Unveiled: Olympus PEN-F Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera

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Harking back to the days of the original Pen film cameras, Olympus has just introduced its newest Micro Four Thirds system camera, aptly named the PEN-F. Obviously inspired in design by the unique half-frame SLRs of the 1960s, the newest digital member of this venerable series marries a familiar retro aesthetic with forward-thinking imaging capabilities. However, distinguishing itself from the pack of other Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras, and Olympus’s own OM-D-series, the new PEN-F’s primary aim revolves around the ability to refine the look and feel of imagery in-camera creatively.

Having the opportunity to take this new mirrorless camera for a spin had me excited, and I have to admit that I'm not the typical Micro Four Thirds shooter. What interested me in reviewing this camera, though, was its well-executed design. Before even handling the camera, I was impressed by the attention to detail, borrowing from the classic Pen F. The top plate features the distinctive PEN-F block-letter text, the front knob—while not a shutter-speed dial in this iteration—was familiar, and its sleek lines made it enticing as a portable camera for everyday, all-day shooting.



 

Before waxing too poetic about the physical design, it's also worth mentioning the PEN-F sports an impressive lineup of imaging specs. Most notably, this camera is the first Olympus model to use the new 20.3MP Live MOS sensor, which offers a 25% increase in resolution over the all-too-common 16MP sensors residing in the bulk of Micro Four Thirds cameras of recent years. Secondly, the TruePic VII image processor avails fast continuous shooting speeds of up to 10 fps with a mechanical shutter, a top sensitivity of ISO 25600, and Full HD video recording. While that video spec may not be something too many are eyeing in the 4K age, I truly felt it wasn't a deal-breaker, given this camera's penchant for street and lifestyle photography usage, as well as its range of still-imagery-focused adjustments.


Beginning my hands-on use with the camera, I went for a quick walk along the High Line near the B&H offices and spent time familiarizing myself with the controls and settings. While treated like a gimmick in many other digital cameras, I was surprised and excited to see what the Creative Control dial was all about. The fact that Olympus was affording access to these modes via such a prominent place on the camera body signaled these were more than your average "creative modes." The dial offers the ability to adjust monochrome and color profiles, as well as to quickly apply a range of Art Filters and CRT color cast settings. The monochrome profile piqued my interest the most since it was obviously more than just a generic black and white mode. When switched onto that mode, you have the ability to add color filter effects that simulate the effects of using colored contrast filters—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and so on—with black-and-white film. This was a nice touch, I felt, and the ability to further adjust how imagery looked using a modest curves slider system was fun, however I tended to stick to the settings I was most familiar with prior to working with this camera, such as simply using a yellow contrast filter if shooting in black-and-white, or adding a slight S-shaped contrast curve for shooting on an overcast day. Once I figured these tricks out, they stuck with me during shooting and were useful, but weren't as much of a revelation as one might think.



 


 


 


 
monochrome profile- blue monochrome profile- yellow monochrome profile- red monochrome profile- green

The second day I got to spend with the PEN-F, New York City was hit by its first big winter storm of the season, which certainly put a damper on my outing. However, I trudged out to the beach amidst an oncoming blizzard, as my original plan was to focus on the nostalgic scenes of Coney Island with this nostalgia-infused mirrorless model. With that plan somewhat out the window, I was forced to use the camera in a much more practical manner. I didn't have time to tinker with too many settings and I wasn't able to play with Wi-Fi or use the touchscreen. Rather, I used the camera in a simple, straightforward manner and got to test out the intuitiveness in handling, imaging, and focusing capabilities, and realized I would quickly be dependent on the 5-axis image stabilization simply due to my shivering hands. And to be clear right off the bat, the PEN-F is not advertised as a tough camera or a weather-resistant camera; it is not meant to hold up to the elements of frigid ocean spray and sideways-blowing snow, but in my use I was thrilled with how well it did handle the elements. Besides the obvious boon of simply functioning, and the battery lasting for an entire morning of shooting, there were subtle design touches that certainly made it easier to handle, such as the fact the rear LCD can be closed against the body with the screen facing inward and the S-OVF mode of the 2.36m-dot electronic viewfinder, which offers a more natural viewing experience akin to an optical finder. The availability of physical dials was also much easier to work with when wearing gloves, albeit access to the ISO and focus mode settings was limited to the menu system, since I didn't have a chance to configure my own custom functions.


While shooting in the winter storm, I was surprised by the usefulness of the Creative Control dial in a couple of situations when working in black-and-white. Images where snow is prominent are notoriously difficult to meter correctly, but with this camera I could fine-tune how highlights were handled and bring out a bit more of the shadow regions in the portraits I was shooting. I was also able to apply color filtration to clean up overly blue backgrounds or use orange filters to lighten skin tones. Once accustomed to using these settings, adjusting them is a simple process that can even be done with your eye to the viewfinder.



 

One hiccup I did have while shooting in the falling snow involved the way the autofocus system was frequently tricked by larger snowflakes, and since it was a very low-contrast environment, the focusing system was already at a bit of a disadvantage. With 81-areas covering the imaging area, accuracy was spot-on when the subject could be detected, which was further benefitted by using the face-detection feature while taking portraits. Though the focusing system did get thrown off a number of times, this was admittedly a very difficult working situation. After realizing I was missing a number of shots, I switched over to manual focus and used focus peaking to benefit focusing accuracy. While difficult to photograph moving subjects in this manner, it was a bit of a necessity due to the inclement conditions.




 

Coming back to the image stabilization system, the PEN-F features the robust 5-axis sensor-shift type stabilization system found in the top-end OM-D-series cameras, and it is claimed to compensate for up to five stops of camera shake. While I cannot comment on this theoretical figure, I can certainly say the system helped to alleviate camera shake in realistic, trying conditions when I was struggling to even pay attention to focus and composition, let alone my shutter speed.

After retreating for the night, I set out the next day to make some more portraits in more normal working conditions. And without the snow falling, I had more of a chance to work with the 3.0" 1.037m-dot touchscreen LCD, test the Wi-Fi capabilities using my iPhone, and generally delve a bit more into the menu system. The articulating design of the screen is great when shooting from low or high angles, and even though this flip-out swivel mechanism may be critiqued for being less sleek than a plain tilting screen, I find myself more drawn to this type of design. As someone who indulges in more than my fair share of vertical compositions, this design affords you the same high- and low-shooting abilities once you tilt the camera 90-degrees, as opposed to a standard tilting screen that pretty much limits you to horizontal compositions. Additionally, my personal favorite aspect of the vari-angle design is that you can fold the screen in toward the camera when working with the electronic viewfinder. The touchscreen design was responsive during playback and touch-to-focus control, but really wasn't too handy in other regards. You are unable to adjust the curves settings with the touchscreen for instance, which seemed like a misstep, since the amount of control is then limited to hard intervals for how much you can fine-tune contrast and brightness.




 

Working with the Wi-Fi is a simple, straightforward process, and a QR code system can be used to pair your mobile device with the camera for sharing photos wirelessly or controlling the camera remotely. This is one of those features I don't find myself using too frequently, but the ability to get the photos from your camera onto your phone for sharing on Instagram is nice during your ride back from a day of shooting.

The last bit of shooting I did with the PEN-F was a simple ISO test and I wanted to see how the 50MP High Res Shot mode functioned. Making a simple setup of dinosaurs at home, and placing the camera on a tripod, I quickly ran through the sensitivity range to check image quality for the higher ISOs I had yet to explore. I was impressed with how clean and color-neutral all of the images were from ISO 200 to ISO 25600; of course the files look their best at the lower values, but even the images shot at ISO 12800 and 25600 could still be deemed usable depending on the subject matter. Save for some blotchiness in the shadows and some loss of sharpness, the noise levels were well-controlled and the color was fairly consistent. My final shot was a look at the Hi Res Shot mode, which pairs with the image stabilization system and composites eight sequentially recorded RAW and JPEG or JPEG-only exposures into a single frame to output an image with 50MP (8160 x 6120 at 350 dpi for JPEGs) resolution. It is a necessity to work from a tripod in this mode, which limits its usability, and any increase in sharpness is not necessarily apparent, but it does result in a larger file that would be better suited to making larger prints than the standard 20.3MP files.





ISO 200 ISO 400 ISO 800 ISO 1600
ISO 3200 ISO 6400 ISO 12800 ISO 25600

After spending a weekend working with the PEN-F, I have to admit I wasn't blown away by any one feature, and I mean this in the sense that it was an all-around good camera. Whereas other cameras are designed to excel in video, speed, focus, or resolution, the PEN-F is a straightforward and enjoyable camera to use from any angle. It felt natural to work with and it is a fun camera, which is why I truly believe it exists. How it encourages you to step out of the box and apply some creative decisions while shooting is unique and refreshing and, even if unnecessary, it gives you the option to dial down your look before post production. The PEN-F doesn't top the scales in speed or video, and it isn't meant to be the most cutting-edge of mirrorless designs. What it does do, it does well. Compared to other Micro Four Thirds cameras, its sensor design and image quality are second to none. Handling is intuitive, and the EVF and vari-angle LCD combination worked well, in my opinion. I'm in favor of the retro-themed design, especially since it recalls Olympus’s Pen-series heritage of compact, yet capable cameras, and in this instance, the vintage styling is not completely frivolous. The PEN-F is a camera I would love to bring along on a day trip upstate or for a long weekend to the beach. It's a camera designed to accompany you during your everyday life, and it's a tool that can inspire a bit of creativity along the way.


The Olympus PEN-F Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera is available in black or silver, and is being announced alongside a host of dedicated accessories, including a form-fitted Leather Body Jacket; an External Metal Grip for more secure handling; a Premium Leather Camera Bag to protect the camera and accessories in style; a Premium Leather Wrapping Cloth for a sleeker, but still attractive, means to protect the camera during travel; and a Premium Leather Shoulder Strap.

Olympus PEN-F
Lens Mount Micro Four Thirds
Image Sensor Live MOS
Effective Pixels 20.3MP
Total Pixels 21.8MP
Maximum Resolution 5184 x 3888
Aspect Ratio 4:3, 1:1, 3:2, 16:9
Still Image File Format JPEG, raw, MPO
Storage Media SD/SDHC/SDXC
Card Slot 1x SD
Viewfinder Type 2.36m-dot OLED electronic viewfinder
Frame Coverage 100%
Magnification 1.08x
Eyepoint 20mm
Diopter Adjustment -4 to +2
Shutter Type Mechanical and electronic
Shutter Speed 60 to 1/8000 second
30 to 1 min. in Bulb mode
60 to 1/16,000 second with an electronic shutter
Flash Sync Speed 1/250 second
Drive Modes Single, Sequential H, Sequential L, Anti-Shock, Silent, Silent H, Silent L, Self-Timer
Top Continuous Shooting Rate Mechanical:
10 fps for up to 39 raw files
10 fps for up to 45 JPEG files
5 fps for up to 250 raw files
5 fps for infinite JPEG files
20 fps using the electronic shutter function
Self-Timer 12- or 2-second delay
Metering Method Digital ESP (324-area multi-pattern metering), center-weighted average, spot
Metering Range -2 to + 20 EV
Exposure Modes Aperture Priority, Custom, iAuto, Manual, Program, Shutter Priority
Exposure Compensation +/- 3 EV in 1/3 steps with dedicated dial
+/- 5 EV in 1/3, 1/2, or 1 steps with front a rear command dials
Exposure Bracketing 2, 3, or 5 frames in 1/3, 2/3, or 1 EV steps; 7 frames in 1/3 or 2/3 EV steps
ISO Sensitivity Auto, ISO 200-25600, expandable to ISO 80-25600
Autofocus System High-speed imager AF
Number of Focus Points 81 contrast-detection areas
Focus Modes Single AF (S-AF), Continuous AF (C-AF), Manual (MF), S-AF + MF, AF tracking
Built-In Flash No; external FL-LM3 flash included
Flash Control TTL Auto, Auto, Manual, Super FP
Flash Modes Flash Auto, Redeye, Fill-In, Flash Off, Red-Eye Slow Sync (1st curtain), Slow Sync (1st curtain), Slow Sync (2nd curtain), Manual (1/1 to 1/64)
Top FP High Speed Sync Super FP: 1/125 to 1/8000 second
Flash Compensation +/- 3 EV in 1/3, 1/2, or 1 steps
External Flash Interface Hot shoe
White Balance Modes Auto, Cloudy, Color Temperature, Custom, Flash, Fluorescent, Incandescent, Shade, Sunlight, Underwater
Movie Recording MOV
1920 x 1080p at 60 or 50 fps (52 Mbps)
1920 x 1080p at 30, 25, or 24 fps (77 or 52 Mbps)
1280 x 720p at 60, 50, 30, 25, or 24 fps (77 or 52 Mbps)

AVI
1280 x 720p at 30 fps
640 x 480p at 30 fps
File Format MOV and AVI
Compression ALL-I and IPB
Audio File Format Linear PCM (stereo)
External Microphone Input No
Headphone Jack No
Maximum Recording Time Up to 29 min in MOV format
Monitor 3.0" 1.037m-dot vari-angle touchscreen LCD
Interface Micro HDMI (Type D), USB 2.0, A/V Out
Wi-Fi Yes, IEEE 802.11b/g/n
Power Source 1x BLN-1 rechargeable lithium-ion battery (7.6 VDC, 1220 mAh)
Battery Life Approx. 330 shots per charge (CIPA)
Operating Environment 32 to 104°F / 0 to 40°C
Humidity: 30-90%
Dimensions 4.9 x 2.8 x 1.5" / 124.8 x 72.1 x 37.3mm
Weight 15.06 oz / 427 g (CIPA, with battery and memory card)

Items discussed in article

9 Comments

This looks like an interesting camera; the specs look impressive. I've never used a rangefinder, having used a SLR since 1980. The lens options for 4/3 seem to be increasing with reaches into the telephoto range, which was a limiting factor in the film days. It would be an interesting camera to rent and try, but I think I'd buy a used Canon rangefinder.

I am a late adopter since I bought my first DSLR in December 2013 and I continue to shoot film.

I would like to know how the 50MP file compares to a file from a Sony Alpha AR-7?  I realize it is a tripod only option. What is the effective exposure time?

Comparing the 50MP results from the PEN-F to a larger, full-frame option like the Sony a7R II or EOS 5DS R is tricky since the sensor sizes are quite different. The PEN-F has to composite and interpolate information in order to reach the effective 50MP resolution, so the quality isn't quite the same as if that 50MP were a native resolution.

In my experience, the effective exposure time seemed to be about 8 times the usual shutter speed (since it's 8 frames being composited), plus maybe 5-10 seconds to process the image. Roughly, an image with a 1 second exposure time took maybe 10-12 seconds to be recorded and saved to the card.

I'm into Olympus pretty deep with the pro lenses (which really work well for me) and E-M1 body. Great system but at the end of the day it's 15MP. Next move is to 40+MP. Question is in which system? Is it Sony time or will this camera keep Olympus viable in the MP arms race? 

I have a omd em5 ii and I took it and a rented nikon d800e 14-24 to desert the pictures from the olympus was qually good or sometimes a little better , yes I used a good sturdy tripod , but to get good pictures with a high megapixel camera you also get better results with a tripod 

Will wonders never cease... A digital camera with user-configurable "conventional" controls. How many years has it taken?

This feature mitigates what is (for me) the major annoyance of electronic photography.

Question... Why do the higher-ISO sample photos show a significant reduction in saturation? Does the camera do this automatically to minimize chroma noise?

I really like Four Thirds systems and find the combination of retro and modern technology in the PEN-F to be appealing. But I'll have to get over a bit of sticker shock before deciding to make an investment.

"Having the opportunity to take this new mirrorless camera for a spin had me excited, and I have to admit that I'm not the typical Micro Four Thirds shooter. "

Then what kind of shooter are you then?

Or did you mean you are not typically a Micro Four Thirds shooter?

Dear Quibbler: Funny, I knew what he meant. Isn't that the point? Clear communication beats grammatic perfection. 

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