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Olympus Pen-F review

When Olympus launched its first Micro Four Thirds camera, the Pen E-P1, back in 2009, it made great play of its heritage harking back to the legendary Pen-F half-frame 35mm SLR. But with its latest mirrorless model it’s gone a step further, not only appropriating more of its predecessor’s 1950s design cues, but also its name. Meet the oh-so-pretty Pen-F, Olympus’s first flat-bodied compact system camera to include a built-in viewfinder.

However, that’s not the Pen-F’s only point of interest. It’s also the first Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera to feature a 20-million-pixel sensor, which does without an optical low-pass filter to maximize resolution. It’s likely to be the same sensor as Panasonic uses in the Lumix DMC-GX8 and, if so, we can expect to see useful improvements in image quality compared to Olympus’s previous models.

Despite its name, the Pen-F bears little resemblance to its rather minimalist forebear. Instead, it looks like a digital reincarnation of the iconic Leica Ill 35mm rangefinder, with top and front-plate dials in many of the same places. The result is a camera that looks gorgeous.

Features

Lurking behind the Pen-F’s nostalgic exterior is a very up-to-date camera. The 20-million-pixel sensor and TruePic VII processor combine to offer a standard sensitivity range of ISO 200-25,600, with a pulled ISO 80-equivalent LOW setting for bright light shooting. The mechanical shutter offers speeds from 1/8000sec-60secs, and a silent electronic shutter option giving an even faster 1/16000sec maximum.

Continuous shooting is available at up to 1 Ofps, with a 16-frame raw buffer, and autofocus uses an 81-point contrast  detection system. The Pen-Falso includes essentially the same 5-axis in-body IS system as the OM-DE-MS II that’s said to offer fully 5 stops of stabilisation, according to Camera & Imaging Products Association (CIPA) standard testing. Olympus’s high resolution composite mode is on board too, which combines eight exposures to give a 50-million-pixel image.

There’s no built-in flash, but the Pen-F will ship with the small FL-LM3 flash unit. This has a bounce-and-swivel head and can act as a wireless controller for off-camera units. A fairly conventional looking video spec is included, with full HD recording at up to 60fps and built-in stereo microphones.

Build and handling

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With a predominantly aluminium body shell, the Pen-F’s build quality reflects its premium price. All the dials are milled  rather than cast, giving a precise, tactile feel. The camera’s retro credentials are reinforced by the power switch, which resembles a film-rewind knob, and the shutter button, which is threaded for a good old-fashioned cable release. Unlike Olympus’s high-end OM-Ds, though, the Pen-F isn’t described as weather sealed.

In terms of controls and handling, the Pen-F is something of a departure from recent Olympus designs. It’s the first of the company’s Micro Four Thirds models to sport a dedicated exposure compensation dial, covering 3EV in 1/3EV steps. Twin electronic dials, front and rear, control other exposure settings The exposure-mode dial has a toggle lock button, and gains four numbered ‘C’ positions for saving and recalling user-defined set-ups.

A new dial on the front-plate, positioned in the same place as the film Pen-F’s shutter-speed dial, gives access to the camera’s image processing settings. Alongside Olympus’s familiar art filters and color-creator mode are two new options. Monochrome-profile control allows you to mimic the effects of using colored lens filters with black & white film, manipulate contrast and add vignetting. Meanwhile, the color-profile control mode allows you to selectively emphasize different hues in the image.

Viewfinder and screen

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Impressively, Olympus has managed to fit an electronic viewfinder into a body that, at 124.8×72.1×37.3mm, is barely larger than the original Pen E-P1. The EVF uses a 2.36-million-dot OLED panel with 0.62x magnification. There’s an eye sensor for auto switch over with the LCD, and built-in dioptre correction.

The rear screen is a 3in fully articulated touchscreen. The focus point can be repositioned by touch, both when viewing with the LCD and with the eye-level viewfinder.

First impressions

With cameras like this that pay so much attention to style, it can be all too easy to get distracted from the underlying substance. But this would be a mistake, as the Pen-F looks like a very interesting design. With its new sensor, it promises to deliver the best image quality we’ve yet seen from any Olympus camera, and I suspect it might have the best handling while shooting, too.

Olympus sees the Pen-F as a discreet camera ideal for street shooting, and better suited for use with small, fast primes than with large f/2.8 zooms. We’ll test this out, and much more, when we get a proper test sample – look out for our full review in the next couple of months.

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