What Pen F really means… a review.

This is a mixed review, so heads up to those that get offended.

I wanted to love the Pen F.  What’s not to love!  It’s probably the best looking Pen and holds very true to Olympus’ design language.  It’s also small.  Very small.  It makes a great kit with a trio of small primes.  It literally packs a massive punch in something that is virtually the size of a large point and shoot.  It comes with a 20mp sensor, amazing color, and all the other goodies Olympus manages to squeeze into these cameras.  I got a massive surprise when I first started using this camera though.  It was really designed with a very specific ideal in mind.  (at least in my opinion)  It also strayed from usability in many ways in effort to highlight its beauty.  That’s a hard pill to swallow.  I like the form follows function ethos, especially when the two ideals marry and you generate brilliance.  That didn’t happen here.  If E-M1 stands for Excellence-Machine #1, Pen F stands for Pen Failure.  I hate to say it, but there are just a few things that would have made this camera so much better.  I just couldn’t live with this camera.  On the same note…there are many excellent qualities and reasons why it is worth every penny, and we’ll explore why.

Issues

Lets get my gripes out of the way.

  1. The SD card is a pain to remove.  I understand the body is small…but it is way too close to the door in the battery compartment.  It’s tough to pull out.  I recommend a large card…you don’t want to have to switch cards mid shoot.  It will take forever to get it out.
  2. The tripod hole is WAY too close to the lens mount.  Normally this isn’t usually problem.  However I found that it became a problem on a body this small.  I could not mount any of the pro lenses when a tripod plate was attached.  A solution is to use a Really Right Stuff plate or the Olympus grip with Arca foot built in.  Other generic plates that stick past the body will prevent large lenses.
  3. The viewfinder seemed smaller than usual.  Also, i don’t know if its just the design or what, but you get a tunnel view.  The light from the viewfinder reflects on the sides and the viewfinder seems like a screen that’s distant to your eye.  It was a bit distracting and just felt odd in use. I’ve never had this with Olympus’ other cameras.
  4. The Creative Mode Dial is ALWAYS in the way of a comfortable holding position.  At least for my hands.  It’s a rectangular flat camera.  My fingers want to line up right where that dial is.  On top of that, its metal finish is knurled and it kept scraping my hand.  Very uncomfortable.  Maybe this doesn’t happen with a grip attached…by why attach a grip to such a small slender body?  Wasn’t that the point?
  5. I normally love front body buttons but the custom button on the front is also poorly placed.  Maybe I kept hitting it because I had to compensate my hand position due to the creative dial?  Either way, I had to disable that button because it kept getting pressed.
  6. There is no really good button for rear focus.  Maybe the viewfinder switch button?  Fn1 is just too far out to use and still have a good grip.  The record button also puts you at an odd hand position.  Rangefinder style cameras need a solid hand position that shouldn’t move.  It should be effectively part of you when shooting.
  7. The articulating screen is very difficult to pull out…especially with gloves.  Why not have a large cutout for accessing its edge?  It has a small lip…that needs your finger or nail to really grab onto.  Again, big hands and gloves need not apply.
  8. Rear buttons are too small and too close.  I never felt this on the E-M5, E-M10, or E-PL for that matter.  On this camera I just kept hitting wrong buttons.
  9. Does not work with Olympus Capture.  NO TETHERING.  WHY?!?!?!?!

What I really liked

  1. The power switch!  Nice design and never inadvertently bumped.
  2. I also liked how firm the dials are.
  3. Small size overall

My recommendations

The creative dial should have taken the place of that weird dial under the mode dial.  We can use the SCP for all those functions.  If they HAD to have art filters accessible from a dial, just stick it there and clean the front up.  Oh well.

I recommend using the shutter button for focus on this camera.

I recommend disabling the front custom button.

I recommend using the REC button as the Focus Pointer select button.

I recommend using Fn1 as FP Home or anything else you use constantly.

I highly recommend using the Pen F with small primes.

It really seems this camera was designed as being a small lightweight street camera with a small prime attached.  No grip, no tripod plates, no studio work, etc…  With a 20mp sensor and high res mode, you would think studio work would be a great idea for this camera.  Too bad you can’t tether.  I wish I knew that BEFORE I took it on assignment doing art reproduction.  I literally had to take the card out after every shot and transfer to my computer.  Combine that with the card being impossible to remove…no it was not one of those effortless days.  And I longed to rush home to my E-M1.  Despite all of of that…the Phase One still stayed in it’s case…more on that in a minute…

The Pen F is really small.  It is a great carry around camera if you can get past of few of these flaws.  I call them flaws because they made me aware of the camera.  A camera should disappear into your hands and not draw attention to itself.  It should be effortless to use and you should not have to think about how to USE the camera while shooting.  I could never stop thinking about the camera body while in use.  Between hitting buttons inadvertently, wrong buttons getting hit on the rear, the creative dial in the way, struggling to open the screen, etc…  I was just too aware of the camera.  Maybe that’s just me.  I know many of you that read this site LOVE the Pen F.  There is a lot to love.  It really comes down to what your intent for the camera is.  I was hoping the Pen F could adapt itself to a wider use, but it really really loves what it is perfect at.  Being a small rangefinder-esque powerhouse with little tiny lenses.  Everything else just kinda comes without the poise of their other cameras.

Pen F

Pen F

Gorgeous body overall.  The texture, materials, etc… all are really nice.

Pen F rear

A nice touch is the textured screen rear.  A shame they don’t do this on all their bodies!  I think they tried to squeeze too much onto the rear though.

Pen F

Pen F Dial

A gorgeous camera would have been just fine WITHOUT that dial.Or maybe that dial could have been the one below the mode dial.  At least it doesn’t turn easily!

Pen F

Pen F underside

Yeah…try getting that card out efficiently…It’s VERY close to the door and hard to get a grip especially if you have large fingers.  Also note that tripod hole…

Pen F

Pen F top

Creative dial sticks out a bit far on such a small body and the knurling of the metal is rough of the hands.

 

Hi-Res Mode

One area the Pen F shines is the sensor.  Color was aesthetically very pleasing.  Olympus really has an upper hand when it comes to white balance.  Auto WB just gets it right.  Or at least pleasing.  Hi-res mode is awesome.  The sensor takes on very different characteristics.  The image is smoother, has less noise, and captures amazing detail.  Sharpening needs to be handled quite differently than the standard capture as well.  I will have some Hi-Res preset updates soon in my basic preset download.  The other interesting aspect was the color reproduction.  Here are three crops from high res mode showcasing a color chart.  I am showing three different profiles.  The proper Xrite profile is the benchmark.  The Olympus profile and even the Adobe Profile were really really close.  I am used to other cameras having wild swings on colors to align with a color chart.  Color reproduction with this sensor is wonderful.  I was able to capture colors and tones with very little post adjustment.  It really looks good.  I directly compared this with my Phase One P45 and they were SOOO close.  It was really hard to decide which file to ultimately use.  The single shot medium format obvious made working easier, especially with 1/800 sync speed.  The larger file of the Hi-res mode with no moire was very desirable however.  Colors and details were too close to call.  In the end I went with the Pen F and the 40-150mm lens. (luckily that lens has a plate on its foot so the camera didn’t need one!)  Couldn’t be happier with the results!  In my opinion the prints even look better than the original art!  I would love to show that work, but it is still not cleared for public display.

 

XRite Calibrated Profile Profile

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camera Natural Profile

Adobe Standard Profile

 

All in all the Pen F is a good camera.  It has some annoying attributes, while looking like a million bucks.  It works for a lot of you, but it didn’t do it for me overall.  My preference would have been the E-M5mkII instead.  If you love to run around town with a 25mm F/1.8 though…this is your camera.  The images off the sensor are just wonderful.  What are your thoughts?  How have you loved and lived with the Pen F?

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https://unlockingolympus.com/2016/12/what-pen-f-really-means-a-review/

2 thoughts on “What Pen F really means… a review.

  1. Hi Tony,

    Basically enjoy your site. It helped me move from Nikon D610 (sold) and D7000 to the PEN-F.

    On the D610, I was able to assign the depth of field to “front button focus”. I really like it, but the D7000 couldn’t be configured that way, so put the D610 back to BBF.

    So regarding issues 5 & 6 above: I’ve assigned the front DoF button to focus. It works very well for me, esp. shooting one-handed.

    Adding the Flipbac grip alleviates the Creative Dial issues for me, making it tolerable. And the Creative Dial has me playing with B&W, which I wouldn’t do otherwise.

    As for the SD card: unfortunately, it’s easier to remove than in my HP notebook computer (only 7 mos. old).

    Since I came to the PEN-F from DSLRs, I didn’t have any preconceived notions of how things should be laid out and work.

    Anyway, just found this article, and thought I’d offer some counterpoint.

    Thanks again for the website,

    Cheers & regards,

    –George

    1. Very good counterpoints. Especially about using the camera with a grip. In fact, a grip always makes cameras that have a classical or rangefinder style body much easier to manage. Thanks for your comments, they are always welcome and looked forward to George!

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