The Olympus Pen F was first released in 1963 and was the brainchild of legendary designer Yoshihisa Maitani who was also responsible for the design of two of Olympus’ most iconic cameras, the Olympus OM-1 interchangeable-lens SLR, and the Olympus XA rangefinder camera. With the earlier Pen F, Maitani sought to create a truly tiny SLR camera absent of the unsightly bump of the viewfinder prism, and one which sacrificed nothing in the way of image quality.
The result is a rangefinder-esque body style, that does away with the prism bump by flipping the SLR mirror on its side, allowing the viewfinder mirror path to be completely internal. In addition to the unconventional mirror orientation, the Pen F has two other tricks up its sleeve: the film format and the shutter.
The Pen F is a half-frame camera, meaning that the image format is half that of full-frame. For the user of this camera, this means two things. First, when the camera is held horizontally in the natural position, the image made will be vertically oriented (commonly called “portrait” orientation). The viewfinder also naturally displays the image in portrait orientation. To take a landscape orientation photo, we hold the camera vertically. This isn’t a big deal, but it’s probably the first thing that most photo geeks will notice when picking up a Pen for the first time.
The second important note is that, with a Pen, you can shoot twice the number of images on any given roll of film.
The shutter is also unique to this camera, employing a spinning disk with a cutout (rotary shutter) rather than the traditional two curtains. This means that unlike a typical focal plane shutter camera, the Pen F can sync with flash at all speeds.
To the original Pen F, two other models were alter added. The Pen FT, released in 1966, and the Pen FV, released in 1967. Identifying each is easy, and each has its pros and cons.
The original Pen F is most easily identified by the gorgeous gothic letter F engraved into the front. This camera is a full manual camera with no light meter, and no need for batteries. Further differentiating it from its later siblings is its film transport mechanism – the original F uses a double-stroke film advance.
The next model, the Pen FT, loses the gothic F and adds an uncoupled light meter. This second camera also changes the film advance to single stroke. The trade-off with the addition of a meter is that it employs a half-mirror, which allows half of the incoming light from the lens to go to the viewfinder for viewing, and half to go to the metering cell. What this means is that the viewfinder of the FT is considerably dimmer than the earlier F. Another strike against, the half-mirrors of the FT are unfortunately prone to mirror corrosion/degradation, an affliction which can only be solved by replacement.
The final iteration, the FV, was made in much smaller quantities than its two siblings. But it is essentially a Pen FT with the meter removed, returning to the same viewfinder as the Pen F.
Okay, an all mechanical half frame camera that’s (at the youngest) nearly sixty years old. Why should we care today?
First, the Pen F was made to a very high standard of quality. The construction is all metal, and it is clear that no corners were cut in its development and production. The camera feels solid in the hand and doesn’t give users anything to worry about when it comes to durability.
Next is the size of the camera. All of the ingenuity that went into removing the prism bump, as well as the smaller frame size means that the resulting camera is almost impossibly small, and since the lenses don’t need to cover as large an image area, they can be smaller too. The Pen series of cameras are so small, in fact, that there really is no reason to not have one on you at all times, and they therefore offer a great (much more manual) alternative to a point and shoot film camera.
Although their size may be comparable to a film P&S, their image quality isn’t even in the same universe. The lenses made for the Pen F series are incredibly compact, and very sharp. In addition to their quality, there is also quite a variety. The available focal lengths range from 20mm all the way up to 800mm (28mm-1150mm full-frame equivalent), and often include a few different speeds to suit your shooting style as well as your budget (there is both a 25mm f2.8 and a 25mm f4).
Also, because of the similarity of the half-frame format to the aps-c format in terms of size, these lenses can easily be adapted to and enjoyed on a range of aps-c digital cameras for years to come.
In my opinion, the standard lenses to have are either the 38mm f1.8, or the 40mm f1.4. You really cannot go wrong with either. [More sample shots from these lenses can be seen in Josh Solomon’s incredible article Surviving 2020 with an Olympus Pen FT.]
This brings me to my last, and potentially most important reason to consider a Pen F: the cost. Despite the undeniable quality of the system, the prices for these cameras and lenses have not followed the recent trend, where the best (and sometimes not the best) film cameras have seen their prices skyrocket to eye-watering heights. What this means is that it’s still possible to pick up a very nice Pen F body with a 38mm f1.8 lens for a few hundred dollars in working condition.
More than that, in an age where a 36-exposure roll of color film costs around $16, it’s incredibly nice to get two-times the number of images without a significant loss in image quality. [A point that James made in his article Five Ways to Cope with the Rising Cost of Film.]
The Pen F lineup of cameras are incredible, and when you factor in their persistently low cost of entry, I consider them to be a no-brainer purchase for those of us who value build quality, portability, and uncompromising image quality.
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