A Little History
January 2016 will be remembered for a number of new camera releases and a major snowstorm in Eastern USA. I can’t remember a year when so many new camera announcements have been made so early in the year, especially during a Photokina year. It looks like 2016 will be especially interesting, if some of the rumors have any teeth to them.
For the last few days I have been in Austin, Texas at an event hosted by Olympus. As many of you know I am an Olympus camera owner and have been for years. I was first turned onto the Olympus line a number of years ago while running a workshop in China. A number of my Chinese attendees had the Olympus O-MD E-M5. They were all talking about this small camera that one of them had bought before the trip. They loaned it to me for a day and I was really impressed. Luminous-Landscape did a review of the O-MD E M5 back in 2012. It turned out to be a camera Michael had for some time and for me I never let go.
It wasn’t long before the Olympus line gained respect. The OMD line is known as a Micro 4/3 rd camera. As many of you know, this refers to the sensor size. It is rather small when compared to a full frame camera and the easiest way to understand this is when talking about lenses. There is a factor of two when comparing a Micro 4/3 lens to a full frame lens. This means that a 25mm M4/3 lens is equivalent to a 50mm lens as far field of view. There are other differences such as comparable depth of field (DOF) but we won’t get into that now.
During the last few years Olympus hasn’t been sleeping. Very publicly they presented a road map on the growth of the 4/3 system and the introduction to a line of lenses that would be forthcoming. They also introduced a number of new camera bodies for this format. And, to their credit they have released several firmware version updates for their cameras, some of them significant enough that it was like getting a whole new camera. Until now they all have been 16 megapixel sensors. That is, until today.
Today Olympus introduces the New PEN-F camera. This small compact camera sports a 20 megapixel live MOS sensor and is supported by the well known 5 Axis In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS). In addition to the fully tilt-able and reversible rear monitor screen there is a superb 2.36 million dot OLED electronic viewfinder (EVF). One of the more clever features is the Creative Dial on the front of the camera. This allows one to easily switch to Mono, Color Art effects and Creative modes. These modes are something special to Olympus and allow for a wide variety of creative images.
A short video intro by Kevin Raber
When I first saw this camera I was surprised at all the knobs and protrusions and the unique curves and design of the body. It took only a minute of holding the camera to fully appreciate these features. This camera feels great, and over the last several days I have had no issues fully utilizing it.
After you get over the unique look and you hold the camera, you feel the rich texture of the leather-like finish as well as the knurled knobs and dials. Olympus even brought back the traditional screw in cable release option on the shutter release button. The build quality is excellent and there is nothing cheap about it. There isn’t a screw anywhere to be seen. I love the exposure compensation dial placement as well as the 4 customizable user settings on the mode selection dial. In the tradition of film cameras, the on – off switch makes you think back to the film rewind crank. I think it’s a nice touch.
The feature set on this camera, as well as the other Olympus cameras, is quite overwhelming. The more you use this little camera, the more you discover the power that it possesses. There is a new TruePic VII Image processor that allows the camera to perform fast as well as delivering some unique features not found on other cameras.
Some Stand Out Features
High Res Mode
Using multi shot technology the camera can produce 50 megapixel equivalent images in JPEG and an 80mp RAW file. This obviously is best for static scenes and performance while on a tripod but is does allow for superb detailed images when needed. This is especially suited for interiors and product type of photography.
Just a turn of the dial to Mono allows you to capture monochromatic images. This mono mode has the ability to adjust the image based on color filters and degrees of intensity. Under the Mode selector knob on top of the camera is a lever control and by pushing left or right on it you bring up different options on the rear LCD screen. You can for example select simulated Red filter and then vary the degree of intensity of the filter. When shooting blue skies it’s just like applying colored filters in the traditional B&W days.
I found I was using this mode a lot over the last few days. It was so easy to turn on and off. There are also yellow, magenta, orange, blue, cyan, green, yellow-green and other possible selections. Each selection shows the effect in the viewfinder and on the rear screen. Using the knob next to the selector lever can vary the intensity. This is a lot of fun and will make you want to explore all the possible effects.
Wow, another really fun setting and feature. Following the same procedure as above you can select certain colors in an image and change the overall intensity of the color. Nice if you want intense blue skies or really bright reds. You can also subdue colors by going in reverse.
Olympus has a slew of choices for creative effects using the Art Filters mode. My favorite is Dramatic II. There are others like Pin Hole Camera, Gentle Sepia, Cross Process, Grainy film and about a dozen more.
Same procedure, turn the knob to Art Filters and use the lever to activate the menu and the dial to scroll through the possibilities. I found all of this to become more intuitive the longer I used the camera.
More ability to change the overall tonality of the image. Using the same procedure as with the other effects you make your selection.
When using these effects they are applied and saved as a JPEG. If you choose to shoot RAW and JPEG you get a RAW file without the effect and a JPEG with the effect. I really like this as the RAW is not changed and you can always process normally from it.
A carry over from the OMD line this feature corrects the keystone effect when shooting tall buildings for example. Sorry I don’t have an example at this time. I’ll try to add one in the next few days.
I only started playing with this feature for a short time but found it to be easy and fun. I have always wanted a way to make double exposures and typically on digital cameras it can be near impossible. Turn this feature on and adjust a few settings and have some fun.
HDR – High Dynamic Range
This allows you to choose a wide ranges of HDR shooting settings so that you can shoot bracketed HDR for those tough scene conditions. My favorite is 5 exposure 2 stop variation. there are also auto HDR setting where HDR is done in the camera. I also use high speed drive with this setting. The High Speed selection allows around 10 frames per second.
When using the electronic shutter this camera can expose up to 11 fps in silent mode. This is great for shooting events such as weddings, when the noise of the camera could be disturbing. Actually shooting in this mode is a bit strange as you have no confirmation that the shot is being taken except to see the images appear on the screen. Wish I had a camera like this when I worked on movie sets instead of a blimped Nikon in a bulky sound proof cases.
Shooting with this camera feels almost instantaneous. There is hardly a perceptual feel of shutter lag. The specs claim 0.044 seconds which is one of the fasted shutter releases there is. The mechanical shutter is capable of 1/8000th of a second. I never had a chance to test that but it should be capable of stopping the fastest action.
I was skeptical of this feature but found it to work great. It bears more testing but it is so simple to work. I tried it at f/4.5 and set it to shoot ten exposures. It does this so fast you don’t know it is being done and in a second there is a stacked finished JPEG available on the SD card. You really need a tripod to do this properly. You’ll have the choice of number of exposures, focus offset and even a delay if you are using flash so it can recycle between exposures. Very clever and it works.
Taking The Photo With The Targeting Pad
The PEN-F is different and one of the things I really liked is the view finder is all the way to the left of the camera body. This makes it easier to work all the knobs on the right side of the camera. It also allows you to use the rear screen, which is touch sensitive to move the focus point around. I just loved this and it is by far the easiest I have ever used on a camera. I found I could compose an image in the viewfinder and then select the point where I wanted the focus to be set and then just pushed the shutter release to take the shot.
Another feature is if you shoot using the rear screen, then you can compose and touch the screen to set the focus point and take the exposure.
A Few More Things
There are a lot of other features that I found I was still discovering after two days. There is of course the choice of a few different metering modes, flash sync selections and so forth. Most likely after you are familiar with the camera you will find the selections you want and customize these into the custom feature set on the mode dial. This will make it super easy to get to the setting you want without a lot of turning of knobs and searching menus.
There are a wide variety of lenses available for the Olympus M4/3 systems. Also a number of older 4/3 lenses can be used with an adapter. Olympus provided us three lenses for our use during the intro event. These are very small feather lightweight and capable lenses. Included were the 45mm (90mm equiv.) 1.8, 17mm (35mm equiv.) 1.8 and the 25mm (50mm equiv.) 1.8.
While I enjoyed working with these small lenses I primarily used my own lenses and these were the 8mm Pro, 12-40mm Pro, 7-14mm Pro and the 40-150mm Pro. These are heavier lenses with really amazing glass. I use them with my OMD systems and they have super great performance. Using these lenses with the PEN-F camera gave me a kit with a 16mm equiv. FF to 300mm FF all in a package that was less than 10 pounds.
These days it seems hard to find a camera that doesn’t shoot well and deliver good image quality. The Olympus PEN-F is no exception. After a few hours using the camera I was quite comfortable and found I was trying all sort of things out that I wouldn’t have thought to use before. The new mode dial on the camera combined with the customized settings made it easy to quickly switch to these different modes and capture some great images.
The Auto-Focus was very fast and did a good job. I found the CF (continuous focus) with Tracking to work well too. While not quite like a DSLR, it did a great job keeping up with runners, rowers and a few other things I threw at it.
Metering worked really well too and it was easy to adjust exposure especially when in Aperture Priority with the exposure compensation dial. You can even see the effects in the viewfinder. The ability to use the touch LCD rear panel was so cool to use. A little touch icon on the screen allowed you to choose on, touch to set focus and touch to focus and shoot. I like the Auto ISO Feature. Setting the camera in Manual Mode I set the f/stop and shutter speed and let the camera handle the ISO based on changing lighting conditions.
I haven’t fully tested the high ISO performance yet since I prefer to do that using RAW processor. However the JPEGs I got straight from the camera at 12800 were OK.
All the knobs are large and easy to work even for a guy like me with big hands. The viewfinder is bright and easy to see. The viewfinder rubber cup won’t pop off. This is a major frustration I have with other brands and even the OMD cameras.
I didn’t get a chance to shoot in movie mode so I can’t report anything on that. However I have had good experience using the OMD’s for video although none of them have 4K capability. It is clear that Olympus is focused on making outstanding still cameras.
Battery life also seemed quite decent especially when compared to some other cameras in its size category. The PEN-F uses the same batteries as the OMD cameras do so if you are already using one of those cameras you don’t have to invest in new batteries. These days I’m getting used to carrying a number of batteries in my pockets but I found I went through one battery and about half a second on some pretty heavy shooting days doing a lot of chomping. Since I was shooting RAWs plus Large JPEG this amounted to over 1000 exposures on most days.
I kept trying to find fault with this PEN-F and had a hard time doing so but I did run into two things. The first is one I hope can be adjusted by firmware. It is the sensor for turning off the rear screen and the viewfinder is right next to the eyecup. I found especially when in bright light and with the light striking the back of the camera this sensor would turn off the viewfinder. I was able to fix this by moving my thumb over the sensor when it happened. I did report this to the Olympus folks and they did point out that unlike other cameras this sensor was put outside the eyecup thus making it more prone to light. They seem to be aware of this issue and hopefully will make some adjustments in the near future.
The other issue was with removing the SD Card. The SD card is nested with the battery in the same compartment. Pushing down on the card to eject to card doesn’t give the card enough lift and I found it very difficult to grab the top of the card as I couldn’t get my meaty fingers between the card and the battery door. While not really a big deal it is about the only small fault I could find with the PEN-F.
Also note this camera is not weather sealed. I was disappointed with this fact as it is not uncommon for me to be out in inclement weather using my cameras. This camera seems like a very good street shooter camera and you don’t always have sunny days doing that type of photography. But I have a number of other cameras that are not weather sealed and they seem to do OK in inclement weathers. I would just be a bit careful and keep it dry.
As I mention in my video I have been an Olympus owner for quite sometime. Even back in the film days I liked and used Olympus. The Olympus engineers always managed to cram a lot of features into small packages. The Olympus glass is superb. The Pro lens line is exceptional and one reason why I have kept my Olympus camera system.
The main reason though is weight. The capability of this camera system and the overall weight of a 4-5 lens set up is really inviting. With the OMD system I have presently and the 4 Pro lenses I have a kit that fits in a shoulder bag and weighs in around 10 pounds. An excellent choice if you want to lighten your load.
Now I have a confession. I got married a year ago in Antarctica. It’s lucky for me that my wife enjoys photography as much as I do. Unlucky for me she seems to have taken possession of my Olympus system. For her it is perfect. Actually for me too but I don’t get a chance to use it much anymore. Debra took the OMD and lenses to Antarctica a year ago and got absolutely great images. We have made prints from the files to 17×22 and larger without any loss of quality. The image quality will surprise you especially from 16 mp and now a 20 mp camera file.
Now with 20 megapixels we’ll able to make our prints even larger. I look forward to getting back from this trip and doing some prints.
The pricing for the PEN-F is $1,199.00 in the US and $1,499.00 in Canada. Availability will be in early March.
Yes, I am going to buy this camera. After a few days with it I want to add it to my Olympus collection. I’ll sell one of my other bodies. I am sure my wife will be happy with the decision on all accounts.
It has been an interesting January so far for camera announcements. Now I am anxious because it is quite obvious that we’ll see a 20mp sensor in a new OMD camera (hopefully this year). Photokina can’t get here soon enough. Then again at the rate we are going this year Photokina may be a bust (or not).
Good job Olympus. The PEN-F is a fun and very capable camera offering a deep set of rich features as well as superb image quality that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
I’ll be doing an article on the whole Olympus Camera line experience in the near future. This is a camera line that has matured into a well thought out and useful system.
Sample Images From My Few Days Of Shooting With The PEN-F
All the images below and in the article that were taken on the PEN-F are from JPEGs. Because a RAW processor is not available at this time for the new files I had to use JPEGs. I look forward to processing many of these images as RAWs in the not so distant future.
More images to come check back soon . . .