Introduction and features
Olympus has two lines of Micro Four Thirds compact system camera (CSC); PEN and OM-D, with the OM-D series being the more ‘serious’ of the pair and aimed at enthusiast photographers. Both ranges have a distinct retro style with the OM-D cameras resembling traditional SLRs and the PEN models having a more rectangular shape like the 1960’s series of Olympus PEN film cameras.
The PEN-F comes in at the top of the current PEN line-up and has a 20 million pixel Four Thirds type sensor – 4million more pixels than previous PEN models like the E-PL7 and E-P5.
Until now, one of the most distinguishing features between the two lines has been that the OM-D cameras have a viewfinder built-in whereas the PEN models don’t. The PEN-F changes that, having an OLED electronic viewfinder with 2.36 million dots integrated into the body.
It’s a significant upgrade that makes it easier to compose images in bright sunlight. And because the camera is held against your face, it’s also usually held steadier when you’re looking into a viewfinder, which could result in sharper images. However, the PEN-F also has Olympus’s excellent 5-axis image stabilisation built-in and this is claimed to extend the safe hand-holding shutter speed by up to 5EV – that’s the difference between 1/500sec and 1/15sec. The stabilisation system also operates in video mode to help smooth some of the fine jitter that occurs when holding a camera.
Naturally, there’s also a screen on the back of the camera that can be used for composing and reviewing images. This is a 3-inch LCD with 1,037,000 dots and, as usual with Olympus CSCs, it’s touch-sensitive. More good news is that the screen is attached via an articulating bracket so it can be flipped out and angled up or down for easier viewing from high or low angles when shooting in upright or horizontal format. It can also be spun round for selfie shooting.
Olympus says the PEN-F is designed for spontaneous everyday street photography without a tripod, and to back this up it has a maximum continuous shooting speed of 10fps. However, if you want focus, exposure and white balance to adjust between shots you’ll have to drop the rate to 5fps. There’s also an 81-point autofocus system which, despite relying on a contrast detection system rather than the hybrid AF system in Olympus’s more advanced OM-D models, is claimed to offer the shortest lag between pressing the shutter button and taking the picture of any camera in its category (at the time of announcement on 27th January 2016).
Operational speed is aided by Olympus’s Eye Detect AF system and touch-panel point focusing. In a change to previous systems, Olympus has now locked the spot metering to the active autofocus point for more reliable spot metering, and manual focus is made easier with a focus peaking option – this outlines edges within a scene when they peak in contrast and are therefore in focus.
With these speed credentials in mind it may seem odd to some that the new camera also has the High Res Shot mode first seen on the OM-D E-M5 Mark II, which is a ‘tripod-only’ feature. This clever system makes use of the PEN-F’s stabilisation system to shift the sensor by half a pixel at a time between shots as it captures eight 20Mp images in a sequence. These files are then merged into a single high-resolution image. With the E-M5 II it delivers 40Mp JPEG images or 64Mp raw files, but on the PEN-F the JPEG image size has been increased to 50 million pixels while the raw files are a whopping 80.6Mp.
It’s worth bearing in mind the exposure limitations when using High-Res Shot mode – the maximum shutter speed available is 8 seconds while the minimum aperture is f/8 and the highest available sensitivity setting is ISO 1600.
There’s no 4K video option, but the PEN-F can shoot Full HD (1920 x 1080) at a range of frame rates, including 60p, 50p, 30p, 25p, 24p. Keen videographers will be disappointed to learn that there’s no microphone or headphone port for better in-camera sound recording and monitoring. Those who are new to video, however, may appreciate Olympus’s My Clips feature that makes it easy to record short clips of video that can be arranged in-camera and exported to the memory card with (slightly cheesy) backing music.
Other features without which no Olympus CSC would be complete include a collection of 28 Art Filters and Wi-Fi connectivity. It’s possible to customise some of these filter effects by adding a frame or vignette and you can shoot bracketed sequences so you have a collection of images with different effects applied. Helpfully, it’s possible to shoot raw and JPEG images simultaneously when using the Art Filters so that you have a ‘clean’ file for post capture editing.
Building and handling
Rather than adopting the SLR styling of the OM-D series, Olympus has stuck with the more rectangular shape of the PEN series and gone for a more rangefinder style for the PEN-F. Consequently the viewfinder is in the top left corner of the camera as you hold it for use – as with the Fuji X-E2S and X-Pro2.
The PEN-F’s retro design isn’t limited to its appearance, it also has the type of build that makes photographers smile and get a bit misty-eyed when they pick it up – solid and made from metal. The milled metal dials speak of quality, each feeling good under your finger, rotating smoothly and clicking satisfyingly into position. The buttons on the back of the camera, however, are a bit more run-of-the-mill, adopting the rather small, plastic form that draws some criticism of the Olympus PEN and OM-D range. Nevertheless, they do their job and the camera responds quickly to their use.
In keeping with the original 1960s design of the PEN series, there’s no grip on the front of the PEN-F. Thankfully there is a small, but very effective thumbgrip on the back, which helps keep the camera steady in your hand. Given the weighty density of the PEN-F I attached a wrist strap (a Peak Design Cuff, to be specific) to keep it safe during this test. It didn’t actually slip out of my grasp at any point, but I felt the need for a little extra security.
On the front of the camera is a distinctive new Creative Dial which gives a route to the Art Filters and Color Creator (to specify saturation and color cast) as well as the new Monochrome Profile Control and Colour Profile Control. The Monochrome Profile Control enables one of eight black and white filter effects to be applied at three different strengths. Meanwhile, the Colour Profile options gives a bit more control than the Color Creator (CRT) and allows the saturation of 12 colours to be adjusted individually or together across 11 steps (-5 to +5).
Once the desired settings have selected for each of the Creative Dial modes, rotating the dial switches the camera to that option. It provides a quick means of shooting JPEGs with different effects applied and can be used in conjunction with the sprung switch/dial that gives a route to the Shadow and Highlight control, so if you want to use the Pin Hole II Art Filter, then switch to shooting low saturation, high contrast colour images and then monochrome images with a red filter effect, for example, you can.
When the Creative Dial is in the ‘neutral’ position JPEGs are saved with the selected Picture Mode (I-Enhance, Vivid, Natural etc). Whatever position the dial is in, the desired creative option can be set either via the Super Control Panel activated by pressing the OK button or the main menu. While it’s great to have plenty of flexibility, there are so many opportunities to customise the appearance of JPEG images it can be confusing at first.
On the top-plate there’s another new dial for an Olympus camera, an exposure compensation dial offering settings in the range -/+3EV. It’s conveniently placed for making adjustments with your thumb when looking through the viewfinder and has enough tension to not rotate accidentally on a frequent basis.
There are still some photographers that remain to be convinced about electronic viewfinders, but they have improved a lot over the last couple of years or so. The 2.36 million dot unit in the PEN-F is very good, showing lots of detail in most shooting situations. It also has a high refresh rate so you can pan with moving subjects without having to guess where the target is. In very low light there’s a little noise visible, but the image is generally very clear. On the rare occasions that you need to focus manually the automatic magnification and focus peaking options, which can be set to activate via the menu, are useful but you should expect to see more obvious noise in low light.
When the EVF Auto Luminance option was turned on in the menu, I found that the viewfinder sometimes showed scene as a little brighter than the recorded image which tricked me into underexposing. I recommend setting the EVF brightness manually.
The sensor next to the viewfinder is helpful, detecting when the camera is held to the eye and activating the EVF while turning off the screen. However, the sensor doesn’t operate when the screen is out to the side of the camera and you have to switch manually by pressing the Fn2 button which by default is dedicated to the job.
The 3-inch, 1,037,000-dot LCD on the back of the camera is also very good, responding quickly to a touch and displaying lots of detail. Once again it’s a shame that it’s not possible to make main menu selections and adjustments using touch control, but it is possible with the Super Control Panel.
When the AF Targeting Pad option is set to ‘On’ in the menu you can set the active AF point by dragging a finger or thumb around the screen. Left eye users need to beware of setting the AF point with their nose. Unfortunately it’s not possible to set the AF point via the screen when the screen is swung out to the side of the camera.
On the whole the PEN-F is enjoyable to use but it has some of the quirks that we’ve seen with other Olympus cameras. For example, it’s sometimes necessary to turn the camera of and on again to get the electronic level to activate when the appropriate button is pressed.
The PEN-F ‘s sensor has 20.3 effective pixels, which is approximately 25% more than on any other current Olympus PEN or OM-D camera. As our lab tests reveal, in comparison with the PEN E-M10, that increase in pixel count brings a significant hike in the amount of detail in images at lower sensitivity settings. However, above ISO 3200 the level of detail in PEN-F images is a little lower than in the E-M10’s shots. This is likely to be because the photoreceptors (pixels) are smaller on the new sensor, resulting in a weaker image signal and more noise.
This supposition is confirmed by our signal to noise ratio measurement as the PEN-F’s raw file scores are a little lower than the E-M10’s. Interestingly, the JPEG scores are similar..
Despite the difference in the raw signal to noise ratio scores, noise is controlled well for most of the PEN-F’s sensitivity range. As usual, in the default noise reduction setting you can expect to see some fine details being lost from JPEGs at the upper sensitivity settings. Nevertheless ISO 6400 images (raw and JPEG) look good at A3 size. Above this setting the camera starts to struggle a bit with reds, making them too saturated and vibrant, and the details in JPEGs become more painterly in appearance at 100% on screen.
• Despite the relatively low light, low contrast and netting, the PEN-F’s autofocus system was able to get this moving subject sharp. Click here for a full size version.
• Using I-Enhance Picture Mode has helped to produce a nice vibrant image here. Click here for a full size version.
• Despite using the Self-Timer with Anti-Shock enabled, at 100% the details of this flower don’t look super-sharp, but there’s enough detail to make huge prints with High Res Shot mode enabled. Click here for a full size version.
At the same scale, mid to high sensitivity raw files look a little sharper and have a bit more detail than simultaneously captured JPEGs, but there’s also a slight increase in texture. Drop down to more standard viewing sizes, however and there’s not much difference in the their level of noise or detail.
In real world shooting situations the PEN-F produces attractive images that have a good level of detail. At 100% JPEGs lack the ‘bite’ or sharpness of files from some other cameras, but they look good when sized to make prints.
Switching to the High-Res Shot mode slows shooting down considerably, with each image taking around 9 seconds or more to process and clear the buffer, but the results are very impressive and detail levels increased markedly, enabling much bigger prints to be made. At 300ppi the standard 20Mp images measure 43.89 x 32.92cm (27.2 x 20.4 inches) while the 50Mp JPEGs measure 69.09 x 51.82cm (27.2 x 20.4 inches), the 80Mp raw files are even bigger at 87.78 x 65.84cm (34.56 x 25.92 inches) – that’s bigger than A1 size!
As we found with the OM-D E-M5 Mark II, however, High-Res Shot mode cannot be used with moving subjects and the camera must be kept absolutely still, ideally on a tripod. The need to avoid moving subjects rules out using this mode for landscapes with moving foliage or water, unless you use longer exposures – although remember the maximum is 8 seconds and the smallest aperture available is f/8. It’s also essential to use Self-Timer with Anti-Shock enabled to get the best from the sensor.
There seem to be an almost infinite number of ways to tweak the colour of JPEGs to suit your preferences, so if you don’t like the results from the PEN-F you probably just need to find the right setting. The Natural Picture Mode makes a good starting point and produces natural, if slightly muted colours and contrast. If you want a bit more punch, switch to the Vivid or I-Enhance mode.
• Landscape – JPEG version. Click here for a full size image.
• Landscape – raw version (converted to JPEG for display). At 100% on-screen the raw version of this image shot at ISO 200 has a tiny bit more micro contrast than the simultaneously captured JPEG. Click here for a full size version.
• The Dramatic Tone II Art Filter can produce some attractive high-contrast images. Click here for a full size version.
Although the PEN-F has a contrast detection system rather than a hybrid one that combines contrast detection with a phase system, it’s fast and accurate in many situations. It works well in quite low light – for example, indoors on a dull day – but you can expect a bit of hunting as contrast levels drop.
Provided that you keep the active AF point over the subject it’s also pretty good at keeping moving subjects sharp in continuous AF mode. The Tracking AF mode is a bit more hit-and-miss, it sticks with some subjects, following them around the frame but often seems too lose interest and wander off the main target. It doesn’t necessarily jump onto other high contrast objects, it can drift from the target almost at random
While the face and eye detection modes can be useful when you’re shooting portraits, when they’re activated the camera assumes that any face in the scene is the main subject and it overrides your point selection. I preferred to turn face detection (or Face Priority AF as Olympus calls it) off for the majority of my shooting.
Olympus’s stabilisation system is well regarded and it doesn’t disappoint in the PEN-F. When shooting with the popular 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 EZ ED MSC lens at 50mm, which equates to 100mm in full-frame terms, I found I was able to get a high hit rate at 1/6sec, producing close-range images that look acceptable at 100%. That’s a compensation factor of around 4EV.
Lab tests: Resolution
We measure resolution using an industry-standard test chart photographed in laboratory conditions. We take test shots across a wide ISO range and shooting both JPEG and raw images.
We also compare the camera’s lab test data with the test results of three of its main rivals. For the PEN-F we’ve chosen the following three cameras:
- Olympus OM-D E-M10 II: The enhanced version of Olympus’s entry-level DSLR-style camera has the older 16-megapixel sensor but offers great value for money.
- Panasonic GX8: This is the first Panasonic CSC to use the new 20-megapixel Four Thirds sensor and, like the PEN-F, is a rangefinder-style camera aimed at discerning enthusiasts.
- Fuji X-E2S: The Fuji has a larger APS-C sized X-trans sensor than the others, but it otherwise aimed at a similar audience, with a retro-themed rangefinder-style body.
JPEG resolution analysis: The PEN-F’s 20-megapixel sensor gives it a useful boost in resolution over the 16-megapixel E-M10 II, and both beat the Fuji X-E2S up to around ISO 1600. The Panasonic GX8, however, is the best of the lot from ISO 800 onwards, right up until ISO 6400, where the Fuji X-E2S catches up.
Raw (converted to TIFF) resolution analysis: The raw resolution figures are much closer, and although it’s difficult to pick at clear winner, the PEN-F is consistently at or near the top.
Lab tests: Dynamic range
This is a measure of the camera’s ability to capture a wide range of brightness levels without losing detail in shadow or highlight areas. It’s tested in laboratory conditions using DxO Analyzer hardware and software. Measurements are quoted in EV (exposure values), and the higher the value, the better the dynamic range.
JPEG dynamic range analysis: In the Natural Picture Mode the PEN-F compares well for dynamic range and JPEG images have a wide range of tones, though they can look a little flat.
Raw (converted to TIFF) dynamic range analysis: The PEN-F’s raw files are quite similar to the JPEGs and to those from the E-M10 II. Neither can match the Panasonic GX8’s results, though.
Lab tests: Signal to noise ratio
This is a measure of the random digital noise in a photo compared to real image data. The higher the signal to noise ratio the better. We test this in laboratory conditions using DxO Analyzer.
JPEG signal to noise ratio analysis: At the lowest sensitivity setting the PEN-F achieves the joint highest score here, indicating that images have a good level of detail and low noise. The score stays comparatively high through the sensitivity range though eclipsed slightly by rival cameras.
Raw (converted to TIFF) signal to noise ratio analysis: Although the PEN-F score well, it can’t match the heights of the Panasonic GX8’s scores. Unlike the JPEG scores, at higher sensitivity settings the results for the converted raw files in High Res Shot mode are better than the standard mode’s.
Lab tests: High Res Shot mode
We carried out our usual suite of tests on the Olympus PEN-F using its innovative High Res Shot mode and compared the results with the camera’s regular image capture. The results were very interesting!
High Res Shot mode resolution analysis: The increase in resolution yielded by the High Res Shot mode for both JPEG and raw files is dramatic. The situations where you can use this mode may be limited, but it delivers the kind of definition we’ve seen only rarely – from medium format cameras and the full frame Canon EOS 5DS and Sony A7R II.
High Res Shot mode dynamic range analysis: The dynamic range figures show that, within the limits of experimental error, the High Res Shot mode has no impact whatsoever on dynamic range.
High Res Shot mode signal to noise ratio analysis: There are interesting variations in the signal to noise ratio figures. With JPEGs, the High Res Shot mode produces a little more noise (the signal to noise ratio is lower), but with raw files the results are actually a little better.
The PEN-F is the first Olympus Micro Four Thirds compact system or mirrorless system camera to have a sensor with 20 million pixels. This means it offers a 25% increase in pixel count over other recent Olympus cameras. While this has a slight negative impact upon the level of noise in our lab images, in real world shooting situations noise is controlled well for most of the camera’s sensitivity range. Images also have a good level of detail, significantly more than those from the 16Mp OM-D E-M10, for example.
There’s also the impressive High Res Shot mode that produces 80Mp raw files that are suitable for making prints far bigger than a desktop printer can handle.
While the PEN-F looks at home amongst other PEN cameras, it has a key feature that until now Olympus has reserved for its OM-D models – a built-in viewfinder. Unlike with the OM-D series, this is located in the top-left corner of the PEN-F body giving it a rangefinder-like design rather than the SLR shape of the OM-Ds.
The PEN-F feels great and the collection of buttons and dials along with the touch-screen allow settings changes to be made quickly and easily. The electronic viewfinder is a high quality device that displays enough detail to allow manual focusing on the rare occasions that the excellent autofocus system doesn’t get the subject sharp.
The Creative Dial on the front of the camera provides a convenient way of switching from one JPEG treatment effect to another.
Having a vari-angle screen is a bonus when you want to shoot above or below eye-level and the PEN-F’s provides a nice clear view. It also responds promptly to a tap and can be used to set AF point or trip the shutter.
While the PEN-F’s top-plate dials are well made and chunky, making them nice to use, the buttons on the back of the camera are rather small and fiddly. This is the same with other Olympus CSCs and while many people have no problem with them, some of those wishing to downsize from a bulky SLR may find they take a bit of adapting to.
It’s a shame that Olympus hasn’t extended the PEN-F screen’s touch-control to the main menu system as this would reduce the need to use the small navigation buttons. It would also be handy if the eye sensor continued to operate when the screen is flipped out the side of the camera to make it quicker to switch from using the screen to using the viewfinder. Likewise, some left-eye shooters may wish that the AF Targeting Pad would operate when the screen is flipped out.
There are also a couple of bugs that need to be ironed out, for example, some settings reset when the battery is removed and the Info button doesn’t always toggle through the full range of on-screen options.
High Res Shot mode is excellent, but some of its limitations need to be lifted for it to really rock. A maximum aperture of f/8, for example, is a problem for many landscape photographers and the need for tripod and a stationary subject could be problematic for portrait photographers.
The PEN-F is an excellent camera with bags of features and lots of scope for customisation of both the controls and the appearance of the images it produces. It may take you a while to work through the various options and optimise it for the way you want to shoot, but it’s worth taking the time to explore and experiment.
One issue with the PEN-F is that it muddies the water between the PEN and OM-D series. It is an attractive option for enthusiast photographers who have been the target audience for the OM-D models, however, in the UK and Australia its launch price is more than the street price of any of these cameras – including the top-end OM-D E-M1. In the US the PEN-F costs much more than the OM-D E-M10 II and E-M5 II, and about the same as the E-M1.
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