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Olympus PEN-F: Retro is the new fad

The PEN-F is easily the most beautiful PEN. Available in silver or black, it retains the series' retro rangefinder-like design. But the PEN-F looks much cleaner than its predecessors, with not a single screw visible.
The PEN-F is easily the most beautiful PEN. Available in silver or black, it retains the series' retro rangefinder-like design. But the PEN-F looks much cleaner than its predecessors, with not a single screw visible.PHOTO: OLYMPUS

Top-notch handling adds to allure of PEN-F, but it costs a pretty penny

The Olympus PEN-F represents a whole new PEN genre after the likes of the company's flagship E-P and entry-level E-PL mirrorless camera series.

The PEN-F is easily the most beautiful PEN. Available in silver or black (version tested), it retains the series' retro rangefinder-like design. But the PEN-F looks much cleaner than its predecessors, with not a single screw visible.

The smooth top with its various dials and circular built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) adds to the streamlined aesthetics. This is also the first time a PEN mirrorless camera has a built-in EVF.

The body's top and front are made of magnesium alloy, while its bottom and dials are machined from aluminium. The middle of the body is covered by a band of synthetic leather that stretches even to the rear of the tiltable touch screen display. Overall, the build and feel are excellent.

Handling is top-notch, thanks to the intuitive button layout. The top mode dial, exposure compensation dial and two control dials with knurled patterns are close to each other. The shutter release button is on the front control dial, with a video recording button beside it. Changing of settings is a breeze.

At the front of the camera, just under the shutter release button,is a dial that gives quick access to the monochrome and colour profile pre-set settings, as well as art filters and colour creator mode.

The PEN-F is easily the most beautiful PEN. Available in silver or black (version tested), it retains the series' retro rangefinder-like design. But the PEN-F looks much cleaner than its predecessors, with not a single screw visible.

You can customise these colour profiles. For example, in monochrome profile, you can adjust filter, shading and film grain effects for grainy, high-contrast black and white photos - great for those who fancy old-school photography.

For this review, the PEN-F is used with a M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens ($748) which, due to image sensor's 2x crop factor, equates to a focal length of 34mm in the 35mm format.

Operation-wise, this camera is really speedy. Powering up and shutting down takes only 1sec each, twice as fast as most mirrorless cameras.

Autofocusing (AF) is equally swift. It immediately locks onto a focus in bright light. In dim lighting, the AF takes only around 1sec with the aid of an AF assist light. That's a second or two faster than its peers. Shutter lag is negligible.

Using an SD card with a writing speed rated at 48MB per second, the PEN-F was able to shoot 28 RAW images in 2.5sec before the buffer ran out. Pretty impressive.

  • TECH SPECS

    PRICE: $1,798 (body only)

    IMAGE SENSOR: 20-megapixel Micro Four Thirds

    DISPLAY: 3-inch tiltable touch screen with 1.04 million dots; built-in electronic viewfinder with 2.36 million dots

    SHOOTING SPEED: Up to 10 frames per second

    SENSITIVITY: ISO 80 to 25,600

    CONNECTIVITY: Wi-Fi

    WEIGHT: 427g

  • RATING

    FEATURES: 4/5

    DESIGN: 5/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 3/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 3/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

With the 20-megapixel Micro Four Thirds image sensor, still images are beautifully rendered with crisp details, rich and vivid colours, and great tonal range. To me, the image quality is almost as good as that of an APS-C DSLR.

If you need more image details, opt for the Hi-res Shot mode, in which the PEN-F captures 50- megapixel Jpeg or 80-megapixel RAW images by automatically combining multiple shots into one. The resulting images are incredibly rich and detailed.

However, in Hi-res mode, it usually takes a second or two to shoot and process a single frame. So, you need to use a tripod for this mode.

The ISO performance could be better, though. Noise artefacts can be spotted at as low as ISO 800, especially in the darker areas. But there is no visible loss of details.

At ISO 1,600 and above, detail loss becomes more evident. If I am printing my photos, I would set the ISO no higher than 3,200, so as not to lose details and sharpness.

A full charge of the battery is good for around 320 frames, which is average for mirrorless cameras.

My only real issue is its price. At $1,748 (body only), it is more expensive than its closest rival, the excellent and retro-looking Panasonic GX8 ($1,699 with 14-42mm kit lens). But the PEN-F is lighter and looks more gorgeous.

  • Verdict: Apart from its slightly expensive price tag, the PEN-F is undoubtedly the best mirrorless camera from Olympus, in terms of performance and looks.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2016, with the headline 'Olympus PEN-F: Retro is the new fad'. Print Edition | Subscribe