Exclusive: Keeping the spirit of film alive in the Olympus Pen-F

Behind the Design: Olympus Pen-F

Olympus has a knack for translating its rich history of analog cameras into beautiful, modern digital cameras. It’s a been part of Olympus’ philosophy since 2009, when the company launched its Micro Four Thirds Standard with the Pen E-P1.

The camera was introduced with a rangefinder-like design reminiscent of the company’s popular half-frame Pen-F camera and came equipped with one of the industry’s smallest 12-megapixel (MP) sensors at the time.

Now, five years and several cameras later, Olympus has officially introduced a digital Pen-F both in styling and name. The new rangefinder hews even more closely to the original half-frame camera by introducing the first electronic viewfinder for the Pen series and the company’s first 20MP sensor. But, beyond specs, the new Pen-F is Olympus’s most beautifully designed body yet.

Olympus Pen-F

“In the past, the Pen was highly regarded by photo enthusiasts, amateurs and professionals alike,” Olympus technical specialist Eric Gensel says. “It’s from that background that the original Pen-F was so popular, and we wanted that same thing for people who have that passion for photography [today].”

In the pursuit of perfection

According to Gensel, the Pen-F took three years to develop, a longer lead time than most of the company’s imaging systems. In that time, the Olympus team went through several prototypes get the physical layout just right.

“They wanted to rethink the entire Pen lineup, specifically for the 80th year anniversary,” he explains “There were more mockups than usual, more design and R&D work than normal.”

The time and effort put into this camera shows when you hold and look at it. For one, there aren’t any screws on the body. Meanwhile, the dials are positioned closely enough to keep device compact, but not so much that you’ll accidentally change multiple settings at the same time.

Olympus Pen-F

Gensel says the Pen-F’s nearly perfect ergonomics come from the camera being largely designed by hand, rather than using computer-aided design (or CAD) or 3D renderings.

“This product took an extreme amount of hands on, which I think speaks to you when you’re holding it,” Gensel says, noting the Olympus team made multiple mockups with wood blocks and clay. “Somebody really put a lot of time and energy into and care into this, not just what is the best for the average human hand. This was definitely an art form, as far as its creation and sculpture.”

Olympus Pen-F

Interestingly, the Olympus Pen-F is also unique in that it has virtually no front grip, meanwhile the concave thumb grip is a first in its own right.

“Rather than having a thumb grip be an extension of the camera shell, it’s specifically created for an indentation, so that my thumb can actually rest inside where the body would be to get a firmer grip,” Gensel says.

Because of this layout, your thumb effectively falls into a groove while your fingers grasp the flat front plate. Most cameras come with a generous front grip to claw at, but, because of this design, you’re applying almost all the pressure you need on the back plate.

Olympus Pen-F

Down to the last millimeter

Olympus’s design team was meticulous, down to picking the right texture for its dials. At a CES 2016 briefing for the camera, I was shown a video of an Olympus engineer swapping lugs repeatedly, looking for the best setup.

“When you’re holding the dials, making adjustments or interacting with the mechanical portions, you see a lot of the dials are a milled aluminum that was cut down to the proper size, shape and texture,” he says.

With the Pen-F, Olympus introduces its first dedicated exposure compensation dial, a small but indispensable addition for most photographers. Gensel argues that it didn’t come sooner to Olympus’ other cameras, like the OM-D E-M5 Mark II and E-M10 Mark II, because it makes more sense to have assignable functions with electronically driven cameras.

“However, exposure compensation is an integral part of photography that you’ll be using constantly,” he continues. “You’re always going to be overriding metering in some way to get the image you’re envisioning. So having the added wheel makes sense.”

Olympus Pen-F

A technical marvel

Olympus’s first 20MP sensor inside the Pen-F is a huge deal when you consider that the Japanese camera company has used the same 16MP resolution sensor since 2012, when it first introduced the OM-D E-M5.

“We didn’t move into 20MP until we could maintain the same quality of noise level and dynamic range that we had with the previous 16MP sensor,” Gensel explained. “We’re now able to do that and likewise, we wanted something that could satisfy that electronic shutter, because it’s another aspect of technological growth in photography.”

Electronic shutters have slowly made headway in digital cameras for users who need to shoot in complete silence. What’s more, electronic shutters can actuate at incredibly fast speeds, up to 1/32,000 of a second. (A mechanical shutter tops out at 1/8,000 of a second.) Plus, it’s a handy when you’re trying to shoot in broad daylight with a fully open aperture.

Olympus Pen-F

This rangefinder also happens to be the first in Olympus’ Pen series to come with an electronic viewfinder (EVF). According to Gensel, this camera comes with the same OLED, 2.36m dot EVF as the OM-D E-M10 Mark II, and it has added almost nothing to its dimensions.

“The viewfinder here being as compact and small, does lend itself to fit well in here,” he says. “But understand with most of our products, especially in the compact space, when you open them up they’re completely filled.”

“I guarantee you, a lot of [the design] was just, okay we have the shell, now make it all fit – because it’s definitely packed,” Gensel boasts with a laugh.

Olympus Pen-F

Recreating film in the digital age

Olympus has also done plenty on the software side, introducing the company’s first ever film simulation modes, which you can access by flicking the front dial – another call back to the original half-frame camera.

Of course, adding the look of film to digital frames has been done before. Fujifilm, for one, has included the popular feature across its range of X series cameras. And we’ve been doing this with Instagram, VSCO and dozens of other smartphone apps for a while.

Olympus’s way of reproducing film emulsions is different in that it’s adaptive and allows you to tweak the finer details. The color filter, for example, has customizable hues on the surface but you can adjust sharpness, contrast, high and low key lighting as well.

“If we’re talking about monochromatic, there’s film grain adjustments from high, low to mid,” Gensel explains. “It’s a very organic and adaptive process, because it’s not going to be the same amount of grain throughout the picture.”

Olympus Pen-F

“As the tonal areas of the picture change, the grain will change too, like the way film did for that really realistic emulation creation,” he continues. “This was [the result of] a very hands on process consisting of comparing fiber prints from negatives and fiber based films from digital stills, then adjusting until the profiles treatment of tone and grain was emulated.”

Gensel says he’s more interested in what profiles the community will come up with as they share. For now, there isn’t a way to upload or download shooting profiles between cameras, but you can share what you’ve moved around.

“Most people had their favorite film, that they know what it’s going to do and how it’s going to respond,” he says. “They know the level of either the realism or exaggeration they want, and there were some films that were just so rich and so beyond reality but it was still just so insanely fun.”

The Olympus Pen-F was made to celebrate the joy of photography with a body and abilities that harkens back to the film days. But it’s only when you pick it up that you realize how simple and addictive it can be to play with film – even if only in spirit.

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