High ISO Shooting with Olympus PEN-F

If you have not read my full review on the newly launched Olympus PEN-F, kindly read Part 1 and Part 2, as this blog entry serves as an extension to my earlier review series. 

I have noticed several complains about my photographs, especially those taken in low light conditions and used as samples in my blog review purposes. These complains claimed that I was shooting in favorable lighting condition which was not representative of actual practical camera use in real life shooting circumstances. Further to that, I was accused of intentionally showing the good side of the low light capabilities of the camera by only showing good looking images. These good looking, clean high ISO images taken with Olympus cameras in my review entries could not be replicated by them in their own shooting in difficult lighting. 

Before I go on, let me make something clear here: if the lighting is crap, not matter what you do, no matter which camera you use, no matter how powerful your camera's high ISO capability is, you will still produce crap images. Lousy lighting produces lousy images, no matter how bright or how dim the light is, that is just a universal rule of photography, and a huge part (some even say the most important part) of photography is to understand, and know how to use good lighting in photography. When I shoot for review purposes, why would I want to show lousy images? My images may not be award-winning or "national geographic" worthy, but with my own best effort and ability I will make super sure that I do my best and use the camera to it's best potential. Why would I expect less from myself? 

Of course I can go on and on writing down my reasons and justifications on what I do here, and why I do things in certain ways, but that would be unnecessary and I feel no need to defend myself further. What I am more interested to do is to bring the camera out and get some shutter clicking action done. And that was what I did precisely, with the intention of pushing the ISO to it's boundaries. 

I have brought the Olympus PEN-F and shoot in some of the shittiest lighting conditions I have encountered. No, I am not trying to prove anything here, in fact there was no agenda here. I already knew what to expect from the image output of PEN-F, I have done exhaustive tests before. I am providing a whole blog entry of high ISO samples, and I know there are people who do want to have more of such samples to look at. 

From my previous reviews, I have concluded that the highest ISO setting I would go to is 6400. At ISO6400, PEN-F still produces good amount of details, while the default JPEG engine suppresses almost all traces of chromatic (color) noise, leaving visible, but not destructive luminance noise, which added structure and overall "sharp" look to the image. In fact, the image does appear clean, if you do not zoom into 100% close up view. 

1/100sec, F2, ISO6400, 12mm F2 lens

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1/25sec, F6.3, ISO6400, 12mm F2 Lens

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1/8sec, F4, ISO6400, 45mm F1.8 lens

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1/30sec, F3.5, ISO6400, 25mm F1.8 lens

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1/160sec, F2, ISO6400, 12mm F2 lens

1/100sec, F2, ISO6400

If you look closely at the EXIF data, the ISO numbers were used necessarily. For the Aquaria KLCC shots in the underwater tunnel walk area, I needed high enough shutter speed to freeze motion, as all the creatures were swimming, not slowly. Even at 1/100sec shutter speed, there was motion blur recorded, but to me, that was ok, because this particular test was not about camera or lens sharpness, it is high ISO testing. Do bear in mind I was shooting through a very thick glass which may have reduced the overall image sharpness and contrast. Nonetheless, I found ISO6400 to be the minimum ISO required for this shooting condition. 

Oh and you have to admit, shooting in a near underwater condition with overpowering blue colour cast, this was perhaps one of the shittiest lighting condition encountered. Not only was it dim, the colour balance was completely off. Thankfully the PEN-F's JPEG engine successfully rendered realistic looking images. 

The subsequent set of images other than those taken at the Aquaria were taken at super dim locations inside Starhill Gallery, KL. If you have been to Starhill, especially the lower ground, dining area (where all the extremely expensive restaurants are), you will know how dim the walkways were. They have probably the worst lighting condition of all shopping malls in KL, so why not torture the PEN-F there?


Olympus JPEG has excellent processing to get rid of noise. In fact, it successfully cleans off almost all chromatic noise, which is quite an incredible feat, while leaving good amount of useful details in the image. In the camera, there are 4 levels of Noise Filter settings that you can choose (applicable to all Olympus cameras). One thing I did differently for this blog entry, was setting the Noise Filter to LOW. I usually would set the Noise Filter to OFF for my review purposes. Since I have completed my review, for this extension I decided to use LOW, because, lets face it, a little bit of software noise reduction does go a long way of producing cleaner, better looking image. 

I shot all my images in RAW and processed them in Olympus Viewer 3 (Version 2). 

Here are my recommendations:

Noise Filter OFF
Highly recommended for ISO1600 and lower. Maximum sharpness and fine details are well preserved. At higher ISO settings, eg 6400 and above, high traces of luminance noise is present, and I believe many pixel peepers would cringe at the sight of that. Not me though, I am perfectly fine by leaving the noise filter OFF. Since I am not most people, I cannot speak for the general crowd. 

Noise Filter LOW
Highly recommended for ISO 3200 and above. The noise is reduced, images appear smoother and cleaner, but still retaining high amount of good detail. There is very little loss of sharpness, and this setting is the best balance of noise filtering and maintaining sharp image. I think most people would agree with this setting for high ISO shooting with Olympus cameras. 

I used Noise Filter LOW for ALL images in this entry. 

Noise Filter STANDARD
For those who will bleed out from their eyes after seeing high ISO noise, this setting will go easy on you and your vision. Noticeable and significant compromise on overall image sharpness, you will lose plenty of fine detail, but if that is not important to you, then go for STANDARD. 

Noise Filter HIGH
I see no reason to use this setting unless you want to turn your images into oil painting. 

If you intend to process the RAW images in Lightroom or Photoshop, or any other post-processing software, make sure you know what you are doing. I do not. So I rely on Olympus Viewer 3, and Olympus' already excellent JPEG engine. 

1/25sec, ISO6400, F2.8, 25mm f1.8 lens

Quick comparison of all the Noise Filters. For High ISO Shooting, I highly recommend Noise Filter LOW. 

1/40sec, F4, ISO3200, 25mm F1.8 lens

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1/60sec, F7.1, ISO3200, 25mm F1.8 lens

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1/20sec, F8, ISO5000, 12mm f2 lens

I have shared several times about tips on shooting high ISO images with Olympus camera. Here is a quick summary: 1) never, ever underexpose your images, and make sure you get the exposure right while shooting. 2) do as minimal post-processing as possible to your high ISO images, the more you manipulate the image the more deterioration your image will suffer 3) check your focus and make sure your shot is steady. always, always watch your shutter speed 4) always favor better lighting condition, if any way you can improve your subject's lighting, eg standing at a different position with better light falling on the subject, do it!

No matter what happens, always remember, your photograph will only be as good as the lighting condition. In poor lighting, do not expect miracles, even with the most advanced and powerful camera out there. Let me tell you a short story. My friends and I had a rare, and awesome opportunity to meet a celebrity photographer who traveled all the way to Malaysia. To commemorate that occasion, we took a group photograph. We were in a dimly lit hall, the light was tungsten. At ISO6400, Aperture wide open of F2.8, the shutter speed required for a properly exposed image was 1/40sec. We compared cameras, and decided to use the "supposedly" best high ISO camera (full frame) at that time. The shot did not turn out well. I would love to show you the image here but that will cause unwanted bloodshed and perhaps, created war with the said camera brand's die-hard fans. I certainly do not wish for that to happen. My point is, no matter how amazing the high ISO capabilities of the camera, you cannot change the quality of the light. 

My solution to that problem earlier with the celebrity photographer? Bounced flash off the ceiling, with much, much lower ISO setting (ISO1600 would do the trick). 

Now this brings me to another frustration that I have had for some time: so many people are expecting their cameras to perform miracles! If you do not already know, you do not expect your camera to create the magic in photography, you have to be the one to do the magic. A magician does not only rely on his technical tools alone, he has highly trained skills, innovative ideas and immense amount of passion for his craft up his sleeves. 

1/40sec, F6.3, ISO8000, 25mm F1.8 lens

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1/50sec, F2.5, ISO8000, 12mm F2 lens

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1/20sec, F4, ISO12800, 25mm F1.8 lens

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1/125sec, F2.8, ISO12800, 25mm F1.8 lens

1/13sec, F5.6, ISO8000

1/80sec, F1.8, ISO10000

It was an exciting weekend, shooting with the PEN-F once more. I still wish that the new 20MP image sensor shows more improvement in High ISO shooting. Nonetheless, I also admit that, for my own shooting purposes, the PEN-F is more than sufficient to deliver great images, confidently. Having a cap (my personal judgment, your tolerance may vary) at ISO6400, with availability of F1.8 prime lenses, and not to forget, with the help of that amazing 5-Axis Image Stabilization, the PEN-F is no slouch at all. 

I have shown you plenty of image samples. So do share your thoughts!

Olympus PEN-F is available from B&H here. 
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  1. Hi Robin,

    You say that you use RAW and set the noise reduction to LOW - does these settings affect RAW-files? I thought they didn´t......


    1. Read again.

      "I shot all my images in RAW and processed them in Olympus Viewer 3 (Version 2). "


      "If you intend to process the RAW images in Lightroom or Photoshop, or any other post-processing software, make sure you know what you are doing. I do not. So I rely on Olympus Viewer 3, and Olympus' already excellent JPEG engine."

      In case you are still clueless, using Olympus Viewer 3 to process the RAW files will render the exact same JPEG output from camera, with ALL the settings customizable, such as Noise Filter.

    2. I have tried OV3 (and the versions before that) but could never even think of using it. It´s deadly slow (and I have a fast Mac) and unintuitive - not the qualities of a professional tool.
      I use Lightroom as most of your users do, I would think.

      If you only shoot RAW and use say Lightroom, I fully understand that you don´t get the benefits of "Olympus´already excellent JEPG engine" but you get a program that´s fast, logical, and has a very good organiser built-in.

      To me your RAW pictures would make more sense it you showed us the results from say Lightroom or Phase One, or just only showed what can be done with the jpgs.


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    5. Kjell, not everyone uses lightroom or Photoshop for that matter. I have tools such as gimp and darktable (yes, Google it) or even lightzone and have adjusted my workflow to the tools I'm most comfortable with (as probably your are). I am not sure any reviewer is obliged to show images in your tools of choice, even if that is used by majority.
      If I were you, I would take a hard look at the capabilities of the tools and the cameras I use and decide what I want to change.
      I personally have never felt my tools don't do justice to Olympus raw (or jpegs) images and I have been an exclusive Olympus user at least since the start of digital imaging around the turn of the century.

    6. Dear Kjeii,
      Yes, I admit the Olympus Viewer 3 is slow. I did not say you must use it. The main reason I use it is to obtain the JPEG files, which I believe is optimized, and Olympus does produce the best looking JPEG out there.

      I think my RAW photos make perfect sense. Why not? Shooting RAW and processing it with Olympus Viewer 3 allows me to use the Noise FIlter settings.

      If I were to use my RAW photos in Lightroom, then NONE of the things have written above, with a huge part about Olympus built in Noise Filter would make any sense.

      Of course, you are free to use whichever software that suits your workflow.

      By the way, if you have not realized another important point, at this particular time, there is NO OTHER WAY to process the RAW files (no compatibility options with Lightroom or Photoshop yet), the only solution now is Olympus Viewer 3. Even if I want to use other softwares, I have no such option.

    7. Thanks for the added "Dear Kjell" in this answer!

      Dear Robin,

      I am not saying that OV3 is bad in itself - It´s undoubtedly the best way to develop Oly RAW files and I would love to be able to use it with my all Olympus cameras and I have a lot of those...... Every other year I download OV to see if anything basic has improved with the things I criticise - speed, interface, intuitiveness and ways to organise all your pictures, but I am sorry to say that not much has happened.

      Give me a modern interface and speed and I´d starting using it at once!

      Another way for Olympus to go is to open up their file info, so that other programs can use that info to come nearer to the Olympus picture quality. We all buy Olympus cameras for there picture quality, but if you shoot RAW and can´t cope with OV - what should you do? Well you have to rely on Adobe´s (and others) interpretation of what Olympus does - and that will never be perfect, but useable. The same goes for Nikon, Canon as well.

      I am certain that Olympus would win a lot of new customers if they opened up their locked files this way! Remember that most professionals today shoot RAW and they most certainly don´t use OV! A clear majority of them use Lightroom and this ought to be something for Olympus to take inte account! For the raw-shooters of today the cameras themselves are nothing without a good software..... and OV is not a good program!


  2. Hello Robin.

    I want start from the definition of photography. The word "photography" was created from the Greek roots φωτός (phōtos), genitive of φῶς (phōs), "light" and γραφή (graphé) "representation by means of lines" or "drawing", together meaning "drawing with light".
    So if there is no light, you can't draw.

    Now, related to high iso photos, I think that Olympus handles noise much better in the last 2 models (ΕΜ10 ΙΙ and PEN-F). PEN-F's ISO 6400 looks better than 6400 of my EM1. What's your opinion?

    Greetings from Athens, Greece.

    1. Hi Yannis,

      E-M10 Mark II has almost the same image quality as E-M1. If there was improvement, it would be very minor, and almost unnoticable.

      However, PEN-F uses a new 20MP image sensor. There is definitely visible improvement in terms of noise handling in high ISO, in comparison to older image sensors on E-M10 Mark II and E-M1.

  3. Way to go Robin! I have been really enjoying your evolving analysis of the PEN-F. I'm tempted, that's for sure. And it would take something special to move me away from my beautiful EM-5. BTW, a question. Can you tell us, at this point, which of the Olympus bodies have a fine focus adjustment option to correct for lenses that may be off - consistently mis-focusing in a particular direction. And, maybe, which up and coming bodies will have this feature.

    Thanks in advance, and keep up the great work!

    1. Hey David,

      Thanks for the kind words.

      From my experience shooting with Olympus Micro Four Thirds lenses on ALL Olympus Micro Four Thirds bodies, there has been zero back or front focusing issues, and I get 100% accurate focus all the time. The contrast detect AF gets rid of the inaccuracy focus issues due to the old Phase Detect AF system (used in DSLR).

      However, I have also heard of very rare cases of some error in AF accuracy, which can be easily fixed when the camera is returned to the service center.

      E-M1 has AF fine tune adjustments, because it has Phase Detect AF built in to cater for older Four Thirds DSLR lenses. If there are future Olympus cameras with Phase Detect AF built in, I am sure there will be Fine AF Adjust too.

  4. "...do not expect your camera to create the magic in photography, you have to be the one to do the magic. A magician does not only rely on his technical tools alone, he has highly trained skills, innovative ideas and immense amount of passion for his craft up his sleeves."

    Well said, Robin, and worth remembering.

    1. Thanks Bob, that serves as a reminder to myself as well.

  5. Good entry Robin. "so many people are expecting their cameras to perform miracles" probably jealous of your work!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Simon. I don't think it is jealousy though, more like unrealistic expectations.

  6. Great article Robin!

    I wish Olympus would implement a more advanced Auto ISO function. Currently Auto ISO in Aperture Priority mode simply sets a shutter speed at 1 divided by (full frame equivalent) focal length - the old "rule". For instance if you use the 25 mm lens, Auto ISO will try to achieve at least 1/50 s or faster.

    But with the help these amazing image stabilization in these cameras this is way too conservative. At least as long as you don't have fast moving subjects.

    A setting where you could determine a 1 or 2 stops slower or faster shutter speed limit for Auto ISO would be great. No other camera could benefit as much from such an option!

    1. I agree with you Thomas. Adding to that, I would also want a minimum shutter speed to be assigned for the aperture priority on Auto ISO. I believe this feature is already available in other cameras.

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    3. I agree with this! Sometimes I feel my Olympus (OM-D E-M5) directly pushes the ISO to the max I set (3200) whereas I feel it could just rely on its pretty impressive image stabilization. So in those case I have to manually setup the ISO to prevent this. I ended up assigning the Record button to the ISO settings, so I can quickly adjust this (I almost never record videos with my camera, so the Record button is pretty useless to me).

      Robin, do you think this kind of software update could be done by the Olympus engineering team and provided as an update? If this was possible, do you think they could “backport” this feature in older models such as OM-D E-M5?

    4. I am sure this can be done with simple programming. And yes possible with any models. However, whether Olympus will do so, or whether they will even consider doing so, is nothing I can comment about. I am just a dude working in Malaysia, which is honestly quite far from what is happening in their HQ in Japan.

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  8. Hello and congratulations for the blog wich is the main reason I bought a PL7 and super happy with that.

    I really like your style of writing. So humble, competent and honest, a rare gem.

    And by the way I love your shooting style too.

    Actually I think you should be a head marketing director at Olympus, (if you are not already) you deserve it for this blog alone.

    A question about the new 20mpx sensor: if you crop the image at 16mpx in post production, will you get the exact quality of a shot taken with the old 16mpx sensor?

    1. Thanks Jabbbar for the kind words. Appreciate them.
      If you crop the image from full 20MP to 16MP, you still get better overall dynamic range and high ISO noise control, in comparison to the old 16MP sensor. Resolution wise should be about the same.

  9. Maybe, I'm not doing things correctly but I still don't feel comfortable with images above ISO 3200 with micro Four-Thirds, even using the new 20 MP sensor in the GX8. Then again, I don't feel that the Nikon D7200 does much better--ISO 4000, though it seems to choose a much higher value in the same circumstances.

    Phase One Capture One does a good job cleaning up the images but nothing is perfect.

    1. Of course, the tolerance to high ISO images is subjective, no worries about your own self imposed limits. In fact, the most important rule when choosing ISO, is to go to the ones as low as the shooting condition possibly allows. If I can use ISO1600 instead of 3200, I would!

  10. Wallop. Wallop. Wallop. Go!
    Those who come to us and treat us like hotel reception, press the bell, go Ding Ding Ding, first thing to tell them is that this is not hotel reception, secondly They are not paying guest, and thirdly, "we don’t do that thing that you want here"

    OK, if they have their own poison, Lightroom or DxO or Capture One, we are not them and we have our own life to lead, that is not our poison, that is their own choice. But don't force us to drink the same poison.

    For a PEN-F review right now only Olympus Viewer (and a few no name raw programs work) because the raw is too new in.

    In any case, the point of the demo is to celebrate the camera and shooting techniques not to celebrate Phase One Capture. Who do they think we are? Sony? Pfft

    1. Who is forcing anyone?

      I happen to use Capture One and have Silkypix as my secondary software because I use multiple brands of equipment. If I use raw development software for each brand of equipment, I have to switch a maximum of three different applications.

    2. Not referring to you, Nobuyukisan. There is a person's comment above this comment, who expects to be "served" and the author of the blog must use this or that software, test it and discuss because he uses it. It is normal for those who have more than one brand of camera to use independent third party software that is not limited to that one brand. But discussion has been in context of the article.

  11. I rarely take the time to comment in this blog, but I read every single article with great interest.

    Thanks a lot, Robin, for taking the time to not only shoot great photos, but also provide very insightful reviews and articles on photography and technical things!

    I recently wanted to run a comparison between several image processing tools. Unfortunately for me, I'm running Linux and not Windows or Mac OS X, so I don't have access to Olympus Viewer. I actually tried to install it using Wine, a software that helps running Windows programs on Linux, but it just doesn't work (it crashes as soon as I want to open a picture). I guess there will never be a Linux version of Olympus Viewer (although it might not be as hard to implement, especially since there is already a Mac OS X version…) because the market is too small here, but I just wanted to let my voice be heard :) In the end, I'm using Darktable to process RAW pictures.

    Keep up the good work and thanks again for all these articles, Robin!

    1. Hey Pierre,
      Thanks for the kind compliments and I appreciate the encouragement. I will continue to do reviews and I will do it the best I can.
      I understand your frustration of not having the Olympus Viewer 3 working in a Linux environment. However, most people do not use Olympus Viewer 3, and if you look at it from another perspective, you can get the exact same output from Olympus Viewer 3 by shooting JPEG.
      Hmm, I have not heard of Darktable. Sounds like an interesting software.

    2. Thanks for the quick reply!

      I understand that OV3 basically applies the same process as would the internal engine of the camera, so yes I'm not too sad I cannot run it on my desktop since I shoot in RAW+JPEG (and most of the time, I'm really impressed at the quality of the JPEG file and the processing it received).

      Darktable is really good. Version 2 was recently released for Linux and Mac OS X, and it's a great tool to process RAW files. There are many tutorials available online and on Youtube if you want to check it out :) And it's free and open source (an important argument for me). You can also check Rawtherapee which is available on Linux, Mac OS X and Windows; it's another free and open source software to process RAW files.

      (but yes, I know you usually don't process your photos anyway, so…) :)


    3. Hi Pierre

      I too am a Linux user and just recently managed to get OV3 working with Ubuntu.

      When I first tried it, OV3 would open under Wine but crash when I tried to edit a file. The error message gave me the hint that I needed to get Wine to act like 32bit Windows.

      Here is a link to a web site that shows one way to do it: http://askubuntu.com/questions/136714/how-to-force-wine-into-acting-like-32-bit-windows-on-64-bit-ubuntu

      Now OV3 runs under Wine with my Ubuntu 14.04 LTS. It still does fail occasionally when I try to import a large library of pics but other than that is is good (I can edit RAW, apply art filters etc).

      Good luck!

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  13. Any place have OV3 tutorial
    Not intuitive for me at least

  14. Hi Robin! Great article, as always. I will buy a camera this month and I can't decide between EM-5m2 or PEN-F . What would you buy , regardless of the price?

  15. Hi Robin,

    I just recently discovered this blog. Great stuff!

    Do you have any thoughts/advice on the best combinations of noise filter and sharpness? What sharpness setting are you using in your pictures?

    I have experimented a fair bit with both the in camera settings of my E-M10III and with the OV3 processing of its raw files. I find sharpness 0 a bit harsh and artificial in most settings. In low light situations, going from sharpness -1 to -2 often has very similar effects to going from noise filter off to low. This makes sense to me as "smoothing the noise" out of a picture through the noise filter feels similar to "sharpening it less".

    Am I missing something here?

    Many thanks in advance for your thoughts!