2019-update: The Olympus Pen-f is now out of production, and will soon be considerably harder to find new in box. However, there are still great samples available in used markets, such as eBay.
If you’re looking for a solid, stylish, compact street camera with good image quality and a large selection of great, affordable lenses, look no further than the Olympus Pen-f. If you can live with a few of its shortcomings that is.
As you may have read already, I bought the Olympus Pen-f last Christmas, as a gift to myself. In this review you will learn what I think about it after several months of use.
Olympus Pen-f look & build
The Pen-F is a beauty. A camera that really begs to be picked up and played with. This might not be important to everyone, but to me I find this to be a very important factor in a camera. If a camera looks and feels good, it’s more likely I’ll be tempted to pick it up, go out and shoot.
The Pen-f is a beauty. A camera that really begs to be picked up and played with.
Whenever I hand the Pen to a friend, they’re immediately surprised by how heavy it is. And for its size, it is fairly weighty at 434 grams / 0.957 lbs. It feels very solid in hand, with no creaking sounds to be found.
What’s even more impressive is the total lack of any visible screws on the outside of the camera. How was this thing put together?? Props to Olympus for creating such a solid construction. It feels like a camera that will last for years.
The quality hinges on the battery door (pun intended)
In spite of the seemingly great build, there is still one thing that bothers me about the it, and that’s the battery door. It’s beyond me why they chose to go with such a cheap feeling, flimsy, plasticky battery door when every other part of the camera feels so sturdy.
The locking mechanism feels especially weak: A tiny little plastic tongue is all that keeps the door locked shut. That said, I haven’t met any problems with it yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I have to look for a new battery door in the future. Especially since the door is opened every time I need access to the battery or memory card – that’s almost daily if you’re a heavy shooter.
When I’m out in the streets I prefer to carry my camera in my hand, with a simple hand strap attached to it. That means the grip has to be comfortable enough for me to carry the camera for prolonged periods of time. It also means I should be able to reach most settings and buttons with one hand. Unfortunately, the Pen-F has some shortcomings in these areas, which I’ll go through below.
1. Button Placement
The Pen has a lot of buttons. So many in fact, I’ve turned off several of them. Some might think that’s crazy, but I prefer my cameras to have only the bare necessities in terms of buttons and functions. However, I’m not here to talk about the amount of buttons. With some of them turned off, the camera feels fine.
One of the things that upset me the most with the button placement on the camera is the on/off switch. It’s cool looking and all, looking like an old school analog rewind lever. But. It’s on the left side of the camera. Which means I can’t turn on the camera one-handed.
This might be a small thing for most, but I prefer the efficiency of being able to control as much of the camera as possible with my right hand. With the on/off switch on the left side, I have to hold the camera with both hands every time I want to turn it on or off.
2. The Grip – Or the lack of one
On the front of the camera there really isn’t any grip to speak of at all. To make matters worse, the art filter wheel has a tendency to grind against my up-yours-finger – something that becomes annoying after a few hours of shooting.
… the art filter wheel has a tendency to grind against my up-yours-finger
There is, however, a little thumb grip on the back. Without this little bump the camera would be very hard to hold on to, so I’m glad Olympus included that at least. However, the camera still leaves something to be desired in the ergonomics area.
If you like it, put a ring grip on it
I ended up, like many others, putting a grip on my Pen. There is an official Olympus grip that goes for about 120 euros or about 150 dollars online. That’s a lot for a simple metal thingie that screws onto your camera to make it feel like it should have felt from the beginning.
As I couldn’t justify the price of the official Olympus-one, I went with one from Meike instead. It’s largely similar to the official version from Olympus, but clocked in at a significantly lower price of 63 euros including express delivery from Amazon. Without shipping you’re looking at approximately 45 euros at the time of writing.
It’s even Arca-Swiss compatible – if you for some reason are planning to put your run-and-gun street photography tool on an expensive tripod.
The grip screws onto the camera using the tripod mount, and has a hole on the bottom for easy access to the battery and memory card. It’s even Arca-Swiss compatible – if you for some reason are planning to put your run-and-gun street photography tool on an expensive tripod. Hey, I’m not judging! As you will see further down in this review, the high-res mode on the camera is pretty darn impressive, but you will need a tripod for it.
If you want to pick up the grip for yourself, go look for the Meike MK-ECG4 on eBay using the link above. Using that link ensures the continued survival of this site, so buying anything using that link would give me a little piece of what you pay – with no extra cost for you. If you’re all about the real deal, you could check out the official Olympus ECG-4 grip.
Pen-f image quality
With build and ergonomics out of the way, let’s move on to image quality. Below I examine each factor of the image quality. Bear in mind my tests are in no way scientific, and solely based on my own biased, personal opinion.
If you’re looking for scientific tests of the Olympus Pen-f, there are plenty of other sites that will give you that, such as this Pen-f review on DxOMark.
I’ve been happy with the dynamic range of the camera in all but the most trying conditions. However, in scenes with extremely high contrast, the highlights tend to burn out if you push them too far. Underexposing a bit tends to do the trick, as the shadows retain detail better than the highlights. When raising the shadows there is a decent amount of latitude in the RAW-files, but noise will start to creep in if you push the files too far.
High-ISO has never been the strong suit of micro four thirds cameras. This camera is no exception, and it doesn’t take long before noise starts to show. Even the base ISO of 200 images have hints of noise if you stick your nose too close to the screen. Personally I’m comfortable using it up to about ISO 3200 for colour shots, and up to 6400 in black and white. But keep in mind you’ll be looking at considerable amounts of noise at that point. And colors will also start to smudge a bit. Thankfully, image stabilization is here to save you from ever user those high ISO’s.
Incredible in-body image stabilization
Image stabilization in this camera is amazing. So good in fact, any run-of-the-mill shaky grandma can capture sharp photos with it. This alone goes a long way in making up for the slightly below par high-ISO capabilities of the camera. With such good sensor stabilization, you can generally keep ISO quite low – even when it’s dark outside.
While I’ve heard about people hand-holding exposures of 1-2 seconds, my own limit is usually around the half second-mark with my 17mm 1.8 mounted. That means I can get sharp, close to noise free photos. Even at night.
The 80 megapixel high-res mode
The Pen-f has what is called pixel-shift high resolution mode. By moving the sensor using the sensor stabilisation mechanism, the Pen captures an image 4 times the original resolution, giving you a massive 80 megapixel image, if you choose to shoot in RAW. The dimensions of these photos are an insane 10 368 x 7776!! Shooting in jpeg will give you a 50 megapixel file instead, which is nothing to scoff at either.
High-res mode also brings with it better dynamic range and less noise than normal files. In the right hands this mode can be truly powerful. Moving on, we’ll take a look at some of the sample shots I got when testing the mode myself.
The first sample shot below was taken with the tiny 17mm 1.8 from Olympus, shot at f4. Not the sharpest lens in the drawer, but the resolution is still jaw dropping. With an even better lens, this mode has amazing potential!
And here is a 100% crop of the same image, from approx. middle of the frame. Notice some movement in the upper right.
Next i photographed a tree standing by a lake. The details in the bark made it the perfect subject for further testing. This one was shot with the Olympus 25mm 1.8, also at f4. I feel like this one brought out even more details.
Here is another 100% close-up, showing just how well the high-res mode works.
And while these are impressive results, I’m sure there are even better quality photos to be had with some of Olympus or Panasonics best lenses. Also, keep in mind that the pixel-shift high resolution mode only works for subjects that are completely still. Any movement at all, and the photo will get weird artefacts. That’s because the camera captures several photos in a row, and puts them together into one, enormous image.
Either way it’s a really cool mode that I will certainly play more with in the future!
The world seems split on the art filters of the Pen-F: Some say it’s a gimmick, while others use it all the time. I tend to shoot in RAW most of the time, and for that reason you’d think the art-filter knob on the front of the camera would be completely useless for me.
However, I find it nice to be able to turn the knob and see an image closer to what the finished product will look like, already before I take the shot. This also works a charm for black and white photos, and it definitely helps me visualise and even think in black and white.
EVF & screen
The electronic viewfinder on the Pen-F looks great. It’s of the OLED-type, meaning you get great contrast and black levels. This is especially noticeable at night, where LCD-finders tend to look extremely washed out in in dark scenes. Colours seem bright and clear, and it’s also quite sharp.
Even if it’s nice, I do have some complaints. For one, it does seem a little bit small. Being used to the comparably huge viewfinder of the Olympus E-M1, this one feels a bit on the small. That being said, I don’t find the size a huge problem.
Another minor annoyance with the EVF, is the eye sensor. If you’re shooting with strong backlight, like the sun, the eye-sensor tends to think there’s no eye on the viewfinder at all. To negate this I’ve had to clumsily cover the sensor with my finger to make the viewfinder turn on.
You can always activate EVF-only mode, where the viewfinder is always active, but that kills the convenience of the automatic switching between screen and viewfinder. This wasn’t a huge problem either, as it didn’t happen very often, but it still bothered me when it did.
The sensor on the Pen relies on contrast detect auto-focus technology, and it does a decent job from my experience. In decent lighting auto-focus has been really reliable and snappy. Focusing in darker areas has been good too, for the most part, but when it gets really dark you can expect some hunting.
I haven’t tried focus tracking much, as it isn’t something I usually make use of. Manual focus, however, works a treat – thanks to the efficient focus peaking. This way it’s easy to see what’s in focus and not. In fact, the EVF is so sharp you might not even need peaking at all, although your mileage may vary depending on eyesight etc.
Battery life among mirrorless cameras has been debated a lot for the past few years, and not without reason: It simply hasn’t been good enough compared to that of typical DSLR’s. On that note, the battery life of the Pen is about on par with other mirrorless cameras of its generation. It’s not great, but it’s also not horrible.
The CIPA-rating lands on 330 shots per charge. If you’re a heavy shooter, that number is probably realistic. For me, I always tend to get way fewer shots per charge than the ratings imply. Likely because I spend more time framing each shot – along with spending more time looking at photos on the screen between shots.
Either way I’m completely at ease with the battery life, and I’ve yet to see the day were I needed more than one battery for a day of shooting. That being said, I always turn the camera off between shots. For working photographers it will probably be a good idea to pick up one- or maybe two extra batteries, to be on the safe side. The same goes for anyone wanting to travel for a few days without access to an outlet.
Olympus Pen-f for street photography
I imagine a lot of people buy this camera for street photography. That’s why I bought it myself. The Pen-f is practically made for the street – at least judging by its styling and looks.
For the most part the camera’s feature set also lends itself well to street photography, with its stealthy looks, silent shutter option and middle sized M43 sensor – giving you more depth of field to play with than a lot of bigger-sensored peers. The latter can be a pro or a con, depending on your use case and personal preference.
Silent shutter and depth of field
Personally, I think the added depth of field from an M43 sensor, compared to APS-C and full frame cameras, works quite well in the street. It means I can shoot with bigger apertures, and still have most of my scene in focus. It also simplifies manual- and zone focusing, and lets me have most of the frame in focus, even when it’s dark.
The silent shutter is also a Godsend, letting me take photos of people close up. Photos that I’d never dare take otherwise. Rolling shutter is present here, but it’s really not that bad. Actually I shot most of the photos in this review with silent shutter activated. There was quite a bit of movement happening when I took some of them – nothing of which can be noticed in the final product.
Purchasing the Pen-f (or any other product) through the eBay link below, leaves me a small percentage of the purchase price, to no extra cost for you. That way I can keep site site running! Thank you 🙂