I have been testing the Olympus Pen F and 17mm f/1.8 lens in Dalat, Vietnam for the last few days, and I am blown away.
It is probably one of the best digital cameras I’ve ever shot with. The autofocus is ridiculously fast and accurate (I’d give it a 9.5 out of 10), the image quality is superb (I love the Mono 2 setting in JPEG), and the design is sublime (reminds me of an old-school film rangefinder).
Why the Pen-F?
I have a good friend Chu Viet Ha in Vietnam, and he introduced me to his friend, who is an Olympus/Leica distributor in Vietnam. I was interested in the Olympus Pen-F (mostly for the design, and curious how it was for street photography), so I asked to test out the Pen-F.
Initial impressions of the Pen-F
First of all, the Olympus Pen-F is a superbly-built camera. It is solid, has a good weight (not too heavy and light), and from the outside, it is pretty indistinguishable from most old-school film rangefinders. The Olympus Pen-F borrows design from the original Pen-F. Great design never dies.
The joy of turning the Pen-F on/off
The dials on the Pen-F feel feel phenomenal. The on-off switch is located on the left side of the camera, where the film rewind knob traditionally was.
When I turn the camera on/off — it literally feel the same as when I am rewinding my film on my film Leica MP camera.
The dials are built solid. There is the perfect amount of tension in them, so you won’t accidentally bump the dial and change the setting. Nothing I would change.
1. Exposure-compensation Dial
The exposure-compensation dial is solid, firm, and easy to change with some effort (while not easy to accidentally change while in your camera bag).
2. Innovative front dial
There is an innovative dial in the front, which quickly allows you to change your JPEG settings from color, black and white, and some other ‘art filters’ (which I find a bit gimmicky).
Using the dial was surprisingly fun, especially if you switch between shooting color and black and white.
3. Changing the top shooting dial
The dial on top (to change from aperture-priority to manual, etc) is also well-built.
Not only that, but there is a button on top that allows you to lock the settings.
I tested the little mini Olympus flash (FL-LM3) and I am a huge fan. It is tiny, powered by the camera (you don’t need batteries for it), and not only that— you can change the direction of the flash. You can bounce it off the ceiling, and also swivel it left/right and up/down.
The ultimate minimalist flash.
Black and white
I shot the camera this entire week just in the “Mono Profile 2” mode for black and white in JPEG+RAW. Looking at both the JPEG and RAW processed with my film simulation preset, I prefer the JPEG.
Which made me wonder— if I had a camera like this, should I just give up RAW all together? I probably would.
Why not just shoot everything JPEG if it already looks awesome? It makes life easier. It simplifies your workflow.
Not only that, but there is a little dial in the front of the camera, which is pretty fun to change your settings from black and white to color, to some other modes. It borrows the design from the old-school PEN-F film camera (it used to be an ISO dial I believe).
When shooting the “Mono Profile 2” mode, I added a “low” film grain effect— which I felt looked pretty good. When I put it to “high” film grain effect, the effect looked a bit too fake and digital.
When shooting on the Olympus Pen-F, I shot everything in “P” (program) mode, ISO 1600, center-point autofocus, and -2/3 exposure compensation. The files and imaged looked phenomenal in JPEG straight-out of camera (Mono Profile 2).
The menus on the Olympus are a pain in the ass. Too much choice. My suggestion to Olympus for their future cameras: simplify their menus. Try to imitate the iPod — make the menus simple and easy to use.
I also recommend shooting the aspect ratio at 3:2 (which is standard for most cameras), instead of the default 4:3 aspect ratio.
Why the micro 4/3rds sensor is ideal for street/travel photography
I think the micro 4/3rds system is ideal for street/travel/general photography— because you get more depth of field with the 2x crop body.
That means shooting at f/4 is like shooting at f/8 on a full-frame sensor. That means you are more likely to have everything sharp and in-focus.
I think bokeh is overrated in photography. So if you want a camera that gives you super-epic bokeh, I wouldn’t recommend getting a micro 4/3rds system.
I know a lot of street and photojournalists who shoot with the micro 4/3rds system, and love it. Apparently a lot of Magnum photographers used to shoot with the Olympus OM-D series cameras as well.
Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens
I tested the Olympus Pen-F with the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens (after the 2x crop setting, it becomes roughly a 35mm full-frame equivalent focal length). It is the perfect lens. Very sharp, small, compact, autofocus is very fast and accurate, and it is a good size and weight. It perfectly complements the body.
LCD or EVF?
For me, I preferred just shooting with the LCD. Easier to use, rather than putting the EVF (electronic viewfinder) up to my eye.
But a cool thing you can do — flip the LCD screen backwards, so you are less likely to “chimp” (look at your LCD screen all the time). It becomes super-zen, just like shooting a film camera.
Shooting with the LCD
The LCD was big, bright, and fine shooting in bright daylight. I love shooting with the LCD, as it helps me “pre-visualize” the scenes I was shooting in black and white.
Because I was also mostly shooting JPEG, “what I saw is what I got.”
Shooting with the EVF
I also spent some time testing out the EVF (electronic viewfinder), by swiveling the LCD panel in the back, to hide it.
Shooting with the EVF was a fully-immersive experience. When you’re shooting with the EVF, the rest of the world suddenly doesn’t exist— only what is in your viewfinder.
It is a strangely zen-like experience. Not only that, but you see the world in black and white (as I was shooting in Monochrome 2 mode).
Furthermore, by having the LCD screen flipped backwards, I was less likely to “chimp” (to always check my photos after I shot them). Almost exactly like shooting with a film camera.
Going back to the design
I think more or less, the design of the Pen-F is perfect. Only thing I would get rid of is the video recording button on the top-right of the camera. I figure the user-base for the PEN-F are street photographers or travel photographers, who never shoot video. There is also a video dial you can change (if you ever used it).
Furthermore, I would change the design of the camera so there is a dedicated ISO dial.
But once again, the design of the camera is classic and will never die. It looks good, feels good in the hand, and performance-wise, has blown me out of the water.
The image quality is phenomenal for micro 4/3rds (I can’t notice much of a difference between this and most APS-C sensors). There is also barely any shutter-lag, and the buffering speed for processing the photos after you shoot is non-existent. I would actually say the design of the PEN-F reminds me more of a film camera than most digital Leica cameras.
Do I recommend the Pen-F?
Hell yes. Congratulations to Olympus for hitting a home-run with this camera. I never have really played with Olympus cameras in the past, but always knew they had the best autofocusing systems in the market.
Some personal thoughts on the Pen-F:
- Image quality: 9.5/10
- Autofocus: 9.5/10
- Design: 9.5/10
- Menus: 4/10
I never missed a single shot due to the autofocus of the Pen-F being slow. It is always fast and accurate.
Will I personally buy the Pen-F? No. I already am satisfied with the Ricoh GR II I already own, but I would highly recommend the Pen-F for any street/travel photographer— or even any general photographer. The autofocus is super fast, so I’d imagine it is good for photographing your kids, family, and pets.
It is also a great camera to travel with, if you want a compact, light, camera system with interchangeable lenses.
Micro 4/3rds vs other formats?
Moving forward, I want to study the Micro 4/3rds design some more. For me, it fits in with my “minimalist” life philosophy — opting for smaller sensors (instead of bigger sensors) and so-forth.
However I am a bit concerned that the Micro 4/3rds sensor isn’t going to be “future-proof.” In the consumer market, people are always going to want bigger sensors. It is because we are simpletons and think that “more megapixels = better image quality.” But I personally believe that more megapixels means more problems.
If you want the best “bang-for-the-buck” Micro 4/3rds setup, I recommend checking out the Olympus OM-10. It is small, cheap, and a great value. I briefly played with my friend’s OM-10, and liked it a lot.
Moving to JPEG?
Another takeaway from shooting with the Olympus Pen-F — I hope to start shooting more JPEG. The black and white JPEG’s out of the Monochrome 2 mode were incredible. Quite film-like, and pleasing to my eyes in terms of the aesthetics.
The benefit of shooting with JPEG was it helped simplify my workflow. I imported the JPEG images, quickly chose them in Lightroom, and made small exposure adjustments to some photos.
Because I was handling JPEG images in Lightroom (not RAW), the photos loaded faster, and also took up less storage space. And I also believe the benefit of shooting JPEG is that you have less control how to process your photos after you shoot it. It felt more like shooting film for me, and just playing with my scanned images.
RAW is amazing, and affords a lot more customization. But in today’s world, where we have barely enough time to shoot, I think JPEG will suit more photographers with a hectic schedule. I am trying to figure out ways to simplify my life/photography workflow— and shooting more JPEG might be one of these simplifications.
I outline some more thoughts in the article: 8 Reasons Why You Should Shoot in JPEG
It seems the trend for new digital cameras is going to the past. To harness classic design from the past. To simulate the look of old film cameras, both in terms of how the camera look, and how the photos look.
I see a great future in film-simulation JPEG presets that are built in-camera. Not only that, but I hope that future cameras will subtract superfluous buttons, dials, and complicated menus. I hope to also see more digital cameras that help you hide the LCD screen, just how the Pen-F allows you to swivel it backwards, of the Leica M-D which totally doesn’t have an LCD screen.
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