As I always preface these posts, this is not a review, this is just my experience of the Olympus Pen-F, how I came to own one and my general thoughts about it.
So why did I buy myself an Olympus Pen-F… well thats a long and convoluted story, but I will try and keep it simple 9some of this is a repeat of thoughts posted in my “whats in my bag- personal/street" post… but I will dive deeper.
Back in 2013 I had an X-Pro1. I bought it as a personal camera/ backup to my wedding kit, that was made up of Canon equipment (5d2 etc). I had found myself in a place where I wasn’t doing much day to day personal shooting, because the 5d2 etc was just too bulky and not really very subtle to pull out for candid family shots. I got my hands on the Fujifilm X-Pro1 and loved it. It took me back to the days of my Canon AE1 with and aperture dial and tactile controls. It was simple and even a bit slow, which I kind of liked. I had to be more deliberate… that took me down the rabbit hole and journey of replacing my canon kit with Fuji’s, ultimately running with the XT-2’s, X100T and the old X-Pro1. I actually gave that camera away to another photographer who was going through a bit of personal crisis, as a way for them to experience a different way of shooting, and as they were heading overseas on an NGO trip, and I knew it would be a good carry around camera for them. Anyway, after some headaches with my Fujis ( some failures, turning into bricks and not writing images to the cards) I went back to DSLR’s, ditching my Fuji kit completely. It was at the time that the D850 was being released, so this was the direction I went. I don’t regret that decision for a moment. I cannot fault them aside from one factor.. size.
With some family stuff going on, I wanted to start shooting more day to day stuff. I tried taking my D750 and a prime lens with me, but it was still just that little bit too chunky. I briefly entertained the idea of one of the new Nikon Z series, but when I got my hands on one at a workshop last year, despite being an awesome camera, it didn’t offer any serious size/weight saving over the D750. I realised I kinda missed my X-Pro1 and X100S/T’s… I jumped online and started looking at used X-Pro1, 2 and X100S/T/F’s. There were so many things I loved about them, especially in the X-Pro2 and X100T/F with their acros and classic chrome picture styles. I did have a loan of an X-Pro2 a couple of years ago, and it was a fantastic camera, but in a lot of ways I felt it had lost some of the soul of the X-Pro1, and started to feel more technology than machine. I leaned towards the X100 series, but the lack of true lens interchangeability held me back.
I thought about what it was that I wanted. Something X100 size, rangefinder/retro styling (more because DSLR styling tends to impact the subjects reaction more than something that “looks like an old camera”). I wanted something that put out really nice JPGs so that I could not have to worry about post, that would give me what I wanted SOOC. so we had a list. Small, interchangeable lens, rangefinder style, and lastly, under $2000 with a lens (there goes any Leica). Fellow wedding photographer Bradley Hanson had recommended I check out the Pen-F some time ago, and so I found myself looking at reviews online. As I said in my street photography gear post, I was worried about the small sensor, but another chat with Bradley, a chat with another Olympus shooting photographer and I was pretty well decided, I would grab one and give it a go. It ticked all the boxes on paper, but would it fall short on results?
I do like to shop local as much as I can, but when I looked into it, none of my local suppliers that carried them could/would match the deal I could get at Digidirect, so I jumped on and ordered a Pen-F street kit. Body plus 17mm f1.8 lens.
One week later my camera arrived. I popped the battery on to charge, grabbed an SD card and looked it over as I waited.
The first thing that struck me was that it was tiny. Maybe even slightly smaller than an X100… and I have big hands. I could wrap my hand around it and touch my fingers to my thumb. Seriously small. but it had heft. The body just feels solid, you get the impression that there is not a cubic millimetre of wasted space inside. Immediately the things I liked about it (before turning it on) were:
Physical size/weight. Small but solid.
Physical knurled metal dials for On/Off, Mode, Shutter Speed, Aperture, Exposure Compensation.
the thoughtful placement of the little thumb grip, than somehow made the camera feel perfectly balanced in my large hands.
The design of the tilty/flippy/spinny LCD. when reversed and stowed, a nice leather look grip finish to hide it.
The clutch on the lens focus ring.
surprisingly, even without turning it on, just the feel and placement of the picture style dial seemed right… but I was reserving full judgement until I turned it on.
Now I know this camera was built as an homage to the original Pen-F film camera, and so the front dial was there to honour the shutter speed dial on the front, and there are definitely design features that echo the original, but my first thought was that it reminded me of a Leica IIIf.
Anyway, the battery was soon charged, and I fired it up. Now I am a RTFM kinda guy… a habit ingrained from my former career as a commercial pilot and flight instructor. You were expected to know every system and button before you sat yourself in the front seat, and so I am no different with cameras. I switched it on, and with the manual in hand, started exploring the menus systematically, until I was familiar with all the menus and functions enough to start shooting in my usual way. This included a couple of tweaks, such as mapping the rec button to ISO, and setting the EVF to display the way I wanted it to.
So, with it now powered up and ready to go I started shooting stuff.
I’m not going to bore you with those first images, they were of stuff like my keyboard, coffee cup, my other cameras. the view from my window etc. but after a bit of a play I was happy, I could start using this how I wanted.
I’m going to cut straight to the chase here. I have had zero bad experiences with this camera. The files are beautiful, even at less MP and from a smaller sensor, for my personal work, and even for a bit of my wedding work, they are more than adequate. I know that Olympus has its haters, as does any brand… I am brand agnostic. The best tool for the job. When I put a picture up on Facebook of my new toy, I even got comments such as “yuck” from a brand fanatic. I really don’t think thats a fair comment.. I even used to shoot their brand, and this camera is every bit as capable, for what I am using it for, as any other camera… In the profession of photography, we should be over that stuff. Is it the perfect camera? No. That doesn’t exist. Is it a sports camera? No. Is it a camera for creating huge landscape prints from? Maybe? What sort of camera is it? it is the sort of camera I need for the personal photography I am doing, and is capable enough that it goes in my bag with me everywhere, including weddings… just in case. Could I shoot a whole wedding with it? Yes… but I’d be working right on the edge at times.
So, to continue my list from above, once it was turned on, what did I like:
The level of customisation.
The picture styles (particularly the Mono2 style)
The SOOC jpegs.
The IBIS- that 5 axis system is crazy good, I’ve handheld shots at 2 seconds with no shake.
That front dial- while appearing gimmicky at first, it is awesome, with the ability to jump to and from my favourite styles at a click, or back into neutral.
Live Composite & Live Time. These are awesome for in-camera creativity. Something to talk more about later.
In Camera Multi Exposure. This is a rarely used feature in any of my cameras, and each does it differently. I just like the way Olympus does it more that the others I have used. I’ll talk about tis later as well.
Hi Res mode… crazy in camera stacking of multiple images using the sensor shift to create large mp RAWs… this is one of Olympus dark magic spells… it works though!
The LCD with tap to focus and tap to shoot.
WYSIWYG. I missed this feature of mirrorless. Its nice to see the result before you press the button.
AF- accurate and fast.
Lenses- I have grabbed the 17, 25 and 45 1.8 M.Zuikos as my carry around kit. I can actually hold all three lenses and the camera in one hand. They are small but they punch way above their weight.
WiFi- Yeah, not uncommon these days, BUT, I will say the Olympus system is hands down better than the Nikon, with the app and camera connecting solidly and flawlessly every time.
In summary, I chose this over the alternatives just because it ticked all the boxes and had that indefinable something that I was looking for. For personal shooting it is great family doesn’t even flinch when raise the camera to my eye, life just goes on as if there is no camera present. I haven’t hit the street with it yet, but cannot wait, I am itching to go see what I can find. Does the smaller sensor mean any sacrifices? well yes… a little DR, so I tend to expose right a bit to preserve shadow detail, at the expense of a few highlights. DoF is obviously greater, but I really don’t care about that. Even with the f1.8 lenses its shallow enough wide open to be effective, but I am usually shooting this at f4-f8 for personal candid stuff. I do also have to throw in a comment about what I thought was the funniest thing I had seen in ages. The tiny little flash that comes with it. It seriously looks like a speed light for a doll. Its so small. But it throws out plenty of light, and the fully swivelling/tilting head means that you can bounce it. I gave it a go on the dancefloor at a wedding recently and was speechless at how effective it was. Never judge a book buy its cover- or size!
So the final word on this is that I really do love this little camera. It is the right camera for what I want it for, and has caused me to rethink a lot of my perceptions regarding m4/3 and mirrorless cameras. I have used it daily, at every family gathering, at home with my kids and even taken it to a couple of weddings and used it on the job. I love using it, and it has also immediately impacted the way I shoot and think about my images as I create them.
In the words of Rick Blaine “ Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”