overall effect. Mundane scenes become more dynamic. Look at Lucky’s warm brown fur and the leather couch, for example. They are more saturated than reality but I like them better. Remember, photography, at least for me, is less about realism — it’s about capturing what you feel.

Emily, Graffiti Park - Austin, Texas

I was fearing completely over saturated skin tones with the vivid chrome setting, but that’s not the case. Depending on the situation, I think it can work well. Here, Emily is at a graffiti park where the saturated colors gives it a more “edgy” look.

Giant Tree #1, Neighborhood Park - Austin, Texas

Here is snap at a local park. The greens are vibrant and more alive than the typical digital shot. That’s what the vivid chrome preset does. Does it work for all scenes, probably not. Even for me, who likes color, some colors can get a little intense. But keep in mind that these can all be tweaked to your liking. And remember, you can always shoot in RAW, along with your JPEG, if you prefer. That’s probably the way I’ll use the camera, If I owned it.

On Stage Alone #2, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

At night, the neon and lights can get a little crazy, which I kind of like, artistically. This is a photo of a bar on 6th Street, which is know for lively night life. I like that dynamic party like atmosphere, which fits the mood and the feeling I want to convey.

Treat time, Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge - Austin, Texas

There are monochrome presets as well. And you can dial-in simulated color lens filters, add grain and vignette. “Mono Profile 2” simulates classic black and white film. And while Olympus can’t say so, for copyright reasons I’m sure, this preset looks like Kodak Tri-X film.

Olympus PEN-F Mono Profile 2
Olympus PEN-F Grainy Film II
Olympus PEN-F Grainy Film I

The grain is simulated of course but uses some intelligence in how it’s applied and varies by the exposure. Olympus has had the “Grainy Film I and II” Art filters for a while. Here is a comparison of new Mono Profile 2 to the Grainy film II and Grainly film I, from top to bottom. Notice that the way the grain gets applied varies by the darkness of the background. The Grainy Film Art Filters can’t be changed, while the new Mono Profiles can be tweaked extensively by the user.

Giant Tree #1, Neighborhood Park - Austin, Texas

Finally, I created a custom black and white filter with no grain and a little vignette. It created an entirely different kind of look. I wish I can more finely control the vignetting, however. I set this on the minimal setting and it still seems too heavy for me.

Art Filters

The art filters appear to be the same as previous Olympus cameras but with a nicer and easier to access interface. Again, just turn the front control dial and you can move from the standard look to film simulations and to art filters. The better accessibility makes them more fun to use.

A stand of trees, Neighborhood Park - Austin, Texas
A stand of trees, Neighborhood Park - Austin, Texas (black and white)

Here I switched quickly from the pinhole art filter effect to a custom monochrome film simulation.

I’ve only started using Art filters recently. First with the playful Olympus Air and then on my E-M5 Mark II. My favorite two are the pinhole effect and the diorama effect, which you can see below. It simulates a tilt-shift lens where only a slice of the image is in focus and the rest is blurred away.

Giant Tree #2, Neighborhood Park - Austin, Texas
A Preset Wish list

I’ve gone into detail about all the new presets, the existing Art Filters as well as the new film simulations. And the front control dials makes them easy to access. But I can’t help but think that this is only the beginning. It would be neat if people created their own custom filters and shared them with the community. There is so much Olympus can potentially do to expand on this.

What if there is a way to make custom names for presets. While Olympus is limited by copyrights and trademarks, their customers probably have more flexibility. People can name a preset Kodak Portra or Fujifilm Velvia which simulates those classic films. And what if there is a way to upload these customer created presets into the camera. That would be awesome. Perhaps in a future camera, a front control dial can move between community created presets like they have for Lightroom. Maybe Olympus can make a more sophisticated preset creator in a smartphone app and it can be loaded into the camera via WiFi. Wouldn’t that be neat.

I, obviously, have no special view into the inner workings of Olympus. But I see this as a logical extension of what we have today. User based creativity and sharing would be such a plus for the dedicated Olympus community. Let’s hope Olympus is listening. I think this will be neat. What do you think?

The Path to High Rise Living, Evening Light - Austin, Texas
The Path to High Rise Living, Blue Hour - Austin, Texas

Video

I’m not going to talk much about the video features. I’ve been told that the video is pretty much the same as the OM-D E-M5 Mark II. The 5 axis image stabilization can be used to give a steady cam like feel. The one big change is that there is no microphone input jack. I’m sure that would turn off a lot of serious video people.

I view the PEN-F as primarily a stills camera with decent consumer video features. Perfect for someone like me that is not very interested in making movies, but may want to capture a few minutes, here and there, of events during family vacations. On my E-M5 Mark II, for example, I just use the camera to record my son’s orchestra concerts. Nothing very fancy. For those purpose, the PEN-F should work well.

Update: I’ve added a video sample in this post “Olympus PEN-F: A personal performance on Rainey Street”.

Performance

PEN-F performance should be similar to the E-M5 Mark II except for two improvements.

1. I’m told that the shutter lag is decreased compared to other Olympus cameras.
2. There is a H+, super high-speed mode, that shoots up to 20 frames per second. This uses the digital shutter and is subject to some limitations. The image quality and resolution are identical to other frame rates, however shuttter speeds are limited to between 1/25s to 1/16000 per second.

These are minor but welcome features to an already high performance camera. Focus speed is usually quite perky and more than enough to keep up with everyday life. Often, I find that Olympus’ focusing system is as fast or faster than some DSLRs. Though continuously tracking performance, necessary for some sports, is still not as good as the newer DSLRs.

Also keep in mind that focusing speed is also dependent on the lens. An older, slower lens is not going to focus as fast as some of the recently introduced lenses. The old Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7, for example, is slow, though it has great image quality. Interestingly, though, the Lumix 20mm does focus a bit faster on the PEN-F.

In-body Image stabilization (IBIS) is also the same as the excellent one on the E-M5 Mark II — 5 axis and 5 stops. However, since I use wide-angle lenses, I typically experience 3 to 4 stops of IS on the E-M5 Mark II. Perhaps longer telephotos may achieved the claimed 5 stops. From my limited tests, the PEN-F image stabilization seems similar to my Mark II.

Olympus has had in-body IS for a while, with steady improvements over the years. Certainly these newer cameras are significantly better than my old E-PL1 or E-P3. It’s a real competitive advantage for Olympus. Because the IS is built into the body, instead of the lens, any attached lens, regardless of age or make gets stabilized.

I frequently use the IBIS feature for creative purposes to emphasize motion, as you can see below. In the old days, you needed a tripod to do this. Not anymore with the Olympus IBIS.

Sleek and Historic - Austin, Texas
Life on 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Battery Life

Officially, Olympus states battery life is about 330 shots based on the CIPA standards. I shot over 600 photos on a single battery charge. Your mileage will vary. I shot multiple frames quickly and didn’t spend much time looking at the back screen. I’m assuming battery life to be similar to that of the E-M5 Mark II, since it uses the same battery.

I shoot a lot of photos, so I like to have a second battery just in case. I have noticed, however, that battery life has improved since my older Pens when I would carry two extra batteries.

Seaholm Redevelopment - Austin, Texas

Comparisons

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

I’ve mentioned the E-M5 Mark II quite a bit in this review. That’s because there are a lot of similarities and, conveniently, I also own the Mark II. There are some differences, however. The PEN-F improvements include:

1. 20MP sensor instead of 16MP
2. Higher Resolution High Res Shot at 50MP JPEGs and 80MP RAWs.
3. Mode dial with C1, C2, C3, C4 custom memory settings
4. Reduced shutter lag time
5. Silent Shutter H+ mode which shoots up to 20fps, same resolution but shutter speed only for, 1/25s to 1/16000s
6. ISO Low now at ISO 80 instead of ISO 100.
7. AF Spot Metering

But there are three downsides of the PEN-F:
1. Not weather resistant
2. No microphone jack
3. A 1.08x EVF magnification vs the Mark II’s 1.3x magnification.

Olympus OM-D E-M1

The E-M1 is Olympus’ flagship but it’s older and doesn’t have all the latest improvements. I’m sure there will be a future Mark II update. There are two tangible reasons to get a E-M1.

1. The bigger, beefier built-in grip makes it easier to handle larger telephoto lenses.
2. The phase detect focusing, in addition to contrast detect, makes this the best micro 4/3 camera to attach legacy 4/3 SLR lenses. The E-M1 bridged the gap with the pre-micro 4/3 Olympus DSLRs. Read my Olympus OM-D E-M1 review, if you’re interested.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 / E-M10 Mark II

The E-M10 is Olympus’ entry level OM-D model and it has the same sensor and image quality as its more expensive siblings. The camera is a bit smaller with more plastic and less metal. It’s more than enough for most people and would be the camera I recommend for non-enthusiasts. Here is my review of the Olympus OM-D E-M10.

Highrises Multiplying - Austin, Texas
Other Mirrorless

As we start 2016, every mirrorless brand is going to be great, especially from the companies dedicated to mirrorless. Each will have their slight advantages and disadvantages. The offerings from Canon and Nikon, traditional DSLR companies, still lag in this area.

Sony has made a splash with the full frame second generation A7 series cameras. They also seem to be taking marketshare away from the traditional DSLR companies. As good as the A7 cameras are, they are targeted towards a different audience from the PEN-F. The A7 models have a shrunken down DSLR shaped design. Because they use a full frame sensor, the lenses are going to be a lot larger. Consider these if replacing a traditional DSLR is the priority, but for street and travel photography, I prefer the PEN-F.

Fujifilm makes an excellent line of X cameras, both with interchangeable lenses as well as the fixed lens X100T. In many ways, I think the Fujis are closest aligned with Olympus in terms of philosophy. Also they were the first to get into the retro feeling digital camera space. Fuji cameras have a larger APS-C sensor, which should give them a slight technical edge in image quality, especially for higher ISOs. In real world usage, a lot depends on how large you need to output images. For what I do, the Fujifim X100S, that I own (which has the same image quality as the newer X100T) is about the same as the Olympus. Much is going to depend on the colors the camera produces as well as how they handle. The Fuji’s lenses are going to be larger since they use a larger sensor. Also the Olympus’ In-Body Image Stabilization is a major advantage over Fujifilm.

Panasonic, the other major player in the micro 4/3 space, also makes formidable cameras. Their traditional strength has been video. I understand that recent Panasonic models auto focus is even faster than Olympus. While I own several micro 4/3 Panasonic lenses, I don’t have much experience with their cameras. Traditionally, I like the Olympus color and exposure better, and with little interest in video, I’ve continued to use Olympus.

Three Towers, Downtown - Austin, Texas
DSLRs

Canon and Nikon are the big DSLR players. Together they own the DSLR market. Probably, because they dominate their market, they’ve been slow to get into mirrorless. They both came out with mirrorless cameras but for different reasons, they are not competitive.

DSLRs are functional and take great photos but they are big, clunky and old-tech. In high-end sports, they rule. But for almost everything else, I believe mirrorless cameras are superior. There is nothing in the DSLR space that addresses the PEN-F market for street and travel photography.

The Paramount Lights Up, Congress Avenue - Austin, Texas

Miscellaneous

WiFi

It goes without saying that most, if not all, modern cameras have incorporated WiFi. Olympus has done so for a while, therefore, their wireless apps are quite full featured and robust. In fact, The Olympus Air relies heavily on smartphones for their interface and uses both WiFi and bluetooth for wireless communication.

I only dabble with WiFi features on my cameras. I don’t feel compelled to quickly publish photos on social media, believing perhaps foolishly, that quality is more important the speed. But for people shooting at events or reporters breaking fast news, I imagine good WiFi connectivity is a must. Olympus’ implementation is very good.

With Olympus’ WiFi implementation, you can adjust exposure settings so it could be a convenient way to shoot remotely. A landscape photographer, for instance, may find this useful and it’s more full featured than a cable release. Wifi does however, use up more battery power.

Computing in a Fish Tank - Austin, Texas
HDR

Over years, Olympus’ HDR interface and functionality has improved. While I still use my classic, manual HDR techniques for my serious efforts, the built-in HDR has some real advantages.

I like to use the built-in HDR 1 mode and shoot handheld to increase dynamic range. And the level of exposure matching and blending between the 4 hand-held shots are quite amazing. Better than what I can do in post-processing on a computer.

Old Shanghai, Chinatown - San Francisco, California

Here’s a photograph I recently took in Chinatown in San Francisco. Though I shot this with a E-M5 Mark II, the HDR implementation on the PEN-F is identical. Notice how the details in the backlit signs are still there and not blown out. I added a bit more contrast and saturation in post processing since the HDR mode tends to flatten out images.

But consider that I shot this handheld at night and the camera took 4 images and combined them perfectly. Even for moving objects, the camera is smart about eliminating duplicates. A car that passes through the scene, for example, only show up once in the final HDR image, instead of appearing 4 times.

So good is the HDR, I used it as a technique to increase dynamic range in these skyscraper shots in San Francisco. I was able to eliminate harsh shadows and show more cloud details.

Live Composite

A fun feature that was introduced on the PEN E-PL7 and then the OM-D E-M10 has migrated to the most recent micro 4/3 cameras, including the PEN-F. In the photo below, I used the E-M10 out in West Texas to stack 540 photos automatically to create these Star Trails. This is a big pain in the neck to do manually, the PEN-F does this automatically.

Star Trails - Terlingua, Texas

Read my post, “Olympus OM-D E-M10: The easiest way to create star trails”, to find out how I created this and the settings for the camera. It’s the same technique for the PEN-F.

Articulating Rear LCD

I think for most people, the fully articulating rear LCD screen is a plus. It works well for shooting videos and selfies as well as framing in the portrait orientation. However, for me, I prefer a flip-up screen, the kind that is on the OM-D E-M1. Almost all of my photos are shot in the landscape orientation and I don’t shoot many videos or selfies. The advantage of a flip-up screen is it’s more compact — the screen doesn’t swing out, away from the camera. On the street or in crowds, the compact, flip-up orientation makes for a slimmer profile and less likely to be jostled. It also works better as a waist level view finder.

Conversations in front of the Bat Bar - Austin, Texas

My Likes

1. Beautiful retro design
2. Premium, luxurious all metal build quality
3. Easy access front dial to film simulations and filters
4. Sophisticated interface to adjust colors and tone curves
5. Class leading 5 axis, 5 stop in-body image stabilization
6. Integrated High Resolution 2.36M pixel EVF
7. Excellent quality photographs to ISO 3200 and higher
8. Enhanced High Res shot, 50MP JPEG and 80MP RAW
9. Silent and fast digital shutter option
10. Well designed controls and placement
11. That great Olympus color
12. Accurate Exposure
13. Fast focus
14. 10 frames per second and a special 20 frame per second mode
15. Great lens selection, best in the mirrorless market

My Dislikes

1. No built-in flash
2. Minimal front grip, though there is an optional grip
3. No microphone input or accessory port for external microphones.
4. Not weather sealed
5. Fully articulating LCD screen. I prefer a simpler flip-up LCD.

Conclusion

In the nearly 7 years since its first Pen, much has improved. The slow, new fangled mirrorless camera has evolved into a device that rivals DSLRs. The technical improvements were inevitable. The design and build quality improvements are what delight. There are many excellent cameras. Most of them take great photos. What separates them is usability and how they make you feel.

Last year, I bought the Fujifilm X100S a popular retro-modern camera. It was both game changing and frustrating at the same time. While I loved the feel of the camera, it was a bit slow and unpolished. The PEN-F bests the X100S in almost every way, including the build quality. While the X100S is no slouch, it actually feels a bit cheap compared to the PEN-F.

While I own a lot of cameras, certainly more than I probably should, my primary go to camera is the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II. I like the PEN-F better. It better suits the way I shoot. If I didn’t already own the OM-D E-M5 Mark II, I would buy the PEN-F.

Football Fans, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

As I mentioned, this camera is ideal for street photography and travel photography. Also, if you need a beautiful little camera around the house to capture your kids and events, the PEN-F will work wonderfully. There are less expensive cameras, the OM-D E-M10, for example, but they don’t look as luxurious as this one. It’s the difference between a practical Honda and a Mercedes Benz. Both with get you to the same destination but one will do it with more style.

But there is also a tangible, creative difference. That front control dial makes it easy to change the presets and the look of the images. I really love the vivid Chrome Preset, as you can tell from this post. I would almost get the PEN-F just for this preset. Olympus, please bring that chrome preset to the E-M5 Mark II, even though it won’t have a physical control dial. Photography, for me, is about creativity and this dial increases my creative options, easily.

These presets combined with WiFi will make an excellent Instagram camera too. While I use my Instagram account to showcase just iPhone photos, I know many would like to put share their enthusiast camera photos too. I’m tempted to start including photos from my other cameras, especially since I can get a higher quality and a larger choice of focal lengths.

The Paramount at Night - Austin, Texas

Olympus has done an admirable job re-imagining the PEN into a new direction. While the OM-D has superseded much of the traditional PEN market, this new PEN-F ups the ante. I was surprised how much I like it and that’s coming from an experienced Olympus user that already has access to much of the newest features.

If you have an older micro 4/3 camera and the PEN-F is in your budget, consider it seriously, especially if you shoot with primes or smaller zoom lenses. Want to attach those big lenses, then I would steer you to the OM-D line.

Have a DSLR and want to downsize in style. The PEN-F might be for you. Sony and Fujifilm make fine mirrorless cameras but they are both larger, especially when you factor in the lenses. The major advantage of mirrorless is the smaller overall package. I believe micro 4/3 is the best balance of compact size and image quality.

Finally, as you may know, I own a lot of cameras. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. But when all is said and done, the Olympus compares favorably to all the cameras I own. The Olympus is my go to camera for everyday needs and the one I bring with me on my business trips and vacations. Ultimately, I guess that’s the biggest testimonial I can give.

Update: PEN-F impressions, part 2, “Olympus PEN-F: Street photography on Austin’s 6th Street” A lot more street photography examples, in this second post.

Update: PEN-F impressions, part 3, “Olympus PEN-F: A personal performance on Rainey Street” A video sample and scenes from a dark bar.

 

I have a tons of extra sample images from the PEN-F below. Including more of Lucky, my trusty dog, who I include on my camera reviews (it’s sort of a tradition). If you found this review helpful, consider using my affiliate links to make any purchases. You get the same prices and I get a small commission.

Where can you get the Pen-F? There’s always Amazon. (here is my Amazon link). Better yet, if you live outside of Texas, get the camera tax-free from Precision Camera. (here is my Precision Camera link) They are a great local Austin camera store and their prices for the Pen-F should be the same as the big guys. If you’re from Texas, get it from Precision anyway and visit the store when you’re in Austin.

Too Cold, JW Marriott Cafe - Austin, Texas
The Latest Trends, 2nd Street - Austin, Texas
Waiting for the Voodoo Doughnuts - Austin, Texas
Deep Conversations, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Blue Hour Carriage Ride, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Gino's East, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Red Glow, Bat Bar - Austin, Texas
On Stage Alone #1, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Surprisingly inviting pathway - Austin, Texas
Frank Public Art - Austin, Texas
Halcyon Coffee Bar, 4th Street - Austin, Texas
4th Street Tobacco - Austin, Texas
Lucky and Friend, Playing - Austin, Texas
Lucky's Black and White Portrait - Austin, Texas
Lucky's Color Portrait - Austin, Texas

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63 thoughts on “The Olympus PEN-F Review

  1. oh Boy, I don’t know how long I will be able to resist the appeal of those beautiful retro-cameras (“Tie me to the mast, sailors!!!”)…..i just hope it will be outrageously expensive, so I just can’t afford it at all…..

  2. Your images look great Andy. Glad to hear the 20mp sensor has better image quality yet is still good in low light. It seems that the lenses still keep up with the larger sensor too. You’re a lucky man to play with the new toys before the rest of us🙂

  3. Wow, by far the best review of this camera I’ve read so far. And your photos are awesome as always, Andy. I’m tempted to get these two lenses, tho I *do* have the 14, 25, and 45mm primes…
    Plus I love the b&w modes you showed us here. Thanks for your efforts.

    1. Thank you so much, Wolfgang. It took me a while to put it together. I even did the product photography with the white background, something new for me.

      Please mention my review to your followers, if you feel comfortable in doing so.

  4. Thanks for a great review. I had the ep1,2 and 3 and really loved the form factor can’t wait to try the new F. I shoot with my left eye and do wonder how the EFV location will work for me.

    1. Hi Gilly. Thanks for visiting. I too, unfortunately, am left eye dominant so I shoot with my left. It works for me, though I suppose if I shot with my right eye, I can better observe the street with my left. There is a feature that turns the touch screen into a trackpad to change focus points. I turned that feature off since my nose would hit the LCD and change the focusing point. I suppose that’s one downside that was easily remedied.

  5. I have 3 Olympus cameras and use them all for different purposes but the one I turn to most is the EP5 with the VF4 viewfinder. That viewfinder is huge and a pleasure to use if a bit ungainly atop the camera. The question is how does the Pen F Evf compare? None of the reviews I have read talk about it and to me it is a big factor in deciding if it is worth upgrading. Image quality will probably be more or less the same. Controls are a wash-the EP5 does what I need it to do (and the dial on the front of the Pen looks uncomfortably placed). The Pen is a very cool looking camera but there has to be a some upgrade in functionality to spend $1200. What do you think of the Evf in the Pen?

    1. Hi Jeff. If the viewfinder is your biggest criteria, stay with the E-P5. The resolution of the viewfinders are the same but the VF4 has a huge 1.48x magnification, which is the same as the OM-D E-M1. The PEN-F has a 1.08x resolution.

  6. Great review! Someone commented on another web review of the Pen-F that the camera resembles the old Leica III camera even more than it resembles the original Pen F. After looking at photos of the Leica, I certainly agree. Pull up a photo of the Leica III and I think you will agree too!

    1. Thank you, Jeff G. R. I especially think the metal dials on the PEN-F, with its texture, resembles the old Leica IIIs. There are a lot of touches on the PEN-F that echoes old cameras in general and not necessarily just the original PEN-F film camera. I love the feel of it.

  7. A nice writeup. I like the sharing/download preset idea. that potentially can open up a whole new revenue stream for photogs. How is a mode different from a filter? Initially I thought maybe a mode can modify the raw files, Ming Thein said firmly no. TIA

    1. FThanks bostoncc. Olympus’s Art filters either can’t be modified or can only be slightly modified. The effects if the new color and black and presets can be changed quite a bit. All Art Filters and Film Presets only modify the JPEGS. The RAWs are not modified.

      1. That makes sense. Then the Vivid Chrome mode is just a bunch of parameters if put in the right format, can be loaded into Olympus Viewer to process and get the same effects as in Pen-F? I always wonder how Robin Wong processes his images since his answer is “just run through Viewer 3”. Well his Viewer 3 obviously is a bit different, most likely modified by w a preset, not the same as vivid chrome but w some similar characteristics. Would appreciate your thoughts on this.

      2. Sorry bostoncc. I don’t have any experience with Viewer 3. It’s not part of my workflow and I have no plans for using different software for my various cameras.

  8. Did you test Hires mode? I wonder if it operates as slow and also is still restricted to 1600 ISO. I feel ou brush off Panasonic to the side which I don’t understand. The GX8 is easily the cloest competitor so that should be mentioned as the first one, not Sony’s or FUji’s. I find that a serious mistake..making Panny some sort of a footnote…

    1. I didn’t test the Hi Res shot with the PEN-F. I was told that the speed and limitations are the same as the OM-D E-M5 Mark II, except the resolution has increased to 50M and 80MP.

    1. If you want to (back) into film Photography, you can buy OM-1 really inexpensively. I bought a really nice one last year or $50 or so.

      That said, digital is really easy and, as you can tell from the review, I’m really liking the camera and the colors.

  9. Nice read Andy. Checked it myself today and told Charles if Olympus would just add the ART dial on the coming E-M2 they would have a big winner on their hands. I also really, really liked this camera.

    1. Sure. Keep in mind that the depth of field is not going to be as shallow as cameras with larger sensors. However, a lens like the 75mm f1.8 is a beautiful portrait lens and with shallow depth of field and great bokeh.

  10. Really well done informative review. Pros/cons/quirks shown and discussed. Always nice to have the time to really explore, enjoy and dig deep. Kudos sir.
    A frequent reader but an infrequent commenter. Always look forward to check out your journeys and life’s commentary. Have you and Mr Tucks site in my ten : )

    Cheers

  11. “The Fuji’s lenses are going to be larger since they use a larger sensor.”

    I own M43 cameras as well as a Fuji XE-2, and the size difference between the bodies/lenses should not be used as the Fujifilm bodies/lenses are not that big of a difference between M43. In fact, the fujifilm 35mm f/1.4 and 27mm f/2.8 is Smaller than the Panny/Leica 25mm f/1.4 and the Panny 20mm f/1.7! Heck, the Fuji 35mm f/2 is even Smaller!

    In daytime shots, both fujifilm and M43 are similar, but the edge always goes to the Fuji, because I sometimes get noise in M43. at night, it’s a totally different ballgame, as M43 has way more noise than fuji, plus more care needs to go into editing my M43 raw files…

    1. According to B&H Photo’s specs The Fujifilm 35mm f1.4 is a tad larger than the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4 but lighter. The Fuji 27mm is indeed smaller and lighter than the Panasonic 20mm however you are comparing an f2.8 lens to a f1.7 lens. If you compare the Fuji 27mm to the Olympus 14mm (yes slightly different focal length but the same aperture) both are pancake designs, the Olympus is smaller and lighter.

      The difference in size is going to be dictated by lens design. Physics dictates that a lens created for a smaller sensor is going be smaller, if all other factors stay the same.

      No question, in lower light, the Fuji’s larger APS-C sensor is going to give better low light performance. However, depending on what you shoot, the Olympus IBIS has real advantages that can negate Fuji’s large sensor advantage for lower noise. For example, I often shoot from 1/5 second to 1/15 of a second handheld. That means I lower my ISO 1 to 2 stops than the comparable Fuji settings.

      It’s all good. Like I said, I own a Fuji X100S and like it. Both companies make great cameras each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

  12. Wow, Andy, you really knocked this review out of the park. Great writeup and the photography is top notch. The night shots look amazing for JPEGs out of camera. Your product photography is stellar. I hope Olympus realizes what a great advocate you are for their gear and is treating you well.

    1. Thank you, Mike. It did take a while to write up and get all the photographs put together. Thanks also for noticing my product photography. First time I made a serious attempt at it.

  13. Any advice to someone who’s currently shooting with an OMD – EM5. I love it and have been having a blast shooting with the 25mm 1.8 and 12-40mm 2.8

    The only situation where I’m disappointed is when the light is low and I’m forced into higher ISOs. Obviously I can improve my skills, but I’m wondering how much extra wiggle room would I get from a Fuji Crop or Sony Full frame?

    Is it worth changing?

    1. Evan, what high ISOs are you currently using on your EM5?

      For mirrorless cameras, the current low light champion is the Sony A7S II (it’s only 12MP, however). It will give you a lot of wiggle room. Whether if its worth changing depends on your budget and how much low light performance you want. I shoot often at night but I am happy with what I can do with the Olympus and I like the compact camera size.

      1. Anything north of 1600 ISO tends to get fuzzy fast. Totally agree, love the small size and everything about the system (lens choices, etc, was about to get the 75mm 1.8).

        Its just when I’m shooting indoors with low artificial light / or outdoors with low light I feel like I’m missing lots of shots to blur / high noise trying to walk that line. Yet again, I definitely have room to improve from a skill perspective.

        I’ve been learning to do noise reduction in Lightroom, maybe that will help. Just wondering how much of a difference an APS-C or full frame would really make? And whether I’d have to give up too much good stuff with Olympus in switching.

  14. Evan: In the noise-department APSC wins up to 1 stop for the same generation sensors. As atmtx explains, Oly wins it all back in the IBIS-department.

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  16. Love your review. Can’t wait to test one myself and compare it to my EM-10 ( mk1). One question , I know it can use the Olympus image app to control it via a smartphone , but can you still plug in a wired remote release as I like using this feature in my coastal & landscape photos, plus long exposures at night.

      1. Wide angle on micro4/3 doesn’t feel and look natural to me, even on APS-C it looks somehow funny. As bigger the chip as better it gets.
        Doesn’t matter how nice a camera looks from the outside. Chip-size matters. But Im sure this camera will be a top seller.

        Good Article, btw.

  17. Really great article and lovely photos! I just ordered mine and will try my 12-40mm F2.8 with it for some long exposures with ND filters. I hope it does good for me🙂

  18. Yes, thank you Andy for a very thorough and relevant review, with some very good photographs to illustrate your experience. I can certainly imagine myself using this camera with a couple of small primes and taking great pride in the ownership of what looks like an exquisite piece of modern technology, allied to a never dated aesthetic.

  19. I loved your review; it’s so rare to find a guy whose focus is actual photography not tech.

    I’m looking at the Olympus as a more flexible alternative to my Leica M. I was wondering if you’d done any M photograpy and what you’d think of the Olympus as a substitute?

    In any case, thanks for your review!

    1. Thank you, Kathy. Tech is fun but I think it should always be in the service of the photograph.

      I never compared the a Leica M directly to an Olympus but I have some ideas. First, much of what I said in my comparison of the Leica M and the Fuji X100S is relevant, so you may want to read this post first:
      https://blog.atmtxphoto.com/2014/08/11/shooting-on-6th-street-comparing-the-fujifilm-x100s-to-the-leica-m/

      The Leica and Fuji are going to have a little bit better image quality at a given ISO, but it might not matter to you, depending on your output.

      That said, The Olympus’ amazing in-b0dy image stabilization can help tremendously, depending on the subject.

      The PEN-F is going to be easier and faster to shoot and possibly more fun. The Leica is harder to master but maybe more rewarding because it does take some skill to use, especially for faster moving subjects.

      1. Thanks for the comparisons! Though I’m shooting an old but loved M8 with a 50mm f2.0, almost all your comments on Leica photography ring true.

        I guess what appeals to me about the style is the ability to choose my own focus, my own aperture, with my hands. It becomes that ‘muscle memory’ you mention.

        The Olympus seems attractive because of the manual focus and the exposure compensation dials. Not to mention that a Leica 28mm f2.8 lens would buy me the Olympus, the 18mm f1.8 lens and a handful of other lenses too.

        I guess I’ll have to stop in at Precision (buy local when you can!)

        Thanks again for the reviews.

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