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

Olympus' flagship mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera is streamlined for street photography.

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Reviews

I've been writing about and reviewing consumer technology since before the turn of the century. I'm also a photographer and cat herder, frequently at the same time.

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6 min read

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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.

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8.3

Olympus PEN-F

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.

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.

Olympus Pen-F full-resolution photo samples

See all photos

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.)

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

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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.

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

Lori Grunin/CNET

Fast all over

The camera's quite fast, a little more than most similarly priced cameras. Startup is slightly sluggish, typical of mirrorless models, but not onerously slow. Otherwise, the autofocus is snappy and accurate, and image processing never held me up.

The camera doesn't support continuous autofocus in its high-speed mode, but at the next level down it sustains a continuous-shooting rate of 5.6 frames per second for more than 30 frames in its hidden Super Fine mode, with very good autofocus accuracy. That's more than enough for typical action shooting.

As with most cameras, complete autofocus doesn't make the right choices, but it's more consistent (it usually picks the same spot). Though it doesn't support Olympus' hybrid stabilization, its sensor-shift works very well.

Shooting speed

Olympus PEN-F 0.1 0.1 0.2 0.2 0.8Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7 0.1 0.3 0.4 0.2 0.7Canon EOS 80D 0.2 0.4 0.2 0.2 0.4Sony A6300 0.2 0.3 0.2 0.2 2.4Nikon D7200 0.6 0.6 0.2 0.2 0.3
  • Shutter lag (typical)
  • Shutter lag (dim light)
  • Typical shot-to-shot time
  • Raw shot-to-shot time
  • Time to first shot
Note: Seconds (shorter bars are better)

Continuous-shooting speed

Sony A6300 8.3Canon EOS 80D 7.1Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7 6.5Olympus PEN-F 5.6Nikon D7200 5.0
Note: Frames per second (longer bars are better)

Streamlined and powerful

With the exception of the lack of grip, I really enjoy shooting with the PEN-F, maybe because in a lot of ways it's designed for control freaks, with features like four custom settings modes on the dial. The viewfinder is large, comfortable and sufficiently high-resolution for manual focus without focus peaking.

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The front "creative" dial gives you direct access to Olympus' filters and color settings. CRT, Color Creator, is the company's novel interface for adjusting color. You can adjust all the settings without removing your eye from the viewfinder.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It also features novel capabilities like 4K Time Lapse (it takes up to 999 shots and automatically creates a movie with frames in 3,840x2,160-pixel resolution); Live Bulb, for continuous preview of long-exposure shots; Live Time, which is essentially the same thing except for the way you control the length of the exposure; and Live Composite, which takes multiple exposures of varying duration and combines them in such a way as to keep from blowing out brightly lit areas while still capturing dimmer lights, with continuous display of the cumulatively updated image.

Other drawbacks include a nonstandard USB connector and the SD card slot in the battery compartment. Plus, it's not sealed against dust and weather, which it really should be given its price tag.

Conclusion

The Panasonic Lumix GX8 has the same sensor and similar specifications, but offers 4K video and a tilting EVF. It lacks the hipster retro vibe of the PEN-F, but it's also cheaper. So while I would recommend the PEN-F in general, it's not a great value for the money compared with some other mirrorless models. Its size advantage without sacrificing photo quality does confer some benefits over a comparable dSLR, though.

Comparative specifications

Fujifilm X-Pro2 Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II Olympus PEN-F Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX8
Sensor effective resolution 24.3MP X-Trans CMOS III 16.1MP Live MOS 20.3MP Live MOS
12-bit
20.3MP Live MOS
Sensor size 23.6 x 15.6mm 17.3 x 13mm 17.3 x 13mm 17.3 x 13mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.5x 2.0x 2.0x 2.0x
OLPF No Yes Yes Yes
Sensitivity range ISO 100 (exp)/200 - ISO 12800/51200 (exp) ISO 100 (exp)/ISO 200 - ISO 25600 ISO 80 (exp)/ISO 200 - ISO 25600 ISO 100 (exp)/ISO 200 - ISO 25600
Burst shooting 8fps
83 JPEG/27 raw
5fps
unlimited JPEG and raw
(10fps with fixed focus and IS off)
5fps
unlimited JPEG and raw
(10fps with fixed focus and IS off)
6fps
100 JPEG/30 raw
(8fps with fixed focus; 10fps with fixed focus and electronic shutter)
Viewfinder
(mag/ effective mag)
Hybrid
Reverse Galilean
92% coverage
EVF
0.48 in/12 mm
2.36 million dots
100% coverage
varies with focal length
(.59x at 50mm)
EVF
2.36 million dots
100% coverage
1.3x - 1.48x/ 0.65x- 0.74x
OLED EVF
2.36 million dots
100% coverage
1.08x - 1.23x/ 0.54x- 0.62x
OLED EVF
Tilting
2.36m dots
100% coverage
1.54x/0.77x
Hot shoe Yes Yes Yes Yes
Autofocus 77-point phase-detection; 273-point contrast 81-area
Contrast AF
81-area
Contrast AF
49-area
DFD Contrast AF
AF sensitivity n/a n/a n/a -4 - 18 EV
Shutter speed 1/8,000 to 30 sec; bulb to 60 min; 1/250 sec x-sync 60 - 1/8,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes; 1/250 sec x-sync (Super FP to 1/8,000) 60 - 1/8,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes (1/16,000 sec electronic shutter); 1/250 sec x-sync (1/8,000 sec Super FP) 60 - 1/8,000 sec; (1/16,000 with electronic shutter); bulb to 30 minutes; 1/250 sec x-sync
Metering 256 zones 324 area 324 area 1,728 zone
Metering sensitivity n/a -2 - 20 EV -2 - 20 EV 0 - 18 EV
Best video H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/60p @ 35 Mbps H.264 QuickTime MOV
1080/60p, 50p (52 Mbps); 30p, 25p, 24p (77 Mbps)
H.264 QuickTime MOV
1080/60p, 50p (52 Mbps); 30p, 25p, 24p (77 Mbps)
UHD/30p, 25p, 24p @ 100Mbps; 1080/60p, 50p, 25p, 24p @ 28Mbps
Audio Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input; headphone jack on HLD-8G grip Stereo Stereo, mic input
Manual aperture and shutter in video Yes Yes Yes Yes
Maximum best-quality recording time per clip 14 minutes 4GB 29 mins 4GB/29:59 mins
Clean HDMI out n/a Yes Yes n/a
IS Optical Sensor shift
(5 axis)
Sensor shift
(5 axis)
Optical and Sensor shift
Display 3 in/7.5 cm
Fixed
1.62 million dots
3 in/7.5cm
Articulated touchscreen
1.04m dots
3 in/7.5cm
Articulated touchscreen
1.04m dots
3 in/7.5cm
Articulated touchscreen
1.04m dots
Memory slots 2 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC
Wireless connection Wi-Fi Wi-Fi Wi-Fi Wi-Fi, NFC
Flash No Included add-on Included add-on None
Wireless flash Yes Yes Yes n/a
Battery life (CIPA rating) 350 shots
(1,300mAh)
310 shots
(1,220mAh)
330 shots
(1,220mAh)
330 shots
(1,200mAh)
Size (WHD) 5.2 x 3.3 x 1.8 in
141 x 83 x 46mm
4.9 x 3.3 x 1.8 in
124 x 85 x 45mm
4.9 x 2.8 x 1.5 in
125 x 72 x 37mm
5.2 x 3.1 x 2.5 in
133.2 x 77.9 x 63.1mm
Body operating weight 17.5 oz (est.)
495 g (est.)
15.7 oz
446 g
15.3 oz
434 g
16.1 oz (est.)
487 g (est.)
Mfr. price (body only) $1,700
£1,350 (est.)
AU$2,400 (est.)
$1,000
£900
AU$1,250 (est.)
$1,200
£1,000
AU$1,800 (est.)
$1,000
£700 (est.)
AU$1,400
Release date February 2016 February 2015 March 2016 August 2015
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8.3

Olympus PEN-F

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 9Image quality 8