Olympus Pen-F – first impressions

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On my first outing with the PEN-F (shot on my iPhone)
The whole point of going to a mirrorless camera, for most people, is to reduce the weight and bulk of their camera, and lenses. Having moved from Nikon to Fujifilm I thought I had done just that, but was it enough? I thought so, until I bought a f2.8 pro’ grade lens for the Fuji, and then I wondered why I had bothered. Yesterday I met the Olympus PEN-F – smaller, lighter, and with relatively inexpensive lenses. Would I be convinced enough to change my whole system again? Let’s see…

Let me give you some facts to consider, based, solely, on my own photographic experience; firstly, when I started in digital photography back in…ahem…1995, we had a Kodak DCS camera in the studio at work. It boasted all of 1.5MP and had a 2.6x crop sensor. This is compared to the standard, 35mm film camera, by which are still comparing our camera and talking about relative sizes to this day. If you want to skip this bit, and I admit its longer than I planned, then scroll on down until you get to the subheading – MY FIRST OUTING below

I used that camera both in the studio and on location, and we were only the 9th fully digital commercial studio in the UK. The reason we were the 9th was simple; a decent digital camera would cost about the same money as a two-bedroom terraced house! I am not joking – £34,000 for the 6MP version, which would quite literally at that time, have bought you my house.

Why am I telling you this? Because we printed our brochures with photos ranging in size from a just couple of inches across right up to A3 equivalent double page spreads, and we did so with images from this camera. Yes, 1.5MP source image was printed to an A3 double page spread, on a commercial press. This is important because whilst I admit the images were nowhere near as good as scanned 35mm transparency film, and I was more used to 5″x6″ positive film, we were doing it in 1995.

So for me, the great megapixel race has never been of interest. I also think it was over around the 16MP mark to be honest, but there you go.

This is relevant because I now have more megapixels in my phone and I (almost) never print those images. I also have a tiny sensor driven Nikon P900, as you’ll see from other posts, and I am more than happy to print the images from that at A4. I also sell them via a stock agency. Yes, little bitty sensor generated files are accepted, if they are good enough, by quite a lot of places contrary to what the full frame fans will try to have you believe. It is also relevant because I used to be a full frame fan – I had a Nikon D700 full frame 35mm equivalent digital camera, and to be honest, the images from the second body 1.5x crop sensor Nikon D200 frequently outsold it. Sure, the D200 wasn’t a quick, wasn’t as good in the dark, but if you worked within the known constraints the images were fine and frequently got printed to canvasses over 4ft wide. I think the CCD was far superior for image quality than the ‘MOS sensors but like Betamax and VHS it was commonality not quality that won the war.

What has this to do with the Olympus Pen-F? Well in order to get smaller bodies, and smaller (and cheaper) lenses, as well as smaller and lighter cameras, the sensor really has to be smaller. I am odd in the photographic world because I have gone from 5×4″ film, to 6×6 film, to full frame digital, to APS-C , and then to Micro 4/3rds. Most people go in the opposite direction, but maybe without the film.

The Nikon D700 was a 12.1MP camera and the body weighed in at 995g. I used it with a 24-70/2.8 and a 70-200/2.8 lens, which weighed 900g and 1,430g respectively. That means, aside from accessories, I was carrying 3,325g or 3.32kg of just bodies and glass. This is why I have two trapped nerves, one in my neck and one between my shoulders. As well as carrying this, I was often shooting with a second body (the D200, 10MP by the way).

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My XT-2 combo
Due to my original neck issue, I then played around with a Fujifilm X-Pro1, but went back to Nikon because it wasn’t doing what I wanted, and got an APS-C sensored D7200. At the time the focussing was too vague and often s..l..o..w.. and the lens choices were far too limited. After doing myself no good carrying the weight again, I then went back to Fuji for the XT-1. By this point there were many more lenses, although still only offered by Fujifilm and Samyang. Exceptional though all those lenses are, you are still very limited compared to Nikon/Canon. Eventually after a number of false starts with some primes, that I nearly dropped in the soup a few times, I ended up with the Fuji XT-2 and the Fuji XF16-55/f2.8 lens. I do not like to miss shots changing lenses, or try to find places to put things down in the, generally, muddy environments I often work.

My quest to reduce weight had now only been partially successful – I now had a body which weighed 507g and a lens which weighed 655g. Yes, that is correct, the lens weighed more than body and two totalled 1,162g or 1.162kg. It was also not that much smaller than my mirrored DSLR body and favourite lens combinations had been. Most of this was down to that lens. Gorgeous thing that it is, and image quality to die for, it is big and heavy. I also wanted more lenses but simply could’t afford them. I analysed my shots and found I shoot a lot of image as wide as I can with the 16mm end. I would like wider, and I would like longer. I don’t actually shoot much in the middle funnily enough.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I am not going to dissuade anyone from buying into the Fujifilm system. It is a professional workhorse system with very professional quality images. I have, quite honestly, never seen images bettered by any other camera I have used. I have sold countless images from the XT-2 and the XT-1 before it, but these were images that were shot when I could be arsed to carry it, and there is the nub of the problem. Most of the time I just couldn’t be arsed. I didn’t want it around my neck, because frankly it hurts, and if it went into my bag then it very often stayed there. Putting all the stuff down to get out the camera would often mean I had missed the shot anyway, and after 10miles I rarely had the energy left to try. I love walking, but I do not like walking when everything hurts and you fear putting down your bag because you know you don’t want to pick it up again.

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Lunch break on the Isle of Skye 12mile day hike
Here is my kit in a rare moment on the Isle of Skye. I haven’t stopped to take photos, I’ve stopped for lunch. I did take some photos, as you’ll see from my previous blog entry, but I feel I have become someone who is shooting out of necessity, for documentary, and not because it is actually ‘fun’ anymore. I miss the fun. I want to feel inspired and to try things again.

That Gitzo tripod is super wonderful too – and it weighs in at just under 3kg. It was overkill for the camera really, but I like stability in high wind, especially when on cliff/mountain tops. That rucksack, required for all the kit, accessories, waterproofs, lunch etc, also weighs 3kg (empty).

I worked it out that on an average days hillwalking and shooting, I would be carrying at least 18kg, and I just stopped wanting to do it. I wasn’t enjoying being out and worse still I wasn’t enjoying my photography or feeling creatively inspired and that is the crux of the matter.

When I first moved from the Nikon gear to mirrorless I went with the Fujifilm system based on image quality alone. At the end of the day a camera is a tool for taking great images, and to me, hopefully selling them.

At the time of my change over from the Nikon, I did look at the Olympus OM-D system. I had loved Olympus’ film cameras from the OM range. I had several and I really coveted the OM4Ti, although I could never afford one. Sadly by the time I could Olympus appeared to be on their uppers, they had stopped making the OM series, and so I moved to Nikon.

When I moved from Nikon to Fujifilm, as I said, I did look at the OM-D range but I just wasn’t convinced. I didn’t like the feel of the OM-D cameras in the hand, they were actually just a bit too small. In spite of what a lot of people claim, I wasn’t convinced by the build of the original OM-D cameras, they felt, well…cheap.

Funnily enough, the PEN-F, despite being a rangefinder style actually feels more substantial than the OM-D bodies I have looked at, even though it (probably) isn’t. It is also gorgeous to look at, OM4Ti gorgeous, and its really REALLY well made. I actually have more confidence in the build of the PEN-F than I did the XT-2. I guess its those machined dials. I know I said they are tools, but ask a mechanic if he wants a spanner from Snap-on or B&Q. If you enjoy using your camera, you will use it more. Like anything I guess.

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My Olympus PEN-F with 9-18mm lens (shot with my iPhone 6s)
So, let us also look again at that weight again – the PEN-F body is 427g, saving me just 80g on the Fuji XT-2. Not worth it really, given I would lose a fairly big lump of money from my investment changing systems. But, here is the real difference. You see that lens? Well that baby weighs just 155g. The Olympus 4/3rd is a 2x crop sensor, so a 9-18mm is an 18-36mm equivalent. The Fuji X series has a 1.5x crop factor so the 10-24mm, Fuji’s nearest equivalent, is a 15-36mm. The Fuji weighs 410g. So now I have saved 80g on the body and 255g on the lens, a total of 335g. But it gets better still when you look at the other lenses I might need – because I don’t really need a f2.8 with the excellent image stabilisation offered by the PEN-F body, I went for the kit option with the 14-45 lens to replace my Fuji 16-55 coverage. This means I am now comparing 93g to 655g, saving, well, you do the math and you can see where this is leading.

Because I’ve also reduced the lens sizes and weights, I also don’t need a heavy weight tripod, so bye bye Gitzo to be replaced by a MeFoto (bargain used) and my tripod, and head, has now gone from just shy of 3kg to 1.6kg. My filters are smaller too. In fact, everything, aside from the bag is smaller and lighter. Now before everyone says I’m comparing a Ford Focus ST to a bog standard 1.2 version, yes, I get your point, but they both get me from A to B. This is only my comparison and my decision, based on what I have owned and what I own now, for my type of photography, need. I do not expect everyone to agree, but you read this far so want to see what I did, why, and importantly if it works, for me. It may not well work for you because I don’t know you or what you need for your photography.

Anyway, that is the reasoning behind going to the PEN-F and it took a lot longer to get here than I planned, but what follows is my very first outing and my first impressions. I should say that I tried a demo PEN-F first, thanks to Ffordes Photographic Ltd of Beauly, where I have shopped since before they were even in Scotland!

Anyway, enjoy the photos.

MY FIRST OUTING

I confess that the PEN-F is, as the advertising says, a beast. So also is the full manual, the menu system, and all the options. For the first time, ever, I actually had to read all of it, before I could attempt to take a variety of images and understand what it (and I) was doing. I was still reading it at 3am this morning!

So, I traded in my Fujifilm kit based on the demo one, yesterday and I took the PEN-F for a walk this morning. I went local, to the coastal/dune/woodland path parking in Lossiemouth. To be realistic for the future explorations and longer walks, I went with all my landscape kit, plus the Nikon P900 for any chance wildlife encounters, and also took my new used MeFoto tripod. These are the shots from this morning and my comments on them:

I started out with the camera in Aperture Priority because that is what I use most, and I left it there the whole walk. Normally I would use this and Manual for almost all shoots. I also started with the infamous front mode knob set to the I setting and left the menu settings for the colours for this in default. This was the first shot of the morning –

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Unedited out of camera Jpeg with the 14-45mm EZ pancake lens, Aperture Priority, normal shot mode, ISO200, lens at 14mm (28mm equivalent) 
I stumbled across this wonderful use for something long since dumped. The colours in the sky and the heather are rendered accurately and the tones were good enough on the in-camera jpeg I didn’t require the RAW image. I shot both Raw and Fine Jpegs throughout, as I wanted to experiment with the modes, filters, and effects, but I also wanted the ‘negatives’ too if you get what I mean (film pun).

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I decided to get a little closer to the subject, physically, and this in-camera jpeg initially came out a little too light so I have increased the contrast, reduced the highlights very slightly, and increased the vibrance very slightly in Lightroom (to the jpeg). All alterations were under 10%. I am pleased with the result, remembering this is the kit lens that adds just £99 to the cost of buying the body only. The detail is superb, and all the tones are there. I could have improved the in-camera processing when taking the image by using the plentiful adjustments that are available, but it was very difficult to see the screen in the bright sun. People often ask why I sometimes take an umbrella when it’s sunny – it’s because it helps you see the screen, although you do look an idiot using it. (Try it, somewhere quiet…)

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I took a few shots wandering around, and in both portrait and landscape orientation, and at a variety of lens lengths, all on the kit lens, before I had a look at concentrating on the heather.

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I had read on several reviews and forums that you loose some of the depth of field with the Micro 4/3rd systems and so f8 becomes more like f11 or something along those lines. With that in mind, and knowing the reported sweet spot of the lens, I tended to stick around f5.6 as with this shot of the heather, and sadly it didn’t end up with the depth I thought I would. That isn’t actually a bad thing as it means I know I can stop down further now to get it. I also think this heather is a little too pink rather than purple and would adjust this from the raw file if the shot was worth keeping. I put this up unaltered to show you the straight from camera shot.

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Having used the normal shot settings I decided to play with some of the Art filters that come from using the now famous knob on the front the camera. This is Pin Hole III and I liked the colours of that one for the situation, and with the colours around me, although it does move the heather to the pinker tones again.

Because the filters only work on jpeg image files, obviously, where these settings are used here, these are all out of camera jpegs without any Lightroom alteration unless specified.  I had set the Mono one set-up to give me the maximum grain, and at the time of shooting, I adjusted the ‘colours’ to produce was would happen with a ‘red filter’. Although I liked the contrast in the sky, which would have required at least a polariser on this bright sunny day to achieve without that in-camera adjustment, I do find the grain a bit too much. I have now set my mono up with +1 contrast, +1 sharpness, and the lowest added grain setting instead. I look forward to seeing the difference.

I really like option to display the real time exposure, without screen correction, in the Olympus system. This was actually a huge selling point for me because although I don’t do a lot of long exposures now, because they are a bit too common and almost a cliche, I imagine it will save a lot of effort. I like the idea of being able to see what you get with the Live Time mode, and stop a Bulb exposure when you like what you see. Trying to work out exactly how long to time a long exposure, and then to physically time it, in the field, is hard work. Often it is frankly a bit “hit and miss”, and so to cover all bases you shoot several images with slightly different durations. You can’t see what you’ve really got then until you get home. Knowing what you’re getting during the process is a revolution that I can see many manufacturers following, and also something that would only be available on screen or with an EVF. You simply couldn’t do it with the viewfinder on a DSLR because you aren’t looking at what the sensor is actually doing.

I imagine it is the same set-up, within the camera’s programming, that also enables you to see the difference that filters would make at the time of shooting on the screen also. I look forward to seeing how it works, especially with ND grads and polarisers. You do have to play in the menu though, as the default setting appears to have the screen and EVF compensate to produce the image for ‘best viewing’. I turned this off, and now it is set to show me what I am actually getting, which to my mind should really be the default setting on a camera that is squarely aimed at the enthusiast/professional photographer.

At this point in the walk I moved to the 9-18mm wide angle lens for the remainder of the walk.

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I like monochrome work, I specialised in it as a wedding photographer, so I will be experimenting with these settings quite a lot. I really like that you can personalise all the settings, save a number of options, and manipulate the art/colour filters for each individual shot if required.  Love that Olympus, really love that a lot. It goes with my way of working and getting it right ‘in-camera’. I want to spend my time taking photos, not working on my Mac. So, I guess it was worth reading the manual…

I was warned online that there really is an awful lot to learn about the operation of the Olympus cameras because they put so much in, option wise. I don’t want them to change it, but I imagine it scares the hell out of novices who probably don’t get to see or use half of what the cameras are capable of. For someone with 30 years as a photographer, many of those as a professional, and 20 years digitally, I did not expect to have to read the manual hardly at all. I would say, that aside from looking a few things up, I didn’t read the manual for the Fujifilm cameras and certainly not for my Nikons. If I hadn’t have customised the PEN-F I feel I would have been frustrated with it, and disappointed with the operation and the results. It was worth the effort, but you have to be aware you need to make that effort. Of course, you have four saveable Custom options which could reduce work in the future, and some settings will now stay as they are.

One thing that does concern me though: I did my custom settings to the main menus, then I did the Firmware upgrades for the lens and body as directed, and in spite of telling it to save and then restore my settings, it didn’t, so I had to troll through all the menus and do it 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 my normal operations.

I also don’t like the way Olympus installs its upgrades by connecting directly to the camera. On more than two occasions with firmware upgrades on the Fujifilm X series, the download 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 cancelled 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 scary. Anyway, back to the images…

Neither of the two lenses I purchased, the 9-18mm or the 14-45mm are macro lenses. But this is what you can with the 9-18mm, which happened t be on the camera at the time:

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Who needs a macro lens? 18mm on the 9-18mm @ f7.1/1/125sec
Again, I was expecting slightly more depth of field, based on what I had read, and so I apologise for the out of focus forward mushrooms in the shot. I will know in future I need to set a smaller aperture value for these types of images. This was shot with Color mode II on the front knob and has been cropped very slightly in Lightroom. The uncropped version is below:

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Please remember all these images are resized to a maximum of 2000pixels on the longest edge and are therefore NOT displaying at full size. So, if you’re impressed, imagine what the full size ones look like! I don’t often pixel peep but I couldn’t resist with a new camera and I was impressed.

If anyone wants the full size images please let me know and I will add them as linked attachments. I don’t do this routinely as it can make the site slow to load, and it’s time consuming for me.

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I was really enjoying getting up close and personal again with such a wide angle lens. Something I had enjoyed with the Tokina lens I had on my Nikon. This image is cropped to emphasise the flowers nearest the camera and the vignette (lost when cropped from the original art filter – Pinhole III again) was then added back in Lightroom.

The PEN-F is so much fun to use that I found myself doing more experimental shots than I would previously have taken. I got into the mud for this one and the thing sticking up is really only around 10″ tall. I like the gunky face which I only actually spotted on the monitor back home. This could have suited the Diorama setting more than the Pinhole and I wish I had done a shot in both modes. I was however very pleased with the reflections.

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My biggest immediate impression of the PEN-F is – what a lot of fun photography is, again. As I said in the first section, if you were with me, the Fuji X series provide an excellent workhorse for capturing a vision you have already, but the PEN-F whilst being also a fully capable workhorse, inspires you to re-visialise things and try experimenting more. It is a workhorse capable professional camera, with added fun.

These are, bar far, not the greatest photos I have ever taken, but in total I was out for just over 2hours and I shot 38 images. This is pretty much what would have been a roll of film, and a traditional quick test for a new camera. I enjoyed the short trip and I would have been out longer if it hadn’t not only rained, but also lost the nice clouds decent light. I can work with and in this, but I didn’t want to. It was nearly lunchtime and the forecast wasn’t showing it improving. I feel that I still need to finish reading the manual to fully get to all the features and options of the PEN-F, so I was happy to come back in.

My bag was more of a pleasure to carry, and you can see my basic set up for this trip was somewhat lost in that expanse of Lowepro loveliness. On that note, I wish Lowepro would pay more attention to their hiking pedigree and put a bit more effort into their more economical ranges. Sadly the quest for the perfect camera bag has never been fulfilled, by any photographer, as a far as I am aware.

Just to finish; if you are doubting the capabilities of a smaller sensor camera then I would ask you to question what the marketing bods have told you to get you to buy newer, pricier, and more gear. How much do you really need? I mean, look at these!

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Think that’s, even mildly, impressive? Well that isn’t from the PEN-F, it isn’t even a 4/3rds sensor, or a camera anything like as featured or sophisticated as the PEN-F. Remember I said I took the Nikon P900 along with me? Well these are from that tiny weeny sensor! Imagine what I am going to do with the PEN-F…

I know I am.

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