Olympus Pen-F Review

m43 Apr 16, 2016

The Olympus Pen-F is the latest iteration in the venerable line of PEN cameras. Like all of the PENs of recent vintage, this one is a digital Micro Four-Thirds camera. Unlike the PENs of recent vintage, this one has a built-in viewfinder (FINALLY) and a very sexy retro inspired design (think the digital love child of the film Pen-F and a Voigtländer Bessa R4A rangefinder). And that is just the start.

Made for the street

Technical reviews abound for this camera already, and as usual, I will present my opinions of the camera as it relates to actual use. First, and foremost, this is a street shooter’s camera. Small, discreet, with quick AF and a very quiet shutter. It is hard to hear this camera more than two feet away.

Micro Four-Thirds sensors feature a 2x crop-factor, effectively doubling the focal length of any lens. This is not so good for landscape photographers, but is a tremendous boon for street shooters (and bird watchers). The sensor in the Olympus Pen-F is new with 20 megapixels of resolution. This may not seem like much in this age of 100 megapixel sensors, but it’s a big increase for Olympus who has produced nothing but 16 megapixel sensors for quite some time. The new sensor has the best high-ISO performance I have seen in a Micro Four Thirds camera. To wit:

Adding to this is In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) which allows you to handhold longer exposures using any lens mounted on the camera (even legacy glass). This won’t help you with moving subjects in low light, but then again sharpness is sometimes over-rated. Oh, and for those moments when total stealth is the order of the day, there is a Silent Shutter Mode.

Made for prime lenses

The Pen-F’s smaller body makes prime lenses a natural fit. I personally have the Olympus 25mm f/1.8, the Rokinon 12mm f/2, and plan to add the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 to round it out. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Already picked up the 45mm lens.) The 2x crop factor transforms this to a 24/50/90 combo that gets me wide, normal, and short telephoto fields of view. Here is a shot of the Torii in front of the Japan Pavilion in EPCOT Center:

This does not mean you are limited to primes. Olympus makes some excellent Pro level zooms and I have seen plenty of fine images taken using that combination. I have even seen someone attach the new 300mm f/4 Pro lens (600mm equivalent) to the Pen-F! For larger lenses, Olympus makes a grip that add some more area to hold on to the camera as well as an Arca-Swiss bottom plate for tripod use. Really Right Stuff is taking pre-orders for their grip+plate solution.

Made for JPEG Shooters

Apparently, Olympus listened to Ken Rockwell (the Chuck Norris of photography) and made a camera that excels at shooting JPEGs because “RAW files are unnecessary.” The Pen-F does, in fact, shoot in RAW too. But to add to the JPEG fun, there is a dedicated knob on the front of the camera (on the analog Pen-F it was the shutter speed dial) that allows you to quickly switch between color and mono profiles.

Personally, I like the Mono 1 profile, but many photographers are smitten with Mono 2 which looks like Tri-X Pan film. And just like The Most Interesting Photographer In The World, when using color/mono profiles, I will shoot in RAW+JPG. With my 32GB SDHC card, I can capture over 900 images that way (over 1400 is RAW mode).

Made for traveling

When it’s time to hit the road and travel abroad one has to think really hard about exactly what to pack. Even more so if air travel is involved. Camera gear can get heavy quick, so you have to make some hard decisions as to what you are going to carry. The Olympus Pen-F is far smaller than a comparable DSLR and smaller than a lot of other mirrorless systems. Some folks recommend using some species of all-in-one superzoom or a pair of zooms, but I am a little more old school, opting for a three prime travel kit: 12mm f/2 wide, 25mm f/1.8 normal, and 45mm f/1.8 tele.

Now, these are all reasonably fast primes and the Olympus Pen-F is the first micro four thirds camera I have used that has a really usable ISO 3200, however, there is no built-in flash on the Pen-F. To Olympus’ credit they do include a teeny tiny shoe flash. It’s very kawai. It also has a guide number of 6 so you may have better luck packing an LED flashlight. To fix this problem, I went “off the reservation” again and picked up a Meike MK320FT flash for $79. This unit is powered by two AA batteries and if you install rechargeables you can recharge them using a standard micro-USB cable and cellphone charger. That means one less charger to carry! Full TTL and even has an LED video light!

So just to give you my travel/everyday carry kit in list form:

  • Olympus Pen-F (Black)
  • Gariz Half-case (Black)
  • Artisan Obscura Concave Softrelease and matching Hotshoe cover in Bloodwood
  • Classic Gordy Strap (black with red stitching)
  • Meike MK320FT Flash
  • Rokinon 12mm f/2 NCS
  • M.Zuiko 25mm f/1.8
  • M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8
  • Two (2) additional camera batteries (Wasabi) + Olympus charger
  • Right angle NMEA plug (USA)
  • Eight (8) Eneloop AA Rechargeable batteries
  • Adorama 24/7 Sling Bag (to be reviewed soon)

What it’s not made for

  • Foul Weather – A lack of weather sealing on this camera (Why Olympus? Why?) does not make it a good candidate for rainy weather photos.
  • Sports – While the single shot AF is one of the best I have ever used, the same cannot be said about continuous focus AF. I can only hope that Olympus is working on a firmware update to address this.
  • Videographers – while the camera does capture video (1080p HD video and 4K time lapse video) it lacks dedicated microphone/headphone jacks (which makes it difficult to capture high quality audio) relegates it to a B-roll camera.

Other Bits of Fun

The camera also has a high resolution multi-shot mode which can crank out 50 megapixel JPEGs or 80 megapixel RAW files of stationary subjects. A built-in intervalometer makes time-lapse and procedurally removing people from an image (using Photoshop’s Median function) a breeze. The camera sports a built-in WiFi hotspot that allows their iOS app to remotely control and manage the camera. HDR fuctionality can process images in-camera or save the exposure bracketed set of RAW files for post-processing.

(5-shot HDR bracket processed in Aurora HDR Pro)

Tips

  • Adjust your AF for the situation – Shooting events with the Olympus Pen-F is a treat because of its small size and low-noise operation. However, Face/Eye Detection AF can sometimes work against you. Sent the AF to a single point in the middle and focus/recompose on your subject. (I am aware that there is a touchscreen AF function. I despise shooting with the rear LCD screen and rubbing my finger on rear screen while holding it up to your eye is a painful act of contortion.)
  • Assign focus peaking to a custom function – When using adapted or manual focus lenses (like my Rokinon) you should set focus peaking to a custom button (Fn1 for me) that way you can bring it up quickly and easily. This does not apply to MFT lenses with electronic contacts – those automtically inform the camera that MF is in action.
  • Disable the Warm White Balance setting – by default Olympus MFT cameras have a very warm white balance setting. By going into the custom menus you can disable this to achieve more neutral looking images.
  • Conserve battery by turning off WiFi and other non-essentials – Wifi is cool, but unless you are wirelessly triggering your camera or live blogging an event, turn it off to conserve power. I also fold my rear display so that it remains covered as much as possible and prevents it from sucking up power as well. I try not to chimp too much either.
  • Disable Red Eye Reduction to speed up flash photography – I recently encountered this. If you have Red Eye Reduction activated with the Meike Flash, the Pen-F tries to use the red AF illuminator to deal with red eye. This adds a 1-2 second delay to the shutter release. Setting it to Auto eliminates this problem.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Drop dead sexy camera – Conversation starter and ice-breaker all in one.
  • Super fast single shot AF – despite it only having CDAF, the Pen-F locks on quickly and accurately. Not perfect (see Cons), but very, very good.
  • Small & easy to carry – great for those long street photo journeys.
  • Vastly improved High-ISO performance – while not the High-ISO king, the Pen-F has the best High-ISO performace I have ever seen in an MFT camera.

Cons

  • Not weather sealed – but then, neither is the Leica M (the de-facto king of street photography).
  • Continuous AF needs work – Hopefully Olympus will address this with a firmware update since they drank the Kaizen Kool-Aid a couple of years ago.
  • Weak video features – lacks an external mike and headphone jacks. Suited for B-roll work.

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