Olympus Pen-F review: Introduction
At a glance
- 20-million-pixel Four Thirds sensor
- ISO 80-25600 (extended)
- 2.36-million-dot OLED EVF (0.62x magnification)
- 1.04-million-dot 3in fully articulated touchscreen
- 5-axis in-body image stabilisation
- 50-million-pixel high-resolution composite mode
- Price £999.99 (body only)
When Olympus launched its first compact system camera, the Pen E-P1 in 2009, it was keen to emphasise its heritage as a maker of small, high quality cameras, exemplified by its half-frame Pen models of the 1960s. Fast forward to 2016 and, with its latest release, it’s specifically referencing the Pen F SLR, even going so far as to borrow its name. A quick glance at the back of the camera gives a clue as to why: the Pen-F is first in this series of flat-bodied CSCs to include a built-in electronic viewfinder.
With Olympus’s popular SLR-like OM-D cameras already offering EVFs, you may well wonder what Olympus is doing here. At first sight the Pen-F doesn’t seem radically different from the OM-D E-M5 II in terms of key specification, even lagging behind it in some areas. In reality it’s just a case of offering a choice of camera types to suit different user preferences. Where the OM-D places the emphasis on practicality (although with more than a hint of nostalgia), the Pen is more about style. However, if the design looks strangely familiar, that’s little to do with its film namesake. Instead, the Pen-F is clearly a homage to the legendary Leica III 35mm rangefinder.
It’s not just style over substance, though; the Pen-F has some more substantial charms. It’s Olympus’s first Micro Four Thirds model to use a 20-million-pixel sensor, probably similar to the one that impressed us in the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX8. It gains some ergonomic revisions, including a dedicated exposure compensation dial (another first for Olympus). The Pen-F also makes it uniquely easy to exploit all of the various in-camera JPEG processing settings, so you can tailor the look of each picture individually while you’re shooting.
The Pen-F comes in a choice of finishes: either a discreet all-black or the rather lovely, and very retro-looking, silver-and-black of our review sample. It can be bought body only for £999.99, or in two kits: either £1,099.99 with the compact 14-42mm electronic zoom lens, or £1,199.99 with the 17mm f/1.8 lens. While the former provides more compositional flexibility, Olympus sees the latter as best fitting the camera’s design ethos.
Don’t be fooled by its retro design: the Pen-F is a thoroughly modern camera that’s packed with advanced features. Its 20-million-pixel Four Thirds sensor offers a standard sensitivity range of ISO 200-25,600, with an extended ISO 80-equivalent setting that gives lower noise, but risks clipping highlight detail. Bursts of images can be captured at 10 frames per second with focus fixed, or 5 frames per second with refocusing between frames. Autofocus is handled by on-chip phase detection, with 81 selectable points arranged across almost the entire frame. Face detection is also onboard, including the ability to identify and focus specifically on your subject’s eyes.
One of the Pen-F’s biggest selling points is Olympus’s in-body 5-axis image stabilisation system, which works with every lens you can mount on the camera. It’s remarkably effective for both stills and video shooting, and with all kinds of lenses from wide angle to long telephoto. This matters because it can often offset the smaller Four Thirds sensor’s noise performance disadvantage compared with the APS-C sensors found in its competitors.
Video recording is available at Full HD resolution and frame rates up to 60fps. A dedicated position on the mode dial gives access to lots of video-specific features, including full manual control of exposure, fast- and slow-motion modes, and some unusual image effects. Wi-Fi is built-in too, giving full remote control of the camera from a smartphone or tablet, along with the ability to copy images to your device for sharing with family and friends.
In Olympus’s usual fashion there’s a whole slew of additional clever features hidden inside the Pen-F and mostly accessed from the ‘Shooting menu 2’. Here you’ll find an array of bracketing options, including exposure and focus bracketing; high dynamic range shooting; keystone correction for fixing converging verticals in-camera; and electronic first curtain and fully electronic shutter modes. The mechanical shutter operates with a quiet, discreet snick, while the electronic option is completely silent.
Also on board is Olympus’s unique High Res shot, which combines eight exposures while moving the sensor fractionally between each to generate a 50-million-pixel image. This requires the camera to be mounted on a tripod and the subject not to move at all during the process, but with a good lens it can deliver astonishing levels of detail. However, for some reason I found it more prone to giving image artefacts on the Pen-F compared with the OM-D E-M5 II, even when taking all possible precautions to avoid them.
Build and Handling
The Pen-F is a stunning-looking camera, and its build quality certainly lives up to expectations. The all-metal body feels solid and robust, with the engraved top plate adding a touch of class. All of the dials have a beautifully milled finish and click precisely as they’re turned. Even the film-rewind-esque power switch is a miniature work of art. While there’s no front grip at all, a deeply recessed thumb grip on the back gives a secure hold, aided by the non-slip leatherette covering. Olympus has paid a lot of attention to getting such little design details right over the past few years, and with the Pen-F it’s certainly paid off.
Olympus has included a dedicated exposure compensation dial that’s easy to turn with your thumb while looking through the viewfinder, but difficult to knock accidentally (a feat most other manufacturers find difficult to emulate). This works with front and rear electronic control dials that can be customised for each exposure mode. For example, I set the rear dial to change ISO directly in aperture priority, which is my most-used mode. Overall, the Pen-F is probably the best Olympus camera yet to shoot with.
The touchscreen can be used for certain operations, for instance to reposition the focus point while shooting. Being a left-eyed user, I didn’t get on with this when using the viewfinder, as I found myself frequently resetting the focus point with my nose (right-eyed shooters should have no such trouble). Instead, I reconfigured the d-pad to move the focus area. It’s a little small and not as quick as the touchscreen could be, but worked fine for me. This is the great advantage of having such a customisable camera: you have a lot of scope to set it up to suit you, rather than having to adapt how you shoot to get around the camera’s limitations.
While Olympus suggests the Pen-F is best suited to shooting with small primes, I tried it with a wide range of lenses up to the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro and found that in reality, it worked just fine with all of them. Compared with previous Pen models, it works a lot better with telephotos due to the built-in EVF. However, I’d say the SLR-like form of the OM-D range does give more balanced handling with heavier lenses. A more pressing practical issue is the tripod socket, which is placed right at the front of the body adjacent to the lens mount, that itself is placed at the bottom of the body. As a result, even slightly larger lenses such as the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro can block many quick release plates from screwing on properly. Here the optional ECG-4 handgrip should help, as it has a built-in Arca Swiss dovetail plate running along the base, but at £109.99 it’s a costly solution.
Olympus’s menus are huge, labyrinthine and often incomprehensible. The problem is that the company has added loads of new features over the years, but is terrified of removing or reorganising anything in case it alienates existing users. The result is an incredibly well featured and customisable camera but, unfortunately, one that often feels almost impossible to master, unless you happen to have a degree in science or engineering.
For example, those who enjoy shooting with third-party optics using mount adapters will appreciate that it’s now possible to program each of their lenses into the camera, with the lens name recorded into the EXIF and the focal length fed to the IS system. This function can be assigned to a custom button for easy recall and I set it up as part of a custom set-up on the mode dial, with the depth of field preview button reassigned to activate focus peaking. Unfortunately, though, Olympus has buried this deep in the menu, making it uncommonly difficult for newcomers to the brand to configure.
Viewfinder and screen
The Pen-F offers a choice of two viewing options: either the built-in EVF or the fully articulated touchscreen. The viewfinder is a 2.36-million-dot unit with 100% coverage and 0.62x magnification. It includes Olympus’s adaptive brightness technology that adapts the display to match the ambient lighting conditions. It’s bright and clear, and almost identical to the EVF in the OM-D E-M10 II. This means that it’s noticeably smaller than those in the E-M1 and E-M5 II, but that’s the price you pay for the more compact body design.
By default the finder is designed to preview the camera’s image processing and exposure settings but, if you prefer, it can be set to a neutral rendition using the ‘simulated optical viewfinder’ mode. Thanks to the relatively large circular eyecup, it’s a bit less susceptible to being overpowered by oblique sunlight than the corner-mounted finders on some similar cameras.
The rear screen is similarly excellent. It’s a 1.04-million-dot LCD that can be set for waist-level or overhead shooting when photographing in both portrait and landscape formats. This design means it’s also easy to shield from the sun when shooting in bright light, although I found it was easy enough to see on a sunny day anyway. As with the EVF, you can overlay a huge amount of useful shooting information, including a live histogram, gridline and electronic levels.
The choice of these two viewing methods gives a great degree of flexibility during shooting. I spent most of my time using the viewfinder, but switched to the LCD for tripod work or to get shots at awkward angles. The fact that the camera operates equally well in both modes is a useful advantage over DSLRs.
Once upon a time CSCs were seen as the poor relation to DSLRs in terms of focusing performance, but that has all changed. The Pen-F focuses quickly and decisively in anything but the lowest light and, with most lenses, silently. Using the touchpad (or d-pad) you can place the AF area almost anywhere in the frame, and the camera will achieve accurate focus even with large aperture lenses. When taking pictures of people, turning on face- and eye-detection allows the camera to do all the hard work, so you can concentrate on composition. For anyone used to struggling with autofocus fine-tune on SLRs, this is all a very welcome change.
Manual focus is straightforward, too. The camera offers a choice of focus aids: either a peaking display that highlights in-focus areas of the scene, or a magnified view of your chosen focus area (at levels ranging from 3x to 14x). The former is great for quick focusing, but magnified view is more accurate when really precise focus is required. One of my few handling criticisms of the camera is that the magnify button isn’t all that easy to locate by touch when you’re using the viewfinder.
Metering uses the main image sensor, which means it’s generally very accurate, giving a well-judged balance between highlight and shadow detail. By default your exposure is previewed in the viewfinder, so on the rare occasion the camera gets things wrong, you can see before even taking the shot. This means that the exposure compensation dial usually becomes more of a creative control than a means of second-guessing likely exposure errors. Alternatively, spot metering can be used in tricky conditions, with Olympus providing unusual shadow and highlight-weighted modes.
Image quality from the 20-million-pixel Four Thirds sensor is really rather good. It can’t quite match the latest 24-million-pixel APS-C sensors for raw image quality, but resolution is easily sufficient for a highly detailed A3 print when shooting at low ISOs. High ISO image quality inevitably can’t match cameras with larger sensors. Loss of fine detail becomes visible at ISO 800 and I’d avoid shooting much higher than ISO 3200, unless there’s really no other option. However, one great advantage of Micro Four Thirds is that you can buy small, relatively inexpensive fast primes such as the Olympus 17mm f/1.8, 25mm f/1.8 and 45mm f/1.8 which, together with the excellent in-body image stabilisation, reduce the need to shoot at very high ISO settings.
When it comes to camera JPEGs, Olympus’s excellent colour rendition and auto white balance come to the fore. Combined with the accurate metering, this means that the files produced by the camera are very attractive indeed. Some might find the noise reduction a bit over-enthusiastic by default, but this can be turned down using the Noise Filter setting in the menu.
One of the most unusual aspects of the Pen-F is the way it places control over the JPEG processing settings literally at your fingertips, positively encouraging you to experiment with changing them on a shot-by-shot basis. To make the most of this, Olympus offers huge scope for manipulating your images. Aside from the usual set of colour presets for different kinds of subject, it also has Olympus’s signature ‘Art Filters’ which provide a variety of heavily processed looks such as toy camera or grainy film, alongside ‘Color Creator’ which adds a user-controllable tint to the image.
Two entirely new modes also make their entrance – one for colour, and one for black and white. Each offers a choice of three distinctly different looks as a start point, accessed from the onscreen Super Control Panel. The colour mode allows individual hues to be enhanced and suppressed at will, for example accentuating blues while desaturating reds. Meanwhile, the mono mode lets you adjust the tonality of your images by mimicking the effect of using colour filters with black & white film, and adding vignetting and film grain effects.
To achieve this, Olympus has added two new controls to the Pen-F. A dial on the camera’s front selects the processing mode, and a thumb lever beneath the exposure mode dial gives quick access to the various settings, which are then changed using the electronic control dials and previewed live in the viewfinder or on the LCD. In practice I found it mostly works very well, and encourages a completely different type of creativity while shooting.
If you’re the kind of photographer who religiously shoots everything in raw for working up later, this will probably look like a superfluous frippery. However, if you enjoy manipulating your images in-camera and don’t have the time or inclination to sit in front of a computer post-processing, it’s a really interesting approach and one I’ve certainly enjoyed using. Best of all, you can shoot raw files alongside your filtered images, and reprocess them later if you change your mind, either in-camera or on the computer.
High Resolution Composite Mode
Like the OM-D E-M5 II, the Pen-F features Olympus’s unique high resolution composite mode. This takes eight exposures in short succession, using the in-body image stabilisation unit to move the sensor fractionally between them. To make a long story short, the result is images of around 50-million-pixel resolution, with full colour sampling at each pixel location which in principle should eliminate colour sampling. In principle this should give even more detail than the E-M5 II’s 40MP version.
The same caveats apply though – the camera has to be attached to a sturdy tripod or other support, and the subject has to stay static during the process. Otherwise ugly image artefacts creep in due to camera or subject movement. The mode is strangely accessed – first you have to turn it on in the Shooting Menu 2, at which point it appears in your drive mode selection menu (which has become unbelievably bloated).
While this mode works really well on the E-M5 II, I had less luck with it on the Pen-F. It’s not that it doesn’t work, just that it’s less reliable, with only about one in three shots turning out free of artefacts even when taking the greatest care during shooting. You can see more of this on our resolution test page. Of course it’s possible our Pen-F sample wasn’t working perfectly.
The example below shows how well things can work on a good day. Comparing a 100% crop from the high resolution composite image to the same region of the standard 20MP file, upsampled to match, gives visibly more detail.
The take-home message, from my testing, is that the PEN-F’s high resolution composite mode works but isn’t as reliable as that on the OM-D E-M5 II. If you really need this kind of detail on a regular basis, it makes more sense to buy a genuinely high resolution camera, despite the fact that they’re generally rather more expensive.
With its new 20-million-pixel sensor, the Pen-F promises improved image quality compared with older Olympus models. We don’t yet have access to any third-party raw conversion software that supports the camera, so have to base our analysis on Olympus’s own processing. The overall improvements look similar to those we saw from the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX8, which we assume uses the same sensor. High ISO noise appears to be slightly improved, and there’s perhaps a bit more scope for pulling extra detail from shadow regions of the image before noise becomes a problem. Most importantly, however, there are no apparent disadvantages from the increased pixel count.
The Pen-F acquits itself pretty well in our Applied Imaging dynamic range tests, giving broadly similar results to the Panasonic GX8. Low ISO dynamic range is very good, being in the vicinity of 12 stops, but the numbers fall fairly quickly as the ISO is raised, to around 10EVat ISO 800. A reading of 8.1 EV at ISO 3200 is on the edge of acceptability, and sub-7 EV measurements at the top two settings reinforce that they’re best avoided whenever possible.
Resolution: standard 20MP mode
Looking at the crops below, multiply the numbers below the line by 200 to calculate the resolution in lines per picture height.
In JPEG mode the Pen-F resolves around 3200 l/ph in our tests, using the Olympus 60mm f/2.8 Macro at f/4. This isn’t radically different from the 16MP OM-D E-M5 II and lags a bit behind the Panasonic GX8, but I’d expect the gap to disappear in raw. Resolution initially drops only slowly as the sensitivity is raised, to about 3000 l/ph at ISO 1600. Beyond this it plummets more rapidly, to around 2500 l/ph at ISO 6400 and barely 1800 l/ph at ISO 25,600.
Resolution: 50MP High resolution composite mode
This time we’ve shot our resolution chart from double the distance compared to the shots above, so now with at the crops below, multiply the numbers below the line by 400 to calculate the resolution in lines per picture height.
Switch to the high-resolution composite mode and around 4400 l/ph is achieved at ISO 80 (which is lower than we’d expect), dropping to 4000 l/ph at ISO 1600. We also see some blurring and unexpected colour artefacts. Overall, the results simply aren’t as good as we’d expect, given how well this mode works in the OM-D E-M5 II. It’s possible our review sample wasn’t working perfectly.
ISO sensitivity and Noise
At its ISO 200 base, the Pen-F gives finely detailed images with little visible noise and very attractive colour rendition. Switch to the extended ‘Low’ (ISO 80) setting and the images are even cleaner, although highlights clip to white visibly sooner, so this is best used only in low contrast situations. Increase the sensitivity and while ISO 400 is still eminently usable, fine detail starts to smear at ISO 800, although colour is retained well. I’d happily shoot up to ISO 3200 for less critical work but beyond this things get marginal, and the top two settings are best avoided unless there’s no other choice.
The 100% crops below are of our standard studio scene at each sensitivity setting, in JPEG mode, ‘Natural’ setting.
With the Pen-F, Olympus has come up with a rare thing in today’s market: a camera that has a distinct personality of its own. It’s perhaps not one that you’d choose on a rational analysis of specification and value for money. Instead, it’s one that fires up your creative juices, and simply begs to be picked up and used. There may be better cameras on the market, but it’s hard to think of one that’s better designed.
When it comes to raw image quality, it’s certainly true that technically you can get more for the £1000 that the Pen-F body will cost you. However, I’m not sure this matters. Speaking as a camera reviewer, it’s all too easy to get carried away with the latest and greatest technology, and forget that image making isn’t just about sensor characteristics such as resolution and dynamic range (however useful they may be).
The Pen-F offers its own, somewhat idiosyncratic take on creativity that owes a lot to mobile imaging and the Instagram generation, with the ability to generate a near-infinite variety of filtered looks that are previewed live in the viewfinder. What’s more, very few of its competitors make JPEG images that look as nice straight out of the camera, with the new customisable colour and mono modes trumping even the rest of the Olympus range.
The Pen-F is also a very portable camera, with its flat-topped design easier to slip into a bag than SLR-style cameras such as its OM-D siblings. With Olympus’s compact lenses, and particularly its f/1.8 primes, you can carry a very capable kit in a small bag. It handles really well, too, especially if you take a moment or two to set it up to suit your personal preferences.
Overall I’ve become very enamoured of the Pen-F over the time I’ve been using it, and there are few cameras I’ve been more reluctant to hand back at the end of a loan spell. Quite simply, it’s a beautiful design that’s capable of producing lovely images.