Tested: Olympus PEN-F
It was 1963 when Olympus launched the original PEN-F. The compact SLR featured interchangeable lenses and manual controls, but its most innovative feature was its half-frame (18 x 24mm) format that allowed photographers to capture 72 photographs on a roll of 36-exposure 35mm film. The only quirk was that in a normal shooting position, the format was aligned to portrait mode, but this did not stop the PEN-F from being one of the most elegant, portable and desirable camera systems of the 1960s.
Fifty years on and the PEN-F is back, this time with a 20.3-megapixel Live MOS sensor and a five-axis stabilisation system that ensures sharp photographs at slow shutter speeds about four stops below the norm, and smooth video when hand-holding the camera. Olympus have also enabled this camera to shoot 50-megapixel JPEGS and 80-megapixel RAW files by shooting a rapid sequence of images as the sensor is subtly moved within a grid by the image stabilisation system; this artificially increases the pixel density of the camera to create a file that can provide more detail that most other consumer cameras on the market. The PEN-F can capture video in Full HD (1080/60p) (although it lacks an external mic and headphone jack) and time lapse video at 4K.
Other key features include built in WiFi, a 2.36-million dot OLED electronic viewfinder and a fully articulated 3in touch-sensitive LCD display with a resolution of 1,037,000 dots. The PEN-F has a top mechanical shutter speed of 1/8000s and a top electronic speed of 1/16,000s; the camera can capture up to 10 frames per second (fps) shooting with the mechanical shutter, and up to 20fps in electronic shutter mode.
Top flash sync is 1/250s, and while there is no built-in flash, the PEN-F does have a hot-shoe and is supplied with the Olympus FL-LM3 flash. This tiny flash weighs just 51g and is ideal for travel, but what I enjoy even more is that the flash-head can be rotated upwards 90-degrees and 360-degrees to bounce the light in suitable conditions.
What I think most people will be impressed by is the build quality. Older Olympus cameras have a distinctively solid feel; they might have a compact size but there is a lot hiding under the bonnet. The new PEN-F is no exception; it has a moderately compact body measuring just 125 x 72 x 37mm, but at 427g (body only) the camera feels solid in your hands. The chassis is made from magnesium alloy and aluminium but a soft leatherette provides an elegant finish. A deep thump grip on the rear of the camera makes the camera easy to hold, and with the LCD screen folded into the rear of the camera, the PEN-F feels almost like a film camera in your hands. Other tilts to a bygone era are a good sized rubber viewfinder and a screw-in cable release socket on the shutter release button.
One of the best features of the PEN-F is the control dials. The power switch is a round, beautifully knurled knob on the left side of the top deck that is easy to find and operate. On the right side of the deck are the exposure control dials including a lockable mode dial, two main adjustment dials (useful for aperture and shutter control) and an exposure compensation dial. All the dials are well crafted and have positive, click-stop actions that won’t be accidentally knocked off their mark.
The PEN also has a “Creative Dial” located on the front of the camera that pays homage to the old shutter speed dial on the original PEN-F film camera. This dial lets you quickly choose between normal shooting mode and four creative modes, including Monochromatic (black and white), Colour Profile, Art Filter and Colour Creator modes. There’s also a toggle switch just beneath the main mode dial to let you fine tune the tone curve (how the camera handles shadows, midtones and highlights). This will appeal to those who like to shoot JPEGs but is supefluous if you shoot Raw.
The build quality and classic look will appeal to Olympus devotees, but the image quality is also noteworthy. The new sensor provides better detail at the lower ISOs and the new TruePic VII processor provides improved noise reduction at higher ISO settings. If you enjoy making big prints though, the PEN-F also has the advantage of using sensor shift technology to create BIG photographs – up to 80-megapixels in RAW mode. So long as your subject is static, you have the camera steadied (preferably on a tripod) and you are working at the lower ISO settings, then the High Res Shot mode works a treat. The detail is amazing for a camera this small.
HANDLING ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
A compact yet solid camera ideal for travel and general wandering. It feels good in the hand and the controls are sensibly laid out. The viewfinder is bright and clear, and the articulating LCD is good for working in all angles, including selfies.
FEATURES ★ ★ ★ ★
The PEN-F can capture up to 80 megapixels in Hi Res Shot mode. This makes it great for landscape photography. Other useful features include WiFi, and even a threaded cable release socket.
EXPOSURE ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Managing exposure is easy with the PEN-F. Full manual mode is easy thanks to the front and rear command dials, or you can switch into any of the creative settings and tweak with the compensation dial. Most of the time, exposure is very reliable.
IMAGE QUALITY ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
At the low ISOs, image quality is above average, with fine detail rendered well. At high ISOs, the PEN-F performs slightly better than its Four Thirds competitors. Image quality in the High Res Shot mode is excellent as long as the subject and camera are stationary.
VALUE FOR MONEY ★ ★ ★ ★
With a street price of $1750 (body only) the PEN-F isn’t cheap, but it offers a lot. Build is excellent, and although the camera isn’t weatherproof, you know it will travel well. Add the 20.3MP sensor capable of capturing 80MP files with 5-axis image stabilisation system and you know this is a seriosly smart camera.
The PEN-F has some great features that will appeal to many photographers. The design and build quality are as good as it gets, and you know that wherever you are or whatever you are photographing, you will be doing it in comfort and style.