Olympus PEN-F review: The F in this PEN stands for fun and fast

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The Good The Olympus PEN-F is fast, delivers great photos in a streamlined body and offers a nice feature set.

The Bad The camera lacks a grip and video is not one of Olympus' strong suits. Plus, it really should be at least modestly dust- and weather-sealed for the money.

The Bottom Line Excellent photo quality and performance and a system with tiny, fast prime lenses make the Olympus PEN-F a great camera for street photography.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9
  • Image quality 8

Olympus' street-photography-focused PEN-F is the latest in the company's line of enthusiast mirrorless interchangeable-lens models, the first of its cameras to use the 20-megapixel Four Thirds sensor and a departure from the PEN line's viewfinderless design. It's also the best thus far with respect to photo quality and performance, and is a terrific option in that sense. It lacks a grip, which always irks me, the back navigation control is more suited to a cheap point-and-shoot and Olympus has yet to match the rest of the pack for video quality, but it otherwise delivers an enjoyable and streamlined shooting experience that doesn't disappoint when you get home and look at your photos.

I have a soft spot for Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras. The smaller sensor doesn't deliver quite as good photo quality as some APS-C-based models, but given the significantly smaller lenses, it tends to be worth the trade-off when the ability to toss several fast lenses in a bag without breaking my back outweighs the slightly increased depth of field (less background defocus) and slightly crunchier look.

At $1,200 (£1,000, about AU$1,800), the camera is more expensive than its nearest competitor, the Panasonic Lumix GX8, but with a slightly less impressive feature set.

First-rate photos

I'm quite impressed with the photo quality from the PEN-F. (Keep in mind, however, that I lab-tested with an excellent lens, the 12-40mm f2.8, rather than the cheaper kit lenses, which can make a big difference.) It delivers excellent white balance, a noise profile that rivals recent APS-C equivalents through about ISO 3200 and the tonal range you'd expect from a camera of its price.

JPEGs look clean through ISO 800 and decent through ISO 3200, but beyond that they look somewhat smeary from the noise-reduction artifacts. If you shoot raw you can push that a little more.

Olympus' video quality doesn't match the photos, though it's not bad. Naturally, the HD video isn't as sharp as competitors' 4K and there's quite a bit of edge crawl, especially on fine lines in the background, plus there aren't any presets to control the video's color or curve. (You can use Color Creator and trial and error.) But low-light video doesn't look as noisy as you'd expect and the in-camera audio recording is surprisingly full-sounding.

Analysis samples

The PEN-F's JPEGs are clean through ISO 800, and you can start to see just a little smearing at ISO 1600. There are few more false color artifacts than usual in the fine details, though.

Lori Grunin/CNET

Note the significant drop in sharpness between ISO 80 and ISO 200.

Lori Grunin/CNET

Up through ISO 6400 you can see smearing from the noise reduction, but it retains a reasonable amount of detail in the in-focus areas.

Lori Grunin/CNET

Olympus' High Res Shot mode, which combines multiple, slightly offset images to produce a high-resolution photo, does produce much better, more naturally resolved detail. (This shows a High Res image resized to match the standard size.)

Lori Grunin/CNET

Olympus' Hi Res mode looks nice and sharp at actual size. Unfortunately, you really need to use a tripod for best results.

Lori Grunin/CNET

The PEN-F has excellent, accurate white balance and colors, and its default Natural color settings do a fine job. It does have a problem preserving details in bright, saturated reds, however.

Lori Grunin/CNET

Starting at about ISO 1600, you can do a better job preserving sharpness and texture by processing raw files.

Lori Grunin/CNET

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