After a number of classically styled options, Olympus seemed to have the retro-styled mirrorless down pat — and then came the Olympus PEN-F and it’s left-sided rangefinder-esque viewfinder. The Olympus PEN-F has much of the same classic styling as the film camera by the same name, but packing a 20.3 megapixel sensor with 5-axis image stabilization, the camera’s innards are anything but classic. But is the Olympus PEN-F all looks and no play, or can the classically styled shooter stand up among the biggest players on the market?
Olympus PEN-F Review: Body & Design
Cradling the Olympus PEN-F feels almost like working with a camera with a few decades of shooting under its belt. The camera is largely constructed with metal, making it a heavy choice but a solid one that looks to stand up to years of shooting. The middle is wrapped with a leather-like texture to complete the camera’s retro stylings. In fact, the backside of the tilting LCD is coated with the same texture, so you can close the screen and almost — almost — pretend you are working with an old camera.
Olympus has done retro cameras before, however — and done them well. What really sets the PEN-F apart is that the viewfinder is no longer located in the middle of the camera, but on the left side. That allows you to shoot with one eye open if needed, though that shooting style takes some getting used to. (If you have glasses, you’re out of luck — you have to have your eye close to the viewfinder to shoot without closing the other eye and glasses prevent that.)
Along with the unusual viewfinder, Olympus replicated a few of the original camera’s controls. The film winder on the top left is now a large, sturdy on/off button on the digital version. A mode dial sits opposite the viewfinder, housing four custom slots along with the manual modes and a single auto mode. Next to that is the shutter release, wrapped with a second control dial aligned with the first dial towards the back of the camera. On the far right, a dedicated exposure compensation dial sits underneath a record button for easy access to the HD video.
At the front of the camera, a small button near the lens stops down the aperture, giving the LCD screen an accurate preview of the exposure settings. Above that, a small dial offers easy access to color settings — swapping between monochrome, color, neutral, art and a custom color option.
The back of the camera gives away the digital innards with menu and playback controls as well as two customizable function buttons. A lever below the mode dial brings up options for customizing the colors and curves in-camera, a nice option for saving time in post production. Shortcuts offer quick access to ISO, white balance, flash mode, burst and timer, and focal point.
A menu contains all the remaining controls, and a click of the second function button brings up several shooting settings that can be adjusted with a double tap on the touch screen. The touchscreen is nice to use with the quick menu as well as for selecting focal points. The viewfinder uses an automatic eye detector and turns on when you put the camera up to your face — though I do wish that same action would turn the touchscreen off to prevent accidentally adjusting the focal point with a bump of the nose.
The Olympus PEN-F is missing a built-in flash, but a small flash is bundled with the camera in many cases, including the body-only option.
The plethora of physical controls make the Olympus PEN-F fun to use, though may be rather daunting for a beginner. Personally, I’d prefer to have the color dial or another physical control dedicated to ISO for slightly faster adjustments of all three exposure elements, but the design of the Olympus PEN-F leaves little to be desired. The sturdy build and classical styling feels good in the hands, but the smaller build doesn’t leave the camera feeling too heavy on the neck strap.
Olympus PEN-F Review: User Experience & Performance
The Olympus PEN-F has a single auto mode — the intelligent auto that’s a bit better at recognizing the scene than the traditional auto. The four manual modes are included, along with four custom slots on the mode dial and an option dedicated entirely to video.
While the Olympus PEN-F may be a classically styled camera, it’s no slouch when it comes to speed and performance either. Individual shots with the autofocus on were timed at about .8 seconds apart, while manual focus shots were about .3. The PEN-F isn’t going to replace a sports-focused DSLR, but most users will be plenty happy with the autofocus speed.
In burst mode, the PEN-F has a solid 10 fps speed, though if you want to continue using the five axis stabilization, that speed is cut in half. That speed is paired with a buffer that’s not spectacular, but not horribly limiting either. Shooting only in the highest quality JPEG, the PEN-F will shoot for about four seconds before pausing. Shooting both RAW and JPEG is a different story, with the camera pausing after only five shots and about fifteen seconds before the memory card icon stops blinking, signaling the processing is complete and the camera is ready for another full speed burst.
The camera’s autofocus in on par with other mirrorless cameras, getting a good lock on the subject without a significant delay. The PEN-F also has a facial detection autofocus feature that works quite well, even from side angles on the face. That facial detection can be customized to look — and track — the whole face or even one eye.
For as classic as the Olympus PEN-F is on the outside, it’s a modern performer on the inside. I wouldn’t mind to see a bigger buffer, and while 10 fps is excellent, the burst with the stabilization system active is just average.
Olympus PEN-F Review: Image Quality
With controls to adjust the colors and curves right on the camera, it’s easy to get images with good color straight from the camera, though it may take a bit to find the color profile that matches personal taste. Even on the neutral color knob setting, the camera picked up accurate color with good contrast. Straight-from-the-camera RAW files needed a bit of a color boost, in my opinion, to get to the same solid colors from the JPEG settings, but part of the beauty of RAW is customizing those color levels easily.
Olympus has always been one of my favorite brands for shooting macro, and the PEN-F isn’t an exception. I shot with a 12mm lens, not a dedicated macro lens, and was still able to get fairly close with excellent results. (That 12mm lens, buy the way, has a stunning classic metal design, right down to the screw that holds on the lens hood).
While the sharpness is largely a result of the lens and not the camera body, with the 12mm I got very sharp results during testing. In real world applications, that five axis image stabilization offers a significant boost for getting sharp shots — at one point, I forgot that I had the camera on a slower shutter speed for panning, but I still didn’t have to toss all of those slower shots. That sharpness also translates into solid lines and excellent detail.
The Olympus PEN-F’s performance at high ISOs was also rather impressive. Noise levels were acceptable through ISO 3200, and even in the extreme highs, the camera seemed to loose detail at a slower rate than other cameras. Most options will blur out minute textures at the highest ISOs, but even the extreme ends still held up most of the details.
|ISO 200 (300 pixel crop)||ISO 400||ISO 800||ISO 1600|
|ISO 3200||ISO 6400||ISO 12800||ISO 25600|
While a few other models have 4K at the same price point, the Olympus PEN-F sticks with HD, though at a smooth 60 fps frame rate. The few video clips I shot were impressively steady for being handheld. The camera also picked up sound well and the autofocus seemed to keep up pretty well for a still camera.
Olympus PEN-F Sample Images
Olympus PEN-F Review: Conclusion
The Olympus PEN-F is a stunning camera that’s capable of shooting solid images with excellent noise reduction and stabilization. The camera is fun to use, and while it may not be the fastest performer in the category, it still is no slouch when it comes to speed either.
The Olympus PEN-F is designed as a high-end enthusiast camera. The plethora of controls makes the camera fun and fast to shoot with, but beginners would likely be rather daunted by all the knobs and dials. The classical styling and solid image and video quality make the Olympus PEN-F an excellent camera for enthusiasts or travelers.
Many users will no-doubt love the camera’s 4/3 sensor, image stabilization and classic design, but the camera is a close competitor with the several others in the mirrorless arena. The Panasonic G85, which retails for about $300 less, body only, has the same size sensor and five axis stabilization, but it’s also weather-sealed, has a built-in flash and shoots 4K — though the burst speed is slower at 7 fps. The Fujifilm X-E2S has a similar rangefinder-inspired design and while has a slightly slower burst speed and is without the five axis stabilization, it uses a larger APS-C sensor. The X-E2S is also less expensive, retailing for $700 body only.
The Olympus PEN-F is a digital camera inside a classic film camera. It’s beautiful piece of gear with an excellent design, solid performance and good image quality. The Olympus PEN-F will feel most at home with photographers that want the convenience of digital but would like to replicate the look of film with built-in custom color controls. It is a bit pricier than a few similar models, but many photographers will quickly become attached to this classically-designed camera.