Things I don’t like about the Olympus Pen-F

If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll see that I reviewed the Olympus Pen-F a little while ago. Since then I have used this camera on a trip to the Isle of Skye, which I have also documented, and which sadly resulted in my having some serious second thoughts about my relationship with this beautiful little camera.

I love it’s size, I love it’s weight. It makes really excellent 8×10 prints (I haven’t printed bigger yet). But, for me, personally, as a landscape photographer, there are some real issues that have come to light.

Firstly, the Olympus menu system; I shoot raw and jpeg because I like to have the option of reverting to the raw file later if needed, but I also like the convenience of having a jpeg which meets my requirements as a finished image. My problem with this on the Olympus is controlling the jpeg in camera. I got spoiled with the Fujifilm system where you selected a film replication and knew exactly what you were getting. You didn’t need to tweak the colours, it was simple and effective. Now, I know this is down to me not having got the settings right as yet, but trying to delve into menus and options in the middle of a field in gale force winds is just not happening. Trying to see a tiny little adjustment colour wheel on a highly reflective screen, with even smaller nodes and really sensitive operation of the knobs and dials, whilst standing on top of cliff, in sunlight, is nigh on impossible. Trying to make valid adjustments with gloves on, totally impossible.

I know this is me, and that there is nothing wrong with the camera. But, I don’t want to take a degree in computer nerd to operate my camera.

In the end I decided I had had enough of messing about with the jpegs and set the whole camera to shoot raw only and fully manual. I’d deal with the processing after. The trouble is, that isn’t what I bought the PEN-F for, and it’s a waste of its extensive talents.

They say familiarity breeds contempt but with equipment that isn’t true. I have used Nikon cameras for over 30 years, right from film and through the first digital cameras which were Kodak/Nikon hybrids. Nikon, unlike a lot of manufacturers, keep pretty much everything in the same places from one body to the next. The menus have the same titles, and the same order. Sure they add new things but it’s logical. Sure, sometimes buttons moved or can be programmed, but its logical and it takes only a few minutes to find where the stuff has gone to or what’s new. I can operate a Nikon in the dark, like an extension of my own being. It is familiar to the point that I can pick up any body and lens combination and make it work without thinking about it.

This means that I am concentrating on my composition, on actually taking the photo, and not operating the camera.

Anyway, as I said, I switched the camera to raw and manual which kind of turned it into a Fuji…which leads me to the second thing:

I like to use filters to get shots right in-camera, first time. This includes graduated neutral density filters. Now, I’m not a complete numpty and I did leave the 100mm filter system at home (and there is no way to get rings to attach it to the tiny filter sizes of the Olympus lenses anyway). I took a Cokin P sized system with me, with three hard grads, two soft grads, a polariser that didn’t fit the holder (which is another story…), and stepping rings to take the 52mm filter size from the 9-18mm lens down to the 3something-mm of the standard lens. The soft grads were unusable as the graduation change covered more than the actual diameter of the biggest lens, so you couldn’t get the effect at all, just a graduation across the whole scene or a very weak transition of grad over around half of it. This was pretty useless, really. It was also a right bastard to line anything up because the viewfinder is small and the screen is hard to see in bright light. Why can’t they make screen matt?

So, I, and I do mean me, can’t get to grips very quickly with the jpeg options in the field, because I find that they’re too fiddly and too annoying. And, I can’t use filters. And, I’m shooting mainly landscapes.

When I get home, in spite of the issues and how much the Olympus annoyed me in use, I did enjoy the result and was impressed, to a point.

Point three – 4:3 ratio images are odd, to me. They are not quite square and not quite rectangular enough. I ended up turning most of my images into squares. I found that cropping the image to create a more landscape shaped landscape meant a very small file size ensued or, because I had composed the shot with the full size of the sensor in view, I was cropping out bits I actually wanted. Printing onto normal paper sizes also meant cropping off part of the images, which changed the image composition in ways I didn’t appreciate. It was sort of like shooting 6×6 film knowing you’re going to crop to a rectangle so you leave a portion of the frame as unimportant to the composition as you know you’ll loose it. The thing is, with a small sensor like the micro 4/3rds, you don’t have a lot of room for aggressive cropping.

Fourth and final point – the lenses are have are impressively sharp, and they are tiny, which has advantages when hiking, no denying that. Chromatic aberration is well controlled although distortion with the 9-18mm isn’t in raw and there is now automatic adjustments available with a Lightroom profile. This means manually fixing each image, which is fine. It’s not a big job and you do expect that with any ultra wide, especially if its a zoom.

I know the Pro lenses are better, but they don’t suit the PEN-F build. Putting a standard zoom on the front of it makes it front heavy. This doesn’t bother some people, but it does bother me. I had the same issue with the Fujifilm system; the pro fast lenses are the same size pretty much as DSLR lenses but the body is half the size. I found the XT2 with the 16-55/2.8 uncomfortable in use, and weirdly balanced on a tripod, requiring a heftier tripod that I would have liked. This was why I moved to Olympus. To get a balance between the lenses and the body. Perhaps I should have gone for a more traditional SLR shaped body rather than the PEN-F? Who knows.

So, what is the conclusion, my conclusion to this exercise?

Well, I still have the PEN-F kit at the moment because I do appreciate the light weight flexibility. I also think that for travel, where weight or bulk is an issue they can’t be beaten. I also think that for street photography or walking around in areas where you might need to move quickly or surreptitiously they’re wonderful. I never shot street photography until I got the PEN-F because I felt too self conscious. I have depression, and anxiety issues around groups of people, as readers will know.

But….I did just go and buy a used Nikon full frame (FX) D600 body, and two used lenses. It took me around five minutes to set up the whole camera from a factory reset to the way I like my camera setup. I did it whilst having my sandwich, one handed. I then went out and shot roughly 30 images on the way home, in bad light. I loved the reassuring noises it made, even if they were damned loud to start with compared to the Mirrorless cameras I am used to now.

I was reticent about the weight although, the XT2 with its 16-55/2.8 only weighed around a mars bar less, ok two mars bars. I would carry that weight back in extra batteries because the Mirrorless XT2 would get 350shots a charge compared to 900+ with the Nikon DSLR.

I shot in low light, bright light, with and without a tripod, with and without filters, and I rarely looked at the controls. I shot everything in raw, in 14-bit, and then I sat at my computer and admired the detail in the trees and leaves that I simply don’t see in the Olympus images. Yes, I was pixel peeping, because I wanted to do a detailed examination of the files. Then I printed one image out and it fitted to the paper without loosing more than a few millimetres. The whole image, 3:2 ratio.

It has more tonality, it has more detail. Even just printing on an A4 sheet.

Where does this leave the PEN-F? To be honest the jury is out. If someone makes me a good offer then it will go because I need the money back. I will take the Nikon out for a few days and see how I feel about carrying the weight and bulk again. If I decide that actually, with a few manual primes the set up will be just as light and efficient, or near enough, then there is a very good chance I will switch back to a DSLR system completely. I don’t know yet. I’d like to keep both, but that’s not really an option.

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9 thoughts on “Things I don’t like about the Olympus Pen-F

  1. Interesting read for me, as I do tutorials on the Olympus for beginners and you’ve given me a few ideas for my next project. Here are my thoughts. Everyone develops a muscle memory and has a different learning style. I’ve found many products fit my brain better than others. As for controlling the camera, it’s kinda like dashboards in VW vs. Honda. The VW has a very pragmatic approach and the Honda is more techie. The Pen-F tries to be a VW but ends up being a Honda. As for the images produced, imagine someone used to shooting 4×3 then complaining about having to crop the sides in 4×6 to get back to 4×3. That said, we do look at things in 16:9 a lot. As for image quality, too many things play a role and becomes more subjective. You may find the engine in one camera feels better, smoother, and richer than another, regardless of its horsepower. As for lenses, have you considered the Panasonic zooms, 12-35 and 35-100? Size and weight are close enough between the small DSLR and mirrorless that I think handling should be a larger consideration. Continuing the car analogy, I feel the Nikons are like an old Mercedes V8. A quality, look and feel that is hard to replicate and has been maintained and updated over time. Olympus is more like VW, a similar but distinct historic quality, look and feel that has redefined itself to be thoroughly modern while paying only visual homages to it’s past. I think Fujifilm does it best, merging past and present without losing the magic. I really can’t think of any car analogy for Fujifilm, but Porsche comes closest, you just found the ride a bit harsh. If it’s not clear to people reading this, I don’t disagree with anything in this article, it only emphasizes the need and challenges to find the right camera for each individual.

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    1. Thanks for your comments Rob. I am very happy that you have found something useful for your next tutorials. I think the car analogy is accurate, and funnily enough, having driven all of the above I have to add that the only car makes I have had several models of have been Ford and VW. But I did love my Mercedes no matter how impractical driving a 6litre XLS was.

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  2. Well I have been an Olympus man for many years right back to the trip, now own and use OMD’s 5mk2 and 1mk1 plus numerous lenses pro and otherwise. The points you make are all valid to you but leave the reader with questions “like weren’t you expecting demanding conditions on the trip? if so why didn’t you spend time with the menu system before the trip and set up the camera to suit?”Take the image ratio setting, for instance, you have the choice of 1:1, 3:4, 4:3, 16:9 and your much vaunted 3:2 not difficult to find it’s in shooting menu 1. Olympus cameras are infinitely customisable and with a little patience can be set up to suit almost everybody’s needs. As for the comment that you could set up your Nikon blindfolded, I could probably do the same with my OMD’s and the pens, I was involved in running the local U3A photography group and as you can imagine the different cameras in use were many and varied from all the major manufacturers if I was called to sort out a setting on a Nikon as I was I had to resort to the manual and you tube for the answer, so to me the Nikon menu was far from easy [ I had to do the same with a Cannon] It’s horses for courses and if you are happy with having to use a PantechNikon for your gear then go for it

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    1. I think you are absolutely right David, it is what you are used to that makes an awful lot of difference,, and yes it was silly to get a new camera a couple of weeks before my trip, although I have done that before without any issues. I know you can change the image ratio in camera but that is no different to cropping the image, you just crop the sensor instead effectively and the 4/3rd sensor is small to start with so I am reluctant. Maybe I should be braver.

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  3. didn’t you ever hear of Cokin size A–that is what I use on my little lenses –I have Nikon cameras FF and DX and I still love my PEN-F better so if you are unhappy with the PEN-F stick with the heavy weight Nikons

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  4. it seems you would rather it be a Nikon. Either you work with what you have or move on. In your case, I suggest you move on.

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  5. Interestingly I am on a similar path. Have been a film / Nikon / Rollei / Leica pro photographer since 1977 – had the Olympus kit since 2011 then swapped to Fuji Xt-2 then back to Olympus OMD1 with pro lenses. Fabulous sharpness but the menus drive me crazy. As you say just a simple change you overlooked or accidentally modify can spoil a great photo moment. The Fuji X series are probably the most intuitive Digital cameras ever made but like you I was not overly happy with the camera- lens combinations. Back to Nikon ? The new D850 is compelling ….. I often dream of a Nikon F3 digital – a multi F3 (film) kit lasted me 20 years never missed a beat …. come on Nikon you can do it : A Nikon F3 digital with the simplicity of the old film cameras …… 😉

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    1. Thank you for your comment, and for letting me know I am not alone. I’m going to run both systems for a couple of weeks but I suspect I will end up back with Nikon, and less need for gym membership

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