Olympus PEN-F Digital Camera Review

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Technology and legacy don't often go hand in hand. When your mandate is to continue pushing forward, it rarely pays to look in the past. Photography is different. Camera companies constantly trade on their legacy, directly connecting the present to the past. For Olympus, that legacy owes much to the vision of one man: Yoshihisa Maitani, the iconic designer who gave the world the PEN and OM film cameras.

It was that legacy that Olympus relied on when designing its first Micro Four Thirds digital cameras, which carried the PEN name. Olympus has taken that to another level however with its refreshed OM-D series, from the original OM-D E-M5 to its current flagship, the OM-D E-M1. The OM-D series has been so successful, though, that the PENs simply feel left behind.

Until now. The company's latest retro-inspired creation, Olympus PEN-F (MSRP $1,199 body-only), is in many ways the culmination of years of hard work from Olympus. With a toned, old-school body and heaps of manual controls, this stylish compact mirrorless camera doesn't just look like the company's classic cameras—it brings some of Olympus's best imaging tech along for the ride.

Design and Handling. The funny thing is, even though it's called PEN-F, this digital Olympus more closely resembles a film rangefinder like the Leica III than it does the real PEN-F film camera. The original PEN-F didn't have as many knobs or controls, opting for a simpler control scheme. Also, let us not forget that the real PEN-F was also not a rangefinder, instead impressively cramming in a real through-the-lens finder into its slender metal body.

So why not go whole-hog into retro territory with a sleek, minimalist PEN-F that's more closely apes its forebear? Controls, controls, controls. But while the PEN-F has all the controls that today's camera geeks are after, it integrates them into the design well. Think that's a film rewind knob? Nope, that's the knurled power switch.

Beyond that, a large, prominent front dial raises the (threaded!) shutter button up to where it's easy to reach. There's even some OM-D DNA at play in this model, such as the PEN-F's locking mode dial. It's a bit of an evolution, though, as it now has a whopping four custom mode settings on it. This is also the first Olympus to have a dedicated exposure compensation wheel, so that your two main control dials can be more freely used for other settings.

That's not to say that everything is perfect. Smack dab underneath the mode dial is a new color control toggle that pulls up the curves, filters, vignetting and other picture tuning options. It's right next to the critical rear control dial, and the two are close enough to mix up. Furthermore, the toggle is very easily nudged—even just feeling around to figure out which is which, we triggered it accidentally.

Olympus has endowed the PEN-F with a camcorder-style articulating, 3-inch touch-sensitive LCD, which will appeal to some M43 fans and drive others nuts. Some factions prefer the flip-style display, like on the E-M10 Mark II, while others prefer what the PEN-F has. Though the camera lacks the weathersealing of the E-M5 II, the screen and mechanism feel just as solidly assembled. Our favorite aspect of the screen is that its back matches the leatherette on the front of the camera, so when it's folded inwards, it really does look like a compact film camera.

The rear of the camera has an impressive gaggle of controls, considering how compact it is. The buttons protrude just enough that you can use them without looking, and a flared bit of metal and rubber make for a perfect thumb nook. It helps differentiate the camera from previous PEN models, so where the PEN E-P5 felt a bit slippery, the PEN-F is effortless to hang onto. There's an accessory grip Olympus will sell alongside the PEN-F that adds a nubbin on the front and an Arca-Swiss compatible tripod shoe down below, but if you're only shooting small M.Zuiko prime lenses, we don't think it's entirely necessary.

Features. If one thing has been sorely lacking from the PEN lineup since the very first E-P1, it's been a built-in viewfinder. All the film PEN cameras included viewfinders, but the digital PENs have always required some kind of extra EVF accessory. The PEN-F builds the finder right into the body.

And what a finder it is. Featuring a 2.36 million dot OLED panel, the viewfinder is large (with 1.08x magnification), colorful, and detailed. It also has the S-OVF feature introduced in the OM-D E-M10 Mark II, which doesn't apply exposure or color settings to the image you're looking at.

But by far the best features is the full 5-axis image stabilization system, cribbed from the OM-D E-M5 Mark II. Olympus says that it's good for up to 5 stops (measured via the CIPA method), and it brings along the E-M5 Mark II's high-res shooting mode that shifts the sensor to capture extra detail. With the PEN-F's 20-megapixel sensor that gives you a RAW shot with a whopping 10368x7776 resolution, otherwise known as 80 megapixels.

Olympus has put a surprising amount of work into in-camera filters and editing, and the PEN-F has the most impressive set of features we've seen yet. A dedicated knob on the front of the camera lets you select art filters, a custom color profile mixer, and even some great new monochrome modes (complete with new tints, multiple looks, and color filter simulations). While I still prefer to shoot RAW predominantly, it's a blast to dial in the aesthetic just how you like it and start snapping away—no post processing required.

Of course, there are some notable omissions with the PEN-F. The biggie is the lack of weathersealing, a feature that the new OM-D E-M5 Mark II and Panasonic's GX8 both enjoy. The compact body of the PEN-F also means the SD card slot is next to the battery, instead of having its own slot. Olympus also left its 2x2 switchable control scheme on the cutting room floor, presumably to keep the clutter to a minimum.  

Perfomance. Until very recently, 16 megapixels was the ceiling for Micro Four Thirds system cameras. But with Canon, Sony, and Nikon all putting out cameras in the 30+ megapixel range, it was only a matter of time before Micro Four Thirds cameras followed suit. While the first 20-megapixel M43 camera was Panasonic's Lumix GX8, the PEN-F is Olympus's maiden voyage out of the 16-megapixel harbor. Thankfully, it appears to be smooth sailing ahead despite having slightly smaller pixels.

And beyond that, Olympus basically crammed everything we liked about the E-M5 Mark II into a slightly smaller package. It has the same 1/8000s max shutter speed, 5-axis image stabilization system, battery, 81-point AF system, and even its TruePix imaging processor yielding very similar performance overall.

In our labs, the PEN-F performed admirably, putting its shiny new sensor to work. It's more detailed (as you'd expect) but it also offered lower noise levels, although you still won't want to use ISOs higher than 3200. Video is also better than most other Olympus cameras, taking after the E-M5 Mark II and its enhanced video abilities. That said, serious videographers will still want to turn to Panasonic for 4K and other essential features like headphone/microphone ports.

For more on how the PEN-F performed in our battery of tests, head on over to our test results page.  

Conclusion. Even though it isn't a perfect digital recreation of the original, this new PEN-F is a stylish, solidly constructed piece of kit that we think enthusiasts will adore. Cynics might dismiss this as a slimmer, more stylish OM-D E-M5 Mark II, but using it has an entirely different vibe. Especially compared to the last few PEN models, the PEN-F benefits from an aesthetic quality and creative touch that we really dig.

That said, there are some drawbacks. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 II and Panasonic Lumix GX8 both are similar to the PEN-F, with a few more features, and cost a bit less money. The GX8, in particular, is appealing if you're interested in shooting high-quality 4K video.

Olympus has understood the value of compact design since the original PEN-F and the same holds true in this reborn version.
But in a market where basically every camera is "good enough," choosing a camera is about more than just the spec sheet. Olympus has always understood this, as Yoshihisa Maitani's original PEN-F was compact and capable, but also beautiful. The reborn version holds true to that, and it is certain to find more than a few fans—if not a legacy of its own.


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