Inspired by the popular half-frame PEN F film cameras that were released in 1963, Olympus’ latest CSC is designed, in their own words, to ‘induce envy in photo hipsters’. From its all-metal chassis wrapped in a faux-leather surround, to the finely-milled dials and lack of visible screws, it’s certainly a camera that has styling close to its heart. Slotting in next to the three-year-old E-P5, it’s a premium addition to the brand’s lineup, firmly aimed at more discerning street photographers.
Despite all this attention to the aesthetic detail, it also packs some impressive specifications. A 20.3Mp Micro Four Thirds sensor sits at its core, there’s 5-axis image stabilisation, and it sports the first-ever EVF found on a PEN series camera. Priced at £999 body-only however, it sits in a segment of the market that has some tough competition.
Features & Build
Matching Panasonic’s GX8 at 20.3Mp, the PEN-F has the largest resolution that’s ever been seen in one of Olympus’ Micro Four Third cameras. Files can be output as JPEGs or RAWs with maximum dimensions of 5184x3888px, putting them roughly on a par in terms of size with many enthusiast DSLRs. This Live MOS sensor doesn’t feature a blur-inducing low-pass filter, helping to ensure improved detail, and image processing comes via a TruePic VII engine.
The PEN-F has a 5-axis image stabilisation system that is claimed by Olympus to compensate for up to 5-stops of camera shake with any lens. This system is also supported by a High Res mode that enables the camera to record 50Mp JPEG files of static subjects when mounted to a tripod.
The native ISO range is 200-25,600 with an extended Low ISO (approximately ISO 80) also available. Continuous shooting maxes out at a fairly competitive 10fps with focus fixed on the first shot, 5fps with continuous AF, and 20fps in Silent mode using the electronic shutter. Shutter speeds stretch from 1/8000sec to 60secs, plus there’s a Bulb mode for ultra-long exposures. A higher top speed of 16,000secs can also be used in the camera’s Silent shooting mode.
The PEN-F has no inputs for an external mic or headphones for audio monitoring, but can record Full HD video at 60fps. Wi-Fi is on board for remote shooting and file transfer via the Olympus Image Share App. The camera has no integral flash, but for low light use, a small external flashgun with adjustable head does come supplied in the box.
Reasonably compact in size, it measures 125x72x37mm, making the PEN-F only slightly larger than the PEN E-P5, and at 427g, it’s just 7g heavier. Taking up most of the camera’s back is a 3in 1037K-dot vari-angle screen. Clear and bright, this display allows touch control of AF and image review. Complementing the display is a rangefinder-style EVF. This 2360K-dot OLED provides 100% coverage of the frame and a magnification of 1.23x with a 50mm lens set
On the top-plate, the camera has dials for the shooting mode (with four customisable options), Exposure Compensation and two settings controls. The shutter button features a screw-in cable release thread for remote firing, while there is also a power switch and video record button.
On the front is a new Creative dial. This control can be used to quickly switch between colour and creative filters including customisable monochrome and colour profiles.
While the PEN-F lacks any kind of raised grip on its front, the textured finish of its wrap and thumbrest do mean that it sits comfortably in the hand with a standard lens attached. The camera’s button placement keeps most key settings easy to get at, and many of the controls can also be configured to suit your personal shooting style. However, while I enjoyed trying out the numerous options available using the Creative dial on the camera’s front, it’s slightly disappointing that its operation can’t be customised given its highly prominent placement.
Unlike the OM-D E-M1, the PEN-F is not weather-sealed – a slight surprise given its relatively high price – and it also lacks a Hybrid AF system. Instead, focusing is achieved using an 81-point contrast-detect system. We found this to be very responsive in most of the situations we tested it in, though it did struggle slightly when focusing on low-contrast areas of a scene. Available focusing modes include Single-shot, Continuous AF, Single-shot with MF, and an AF tracking mode. The latter did occasionally fail to hold its subject in focus during our testing. Using the rear display with the camera held to the eye it’s possible to move the active AF point with a thumb using the AF-Targeting Pad feature.
During testing, single RAWs took a slightly sluggish 1.8secs to write to card via the single SD slot, while JPEGs took 1.1secs. Set to its 10fps burst mode, the buffer filled after 26 RAWs, and these took 11.5secs to write. Large Fine JPEGs filled the buffer after 38 shots, taking 7secs to write.
Value for money
There are a lot of high quality camera bodies available for £1000 at present, both in the CSC and DSLR markets, meaning the PEN-F has tough competition. In terms of Micro Four Thirds rivals, the Panasonic GX8 has the same resolution sensor, and while lacking the retro styling, boasts 4K video recording and weather sealing for just £699.
Alternatively, the Fujifilm X-T1 with its equally solid build quality and larger APS-C sensor can be brought for £919, or there’s the full-frame Sony A7II for a bigger outlay at £1179.
There’s a lot about the Olympus PEN-F that should be applauded. It’s a very stylish camera with enough substance to lift it above being a fashion statement. The trouble is, with its £999 price point, it’s likely to remain a hard sell to those not won over by looks alone. Yes, the build quality is impressive, its sensor resolution competitive, and its EVF long-desired in the PEN range. But it falls short in other areas. Features like the Creative Dial and High Res shot mode are definitely eye-catching, but in the long run, they don’t have the same utility as more substantial video specs or weather sealing offered by some rivals. While many street photography enthusiasts will love it, for those with an interest in other photographic genres, there are more rounded CSCs on the market available for less money.
- Body price £999 (As of July 2016)
- Resolution 20.3 Mp (5184 x 3888px)
- Format RAW & JPEG
- Sensor Micro Four Thirds Live MOS
- ISO 200-25,600 (Expanded low option available)
- Shutter 1/8000sec – 60secs + Bulb mode
- AF system Contrast Detection
- Focusing modes Manual, Single AF, Continuous AF, Single AF & MF, AF Tracking
- Metering ESP, Spot, Centre-weighted, Highlight, Shadow
- Burst rate 10fps (with AF locked)
- Monitor 3in 1037K-dot Vari-angle touchscreen LCD
- Viewfinder 2360K-dot EVF
- Flash Detachable flash bundled
- Hotshoe Yes
- Video Full HD at 60fps
- Connectivity Wi-Fi
- Write speeds 1.8secs RAW
- Storage SD, SDHC, SDXC
- Weight 427g
- Dimensions (WxHxD) 125x72x37mm
- Visit: www.olympus.co.uk
This review was first published in the Spring 2016 issue of Digital Photo - download back issues here.