If you like to read photography blogs, this one should come as no surprise. But at least now it's official: Olympus is resurrecting one of its flagship film rangefinders, the Pen F, as a mirrorless digital camera.
The new Pen-F will be available in the US in early March, will cost $1,199, and — if you like lots of knobs and brushed metal finishes — it could be one of your favorite cameras of 2016.
Unsurprisingly, the Pen-F won't come with a full-frame sensor the size of a 35mm piece of film. But it is getting an upgrade from the 16-megapixel chip Olympus has been using in its smaller cameras lately. Instead, the Pen-F has an all-new 20-megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor. (That's still bigger than the 1-inch sensor found on cameras like the Sony RX100, but smaller than the APS-C sensors found in entry-level DSLRs or in Fujifilm's X series of cameras.) Putting APS-C sensors in mirrorless cameras has become a trend in the last two years, but making the Pen-F a Micro Four Thirds camera keeps the access to Olympus' deep well of compatible lenses.
Sensor aside, the Pen-F should be a worthy competitor to interchangeable lens cameras like the Fujifilm X-T1 and X-T10. It shares the same resolution OLED electronic viewfinder (2.36 million dots, though the opening on the Olympus one feels a bit small), and it has a 3-inch touchscreen on the back that swivels. It's Wi-Fi equipped, and it's also so light that I thought the battery was missing when I first picked it up during a brief hands-on event a few weeks ago.
The Pen-F has the same 5-axis image stabilization found on the older Olympus Pen E-P5 and the newer (and even smaller) E-M10 Mark II. Five-axis stabilization is an important and attractive feature — it makes for much easier low light shooting, lets you make longer exposures, and helps eliminate the image blurring that comes from shaky hands. Companies like Olympus and Sony are building this feature into their camera bodies right now, and it's a huge advantage as it makes the feature available for every lens you attach to the camera.
Sample images from the Pen-F. Shot by Mike Boening, Olympus Trailblazer.
The Pen-F is also a tightly designed camera that doesn't waste any space on its small chassis. It comes in silver or black — the two standard looks as far as current throwback designs go — and really looks like a much less boring Pen E-P5. There are metal knobs galore on top, a grippy rubber belt around the middle, and a shutter button that looks like it's from another era.
But there's more to the Pen-F than just retro styling. Olympus made sure there are no visible screws. It hid a cable release in the shutter button. The camera also has a dedicated color profile knob on the front for quick switching between black-and-white and a number of other presets. There's a lot going on here, but it's done in such a careful way that the Pen-F doesn't look as garish or crowded as some of the cameras in Olympus' OM-D line.
The back side of the 3-inch LCD uses that same rubberized material as the rest of the body, so when you flip it over it and close it, the camera looks even more like it came from the 1960s. The new Pen-F definitely doesn't look as radical as the original film version, but it's a sharp looking camera, and it's one of the most attractive designs Olympus has ever released.
Olympus has built a lot of clever software features into some of its other recent mirrorless cameras, and a number of them will show up in the Pen-F, too. For example, users will be able to select autofocus points while they're shooting by moving their thumb on the touchscreen — something that was pioneered on the E-M10 Mark II. The EVF can also simulate what a non-electronic viewfinder would see, giving you a chance to better judge what to expose for without making you pull your head away from the camera. And the Pen-F features a "high res shot" mode that, when you use a tripod, actually moves the sensor in between shutter releases in order to build a massive 50-megapixel image.
The Pen-F is also very powerful for its small size. It can shoot RAW images at 10 frames per second, or up to 20 with the electronic shutter. The shutter can stay open as long as 60 seconds on its own, or snap a picture in as fast as 1/16000th of a second. While the Pen-F doesn't have some of the signature features on Olympus' bigger, more expensive cameras (like weatherproofing), the new camera should be extremely capable.
Canon and Nikon have fallen behind the trend of mirrorless cameras, and that's left room for companies like Olympus and Fujifilm to create really attractive cameras at nearly the same price point as an entry-level DSLR. The new Pen-F will be another weapon in the Olympus arsenal, but it also might just be its best one yet.