The rumor mill has been predicting the certain death of Olympus and micro four-thirds in general for the last three years. But I have an idea that just might save Olympus in particular. At a minimum, it should boost sales for micro four-thirds cameras and lenses in general.
Why am I bringing up a conversation about a 4-year-old camera from Olympus? Well, in my opinion, the single biggest missed opportunity in the digital history of Olympus is the PEN-F.
The Olympus PEN-F debuted in 2016, and it was positioned in a rather strange place strategically. At $1299, it was a bit to serious and expensive for enthusiasts while simultaneously a bit too consumer-ish for professionals. Which put the camera between a rock and a hard place.
I own a LOT of cameras — 17 of them to be exact: Three Sonys, six Nikons, two Canons, one Panasonic, two Olympus, two Canon Cinema Cameras and one Fuji. I go out in public with a camera on me all the time. The overwhelming majority of the time no one ever notices, nor comments, much less even cares about the cameras I’m lugging around — unless they’re photographers themselves. Then they might ask what am I shooting or mundane stuff like a knowing comment about the lens’s bokeh or the camera body. You’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about.
However, whenever I go out in public with the PEN-F, something strange happens. People stop me and ask me things like, “what is that?” “Where did you get THAT beautiful thing?” “OMG! What a cool camera!” “Does that shoot film?” “Where do I get one?”
I recognize it’s anecdotal, but this doesn’t happen with any other camera I own. That’s just an example of the kind of feedback I get from people when I dare step outside with the PEN-F.
It’s proof — much like Apple when they were at the top of their game and coming out with new and innovative products all the time — that design, beauty and form mattered, sometimes a bit more than function. But where Apple also excelled and executed in the function department, Olympus — specifically with the PEN-F camera — well, they kind of crashed and burned.
Because, as gorgeous as the PEN-F’s sculpted, petite, sexy little body is — if a camera can be sexy — it’s stunning beauty is unfortunately only skin deep. As gorgeous and tempting as the PEN-F is to look at — and it is — it’s easily the single most frustrating camera I think I’ve ever worked with.
Where the PEN-F suffers
For starters, the battery life is miserable. It uses the original E-M5 battery and they’re garbage, especially by today’s standards. Worse, there’s no battery grip — at least not one that I’m aware of that actually powers the camera. Sure, there are grips available, but they’re to make the camera easier to hold and more ergonomic by extending the hand grip.
The tripod screw mount is oddly placed forward as opposed to the center. Most tripod head plates will get in the way of lens movement — be it focus or zoom. It’s very frustrating.
If you do video, there’s no mic jack. Continuous autofocus performance is suspect at best, and AF tracking in fast moving stills is super mediocre. That’s because the PEN-F relies on contrast detect autofocus, which isn’t all that reliable with moving subjects.
Sadly, it only has one memory card slot. And the mode dial in the front is for these kitschy art filters, that I’m not sure anyone actually uses, except for maybe the monochromatic mode which is the one thing most photographers genuinely love about this camera. I just wish Olympus tied this dial to some other more commonly used function — or maybe we could program it to some other function. As it is right now it’s more of a consumer oriented kitschy kind of thing that borders on uselessness.
To be fair, it’s not all bad news. This was the first Olympus camera with the 20.3MP sensor and still image quality is in fact quite nice — it’s beautiful actually.The monochrome mode is pretty awesome. It turns the PEN-F into a mini rangefinder — just be sure to set the camera to capture stills in both JPEG and RAW to take advantage of it.
Unfortunately, if only looks were all that mattered, because the PEN-F could have and should have been SO much more and so much better especially for a camera that debuted at $1299.
All of this leads into how I think Olympus can save itself.
I think most people know that micro four-thirds is losing ground in the camera races right now. In 2019, Olympus had a 2.8% global market share of camera sales, and that number represented a 22% decline in year over year in said camera sales. I know that camera sales in general are struggling, especially right now with COVID-19. But Olympus in particular needs to do something to jump-start their sales.
And in my opinion, I have one possible solution. I propose the PEN-F PRO.
What would the PEN-F PRO look like?
- Well, for starters, Olympus should keep the essential design elements of the PEN-F. Maybe make it just a tad larger. Virtually everyone I know both inside and outside the photography world loves the look and physicality of this camera, and as superficial as that may seem, Steve Jobs taught us a long time ago that beauty and design matters. The PEN-F has the beauty thing down in spades!
- A weather sealed body. Olympus is renowned for their weather sealing. How many other camera companies allow their cameras and lenses to get immersed in the snow in their advertisements? Yet, strangely, the PEN-F isn’t weather sealed at all.
- A real battery! I don’t even need to elaborate.
- An actual battery grip! You know, one with a battery.
- Tracking AF that works in both video and stills. Olympus has done it on the other bodies, so they can do it one this one too. Which means give us a phase detect autofocus system.
- A properly placed screw mount for tripods, so the head doesn’t get in the way of standard lens functions, like zooming and manual focus.
- A mic jack, or maybe even Bluetooth for audio?
- Competitive video specs. I know most Olympus shooters aren’t video shooters, but upgrade the video specs just to make them competitive. They don’t need to be best in class, just good enough to not handicap the camera — 4K 60P 8 bit 4-2-2 for example. 10 bit would be better, but I can live with 8 bit.
- It would have dual card slots.
- Lastly, there are rumors of a 41MP sensor coming out on the Panasonic Lumix GH6. I’m not saying I need 41 megapixels, but a new sensor would be appreciated — maybe something with fewer megapixels for better low light performance? They’ve been kicking this 20.3 MP sensor around for four years. It’s time to upgrade.
So there you have it, Olympus. You want to rev up your sales? Go in the direction of a camera that even non photographers will crave. Make a PEN-F PRO that performs as good — if not better — than it looks.
Need more proof? Try to find a PEN-F used — specifically a silver one. Used prices are quite high (close to the E-M1 Mark II used prices, and the E-M1 Mark II is CLEARY superior camera in virtually every way imaginable). Used PEN-F’s are out there between $600-$900 for one in good condition, so there is definitely demand for the camera. I’m convinced it’s largely based on the way it looks.
Now Olympus, you just need to revise the PEN-F so it performs as beautifully as it’s designed. So, what say you? How do YOU think Olympus can save itself and supercharge it’s sales? Share your thoughts and comment below!