Guest Post: My first week with the Olympus PEN-F

By admin

Today we have a guest post from “Across the pond”. Blythe Storm is a freelance photographer based in Scotland, UK. Blythe recently started using the PEN-F and I asked her to write an article for the site about her experiences so far.

The advertising says the Olympus PEN-F is a beast.

When you first pick one up, especially after coming from full frame DSLR’s this is very much not the impression you take away from it. I have spent a week with the camera now, and this is my take on it.

Pen-f Review
The PEN-F makes the perfect travel companion.

PIC 1 Caption: The PEN-F makes the perfect travel companion

But, first, let’s talk about the big question; is a smaller sensor ever going to be good enough?

I come from a, ahem… 30-year photographic experience, much of it as a professional. When I first trained as a commercial photographer, we shot everything with 5x4inch film, but the times were changing rapidly, and we had also started shooting on 6×6 and 645 transparency film. Then, in the space of around a year, we had almost ditched the 5×4, and added 35mm film cameras, although the ‘boss’ still wasn’t entirely convinced. Commercial photographers were decades behind press and documentary, due in the main to the demands of quality brochure printing and large scale advertising, but film technology meant we were changing direction. By my third year, 35mm had pretty much killed the medium format market.

Less than ten years later I was studio manager of what I understand, was the only the 9th fully digital studio in the UK. We had Kodak/Nikon hybrid cameras with 2.6x crop factors and 1.5MP sensors. We used these cameras to shoot entire advertising campaigns that were printed up to A3. It was hard work because they had serious limitations, but we got around it. We used a 5×4 camera with a scanning back when it simply wouldn’t do. Scanning backs had even greater limitations in use because every image is created from three separate passes, so no movement is allowed. Pretty much like the Olympus option for its High-Resolution files in fact.

Pen-f Review
Sample of brochures shot with the 1.5MP Kodak/Nikon hybrid

So, you see, unlike most people who start with a compact camera and then worked their way up to medium or large format, I went the other way around. It also means I am not remotely convinced by the argument for very bigger sensors, more megapixels, or big cameras.

Later, as a freelance photographer, I followed a not dissimilar path; APS-C (D80, D200), FX (D700), APS-C (D7100, X-Pro1, XT-1, XT-2), now smaller (PEN-F, Nikon P900).

I have had images printed over 2m wide, shot with the 10MP Nikon D200, and regularly printed to canvasses over 1m wide from the files of both 6MP and 10MP cameras. For me, the pixel race was really over around the 10MP mark.

So, whilst many photographers believe, and advertisers promote increased megapixels and the larger sensors, I am (often not-so-quietly) maintaining it was all smoke and mirrors.

Camera companies don’t want you to buy one camera and keep it for ten-years, they’d go out of business! So, they will constantly promote the next great leap forward which for some reason is often going ‘bigger’.

 

Fuji XT-2
Fujifilm XT-2 with 16-55/2.8 professional grade lens

Fujifilm almost broke with this cycle with the X series. They came up with an exceptional camera, using APS-C sized sensors, and some really great lenses. A lot of professionals were initially not convinced and wanted full-frame. Professionals are however moved by results, and added to Fujifilm’s aggressive promotions often using celebrity ‘X-photographers’ has swayed the market towards mirror-less. Just as I thought we might finally change the rules, Fujifilm jumped from APS-C straight to medium format and reignited the whole debate.

Olympus first changed the rules in the 1960s with the OM range. They had a similar strategy, convincing some famous photographers including vocal advocate David Bailey, that 35mm was indeed sufficient and had advantages. Leica was already there, occupying a niche market, with devotees, and costly cameras that they don’t really do advertising.

Olympus changed the rules again with the original PEN and those who had hankered after a Leica, and those who wanted a smaller more discrete camera for street photography and travel were then a readily accessible market until then untapped.

The market was fairly fixed, with Nikon and Canon still having it largely sewn up, but then Fujifilm came back from the brink of oblivion and stormed the market with the X series. Like a phoenix, they understood their market; replicated film digitally, give photographer back their manual controls, their dials, and knobs, and with an image quality to blow the completion out the water. Importantly, they put it in the pocket and as phones got bigger, cameras got smaller.

Fujifilm convinced loyal full-frame users to switch to a smaller sensor format by proving it can come up with the goods, now Olympus needs to convince professionals, and serious enthusiasts, that you don’t even need APS-C.

I think they have tried to do with the latest OM-D 1 mk2. But they still haven’t cracked it, and the biggest problem is the bigger is a better perception that even Fujifilm have bowed to by going back in with a medium format camera.

Olympus has one advantage over Fujifilm – longevity. Fujifilm has been around a long time, but they made film. That’s what they were known for. I had OM film cameras, and I put Fujifilm in them, I didn’t buy a Fuji’ camera.

Olympus has always been known for doing one thing well: making great cameras, small. Pulling that history forward, and taking a good note of the successful models from Leica, they have given us the PEN-F: A true photographers camera, but one that steals more from Leica’s design than it does from the original film PEN. If only they had grabbed the rights to Ilford and given us replica films as settings, such as FP4, then they could really be the beasts at Fujifilm’s tail.

So, is the PEN-F really the beast it claims to be?

Well, the manual certainly is, and you do need to read it because there are so many customisation features and options that you’ll never appreciate the camera until you learn it. This is the first manual I have ever read from cover to cover and that should tell you everything about the camera.

This is not actually a complaint but a compliment. I have finally got features that I will actually use, that I want to actively engage with because I think they will enhance my photography. I have not just stuck it on Manual, put it into Raw, and got on with the job. I am experimenting, and I am shooting in monochrome again ‘in-camera’, and I just love it.

At the time of writing this, I have had the camera for just one week, and I have only scratched the surface of what the camera can do in that time. I have shot in color, in mono, with special effects filters, using jpegs, but always backed up with raw files. I have found things I like and things I don’t like. But, unlike any of my digital cameras before it, I have really played around with the camera. Sadly, as I said, there are things that I don’t like but I will point out that I purchased my own camera and lenses, with my own money, and whilst this is only my opinion, you can be sure it is not one that is commercially motivated.

With my first outing, which I undertook just to play with the camera, I started out with the camera in Aperture Priority, and I left it there the whole time. Normally I would use this or Manual for most shoots. I also started with the front mode dial set to the ‘I’ setting and I initially left all the menu settings to their defaults. I was pleased with the results; the detail is superb, and all the tones are there. I was very happy because I was using the kit lens that adds just £99 to the cost of buying the body on its own.

Pen-f Review
Out of camera JPEG on default settings.

One complaint I make about all digital cameras is that I cannot see the screens properly, in fairly normal daylight and it is almost impossible in bright sun. I would not buy any camera that doesn’t come with a viewfinder even if it’s an EVF, but I do like a hybrid OVF. When using a tripod for landscape, I love using the screen simply because it’s bigger and you can angle it, and so I sometimes take an umbrella – although you do look an idiot using it unless it’s raining. I recommend you try it, but maybe not in a crowd.

Pen-f Review
Out of camera JPEG using the Pin Hole III filter setting

I had read several reviews, and on the forums, that you loose some of the depth of field with the Micro 4/3rd system and that f8 becomes more like f11, or something along those lines. With that in mind, I tended to stick around the f5.6 sweet spot but sadly I didn’t end up with the depth of field I that I then thought I would. That isn’t actually a bad thing as it means I know I can stop down further now, but it may make me question my lens choices. I do not like working with primes although I love what primes give me. It is not always possible, in locations where I often work, to use your legs to change perspective. If I am on a mountain ridge, a loch side, on the beach, or on top of a cliff I cannot necessarily move backward or forwards without imminent death or at least getting very wet. I also do not like juggling multiple lenses standing in knee-deep mud or salt water. I, therefore, tend to use zooms, and the pro-end Olympus zooms are too big for the PEN-F, in my opinion. As I use the wide end most I bought the 9-18mm and the PEN-F kit with the 14-40mm lens. At some point, I will get the 45mm/1.8 prime for portraits, and the 60mm macro for, well macro. I didn’t think I would use the 14-40mm much, but actually, I have as I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality.

Pen-f Review
Shallower than expected depth of field, but then it’s not a macro lens either

Because the filters only work on jpeg image files, it is possible to think of the jpegs as a preview, enabling the image you see in the finder or screen during shooting to give you a rendition. EVF and screen images are always based on the jpeg even if you shoot raw, so you might as well shoot both and use the advantage. This is particularly useful in mono as it allows you to see the conversion to gray tones.

Pen-f Review
Elgin Cathedral shot in Mono I

I have always specialized in black and white, and so the Mono mode so easily switchable on the PEN was a big sales point for me. I initially set my Mono selection to Mono II, and to give me the maximum grain, thinking it would be like a grainy film, and I also adjusted the ‘colours’ to produce as would happen with a ‘red filter’. Although I liked the contrast in the sky, which would have required at least a polarizer on a bright sunny day to achieve without that in-camera adjustment, I did find the grain a bit too much and I’d rather overdone the contrast blowing the highlights as a result. I have since set my Mono to Mono I, with +1 sharpness, and low grain added. I am now adding contrast on a shot by shot basis using the on-screen color filter wheel instead. I am still not entirely happy with the results and have often reverted to post-production monochrome processing from the raw files using Silver Efex Pro 2 or Lightroom. I haven’t given up on the in-camera jpeg, but it is not giving me the results I want just yet. I think it’s the operator rather than the camera, and I have been spoiled somewhat by the Fujifilm ‘film’ settings such as ACROS, which I loved.

Pen-f Review
Mono II
Pen-f Review
Processed in Raw

A huge plus point of the Olympus system for me was the option to display the real time exposure, without screen correction. I don’t do a lot of long exposures because they are becoming almost a bit of a cliché in landscape photography, but I imagine it will save a lot of effort. It will also be good for shooting high-key or low-key images. I like that with the Live Time mode, you stop the exposure when you like what you see. Trying to work out exactly how long to time a long exposure with an 8-stop ND filter for example, and then to physically time it, whilst in the field, can be hard work. Often, frankly, it is a bit “hit and miss” and to cover all bases you end up shooting several images with slightly different durations. This is fine, so long as nothing moves. You still can’t see what you’ve really got them until you get home, which is like shooting film, of course, so knowing what you’re getting during the process is a revolution that I can see many manufacturers following.

One word of caution; you do have to play in the menu as the default setting appears to have the screen and EVF compensate to produce the image for ‘best viewing’. This actually stops you then seeing what you’re shooting, so I turned this off. To my mind, a WYSIWYG setting should be the default on a camera that is squarely aimed at the enthusiast/professional photographer.

Although there really is an awful lot to learn about the operation of the Olympus cameras I certainly don’t want them to change it. All the options I have encountered so far have been useful, and there are more features that I will use than I’ve found in many cameras for a number of years. I can, however, imagine it scares the hell out of novices. It is worth the effort, but you have to be aware you need to make that effort, and for experienced photographers, the ability to tailor so much at the time of shooting may drastically reduce processing, if we get a good and usable jpeg. Hidden in the menu, and I had to look this up online, is the opportunity not just to have the Fine jpeg but a SuperFine, with even lower compression.

Pen-f Review
Using the Superfine setting enables you to capture remarkable detail even in the JPEGS straight from camera

As will many cameras, there has been an update to the original Firmware and I did this before I took the camera out for the second time. There are two things that concern me about the way this works; firstly, as I had tailored the options in the menus to me I had the camera set up how I wanted, but then I did the Firmware upgrades for the lens and body as directed on the website and in spite of telling it to save and then restore my settings, it didn’t. The result was that I had to troll through all the menus and do it all again. It may be that normal menu settings don’t save unless specified as the Custom options on the dial, but I hope not. I don’t want to sacrifice C1 (Aperture Priority with my settings) and C2 (Manual with my settings) for what are my normal operations.

Secondly, I really don’t like the way Olympus installs its upgrades by connecting directly to the camera via USB. On more than two previous occasions, with firmware upgrades on the Fujifilm X series, the download has corrupted at some point. As the file is then being saved onto a card, which is then installed into the camera, it didn’t compromise the camera by failing part way through. If the file was corrupt, the camera simply didn’t accept it, and the update procedure was canceled without loss. I have a nasty fear that if the download is direct to the camera via the app, and it corrupts, I may be stuck with a camera that effectively has no functioning operating system installed! This may be unjustified, and it may be recoverable in the event, but it is very scary.

Whilst we are on the subject of things I don’t like, my other big worry with the camera is how warm it gets. I know I am not alone in this concern and if you search for the issue online you will find a good number of reports of this happening. The right side, under your hand, gets very warm and it is really disconcerting, although it could be nice in winter I guess.

Olympus has remained completely silent on the issue, but I am positive they are aware of it. However, I discovered by accident, that there is a way to stop it, and dramatically increase the battery life into the bargain – turn off the image stabilization. After having the camera get warm on my second trip out, a day hike in fairly warm weather, I was worried but it seemed to be quite normal according to reports on the web.

Now, I am not a fan of image stabilization and never have been. I can see that it has its uses in very low light or with big lenses, but I prefer a tripod. With the radically improved ISO capabilities, we have now I really question the need for it. Plus, the PEN is a small lightweight camera anyway so I really don’t feel the need. During my long photographic career I never once said; “oh my I really need image stabilization”. I just put the camera on a tripod. When I have had it in lenses, I have turned it off having often found that I could get a sharper result without it. If you think about it, you are introducing movement when that is actually the last thing you want. Anyway, I turned it off because I always do and voila! No more hand warmer effects and the bonus is that the battery appears to last almost twice as long.

Since I have written about some negatives I want to end on a positive note if I can: I have often worked in a documentary capacity, but I have never been a ‘street photographer’. I have always felt rather conspicuous shooting in cities, and I also worry about personal safety whilst effectively advertising that I’m carrying something valuable. The PEN-F has changed that. I am now much more comfortable shooting in the streets of my local cities because I don’t feel as noticeable with the PEN-F. Unless you know your cameras, it could be mistaken for a compact especially if you have a small lens on it. The pancake lenses are absolutely perfect for this.

Pen-f Review
Shallower than expected depth of field, but then it’s not a macro lens either

So what is my biggest immediate impression of the PEN-F?

What a lot of fun photography is! The PEN-F, whilst being also a fully capable workhorse, inspires you to re-visualize things and to try experimenting more.

My tiny bag is a pleasure to carry, and sadly whilst the quest for the perfect camera bag will probably never be fulfilled, around mile 8 of a hike I am very happy to have even more lightweight, and less conspicuous option.

Pen-f Review
Blythe trained initially as a commercial photographer before moving into editorial photography, it was then she started writing copy to go with her images. She now works as a freelance based in Scotland, UK, specializing in landscape, travel, and environmental issues.

For more of Blythe’s work, you can find her at blythestorm.com and penfsite.wordpress.com.

Gear mentioned in this article:

Olympus PEN-F

Olympus 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 EZ 

Olympus M ED 9-18mm f/4.0-5.6

Olympus M.ZUIKO Digital ED 45mm F1.8 Lens 

 

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