The love of rangefinder style camera
It is true to say that I always have a special crush for any rangefinder style film or digital camera. It has and still represents the traditional way of seeing a (real) compact camera in my sense. All those models are usually fun to work with and can generate very original photo material. When Olympus had introduced the Pen-F I was charmed by the look of the product and now I began to discover its special abilities as a strong but funny photo device to experiment. The Olympus Pen-F has its own standards and cannot be assimilated or compare to other D-SLR style (or centered viewfinder) models.
There is that modern camera style debate regarding SLR versus rangefinder categories that you can translate today by the choice of on-axis and off-axis (from the taking lens) viewfinder. Moreover rangefinder style cameras tend to be assimilated to compact and discrete devices nor that DSLR style camera have been associated as the center element of a complete and extended photographic system which is using longer telephoto and wider lenses and faster motorized advance film options.
The best illustrations of those two “schools” are present in all major line of mirrorless products available from Fujifilm, Olympus or Panasonic cameras and lenses. It replicate in this digital era the same pattern observed in the past with the Leica film camera offer with the M and the R lines.
With Olympus you can choose between the Pen and the OM-D lines. Accordingly their Premium and standard zoom lenses fit perfectly with the Pen models and their larger zoom and Pro lenses combine well with the OM-D series.
During the past decade I have the chance to use both Olympus series models including the earlier EP models with the add-on viewfinder (a bit similar to the ancient Leica film I-G series). You can refer with my previous blog-notes on these models such as the EP-3 or the OM-D E-M5 (first version) or the most recent ones concerning the OM-D E-M5 Mark II and the OM-D E-M1 Mark II.
Both rangefinder and SLR styles have their own advantages. OM-D E-M1 and OM-D E-M5 are really all-weather devices with enhanced grips useful when combined with bigger faster lenses or external bigger flash units. The battery autonomy is greater and the viewfinder in the case of the E-M1 Mark II is clearly more confortable with its wider view. For many assignation works the OM-D series will get my preference. But for urban, travel or everyday spontaneous subjects the Olympus Pen-F is a perfect on-hand camera.
The Olympus Pen-F
Doing on the spot photography with the Olympus Pen-F is unbeatable because of its compactness and its own discretion. On travel and urban surrounding it is a strong advantage. And the Olympus Pen-F is far less intimidating regarding people or animal (domestic) photography. Using the silent mode option (electronic shutter) represent another strong advantage of the Pen-F if you are facing more quiet or calm conditions and subjects.
It is already said that the Olympus Pen-F replicates many aspects of the ancient rangefinder film cameras. But in that sense the past ergonomic solutions of the analog film era may also apply to the actual digital devices. On the Olympus Pen-F some traditional dial functionalities have been transformed such as the On/Off interrupter that simulate the traditional film rewind knob and the front special effect dial which is recalling the old slow shutter speed selector of the time. You can also use the traditional screw-in shutter release cable as a remote trigger unit.
The Olympus Pen-F is a slim and compact camera. Its “Pavé” design (like a slender decorative brick size) will dictate a less confortable and secure sense of handling. In three words there is “no protuberant grip” to rely and the use of a wrist or shoulder strap seem to be an obligation for the everyday user. There is also the possibility to add the Olympus ECG-4 optional grip. The slim design of the Pen-F is especially suitable for the combine use of the small Olympus (or Panasonic) fix or variable focal lenses. Examples of these fine optics are the Olympus M.Zuiko lenses such as the 12mm F2.0, the17mm F1.8, the 25mm F1.8 and the 45mm F1.8 lenses or the 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 zoom as an all-around optic. A lot of bigger lenses are fully compatible with the Pen-F but the handling of the camera will suffer a bit accordantly.
Except for the On/Off interrupter all the important dials and function buttons are located on the back & front of the Olympus Pen-F right hand side. This disposition facilities greatly the right hand control of the camera and liberate your left hand for a better handling of the taking lens especially in regard of the manual focusing (and zooming if available) option. As usual for Olympus cameras many functionalities may be directly available after prior setting (via menu interface) of the control knobs and push buttons. Most manufacturer default setting are logical and nicely presented although it may be altered at will in regard of your specific requirements.
EVF / Back live screen
The “look through” electronic viewfinder (EVF) will give a well definite picture with a very short time lag not really noticeable if you are concentrate on your subject. As usual the more high contrast rendering compare to the final image output registered has to be considered. The Live/Review back screen is also very well definite and can be relied as a good reviewing tool. It has also the great versatility of pivoting in almost every way.
Interface and Quick menu
Olympus interfaces are by tradition very extended and complete but the numerous accesses to the different setting options can be confusing and will ask you to invest on the learning curve of the menu. Many default setting are excellent and can be use right from the start. Furthermore the quick menu mode synthetize the most important factors usually chosen for the camera setting. There are also the Custom modes setting (C1; C2; C3; C4) that are very handy for the photographer who want to switch on the spot to a complete different setting. My suggestion is to experiment gradually the Olympus Pen-F and get use to its multi-possibilities. On a short note I have found that in many cases the multiple way (by going through the menu or the quick mode or even the direct dials and function buttons) of doing the same adjustment can be a bit confusing.
As for many other Olympus models, it is suggested to bring an extra battery considering the limited autonomy of the BLN-1 battery pack. Shooting by using only the EVF can extend significantly the life of your battery pack charge. You just have to reverse the LCD screen to use this option.
No in-board flash has been incorporated to the Pen-F. A small external Olympus FM-LM3 optional flash is included with the camera package and can be used as an emergency fill-in flash or as a commander unit of a multi external Olympus flashes arrangement. Otherwise you can rely on a more powerful and versatile unit such as the Olympus FL-600R that is powered by its own 4 size AA batteries.
By using the 20MP image captor similar to the OM-D E-M1 Mark II or to the Panasonic Lumix GX8 the image quality has been optimized on the Olympus Pen-F. The extra resolution compared to the previous 16MP sensor will give an additional marge of manoeuvre for post treatment ability with a less visible lost of definition. In some case like monochrome picture taken on high ISO setting the difference can be notably appreciated.
If monochrome represents most of your photo projects the Olympus Pen-F (like many Olympus M4/3 format models) will fulfil your tasks very nicely.
The Pen-F offers you a lot of different pre-program color configurations plus the possibility to create your own color bias and record it into its different custom menu. Using the Art filter options is another way to experiment different picture renderings. In that sense there are no real limitations for the photographer creativity. The whole M4/3 format digital system has reached a great maturity.
Action photography with the Olympus Pen-F ?
Spontaneous photography as street or urban or travel subjects are well deserved by the Pen-F as everybody seem to agree easily but that perception differs a lot when you are speaking of action or sport photography. Many just points out a restricted ability of the camera to properly autofocus on moving subjects. Moving (often erratic) targets present a challenge to all autofocusing system and there are only a very limited camera models that can properly answer that demand like the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. So in the case of the Pen-F action photography is not the ideal situation to use it… but it can be done by setting for example a pre-focus area on manual position. For sure anticipation is fully required to do so but it got the advantage to more carefully plan our final picture composition. So with certain restrictions and more skill asked from the photographer part the Pen-F can fulfil the bill. At the end the Olympus Pen-F can be rightly assimilated as a perfect second very compact camera on hand for the sporty photographer.
In brief the Olympus Pen-F may represent the summit of their Pen series evolution simply by the fact that it reunite the slim design with the electronic viewfinder (EVF) like the ancient rangefinder film cameras. The Olympus Pen-F is complete in its features and performs very competently with the latest 20MP image captor. Although I did not intent to use the video aspect of the model the Olympus Pen-F is a very competent and compact still digital camera. Because of the compact size of the camera and the lenses that suit this volume (like the 12mm, 17mm, 25mm or 45mm) the Olympus Pen-F is very easy to bring all-around with you and is a very fine picture generator. It can fulfil many different photo projects on an everyday basis. Its 20MP image sensor will give very high quality output at the same level of the “Pro” OM-D E-M1 Mark II.
The versatility of the Olympus Pen-F is on the side of its compactness: easy to bring, reach, show, shoot and share.
Post-scriptum on the Olympus Pen-F
There are many lens-body combinations available with the Olympus Pen-F. For sure the best image quality results will be obtained by using the Premium (prime) and Pro series lenses. But you can also explore a more modest approach with small zoom lenses such as the Olympus M.Zuiko 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II R lens model that is very affordable, compact, versatile and will give very good pictures. It can be a small lens that facilities greatly spontaneous photography practice.
Since my introduction to the M4/3 format with the Olympus EP-3 I have selected the M.Zuiko 14-42mm II R lens as an ever ready “everyday” on hand optic on several occasions without being deceptive by its output. It represents a king of normal trans-standard zoom lens. Its major flaw remains its very small maximum aperture and it is difficult to really extract your subject from its surrounding by using a shallow deep-of-field. But on the other hand it can be a fantastic contextual lens that will allow you to compose beautiful urban scape for example.
(If you are looking to buy the Olympus M.Zuiko 14-42mm II R you will often get the best deal when you combine it with the purchase of a camera body.)
First published in April 2017, Revised in May 2019.