Olympus Pen-F: A Substantial Digital Reboot?

 
Olympus PEN-F

Olympus PEN-F

With the Olympus PEN-F, Natasha Desai goes old school, while testing a digital makeover of a film favourite. But is it just faux retro or does it make itself relevant? She investigates.

When legendary Olympus designer, Yoshihisa Maitani, made the PEN-F in 1963, it revolutionalised the camera industry with its frame-saving capabilities. The half frame SLR camera was the first of its kind as it produced double the number of exposures in a roll of film, which was extremely cost-effective. It was also one of the smallest SLRs made because of the innovative changes it brought to the internal mechanism.

Interestingly, legendary photographer W Eugene Smith appeared in an ad in 1965 for the original PEN-F. Fast forward to 2016, Olympus releases the PEN-F in a digital avatar, with the highest resolution offered by an Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera yet. For the purpose of this review, the camera was tested with the 14–42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens.

Features

The PEN-F has a new 20.3MP Live MOS sensor and is equipped with 5-axis inbody stabilisation. It also comes with the capability to shoot a 80MP RAW file in its Multi-Shot mode and 50MP in JPEG. The caveat with this feature that we also saw in some of the recent OMD cameras, is that you need to use a tripod. The PEN-F features a 1/8000sec mechanical shutter and a 1/16,000sec electronic shutter. It has a 2.36 million dot OLED viewfinder and a 1.04m dot variangle touchscreen display, which has the ability to focus with touch and and release the shutter as well.

While there is no 4k present, the camera does shoot video in Full HD with the option of an Art Filter Movie effect. 4k shooting is available while making timelapses. With ergonomics that are definitely targetted at the serious enthusiast, the camera includes four custom sets on the mode dial, a much underrated feature that helps you save appropriate settings for different shooting situations. Just like the OM-D E-M1, the camera has a dedicated lever that can fine tune the tonal curve of a JPEG file on the fly. Olympus cameras provide the most amount of control when it comes to fine tuning the exact tonal response of a JPEG file, and if one spends some time doing this right, it can completely minimise the need to spend too much time in postprocessing. Like any aspect of printmaking, this also helps a serious photographer previsualise the photo and decide his settings accordingly.

Handling

Retro controls have been in vogue ever since Olympus announced their first MFT camera, another PEN, the E-P1. With both Fujifilm and Nikon having made attempts in the same direction, it has to be said that the choice to go old school in handling, is a delicate one. Some cameras do so fantastically, others falter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I liked how all the subtle hues in the blues of this images were captured pleasingly. Exposure: 1/1000sec at f/11 (ISO 200) Photographer/ Natasha Desai

The PEN-F does a decent job of recreating the look of the original film camera. But the retro exercise is more of a design choice, rather than one of functionality. This basically means that in actual operation, the camera actually resembles the other digital PENs. It’s only a slightly boxier body and the inclusion of a built-in EVF that’s different from the E-P series of cameras. There is another difference though. Much like the film camera, this one, too, has a big dial at the front, beside the lens. In the film days, this was a shutterspeed dial. Here, the shutterspeed-aperture operation is largely restricted to the regular exposure dials, and instead, the front dial allows you select between six JPEG presets (or six kinds of film, if you wish to make a retro connect). For a JPEG shooter, this, along with the tonal curve control we mentioned, makes the PEN-F an extremely intuitive camera with a lot of control.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The face detect mode was able to accurately detect the bus driver’s face and lock on. Exposure: 1/60sec at f/3.5 (ISO 200) Photographer/Natasha Desai

That said, it would have been interesting had this actually remained a shutterspeed dial, as that would have completely changed the design philosophy of the camera. The dedicated exposure compensation dial is useful, but would sometimes accidentally get engaged, when the camera was in the bag. The on–off button, particularly, is clumsy and cumbersome. and oddly placed, to the far left at the top of the camera.

Performance

The camera’s autofocus system is excellent, even while shooting in low light. It does struggle a bit while tracking moving subjects, and isn’t as efficient as the A6300 or the Nikon 1s, but it performs reasonably well. The new sensor is interesting. The spike in resolution is not much to speak of, an extra 4MP shows barely any difference in linear resolution, but considering how good most MFT lenses are, every bit counts. The JPEG files, if the right settings are chosen, are excellent, but if you wish to recover any blown-out highlights, you need to shoot RAW. Video quality is decent, but nowhere near as good as Panasonic or Sony.

What I really like about the PEN-F is its battery life, but if you are picking it up for street photography, which one guesses would be its prime use, you may want to invest in a spare.

Photograph/Natasha Desai

Photograph/Natasha Desai

Conclusion

A price tag of Rs. 81,990 is quite steep, especially because the weather-sealed OM-Ds are available for lesser. But while the price may largely be for the retro effort, this is, at this point of time, the best MFT sensor available. That said, the competition is quite stiff, considering that the Sony A6300 and Fujifilm X-T10, both cameras with similar features and superior sensors, are priced lesser.

 FINAL RATINGS
Features
20MP sensor, multi-shot RAW images
18/20
Performance
Fast and responsive AF, good image quality
38/40
Build Quality
Metal body with solid feel
12/15
Ergonomics
Good grip with thumbrest, allows one hand shooting, several customisable options
17/20
Warranty & Support
One year warranty, limited service network
3/5
MRP Rs. 81,990
OVERALL 88%
VALUE FOR MONEY 3/5
Who should buy it? Who should buy it? A street photography enthusiast
who travels a lot. Video enthusiasts have nothing here.
Why? Stylish design, good guts and great handling with a
good line up of lenses
Tags: better photography, Camera, camera price, Camera review, natasha desai, Olympus, Olympus PEN F