Why I sold the Olympus Pen-F: long term review of a camera that I wanted to like

May 10, 2019

Jean-Pascal Remon

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Why I sold the Olympus Pen-F: long term review of a camera that I wanted to like

May 10, 2019

Jean-Pascal Remon

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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I wanted to love this camera.

I truly did. Here’s what I wrote a year and a half ago. The passion was there. The honeymoon lasted eight months…But already after a few weeks of ownership, I knew she wasn’t the one for me.

The battery life was reason enough to get rid of this thing…But maybe with a whole bunch of spare batteries I could have renewed my ties with the Pen-F…but it has one critical flaw: The image quality isn’t there. When I received the X-Pro2, I finally decided that it was time to let it go and sell it. Heck, even my X-Pro1 had better image quality.

Taken with my good ol’ Nikon D800E with a 20mm f/1.4 Sigma Art, wide-open.
The Jeep in Bolivia, after a long journey. Taken with the 75mm f/1.8 M.Zuiko. Great lens on a good camera. The problem isn’t that the camera isn’t good. It’s just that the competition obliterates it.
Somewhere in the street in Paraty, Brazil.
The best picture I ever taken with the Pen-F. It can, sometimes, delivers good result.

The image quality simply sucked on the Pen-F, coming from a decade of APS-C and FF background. That’s the point of view of a photographer that isn’t getting paid by Olympus to spread some non-sense such as “micro four third is actually on par with APS-C”. No. It’s not. Not even close! My 2007 Nikon D300 makes better photo than the 2017 Pen-F (under ISO 800 and for my shooting style). I had the best glasses available from Olympus: The legendary 75mm f/1.8 Zuiko, the 17mm f/1.8 pancake, the 25mm f/1.8 Olympus and the 45mm f/1.8 Olympus.

I invested in the M4/3 technology because I believed in Olympus marketing and some of the reviewers online (like this one).

If you are used to decadent files from Sony, Canon, Fuji or Nikon, be aware that you’re in for a huge disappointment. You will probably like the freeing experience of having such a small body with amazing features…but it won’t last. Once the honeymoon phase is over, the image stabilization won’t matter as much, nor the 10 fps 20mpx files.

Thank God: The Pen-F project has been killed by Olympus a few days ago (accord to m43 rumours dot com).

To be fair, I think that it is a fun body that could have been useable if the battery life was great. But the camera was also plagued with bugs, such as overheating, not turning on/off when the physical switch was rotated, extremely poor battery life and a flexible screen that sometimes refuse to mirror correctly the image when flipped out 180º. Image quality isn’t everything: That’s why I still love the X-Pro2 to death, even though a Sony A7III or a Nikon D850 would give me better files.

You see, I’m a traveler first and foremost. Not a lab technician. I don’t spend my days looking at pixels on my 5k retina display. I go out and shoot. That’s what artists do. I travel around the world barefoot in a Jeep. I need tools that just work. The Pen-F did not deliver a good enough package-deal for me to consider using it on a long term basis.

A beat-up Nikon D300 with a 35mm f/1.8 AF-S will be such a better overall camera than the Pen-F for about 1/4 of the cost.

Yes, the Pen-F had a fantastic image stabilization…but to be honest…it only matters if you are using the Pen-F! It frustrated me to the point of not wanting to touch it anymore. I rather have my Nikon D800E at 6400 ISO files than a Pen-F at 800 ISO and that’s fact. The Pen-F was usable until ISO 200. After that, the colours looked off. I guess if someone just wants to use it as a black and white dedicated camera…it could work for them.

The black and white of the Pen-F was the best. I think the X-Pro2 is as good when probably tuned, but that Pen-F was stupid simple to set it right in 2 seconds. But if you are going for a walk at minus ten in northern Canada, say Dawson City in the Yukon Territory, you want to have a camera that will be able to handle it. And the Pen-F cannot reliably turn on in cold weather. Such a shame.

It could have been a perfect camera if Olympus would have polished their product a bit more. 20 megapixels wasn’t necessary: I would have rather prefer 6 megapixels with a huge dynamic range (a la Fuji X10 sensor) in a sexy steel body than having many pixels but the noise at low ISO.

There are many things that I liked about the camera, but do they matter if I don’t pick up the camera because I know that it might not turn on when I need it? That’s the whole point.

In a real-life scenario, I need to know that the camera will be on and ready to shoot and I decide to take the shot. Most moments never come back. That’s just part of the game of life.

Here are some pictures:

ISO 6400 with the 17mm f/1.8 in Paraty, Brazil
The Jeep in the largest salt flats on Earth: Uyuni in Bolivia.
The Wrangler on Ruta 40 in Argentina. Taken with the 75mm f/1.8
Arrived in Ushuaia. The colours are great. Straight out of camera JPG
Decadent black and white.

So there it is. I cannot recommend this camera. If you really need a m4/3 for some street photography…rent one for a day and check the files on your computer. It might not be to your liking. Maybe a cheap body picked up on craigslist coupled to a 25mm f/1.8 prime can make the perfect combo for photojournalist needs, but then again, the X-Pro2 or XE3 will just get you better files. Heck, even a Fuji X10 or X30 would be better. Or the 2012 X-Pro1 that I loved so much.

Uyuni Salt Flat
Taken with the 75mm f/1.8 Zuiko. My D300 still works after a decade and never missed a beat. Driving a convertible on a dirt road for a day will cover everything with a fine moon-like dust.
Another view from Torres del Paines in Chile. Taken with the 75mm f/1.8 Zuiko on the Pen-F

In conclusion, the Pen-F was a great idea from Olympus: A classic stainless steel design with a modern sensor and the latest gizmos. It was just too late. In 2012, this thing would have sold like hot cake: Fuji had a terribly slow X-Pro1 and there was practically no other mirrorless. But just like Xerox and Blackberry and Palm computer, Olympus is slowly phasing out, to be replaced with competitors that aren’t bound to a small sensor. Olympus could have decided to go full Panasonic and put a full-frame sensor in their product and join the L-alliance lens thingy: but they didn’t, and they signed their own demise, I’m telling you.

ISO 6400 and pushing it.
ISO 1600…so much noise reduction. 50% cropped. Hard to tell, but it’s a disaster. Give me more noise and less wax-like files.
In the street of Peru.
On the passenger seat: Olympus Pen-F, D300 with 20mm f/1.4 Sigma Art, D800E with 300mm f/2.8 AF-S VR
Friend playing with her Nikon. Taken with the Pen-F with a 25mm f/1.8 Olympus
Pen-F with the 25mm f/1.8 and Sb-700
Olympus Pen-F with 75mm f/1.8
75mm f/1.8 at minimum focusing distance. Very nice colours.
17mm f/1.8.
View of the panamerican highway near Zorritos, Peru. Just after the Ecuadorian border.
Some boring street photography in black and white with the Pen-F. The Pen-F could have been the perfect street photography camera if Olympus would have updated the firmware to remove the annoying bugs, such as the deep sleep the camera goes in (no matter what the energy preference is set to, in the menu). I missed many shots because the camera isn’t ready.
You can read more about my journey through The Americas right here.

On the last note, here’s what some have to say on the Pen-F…we got someone at Teemusphoto saying that “When you push the ISO to 800 and even all the way to 1600 the camera still holds its own and continues to produce decent almost noise-free images”. This is nonsense. The camera has noise starting at ISO 200 and it shows.
Google Pen-F Review and you’ll see a list of bloggers that got paid by Olympus to write nonsensical stories about the m43 format and the pen-f. I don’t get paid by anyone, and therefore I am preaching something of my own experience of the Pen-F, without any sugar coating. It might sound harsh, but someone has to stand and preach the truth out there.

Okay, one more last thing. It isn’t a great camera for most of us, but I am aware that someone can love this camera. It isn’t that bad and it is much better than an iPhone. But when it is compared to the Sony A6300, or any Fuji/Canon/Nikon, the small m43 sensor is no match.

UPDATE: Some more random sample photo of the Pen-F, mostly black and white. That’s about the only thing that I loved about this camera.

COFFEE FILTER WITH THE STAGG-X
DAWSON CITY WITH THE PEN-F

About the Author

Jean-Pascal Remon is a photographer who quit a “normal way of life” to travel around the world in a Jeep. You can find more of his work on his website and read his blog. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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39 responses to “Why I sold the Olympus Pen-F: long term review of a camera that I wanted to like”

  1. Carter Tune Avatar
    Carter Tune

    Ouch, and here I love my Pen-F. Its a great, lightweight travel camera. I carry 14-40mm and 40-80mm range zooms, and would love to find something light in the 7-14mm range. But, I use this for travel; I street shoot with Leica M’s, Studio shoot with Hasselblad, and use Nikon D5’s for everything else in between. It has its place, and for me its a travel camera.

  2. Olivier Gallen Avatar
    Olivier Gallen

    Strange…I shoot Raw and get great results at 800 or even 1600 ISO with the E-M5II (same sensor and processing). Including on 1 meter large HD metal prints.

  3. Miles Avatar
    Miles

    Oh man, you are going to get the m43 folks all over you soon…

  4. JH Avatar
    JH

    Another trollish blog, featuring a long-winded, fascinatingly shallow rant, to remove from my newsfeed. I admit, I clicked on it. Once.

  5. mmartel Avatar
    mmartel

    Awesomer rant. Sorry the Pen didn’t work out. Sounds like you gave it a fair shot.

    I agree with you the dynamic range, and post-processing latitude of the great APS-C sensors vs m43. That said, as a former Nikon DX shooter and someone who evaluated Fuji APS-C side by side with m43, before choosing to go m43, I actually didn’t see a huge difference in final image quality when shooting RAWs of the same scenes and properly exposing both.

    That said, if you miss exposure on the m43 by more than a stop or need to push shadows on an underexposd part of the image by a couple of stops, the APS-C is definitely much more forgiving and final IQ will be better.

    But hey, I’m just a hobbyist/Dad/travel shooter who likes to go as light as possible so I’m willing to trade off some IQ for portability.

    Shoot with what makes you happy, share your opinions if you feel like it, and respect others may see things differently.

    Cheers.

  6. Jolyon Ralph Avatar
    Jolyon Ralph

    Small sensors not as good as big sensors. Who would have thought it! :)

  7. Robmendezc Avatar
    Robmendezc

    Not trying to be impolite but judging from the quality of your output, your assessment doesn’t ring a bell.

  8. cosmic Avatar
    cosmic

    Nice pictures, enjoyed it .

    I really want to hate my EM 5 mark ii. I never tried PEN -F
    I have The Nikon APS-C 7500 ( I got this after Thinking Micro four third is crap)
    I have set of Nikon Primes, sigma zoom. even got a Fx prime.
    I also shoot Fuji X100S
    These APSC ones take great Pics.
    I always shoot RAW+JPEG, (JPEG as it readily uploads to my smartphone for instant sharing and sometimes I use them)

    While I scour my lightroom pictures, Surprisingly there are lot of Pics that I genuinely liked are from Olympus. When i pushed that Puny camera sensor to the Limits , i wanted a little bit more.

    I still cant get rid of the Micro four thirds. Infact I got a PRO lens for that. (surprise surprise )

    as I became wiser , I learnt to compose better , and for Mircofour thirds the most important is Light. I can crank up the ISO and the Long shutter speeds with long captures are a game changer for Micro four thirds.

    Unconvinced with Micro four thirds, My last few trips I carry
    all MY three cameras. !!! (why o why)
    I think this doubt will set in all the beginners of micro four thirds. They Use it for 1 yr or so. Then go to FLickr/500 then see these awesome shots on 5D /Nikon D600/750/800 and question their decision of camera.

    For a Full frame User all the rest is garbage, they could relax , crop the hell out on their 48 MP cameras. ala sony A7R series or whatever.

    In the End , I cant get rid of Olympus. Its your that Book which you can never get rid of . Besides EM5 is a Looker.

    I still dont know the answer if micro four thirds is right for Me, I am still searching. So far 5K photos in, I guess once I hit 10 K on both EM5 and Nikon D7500, then I ll pick a verdict.
    If someone asks me 6 months later then I l say if Mirco four thirds is dead or alive.

    bottom image
    I shot this at 1.6 seconds handheld and its razor sharp. I struggled on my nikon below 1/50 to get a decent shot off the camera without a tripod. (Yeah I also carry tripod in all my trips!!) below 1/60 my Fuji will automatically give a warning sign for Blurry shots. (I also shoot with high ISO on BOTH nikon and Oly, for Olympus i keep below 1200 /1600 , For Nikon I keep below 1600/3200 )

    Bottom Line
    Keeping all cameras and try to get photos I cherish. recent trips I try to carry two cameras (ANy camera +Fuji)
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1213523d51b84129bf6303b27942ba12e17ff4f3740eb98b9b1716e091e3322c.jpg

  9. popeyoni Avatar
    popeyoni

    As the owner of a PEN-F, a Sony a7ii and former owner of a Fuji x-e3. I beg to differ. For most photos, under normal viewing conditions (full screen or printed up to 24″ wide) you can’t tell which photo was taken with which camera. You really have to pixel-peep to see the differences. The image quality of the PEN-F certainly doesn’t “suck”, and the thousands of m4/3 enthusiasts around the world producing amazing images are not paid by Olympus. But you know all this, you just tricked one more person with your clickbait.

    1. Lcoast Avatar
      Lcoast

      Waxy images? Fuji is king. I have Canon, Fuji and Olympus cameras and lenses, and use the for different things. If I had to pick one that would produce reliable, high quality images all the time, it would be Olympus, hands down. Unless you deeply pixel peep, you can’t tell the difference.

      1. Lainer Avatar
        Lainer

        I agree with Fuji’s Waxy images, but the dynamic range in the Fuji X camera is much better than in the Olympus. I think Fuji should DUMP XTrans and just use a Bayer CMOS sensor. Their medium format cameras don’t have XTrans for a reason. I love Fuji X system, but I also love the fun factor in this little Pen F for walkabout monochrome camera. I think there is room for both.

  10. Côme Avatar
    Côme

    I see nothing in these images that would suggest a fault of the Pen F. If anything, I can only see mediocre images, sorry.

    1. Tinsol Avatar
      Tinsol

      agreed

  11. DrLxus Avatar
    DrLxus

    ..says the guy who “received” an X-Pro 2. Don’t believe any of these bloggers. Get on Flickr and look at sample images yourself. The Pen-F can take images that rival my RX1-R when viewed on a computer screen/website. The difference comes into play when you’re Pixel peeping but that’s not my thing. There are many fantastic cameras out there and the Pen-F is one of them (as well as the other cameras mentioned in this article). In terms of feels, the Pen-F’s physical design gets me excited about using the camera. It’s just fun to shoot.. which should be the first consideration when doing any sort of photography.

  12. Thomas Ludwig Avatar
    Thomas Ludwig

    I personally like my PEN F very much. The photos you posted are, in my opinion, not suited to show the potential of the PEN F or m43. However, it all depends on what a photographer wants to do, and in some cases a PEN F is a really good choice. But that’s the same with a D850 and an A7III. They are in some cases a good choice, but not in all…

  13. Daniel D. Teoli Jr Avatar
    Daniel D. Teoli Jr

    Olympus should have made it smaller, like their old half-frame. They should have made it a rangefinder with full manual controls.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d506b15f4f4799f8d516159193bdf4016852de40e45c203aaa4e685ec37000de.jpg

    I love the mini M43’s, but gave them up…too hard to adjust manually on the fly.

  14. Whatdoyknow Avatar
    Whatdoyknow

    I just wonder what you tried to achieve with this article and complaining about a camera you don’t like to use?? Don’t use it and stop complaining.

    1. nathan Avatar
      nathan

      This whole article was just an opportunity to publish Amazon affiliate links for other cameras.

  15. efilho Avatar
    efilho

    I agree with your opinion: I considered my Oly and Pana great until I got a Fuji. The advantages of compactness and price of m43 are long gone, and off went my m43 gear…

  16. Low_Budget_Dave Avatar
    Low_Budget_Dave

    I thought the pictures all looked fine. The only one that looked like a mess (to me) was the one you labeled “ISO 6400 with the 17mm f/1.8 in Paraty, Brazil”, and that might have been because of the extreme contrast.

    Everything else would have been roughly the same no matter what camera was used. In some ways, the noise and grain pattern was even better on the MFT than I would have expected on my ASPC.

  17. Alvaro Avatar
    Alvaro

    I lost three minutes reading and five seconds writing, it is much more than this note is worth

  18. CK Avatar
    CK

    He thinks of himself as an artist because you know, every camera owner that travels around the world barefoot in a Jeep are suddenly artists. What a stupid article and mediocre photography…

  19. Querty007 Avatar
    Querty007

    When I got my Pen-F I was surprised at how small the difference in IQ is compared to my FF DSLR. The more I use the Pen-F the more I like it. The possibilities for tweaking JPEG colors are great and there is always RAW if you want to finetune colors in post processing. High ISO noise is easy to keep under control when exposing to the right (up to ISO 6400). But with the excellent IBIS I almost never need to go that far.
    For your use case a OM-D EM1 Mk II would be a better choice (the Pen-F is not weather sealed like the EM1).
    My Pen-F never blocked or froze. Did you have a faulty one?
    The “image quality issues” you are talking about seem to be related to bad technique rather than a camera problem.

  20. Skyline Avatar
    Skyline

    Photography isn’t for everyone, as you can see here.

  21. Old Karew Avatar
    Old Karew

    Were the latest firmware updates applied to that body & to any applicable lenses?

    Latest meaning what the public could load today 2Sep2019

    Now the Pen F appears probably discontinued. I seem to lust for the F even more than before. Or should I just up my E-M1 to an E-M1 mk ii?

    For the street, for me the F would be another body from the family with a left side EVF. Left eye open monitoring the wider surroundings. But with style, that of my youth.

  22. Joe Smith Avatar
    Joe Smith

    “That’s what artists do. I travel around the world barefoot in a Jeep. I need tools that just work.”

    Are you “that thing”, or do you just want to appear to “be” that thing. Sorry you lost me with that comment, and the other comments by others, before mine, just reinforce what dawned on me when I read this, and looked at your photos, which do not impress me: You’re posing as someone who you have not yet become.

  23. Thinkinginpictures Avatar
    Thinkinginpictures

    Lenses on MFT’s act the same as any other format. You have to stop them down to maximize sharpness and I mention that because a lot of M43 users gravitate toward the smaller format- only then to shoot wide open all the time. If you want that SDOF look then just go with a bigger sensor..BUT with that said, the m43 glass IS highly capable and I’ve had a ton of their glass along with Sony and Nikon. The 1.8’s are older designs and sharpen up quite a bit at 2.8. The MTF chart on the 75mm clearly shows it is very sharp at 2.8 and still noticable improvement at F4 and 5.6. Still very good even wide open, but that’s the thing. If that doesn’t work for you then you’ll never maximize the systems potential.

    I will say though, the pro 1.2 lenses are noticably better over their 1.8 counterparts at all f-stops. Expensive though, so again- you may want to move up to a bigger sensor size. Still- M43 is an amazing system with varied price points where anyone can jump in with pretty much any budget in mind.

  24. Abdul Rahman Bin Osman Avatar
    Abdul Rahman Bin Osman

    Funny thg is , I have the e-m5, the x-pro1 (sold), lumix G9, Eos 30d,5d,5dii (all sold), Eos 6d and the E-pl2, but my go-to camera for non-specific casual outings is the E-pl2.

    Older Oly Pen cameras comes closest to the awesome 43 colours in good light and though it struggles in low light, the pictures I get from them have more character I feel.

  25. Louis Avatar
    Louis

    So help me understand this, the amazing images produced by professionals and enthusiasts alike using the Pen F or other m4/3 cameras are lies? They’re all paid by Olympus or Panasonic, used a full frame camera to take their pictures, then claimed that they’re shot with a m4/3 camera? I believe the capabilities of the cameras manufactured by any camera companies theses days greatly exceed many photographers’ capabilities. How about picking a tool that suits you, then focus on stories, composition and techniques instead? I recommend this for travel photography inspirations: https://www.mitchellk-photos.com/

    1. Samizdat Avatar
      Samizdat

      Wow, there are some wonderful photos here,thanks Louis for posting link.

  26. Gregory Varano Avatar
    Gregory Varano

    I just bought a used Pen-F, it’s stunning in looks but for me the control in monochrome is second to none. I’ve been a pro since for over 35 years and used every camera and format you can think of, form 35mm to 11X14 view cameras. This camera is a gem, small fast igle and a joy to use, so much control especially in Monochrome mode. From incredible filter control to adding the precise a bit of grain. images are stunning, sharp with beautiful rich blacks. To tell you the truth I was surprised at how great the images look and print. So glad I grabbed it. I now use it alongside my leica M240 and M8.2. The Pen fills in when I need autofocus but don’t want to compromise image quality.

  27. blog21 Avatar
    blog21

    Wow. The review told me nothing. I’m thinking about a Pen-F, and wanted to find a review newer than 2016, but this one is terrible. It says absolutely nothing, other than it’s a smaller sensor (i.e. images are more noisy). Were you not aware?

    Terrible review.

  28. Erwin Nauta Avatar
    Erwin Nauta

    Might wanna take time to get to know the https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/54b3444803b5a8e14bf2cc8ba683f32dbb65575449c2548c3ac9c54464b50225.jpg camera, you obviously keep picking up your nikon because that us what you know.
    I have shot with nikons and now only use the pen f, love the thing for using old lenses, image stabilization with 10 presets for focal lengths, 80 mp high resolution mode for static scenes! I have it for over 3 years and love it. A pity you are do negative about it.
    I shoot most of my shots with 80 iso since all glass I put on benefits from the sensor stabilization

  29. M Seabs Avatar
    M Seabs

    You must love to hear the sound of your own voice, because no one else is listening. A poor workman will ALWAYS BLAME HIS TOOLS. You sir, are such a workman.

  30. Dickie Cockburn Avatar
    Dickie Cockburn

    As the saying goes “its is a poor craftsman who blames his tools”

  31. Carl Rosenvold Avatar
    Carl Rosenvold

    I am a happy PenF user. I didn’t understand a word of this blog until I read all the comments below –
    The only I have experienced is that the battery life is short, which can easily be solved by having the pocket full of spare batteries. I agree with the majority of the fellow posters and just shake my head!

  32. Jay L Avatar
    Jay L

    Oh geez. Another post from a gear head promoting hi favorite gear and flexing full frame muscles. I’m not impressed. All things considered equal, all camera brands are excellent and when compared side by side you can’t tell the difference unless your nose is in the air. Perhaps the author needs a hankee to blow his nose.

  33. Skyline Avatar
    Skyline

    I bet his favorite camera is a Sony Alpha, you know, the camera that every “professional photographer” uses because it does everything for you.

  34. Robert ross Avatar
    Robert ross

    I thought maybe this was some attempt at reverse psychology until I saw your photos. It’s not the camera. And you did not have the best glass. There’s a whole line up of Leica lenses and M.Zuiko Pro lenses for the micro four thirds system. This is a B.S. review.