Olympus Pen F Review-Style Over Substance?
In this Olympus Pen F Review I shall build on my Olympus Pen F first impressions after having had the camera for quite a while now.
Olympus Pen F Review – Features
Lets take a look at what the Olympus Pen F offers in terms of features as the latest Olympus camera in the Micro 4/3 format.
- New 20mp sensor which is the first resolution upgrade we have had in a long time for an Olympus Micro 4/3 camera. The new sensor gives and image size of 5184 x 3888 pixels compared with 4608 x 3456 found on the previous 16mp sensor in cameras lie the OM-D E-M5 II. These added pixels are always welcome as long as they don’t come at the expense of noise. In my testing I have found that the noise performance of the new sensor is slightly improved over the older sensors, offering less noise at base ISO (200) and similar noise performance at higher ISO’s such as 3200 and 6400. The benefit of the extra resolution is noticeable even at higher ISO settings where noise performance remains similar but retains more detail in shots.
- 5 Axis Image Stabilisation built in to the body. Olympus’ 5 axis IS is simply the best in the industry. It is a fantastic feature which allows you to hand hold shots at implausibly low shutter speeds. In my testing I found the 5 axis IS to not be quite as effective as that found on the OM-D E-M5 II probably because of the increased resolution of the Pen F. I can comfortably handhold at 1/2 second on the Pen F whereas I can do so at 1 second on the E-M5 II.
- 2.36 million dot OLED Viewfinder. The viewfinder on the Pen F is the same as that found in the Olympus OM-D E-M10 II. It is a very good viewfinder offering nice bright, clear view although slightly smaller than that found in the OM-D E-M5 II it is still very good in use offering a large enough view to clearly compose your photos.
- 10 FPS mechanical shutter and up to 20FPS with the electronic shutter. The Pen F is not built for fast action but with a fast 10FPS shutter speed it certainly ha no problems capturing the decisive moment.
- Fully articulating 1.04 million dot 3″ LCD screen. The fully articulating screen on the Pen F is a pleasure to use. It can be folded back in to the body with the screen facing inwards to protect it from damage. This is also a useful feature for those that prefer to use the viewfinder. The LCD screen can also be used as a trackpad for auto focus when using the viewfinder. Simply slide your thumb across the screen to change your auto focus selection point.
- 50mp High res shot mode. This actually produces a 64mb Jpeg and an 80mb raw file. In practise it’s us is limited to static subjects but when you can use it oh wow the results are fantastic. The image is more detailed than any full frame Image I have seen and the colour detail and accuracy is improved too. Great for architectural, product and still life photography.
- 1/8000 mechanical shutter speed , 1/16000 with the electronic shutter. Thanks to the fast top shutter speed I have always found it possible to shoot wide open in bright light.
- 1080/60p video. Some of the product shots on my videos are shot with the Olympus Pen F and the video is clean and shows no artifacting. 4K would have been nice but this is a still orientated camera. Video with the Pen F and it’s 5 axis IS is great for being able to grab steady handheld footage.
- Colour Wheel control dial givng access to fine tuning of black and white, colour and ART profiles. I’ll talk more about this later but for now I’ll say that this feature is a lot of fun to use and produces beautiful black and white photos.
Olympus Pen F Review- Build Quality
Firstly let’s go back over the build quality because I think this is worth re-stating as Olympus deserve some serious credit here.
Weighing in at 427grams and measuring 125 x 72 x 37mm the Pen F is a small camera but it doesn’t feel light or cheap.
The body itself feels solid, much more so than Fuji cameras. While the body is smaller than Fuji X cameras it is in the same ball park and actually feels heavier than the X100T for example. But it does not feel heavy in use, just reassuringly solid.
The Olympus Pen F offers fantastic build quality. Each knob and dial is well made, gives a solid feel and offers great tactile feedback when in use. The exposure compensation dial is certainly stiffer than that on the Fuji X series cameras and as a result it does not get easily knocked and ruin shots. It stays in place until you want to change it.
I’ve seen a lot of reviews saying there are no visible screws on this camera and this is true although I don’t know why so much is made of this. Perhaps Olympus wanted reviewers to mention this for some reason. While it’s true I prefer to note the high quality materials and feel of the Pen F. Magnesium alloy body, metal dials and a nice faux leatherette material wrapping the body for grip.
I like the on/off dial rather than a switch, the shutter dial feels great in use and as mentioned the exposure compensation dial has just enough resistance to stop unintended movements.
Olympus Pen F Review – Handling
Let’s be honest, we all buy Mirrorless cameras because we don’t want the weight of a DSLR system but that doesn’t mean we want to give up decent ergonomics and handling.
The Pen F wont suit everyone as it doesn’t offer a front grip to wrap your finger around although there is an optional front grip available.You can buy the grip from Amazon UK here Olympus ECG‑4 Camera Grip for PEN-F Camera and Amazon.com here Olympus Non-Powered Metal Grip PEN-F, Black (ECG-4)
What it does offer is a very balanced camera when combined with small prime lenses like the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 and 45mm f/1.8.
The Olympus lenses are available from Amazon UK below
Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 17mm 1:1.8 Lens – Black
Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 17mm 1:1.8 Lens – Silver
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 45 mm f/1:1.8 Camera Lens – Black
Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 45mm 1:1.8 Lens – Silver
And for my friends in the USA and Internationally from Amazon.com below
Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm f1.8 (Black) for Olympus and Panasonic Micro 4/3 Cameras
Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm f1.8 (Silver) for Olympus and Panasonic Micro 4/3 Cameras
Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f1.8 (Black) Lens for Micro 4/3 Cameras – International Version (No Warranty)
Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f1.8 (Silver) Lens for Olympus and Panasonic Micro 4/3 Cameras
I found the camera to be comfortable in use. In fact it is a delight to use because of the way that Olympus has really thought about the design of the Pen F.
The thumb grip on the reverse gives plenty of purchase and due to its small size my ring finger sits under the base of the camera offering all the grip I need. What I also like is that on this model the strap lug does not get in the way as I found on my old OM-D E-M5.
The new front control dial which controls art effects and more importantly black and white output doesn’t get in my way at all. In fact it feels perfectly positioned to me. Ideally it would be customisable for those that don’t want or need to use the new dial as intended and perhaps Olympus will add this with firmware in the future.
You now have four custom settings on the PASM Dial which allows you to set up the camera to quickly switch to your favourite settings. The only issue I have with this is that the custom modes don’t allow you to switch between the black and white mode and colour modes. For example I wanted to have C1 assigned to my colour portrait settings, C2 for landscape shots and then C3 & C4 set to the black and white modes that I had tweaked with curves and filters. However if you are in standard colour mode on the front dial, changing to C3 will not take you into your black and white settings. You will still have to turn the colour control dial on the front.
All the buttons on the reverse of the camera offer decent feedback and as always with Olympus the camera is so customisable that you can set it up almost exactly how you want it.
The fully articulated LCD screen is bright and so useful when shooting street photography or from unusual angles.
Olympus Pen F Review- Image Quality
I mentioned in my first impressions post that the image quality looks about the same as previous 16mp Micro 4/3 sensors. However after having looked in more detail at the output I can now say that the sensor in the Olympus Pen F is an improvement in terms of detail captured and ISO performance. You wont notice it in every shot but when pixel peeping you can see more details in eyebrows, eyelashes and in the fine details of landscapes.
What also seems noticeable to my eye is the way that the new sensor renders colours. The skin tones produced by this camera are more accurate and the tonal transitions are softer and more subtle. Portraits on the Pen F are noticeably better than the OM-D E-M5 II.
These small improvements are welcome although they alone might not justify an upgrade from any of the 16mp Micro 4/3 models.
From my testing high ISO performance has improved around 1/3-1/2 a stop. What is more impressive is that the way the camera handles colour. Noise has improved with the Pen F showing less colour noise at high ISOs. Once you bump up the ISO the Pen F is also retaining more detail than the 16mp sensor found in the OM-D E-M5 II. The ISO comparison images were shot at night to show real world use rather than artificially bumping up ISO settings.
If you want to see full resolution files you can do so on my Flickr page
High Resolution Mode.
I’m not going to go in to too much detail here as I plan on writing a separate article on the high resolution mode.
So far it seems to work under very strict conditions. There must be no camera movement and no subject movement. When these conditions are met then the high resolution mode works very well. It easily out resolves the standard mode and improves colour accuracy.
Black and White Mode and the new colour Dial
Straight away I may as well tell you that this feature will be of no concern to those who shoot only in Raw format as it is only available for Jpeg shooters.
However I used to exclusively shoot Raw myself until recently and yet I find myself loving this new feature.
So what does it actually allow you to do?
Flick the dial to the black and white mode and you now have a whole host of customisation at your fingertips. Firstly there are three black and white profiles available. The first is a flat monochrome profile. The second (where the fun is) is a Tri X (ish) simulation offering bright whites and dark blacks. The third is an infra red like look. If you want to see how this works in operation then take a look at my Olympu Pen F vs Olympus OM-D E-M5 II video
Once you choose your mode (we will go to mode 2) you then flick the rear switch and option to change the curves now appear. It is set to +6 highlights and -6 shadows initially. This gives a very contrasty look so I changed the levels to +4 Highlights, -3 Shadows and + 1 midtones. I found this to retain decent contrast but also offer better tonal transitions.
Flick the switch again and you now have the ability to add colour filters to the image via a colour wheel. You can alter the colour filter, Green, red, orange, blue, magenta, yellow green and also vary the strength in the 3 steps.
Next you have the option to add a vignette to your shots and vary the strength in 3 steps as well as add a film grain overlay to your images. This grain is scanned in from film according to Olympus so it is pretty realistic. Again you can vary the strength with three settings.
The sheer amount of options can be overwhelming at first but you soon work out what your favourite settings are and the controls are intuitive and quick to use. These modes are so much fun to work with. I am a fan of getting the shot that you want in camera as I no longer want to spend hours sitting at a computer editing my images. Therefore with all this control at your fingertips you can create almost exactly the image you want straight out of camera.
I’ve found the results to be very good once I toned down the in camera default Curves. This kind of control along with the what you see is what you get nature of electronic viewfinders virtually eliminates the need to post process your images. Some may want the extra control offered by post processing software but at the very least you can shoot Jpeg and Raw and have the best of both worlds. Let me say the whole process is very addictive and you might find yourself shooting more black and white photos as a result.
My girlfriend has complained that all the photos I keep taking are black and white and this is entirely down to the Olympus Pen F and its new black and white modes.
Can you replicate this on other Olympus cameras?
I see a lot of people asking if you can replicate the same look on the OM-D E-M5 II or other Olympus cameras.
In my opinion it would take a lot of work to get close to the look that the Pen F gives you. Firstly the Tri X simulation is only available on the Pen F and no matter what I do on the OM-D E-M5 II I cannot replicate it with tone curves in the monochrome mode. Secondly you cannot vary the strength of the colour filter available on the E-M5 II and to add grain or vignetting would require time post processing the files.
Basically if you want this feature or the look then you will have to get a Pen F. I’m sure you can get close with PP work but in the end the Pen F allows you to shoot the photos straight out of camera and it really is great fun doing so.
Olympus Pen F vs Olympus OM-D E-M5 II
So in my first impressions post I mentioned that I wanted to see if the Pen F is worth the extra money over the OM-D E-M5 II.
The added features of the Pen F, 20mp sensor, new processor, colour wheel, black and white profiles, extra custom modes on the PASM dial apart, they’re the same camera right?
Here is how I look at it. If you need weather sealing or budget is the primary factor then the OM-D E-M5 II will do most of what the Pen F can but it wont do it as quickly and it wont be as much fun.
Sure the OM-D E-M5 II viewfinder is bigger, I can’t say I noticed a huge difference in real world use. What I did notice is that the Pen F feels quicker in use with far less lag when switching between the LCD and viewfinder. The whole experience is quicker when using the Pen F.
Auto Focus is faster on the Pen F, the images you get are slightly better thanks to having more mega pixels, slightly better high ISO performance and there is something about the rendering of images on the Pen F which just makes the images more pleasing to my eye.
Here are the pros and cons of each
- There is no denying it is a beautiful camera
- New black and white mode is a lot of fun and produces beautiful photos
- Improvements in image quality
- Speed of handling and auto focus is faster
OM-D E-M5 II
- Weather sealed
- Larger viewfinder
- Feels better with larger lenses
If you are trying to decide between these two cameras then you really want to take a look at my video comparison and write up between the Pen F and E-M5 II
So getting back to the start of this Olympus Pen F Review, is the Pen F all style and no substance?
It is certainly a stylish camera but some have bemoaned the lack of weather sealing and the price. It is undoubtedly one of the most stylish cameras currently available but I couldn’t ever justify keeping a camera for its looks alone. The price is the price, only you can decide if it is worth it to you. It certainly is for me.
Weather sealing would be nice but then how often do we really use it. A light shower is no problem to any camera that I’ve owned for years and are you really going to be out shooting in a torrential downpour even if a camera does claim to be weather sealed. The lenses that best suit the Pen F are in my opinion small light primes and these aren’t weather sealed anyway so having a weather sealed body makes no sense. I think Olympus probably knew that when they made their design decisions.
The Olympus Pen F has enough to keep even the most demanding enthusiasts happy. The new 20mp sensor is an improvement over the older 16mp sensors in almost every way. The camera operates more quickly, focuses faster and offers the ability to customise your out of camera jpegs beyond anything else on the market.
Add to this excellent build quality and a great range of small fast lenses which are available for Micro 4/3 and even at the asking price it is still a great camera.
If I had to choose between this and the OM-D E-M5 II it’s simple, I’d get the Pen F for the improvements in image quality, operation and a huge boost to the fun factor of using this camera.
Keep checking back on this review because I will add more images as and when I have them. I shall also add more hi resolution shots to Flickr. I also have a quick video which shows how the black and white mode works and will upload that as soon as I have a decent internet connection.
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The Pen F is available fom Amazon UK here
and for international visitors the Pen F is available from Amazon.com here