Olympus PEN-F

To Hold And To Have

At the start of the 1960s, it’s probably fair to say that Olympus was one of quite a number of Japanese camera companies looking for ways to expand beyond its home market and, in particular, take on the premier European brands. Like just about everybody else, it had previously built rollfilm folders, TLRs and some interesting, but largely unremarkable 35mm fixed-lens cameras. Then along came a talented young designer called Yoshihisa Maitani.

Maitani believed small cameras could be made as capable as bigger ones and he would, of course, go on to prove this with the legendary OM 35mm SLR system and the XA Series of pocket-sized 35mm compacts. But before this, in 1959, he came up with the original Olympus Pen which achieved its smallness by recording onto half a 35mm frame. It was a piece of lateral thinking that was subsequently adopted by quite a number of other camera makers, but Maitani kept Olympus ahead by devising more advanced Pen models – there was a string of them through the 1960s – and, in late 1963, the camera which singled him out as a truly gifted camera designer. It’s far less well-known than the OM-1 or the XA, but the Pen F was pure brilliance… a half-frame 35mm SLR so it was truly compact, but could be fitted with a wide selection of lenses (in the end, 18 models spanning 28mm to 1150mm in their full-35mm equivalents). Additionally, the Pen F used a novel rotary-type, titanium focal-plane shutter which allowed flash sync across its speed range up to 1/500 second.

With the reflex mirror turned on its side – so the standard orientation was portrait – and a system of mirrors for the optical viewfinder, the Pen F didn’t need a pentaprism, allowing for a smooth, slimline RF-style body. The shutter speed dial is on the front panel – an arrangement Maitani further refined for the OM-1 – and the half-frame format enabled double the number of shots – 48 from a 24-exposure film roll or 72 from a 36-exposure length – so the Pen F was also cheaper to run. There were eventually three models – the original F, the FT (1966) with a built-in TTL exposure meter and the FV (1967) which was an updated version of the meterless original with, among other things, a brighter viewfinder. In addition to the extensive lens system for the Pen Fs – which included two zooms, a macro and a reflex-type super telephoto – Olympus actually offered mount adaptors for Canon, Exakta, Nikon and Pentax full-35mm lenses plus, later on, its own OM system lenses.

Fast forward to 2016 and there are clearly plenty of good reasons why Olympus is celebrating the half-frame Pen F with its digital PEN-F, but there are some significant similarities too. The concept is obviously the same (although the Micro Four Thirds sensor is closer to 110 film in size than half-frame 35mm), including leveraging a focal length magnification factor to ‘extract’ increased telephoto capabilities from physically smaller lenses even if the optical technology of the day didn’t allow for ultra-wides. The capacity to fit a variety of other lenses via mount adaptors is also very much a feature of the contemporary mirrorless camera, but perhaps most importantly, Yoshihisa Maitani wanted to prove that a smaller-than-35mm image size didn’t necessarily compromise image quality. Today this is very much the message of the MFT format’s proponents, particularly as the PEN-F moves up to a brand new 21.77 megapixels sensor.

Olympus PEN-F

Premium Priced
With Olympus’s recent activities very much concentrated on its OM-D ‘SLR-style’ mirrorless system, there was some conjecture that it might be the end of the road for the Digital PEN camera line.

Ironically, the PEN-F is not only the most capable Digital PEN model ever, but also the priciest… although it’s now mostly all about the styling because, thanks to the incorporation of an electronic viewfinder (EVF), the basic recipe is the same as that of an OM-D model. Consequently, it’s hard to see Olympus bothering about any more budget-priced Digital PEN models now that you can have the excellent OM-D E-M10 Mark II for instance.

Mind you, in the case of the PEN-F, the styling is a pretty important element of its overall appeal. It is gloriously retro, although ironically, looks a lot less like the original than the earlier Digital PEN models. Like the film cameras, these were quite dainty in their styling while the PEN-F is a whole lot more purposeful and vies with Fujifilm’s X-Pro2 as to which can do the most with traditional dials and switches. It’s still comparatively compact – smaller, incidentally, than Panasonic’s rival GX8 – but feels very solidly built and, quite frankly, looks fantastic… in both the black and chrome finishes. The bodyshell is a combination of magnesium alloy and aluminium covers with milled dials. Interestingly, there isn’t an exposed screwhead to be seen anywhere. The PEN-F isn’t, however, weather sealed. There’s an OM-style power switch, dials for the main shooting modes and exposure compensation, front and rear input wheels; the former encircling the shutter release which, like Fujifilm’s cameras, has a cable-release socket. Additionally, a new, dial-like selector switch is located on the front panel in the same location as the original’s shutter speed dial. This is called the ‘Creative Dial’ and it essentially centralises all the camera’s image manipulation functions such as the ‘Art Filter’ effects. We’ll go into more detail about the Creative Dial’s operations shortly.

Olympus PEN-F

The EVF is the same 2.36 megadots OLED panel as is used in the OM-D E-M5 II and is very neatly integrated into the top panel with both the proximity sensor – for auto switching with the LCD monitor screen – and the dioptre control located alongside, but separately from the eyepiece. As on the OM-D cameras, there’s the option of using the ‘Simulated Optical Viewfinder’ (S-OVF) mode which by-passes any setting-related adjustments (such as ISO or exposure compensation) to give a real-world view. The monitor screen is a 7.62 cm LCD panel with a resolution of 1.04 megadots, adjustments for both tilt and swing, and touch controls. The rear control panel is a straightforward arrangement of a four-way navigator pad which incorporates function keys, and a small collection of buttons for replay, menu and info settings. There isn’t any room for a built-in flash so the PEN-F comes packaged with Olympus’s compact FL-LM3 accessory unit which has a tilt/swing head. The battery and memory card share a compartment in the camera’s base. The latter provides UHS-II speed support with SDXC devices.

Olympus PEN-F

Recipe For Success
On the inside, the PEN-F pretty well follows the latest OM-D recipe – as currently baked in the E-M5 II – including five-axis sensor-based image stabilisation, a sensor shutter to give a top speed of 1/16,000 second, up to 10 fps continuous shooting and 1080/50p video shooting at a bit rate of 77 Mbps (see the Making Movies panel for more video info). Olympus says the IS system is, in fact, updated again, allowing for up to ten non-MFT lenses to be registered in-camera to optimise stabilisation with these set-ups. Up to five stops of correction for camera shake is potentially available (depending on the lens focal length) and there’s the choice of vertical and horizontal panning modes plus auto detection. Derived from the IS system is the PEN-F’s ‘High Res Shot’ mode which is also borrowed from the OM-D feature inventory and employs pixel shifting to give JPEGs with a resolution of 50 megapixels and RAW files with a massive 80 MP. These are the result of eight images – four recorded with a half-pixel shift in each direction (i.e. up/down/left/right) to boost the resolution and four with a full-pixel shift to boost the colour – being combined in-camera to give JPEGs with an image size of 8160x6120 pixels (around 25 MB in file size) or RAW files sized at a whopping 10,368x7776 pixels (and around 125 MB in file size). This is essentially digital medium format territory, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch in image so the limitations are that the subject matter needs to be static, the camera has to be on a tripod, and the maximum ISO that’s useable is 1600. Nevertheless, in the right situations, High Res Shot is a powerful tool for optimising image quality and Olympus says it will only get more versatile in the future as sensor-based IS systems become further advanced in their capacity to correct for different types of movement… and at ever-lower shutter speeds.

As noted earlier, the PEN-F’s sensor is new and the highest resolution device seen so far in an Olympus mirrorless camera. It’s mated with the latest ‘True Pic VII’ processor – which, among other things, gives the five-axis IS system its grunt – and has a sensitivity range equivalent to ISO 200 to 25,600 with a 1.3-stops ‘pull’ to ISO 80. The effective resolution is 20.3 megapixels, giving a maximum image size of 5184x3888 pixels at the standard 4:3 aspect ratio. The aspect ratio can be set to 3:2, 3:4, 16:9 or 1:1 and, as on all Olympus mirrorless cameras, there’s a big choice of image sizes for JPEG capture plus four levels of compression. Any combination of four can be preset in the main menu, via the custom menu.

The top shooting speed of 10 fps is achieved with the autofocusing (and metering) locked to the first frame, and it slows to 5.0 fps with continuous adjustment. However, when using the sensor shutter, there’s an ‘H+’ mode which gives continuous shooting at up to 20 fps. The sensor shutter’s speed range is 1/25-1/16,000, but if you want the 20 fps speed then obviously the lack of slower speeds isn’t going to be an issue. The sensor shutter also enables silent shooting.

Olympus PEN-F

Dialling In Creativity
The PEN-F’s selection of JPEG processing options is extensive, starting with a set of seven ‘Picture Mode’ presets which, except for the e-Portrait option, have adjustable parameters and a provision for saving one user-defined preset. Each colour ‘Picture Mode’ can be adjusted for sharpness, contrast, colour saturation and tonal gradation which, in turn, has a selection of sub-settings called Normal, Auto, High Key and Low Key. The monochrome ‘Picture Mode’ replaces the saturation adjustment with a set of contrast control filters (yellow, orange, red and green) and a choice of toning effects (sepia, blue, purple or green). After a slow start with in-camera special effects Olympus has now gone overboard so, like the E-M5 II, the PEN-F offers a total of 14 ‘Art Filters’, most of which are adjustable with up to three variations (giving 28 options in all) and can also be combined with a number of ‘Art Effects’. There’s a bracketing function which allows for every effect and variation plus the ‘Picture Modes’, the ‘Colour Creator’ setting, and the new ‘Colour Profile’ and ‘Monochrome Profile’ settings (three of each) to be included in the sequence. This means, should you so desire it, there’s the possibility of actually having a grand total of 42 versions of an image!

The new ‘Creative Dial’ is designed to make all this a bit easier to manage so it’s here that the ‘Art Filters’ and the ‘Colour Creator’ are accessed plus the new ‘Colour Profile’ and ‘Monochrome Profile’ settings. Beyond the control itself though, Olympus’s thinking here is that as many more images are being uploaded directly from the camera (i.e. via WiFi), there’s a need for more scope for making adjustments in-camera. The ‘Colour Creator’ we’ve seen before and it works pretty much like Photoshop’s Saturation/Hue adjustment. Also familiar is the Curves-style ‘Highlight & Shadow Control’ which, as before, allows for adjustment of the highlights and/or the shadows, but now also includes the mid-tones. After setting the ‘Creative Dial’ to its ‘CRT’ setting, a lever located below the main mode dial switches between the ‘Colour Creator’ and ‘Highlight & Shadow Control’ with the front and rear input wheels then used to make the various adjustments (and pressing the ‘INFO’ button selects the mid-tones control). You can go further with the profiles adjustments which can subsequently be saved… essentially as D-I-Y picture modes. The colour profile option allows for 12 colours to be individually or collectively adjusted over ten steps (i.e. plus/minus five steps), again using the front and rear input wheels. And you can again adjust the highlights, mid-tones and shadows, as is the case with the mono profiles which also have a colour filter wheel for adjusting contrast (eight colours each with three levels) and a shading or vignetting control which ranges from white to black. Additionally, you can add a grain effect – namely Low (i.e. fine), Medium (as it says on the tin) or High (coarse).

Again, there are a lot of options here which take a bit of exploring and each process involves using a number of controls, although once you’ve performed them several times it should become second nature. Three profile settings are each provided for colour and B&W, the first fully customisable from scratch, the other two adjustable, but with default settings. The Monochrome profile defaults are for ‘classic’ B&W film and infrared B&W film, while the two Colour profiles are called “Chrome Film Rich Colour” and “Chrome Film VS”… which has enhanced saturation. If you think these profiles look a bit like Fujifilm’s ‘Film Simulation’ presets, you’re probably right.

Off The Menu
The PEN-F essentially has the same interface as the OM-D models so it’s not without its idiosyncrasies, and the instruction manual – even the full PDF version – can be frustratingly light on detail.

The menu system puts pretty well every adjustment into the Custom section which, subsequently, comprises a total of 126 items, many of which should really be in the main Shooting menu (which, consequently, is just two pages long). This includes things like noise reduction, shading compensation (for lens vignetting) and the colour space settings plus more regularly used items such as the ISO, white balance, metering and drive modes. That said, there’s also direct access to these via the navigator pad and, more conveniently overall, the camera’s ‘Super Control’ screens which can be navigated traditionally or by touch.

Back in the main Shooting menu there are further image processing functions, namely ‘Keystone Compensation (for perspective control), a multiple exposure facility, an intervalometer for creating time-lapse sequences and a multi-shot HDR function. The intervalometer allows for up to 999 frames to be recorded at intervals of up to 24 hours. The HDR function has two auto modes which capture four frames at two different amounts of exposure variation and then combines them into the one image with either “high” or “super-high” contrast. Alternatively, there’s a choice of presets – three, five or seven frames at +/-2.0 EV; and either three or five frames at +/-3.0 EV. Multiple exposures – actually only double exposures – can be made with the option of automatic exposure adjustment. The white balance control options include auto correction with a ‘Keep Warm Colour’ option for use when shooting under tungsten lighting, seven presets and provisions for storing up to four custom measurements. All have fine-tuning over the amber-to-blue and green-to-magenta colour ranges. Manual colour temperatures can be selected over a range of 2000 to 14,000 degrees Kelvin. Auto white balance bracketing is performed over a sequence of three frames with the choice of two, four or six steps of adjustment per frame.

As with the OM-D models, all the auto bracketing functions are collected in one menu selection and the other options are for exposure, flash, sensitivity and focus as well as the previously described combinations of ‘Art Filters’, ‘Picture Modes’ and Colour/Mono Profiles.

Focus And Exposure
The PEN-F has the same main camera control systems as the E-M5 II, starting with a conventional contrast-detection autofocusing system which employs 81 measuring points – arranged in a 9x9 pattern – to give pretty extensive coverage across the frame.

Point selection can be left to the camera or performed manually with selectivity varied via a choice of two target sizes or a group setting which uses a cluster of nine (3x3) points.

Face detection AF can also be fine-tuned to focus on either the left or right eye or whichever one is nearest the camera. Over 800 points are available when using the ‘Zoom AF’ mode which magnifies the image by 3x, 5x, 7x, 10x or 14x.

Switching between single-shot and continuous AF operation is performed manually and a full-time override is available for the former, plus an auto tracking option with the latter. Manual focusing is assisted by a magnified image (with the same choice of settings as Zoom AF) and a focus peaking display which can be set to red, yellow, black or white; and low, normal or high intensity.

Exposure control is based on the 324-point ‘Digital ESP’ multi-zone metering that’s used across the Digital PEN and OM-D ranges. Alternatively, there are centre-weighted average or spot measurements, the latter maintaining the Olympus tradition of being adjustable for either the highlights or the shadows. Additionally, the spot can be linked to the active AF point.

The main auto exposure control modes are backed by an AE lock, the aforementioned auto bracketing and up to +/-3.0 EV of compensation if you use the designated dial, up to +/-5.0 EV if you assign this function to another control such as one of the input wheels. There’s a selection of 25 subject/scene modes (including panorama, high- or low-key and panning), but access to these first needs to be assigned to the main dial’s ‘C4’ setting which presumably means that, if you never use them, you don’t need to bother and can save this custom set-up slot for something more useful. Alternatively, automatic scene selection is available when the PEN-F is in the full-auto ‘iAUTO’ mode (which does have its own position on the main dial). While ‘iAUTO’ is designed primarily for point-and-shoot operation, it’s supplemented with a set of basic manual overrides called ‘Live Guides’. These are accessed via a touch tab in the monitor’s display and provide a small degree of control over the colour saturation, colour balance, brightness, background blur and the blurring/freezing of moving subjects. These adjustments are applied via touch-operated slider-type controls.

Olympus PEN-F

Make It Your Own
The scope for customising the PEN-F’s controls is also extensive – warrantying a whole chapter of the Custom Menu – and can be performed mode by mode for dials, function by function for the buttons. Likewise the displays which can also be varied depending on the shooting mode – i.e. ‘PASM’, ‘iAUTO’ or the scene modes. Then you can individually configure the live view elements, image replay/review screens and thumbnail pages. Olympus adopts an ‘opt in’ approach to this so, if you want everything with everything, you’re going to be doing a lot of box ticking. Of course, the good news is that you only have to do this once and, alternatively, there is the option of being more selective. Two custom set-ups are available for the live view screen and the selectable components include a real-time histogram, dual-axis level display and highlight/shadow warnings. The highlight and shadow warnings have adjustable thresholds and the real-time histogram includes an internal section – displayed in green – which shows the brightness values within the selected focusing point or cluster of points. There’s also a choice of five guide grids.

The review/replay screens can be configured to include a thumbnail image with a full set of histograms (i.e. brightness and RGB channels), a larger brightness histogram superimposed over the image, highlight and shadow warnings and a ‘Light Box’ display for the side-by-side comparison of two images (complete with zooming which is very handy). The thumbnail pages comprise four, nine, 25 or 100 images plus a calendar display. Touch controls are available for browsing, zooming and scrolling through the thumbnails. The in-camera editing functions remain the same as before and comprise Shadow Adjust, Red-Eye Fix, Aspect, B&W, Sepia, Saturation, Trimming Resize and e-Portrait. In-camera RAW-to-JPEG conversion is also available.

Speed And Performance
In the light of the continued increase in camera speeds and data handling capabilities (including 4K video), we’ve again upgraded our reference memory card which is now Lexar’s 128 GB SDXC UHS-II/U3 (Speed Class 3) Professional device which is tagged ‘2000x’, meaning it has a data read transfer speed of 300 MB/second and a writing speed of 260 MB/second. This is the fastest 128 GB UHS-II card on the planet at the moment (and comes with its own dedicated reader) so it’s going to cope with whatever data-crunching demands we throw at it.

Thus armed, the PEN-F captured a sequence of 39 JPEG/large/super fine files in 3.651 seconds which represents a shooting speed of 10.7 fps, a little better than Olympus’s quoted spec. The average file size in this test sequence was MB. The hike in the resolution versus the OM-D system cameras is reasonably significant (well, it represents a 25 percent increase) so detailing is enhanced as well as its definition. The absence of an anti-aliasing (or low-pass) filter helps here too, albeit with the risk of encountering moiré patterns with some  subjects, most notably fabrics. The colour reproduction is excellent across the spectrum, but obviously only serves as a starting point for the myriad of adjustments available via the ‘Picture Modes’, the ‘Colour Creator’ and the customised colour profiles. And now there’s rather more control over the look of B&W images as well, including the granularity and tonal range as well as sharpness and contrast. With a bit of practice, it’s possible to recreate a convincing representation of a classic B&W film negative.

Noise is very well controlled up to ISO 1600 and still not a significant issue at either ISO 3200 or 6400 where some graininess starts to become evident, but overall the colour saturation and definition remain pretty good. The dynamic range is also extremely good without making any adjustments, further evidence that the MFT size sensor can be made to work as well as the larger format types… even with the slight reduction in pixel size that’s enabled the increase in the PEN-F’s resolution... achieved without any significant compromises.

The Verdict
Here’s a Digital PEN model that’s as desirable as any OM-D. OK, so the PEN-F’s premium pricing puts it in the same league as the top-of-the-line E-M1 which boasts, among other things, a weather-sealed bodyshell, the convenience of a centralised EVF and the performance benefits of a hybrid autofocusing system, but it’s still got plenty going for it as a realistic alternative. While the E-M1 is arguably more of a workhorse, the PEN-F is all about having some fun with your photography.

It still delivers on a technical level, of course, but the more overtly retro styling is really all about appearances – although the functionality is very good – while the extra in-camera tweaks for JPEGs are all about creativity over practicality… so just let your hair down and have a play. In practice though, the ‘Creative Dial’ isn’t nearly as gimmicky as you might first suppose and actually becomes a bit addictive… especially for B&W. And it really makes sense to experiment with these elements while actually shooting rather than applying them as an afterthought (which, of course, you can still do if you also capture a ‘straight’ shot). However, in the end, the premium price ensures that the PEN-F is a buying decision made from the heart rather than the head (the oh-so-similar Panasonic GX8 is quite a bit cheaper), but nevertheless it’s still a purchase that won’t disappoint.

This is a camera that you simply don’t want to put down.

Olympus PEN-F

Price: $1799 body only.
$1999 with M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f1.8 prime lens.

Dimensions (WxHxD): body only = 124.8x72.1x37.3 mm.
Weight: body only = 373 grams (without 
battery pack and memory card).