Review by Mark and Leslie Degner
The new Olympus PEN-F looks like a throwback to an earlier time as it’s a classically-styled rangefinder Micro Four-Thirds (m4/3), interchangeable lens system camera. Not only does it have a retro styling, it also pays homage to Olympus’ long photographic history by bearing the same name as an earlier Olympus rangefinder film camera from the early 1960s. The new PEN-F looks beautiful with its vintage design, sleek lines and stylish, highly-functional control dials. It features an all-metal construction, leather-grained accents and no visible screw heads. Depending on the look that photographers want, it’s available in either the classic silver and black or the more modern looking all black, at the same price of $1,499.99.
At the heart of the PEN-F is a new 20.3 MP 4/3 Live MOS sensor — the first Olympus m4/3 camera to have a 20 MP sensor, which is a step up from their previous 16 MP sensors. There’s also a 50 MP High Res Shot Mode that captures eight images in one second while shifting the sensor with each shot and automatically combining them to create a single high-res image. We found that it works really well as long as there’s very little or no movement in the scene. In addition to JPEG files, you can save 12-bit RAW (lossless compression) files, allowing you to get the maximum quality and control from your images. The new TruePic VII Image Processor does an excellent job with the JPEG processing, producing very pleasing images straight out of the camera. As we normally do to get maximum image quality, we took most of the images with the PEN-F at the base ISO, which is ISO 200. However, in our testing we found that at higher ISO values it did a really good job keeping the image noise down so that images taken at ISO 1600 were very good. If needed, I would have no problems bumping up the ISO to 3200 for images that are still usable.
The PEN-F has a traditional rangefinder camera appearance with several modern twists, like an OLED electronic viewfinder (EVF) and an LCD monitor. The EVF provides 100 percent field of view coverage and has excellent resolution (2.36 M dots). One of the advantages of an EVF is that you can customize the display to provide a variety of information that’s displayed along with the scene that’s being taken. Keeping with the rangefinder styling, the EVF is located in the upper left corner of the camera. This allows you to maintain full control of the camera settings without having to take your eye away from the EVF. When combined with the AF Tracking Pad feature on the LCD monitor, you can use your thumb while touching the monitor to set focus points while composing your photo, which is a lot better than having to use the arrow pad to move your AF focus point. Speaking of the LCD screen, it’s large (7.6 cm or 3 inches), bright, has very good resolution (1037 K dots) and nice colour rendition. The LCD screen gives 100 percent framing accuracy with its full-time live view; it displays lots of on-screen information and can preview exposure (histogram and highlight and shadow warnings) and white balance. It’s also a touch screen, allowing you to easily change menu settings, choose your focus point and even touch to take the picture. Another feature we’re excited to see is the fully articulating LCD screen, which allows you to easily shoot from a variety of perspectives.
Although it’s relatively small, the PEN-F is fairly comfortable to hold. We liked the thumb grip in the upper right corner as it helps to maintain a firm grip of the camera, but it lacks a grip on the front. Some photographers will be fine without a grip, others may find that it’s a little too small to hold firmly, so for those people there’s an accessory grip (ECG-4) available. Although we didn’t have the opportunity to try the grip, it’s something that we would probably purchase as not only does it add a grip to the front of the body, but also the bottom part of the grip has a built-in Arca-Swiss-style mounting plate. Since there’s no built-in flash on the PEN-F, Olympus has included the small, removable FL-LM3 flash (GN 12.9 ISO 200), which tilts and swivels as well as being dustproof and splashproof.
One of the reasons why we really like the PEN-F is because of its straightforward and well laid out controls and user interface. On the top panel there’s a separate PASM dial that controls the exposure modes and also has four custom mode settings, an exposure compensation dial, two control wheels, the shutter release, the Movie button and the On/Off dial. On the back of the camera, besides the large LCD screen, are the standard controls: a Playback button, two Function buttons (Fn1 & Fn2), Menu button, Info (information display) button, arrow control pad and Trash button. On the front are the lens release button and the Creative Dial, which allows photographers the ability to create customized colour and monochrome profiles or choose from a number of presets, like Film Vivid Saturation, Classic Film Monochrome and Classic Film Infrared. Personally, we didn’t find that we used the Creative Dial features, but other photographers may love that feature. Unfortunately, unlike most of the other controls, the Creative Dial is not customizable.
Overall, auto focus is very fast and accurate, especially in AF-S. We did notice that when photographing rapidly moving subjects the auto focus struggled a little, especially when doing burst shooting. In addition to a number of auto focus modes, manual focus is also possible, and there are several auto focus point options, including using the touch screen and face and eye recognition. As already mentioned, the AF Tracking Pad feature using the LCD monitor is a great new feature.
The five-axis, in-body image stabilization systems works extremely well both for still photos and video. According to Olympus, it allows photographers the ability to handhold the camera using up to five shutter speed stops slower than would normally be possible. In our tests we found it to be very effective, providing at least four additional shutter speed stops. Having the image stabilization built into the camera means that pretty much any lens, regardless of the type or manufacturer, that you attach to the PEN-F should be stabilized when shooting stills or videos.
In regards to video, the PEN-F is pretty good, but not outstanding, especially when compared to some of the other m4/3 cameras that are currently available. For most photographers, especially ones who only occasionally shoot video, it will meet their video needs; but if videography is your primary use for the PEN-F then this isn’t the camera for you. Although it has full HD 1080p, it’s lacking 4K video. However, in Time Lapse Movie Mode it’s capable of producing either 4K, full HD 1080p or HD 720p time lapse videos. It has built-in stereo microphones and speakers, but is lacking both an external microphone jack and headphone jack — features that are important to videographers.
The PEN-F is loaded with so many features that we can’t discuss them all in this review. However, in addition to the ones we’ve already mentioned, here are a few of our favourite ones. Live Composite Mode tops the list; it’s wonderful for long night exposures with moving or changing lights and is great for light painting, star trails, and northern lights. Unlike typical long exposure shots, with Live Composite Mode the camera sets the base exposure and then only records changes in light in the scene so there’s no noise build up. You can watch the image form during the exposure on the LCD screen. Or if you activate the very easy to use Wi-Fi function, you can use your smart phone or tablet to control your camera. The PEN-F has a number of bracketing features, including exposure bracketing and focus bracketing. Interval mode, in-camera auto HDR and bracketing for HDR post-process functions are also present. There are also a large number of Art Filters and Scene Select auto exposure modes that some photographers might find useful.
The Olympus PEN-F definitely has a lot going for it. It produces high-quality images, is feature packed, highly customizable and handles well. Unfortunately it isn’t weather sealed. If you do a lot of street photography where you want a smaller-sized camera, need a versatile backup m4/3 body, or just love beautiful looking cameras then the Olympus PEN-F is definitely worth checking out. We have both added it to our wish lists – it’s just too bad Christmas is still about six months away.