The Olympus Pen-F Reappears

(news & commentary)

bythom olympus pen-f front angle

Olympus today announced the Pen-F, a new camera that’s more rangefinder style than DSLR, and which competes fairly directly with the Panasonic GX-8, which has a similar form factor. 

The original “Pen” dates to 1959, when Olympus first introduced a "half-frame" 35mm camera that was a more compact and light film SLR. It didn’t actually split a 35mm film roll in half; instead it used the Hollywood format for 35mm film, which today we’d probably refer to as Super35 format. Still, you’d get twice the number of shots with a standard 35mm film cartridge on a Pen as did other film SLRs. In some ways, the original Pen F foreshadowed the crop sensor designs of the digital era. 

In 2009, Olympus gave us the “Digital Pen,” the first model of which was the E-P1. Since then we’ve had a long series of other Pens, four in the EP series, five in the PL series, and two in the PM series. All these cameras, however did not have built-in EVFs (some had optional EVFs). 

I mention the history for a reason: Olympus appears to be rejiggering their use of the Pen term again. This time we have a Pen-F, which is directly imitating the original film Pen F (1963) name, and has a lot of styling cues from that camera, including that dial on the front of the camera below the shutter release. Too bad Olympus missed the 50th anniversary ;~).

The original digital Pens initially sold well, but in more recent years they really only sell decently in parts of Asia and for a couple of years now Olympus has had the problem of overproduced inventory of them.  I’ve seen the most recent E-P5 on clearance in some places at less than half it’s original list price, though currency swings have affected that somewhat, too. Still, if you ask any dealer that sells the Olympus m4/3 line, they’ll tell you that the OM-D models are their main bread and butter here in the US.

Which makes the Pen-F curious: it has an EVF like the OM-D models, and it inherits most of the things that the OM-D models have introduced, including the 50mp Hi-Res mode first seen in the E-M5II. So why would we want a Pen-F instead of a new OM-D? 

Well, the Pen-F is the first of the Olympus m4/3 models to get the Sony 20mp sensor. It also uses the rangefinder-style offset EVF, which some photographers prefer, as their nose doesn’t hit the rear LCD.  

I’m not sure what to make of the Olympus m4/3 product line at this point. Oh, the lenses have slotted in very nicely, and we’re getting more coming, which means that the full system should round out as good as any we’ve seen. No, it’s the cameras that seem lack a solid differentiation point. Why do I want a Pen-F instead of an OM-D? Why do I want a Pen-F instead of a GX-8? Those are tricky questions that don’t seem to be answered very well by Olympus.

Even in the OM-D line, I sometimes scratch my head about how an E-M1 and E-M5II are supposed to be different. And the E-M10II is basically a slightly stripped version in a smaller and lighter body. It really feels that Olympus is engineering resource constrained. E-M5 established the OM-Ds, but then the E-M1 and E-M5II progression seemed merely like leapfrogging. Might as well have kept the same body and controls and made an E-M5, E-M5II, and E-M5III as far as I’m concerned. 

But now we have the Pen-F basically joining into the leapfrog game, only with another different body style. No doubt we’ll get the 20mp sensor and something else new in the E-M1 Mark II, but the differentiation in terms of actual capabilities in all these model switches is just muddled the way Olympus is doing it. It just feels like there are too many models in too narrow an arbitrary space. That said, the Pen-F has a bit more of a retro look and feel to it, and that alone may appeal to some.

So what do we get in the Pen-F that’s new? 

As I noted, Olympus has moved to the Sony 20mp m4/3 sensor with this model, giving us 5 fps with autofocus tracking as the top speed. The mechanical shutter now goes to 1/8000, with an anti-shock mode capability up to 1/320 second. The raw buffer at 5 fps is 250 shots, so basically un-confining. Plus, of course, the body style difference from the OM-D models. One thing that’s highly welcome is that Olympus seems to have gone to a round eyepiece on the viewfinder, and one that won’t get easily dislodged and lost as we’ve experienced on virtually every earlier Olympus m4/3 body. 

The most glaring omission with the Pen-F is weather sealing, and that’s already gotten a lot of discussion and angst from the m4/3 faithful. The other omission that is getting considerable commentary from the Olympus faithful is that phase detect autofocus is missing. That’s not a terrible loss, as the primary time the Olympus models use phase detect is with the older 4/3 lenses, but still, that makes the Pen-F a little less backwards compatible.

Finally, there’s price. As I write this, the very competent E-M10 Mark II is US$749, the E-P5 is US$799, the E-M5 Mark II is US$999, and the E-M1 is US$1099.  But the Pen-F tops all of those at US$1199 for the body.

Most of the rest of the Pen-F is recognizably the same as the most recent OM-D models, including the 50mp high resolution mode. 

With the Panasonic GX-8 also being 20mp and rangefinder style, I’m sure the question will come up: Pen-F or GX-8? Here are some of the differences that you might notice between the cameras:

  • The Pen-F has the 50mp high resolution shot mode for still life
  • The GX-8 has a swivel EVF
  • The Pen-F is somewhat smaller and lighter
  • The GX-8 shoots 4K video

Whether that’s enough differentiation to split the smallish market for the rangefinder style m4/3 camera or not, I don’t know. Obviously, there are performance differences and JPEG rendering differences between the two, but frankly, they seem much more similar than dissimilar to me. 

One thing that bothers me a bit about the Pen-F design (and the GX-8) is the non-aligned EVF and lens. With an aligned EVF/lens—e.g. DSLR style—when a subject moves laterally in front of you your response in panning the camera is in line with the eye.  With the off-set rangefinder style cameras—e.g. Leica style—the eye-hand coordination is just a bit off kilter. For most subjects that’s not a big deal, but I do find that I have to “relearn” my rotation habits a bit when I’m shooting fast moving subjects with an offset design.  Not a big thing, but it’s a real, though subtle, issue.

Personally, I like the “look” of the new Pen-F and many things about it, but it’s not likely to be the m4/3 camera that ends up in my bag. Once Olympus brings the 20mp sensor to an E-M1 update, that’s much more likely going to be the camera in my bag. Still, there’s no arguing that the Pen-F seems a little more retro cute and seemingly well specified. 

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