New York City and the Half-frame 35mm Olympus Pen D

New York City and the Half-frame 35mm Olympus Pen D

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It was the winter of my discontent, made awful by leaden skies and the prospect of no work on the horizon. As a freelancer, my gigs are highly seasonal, and I found myself at the end of last holiday season with little to do but walk around the city with a camera. So it was that in early January of last year, I stood along the East River with my freshly-purchased Olympus Pen-D. I walked north from Wall Street, past the finance bros and tourists, with nothing for company but the white noise of traffic on FDR Drive, and waited. In the distance, two birds dropped from the girders of the highway overpass and opened their wings. I preset the focus to 3 meters, raised the camera to my eye, and tick. I was smitten.

I had known almost nothing about half-frame film cameras until a month earlier. I had spent Labor Day to Christmas working six and seven days a week. I was exhausted and stressed, and so I opened a new tab on my computer and started wandering the internet for some retail therapy.

“I deserve a little treat for working so hard,” I thought to myself.  “A Christmas present.”

After a few minutes of reading, I came across a compact camera from 1962 called the Olympus Pen-D. The Pen line of cameras were all half-frame film cameras, which squeeze twice as many frames onto a roll of 35mm film than does a standard, full-frame camera.

“What the heck?” I rationalized as I looked at the $90 price tag, my cursor hovering over the Buy button. “A half-frame camera will help me save money.”

I had never really considered owning a half-frame camera until just then. Before 1959, no one else in the world really had either.

Sixty-five years ago, a junior designer at Olympus submitted the blueprints for this camera’s progenitor, the original Olympus Pen. The designer, Yoshihisa Maitani, wanted to create a high-quality, ultra-compact camera, one that could be small enough and portable enough to carry anywhere (hence the name Pen). He succeeded, and the Pen was a runaway success.

Olympus released the Pen-D in 1962 as a higher-spec, pro-sumer upgrade to the original model. The English instructions for the camera declare, with a touch of hauteur, “the compactness of the Pen-D and its advanced features make it eminently suitable for the most discerning amateur.”

Eminently.

It is without doubt a handsome little machine, all dressed up in black and chrome.  The face of the camera is a wonderfully space-aged interplay of geometry. The lens, the hemispherical focus knob and the p.c. socket counterbalance the trapezoidal viewfinder and meter housing. Both the original Pen and the Pen-D utilized the same chassis. While the Pen-D’s six-element lens, the F Zuiko 32mm f/1.9, is significantly larger than the original Pen’s 28mm f/3.5 optics, it still projects just 2 centimeters from the body of the camera.

The control layout looks and functions similarly to other fixed lens 35mm cameras of the 1960s and ’70s. It has a leaf shutter, which is both whisper quiet and allows flash synchronization at all speeds. Shutter speed and aperture are controlled by concentric dials on the lens barrel. Shutter speeds run from 1/500 second in full stops down to 1/8 of a second, plus a bulb setting.

The camera also sports an uncoupled light meter built into the viewfinder window housing. The meter supports film speeds up to 400 ISO, and the zebra-stripe meter display on the top plate of the camera has an indicator needle that will give a readout in exposure values. You can then match the reading to a small cutout window behind the shutter speed dial. Rotating the aperture and shutter speed dials will show the corresponding exposure value that the change in exposure has made. The meter is selenium, and so requires no battery to operate, with the caveat being that many selenium meters from the era of their ubiquity have died of old age.

There is a small, semicircular focus lever flush against the lens barrel. The edge is milled for an easy fingertip grip. Minimum focus is .8 meters (just over 31 inches), with two click stops at 1.2 meters (just under 4 feet) and 3 meters (just under 10 feet), before stopping at infinity (mercifully, no conversion necessary there).

Loading the camera, while a bit archaic, is fairly straightforward. Turn a flip-out key on the baseplate and slide the two halves of the camera apart. Insert the cassette, pull the leader across to the take-up spool, and fire the shutter. Two quick strokes of the film advance wheel will enable the film sprockets to engage the cogs, and it is ready to close. Slide the two halves back together, making sure the pressure plate doesn’t snag, and close the key. Advance the shutter two more frames, reset the lovely little film counter behind the shutter release, and go.

There are two salient differences between the Pen-D and most other manual focus, fixed-lens cameras of yore. First, as a half-frame camera, the Pen-D natively shoots in a portrait orientation. Rather than creating a standard horizontal 24x36mm image, half-frames create a vertical 18x24mm negative. Therefore, the camera must be turned on its side in order to make a horizontal (or landscape orientation) photo. Second, there are no focusing aids. Traditionally, manual-focus compact cameras were rangefinders, where a second window on the faceplate projected a double image of the subject in a small patch in the center of the viewfinder. Adjusting focus on these other cameras will move the double image left or right, and when the images align, the subject is in focus. Not so for the simplified viewfinder camera. Here, we have to estimate distance and slide the focus lever to the corresponding number listed on the side of the lens barrel.

This focus methodology was fairly intimidating at first because I don’t think I’m great at judging distance, and as I’m an American, I’m guessing in feet and inches and not meters. I ended up missing focus on a number of shots for the first couple rolls of film I shot with the Pen-D, but the learning curve isn’t steep; half-frame cameras have a very generous depth of field, and usually a best guess at distance to subject will yield acceptable focus.

I was prepared to be a little disappointed with the image quality of the camera – after all, it’s only using a tiny fingernail of film. But the lens is lovely, and photos coming out of it are sharp, contrasty, and almost spectral in the way details loom out of the grain. I spent all of last winter with the Pen-D tucked in my coat pocket, the sounds of the hushed tick of the shutter followed by the two short geared throws of the advance wheel becoming addictive. Half-frame cameras can regularly make 74 or more photos on a standard 36-exposure roll of film, and it can make for some serious low-stakes fun.

I’m not sure that I would recommend this particular model to just anyone – a fair number of photographers (maybe most?) would be turned off by the all-manual controls and its immodest heft: at 400 grams (14 ounces), it is nearly twice the weight of Maitani’s ultra-compact camera of 1979, the Olympus XA. No matter. There are other Pen variants for everybody else. By my count, there were 18 variations of the Pen series made between 1959 and 1983, including a glut of automated Pen EE models to choose from. The Pen-D line was aimed squarely at the control freak, and that freak is me, baby. I find it eminently suitable.

Want your own Olympus Pen? Shop for one through eBay here!


We are happy to occasionally publish the words and images of photographers and writers all over the world. Today’s guest author is…

Jeff Zorabedian is a professional photographer in New York City. Taking pictures is not only his livelihood, it’s also his only real hobby. He’s spent his entire adult life using and abusing a whole galaxy of camera gear, and now he wants to bitch about it.

 

More of Jeff’s photography can be seen here.


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8 comments
  • Michael S. Goldfarb March 20, 2024 at 7:44 am

    Coincidentally, I ALSO just got an Olympus Pen camera from eBay a couple of weeks ago!

    Mine’s the earlier Pen S, just the second Pen model, introduced in 1960. While it’s completely manual – no light meter – it represented a step up from the original 1959 Pen model. It has more shutter speeds (1/8 to 1/250) and a faster lens (30mm/f2.8 vs. 28mm/f3.5) that zone-focuses (in metric) down to two feet.

    I’ve been shooting b/w with my Pen F SLR and its normal 38mm lens for several years now, and back in the nineties I had one of the later Pen selenium-meter-controlled models, the Pen EES-2, which is fitted with the exact same lens as the Pen S. All three of these Pen cameras have produced beautiful pictures.

    (Note that the famous Olympus Trip 35, introduced later in 1968 after the EES-2, essentially scaled up the EES-2 design to make full-frame negatives… and Olympus eventually sold something like ten million Trip 35s!)

    While the Pen F is definitely a more serious camera, the simpler viewfinder Pen models are great knockaround cameras to throw in a pocket, bag, glove compartment, etc. They are very capable shooters, delightfully small, with cool designs and great ergonomics. And as observed above, they have great lenses that record plenty of detail on a half-sized 35mm negative with modern films. (I shot with Minox subminatures for decades, so to me, a half-frame negative doesn’t really seem that small!)

    I immediately shot a half-roll of Tri-X to test this Pen S… and it performed beautifully. Not bad for an over-60-year-old camera that was remarkably inexpensive to start with. (In a circa-1964 Webb Photo catalog, the Pen D is listed at $70, and the older Pen S at $45. The then very new Pen F SLR with 38mm/f1.8 – aimed at pros – was $150.) All the Olympus Pens are fine little cameras!

    Great site with details on all the Pen models:

    http://www.f22.org.uk/Galleries/Pen_Collection/index.html

  • Oh, I love the Pens (half frames in general) I own all the first Pen models (Pen, Pen S and Pen W) and the Original Pen F and now really think about the D. The only difference, I never use them in winter darkness, never with faster film than 100, I should be braver seeing your results. Thank you for sharing. Also thank you Michael Goldfarb for sharing your experiences.

  • I have owned a Pen D since the early 90’s. I am always impressed by the quality of its lens and the 3D look of phographs it makes. Distance estimation is finr when used to it. My arm is the same lenght as the minimum focusing distance with helps. My Pen D is currently loaded with Ultramax 400. I like the golw and depth I get with this film in the Pen D. I recall an Amateur Photographer test report form 1962 which said the finest grain B&W film back then could not out resolve the lens saying the photographs it made were not far off a full frame immage.

  • I loved this article, thanks so much!! have a number of Pens and love all of them. Last I year on a trip to Hawaii I did something crazy and loaded my EES-2 with a roll of Fuji Velvia. The super fine grain and saturated colors are a joy to behold on the half frame transparencies. And I got about 80 shots on the roll. Metering was perfect as long as I chose composition with full sun add limited shadows — easy in Hawaii.

  • Marcus Gunaratnam May 29, 2024 at 3:47 am

    I am a committed Olympus fan, I have an analog (film) PenFTwith 1.8 38mm std lens+PenFT with covetted
    f1.2 42mm std lens but I prefer the 1.8f lens & have used it extensively including Weddings ,wherein I used to rate IlfordFP3@200ASA and develop in Paterson tank using filtered ,temp controlled one shot solution of neofin blue.More Recently I have purchased an OM1 &an XA and more recently Om4ti &since digital came out,2xOmd em5,all are extremely portable and very useful for casual snapshots and with half frame and digital cousins extra ‘shots’no problem.Opportunistic shots are easier if you have a camera on hand and they donot hang heavy round your neck.

    • My Olympus collections isn’t so extensive, but I too find myself becoming more and more an Olympus fan. I currently own a Pen F and an OM-1 but would love to add an XA to that collection to round off the Maitani trology.

  • I got myself an original Pen F maybe 2 years ago now and I absolutely love it. Truth be told, a big draw for me was the blackletter F on the front of it, but i’m glad to have discovered that the camera is as capable as it is attractive.

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