Olympus PEN-F Hands-On Review

by Photo Life

Three days of shooting with the Olympus PEN-F in an variety of environments have left an impression, mostly positive. The F improves on previous PEN models in significant ways without sacrificing size, shape or weight—or style for that matter. Let’s start with some low-hanging fruit.

Built-In EVF
It’s OMD functionality in tidy PEN dimensions. At 2.3 million dots, the EVF matches the one on the newest OMD model, the E-M10 II. The eyepiece sits high and left on the camera back, pushing out a small bump on the top deck. The eyepiece isn’t in line with the lens, but there are a couple of reasons why that might not be tragic. One of the PEN-F’s target segments is street photography, so that position makes it easier to compose with your right eye while maintaining an unobscured view of the entire scene with your left eye. Plus, it keeps your nose/cheek off the LCD screen (now a swivel-tilt design), which is good because the PEN lets you use the touchscreen as an AF targeting pad. However, the viewfinder is fixed, so if you liked the articulation of the VF4 auxiliary EVF for the E-P5, you may be left wanting. An eyepiece hood would be nice too, as I found myself shading the eyepiece with my hand frequently in outdoor sun.

More Pixels
With a new 20-megapixel sensor, the PEN-F is now Olympus’s highest-resolution CSC (although Panasonic, the other MFT camera maker was first to have 20 megapixels with its GX8). The bump from 16 megapixels to 20 is modest but welcome. I did not test the 50-megapixel high-res mode, but it seems to work similarly to the E-M5 II—you need the camera to be still while the camera is cycling through the pixel-shift process. (I did take some handheld shots with the high-res mode inadvertently turned on, with some interesting results—maybe it will become a thing, artistically.)

The sensor on the F has an ISO range of 200-25,600 (same as the 16-megapixel sensor on the E-M10 II) but the F’s additional low step goes down to ISO 80. I only took a few shots at ISO 25,600, and they look passable. You get the smeary plastic rendering of faces but you also get to shoot dark streets at 1/300 s and f/2. Realistically, if you took down the ISO by two stops and slowed the shutter by two stops to balance, you’d be at a workable 1/80 s and ISO 6000 or so. And the F has five-axis image stabilisation to help matters.

Creative Mode Dial
This dedicated dial sits on the front face of the camera and can be rotated through four settings: Mono, Color, Art and CRT. Mono switches the camera to monochromatic mode. From there you have three choices that differ in contrast and “grain” characteristics. You can tweak them further by applying simulated B&W filters or remapping the contrast curve. The Color setting is similar, you can choose from three colour modes that differ in saturation, colour and tonal balance characteristics, and then customise them further. The Art setting activates the Art filters that have been a feature in Olympus CSCs forever. The CRT setting is kind of like the hue/saturation controls in an image editor. You can increase or decrease the saturation or vividness globally, but also work on individual hues to jack them up in relation to other colours, or mute them.

I wasn’t sure about the usefulness of this, but it turned out to be one of the controls I accessed often. You can now go from monochrome to colour with the flick of a dial. If you like to experiment with colour saturation or tonal gradations, the dial is a truly useful shortcut.

Exposure Compensation Dial
Hmm, do we really need it? That functionality is already part of the Olympus line. On my E-P5 the front dial does the service. Fujifilm and Sony have one on their CSCs, so it might be feature matching. It certainly adds to the aura of precision mechanical design, looking good adorning the top deck.

Control Interface
Olympus’s deep and multi-branched menu system is notorious for its complexity, and that hasn’t changed. Plus there are even more settings, like the focus-bracketing control that debuted on the E-M10 II. It means the F is highly customisable, but it also means that approaching the camera can be intimidating for anyone who hasn’t used an Olympus camera before. The stacked menus are a viable option if your only control is a four-way cursor pad. However, Olympus has been exploring other options like touchscreen controls and the use of the main and sub dials to break out of that. With the F’s new colour wheel tuner, for example, you can spin the pointer to the various hue segments with the sub (front) dial and adjust strength with the main (rear) dial. Ditto for the tonal curve adjustment: one dial controls highlights and one dial controls shadows. Holding the OK button down for a few seconds zeroes everything the default settings. It’s quick, efficient and easy to remember.

Three days of use isn’t really enough time to understand a camera thoroughly, but if you are already familiar with OMD or PEN, the transition to the F won’t be hard. It advances the PEN line significantly, both in performance and style.

Note: the unit I used for this review was a pre-retail version provided by Olympus that did not have the final shipping firmware.

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