After being limited to 16MP for nearly four years, we now have a marginal increase in resolution – to 20MP, matching the Panasonic GX8 announced last year (and quite possibly sharing the same sensor, too). The PEN F is another retro-tastic design clearly inspired by the original film half-frame PEN F, right down to the knob on the front vertical face of the camera. It is also yet another subdivision of a niche by Olympus of its EVF cameras – we have the photo-centric E-M1, the video-centric E-M5II, the budget-centric E-M10II, and now the PEN F. One thing that struck me throughout the test period was that the camera really feels as though it’s geared towards the JPEG shooter (or, more likely, the social media crowd). It’s the first all-new ‘serious’ camera from Olympus in a couple of years – so how does it perform?
Thank you to Olympus Malaysia for the loan. Note that all images were processed in Olympus Raw Viewer 3, and then run through my usual photoshop workflow; as such it’s difficult for me to make objective and comparative statements about image quality as this is not my normal workflow and one cannot compare it to other cameras easily. What I can do for now is assess how this particular workflow performs, and that’s what I’ll be doing later. Additional images will be posted to this flickr gallery.
Under the hood, the PEN F will be familiar to shooters of recent Olympus cameras. It has pretty much the same menu system, the same high degree of customizability, the same selection of drive modes (various combinations of electronic front/rear/mechanical shutters, high resolution sensor shift mode) and possible button assignments. It even has the same unergonomic lug placement that will dig the bit between your index and middle fingers if you choose to use the supplied D rings. The body is of a high quality, with metal that looks and feels like metal, and no creaks or rattles. I can’t help but feel the chrome would be interesting if offset with something other than black leather, and no doubt third parties will offer that option in short order. Unfortunately, despite the solidness of the construction, the body is not weather sealed at all – there are no visible gaskets on any of the port or compartment covers, so you would be well advised to keep it away from rain.
There are no fewer than six metal dials on the camera’s top plate – one for power in the top left that could be a little stiffer to avoid accidental operation; a lockable mode dial with four fully customisable positions, two command dials, one of which is around the threaded shutter, and new for Olympus: a permanent exposure compensation dial, plus a profile/filter knob. It took me a bit of time to get used to the hard exposure compensation because I’m used to having the other Olympus cameras set up for quick compensation on the front command dial, with aperture setting on the rear; this way you can quickly change shooting parameters without moving your hand position much. Now the thumb has to do double duty, or you have to have to retrain your muscle memory. It would be nice to retain the soft exposure compensation option too like the Sony A7 series cameras. The filter/profile knob on the front allows you to quickly select postprocessing options – the usual filters; color/hue shifts; color profiling; monochrome profiling, and none.
Coupled with the tone curve lever under the mode dial (which moves both ways, but oddly has the same function in both directions) it’s fairly easy to control your JPEG output to taste; you cannot make local adjustments, of course, but this is probably the highest degree of in-camera processing customisation offered by any manufacturer at the moment. I don’t think the UI is quite right – you have to change some settings on the front knob, some settings with the back lever, and others in the menus – but the intentions are good for the majority of users. More time spent shooting is better than more time spent in front of a computer (assuming you set up the camera once or twice and don’t make any major changes thereafter, which is probably what most people will do).
But notice how I said JPEG: none of this stuff makes any difference to the raw shooter, unless you use Olympus’ proprietary software to do your conversions (which recognises those adjustments, but makes a JPEG identical to the out of camera one). For the serious photographer who post processes out of camera, nothing changes other than the front knob’s somewhat rough texture digging into your third finger.
Ergonomically, I find the camera to be fairly comfortable with the exception of the strap lug placement (as normal) and that front dial; the rest is better than the SLR-like E-M1 and E-M5 in some ways since your nose no longer mashes into the LCD, and the whole camera’s profile is a bit more easily packable. I did find the positioning of the eye sensor (behind the eyecup) to be less than optimal – as a spectacles wearer, it would often fail to register and switch unless my eye was mashed right up to the viewfinder window (but still a good 10mm away from the sensor itself). You do lose the front grip, and the smooth front doesn’t balance so well with larger/heavier lenses like the 12-40 unless you spring for the optional grip attachment. I’d get it anyway since it has a built in Arca rail and doesn’t add much bulk, but considerably improves handling. One note: the optional grip limits how far the card/battery door can open, and this can make extracting SD cards tricky. Despite being quite small, the camera is not light: solid is a better description. It is as heavy as the metal bits would have you believe.
All the tactility in the world will not save poor image quality, though – and at this stage, it’s actually impossible for me to assess because there is no ACR support for the camera. Though I shot RAW, I had to do the conversions using Olympus’ own software; learning a new workflow means you are almost certainly not getting maximum image quality from the hardware. On top of that, the output looks very much like a SOOC JPEG: I did not see any of the additional detail I was expecting, and there were clear processing artefacts that looked like noise reduction and/or sharpening were being applied (despite all of the controllable options set to ‘off’). I suspect this is strictly a software artefact rather than something that’s baked into the files, as I’ve seen similar behaviour in the past with E-M5II and E-M1 files that did not show up when switching to an ACR conversion.
Similarly, being unfamiliar with the way in which the software performed shadow and highlight recovery (and noise reduction) makes it impossible for me to determine exactly how much dynamic range this sensor has. I get the feeling it’s similar to the previous 16MP unit, if not slightly better. Highlights clip, but in single channels only – which means the chances of ACR being able to recover or interpolate more information are improved since there’s more data to extrapolate from. I’ll be interested to see what kind of results my normal workflow will yield. I suspect shadow noise is higher though, and shadow recovery will have to be done with care: both luminance and chroma are starting to show in areas that were subject to local dodging. Despite the software limitations however, it seems the RAW files converted normally to color in OV3 and then run through my normal monochrome workflow in ACR/PS yield black and whites with very nice tonality; this bodes well.
So, for the moment, I’d say the jury is temporarily out: I see potential in the files, but cannot quantify exactly how much just yet. Dynamic range looks to be no worse than the old sensor, though care has to be taken when recovering shadows as there is some strange desaturation going on – I don’t know if it’s Olympus Viewer’s conversion that’s doing it or something inherent to the hardware (to suppress chroma noise, perhaps). High ISO noise levels are similar, or perhaps slightly worse in the shadows – again, it’s hard to say for sure with an unfamiliar workflow. But based on what I can see at the moment, I’d call the limit 1600 for me. Lastly, with the electronic shutter options, shutter shock is definitely a thing of the past.
Speaking of resolution, the PEN F is also equipped with the sensor-shift high resolution stacking mode; it works the same way as the E-M5II and delivers 50MP JPEGs or approximately 80MP RAWs. Since the IBIS mechanism (5 axis, and works in concert with IS lenses like the new 300/4 to deliver even more stabilization) is required to move the sensor, you must be locked down on a tripod. On top of that, the tripod must be very sturdy: I had clear stitching artefacts in many of the test shot attempts (yes, all elements of the scene were static) – and I’m using an Arca Swiss Cube on a 5-series Gitzo, so it’s not exactly lightweight, either. Even then, there are often odd artefacts near edges that look like diagonal fabric texture; for the moment, I’ll chalk it down to software issues.
100% screenshot of the same test scene from a Hasselblad CFV-50C, PEN F HR JPEG, and PEN F HR RAW via Olympus Viewer 3. Full resolution here; comparison with PEN F downsized to match Hasselblad here; comparison with Hasselblad upsized to match PEN F here. All files have been optimally sharpened in PS – any more would start to show haloes.
I was curious to see just how much resolution is contained within those files – at 80MP, we’re supposedly challenging the best of the medium format stable; I don’t think there’s really 80MP of information there as acuity is quite low. I compared it against a Hasselblad CFV-50C (50MP, 44x33mm CMOS), with the 4/50 lens and angle of view/magnification matched. Even so, I think you can see from the crops above, resolving power is very impressive for the sensor size, and there’s no question some aspects of image quality are better than the Hasselblad (moire, for instance). However, dynamic range, color accuracy (surprisingly), shadow noise, tonal rendition and acuity lag the bigger sensor. I also don’t see any areas in which the PEN F outresolves the Hasselblad, despite having a larger file. Still: a useful option to have, providing your subjects don’t move, you have continuous light, and an adequately stable tripod. And all the more impressive given the massive (6x, in practice) price difference between the two.
This is a pleasingly tactile camera. Dials and controls have the right ‘weight’ and fall to hand nicely. The rear touch screen can also be used to move the AF point when your eye is to the EVF – a very useful function I’ve come to appreciate on my D5500 (and no doubt Panasonic users have been enjoying for even longer). The fully articulated LCD is also useful for waist level and vertical shots. I came away from the shooting experience with a few strong impressions. Firstly, like pretty much all of the Olympus cameras of late, the camera does not make you wait. (Full electronic or mechanical shutter up to 11fps is nice, too.) It is responsive in all aspects of operation, (with the exception of high resolution mode – for obvious reasons of computational power). Secondly, it has far more customisation ability than you’ll need – you can set it up to taste, or just leave the buttons in their default settings. I’ve not used something this way for a while, and found that for the most part, I was happy with the default behaviour of the camera: factory settings were mostly sensible.
Thirdly, and most importantly, there’s a sort of ‘confidence of getting the shot’ which I have not had from the higher resolution beasts I normally use – Sony A7RII included – if focus looks good, it almost certainly is, and you’re probably not going to see camera shake unless shutter speeds are very, very marginal. If you couple this with the shadow/highlight indicator in live view, then you’re fairly certain of a usable image afterwards. This confidence is quite liberating, and means you don’t get distracted with chimping. I suppose it helped with battery life, too – I saw upwards of 600 shots on one charge, shooting singles. Note however that IBIS seemed slightly less effective than with the 16MP cameras: I suspect we may be starting to see the demands of increased resolution on the system.
All in all, I enjoyed shooting with the PEN F. It’s sized right, feels right, and responds well. The camera part just gets out of the way and lets you concentrate on shooting. Sure, the EVF feels a bit dated and grainy in comparison to the Leica SL, but for the most part, it’s good enough even in bright light. It doesn’t keep you waiting. Image quality appears to be good enough (subject to assessment via my normal ACR workflow) and overall, the camera represents a solid update to Olympus’ M4/3 offerings. I’m left hesitant on only two things: firstly, the price. This is not a cheap camera, and not only is it not a cheap camera, at this price, you have to start to give other options like the Sony A7II and Nikon D750 a serious look. Both of these cameras offer significantly higher image quality potential, too; though in practice, the image quality differential may be less than you’d expect because of the effectiveness of Olympus’ stabilisation and the size/ accessibility of small and fast lenses.
The other thing is the whole JPEG-centricness of the camera – it is clearly targeted at the social media crowd, from the design to the huge number of in-camera processing options. I have no objection to that, but it does mean there’s a lot of buttons and dials that are either not customisable to other more useful photographic functions, or compromise ergonomics. The biggest problem here is that the camera’s LCD isn’t really adequate for assessing how the final result will appear on a proper wide-gamut monitor, limiting the usefulness of in-camera processing to serious photographers. I’m all for anything that reduces the amount of time I have to spend in front of a computer screen, but I still don’t think we’re there yet – perhaps if the display were of the same quality as one of the better smartphones, and pre-calibrated. That said, I suppose it doesn’t matter for the target audience anyway. I actually think a stripped down version of the PEN F without these ‘extras’ would be quite a compelling photographer’s tool – in many ways, possibly fulfilling the simpler ethos of the Leica Q, but with interchangeable lenses. In the meantime, we can always ignore those buttons, I suppose. MT
The Olympus PEN F is available here from B&H and Amazon. Postprocessing was performed by batch converting the RAW files to approximate my usual ACR output in Olympus Viewer 3, then Photoshop Workflow II.
Prints from this series are available on request here
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