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.
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
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
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.
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.