Is there more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good-looking? That seems to be the question asked by the new Olympus PEN-F, which garnered a lot of hype thanks to its classic styling and meticulous attention to detail. It’s an approach that Olympus is making itself known for, but it wasn’t always this way.

In fact, we didn’t even stock the first couple of generations of Olympus mirrorless cameras at Pro Photo Supply. They certainly were not the objects of desire they are now. In those days, as far as the Micro Four Thirds format was concerned, all eyes were on Panasonic, mostly for its miniature (for the time) Lumix GF1, which came bundled with the cool 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. That was the first mirrorless camera to win the hearts and minds of serious photographers, and perhaps the first sign that more than just Leica users yearned for the simplicity of film cameras and prime lenses of yore.

Olympus PEN-F with three lenses and ONA bag

Olympus, thankfully, realized this. They stopped churning out boring cameras and lackluster lenses and gave us the OM-D E-M5, a camera that performed well and, perhaps more importantly, looked amazing. The follow-up Mark II version added incredible 5-axis stabilization and a High Res Shot mode that pushed the envelope of what Micro Four Thirds could do.

And now, Olympus has brought the power, the sophistication, and the class of the OM-D line to the PEN line with the new PEN-F.

Unlike the SLR-styled OM-Ds, the PEN-F more closely resembles a rangefinder, with an EVF protruding slightly from its upper-left corner. Interestingly, it takes very little inspiration from the original, film-era PEN-F. That camera looked like something out of the Jetsons, with a sleek, slightly curved body and minimalist control layout. Only in a few details does the modern PEN-F pay homage to its forebear, like the Art Filter dial on the front of the camera that mimics the original’s shutter speed dial and the on/off switch that’s a skeuomorph of a film rewind lever.

Olympus PEN-F top

It’s a gorgeous thing to look at, but the best part? No visible screws.

It’s a gorgeous thing to look at, I can’t argue that. Indeed, it is a camera that Olympus appears to be selling solely on appearance, using words like “stunning,” “luxurious,” and “finely-crafted” to describe it in marketing materials. Special attention is given to the fact that the body is made entirely of metal, and that there are no visible screws marring its pristine exterior surfaces.

I’ve never heard photographers complain of visible screws in the past, but maybe they will from now on?

I’m not sure if it will inspire the obsessive fandom Olympus’ marketing team seems to be going for, but the camera is very well made, and I know more than few photographers who will appreciate that.

The backside of the articulating LCD screen is covered in the same faux leather grip material that wraps around the rest of the camera (the final throwback to the original PEN-F). The control dials are firmly weighted, offering a reassuring amount of tactile feedback. It makes for a shooting experience that just can’t be matched by touch screens or control schemes that eschew physical controls in favor of convoluted menu systems. (That said, the PEN-F does have a touch screen and there are plenty of minutiae hidden in its menus, but you can do much without having to use either.)

Olympus PEN-F front showing Art Mode dial

Olympus hopes you’ll pay a premium for sexiness.

For as good as it is, there is one glaring omission from the PEN-F’s construction: weather proofing. This is particularly strange given Olympus’ usual generosity in this area. Perhaps sealing up the body would have meant exposed screws? Whatever it is, it definitely feels overlooked in a camera that’s otherwise perfect on the outside.

As for the inside, there’s really only one new thing to report: a 20MP sensor, perhaps the same one found in the Panasonic Lumix GX8. The rest of the tech is straight out of the E-M5 II: the same processor, 5-axis stabilization, High Res Shot, and 10fps continuous shooting.

Make no mistake, this is a premium product, a flagship PEN camera. The $1199 price tag confirms this.

And that’s where the PEN-F starts to get into trouble. If you’re okay paying a premium for sexiness, then maybe this is a non-issue, but the PEN-F’s price doesn’t seem to make sense when compared to its closest competition. Namely, Olympus’ own E-M5 II, which, at the time of writing, sells for just $899 thanks to a $200 instant rebate.

The E-M5 II may use the older, 16MP sensor, but all of the other salient attributes are there, plus it’s fully weather sealed. Also, even if you’re judging solely on appearances, it’s not at all a bad-looking camera. (Although, maybe it has exposed screws?)

Things don’t look much better when you compare the PEN-F against its closest Panasonic competitor, the aforementioned Lumix GX8. Again, the GX8 uses the same (or very similar) 20MP sensor, but sells for just $999 at the time of writing, also thanks to a $200 instant rebate. Sure, it’s not as pretty to look at, but it makes up for it with serious grunt, like 4K video at 100Mbps, blazing-fast DFD autofocus, a tilting EVF, and yes, weather proofing.

Of course, the GX8 doesn’t have High Res Shot, and its in-body stabilization works on only 4 axes (but it can combine with lens stabilization for greater effect). I can certainly see how a photographer would give up 4K video in exchange for High Res Shot; it just depends on what’s needed. For some photographers, it may even be worth paying an extra $200. Except that, again, if High Res Shot was what they were after, they could just go with the even less-expensive E-M5 II.

So maybe it’s the new sensor that makes it worth the premium? If it’s the same unit as the one in the GX8, then it should offer slightly improved dynamic range and color depth, according to DXOMark. As far as trying to quantify its value goes, though, I don’t think many people would notice the difference in real world use.

It is worth mentioning that it boosts High Res Shot up to 50MP from 40, and because High Res Shot records full color information at every pixel location, it could potentially out-resolve a Canon 5DS R. I suppose there’s value there for photographers who need maximum resolving power for… science, or something.

 

That’s not say I wasn’t satisfied with the results—I certainly was (sans oversaturated in-camera JPEGs). High Res Shot remains one of the most impressive features I’ve ever tested on a camera. It’s the reason landscape and product photographers should take a serious look at Micro Four Thirds. But, I was equally impressed with the feature on the OM-D E-M5 II when I reviewed it a year ago. And this is why, on specs alone, the PEN-F is a tough ask.

Yet, despite all the rational reasons against it, I’ve wanted to go back to this camera ever since I put it down. It captures the spirit of photography in a way few cameras do. In fact, it reminds me a lot of shooting with my Fujifilm X100T, but is actually a bit heavier, which somehow makes it even more satisfying. It’s like a pint of craft beer: you drink it because it’s immensely enjoyable, not because you’re looking for the most financially responsible way to increase your blood alcohol level.

The PEN-F is like a pint of craft beer: you drink it because it’s enjoyable, not because you’re looking for the most financially responsible way to increase your blood alcohol level.

New sensor notwithstanding, the goal of the PEN-F is not to raise the image quality bar. Olympus isn’t making a rational appeal here, it’s making an emotional one. And it’s working. If you get the chance to hold this camera, you will want it, I promise.

The PEN-F is a beautiful, capable machine—the trouble comes only in its price. The E-M5 II is simply a better buy for enthusiasts, and the Lumix GX8 boasts a vastly superior video mode and more flexibility for professionals. That leaves the PEN-F in a difficult position; it’s great at drawing people in, but will it merely redirect them to more appropriate options?

Of course, there exists a niche where it will be welcome. For those individuals who appreciate the finer things in life, the PEN-F will feel right at home. It will sit atop an antique desk, beside a bottle of well-aged Scotch, next to an old rangefinder still loaded with a half-exposed role of Kodachrome that’s been in there since the mid-sixties. Practicality be damned, here is a person willing to wait as long as it takes to get the perfect shot (whether in photography or whiskey) and the PEN-F will dutifully wait alongside. This is camera that doesn’t just create art, it is art.

It would seem that Olympus is aiming to be the Leica of Micro Four Thirds (which is awkward, since Leica actually has a partnership with Panasonic) but I don’t know if the brand has the gravitas to make that happen. If it can pull it off, the PEN-F has the makings of an instant classic. This is Olympus’ love letter to the art of photography; but are style and soul enough to trump cost?

Ultimately, the PEN-F is a fantastic little camera. But it lives in a sea of fantastic little cameras, many of which happen to be less expensive, or more capable—even if they do have exposed screws.

Overall assessment

  • Studio 85%
  • Photojournalism 62%
  • Travel 71%
  • Casual 62%
  • Filmmaking 42%
Score explanation

This is our assessment of a camera’s usability based on both objective and subjective measurements in four categories. Each category’s score is a function of all measurements, but with different weights.

Studio – A high rating in this category means a camera is well-suited to use in a studio environment, where size and weight don’t matter and lighting can be fully controlled. This score is most affected by resolution, while ISO sensitivity and cost are negligible.

Photojournalism – Cameras that perform well in this category are generally good for concerts, weddings, sports, and travel photography. This score is most affected by ISO sensitivity, build quality, and performance (AF and continuous shooting speed, battery life), while resolution is negligible.

Travel – Above all else, a good travel camera is one you can take with you anywhere. Size and weight matter most to this category, while build quality and ISO sensitivity are also important.

Casual – A casual-use camera is one that you can easily carry with you and is great for family pictures, vacations, hiking, etc. This score is most strongly affected by size, weight, and cost.

Filmmaking – This score looks at all the video features of a camera, such as video resolution, frame rates, and audio inputs and outputs. Keep in mind, this score is provided in the context of a camera being reviewed for its still photography first. A high score in this area does not necessarily mean you should shoot your next blockbuster indie skate rap video on this camera.

 

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