Olympus doesn’t seem to care for the wisdom of George Santayana, the Spanish-born philosopher and poet who warned that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. With the PEN-F, Olympus is very clearly repeating its history, resurrecting a ’60s-era film camera for the digital age. Unlike most aging hippies, however, the PEN-F has been revitalized with modern innards.
The PEN-F represents a nice bump up in Micro Four Thirds sensor resolution—its 20-megapixel sensor packs more pixels than the company’s own flagship, the E-M1. ISO sensitivity ranges from 200-25,600 with the ability to push to ISO 80.
It has a built-in 5-axis stabilization system that compensates for pitch, roll, yaw and movements across both vertical and horizontal axes. The system is good for up to five stops of correction, per CIPA standards. Mechanical shutter speeds top off at 1/8000 sec. with an option for up to a 30-minute exposure in bulb mode. An electronic shutter pushes the PEN-F to 1/16,000 sec. for silent shooting, a nice touch for street work where stealth is a virtue. You can create 4K time-lapse movies in camera and there’s Wi-Fi for remote control and image transfers to mobile devices.
In keeping with its film-era esthetic, the PEN-F marks the debut of color modes and film simulations that are available as customizable presets in the camera. There are three color mode presets and three monochrome presets. There’s also a color creator option that lets you adjust the saturation for 12 colors individually to fine tune your effect. These effects are more nuanced and subtle than many of Olympus’s long-established Art Filters (which are also available in bewildering abundance on the PEN-F) and more in line with the film modes found on Fujifilm cameras.
The PEN-F’s articulating display helps you compose at difficult angles.
The original PEN-F debuted in 1963 and Olympus mines that film-era nostalgia in the classic, analog-stylings of its digital reincarnation. Even the on/off switch resembles the film advance control of yesteryear. The PEN-F has no visible screws on the outside of its machined aluminum and magnesium body, adding a bit more curb appeal to this already sharp looking camera. Similar to the OM-D line, the PEN-F has an exterior design that emphasizes manual experimentation, with knobs and dials aplenty. In addition to three dials on the top of the camera, there’s a front-facing dial which provides access to the new color modes. A toggle switch just below the mode dial lets you adjust highlights and shadows when shooting in JPEG—a nice touch.
Beyond having ready access to the camera’s controls on the exterior, there’s plenty of room for customization—two assignable function buttons, three slots on the mode dial, the movie, magnification and preview buttons and lens function buttons can all be reprogrammed to access other camera settings.
There’s no hand grip jutting out from the front of the camera, but a tiny thumb rest situated in the back on the upper right hand corner makes for a comfortable hold, especially if you’re shooting with one hand. Outfitted with a diminutive prime lens (our choice was the M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8), the PEN-F can slip into a reasonably sized coat pocket. It feels well built, but it isn’t weather sealed.
Olympus said the EVF on the PEN-F was positioned deliberately to let photographers keep one eye open on the scene in front of them while the other composes through the EVF. We’re not sure how your neural pathways process information, but ours couldn’t swing both functions at once and in practice, using the viewfinder meant keeping the other eye closed. The 3-inch touch display is fully articulating and can be swung around and closed against the camera body, if you don’t want to view the display at all.
New monochrome profiles can give your images a film flavor, left; and the PEN-F’s image quality looks as good as the camera itself, right.
The bump up in resolution is definitely welcome—the PEN-F’s 20-megapixel sensor pushes it past rival street shooters like Fuji’s X-T10. Color reproduction was generally spot-on. Noise reduction kicks in on JPEGs around ISO 1600, obscuring some fine details, but overall image quality is solid through ISO 3,200, though noise will be noticeable even in JPEGs when you zoom in. You’ll want to use higher ISOs sparingly.
Given how well 5-axis image stabilization was implemented on the E-M5 Mark II, we weren’t surprised to see similarly good results from the PEN-F. We were able to shoot handheld down to 1/13 sec.
Like the E-M5 Mark II, the PEN-F features a sensor-shifting High Res Shot mode that creates the equivalent of an 80-megapixel RAW image or a 50-megapixel JPEG. It’s only suitable for inanimate objects held perfectly still with the camera on a tripod as it’s exquisitely sensitive to even the most minute camera or subject shake. That said, you can use High Res Shot to coax out images with less noise and much sharper detail rendering when examined up close.
Video isn’t necessarily the focus of the PEN-F, so some of the must-haves for serious filmmaking (headphone and mic jack) are missing. Olympus has stuck with full HD/30p when using the higher-quality ALL-I compression (77Mbps) or full HD up to 60p when shooting in IPB compression. Colors are a bit wan and the overall image isn’t super-sharp. We’re used to mirrorless cameras setting the pace in video but in the PEN-F’s case, it’s not a strong suit. That said, the image stabilization really shines in video, as handheld shots are nice and smooth even when you’re pounding the pavement. You can use the color profiles and art filters as well.
The PEN-F has 81 contrast detection AF points and locks in on its subject quickly and accurately when in single point mode. We liked the responsiveness of touch focusing using the camera’s display. You’ll enjoy a 10 fps burst rate with focus locked on the first frame and 5 fps with continuous AF engaged. Switch to the electronic shutter and you’ll rocket at 20 fps.
Continuous autofocus performance on the PEN-F was less than stellar. When paired with older MFT lenses, such as a 17mm f/2.8, the AF would continue to hunt and the display would wobble even after the focus confirmation beep sounded. This was much less prevalent on the newer 17mm f/1.8 lens, but still happened. Continuous AF performance in video was also spotty, with subjects swimming in and out of focus unpredictably.
The menu system on the PEN-F will be familiar to anyone who’s shot with the OM-D series. In our view, the on-camera menu isn’t as straightforward and accessible as it should be given all the features Olympus generously crams into the camera. On the plus side, there is a quick menu that gives you instant access to the most important settings. The touch screen is responsive, but is inconsistently implemented in the menu. In video mode, for instance, you can make menu changes using the touch screen but when in still mode you can’t. It can get confusing. Fortunately, between the quick menu and the ultra-customizable exterior controls, you can keep your menu missions to a minimum.
Battery life measures in at a fairly meager 330 shots per CIPA, slightly behind the X-T10.
The PEN-F is a beautifully designed camera, full stop. It’s fun to shoot with and offers great still image quality. You can even watch a full video tutorial from CreativeLive on how to use the electronic viewfinder, take advantage of the customizable interface, and use the video options. It’s hampered by an inconsistent continuous AF system, a clumsy menu and sub-par video performance. What’s more, it’s fairly expensive—costlier than rivals like the a6300 from Sony.
But the PEN-F isn’t necessarily designed to compete with the a6300. A more obvious competitor is Fuji’s X-T10. The X-T10 is a bit slower and won’t deliver the resolution of the PEN-F, nor the excellent image stabilization. But the X-T10 offers better film simulation modes and a more natural, rangefinder-like experience when composing through the viewfinder. It’s also a lighter, more compact camera that’s about $200 cheaper. Both look great to us.
The other major threat to the PEN-F comes, ironically, from within Olympus’ own lineup. The E-M5 Mark II has just about everything the PEN-F offers, minus the 20-megapixel sensor and film modes, for about $200 less. You lose some resolution, but you gain weather proofing and a more ergonomic grip that better accommodates larger lenses, like Olympus’ new 300mm f/4.
PROS: Excellent design; highly customizable; solid image quality; 5-axis image stabilization; responsive single point AF; new color and monochrome modes; articulating display.
CONS: Pricey; inconsistent continuous AF; USB 2.0 connectivity; no 4K; underwhelming HD video recording.
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CreativeLive Video Tutorial: A complete step-by-step walkthrough of the PEN-F’s features