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Amelia Krales

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Olympus Pen-F review: a marvelous marriage of old and new

Humans have a hard time letting go of the past. Sometimes it's a good thing — nostalgia helps people fight loneliness and can even make them more tolerant. Other times it feels like a weakness, mostly because of how easily it gets exploited in the name of reunion tours and shows like Fuller House.

Profiting off these impulses isn't exclusive to the entertainment industry — camera companies take advantage of nostalgia, too. Olympus, Canon, Nikon, and Fujifilm have all spent the last few years drawing from their long camera legacies to to make their newest digital cameras look like their film forebears.

The next logical step, I wrote late last year, was for these companies to capitalize on this trend by resurrecting the iconic SLR film cameras like the the Canon AE-1. It seemed like an obvious move, especially for Canon and Nikon, to leverage our love for flagship film cameras — many of which were the first cameras some of us ever used — in order to make up ground in the burgeoning mirrorless camera market.

What I didn't expect was that Olympus would beat everyone to the punch. In January, the company announced the Olympus Pen-F, and it was exactly what I predicted — a legacy film camera with digital guts, or what Olympus calls a "digital update of the original Pen-F." Like its competitors, the Pen-F juxtaposes classic looks and metal with things like digital screens and Wi-Fi connectivity. The difference is Olympus' new camera mixes the old and the new so well that, for a moment, I'm not too upset about that Legends of the Hidden Temple remake.

The original Pen-F is one of the company's classic film cameras from the late 1960s. And like its predecessor, the new Pen-F is basically all metal. Aluminum and magnesium give the new Pen-F a sturdy, solid feel, and the cohesion is amplified by a lack of visible screws. Some companies — Olympus included — have taken to throwing fake metal finishes on plastic bodies as a way of acquiring a retro look on the cheap, so this is a very welcome break from that. A belt of rubbery fake leather that stretches around the middle completes the look, and helps you grip the camera as well.

The Pen-F's metal body looks beautiful and feels incredibly solid

Olympus also included a number of little homages to the film camera era throughout the design of the new Pen-F. The on/off switch looks like a film rewind lever, there's a working cable release mechanism in the shutter button, and the AF assist light sits right where you'd expect to find a rangefinder, all adding to the the classic look.

The only regrettable thing about the Pen-F's design is that it doesn't look enough like the original Pen-F. The body of Olympus' old film Pen-F had a wide, low profile, and the metal top sloped very stylishly down from one side to the other. With 40 years of hindsight, the old Pen-F looks very much like an object from the '60s. The digital Pen-F isn't quite as radical and — if it weren't for the Olympus branding right above the lens mount — it could be easily mistaken for one of the many similar cameras Fujifilm has released in the last few years.

The big difference between this camera and the Fujifilms is that the Pen-F is just loaded with knobs, dials, and buttons. It's the first thing you notice when you look at the Pen-F, and the appearance can be intimidating — but they're not just for show. The dials are all metal, and each one features its own particular (and particularly satisfying) click so that you know, without looking, what it is you're changing. That's the real beauty of the Pen-F: it not only looks incredible, but it's often a joy to use — as long as you're willing to be patient.

Tons of customization, so patience is key

Like any good modern digital camera, the functions of these buttons and dials are nearly all customizable. You can reassign the two "function" buttons to perform specific tasks like changing the ISO or locking the exposure, or you can even change the purpose of the dials above your thumb and forefinger. Olympus has also placed four different customization modes on the PASM dial, so you can quickly switch to a profile that's best suited for low light shooting, or something more tailored for landscapes, for example. These days, Olympus' menu system is still too cluttered for its own good, but it's worth going through all the work it requires because once you set the camera up to your liking you almost never have to dip back into the menus.

Setting the striking design aside, Olympus promised the Pen-F would be packed with some of the features the company's been developing on its flagship OM-D line of mirrorless cameras. Chief among them found on the Pen-F are things like 5-axis image stabilization, rapid-fire burst shooting, and a suite of preset color profiles, filters, and effects. Olympus has also included a small but excellent 2.36 million dot electronic viewfinder, and a fully-articulating 3-inch LCD touchscreen.

These modern features make the Pen-F feel like a powerful camera for its size, but a few of them aren't without drawbacks. The 5-axis stabilization makes it easier to shoot in low light or at long focal lengths, but it doesn't feel as robust as the stabilization offered by some of the competition. On Sony's newest cameras, the 5-axis stabilization feels like a superpower. On the Pen-F, it just feels like an aid.

The Pen-F can shoot stills at up to 20 frames per second using the electronic shutter. That kind of ludicrous sequential shooting is tempting, but at that speed you're likely to see some warping, or "rolling shutter" in the corners of your images — a problem that is exacerbated because the image stabilization shuts off in high-speed modes. The "slower" modes (10 or 5 frames per second) use the mechanical shutter, but were still a bit frustrating: here, the camera locks the focus and exposure from first image onward. This all means you can't move the camera much, or pan across dynamically-lit scenes during a burst of shooting, which is frustrating, because that's when high sequential speeds are most helpful.

Even when you shoot at more modest speeds like five frames per second, the camera's outdated contrast detection autofocus never feels up to the challenge of shooting moving subjects. Over the course of a few weeks with the Pen-F, I kept trying to force using it for street or documentary-style photography, but each time I found myself a bit let down. The Pen-F starts up fast and can quickly focus on a static subject, but ask it to do too much more and you can wind up frustrated.

The Pen-F, then, feels better suited for more contemplative photography. And considering the amount of customization afforded by the plethora of buttons and dials, you actually benefit from a slower approach with the Pen-F. I never hesitated to pick it up when I was shooting a portrait, or a landscape, or taking simple candid shots, and it was my go-to option during the week we spent in Barcelona for Mobile World Congress.

The new "creative dial," which sits on the front of the camera, is a perfect example of this. (It's one of the few direct callbacks to the design of the original Pen-F.) It has five modes, and the idea is it removes the need to dig through menus if you want to switch color profiles. If you think a scene is better suited for black and white photography, you can twist the dial over to "Mono," or if you'd like to use one of Olympus' "art filters," they're right here, too. Fujifilm has taken to equipping its cameras with film simulation modes, and this is Olympus' way of playing to that same impulse. It sounds gimmicky, but I found myself using the dial more than I imagined.

The value with Olympus' take on this comes from the ability to tweak each mode to your liking. If you really like deep blacks in your monochrome images, you can make that the default when you switch to Mono. That's the Pen-F at its best; with a little work, you can access loads of personalization at your fingertips without lifting your eye from the viewfinder.

All of this customization would be for naught if the camera didn't produce great images. I worried that the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor would leave me wanting more pixels, but Olympus actually expanded the resolution to 20 megapixels with this sensor — up about 20 percent from the 16 megapixels afforded by its other cameras. It winds up capturing plenty enough detail for the images to look great on phones and even laptop screens, and even though the pixels are smaller, the Pen-F performs competently in low light thanks to the 5-axis stabilization.

There are still some unavoidable limitations of a Micro Four Thirds sensor that even the Pen-F can't overcome, like not being able to reproduce the shallow depth of field that APS-C and full frame sensors provide. And, placed side by side with images taken by APS-C or full frame sensors, the quality of the Pen-F's 20 megapixels doesn't quite hold up. The video quality (yes, of course it shoots video) is also underwhelming. But the benefits of Micro Four Thirds remain: It's light and easy to travel with, and Olympus has built out an extensive lens ecosystem with some high quality glass.

Handheld with the shutter at 1/30th of a second and an ISO of 3200.

You could say a lot of these same things about the OM-D series, Olympus' more modern-looking Micro Four Thirds cameras, which gets to the real problem with the Pen-F. Buying the Pen-F over Olympus' other cameras is basically a choice based completely on aesthetics, and it's one that will cost you. Olympus is selling the Pen-F body for $1,199, which is a good $200-300 more than any of the OM-D cameras — and they come paired with a starter lens.

If you're in love with the idea of a digital camera that looks, feels, and operates like a classic film camera, the Pen-F is one of the best ever made. And if you already own a number of Olympus lenses, it has to be a tempting indulgence. For everyone else, it's just the latest experiment in nostalgia — one that I hope Olympus' competitors are watching closely.


Photography by Sean O'Kane, lead photo by Amelia Krales

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