Until now, in comparison with the Olympus OM-D series, we have paid little attention to Olympus PEN cameras. I had the feeling that an amateur photographer who was searching for a compact camera with interchangeable lenses was better off with an OM-D. OM-D offered more options and a built-in viewfinder. With the arrival of the Olympus PEN F, that is changing. The Olympus PEN-F has the capability to appeal to a much larger group of high-end users than all previous Olympus PEN models, not only due to the looks of this modern camera, with a familiar appearance that recalls the past. The hand-fit, build and image quality might also make this camera into a future design classic. The price tag of the PEN-F (a list price above a thousand euros for the body) will ensure some exclusivity, which can pay off later in value retention. Although gadget fans will certainly fall for this camera, it certainly deserves attention from a larger group of photographers. In particular, photographers who want to share pictures via social media, want the quality and the ease of a camera with interchangeable lenses and simultaneously would rather use a good jpg out of the camera than to start RAW editing. No camera delivers beautifully edited jpg shots as easily as the Olympus PEN-F.
PEN-F: Concept camera with a nod to the past
The Olympus PEN-F was a cute little analogue camera that was released in 1963. The design of the digital Olympus PEN-F is a clear ode to the original PEN-F. They strongly resemble each other when viewed from the front. This is a product that, according to Olympus, is only designed once in a generation and is intended for everyone with a passion for photography, style and design.
A Micro Four Thirds-sensor is much larger than the sensors that are used in smartphones and most compact cameras. At the same time, the PEN-F sensor is smaller than a full-frame sensor in an SLR camera. That means that the PEN-F is more compact and lighter than an SLR camera, while the image quality is comparable to APS-C SLR cameras. In comparison with the OM-D cameras from Olympus, where you use the same interchangeable lenses and a micro-43 sensor, you have more options with the PEN-F in order for editing the image simply in the camera. The image editing in the camera is a combination of buttons/switches on the camera and the menu on the screen/in the viewfinder.
The filter/profile button at the top left on the front of the PEN-F is new and helps with that. This button offers direct access to various image styles and art filters, the results of which you also immediately see in the viewfinder. WYSIWYG is one of the big advantages of an electronic viewfinder in comparison with SLR cameras, where you can only see the edited version on the screen on the back of the camera afterwards. The monochrome mode on the front of the camera is new. Monochrome offers you 3 preset profiles, of which profile 1 is a direct conversion to black and white. Profile 2 resembles an analogue black and white film, including grain. Profile 3 simulates an infrared shot. Starting from these 3 profiles, you can further adjust the image to your own taste and the shooting situation by then playing with contrast, color filters (as in analogue photography) and vignetting. If you do not yet know exactly which effect you want to use, then you can apply art bracketing—more about that in a moment. Then you have to set the filter/profile button to Art and choose in the menu on the screen for Art bracketing.
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I think an important plus point relative to all prior PEN cameras is the built-in viewfinder. Although there are ever-more photographers who primarily use the screen on the back of the camera to set the composition and focus, a built-in viewfinder has added value, even if it’s only for photographing in bright sunlight. The viewfinder shows 100% of the image, so that you can accurately frame, with a magnification of 1.23x. Taking the crop factor into account, that is a magnification of 0.62x. That is comparable with the magnification of APS-C SLR cameras and a bit less than the 0.7x of professional, full-frame SLR cameras and of earlier Olympus OM-D cameras. The number of pixels of the PEN viewfinder is the same as the number of pixels of the OM-D cameras, which means that the PEN-F has a higher resolution. My preference is for the larger viewfinder of an OM-D over the higher resolution of the PEN-F. Fans of an optical viewfinder might reach the opposite conclusion, due to the higher resolution of the PEN viewfinder.
Which Olympus camera suits me?
Classifying into boxes always has risks. And you certainly have to take such things with a grain of salt. Even so, you probably want to know whether this is the right camera for you. The Olympus cameras that we have reviewed to date can be assigned to different target audiences based on their distinctive characteristics.
(Professional) photographers looking for a compact alternative for a professional SLR camera: Olympus OM-D E-M1.
Amateur photographers who also want to make stable video recordings without a fuss or want to connect an external microphone: Olympus OM-D E-M5II
Fashion-conscious photographers and/or those active on social media: Olympus PEN F.
As long as we’re putting things into boxes: if you shoot in RAW, then choose one of the first two cameras. If you prefer shooting and/or primarily shoot in jpg, then choose a PEN-F or an OM-D E-M10 MK2.
Build quality and ergonomics
Without one visible screw head.
The Olympus PEN-F has a metal body. The camera therefore feels heavier, more luxurious and more solid than very light cameras with a plastic body. As far as sturdiness/solidity is concerned, it does not have to make much difference. Some plastics are stronger than steel. It just feels nicer than a feather-light camera. You insert the SD card next to the battery on the bottom of the camera. For a photographer who uses this camera a lot from a tripod due to the high resolution, that is less handy if you need to change SD cards.
At the top right on the camera there is a button with which you can over- and under-expose your shots. The button has enough resistance not to change positions unintentionally, but it is therefore also more difficult to operate with your thumb when you are holding the camera in front of your face. Personally, I prefer the button layout of the OM-D 1, OMD-E-M5 MK2, where I can adjust the aperture choice (and for action the shutter time preference) by operating the two corresponding buttons with thumb and index finger.
On the back of the camera is a fold-out screen that you can then turn freely, so that you can hold the camera over your head or close to the ground and still see what will show up in the picture. It is a very practical feature, a tilting AND rotating screen, but it is not yet common. Oh yes, you can also make selfies with it, thans to the tilting and rotating screen.
Olympus PEN-F list price
The Olympus PEN-F is available starting in early March 2016 in a black and a silver version. The list price is € 1199.- for the body, € 1399.- for a kit with the Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 14-42 mm 1-3.5-5.6 EZ Pancake lens (review follows shortly) and € 1499.- for a kit with the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 17 mm 1:2.8 lens (which I would choose). There some 40 other M.ZUIKO lenses for sale for the PEN-F, of which the Olympus 75 mm f/1.8 makes a great combination for portrait and street photography shots with a nice background blur. All Panasonic lenses and some Voigtlaender and Sigma micro-43 lenses with a fixed focal length are also suitable for the Olympus PEN-F.
Versatile image editing in the camera With a short telephoto lens (75 mm f/1.8), you isolate the subject beautifully from the background with a great bokeh. The camera has converted all colors—except one—into black and white, so that the shot takes on a lot more atmosphere. Further post-editing in Lightroom or Photoshop was further no longer needed.
The Olympus PEN-F has an unbelievably short release delay, the time between pressing the release button and taking the picture. The auto focus also works incredibly fast. Eye Detect AF function and the touchscreen on which you directly designate a focus point make the A very user-friendly. The Olympus menu is broadly expanded and offers practically all the options that you could wish for. This camera may look trendy, but the technical capabilities are equal to those of other cameras in its price class. A comprehensive menu has pros and cons. A clear advantage is that as your photography experience grows, you do not have to buy a new camera because “that’s not on there.” The disadvantage is that it can take you a lot of time before you master all the options and know where to find them in the menu.
Fast auto focus
Contrast detecion is just as fast and more accurate than phase detection
The Olympus PEN-F has a very short release delay. If the camera has already focused and you then press the shutter release, then it is a matter of milliseconds before the picture is taken. The auto focus is also fast. The camera focuses and captures in a bit more than 100 ms (tested with the Olympus 14-42 mm EZ and with the 12-40 mm f/2.8). That is just as fast as the very fastest SLR cameras of today. Because the Olympus PEN-F, with the help of contrast detection, focuses on the sensor signal, there is never front or back focus. Every shot is spot-on sharp. Just like with the very best SLR cameras, you can shoot 10 images (and 11 with the electronic shutter) per second. If you want to photograph a fast-moving subject, then the maximum number of shots that you can make is 5 images per second. Continuous AF with the help of contrast detection, with which the AF keeps following a fast-moving subject while taking a series of shots, is a point on which modern SLR camera's (and the Panasonic GX8 if you use Panasonic lenses and DFD) are better than the Olympus PEN-F. The video below shows a 100% partial enlargement from a series of shots of 5 images per second of a car passing at about 50 km/hour.
High resolution and image quality
With a 20-megapixel sensor, the Olympus PEN-F (together with the Panasonic GX8) is the camera with the highest resolution. That is—partly thanks to the high quality of micro-43 lenses—more or less equivalent to shots made with a 24-megapixel SLR camera with an APS-C sensor. Normally, we compare RAW files converted with the Adobe DNG converter, but because there was not yet a version available that can handle the ORF files from the PEN-F, we converted the ORF files in the Olympus viewer. It can thus be that the scores for RAW resolution will be slightly adjusted in the future. If you use the PEN-F on a tripod in the high resolution mode, where the camera shoots 8 images in quick succession, then you even have 8160 x 6120 jpg files and/or 10368 x 7776 RAW files available. The resolution of these shots is comparable with shots made with a 50-MP SLR camera. We could not yet edit the high resolution RAW files in Lightroom or Photoshop, but Imatest measurements of jpg shots made with the Olympus 12-40 mm f/2.8 PRO and the PEN-F in high resolution mode delivered 10% lower resolution than jpg shots made with the Canon 5DsR and the Canon 24-70 mm f/2.8 L II. A difference of 10% can easily be caused by differences in image editing (contrast, sharpening) in the Canon camera vs the Olympus camera and even with direct comparison the differences by eye are very small. The pictures below are excerpts, shows at 100% from a regular 20-megapixel jpg shot (right) and a 50-megapixel shot made with the Olympus PEN-F (left).
Dynamic range and noise
The human eye has no difficulty on a sunny day seeing details in both the brightly lit parts of the visual field and in the dark shadows. For a camera, that is different. How well a camera is able to simultaneously capture details in both the highlights and the shadows is called the dynamic range. The Olympus PEN-F, just like the Panasonic GX8, has a dynamic range that is just as good as that of the Canon SLR cameras with a larger APS-C sensor. The strength of the Olympus sensor is in the shadows: if you make an under-exposed shot lighter, then disruptive noise does not appear as quickly. Do not be afraid with ISO settings below 800 ISO to under-expose if you are taking a picture in which a small, light subject appears. A small light area in an otherwise dark environment that you underexpose and make light again in post-editing shows more detail.
You get the most accurate dynamic range measurements from RAW files. In order to keep the outcomes comparable, all RAW files are converted with the same RAW converter. But at the time of this test, that was not yet suitable for PEN-F files. The final Imatest measurement of the dynamic range thus has to wait. For a tentative score, we started with a RAW file that we converted in Olympus Viewer, the software that you get free with the purchase of an Olympus camera.
As far as noise is concerned, the differences from the earlier Olympus cameras are small. That is progress, because the PEN-F has more and thus also smaller pixels on the same micro-43 sensor. It appears that the noise at higher ISO values is a bit nicer than with the PEN-F, but for that I prefer to wait for a new version of Adobe Lightroom in order to make a fair comparison possible.
As far as the accuracy of the color reproduction is concerned, modern cameras are very similar, with the Olympus in the higher regions. Test shots are made with white balance on Auto (warm color = off). We always show a picture of the measurement test results for color reproduction in daylight (left) and in artificial light (right), where the reference color is shown with a square and the measured color with a circle. The closer the circle and the square for a color are to each other, the more accurate the color reproduction. In the latest version of Imatest, there is an option to show the area where the eye does not see any difference between the color of the test card and the color in the test shot. That makes it easier to assess the test results. You therefore see ellipses in the pictures below around the different squares (the correct color). If the circle (the color from the test shot) falls within the ellipse, then you will not see any difference when comparing the colors directly. What stands out with the daylight shots (left) is that the red colors—just as with Canon—are a bit more saturated. What stands out about the artificial lighting shots (right) is that all the green and blue colors are shown well and there is thus not a general orange wash over the artificial lighting shots. Only the purple, red and orange colors are still a bit too saturated.
Connectivity, video and more
Today, all system cameras have built-in options for sending files wirelessly to a smart phone and social media. For uploading shots, the PEN-F offers support for Wi-Fi. The free OI.Share v2.6 smartphone app is available for a seamless file transfer via Wi-Fi. Where the Olympus PEN-F distinguishes itself in my eyes is the ease with which you can apply filters to jpg files, and that you can assess in the viewfinder to see whether or not you want to apply them. You thus do not have to use any external editing and you can immediately share the edited shots on social media after you have created them.
Various kinds of bracketing:
If you are not certain which camera settings are the best choice for exposure, focus, white balance, creative filter or image style, then you can set the camera to bracketing. The camera then takes multiple shots in which the photographer sets in advance which parameters will be changed in what steps. You can then choose the best shot afterwards, or you put together a new image from multiple bracketing shots. You can thus take pictures that are sharp from front to back with the help of focus bracketing. That is not possible with a single shot. During the practice test, I made use of Art filter bracketing, where you store multiple versions of a shot in the camera. For each shot that I made, next to the RAW file, there were 37 different jpg versions stored. You can choose fewer as well, but I tried out the maximum number of options. Art bracketing is a good way for creative photographers who do not need to edit shots to get acquainted with the Art filters. After photographing a few times, you know which image styles appeal to you most. Then you turn off all the other image styles, so that you might save 4 different versions of every shot, for example. In the included Olympus Viewer software, you can (if you have taken pictures in RAW) also experiment with the different image styles and creative Art filters. With one of the creative filters, you can select the color from a color wheel that will not be converted to black and white. A shot of a cherry-red car takes on a totally different mood in a very simple way.
With the Olympus PEN-F, you make Full HD recordings at 60 frames per second. The Olympus video image quality is OK. The enormous plus point of the modern Olympus cameras is the built-in image stabilization. That is so good that you can film by hand even without expensive equipment. That is unmatched. Even so, this camera is not intended for someone who wants to do serious video work, since there are, for example, no connections for external headphones or for an external microphone.
Feeling plays an important role in photographing with an Olympus PEN-F. The leather accessories (camera strap, protective cloth and camera bag) provide the comfort that you feel when using this camera. There is also an optional metal L-grip for those who would rather have a bit heavier or larger camera, without having to give up the great appearance.
Electronic shutter: 1/16,000 and completely silent!
Compact mirrorless system cameras are practically always quieter than SLR cameras because there is not a mirror flipping up and down when you take a picture. Even so, you can still clearly hear the opening and closing of the shutter of many compact system cameras in a silent environment. If you make use of an electronic shutter ("silent mode"), then you hear practically nothing when taking a picture. If you have the lens completely open, then you hear nothing at all. If you choose a smaller aperture, then there is a very small sound of the aperture closing that can be heard. It is so quiet that only the photographer—who has his or her ear next to the camera—can still hear it. Another advantage of an electronic shutter is that no shutter-shock vibrations can occur in the camera, so that you get sharper pictures. The current cameras do not yet have an electronic global shutter, with the disadvantage that you can see a rolling shutter effect if you use the silent shutter with very fast-moving subjects like trucks or a train racing by. The shot then doesn’t have perfectly straight vertical lines then because the rows on the sensor are read out in series. In order to prevent any rolling shutter, you thus use the mechanical shutter.
Conclusion Olympus PEN-F review
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Slow AF with continuous tracking
SD card next to battery on the bottom of the camera
No extra sealing against dust and splashwater
Olympus PEN-F: Innovative, great to look at, fantastic finish and high image quality
For a camera with a list price over a thousand euros, the bar can be high. And in most situations, the Olympus PEN-F will fulfill the high expectations. The new 20-megapixel sensor offers the highest resolution of all Olympus cameras, with good dynamic range and great lack of noise at high ISOs. The high resolution shots are, as far as resolution is concerned, comparable with the best SLR cameras. Where an SLR camera only appeals to technology fans in terms of appearance, the look of the Olympus PEN-F is of another caliber. This is really a beautiful camera to look at and one that is nice to hold. Compared to the Panasonic GX8 (or an Olympus OM-D E-M1), it’s a pity that the PEN-F is not extra well-sealed against dust and splashwater. If you work from a tripod, it’s a bother that the SD card sits in the battery compartment at the bottom of the camera. And this is not a camera for a photographer who wants to track fast-moving subjects with the camera in order to make series shots. The AF is lightning fast—faster than most SLR cameras—when you take a single shot. But if you keep photographing, while the AF tracks a subject, it will also regularly produce a less-sharp picture. These are points that will not be deal-breakers for many photographers, and that’s the extent of the minuses. There are many pluses to balance them.
The Olympus PEN-F is for sale in different kits. Whether you buy a silver or a black version depends on taste. For the kit lens, I have recommendation. The kit with the 14-42 mm EZ zoom lens is nicely compact and relatively inexpensive. Even so, I would absolutely choose a kit with a fixed focal length. As far as focal length is concerned, the 17 mm f/1.8 is an understandable choice for the urban photographer. I would quickly expand the set with the Olympus 12 mm f/2 for a bit wider view, the 45 mm f/1.8 for portraits with a great background blur and a 75 mm f/1.8 for great bokeh/background blur. The test shots that I have chosen for illustrations for this review are made with the 17 mm and the 75 mm.
Author: Ivo Freriks
With Camera Review Stuff I hope to make a modest contribution to the pleasure that you get from photography. By testing cameras and lenses in the same way, evluating the results and weighing up the pros and cons, I hope to help you find the right camera or lens.