Convergence

Zach Horton

Media Archaeology: Olympus Pen F System

Pen FT with F. Zuiko 38mm f/1.8 lens, next to 35mm film cartridge for scale. Photograph by Zach Horton.

As the first post in an eventual series on old and innovative photographic ecosystems, I thought that I’d write about my favorite small camera. I promised in my inaugural post for this site that “convergence” would mean a convergence of many of my own interests and obsessions, and one of those includes a kind of media archaeology of photographic equipment. As will perhaps become more clear in later posts, one of the things that fascinates me about the technical aspects of photography is systematicity: how many components from the diverse worlds of optics, fine-tuned mechanics, chemistry, microelectronics, stabilization, and clockwork shutter mechanisms have to combine to control the transmission of light into an image in some persisting substratum.

Rome, Italy. Photographed with a Pen FT and 38mm lens on Ilford Delta 100 film by Zach Horton.

For that reason, we will be working our way up to the most versatile possible large format cameras, which are veritable technological ecosystems unto themselves. To begin with, however, I’m going to start small.

There are many sources for the history of the Pen series online, (this is my favorite) so I won’t spend much time there. Basically, camera designer Yoshihisa Maitani was the mastermind behind this series, which is extremely elegant in both aesthetics and function. The first couple of models were simple but tiny and elegant rangefinders. They were so successful, that Olympus handed Maitani a nearly impossible mandate: make a Single Lens Reflex (SLR) model of the Pen, with interchangeable lenses, keeping the same svelte body! SLRs tend to be significantly larger than rangefinders, as they require a large and complex mirror mechanism and pentaprism to direct the lens image to a viewfinder when not exposing an image (rangefinders use a simple viewing lens or window instead, making camera bodies smaller and lighter, but introducing potential focusing and composition [parallax] issues, and more restricted lens design). An SLR the size of a small rangefinder would be a coup indeed… and Maitani pulled it off! The Pen F model, released in 1963, unleashed the full versatility of an SLR, incorporating full manual controls and interchangeable lenses.

Pen FT, back.  Photograph by Zach Horton.

Pen FT, back. Photograph by Zach Horton.

Maitani made several innovations in order to realize this remarkable machine. The first was shared by the entire Pen line: he designed the camera to shoot a half-frame 35mm image. Thus the camera utilizes regular 35mm film, but exposes a frame only half the usual size, in a vertical orientation. This allows up to 72 images to be exposed on a standard “36 frame” roll! The film is fed through the camera horizontally, but the camera takes vertical images. This takes a bit of getting used to: in the camera’s horizontal position (the natural way to hold it), it takes a vertical image, and in a vertical orientation, it takes a horizontal image.

Garden in Rochester, New York. Photographed with a Pen FT and a 38mm lens on Kodak Ektar 100 film by Zach Horton.

Maitani’s second great innovation was to design a shutter and mirror based upon a rotating mechanism rather than a flip-up mirror and prism. Apparently, this took years of engineering to perfect. The result, however, was a svelte camera that looks every bit like a rangefinder, but is actually an SLR.

The Pen F was able to overcome the traditional limitations of an SLR by eliminating the bulky prism and mirror assembly, thus allowing the lenses to sit closer to the body (i.e., they have a shallower focal plane distance), and keeping both the body and lenses very small by specifying a half-frame format (which requires a smaller image circle, roughly equivalent to today’s common “APS-C” or “crop frame” digital sensors). The lenses for this camera are incredibly tiny and, well… cute, as well as extremely high quality. The Pen F was a high-end camera system.

Bamboo sculpture. Pen FT, 38mm lens, Kodak Tmax 100 film. By Zach Horton.

The biggest limitation of the Pen F when it was released was the reduced negative size of its images. Cramming the full amount of information on only half the surface area made for some grainy images on 1960s film stocks. As 35mm film became ubiquitous and cheap later in the decade, the economy of this camera seemed less valuable than sheer image quality in the form of a full-frame negative. Eventually, Maitani’s follow up camera system, the legendary Olympus OM-1, proved so popular that Olympus phased out the Pen SLR system by the end of the ’60s.

And now, for the lovers of obsolete technological assemblages that learn to do new things (I’ll have far more to say on this in the future), a small twist: the primary disadvantage of the Pen F system in the 1960s, its reduced resolution, has been mitigated considerable in the twenty-first century. In a mostly digital world, film costs have skyrocketed, while its aesthetic and tactile qualities have never been more valued. Film grain technology was improving in the 1960s, but peaked in the 1990s for silver-based black and white emulsions as well as positive emulsions, and in the 2000s for color negative emulsions. The result is that current film stocks such as Fuji’s Velvia, Ilford’s Delta series, and Kodak’s Ektar, Tmax, and Portra lines, are extremely fine grained (due to the “T-grain” technologies used in their construction), and can easily produce gorgeous images on a half-frame format. (In standard developers using standard methods, there can still be a decent amount of grain, but not distracting amounts. Special developers and techniques can further reduce the grain, but this is outside of my interest.)

Horse in the Carpathian mountains, Transylvannia, Romania. Photographed with a Pen FT and 38mm lens on Ilford Delta 100 film by Zach Horton.

At the same time, given the expense of these gorgeous film stocks, all of those extra frames afforded by the half-frame Pen are quite welcome (far more so than in the 1960s, when film was a mass commodity), especially for street or travel photography, for which this camera is uniquely suited. So, for those who like to shoot “on-the-go,” and prefer film, this is a beautiful camera system. I have used it for a couple of stints of travel and have loved the experience as well as the results.

The Kodak factory in Rochester New York, still producing film in 2014.  Photographed on a Pen FT with 38mm lens on Kodak Ektar 100 film by Zach Horton.

Kodak factory in Rochester New York, 2014.  By Zach Horton.

This is one of the most pleasurable cameras I have ever used. It is a joy to hold in the hand, to have such a small lens and camera that can nevertheless do the full compliment of manual photography: manual shutter (in a fun dial on the front of the camera), manual aperture (in uniformly excellent manual aperture rings), depth of field preview, remote release, and timed release. The shutter button is a unique rectangle that sits flush with the top of the camera. The subtle snap that the circular mirror and shutter make when you take a photo is always satisfying.

Bran castle- front lantern

Entrance to Bran Castle, Vlad the Impaler’s old Transylvanian home, in 2014. Photograph by Zach Horton.

A camera of this size does come with a couple of downsides, however. The viewfinder is small and rather dim (a problem exacerbated on the FT model, which diverts some of the light to its built-in, but rarely useful light meter). It is a bit harder to focus as a result, though this is somewhat compensated by the increased depth of field of the smaller format. The top shutter speed is 500, rather than the more usual 1000. The FT model improved upon the original F by making it far easier to load film, changing the advance lever to a single-stroke design, and adding a built-in light meter. The first two improvements are very welcome, but the light meter, at least after all of these years, hasn’t held up well: it is often broken or wildly inaccurate, and requires the outlawed 625 mercury battery, or a sophisticated adapter. And even when it works perfectly, it is a pain in the ass: it reads out not actual f-stops, but only a proprietary numbering system that the user must then dial in on the lens’s aperture ring (the ring on each lens can be reversed to display either f-stops or these numbers). This is slow, confusing, and won’t work with third-party lenses. Most people (including myself) simply use an external meter, or, because this camera is best outdoors, simply estimate the proper f-stop using the “sunny 16” rule.

The Olympus Zuiko 38mm 1.8 is an excellent standard lens. I use it 90% of the time. I can also recommend both the 25mm f/4 and the 100mm f/3.5, both of which are fairly readily available and round out a great kit. Many more exotic lenses exist, but fetch very high prices on the secondhand market, and thus represent great value to the collector, but less so for users like myself. Adapters were made by Olympus at the time for lenses from most other systems. A current Chinese company makes high quality adapters for a few common lens systems today (Canon EOS, Nikon, etc.). I have a Canon EOS adapter that works beautifully, and allows me to round out my kit with the excellent, very small Takumar 55mm 1.8 (M42, with an adapter to EOS), which makes a great portrait length on the Pen. These adapters are expensive, but much less so than many native Pen lenses!

Pen with EOS adapter and FL 55mm f/1.2 lens (custom machined to EF mount).  Photograph by Zach Horton.

Pen FT with Canon EF lens adapter and Canon

Overall, this little camera is a marvel of design and engineering and an immense pleasure to use. Perhaps most interestingly, if paradoxically, its time has perhaps finally arrived.

3 Comments

  1. This may be a silly question…I see you have an EF lens adapter in the last photo in your wonderful write up! I am very curious….would I be able to use my EF 50mm 1.2 with that adapter…If I had it in manual focus mode. I know this defeats the purpose of the nice small camera but nice glass is nice glass and I’d like to see what it could do. Where did you find that adapter. This may be a silly question but that adapter got me thinking…

    • I realize this is a really dumb question now. lol, sorry!

    • zhorton

      May 10, 2016 at 10:44 pm

      Hi Eric,

      Not a silly question! Yes, your EF 50mm 1.2 would absolutely work in manual focus mode. You just won’t have aperture control (but you can pre-set the aperture on an EF camera). The only lenses that won’t work are those that require a powered camera in order to focus (i.e. “focus by wire”), which I don’t think your lens is afflicted with. I’d say that manual focus lenses are much easier to use in this kind of configuration, but as you say, good glass is good glass! I purchased this adapter from a Chinese company on ebay. I hope this is helpful!

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