Austin, art modes, acceptance

When you are inside the Texas Capitol, you cannot forget that you are inside the Texas Capitol. Taken using Olympus' 'Classic Film Monochrome' mode. F4 | 1/30 | ISO 3200

The new Olympus PEN-F has been, on the whole, receiving Texas-sized portions of praise around the DPReview offices. But there’s one design detail that hasn’t been met with much southern hospitality: Olympus’ decision to place a dial smack on the front of the camera that is solely used for selecting various photo effects for your JPEGs, and what’s more, to make it impossible to assign to another feature.

But after just a couple of days of shooting with he PEN-F, I found that I was using that little dial all the time. 'Keep Austin Weird' is the saying. Maybe this city is rubbing off on me a bit.

Olympus' 'Classic Film Vivid Saturation' can occasionally push skin tones a little over the top, but is perfect for adding some punch to urban landscapes. F2 | 1/8000 | ISO 200

And there does seem to be a bit of parity going on here. Wander the streets of Austin, an unabashedly hip (and hipster-filled) town and there are times that you’d be hard-pressed to tell that you’re actually thousands of miles away from the west coast. Apart from the drop-dead-delicious down-home cooking, there’s a lot of Austin that just doesn’t seem to jive with the typical Texan stereotypes. To me, that’s totally okay and just adds to this city’s charm.

That’s kind of the same feeling I get about the Creative mode dial on the front of the PEN-F. This camera is solid, expensive, attractive and looks serious - until you read that dial and see that one of the settings is 'Art.' It honestly doesn’t really fit in to the classically-styled PEN-F, but somehow, adds some unexpected charm.

The 'Classic Film Monochrome' lives up to its name, right down to the heavy-handed grain. I like it. I expect many people won't. F2 | 1/30 | ISO 400

Most of that added charm is thanks to the fact that this little Creative mode dial hides two completely new profile modes for the Olympus ecosystem. Taking a page out of Fujifilm’s book, Olympus claim that they are meant to be film emulations. I assigned 'Color' to either Chrome Film Rich Color or Chrome Film Vivid Saturation, and the 'Mono' setting is always on Classic Film Monochrome, which is full-on contrasty, grainy goodness. I rarely used the 'Art' or 'Color Creator' modes because, you know, there has to be a line somewhere.

I like using this dial so much because I would never get these images if I were shooting in a more 'natural' JPEG setting or Raw. I just don’t tend to tone my photos this way. I might come up with similar compositions, but they wouldn’t have the same mood. Not to harp on Fujifilm, but it’s reminiscent of why I shoot my X100 in JPEG mode almost all the time - I like it, and I can’t say I’d get the same feel if I did everything myself.

When they decided to expand Texas' state capitol facility, they basically tunneled it underground. Because why not? Here, I used the 'Chrome Film Rich Color' mode that cranks both the saturation and contrast a bit which, combined with some intentional exposure adjustments, can lead to nice, crunchy shadows. Tasty. F5.6 | 1/1250 | ISO 400

And I’ll come right out and say that you may still think this is all rather silly. I wouldn’t blame you, and these emulations certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But that’s fine. I don’t think Austin is everyone’s cup of tea either, but it sure is fun.

Now. To the camera.

So, if you came here to read more about an actual camera and less about frivolous-yet-fun art filters, let’s dig in a little deeper. Our illustrious staff has already some some some excellent hands-on and preview content, and I agree with them on most of their points. Here’s a few personal takes from me.

The body does feel extremely solid, and the lack of exposed screws is a nice touch, but it doesn’t get me as excited as I think Olympus’ engineers were. (Also, I can't imagine what it's like if you ever have to get this camera serviced.) What’s missing is weather sealing, which is an odd omission for a camera of this caliber, this price and one that Olympus claim is aimed at street shooters.

And let's be real. If you're going to go to the trouble to eliminate visible screws, let's also add some invisible weather sealing.

The new PEN-F's autofocus modes are on par with Olympus' other mid-to-high end offerings, such as the E-M5 II. Here, single-point autofocus nailed the can of spray paint perfectly despite some intense backlighting. F2 | 1/6400 | ISO 200

This is an exceedingly comfortable camera to hold, and the typical magic feel of Olympus’ dials is in full force. I find myself just twiddling them as I walk down the street, even if I'm not actively shooting. The viewfinder is big, bright and beautiful, but the fully articulating screen can be hard to see in daytime. Also, I don’t particularly like fully articulating screens, but I do like that this one has leatherette on the back if you fold it away completely - it’s nice if you want to be extra discreet or grasp more of the camera for just carrying around.

Speaking of being extra discreet, this camera can operate completely silently and with no noticeable noise penalty from using an electronic shutter. For moments when silence isn’t necessarily golden, the feel and sound of the mechanical shutter (which goes to 1/8000!) is very nice indeed.

It isn't all puppies and rainbows. The high saturation of the Chrome Film modes requires careful attention to your white balance, which can (understandably) struggle under mixed lighting. In other words, the colors in this image SOOC are pretty gross and yes, I should have stuck to black and white. F2 | 1/80 | ISO 320

The new sensor represents the highest pixel count of any Olympus camera yet, and it doesn’t disappoint. It provides excellent detail and good high ISO performance. If you add some of your own grain a la Classic Film Monochrome, you can comfortably shoot at ISO 6400. A more reasonable limit for Raw purists will be around 3200, but as always, this will vary on the quality of your remaining light and your choice of exposure.

The new high-res mode on this camera produces 50MP JPEGs and 80MP Raws. To get the most of those extra pixels I found you need to exercise more caution than I did, even if you're using a tripod. I would also recommended that you engage an extra timer delay to minimize any vibration you might otherwise cause by physically pressing the shutter button.

This is the "Pinhole Camera III" art filter. And this is why I don't use the art filters much. F2 | 1/1000 | ISO 200

Single-point autofocus is fast and accurate, and continuous focus with tracking is comparable with the E-M5 II (though not the E-M1 with its hybrid system).

Lastly, kudos to Olympus for including a clip on flash that articulates for easy bounce work. What’s more, some non-scientific testing yielded an almost Fujifilm-quality of fill flash: perfectly balanced with the ambient surroundings, and maintaining decent color.

With its sleek yet low-profile looks, fold-away screen and excellent viewfinder, the PEN-F is almost perfectly set up to be a street photographers' walk-around camera. Except for that whole weather-sealing thing. F1.8 | 1/8000 | ISO 200

At the end of the day, the PEN-F is an excellent camera for its intended audience of fashion-conscious folks who are serious about their travel or candid photography. Though the price is on the high side, the feature set, build quality and image quality from its all-new sensor at least merits a look for anyone looking to move into the Micro Four Thirds system in style.

The heavy-handed (but adjustable) film grain effect adds impact to this portrait, in my opinion. F1.8 | 1/50 | ISO 6400

For more samples from the Olympus PEN-F, please take a look at our samples gallery below.