I wanted the Olympus PEN-F since the moment it came out. Why?
- I started my digital interchangeable lens journey with MFT and some of my favorite images ever were produced with that system. (Co-Op City, The Bronx)
- Have, adore, and wrote a blog post about the original half frame film PEN-FT for KEH.com. I LOVE this film camera and cannot possibly be unbiased about any camera named after and shaped somewhat like it (sample photos taken with it here and one below).
Combine the two bullets above, along with my appreciation for the film Olympus OM10 (on the left below), and try as I might I could not fight the allure of this camera. Why fight it? Initially, a lack of 4K combined with the steep price played a part in my early hesitation. But I rarely shot with 4K and since then I had purchased a reasonably priced dedicated 4K camera for when I did. Had also moved on to APS-C and then full frame sensors since my early MFT days so on paper going back to MFT made no sense. But then…
Was reminded that making a good picture is about more than sensor size and MP count by a recently acquired, and quite wonderful, 6MP Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D.
Was reminded that while larger sensors have their place, as my “serious” work preference personally for instance, they are by no means a requirement for daily use.
What first opened me back up to MFT was when I picked up a heck of a bargain in that Panasonic G7 I alluded to earlier as a dedicated video camera to shoot more video in the upcoming year. With this came a realization. If you are just entering the interchangeable lens digital game MFT is a better value now than it was when I picked up an E-PL5 years back. While never that expensive to begin with there were now some MFT lenses that were outright bargains. Namely:
- Panasonic 25mm f/1.7: The price has gone up since, but at the time it was going for only $149 on special before Christmas. As previously cataloged I have no defense when it comes to inexpensive 50mm equivalent lenses. Bought this on GP.
- Olympus 30mm f/3.5 macro: Currently on sale for $149 this is a small lightweight lens that magnifies to 2.5x… What! Again, bought this on GP. Yes, previously owned the wonderful Olympus 60mm macro, but owing to its smaller size, lighter weight, more flexible focal length (60mm equivalent, rather than 120mm), and lower price this was a no-brainer for me.
- Standard issue Olympus 40-150mm: While there is a much pricier and better spec’d constant f/2.8 variant available it is difficult to find better value than the older model for capability, IQ, size, and price. (Central Park, NYC)
- Olympus 45mm f/1.8: A great portrait length lens for around $250. What is not to like? Also has good reach. Zoom lenses were banned in this arena, but I was able to get these shots from the top nosebleed seats with the tiny 45mm.
- Panasonic 100-300mm Mega O.I.S.: A lens that reaches an equivalent 600mm in full frame terms that will not drain the bank account with O.I.S. is a good thing. I saved hundreds by finding a second-hand example at KEH.com.
- Olympus 17mm f/1.8: Last but not least is a lens that was a must for me. It just looks right on the PEN-F and is an excellent near 35mm equivalent.
Then a pristine PEN-F example became available at my favorite local camera haunt I could resist no further. While on a test drive I had some realizations.
- IQ. This thing takes some fantastic pictures. Was previously happy with and expecting results a bit better than, owing to the 4MP bump, but similar to the E-PL5 and E-P5 before it. Nope. This thing is performing well above spec and well above the previous Olympus models.
- Very quiet. Like the PEN-F my A7Rii has a silent mode, unlike my A7ii (that I adore but is not stealthy in the least). But even in its normal shooting mode this thing barely makes a noise (same goes for the G7). A light ‘thip’ as opposed to the ‘thwack’ (or ‘click-thwack’ with e-front shutter disengaged) I am accustomed to. Also like the G7’s 4K 8MP constant stills 4K mode the H+ silent something mode on this is truly bizarre in its ability to amass a mess of stills silently in short order.
- Responsive. Surprisingly fast overall. Fast to start up. Fast to focus. Fast responses on the touchscreen.
- Touch focus. Had no idea how much I had missed touch focus until I had it again. And it is implemented very well here.
- Build quality. While the look is an homage to film cameras of the past, like others have done before with mixed results, the build quality is pretty spot on. It has the best feeling switchgear of near any modern digital camera I have held. The all metal knurled knobs, etched lettering, properly tensioned resistance to the dials, and even the functional metal threaded shutter release that works with the same cable release I use for my film cameras. Some other ‘retro-theme’ digital cameras feel like toys by comparison. Well done.
- Image stabilization. In body 5 axis image stabilization. They say it is improved over previous versions and I have no reason to doubt this. Handheld shots at night are a breeze.
- Articulating screen. Thought I would prefer a flip out only variant, but it has already come in quite handy. Just a couple of nights ago I was able to easily shoot a birthday dinner speech behind me where turning around in such a tight seating arrangement would have meant missing part of it as well as disrupting the speech.
- Stealthy or at least non-threatening. It is nearly invisible out and about. The small size and decidedly non-DSLR-ish vintage film camera like aesthetic really pays dividends in informal settings. For example at that same birthday event I was able to snap away with no one really minding. Past experience tells me that folks would have been a little more tense with a more ‘business’ looking DSLR or DSLR shaped mirrorless.
- Compact. While not the smallest camera it is fully wrist strap (Gordy strap highly recommended by the way) friendly.
- ART dial. With a design that apes this cameras namesake it has an ART dial dealie where the ISO dial is on the original PEN F(T). Thought it was a gimmick, but I do find myself using it to quickly switch to black and white. Even more efficient than my custom of setting the 2nd memory slot to black and white.
Minuses? Like I mentioned up front, no 4K and a bit pricier than I would like.
Combine all this goodness and something interesting happened. Bought this camera as an everyday alternative to my Sony twins, and expected it to share time with my preferred film cameras. But what surprised me is that this camera has nearly displaced my film camera use entirely. Ask me why I usually prefer film cameras and I could not give you a firm answer. Suspected it was a “feel” or nostalgia thing. If true this camera must trick that part of my psyche.
My 35mm cameras have seen precious little use since I acquired it.
Plus as an added bonus since it is mirrorless with the aid of a simple $13 adapter I can use the vintage PEN FT 40mm f/1.4 lens I love on this PEN-F if ever I want to get a little more of an old-school feel. Analog Olympus PEN-F lens on a digital Olympus PEN-F.
The old and new combined with a little ART dial dealie action produced this:
Plus as a side note thanks to my Godox lighting set up (write up in progress) with just one inexpensive $80 TT350O I now have a HSS TTL flash (with inbuilt radio trigger) that also drives my current brand agnostic Godox/Adorama flashpoint radio HSS TTL flash kit.
If need be this camera, flash, and the 45mm f/1.8 is all the kit I would need for a lightweight portrait set up.
So who is this camera for in my opinion? A few suggestions:
- Someone who currently shoots vintage film cameras and is looking for a digital alternative that preserves some of the size, look, and feel of shooting film. Occasionally I flip the screen around completely which has a textured feel like the front covering when I want a minimalist experience that reminds me of shooting on the PEN FT. Also keeps me from obsessively checking the last image.
- Someone who has a dedicated prime “serious” set up that they are not interested in carrying around every day. I love my A Team set up. But those cameras and lenses, while smaller than DSLR gear, still take up sizable real estate due to the unavoidable physics of a larger sensor. With MFT you can go out with a camera and lens in one jacket pocket along with a couple of other lenses tucked away in other pockets and you are good for the day (bring an extra battery).
- Someone that mostly shoots for personal reasons, but may do the occasional professional shoot. Do not discount the smaller sensor size. Aside from the most ardent pixel peeper I will wager that most customers would be perfectly happy with what this camera delivers. For social media and common print sizes nothing more is needed. The only thing lost is the ability to heavily crop afterward.
- Focus peaking. Flawless execution here.
I am sure there are other reasons, but these are the traits that sold me.
This is not the one camera to rule them all. Nor is it meant to be.
But if you are looking for a nice combination of form and real world function with a bit of nostalgia thrown in the PEN-F is worth a look. Normally I would include a closing gallery, but that was covered with the sample photos throughout this post. Ongoing album here.