It was moments after the official announcement of the Olympus PEN-F. I just posted my review of the PEN-F along with a dozen journalists and bloggers, when the embargo lifted at midnight, last Tuesday. A group of us decided to go out to celebrate.
At the Chupacabra Cantina, on East 6th Street, Virginia was curious about the camera we were shooting. “What’s that?”, she asked. “Oh, it’s a brand new camera that was announced less than an hour ago.” Virginia was intrigued — she had just bought a classic Pentax film camera and loved black and white. With its retro looks and film simulations, I explained that the PEN-F is as close to film photography you can get with a modern digital camera. We did an impromptu photo shoot.
The Chupacabra was terribly dark, as is usual in places like this, and any existing light was supplied by funky and colorful LEDs. Monochrome Profile 2, which simulates grainy black and white film like Kodak Tri-X, was going to work well. With the flick of the front control dial, I quickly shifted from a saturated color simulation to black and white. I’m really happy with the portrait I made. Grainy, yes, but it imbued a texture and mood that I was after.
Beyond its good looks and film simulations, I think the PEN-F is perfect for Street Photography. Perfect for 6th street. Austin’s famous, low-rent entertainment district that caters to college kids and tourists. I go there often, at night, to shoot the street and to test cameras. Low light and fast action make it challenging, photographically. The PEN-F worked well, especially with my favorite the Olympus 17mm f1.8 lens.
I shot these over two successive nights. For some strange reason, Monday was more lively than Tuesday. Usually, the activity level ramps up as you go through the week. Friday and Saturday, as you can imagine, are the crazy nights.
As in my Olympus PEN-F review, I shot all photos in JPEG and did no post-processing — all images are straight off the camera. Even more than the grainy black and white (Monochrome Profile 2), I like the vivid chrome setting (Color Profile 3). I found that it matches my aesthetic for rich vibrant colors. My favorite feature on the camera is the front control dial that easily allows me to switch from vivid color, to black and white and even art filters or neutral color. Don’t like the preset profiles? You can customize them to your liking.
The crazy saturated colors work well, I think, on a party street like 6th. And the fast focusing and good ISO performance helps too in a place like this. Over the years, as Olympus’ high ISO performance increased, I’ve gradually ratcheted up my maximum ISO, currently set to 6400. Shot at f1.8 or f2, I can get 1/60 to 1/80 of a second shutter, more or less.
Because micro 4/3 is a smaller sensor than full frame or APS-C, I get more depth of field, which works great on the street. Instead of shooting Aperture Priority, I’ve shifted to shooting Shutter Priority. I adjust the shutter speed accordingly, depending on the situation. For static scenes, I might drop my shutter to 1/15s or 1/30s to maximize image quality. Auto ISO nicely adjusts lower.
I spotted these two down the street and had to make a photo — they were more than happy to oblige. I shot first in Black and White and quickly shifted to color. No fumbling through the menus, again just a quick flick of the front dial. That’s the great thing about 6th Street, you never know who you’re going to meet.
Here are more photos from the Chupacabra. I made a portrait of Virginia and Leo, as well as with her friend Erika. ISO set to 6400, but with the shutter down at 1/20 of a second. It’s dark in there but the in-body image stabilization helps a lot. I also found that, in darker conditions, the Monochrome Profile 3 works well with a +2/3 exposure compensation. That opens up some of the shadows and gives me an exposure I prefer.
Finally, after the Chupacabra, we made one last stop at a different bar, the Coyote Ugly. It was brighter here, but I forgot to increase the shutter speed. The ISO was a reasonable 1600. With the added grain from the Monochrome Profile 2, however, the ISO 1600 images and the 6400 images look about the same. The simulated grain does hide a lot. Perhaps I should have tested even high ISOs with this Monochrome setting.
Any additional tests will have to wait, unfortunately, I had to return the PEN-F to Olympus. I’m really missing the front control dial and the film simulations. My OM-D E-M5 Mark II is a great camera but the PEN-F is so much more fun.
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