Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Olympus PEN-F Review

Image © Olympus America


Background

I love camera gear.  No shame in that, as there has always been a love affair with technology.  Today, lets explore the world of the Olympus PEN-F and see what makes it special, where it is deficient, and my general thoughts about it.

Handling/Weight/Size

The PEN-F is a rangefinder styled camera.   The OMD series is more like the SLR style.  One of the physical characteristics that sets this camera apart from the other PEN cameras is the built in electronic viewfinder.  It is not in the middle, but off to the left top side.

Image © Olympus America
As you can see from the image above, there is a fully articulated screen here.  I'm not going to get into the specifics of that in this review, as it seems to be a very polarizing issue.  After using an articulating screen for some time now, I can say that I do appreciate the ability to move the rear LCD for different camera angles.

While we are viewing the back of the camera, you'll notice the right hand side is home to a few function buttons.  After a while of use, I am happy to report that the bottom right hand buttons have never been accidentally pressed by me during use.

There is a rear wheel as well for controlling camera functions. We'll get into more detail about the dials in a minute when we look at the top of the camera.

You'll notice that there are quite a few functions marked on the d-pad.  I immediately remapped those and the d-pad is now exclusively used for selecting AF points.

The other functions marked on the d-pad I access via the Super Control panel, which is accessed by pressing the "OK" button when in shooting mode.  I've mapped the Fn1 button (see top right of the image above) to the "AF home" button.

I find that the controls and layout feel very natural.

Image © Olympus America
The top gives us a look at the other controls.  One the mode dial you get the aperture/shutter/manual/program modes, iAuto and movie mode.  What is different from other Olympus cameras up until the PEN-F is the inclusion of custom mode slots for 4 different setups.  The mode dial also has a clickable lock/unlock button on it to prevent accidental shifting.

The shutter release button is surrounded by the front control dial and that black dot you see is for a threaded cable release.

Next to that is the movie record button.  It is also surrounded by a hard ridge to prevent accidentally activating the movie mode.

A dedicated exposure compensation dial is also featured to the far right.   The detents on it are very rigid, so you will not be bumping this around accidentally.

The power switch is set to the left and looks much like a dial.   Very quick to go from off to on and back with the left hand.

The PEN-F does not have a grip on the front and a very small indentation on the back.  Some people don't like that, so there are Olympus and third party add on grip options to give your front fingers something to grip on to.

I don't mind it, but I do throw on a small wrist strap just for a little added security.

The PEN-F takes to adapted and manual focus lenses quite well.  I've used it with many Nikon F-mount lenses to native mount manual lenses.  Focus peaking works great.  I set peaking to yellow color with low intensity.  I then map the peaking function to the front "DOF preview" button.

1/2500, f/3.2, ISO 200 Olympus 75mm f/1.8
Below, I'll share with you the setup I shoot with on an everyday basis

The everyday mode for single point AF stuff.
Sharpness -1
Contrast +1
S-AF
i-Natural picture profile
Single Servo
4:3 aspect ratio
Large SuperFine JPG

The settings I use for the MONO section on the front dial:
mono profile 1
monochrome color = none
film grain effect = off
Sharpness -1
Contrast +1
S-AF
Single Servo
1:1 aspect ratio
color filter = none
highlight curve -4
shadow curve -3
midtone curve -3
vignette = 0

Large SuperFine JPG + RAW(so I have the ability to get a color version if I so desire)

Much easier to access than going into a menu and picking a MySet or remapping existing dial options.

While we are on the subject of MySets - those are technically gone.  Instead, you map the C1 through C3 dials; menu options for setting and retrieving are a lot less confusing.  The menu names have been renamed, so you know when you are saving the settings or retrieving them.  You still cannot name the presets, but that is less of an issue since they have their own dedicated place on the dial.

1/125, f/4, ISO 1000 - Nikon 105mm f/2.5 AI Fotodiox adapter


Special PEN-F Feature - The Front Dial

This is the one stand out feature on the PEN-F that has a lot of people talking.  The front dial gives you access to some special features for how you want your JPG images to look.

MONO - black and white mode, with some presets and a customizable slot for you to setup the output how you like.   And when I say customizable, I mean it!  You can control all points of the tone curve, add a color filter to change the B&W conversion characteristics, the level of vignetting as well as the amount of grain that gets applied to the file.  The exposure features are accessed via a switch on the rear of the camera that sits under the mode dial.  The other functions are accessed via the SCP.

COLOR - this mode is similar to the MONO mode, but deals in how the color response is handled.  Again, just about anything can be customized.  You can control the overall color saturation response or isolate it to a specific channel of colors.  The tone curve is customizable here as well.

ART - your art modes that were historically found on the mode dial.  Same here as you'd find on other Olympus cameras.

CRT - is the color creator mode that can be found on older Olympus cameras

Some people have mentioned that the front dial digs into their fingers and is uncomfortable.  The metal dial does have some texture to it, so I can see where that might be an issue.  However, I have large hands and I've never had an issue with rubbing my hand on the dial.  I believe this is an issue with how the camera is being held more than anything.

I ran into this issue when I first bough the Nikon Df.  Because of the body style and the grip (or lack there of on the PEN-F), you need to hold the camera differently.  My thinking is that this different grip style is why I don't have issues with the front dial.

I love having this feature and use the MONO mode with a custom setup quite a bit.  When I do, I have the camera setup to shoot SuperFineJPG+RAW, so I get the best of all world.

1/2500, f/4, ISO 200 - Mitakon Speedmaster 25mm f/0.95

Image Quality

The sensor is of the 20mp Sony variety.  There is no anti aliasing filter.  I'm getting excellent image quality out of this camera.  The previous sensors were 16mp, so not much of a boost.  However, if you look at what you are getting, which is more mp with a boost in IQ, low light performance and dynamic range - you are getting something better.

I've honestly had very little issues with the IQ I got from the older Panasonic/Sony 16mp sensors - so I'm happy.  So long as we keep moving forward, no matter how little and not backward.

1/1600, f/2.8, ISO 200 - Olympus 25mm f/1.8

1/400, f/9, ISO 200 - Panasonic 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6


Auto Focus

Point to point single AF is where this camera is most powerful.  It is quick and fast, everything that you've come to expect and appreciate from the Olympus brand m43 cameras.

You get large and small single points as well as some group points.  I'm shooting with single point small AF.

Continuous AF.  Yeah....if you've done any homework and looked at the Olympus C-AF, you'll already be aware that the contrast detect only cameras are not very well regarded.  If you need tracking, you'll want to get an EM1 Mark I or Mark II that have sensors with PDAF.

My Dog Ren
1/40, f/2.5, ISO 6400 - Nikon 105mm f/2.5 AI  Fotodiox adapter


Battery Life

What you'd expect from the BLN-1 battery.  You can find the standards, which I think list it around 350 shots per charge.  In real life use, you will get more than that if you exercise good mirrorless camera power management.

Keep the camera off until you need it.
Don't chimp unless you need to.
Have the EVF power off after a few seconds.

Those kinds of things will help tremendously.

1/320, f/4, ISO 200 - Nikon 105mm f/2.5 AI  Fotodiox adapter


Video

Nothing really special here.  An adequate 1080p offering from Olympus.  Having the IBIS is nice, but to be honest, the video is here for the spec sheet as I'm guessing that most who want the PEN-F are not getting it for the video features.  There is also no audio input for external microphones, so if that is something you need, use an eternal recorder and sync in post.

Good for grabbing the occasional family videos, but if you want to do something more serious in the m43 ecosystem in video, look to the Olympus OMD EM5.2 or EM1.2 for that.   On the Panasonic side, look to the GH4/GH5.
1/100, f/3.5, ISO 250 - Nikon 55mm f/3.5 Micro  Fotodiox adapter


Other Misc. Items of Note

Shutter Sound:
The shutter sound is quite, plus you get the all electronic shutter modes.  Quite is good.

Size Comparison:
The camera is very thin, candy bar shaped.  If you throw a pancake prime or zoom on there you have something that can fit in a jacket pocket.  Very portable.  I've had people mistake it for a film camera quite a bit, just like the Nikon Df.

High Res Mode:
Also available here, slightly larger with the newer sensor.  50mp RAW files.  You still need to use a tripod with a still subject, but if you have a use case for it, quite a nice feature to have at your disposal.

1/125, f/4, ISO 200 - Mitakon Creator 85mm f/2
Firmware:
The big thing with the newer camera technologies is being able to enhance and upgrade the bodies and lenses via firmware updates.  While I can see the benefits of this, it can also be a curse.  Upgrading from version 1.0 to 1.1 proved to be an uneventful affair.  However, upgrading from version 1.1 to 2.0 has proved to be problematic.  The camera presents issues with the EVF/LCD going black and the camera locking up. The only way of  resolving this is to pull the battery and reinsert.  Olympus acknowledged this and issued another firmware some weeks later, but even version 2.1 did not fully resolve the issue. While the frequency of the lockups was reduced, and when it does lock up, the power switch will reset the condition....there is still an issue there. Once this issue is fully resolved, I will update this post with that information at that time.

Bottom Line:
While this may not be the camera for everyone and the price tag might be off putting - one cannot deny that Olympus has provided a very capable camera body.

In many ways this is the mirrorless equivalent to the Nikon Df for me.  It just feels right, makes me want to get out and shoot pictures with it.  If I did not shoot professionally, I could see me living happily with the Nikon Df and the Olympus PEN-F as my everyday shooters and companions.

1/200, f/8, ISO 200 - Olympus 9-18mm f/4-5.6 - hi-res mode
There is just something very bonding about a camera with actual dials and performance that lets you shoot and think about subject and composition versus technical details.
This is how I felt about the Fuji X system when I had it years ago.

I'm just glad to see that the camera companies are listening and providing cameras like this.  I understand that this is not the direction they want to go, but there is a market out there for this kind of camera.

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