Hands-on: The Olympus PEN-F is about more than its retro good looks
When the Olympus PEN-F was announced, we said it was one of the best-looking cameras we'd seen in quite a while, and couldn't wait to get our hands on one. Well now, after spending a bit of quality time with the mirrorless shooter at the Photography Show 2016 in Birmingham, we're even more smitten, because the camera appears to have a personality to match its looks.
Olympus followed in Fujifilm's footsteps by giving its mirrorless cameras a retro-styling, but its attempts arguably fell short of the standard set by the Fujifilm X100 and X-Pro lines of cameras. Now the firm has finally got it right, and the PEN-F is the camera we'd hoped the PEN E-P5 would be when it was launched to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the classic camera.
The Olympus PEN-F comes in two color options, silver or black, and while the silver looks better on the page, in person the black offering has a more classy feel to it. In the hand the camera feels very solid, about as good as any other mirrorless camera we've handled, and we particularly liked it with the optional grip attached.
The premium feel is added to by little features such as the lack of visible screw heads – you'll have to take the lens off if you want to see one. All of this means the camera comes across as being purposeful and well planned, nothing feels like an accident. Given the stylized marketing Olympus is giving the PEN-F, it's clear the firm is targeting the sort of photographers who notice these little things.
Size-wise the PEN-F strikes a nice balance between portability and ergonomics. Because the camera uses a Micro Four Thirds image sensor, it could be smaller, but as we saw with the Panasonic GM1, smaller isn't always better. Especially if it means the physical controls become too fiddly for some people to use.
There are plenty of dials and buttons on the camera for enthusiast photographers to access and adjust settings. This, along with the addition of a very capable OLED electronic viewfinder with 2.36 million dots, makes the PEN-F feel like a more grown-up and serious camera than some of the previous devices in the series like the E-PL7 which was all about appealing to selfie-fans and more casual snappers.
These controls also include a new creative dial on the front, and a rocker on the rear, which can be used to make either advanced color adjustments, or to apply a selection of art filters. The filters now appear Instagram-style with colorful examples below your image. Built-in Wi-Fi also gives you the chance to quickly share shots, and Olympus' wireless implementation is up there with the best in terms of being simple and reliable, whether you're sharing or using remote control functions.
Autofocus is pleasingly zippy for a mirrorless camera, and should be able to keep up with most people's needs, even if it isn't quite as fast as that on the Sony A6300. If you're shooting using the rear monitor you can tap to focus and shoot, but another feature which impressed us is that, when using the electronic viewfinder, you can swipe your thumb on the monitor below to move the focus and exposure point.
A trade show exhibition hall isn't the best place to test the image quality of a camera, as such we won't go into too much detail now. Instead we'll wait until we get to test the PEN-F for a full review. However, even viewing images on the rear screen shows that the jump from 16 to 20-megapixels allows a welcome jump in captured detail, while not having any detrimental implications on image quality.
The use of a Micro Four Thirds sensor is no longer the photographic restriction it was a couple of years ago. MFT cameras can now produce high image quality in most lighting conditions (the PEN-F has an ISO range of 200 to 25,600) and have the benefit of enabling cameras to be smaller, along with the lenses they use.
If you are in the market for a stylish mirrorless camera, the US$1,100 PEN-F is well worth a look, and it's nice to see the PEN series get an update of the same calibre as the OM-D E-M1 or E-M5 Mark II. It's also good to see Olympus turn out a camera which can rival Fujifilm in the looks department.
Product page: Olympus PEN-F