Olympus PEN-F Review

The camera I am going to write about is out of production and will very unlikely get an improved model, as Olympus declared a while ago — and yet I think it is worth writing about it, because this is a good camera — dare I say, a unique one — and because talking about it will let me address some other interesting topics. So, here we go.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I start this very long post with a quite long introduction!

Micro Four Thirds (I’ll refer to it as m43 from now on) was introduced in 2008 as the first mirrorless system and has become a very polarising topic since then. A huge part of the polarised posts and comments about it can be associated with the following profiles:

The hater is a person that feels the need for denigrating the system, comparing it to other systems he thinks are better. Usually to full frame, but even APS-C will do, if he is a Fuji fan. He enjoys pointing out the fact that bigger sensors have better depth of field / dynamic range / insert here other features. He usually produces no photography to back his statements, and that’s because he is likely not a photographer nor he is passionate about photography: he loves to fight for his champion. This medieval attitude still lives today: a person picks a football team, a political party, a gaming console, a mobile operating system, a camera brand or tech, and then he goes around fighting others to prove what he chose is the best — because it feels validating to see others are worse than him or simply made worse choices.

The apologist is quite often a (secretly or openly) sponsored person or some brand ambassador: for him, m43 is close to perfection, he is not really willing to talk about any real issue and if he does, he has to downplay it. He makes posts and videos touching all the required marketing points, adding some humor, maybe some sensationalism (“m43 is now comparable to full frame”, which sounds close to the “m43 is demolished by full frame” proposed by the hater: they are both hyperbolic ideologic claims). The goal of the apologist is often to have you click on some affiliate link, or to promote a product so he can get money or free gear or paid trips from the brand. Another common kind of apologist is just in love with a brand: he gets nothing from the brand nor he sells stuff: he just needs to think what he chose is the better. Again, like with the hater, he is just fighting for his champion as a mean to protect his ego.

These two profiles apply to all brands and systems of course. Just swap “m43” for something else. It may be Fuji or Apple or Real Madrid.

Lately the apologists and the haters started exploring a new battle field: the financial reports. So we have haters celebrating the idea that Olympus will soon close because their Imaging Division is failing, and apologists saying that everything is just fine, that bad reports are the norm, that they mean nothing in particular. YouTube Channels and photography forums shifted from pseudo-tech to pseudo-economics.

Just as most of the people fighting about which sensor tech or size is better know very few about semiconductors and physics, in the same way the ones fighting about economics know very few about market dynamics, mass production strategies and financial planning. And yet they all meet in a photography forum to fight about that!

As you may have guessed, I think photographers should have very few interest in financial reports. The ones obsessed with such topics and focusing on that are haters, apologists or simply someone that doesn’t care about photography per se but loves to argue about what surrounds modern digital photography.

The financial battle ground doesn’t make much sense to me. If m43 is good for you, your camera and lenses won’t disappear if and when Olympus will close down — and if m43 is good for you now, I can assure you it will be good for you for the next years. Think about the practical output of your cameras and lenses, which is a print or a screen. Printing technology is seeing no true revolution. Screen tech is bringing higher resolutions but they are still far below what modern m43 cameras can produce in terms of resolution. If High ISO performance is crucial for your photography, you should consider Full Frame anyway. If you can live with cameras that give you good quality up to 800-1600 ISO then m43 is fine now and it will be fine in 2, 4, 6 years and maybe more, no matter what Olympus and Panasonic will do.

A long introduction for a very long post, I know! I had to write it because the camera I will talk about is a m43 one, and quite an infamous model too: the Olympus Pen-F.

I think nowadays most cameras are good enough. Writing about some particular model is bound to be an exercise in repetition. Unless a model has some serious issues, what else is there to say?Something will be marginally better, something will be marginally worse. At some point a new impressive feature will appear, but it will become mainstream in a matter of months. All cameras share more or less the same tech made by same companies. 

Each camera is also being reviewed multiple times even before being released to the public. Websites living off clicks and ads are publishing hands-on articles, reviews of non final products, full reviews and sample pictures the same day of the release. How can you form an opinion about a camera after using it for a couple of days? How trustworthy are you if the camera was sent to you by the brand especially for a review? Popular camera gear websites are a sort of extension of camera manufacturers’ marketing departments. If a website lives off ads and sponsorship, it’s just naive to expect it to be always reliable and honest. It may be, occasionally.

The Olympus Pen-F was released in January 2016. It was received with a number of negative articles from popular websites: it was not innovative, it was not weather sealed, it was too much expensive, it had a focus on jpg profiles, continuous autofocus was unreliable, there was no mic input, etc. Some of these critiques were laughable at best. Some were spot on. And of course, the Pen-F was marked by what’s apparently the worst of all photographic plagues: it had a Micro Four Thirds sensor.

Straight out of camera. Color Profile 2. Zuiko 25mm 1.8 at f2.5.

I bought this camera 2 years ago after gathering a lot of information. As I wrote somewhere else, I use Nikon full frame cameras for work and a Ricoh GR is always in my pocket. My iPhone is also a camera I use very often. What I was looking for was a camera for personal projects and for traveling, with interchangeable lenses, better image quality than the iPhone, not too heavy, and most important, fun and inspiring to use. 

Straight out of camera. Color Profile 2. Zuiko 25mm 1.8 at f2.5.

This wasn’t my first Olympus. I used a film OMD M10, a mju-2 which I loved, and I also used to own an Olympus E-M10: the experience with the latter had good and bad sides, so I wasn’t completely sure about going digital Olympus again. In the end I bought the Pen-F, with a bunch of lenses. After a couple or months this is the set of lenses I ended up with:

Straight out of camera. Color Profile 2. Zuiko 25mm 1.8 at f2.5.

M.Zuiko 17mm 1.8: I didn’t really want this, since I don’t like 35mm as focal length, but it was included with the camera. I never used it and finally gave it to a friend as a gift for her Olympus PEN

M.Zuiko 25mm 1.8: an excellent 50mm equivalent, which would end up being my favorite prime

M.Zuiko 45mm 1.8: a very good and incredibly small portrait lens

M.Zuiko 40-150mm 4-5.6: a cheap and decent zoom, you never know when some reach is needed

M.Zuiko 12-40 2.8 PRO: a very good and versatile lens for travelling

Panasonic 14mm 2.5: I needed a 28mm equivalent of course, but I can’t say I enjoy this one

Panasonic 12mm 1.4: if this had 2mm more it would have been my dream lens. Still, a 24mm equivalent field of view is not so far from 28mm, which is my favorite one, and it somehow sits between 21 and 28

The PEN-F is the most beautiful digital camera I ever saw. There are only few details I would change, from a design point of view. The tripod mount is in a weird forward position. The thumb fake leather has a different texture compared to the one on the rest of the camera. Apart from these small details, the camera is just gorgeous. I did pick up the silver one because I think it fits better with the 60s mood the designers were after.

Some may consider shallow that I start talking about how the camera looks, but I think this is also an important matter. Nowadays, it is hard to find a camera that is not at least decent. Most of the modern cameras are good enough for shooting good photography and are exceeding the skills of most photographers. So, details like the design become important in differentiating the models and defining the experience.

Handling the camera is a pleasure, it is small but not too small, there is no grip and it feels like holding an old rangefinder, only smaller. Some people need a protruding grip, I am happier without. The controls are quite well thought and I appreciate there are no shutter speed and aperture manual controls, like on a Leica or Fuji for instance: I think a dual dial configuration makes more sense in a digital camera, but I recognise this is absolutely subjective and it belongs to that set of features that make a camera more or less fitting us.

The EVF in the Pen-F has decent resolution, lag is rare and not distracting, it is not as big as others you find in the latest mirrorless cameras but still not too small, and most importantly it serves its goal good, which is to help us compose our images. A bit of green tint is noticeable when shooting with a black and white mode, but nothing terrible: I shot for years with soviet rangefinders with really greenish optical viewfinders and I survived, taking decent photos in meantime. 

Talking about comparisons: being used to the huge optical viewfinder in my Nikon D850 I still find it weird to use an EVF, and I doubt having more pixels in it would make a difference. It is still a small screen one cm from my eye. The viewfinder in my Panasonic G9 is much better than the one in the Pen-F but still far from ideal. I guess the tech will keep improving and at some point EVFs will be a good experience, but right now I feel they still need to improve. At some point I would like to try the ones on the Leica SL2 and on the Panasonic S1, I heard they are quite good.

As we look into the viewfinder, our right hand can operate the dual dials, changing aperture and shutter speed. ISO and white balance are changed with the same two dials, after pressing the ISO/WB button. I shoot the Pen-F in Manual mode so this review will assume that’s the mode set. With this setup I have all the most important parameters under control without moving the hand from my grip, and that’s nice. I do prefer the Nikon D850 way though, with an ISO button I can keep pressed for changing its value with the aperture dial, of even better, the way I set on the Panasonic G9, with the wheel on the back directly operating the ISO.

I mentioned the ISO: a delicate topic in the m43 world. I would like to leave it on Auto with a max value of 3200, trying to reproduce the TAv experience from my Ricoh GR, but the Pen-F tends to overexpose no matter the metering mode. And on a m43 we can’t waste ISO and use higher values when not needed. It is not unusual to have the Pen-F Auto ISO setting 3200 ISO when 1600 or maybe 800 would have been just fine! The exposure compensation dial is useful in such cases, but I don’t like using it because I tend to forget it is set, even if I have that info in the viewfinder. I don’t like reading too much stuff while I take photos. I prefer to set ISO manually depending on the scene: I set ISO to base 200, then I determine the minimum shutter speed I can accept, then the optimal aperture, then I eventually raise the ISO if necessary. This way I am sure I am using the perfect combination.

An important note about the exposure: try to get it right in camera. This is not a camera where you can turn night into day or recover lost highlights like there is no tomorrow. And that’s not so bad: it makes you look at the scene and think. With the D850 I know I can save almost every exposure. That’s not the case with the Pen-F: I must consider what I care about. I have limited resources. ISO gives me very few noise at 200, acceptable at 400, a bit too much at 800, too much at 1600, definitely too much at 3200 and that is where I would stop. Noise is always present, even at base ISO 200. A software like Topaz DeNoise or Prime noise removal in DXO Photolab will probably let you decently clean the 1600 and 3200 photos, but I don’t like to shoot thinking about if and how can I save the photo on the computer.

I keep noise reduction off on the Pen-F. I find noise reduction in cameras to be always worse than what I can do on my own with few minutes of good software. Noise is preferable to the effects of bad noise reduction, because it doesn’t smear details.

So, when it comes to ISO and exposure my advices are:

  1. Look at the scene
  2. Understand which shutter speed and aperture are needed
  3. Set ISO accordingly, aiming at the best exposure in camera

Post production could save noisy shots but don’t rely on it too much: it is just a last resort

All the care I am putting on the ISO topic somewhat answers the question even before it is being asked, but let’s still ask it: is the Pen-F sensor bad at High ISO, let’s say, above 800, if compared to contemporary bigger sensors? Yes it is. Is it a massive problem though? Not really. The wonderful Leica M9 is producing quite noisy photos after 800 ISO, and yet it is still used by many photographers for creating good or even outstanding photography. And it is a full frame, mind you! ISO is just a factor, and the performance on m43 is versatile enough for allowing us to do good photography. Most of the times anyway. It is all about knowing its limits.

This is a concept that is being lost: to embrace limits and work with them. We are thought we must desire and own the tool with less limits, always, because only then we will be able of expressing ourselves. I believe this is a dangerous lie. Limits are needed, because growth only happens when trying to overcome limits. Photography is problem solving, that’s the beauty of it. You look at the scene, you think about what you can do with your tools, and then find a solution: that’s so rewarding. 

This and the next photos were shot for an article about vintage clothing published on Vogue Russia. The set is an amazing abandoned villa in Sardinia. I shot most of the session with a Ricoh GR but I also used the Pen-F for a couple of shots.

So I am fine with the bad High ISO performance on the Pen-F: it is ok I can expect mediocre quality at 1600 and bad one at 3200. When I think of this, I consider: what can I do for beating this limit? And I am captured by the process. Sometimes I will be unable of solving the problem, and the photos will bee too noisy. It is part of the game and it is luckily much rarer than what marketing of other camera brands wants you to believe.

For Vogue Russia.

The disappointing High ISO performance on m43 sensors comes from the fact that sensor R&D is now focused on Full Frame, because that’s where the money is and the market, no surprises, cares only about money. So m43 sensors are somewhat left behind. I think this will change, because m43 has some amazing lenses in the system and it does have size & weight advantages, but only R&D can unleash them.. if there is no money to invest, the system stagnates.

For Vogue Russia.

If m43 could get 1 or 2 stops better in terms of ISO performances and with a slightly better dynamic range, it would become insanely popular. Sony is creating most of the sensors used in popular cameras, and since years they are investing a lot in their full frame mirrorless system. Do you expect them to give a great modern sensor to a potentially dangerous competitor of their mirrorless bet? One thing is to give sensors to Nikon or Canon, when they are trying to enter the full frame mirrorless battle where Sony has years of advantages. Another thing is to fix the only issues of a competitive and technologically advanced system like m43, which is already doing great in video market and that could dominate most of the amateur and enthusiast market and even some parts of the professional one.

For Vogue Russia.

Many fans of m43 will praise the fact that it is a small system. That’s very clear when you look at the system as a whole and not the single camera/lens combination. A Sony A7 is not so big in the end, and fast lenses on m43 are not so small either. But once you start putting together a system, the difference in size and weight becomes evident. I can fit a whole Pen-F system in a small shoulder bag: the Pen-F, some extra batteries and a selection of 6 lenses that go from 24mm to 300mm equivalent. Of course this works with the 1.8 primes, because the 1.2 ones are bigger. But even then, I could fit the 12-40 and two 1.2 primes in that small bag, and that’s impressive. 

For Vogue Russia.

I will talk about the lenses later, in another review. Writing an interchangeable lenses camera review is not as easy as with the Ricoh GR, because the camera is only 1/3 of the story.

For Vogue Russia.

The Pen-F was greatly criticised because it has a dial in front, and this dial is used for changing jpg profile. The horror! Some people lost their mind because of this. Shooting RAW is considered the only way to go for creating photography, and jpg files are seen as some mindless choice only terrible amateurs can make. I beg to differ.

For Vogue Russia.

I shoot RAW+JPG with the Pen-F, just as I do with the Ricoh GR. That’s because the jpg files produced by the Pen-F are usually very good. Time is precious. Why do I have to waste time working on RAW files if I have the chance of having the camera create a photo I already like? I would never shoot JPG only, but I think RAW+JPG makes sense if the camera produces good JPG files. And the PEN-F can produce amazing jpg files, with wonderful colours and black and white tones that constantly receive praise by people I show them to.

For Vogue Russia.

Some may say: RAW gives you better detail, you can manage the noise better and you can fix exposure. And that’s all good and true. I do work with RAW for my profession, but I like to have the option of having ready JPG too, because maybe they are all I need for that shot. That much maligned dial allows me to switch instantly from a very nice Moriyama-like mood (Grainy Film I & II), to a wonderful slide film like Color Profile 2, to a classy black and white Mono Profile 2. I posted many photos here in the review which are shot with them and not edited.

For Vogue Russia.

Using these filters I can visualise the scene in the way I intend, or very close to it. That’s a beautiful consequence of modern technology. Color profiles are not a silly gimmick as many pointed out from the height of their teacher’s desk. By seeing a live preview I can compose the scene using the filter for making it easier to accomplish my vision. Maybe once at home I will decide to scrap the SOOC jpg and recreate it with Silver Efex Pro starting from the RAW, who knows. The dial lets me change filter on the fly and so I am glad it exists, and I don’t mind it is where it is. 

Who said you can’t get shallow DOF on m43? Straight out of camera.

Some people complained because the dial says “art” and thought that is detrimental to their reputation (I am not joking!): to them I say, forget about this nonsense and focus on creating good photography, for the quality of our photos is what defines us, not what is written on our cameras.

And who said you can’t get interesting bokeh on m43? Straight out of camera.

A last complaint about the dial was that it could have been better used for another function, like changing other parameters. My opinion is that it would have been nice to have a neutral dial like on the lovely Pentax Q, where you can assign it to different parameters.

Another topic I would like to touch is the stabilisation: this is often seen as something not necessary. For me, IBIS is indeed not necessary, but very good to have, and the stabilisation on the Pen-F is just amazing. I say not necessary because in photography very few is necessary: light, a way to control light, a way to memorise the light. But IBIS has some advantages: when I am dealing with inanimate scenes it allows me to drop the shutter speed a lot and use the basic ISO 200 no matter the focal length I have on the camera. That’s quite impressive. You can be outside at night and shoot a very low ISO scene, while with the D850 I would have to raise up the ISO losing the full frame advantage, even if using a wonderful stabilised lens like the Tamron 45mm 1.8. When shooting people or animals IBIS is not very useful though, since the shutter speed you need is at least 1/125.

Micro Four Thirds also means that the native format is 4:3 instead of the more common 3:2, and this means changing our composition habits. I am still exploring this topic after years. I usually prefer 3:2 for horizontal photos and 4:5 for vertical ones. If we think of it, smartphones are making us all compose with moderate wide-angles and 4:3 ratio. The topic of composition is huge and yet so rarely addressed. Think of the last time any big photography website wrote an insightful article about this. Compare that number to the quantity of articles about new gear!

The Pen-F has a fully articulating screen and I am not a fan of it. I prefer the tilting screen on the D850, because it lets me more comfortably shoot looking down at the screen, something that remembers me the fun I had with my Lubitel medium format! The fully articulating screen has many advantages for sure, I just don’t need them.

I am sorry the LCD does not feature pinch to zoom when reviewing photos. Very often when I show photos to a client they try pinch to zoom, and I have to explain that they zoom with the on-screen slider or the back dial and then pan around with the finger. Strange decision from Olympus. I guess the LCD lacks multitouch as a mean of cutting costs.

One good consequence of the fully articulating screen is that I can turn it inward and close it, so the camera changes into some kind of Leica MD. This protects the screen, especially when travelling.

There is a proximity sensor that switches between LCD and EVF automatically. I turned off the sensor and I use the Fn2 button for doing that manually when needed. I find this faster and more fitting with my way of shooting. This is some usability advantage the Pen-F has over the Panasonic G9, where there is a button for switching between EVF, back screen or auto: this means that on the G9 I must press two times for cycling between EVF and back screen, since I don’t want auto. On the Pen-F I can just turn off the sensor auto switch in the menu.

Since we are talking about buttons, let’s see what else I customised. My other function button (Fn1) is now set to Focus Peaking: when I press it, the camera enables it. This helps a lot when focusing with manual only lenses, together with focus magnification, which I wished worked with 1 click instead of 2: the camera requires you to click one time to enable the area selection and then a second time to show the magnified area. Not very immediate. When shooting with a manual lens I have to first click one time for enabling zoom, then a second time for zooming, then a third time for enabling peaking. It would be wonderful to have all this happening with a single button press!

I set the video button to AF and this is the biggest usability improvement I implemented with my dial settings: by doing that I can separate focus from the shutter button. Yes I am a fan of back button focusing. Half pressing the shutter is still locking the exposure, so if you use Auto ISO you can lock focus with the video button, then point the camera where the exposure is fine enough, half press to lock exposure and then recompose and shoot. It sounds complicate but it is quite fast. The half pressed shutter also engages the stabilisation: I set IBIS to be not always active, so it only turns on when I half press the shutter. This saves a lot of battery and produces less heating. Highly advised.

Another important feature to master is the Super Menu that you activate by pressing OK when in shooting mode: this shows a summary of useful functions that you can navigate both using the two dials (one changes option and the other one cycles through the option’s choices) or using the touchscreen.

A lot of people complain about Olympus’ menus. I can’t understand this. They are menus. You spend some time with them, read a bit of manual, learn what you need and that’s all. If you listen to some people it seems as if learning Olympus’ menus is like learning to code in assembly. This fake issue is also one of the favorite ones that Olympus sponsored vloggers/bloggers complain about: since it is a non issue and it takes nothing away from the camera, it is a perfect way for some fake objectivity by criticising what they are expected to praise.

The first time I shot with the Pen-F I thought it was defective: many of my shots were blurred and I could not understand why. After reading a lot and doing some tests I discovered it was not a camera issue. The truth is that this camera does suffer quite a severe shutter shock when shooting at 1/60 and 1/125. There is a way to fix this, and that’s setting the camera shutter mode to Anti-Shock in the Super Menu and then setting Anti-Shock to 0sec. This will enable the electronic first curtain with no delay, and the Shutter Shock will disappear. Since I started using the F I had it always set like this, unless when I needed to use the full electronic Silent Shutter.

As I wrote, I shoot in manual all the time, with ISO mostly manual and rarely on Auto. Matrix metering (funny how a die hard fan of spot metering embraced matrix one!), Auto or Daylight white balance. As effects I shoot mostly in the three I mentioned earlier, with sharpness to 0. And that’s pretty much it.

This was shot as 4 different segments joined together to reach a much higher resolution. I know the Pen-F can shoot in Higher Resolution mode, but I had no tripod with me!

I use single focus practically always. I only briefly tried other modes and I noticed continuous focus is indeed bad. But I don’t care because I use single central point focus anyway: the Pen-F has no joystick for moving the focus point, and that’s something I miss, because moving the point with the direction pad is not as immediate.. again, Olympus could do things better and faster when it comes to human interaction. Luckily the deep DOF allows me to use focus and recompose without too much fear of focus plane shifting.

Shooting in the sun is not a problem, with a bit of care.

The camera has face detection and even some kind of eye detection, and I can say they work fine enough if you are into such aids. This and the extended DOF of m43 help having a great percentage of in focus portraits.

I mentioned DOF and this requires some words. If you read articles online or listen to vloggers it seems the biggest problem of m43 is not even the ISO performance, but the “lack of DOF”, which is an amusing sentence per se, used to actually mean “lack of shallow DOF”.

This was actually shot with a D850 but it shows the Pen-F.

The things is, m43 has a “crop factor” of 2x, so to get a field of view comparable with let’s say a 50mm, you need a 25mm lens. This means that you have the field of view of a 50mm but the DOF of a 25mm. So, at every equivalent focal length, you always have more DOF, because a wider lens has more DOF. That’s all.

But the DOF in m43 is one of the reasons why I appreciate the system: I like having more things in focus. I am tired of portraits with the background nuked into blurred oblivion, I don’t find portraits shot at 1.4 with a 85-105-135 lens to be so charming. I think composition should take care of some issues, not blur, and mindlessly blurring the background is a trick that gets old quite fast. I also think bokeh obsession is one of the most idiotic trends in photography and I could not care less about its shape, quantity and pattern. I despise the fixation on marginal topics like which sensor is better or how good the bokeh is. Photography for me is something else. It is personal exploration, it is a catalyst for experience, it is curiosity.

If I were told, in an hypothetical world where physics works differently: this lens comes in two versions, one that gathers light as a f1.2 but has the DOF of a f2.4, and one that gathers like f1.2 and has the DOF of f1.2, I would definitely choose the one that offers double the DOF. That is a plus for me and the only way you can see it as a minus is if you are obsessed with obtaining super shallow DOF, which lends us to the previous paragraph.

The amazing places you can find in my dear island, Sardinia.

Talking about equivalence, some folks will say that crop factor also means that the sensor gets less light, and they apply it to the aperture too, but that is nonsense. Here are some photos shot with a 58mm focal length lens, 1/640, f2 and ISO200 with both the Pen-F and the Nikon D850. As you can see the exposure is kinda the same. For framing them in a similar way I had to crop the Pen-F photo to 3:2. They are straight from raw, just cropped and resized. I won’t tell you what was shot with Full Frame and what with m43, what do you think? Which one is which?

Photo 1.
Photo 2.

I would also like you to pay attention to the DOF of the photos: the 58mm becomes a 116mm on the Pen-F. The adapters used to mount this lens on the Pen-F and on the D850 have no glass so they do not influence the exposure or sharpness. To get the same framing I had to move back a couple of steps. What do you think of the DOF?

So, the Photo 1 was shot with the Nikon D850 and the Photo 2 with the Pen-F. Someone may have guessed this from the white element on the right: it is there with the D850 cos I had to be closer and I had less compression. The results speak for themselves though: it is possible to get a good background separation on m43 if using the right lens, and the “crop factor” does not influence the exposure. Minor differences in exposure are depending more on sensor tech, not sensor size. Did you guess correctly which photo was shot with what?

The equivalence battle became a great marketing tool for brands, and a fertile source of arguments for people wanting to argue on forums. The m43 isn’t actually a crop format derived from full frame, it is just a different format. The sensor size if having different ratio too. The 2x factor is just an indicator helpful to identify the field of view of a lens compared to full frame, since full frame was arbitrary chosen as a reference.

I really would have preferred not to write about all these topics: equivalence, DOF, etc. But I wanted to briefly clear some points that could obfuscate reality concerning this format: m43 is not perfect and it is not terrible. It is different, it has advantages and disadvantages. Just like 1” sensor based cameras, or cameras with sensors that are even smaller, or much bigger. Comparisons between technologies are always missing a detail, and that is the human factor and the destination of use. Trying to determine the absolute best of something is very often a way to deal with personal insecurity.

What about the people saying cameras are complex so you need a Leica to be in control, because its simplicity will let you approach photography in a more thoughtful way? I believe it’s nonsense: for being “digitally pure” you don’t need a Leica or a Fuji or a Nikon DF. It all comes down to preference. You can approach photography in a pure way even with a smartphone. What defines the purity of your approach is inside your mind. Pretty much every camera allows you to act on the exposure, with compensation or with direct control over shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Once you can focus and you can act on the exposure, you have all you need for being as “pure” as your mind lets you.

The Pen-F being a contemporary Japanese camera, if offers multiple approaches to photography: plenty of auto or semi auto modes, exposure compensation, direct control on the exposure triangle, etc. It’s up to you to use what fits you better. The level of versatility is not bothering me and I just ignore pretty much all of the extra features I don’t need, but it’s still good they are there, in case someone needs them and likes them.

My only doubts about if and when to use the Pen-F came from comparing it to the output of my Nikon D850. Apologists will tell you that the image quality produced by a m43 and a full frame is the same. I think this is a lie. I often shoot using multiple cameras at the same time, so I can compare the output of the D850, the Pen-F and the Ricoh GR in the same scene, and the differences are there. The D850 creates richer tones. More details of course. Dynamic range is impressive and it gives peace of mind: I know almost every shot can be comfortably edited to my taste. When shooting between ISO 64 and 400, noise is substantially absent. These are practical and real differences. Sometimes they matter, sometimes they don’t. They take nothing awake from the pleasure I experience when using the Pen-F. But to deny them is just a bit silly. 

As you may have guessed I am disappointed with the status of nowadays photography discourse. All the fixation on technology, on new models. Forum posts and Youtube videos starting wars about topics that are so marginal to the whole photographic experience. And in meantime we see Instagram filled with copycat photography, sometimes very good in terms of quality and technique, but basically a constant repetition in pursuit of ephemeral popularity.

I don’t care much about ISO, equivalence, sharpness at borders, sensor size, megapixels. It’s disappointing to see photography became a hostage of marketing departments, completely enslaved to the economy that spins around it. 

The reality is that any camera will be more than enough or at least just fine, so why should brands keep investing in R&D and produce new cameras and lenses? They have to convince us that we need something new and better. Most of the brands are releasing new cameras too often: a new model X for “pros”, then a model XA for amateurs, then the X Light that is like the pro but without some features, the X Mark II that is like the X with some added features they delayed on purpose, the XB that is like the X but black, and so on. Hundreds of new models being produced and thrown on the market, with lower and lower investment in quality control and materials, built in places where workers are treated like slaves, hoping for some profit. Forums and YouTube channels always working to promote that junk. You buy a camera and you know that in 6 months there will be a model that would change nothing in how you shoot but that will be aggressively marketed only to make you feel disappointment for what you own.

My advice is to look for a camera that makes you feel joy when in use and then go and take photos. That’s all. After you buy a camera, forget about forums and YouTube and reviews for a couple of years. Buy photography books instead, try to learn and improve as much as possible: no camera brand can sell you that. Learn to edit in a way that satisfies you. There is no camera we can own that can improve the way we perceive light and capture the world with our photography. The way you feel with the camera, how it works with who you are: that is more important than all the technology inside of it.

Back to the Pen-F. I occasionally had to shoot some video for work: the camera is capable of decent video output in 1080p/60. The stabilisation is so effective that you don’t need a gimbal for putting together decent videos, and no client ever complained. I ended up getting a Panasonic G9 for video: having 4K/60 and some other advantages is a great thing, but I understand and respect the fact that the Pen-F wasn’t created for video, so it’s ok.

As much as I love this camera, I can’t say the Pen-F is perfect. But still, no camera is. The EVF could be better, if we compare it to modern ones. It lacks a focus joystick. The software part could be better. I would put a third customisable dial in place of the EV compensation one (like on the amazing Pentax KP). Etc etc. But they are all minor details I am happily ignoring, because I enjoy so much to take photos with this camera, and I like the photos it produces.

I admit this was as much a review as an excuse for discussing a couple of related topics. As I write somewhere in the beginning of the article, there is not so much we can say about a camera. The bottom line is that the Pen-F is a beautiful and yet not perfect camera. Its design is gorgeous and it is packed with features. It is a joy to use, it is very well built, it is compact and light. Yes it has mediocre High ISO, which means quality degrades fast after 1600-3200 ISO. If you can deal with it, and you probably should, then this camera will bring you happiness and will be a great companion in your photographic voyage.

12 Comments

  1. Great reading – again!
    Wonderful that you write about m43 in this way. I think that people who use m43 cameras, like myself, saw through all the comercial bs and go their own way. In fact, most of my work is made with the m43 format, since it’s light and a nothreat to the people I photograph…I like to get really close. I make books and exhibitions and noone ever asked what cameras I use. I love my equipment and keep it very simple. Two cameras, two lenses and that’s it.
    Thank again for a wonderful and insightful blogpost, Andrea. Looking forward to the next. Susanne

    1. Author

      I can’t believe it, someone managed to get to the end of this wordy post 🙂 Thank you so much for your comment, Susanne. I pondered for long if to write a simple review of the PEN-F or if to embrace the m43 topic — in the end I decided to touch the argument. The resulting post is more convoluted than the Ricoh GR one, even after the much needed cleaning I did (it was originally two times longer!). I hope this text will be useful for people that is unsure if to choose the m43 system or not: I don’t want to convince anyone to buy into the system, but I surely would like to comunicate that all the fears about it are wrong. And maybe — that would make me happy — I would like to convince someone that fighting about cameras, tech and such is pointless waste of life. Your photography is powerful and touching, thanks for sharing it with the world — as you rightly say, clients & viewers don’t care about which camera we use, they care about the photographs we create — that’s how it should be, I think. Maybe at some point photography will free itself from the sterile hands of marketing. Thanks you very much for your comment, hugs from Italy.

  2. You are always so easy to read and understand, I wish more pros would follow your example. When I started I was torn between Leica x’s one or Two model, and Olympus Pen F. Then I went with school of thought whatever I buy what would be back up! So I got a X1 and X2. The Pen F I feel is a beautiful camera that will make you happy for years. Then I tried D850 loved it but in the end way too heavy. I added two more Ax’s then GR 2 and GR4d . The ability to carry either in my coat pocket or in my hand w wrist strap, all day, is what I like best. I have to say I love the neighborhood you use in photos, no wonder you live there. Just food for thought do you think M/F with Hasselblad X1d 11 now priced like 850 $ that they are trying to get those folks to upgrade or are they battling FUJI GFX line. Anyway I have trespassed on your time enough, have a MERRY CHRISTMAS, HAPPY NEW YEAR, and stay healthy.

    1. Author

      It was me trespassing on your time with my never ending post 🙂 I considered Medium Format for my architecture photography (the biggest part of my profession) but I still don’t feel the time is right for making the jump. The D850/D810 combo offers me amazing dynamic range and detail, in a relatively compact and robust form factor. I looked at the X1D II 50C and I love their design and philosophy… but they don’t have the lenses I would need (they go as wide as 21mm, that is 17mm in full frame world). For the same reason I didn’t get a Pentax 645Z (the widest lens is a 25mm, equivalent to 20mm in full frame, which is not as wide as I need). I keep my eye on the Hasselblad X system though! In one year or two I will very likely renovate my architecture setup: in my idea, at that time the X system will have wider lenses, and the m43 system will have new sensors — this way I will own a very high quality system for studio and architecture, and a more portable system for fashion on location etc. We will see! For now I enjoy and I am thankful for what I have 🙂 I wish you the best for the Holidays and a great and healthy New Year!

  3. That was an excellent commentary and review Andrea (and yes, not too wordy for me). I don’t own the Pen-F yet (have an E-M10 Mk II) but have lusted for it for no other reason that it has such a beautiful aesthetic feel to me. You have demonstrated getting great images from it makes it more “lust worthy” in my eyes.
    There is something to be said for dealing with the limitations of a camera that forces you to think and overcome them.
    I very much appreciate your writing style as it is concise and to the point.

    1. Author

      Hi Steve, thanks for the comment! It is nice to read you didn’t find it too wordy! I remember when the PEN-F first appeared — I really lusted for it too but at the time I thought it was a bit too expensive for a camera I wanted but didn’t need. In the end I am glad I lately bought one, it is really something different and unique. Thanks again for your kind words!

  4. Yes, you see Andrea, people really appreciate your blog;).
    My first m43 camera was the Panasonic GF1 in 2009. Eventually I sold it and got hooked on the GX7. And what about today?
    Again, I got the GF1 back (Old love never rust, a swedish(?) old expression;) again and use it with a toylens. Great for cats, since I work on a project I call Felis Catus. For my “serious” projects, my GX8 with the 17/1.8 ( love the 35mm in ff) and a 14/2.5 (28mm in ff) on my GX9, sometimes with a wideangle converter for tight scenes (22mm in ff).
    In addition, when just going out, the GM1 with the kitlens..
    All of my cameras are in the same format, whatever I choose to shoot. I am all for simplyfying and just concentrate on the subject. All of this I never speak about, but thought it could be interesting if anyone is wondering. Happy Christmas and A Happy New Year! Hugs, Susanne

    1. Author

      Dear Susanne, thank you so much for the details about your camera setup, I found them to be very interesting and I’m sure others will too! The GF1 is quite an important camera, Peter Lindbergh was quite fond of it. Thank you for your wishes, I also wish you happy Holidays and a wonderful new year.

  5. I couldn’t put up with the small EVF of the Pen F and sold it. I loved everything else about it, but every time I went to frame a shot, I was just bummed out by the smallness of it. For a camera like that, it should have been better.

    1. Author

      I’m sorry for your experience with the PEN-F! The EVF on the F is a 2.36 million dot with 0.62x magnification and I agree with you it is surely is on the small side. The E-M5 mark II was launched 11 months before the F and had a 0.74x magnification EVF with the same 2.36 million dot resolution. I guess Olympus could have used that bigger EVF indeed, but I think they opted for a smaller one to give the impression of higher resolution. EVF tech in 2015 wasn’t that great anyway, the full frame Sony A7S mark II also had a 2.36 panel with 0.78x magnification. The Panasonic GX8 was the closer competitor for the F and was launched in July 2015 with a 2.36 panel but a 0.77x magnification. The EVF is one of the couple of details Olympus got wrong with the F, that’s for sure.

  6. Hi Andrea, thank you very much for this great and refreshing review! I absolutely LOVE the images in this review, bravo! My compliments on your website and blog. I’ve book marked it for future reading!

    You really hit the nail on the head with this review. The Pen F is an absolutely gorgeous camera to see and hold, and it is very capable of producing gorgeous images. Is it perfect? No, you’ve hit on all the important imperfections and things that could be improved. … but boy, is it fun to take out and shoot! I really like the much debated knob on the front of the cam to quickly switch between color and b&w shooting … that mono profile 2 is amazing!

    I mostly shoot my Pen F with fast manual glass. The inexpensive and excellent Mitakon Speedmaster 25 f0.95 and Voigtlander 42.5 f0.95 work well for me. From time to time I bring it out with some legacy Oly OM or Pentax primes. The magnification and focus peaking functions make manual focus a breeze.

    Your view of FF vs. smaller format sensors is also spot on in my opinion. Magnificent cams like the Nikon D850 produce amazing images and are definitely a superior tool in some situations. For my shooting style however, the M43 cameras and especially the Pen F are more than good enough and definitely more fun to use than lugging around a big and heavy cam. … It’s also funny to note that the original 35mm film format was referred to as “small frame” in my native language Dutch. If we believe the Marketing folks now, that same 35mm “FF” is a massive and must have sensor format if you want to be serious about photography … makes me chuckle :-).

    Again, thanks for you review and I look forward to reading your future blog post!

    Happy New Year and kind regards from Denver, Colorado.

    Best,
    Hans

    1. Author

      Thanks for the kind words Hans! Needless to say, I agree with all you wrote 🙂 I think Full Frame was/is called “small frame” in Sweden too! In the end it is all about comparisons… smaller compared to what, cropped compared to what, full compared to what, etc. Too bad some people take this so seriously. The word choice is surely contributing to the confusion: that “full” in Full Frame makes you think of something complete, total.. while the “micro” in “Micro Four Thirds” sounds like something lesser. There was a time when everything “micro” was considered better and high tech (just think of cell phones), but these times are long gone and now “the big the better” became the marketing mantra again. It is all cycles, sooner or later micro will be trendy again 🙂 Happy New Year and greetings from Sardinia, Italy!

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