Initially released in the spring of 2016, the Olympus PEN F is the flagship model in the PEN series and their fifth range-finder style mirrorless camera. It’s a camera that’s designed to capture the classic essence of the original PEN half-frame film camera from 1963. And while it shares the same name and retro styling, unearth is an entirely modern camera with a feature set that places it at the forefront of the lineup.
Officially, it replaces the original PEN, which debuted in 2009. And during that year, Olympus gave users a glimpse of the future to come. But, sadly, this lineup eventually transformed into aesthetically pleasing cameras that lagged behind the competition in features. And in the subsequent years, Olympus has focused mostly on their pro-oriented OM-D lineups. But, with this camera, they’ve switched gears back towards their original heritage. And they hope this camera will change that reputation.
On paper, it promises a lot. But is this just a redesigned EM-5 with a more retro body and obnoxious price? Or does their latest flagship have both style and substance? And given that it competes with Pansonic’s GX8 and Sony’s a6300, both of which are cheaper, is it even a relevant option today? Let’s find out.
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- What are some of the goods, bads, and uglies of the Olympus Pen F?
- Image Quality
- Video Quality
- Low Light Performance
- Focusing Performance
- Display & Viewfinder
- User Interface
- Physical Layout & Ergonomics
- Niche Features/Extras
- Video Capabilities
- Autofocus Performance
- Battery Life
- Lacking Features
- Is this a good beginner camera?
- Is this a good camera for you?
What are some of the goods, bads, and uglies of the Olympus Pen F?
New for this camera is the introduction of a 20.3MP Live MOS sensor without an aliasing filter and the TruePic VII image processor. And it’s the first Olympus camera to obtain this new sensor, making it higher resolution than their flagship EM-1. Overall, the 4MP bump in resolution is a welcomed change that improves the camera’s resolving power. And image quality is what you expect from a late generation Micro Four Thirds camera. The images are sharp, detailed, with excellent color rendition and dynamic range. The camera’s JPEG engine is also fantastic and it’s RAW files provide a good amount of latitude and natural rendering. Previous Olympus shooters will be immediately pleased with the image quality this camera produces, as it closely matches the outgoing 16MP sensor.
The camera’s shutter is quiet and produces minimal sound and slap from vibrations. And for this reason, the camera provides an incredibly stable shooting platform, perfect when shooting at slower shutter speeds.
It offers continuous shooting speeds of 10 fps using the mechanical shutter or 11 fps using the electronic shutter. Though, both of these high sequential modes lock focus, exposure, and white balance following the first shot. Alternatively, you can shoot at 5 fps with continuous AF and tracking. And the buffer depth for this camera is also excellent, providing 43 JPEGS and 39 RAW images when using a UHS-II SD card.
It obtains similar video capabilities as the EM-5 Mark II. With that, it shoots 1080p full HD videos up to 60 fps using the MPEG-4 codec to the MOV format using All-I compression. And it can also produce 120 fps video in-camera, albeit at SD quality without sound, movie effects, or art filters. While Olympus orients this as a photography-centric device, the video quality in of itself is quite good. The videos are vibrant with realistic color reproduction and full of details. And the camera is mostly free of rolling shutter and the distortion that it causes. Overall, the quality produced here is undoubtedly sufficient for casual use, when needed.
Like most camera’s in this class, video records limit at 29 minutes in length.
It obtains the My Clip mode, which allows you to add multiple movie clips and still images into a single movie file with screen transitions and art filters.
You can use any of the cameras 15 Art filters during video recordings to add a unique flair and stylistic appeal to your videos.
It obtains the Movie + Photo Mode, allowing you to take stills during video recordings by pressing the shutter.
Low Light Performance
Low light performance is excellent considering its large Micro Four Thirds sensor and even despite the 4MP increase in resolution. It features a native ISO range from ISO 200 to 25,600. And users can expect usable images up to ISO 3,200.
It obtains the same 81-point Hi-Speed Imager AF system from the EM-5 Mark II, which uses contrast-detection. This system also provides both Face Priority AF and Pupil Detection, to accurately focus on the subjects’ eye for portraits. In good light, the camera’s autofocus is nearly instantaneous, and single-point AF is extraordinarily fast as well. Olympus also provides excellent customization over it’s AF system. And, interestingly, you can create separate profiles for single-shot AF and Continuous AF, a nice touch. This addition allows you to customize the button layout to tailor it specifically towards either of these AF modes. Overall, the performance for stills and the level of customization offered are excellent.
The camera also offers focus magnification and peaking, perfect for those who prefer manually focusing.
Display & Viewfinder
New for this release is a built-in XGA OLED electronic viewfinder, making it the first PEN camera to obtain a built-in viewfinder. This display offers a resolution of 2.36M dots, 100% coverage of the imaging area, and a 0.62x magnification. Overall, the viewing experience is great. It’s sharp, and the S-OVF system increases the dynamic range to better gauge exposure. And with it offset towards the side of the body, it provides a comfortable viewing experience as well.
Also new for this release is a 3.0-inch vari-angle TFT touchscreen LCD, a feature taken from the EM-5 Mark II. This display has a resolution of 1.04M dots and a thin and sleek design. A fully articulating screen is the ideal choice for articulation, and it’s a welcomed addition. It makes shooting either high or low angle shots incredibly comfortable, and it’s perfect for selfies, vlogging, or pieces to camera. The display itself is sharp, with ideal viewing angles, and bright enough for outdoor use.
The camera offers four custom shooting modes on the Mode Dial, C1-C4. These modes give you quick access to recall frequently used shooting setups, saving time having to recreate them. And surprisingly, with a total of 4 banks, this camera provides more customization in this regard than their flagship EM-1.
It offers two customizable Function Buttons, FN1 and FN2, which you can customize to the variety of features they offer. The Preview button is customizable as well.
The camera obtains the Olympus’ LV Super Control Panel and the standard Super Control Panel. These two panels serve as quick menus, where you can view and quickly change the most common shooting settings that aren’t assigned to buttons. And when you combine these two menus with the camera’s eight customizable buttons with 28 settings, it provides unparalleled customization for advanced shooters.
Physical Layout & Ergonomics
Immediately, the first thing you’ll notice about this camera is its striking design. Aesthetically, it’s one of the most attractive camera releases to date. And it’s quite unlikely to find a camera of the build, design, and style elsewhere in today’s market. The PEN lineup is known for sleek and sophisticated designs, and this camera continues this fine tradition.
Olympus has carved the body out of a solid billet of aluminum, creating a very rugged and robust construction. But, much like Leica, this camera takes its design cues from old rangefinder film cameras. With that, the design uses sleek lines with black enameling around various buttons. Both the top plate and dials also use aluminum, and all of the combining screws are hidden from sight. Plus, all of the markings on this camera are engraved, not painting. These combine into a shape and design that’s very reminiscent of the original PEN F half film camera. And a camera that feels incredibly sturdy. Nothing about its design feels cheap or plasticky.
But even so, it remains quite compact and relatively lightweight, weighing only 427g. And it’s definitely small enough for easy stowing into pockets. And even with its size, Olympus hasn’t comprised the ergonomics much with this camera. It still has a nice contoured rear thumb rest, which is covered with rubber for added grip. And all of the physical dials and buttons are well-positioned for easy access. Plus, the dials also have nice clicky detents and audible feedback.
New for this release is a lock on the Mode Dial to prevent accidental changes during transportation. The lock also uses the preferred design, one push locks, the other unlocks, and makes it free turning. Simple and efficient.
It has a dedicated exposure compensation dial for immediate changes to exposure. This button is well-designed with good resistance when turned. The dial offers a three-stop range, so there’s no need to dedicate a custom button or dial to change this setting. Nice.
It has a dedicated video record button, conveniently placed on the top of the camera by the shutter release.
It has dual adjustment dials, both of which are all metal and neural, to control shutter speed and aperture. Both dials are also correctly positioned and very comfortable to use.
The camera’s shutter release is threaded, so you can add a soft release if you’d like.
New for this camera is the Highlight & Shadow Control toggle. This button calls up a dedicated curves adjustment tool to adjust highlights, shadows, and midtones. And you use the rear dial to control shadows, and front dial to control highlights. Though, these changes only affect JPEGS. Nevertheless, it provides added flexibility to control dynamic range and more control over the exposure than typical contrast sliders alone.
It has built-in Wi-Fi. And you can use the Olympus OI. Share App to control the camera, geotag, and transfer images wirelessly.
It obtains Olympus’ Live Composite Mode, which allows you to record a composite image in real-time where only brightness changes are captured. And you can now control this mode using the remote control via Wi-Fi on your smartphone.
It obtains Olympus’ High-Res Shot Mode but improves on the version found in the EM-5 Mark II. Now, the camera captures 50MP JPEG and 80MP RAW images. And it’s an excellent option for landscapes, commercial, or architectural work if you want colossal print sizes. It does this by shifting the sensor slightly between eight exposures. It then combines them in-camera for the final ultra-high-resolution render. However, know, this mode requires a tripod for the best results. And if motion occurs in the frame, you will see ghosting in that area and motion blur.
It has an entirely silent electronic shutter.
It obtains the 5-axis image stabilization system from the EM-5 Mark II, which Olympus rates to compensate for 5.0 stops. This system effectively lets you shoot shutter speeds of 2 seconds and still capture sharp images.
It has built-in time-lapse. And this mode offers plenty of customization, various modes, and the unique option to output a 4K video.
It has Focus Bracketing, where the camera automatically adjusts the focusing distance. Though it doesn’t stack the images in-camera, you’ll have to use desktop software for that.
It has built-in HDR.
It has multiple exposures.
It obtains Keystone Compensation.
It has a 2x digital teleconverter, which allows you to zoom digitally during video.
It has built-in panorama though it doesn’t stitch the photos automatically in-camera.
New for this camera is the dedicated Creative Dial, which organizes all of the camera’s color profile controls, creative effects, and filters. The position of this dial makes getting to these settings immediate with a single hand. Turn the dial to MONO, to display the monochrome profiles and film grain simulations. Turn to CRT to open the Color Creator, where you can adjust 12 different colors to add color casts to images. And lastly turn to ART, to select any of the camera’s 15 Art filters. Overall, this mode is quite impressive, and the interface makes customizing the camera’s images easy. And it provides enormous flexibility for users wanting distinct effects in-camera and the most customization available in this regard to date.
Overall, the footage the camera produces is quite soft compared to rivals at this price point. And it lacks the fine details you’d expect from a camera during its release year. You’ll also encounter moiré and aliasing artifacts in some scenes.
It lacks 4K video, and it doesn’t offer super slow-motion video at 1080p at 120 fps.
As this is a photography-centric camera, it lacks advanced video-centric features such as 10-bit recording, log profiles, waveforms, or zebras.
If you use All-I compression, the camera will segment video recordings into 4 GB chunks, which requires post-processing to combine them into a single clip.
Since the camera uses a contrast-based AF system, it’s not the fastest and most accurate in terms of tracking. The camera’s continuous AF really struggles and is mostly unusable. Even when shooting relatively still subjects, it continuously hunts for focus and is unsure before locking. Overall, it’s not strong enough for professional applications.
The battery life is average. It uses the BLN-1 battery, which Olympus rates for 330 shots per charge or 80 minutes of video recording. You’ll need extra batteries with this camera.
The electronic viewfinder on this camera has a few notable flaws. Firstly, there’s a bit of lag during use, particularly when panning the camera. Secondly, at 0.62x magnification, its magnification is rather low and below average for this class. And such a small magnification makes it difficult to use if you don’t wear glasses. This may or may not be problematic for you, but it’s something to consider. Lastly, the rear proximity sensor is also a bit touchy. And, depending on the lighting, it engages randomly, disabling the rear screen, during use. And this can easily become frustrating when capturing a decisive moment. Thus, when shooting outdoors, it’s best to use the rear Live View switch to cycle displays and avoid the proximity sensor altogether.
The rear display’s touch implementation is lacking and isn’t implemented to the fullest extent. Firstly, it only supports navigating the Quick Menu, but not the detailed setting changes it offers. You also lose touch control for exposure when shooting stills, but not for video. Strange. Secondly, it doesn’t support pinch to zoom during playback, nor is there a glimmer of hope for full menu navigation. Overall, the touchscreen’s only real use is AF touchpad and touch focus. And you’ll have to navigate this camera with the d-pad.
It uses standard Olympus menus, which are incredibly complicated and quite tedious to navigate. You’ll need to read the manual for this camera to comprehend its menus fully. Thankfully, the menus are organized into basic shooting, advanced shooting, playback, customizing, and camera setup categories. And the camera offers a customizable My Menu of sorts. So you can add frequently used settings to a single page. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of settings, and it’s not particularly intuitive at first.
The camera’s battery indicator also isn’t particularly accurate. From any point, the camera will go from half full to flashing red, then powering off.
Since the camera maintains classic film styling, the ergonomics aren’t to the same standard as a conventional camera. With that, there’s no front grip; it’s just bare cladding. And while the camera is comfortable to use if you have small or medium-sized hands, it won’t be if you have large hands. Thus, we recommend that you consider picking up the extender or grip attachment to make this camera more comfortable.
Like most cameras in this class, both the battery and SD card live in the same compartment underneath the camera. And in this case, that positioning means you’ll have to remove the tripod plate to switch either. The tripod screw on this camera is also quite close to the front of the body, making it difficult to use a tripod with non-Olympus lenses.
It doesn’t offer dual card slots.
It lacks a microphone input.
It lacks a headphone output.
It lacks a built-in pop-up flash. Instead, you’ll use the bundled flash that connects to the hot shoe.
It lacks USB charging.
It lacks the PC sync port of the EM-5 Mark II, which means you can’t have wired connections to flash units.
It lacks weather sealing, which is a shame considering the EM-5 Mark II has this feature. And this would be the perfect complement to this camera.
Is this a good beginner camera?
It’s priced a bit high for a beginner’s camera. But, it does provide all of the essentials a beginner would need to get starting. However, it doesn’t offer any helpful guide modes or on-screen tips to help. So, it’s not the ideal beginner’s camera. For this, the Olympus Pen E-PL series is better. Nevertheless, if you’re okay with that, it can work as a beginner’s camera. And it would provide an excellent platform for continued development.
Is this a good camera for you?
But, for serious videographers and filmmakers, this camera isn’t the best choice. With a lack of headphone and microphone inputs, 4K video, and confident continuous AF, it’s not the best option. For video, there are better options in the Olympus OM-D lineup. This camera is best as a tool for casual video, not serious and professional applications.
Even with the camera’s 11 fps burst, it’s not the ideal solution for sports or wildlife applications. The autofocusing system is good, but it’s not strong enough to deliver a high hit rate.
But, where it does shine is street and photojournalism. And for these mediums, it’s arguably the best option to date.
In the end, the Olympus PEN F isn’t perfect, but it’s the ultimate street shooter. It’s a beautiful camera that delivers an incredible tactile experience that brings a real sense of analog photography to the ever-increasing digital age. It makes you feel like you are using an old film camera, with all of the benefits of modern technology. Sure, some will compare this camera directly to the OM-D EM-5 Mark II, but that camera isn’t a PEN. And this camera offers an elegant shooting experience that’s currently unmatched in the OM-D family.
Yet compared to previous cameras in this lineup, this camera is in a new class entirely of its own. And finally, the PEN series isn’t just a style accessory with the bare minimum feature set. Olympus has taken this release seriously. And it does away with any preconceptions about this lineup and ushers in a new age of this sister range. It’s the PEN camera fans have waited for since its original debut in 2009. And it’s now full of features with stellar image quality and a sleek, sexy body.
Given the competition, however, you are paying a premium for aesthetics on this camera, no questions there. But that premium creates the best looking camera around, and good design is a crucial selling point for cameras.
Overall, if a highly capable retro-styled camera with ample control points sounds appealing, this is your camera. And it’s also the perfect suit for street shooters wanting portability and discretion. This is also the kind of camera that makes a statement about the type of photographer you are, someone who appreciates style and substance. And it’s rare to see today’s manufacturers make beautiful cameras. So expect people to approach you and admire this classic beauty.
Olympus’ PEN F comes to market in an era where street photography has reached an all-time high in popularity. And its dawns are a new area in the PEN lineup, that combines a classic feel with new-age technology. And as the flagship of the line, it’s the most feature-packed option to date. But, one shows style can also come with substance.