The Olympus Pen F – from Large Format to Half Frame thanks to W. Eugene Smith
By Ibraar Hussain
Steve, Brandon and every viewer of this site!
it’s been a fascinating year so far, and stevehuffphoto.com is as good as ever! Exciting camera news and excellent photography.
I really enjoy the daily inspirations and inspire they do!
After the recent Punjab trip I sold my Panasonic Lumix GX7 and was looking to go up into the world of Large Format, View cameras and 5×4 photography. My winning bid for an MPP Micro Technical camera with quick load Film holders, a Schneider lens and all the accessories had to be cancelled as the seller updated me with some information about the lens having some fungus inside.
I was disappointed as my advancement into the realm of LF had been put on hold, so until I find another one that has to wait. I was browsing the Web and came across a superb vintage Olympus advertisement showcasing their Olympus Pen F camera. It featured one of The Greatest Photographers and War Correspondents of all Time: W. Eugene Smith, composer of possibly, in my opinion, The Most Beautiful and Magical photograph of all time: A Walk To The Paradise Garden. A photograph whose composition and making of is a story unto itself and worth looking up, and a photograph which does nothing but inspire. It inspired me to clean up my neglected darkroom and dust off everything, to gather my cameras again and shoot, to invest in an Epson SC-600 13”+ Printer and some Epson Exhibition Fiber paper and make some prints.
Anyway, I digress.
Smith, with his ultra cool look had with him an Olympus Pen FT. I don’t know whether he used it much, and I am not really bothered about that, but I used to have an Olympus Pen F which I regret ever selling, as it’s a wonderful camera. It’s built as well as anything, solid metal housing and beautifully crafted, small and compact with tiny lenses and a wonderful portrait format finder.
I love everything about this camera, and it is a shame Olympus were unable to copy it instead releasing the Digital pen series which are nothing like this work of art, designed by the genius of Yoshihisa Maitinai himself.
The camera is unique, in so many ways. It is not a rangefinder like the Leica M series, but a true SLR. It lacks a Pentaprism and is thus oblong in shape with no un sightly prisms, humps and angles, instead it is sleek, with a low profile and an almost RF look about it – yet so very different as it is an SLR and not anything else. The Pen F was produced from 1963 to 1966 and was in turn followed by the Pen FT and FV models.
I prefer this over any other model for a few important reasons.
Firstly, it’s the Original design and features the glorious and striking gold gothic F logo which is reason to buy it in itself.
It has a very bright large finder, which isn’t dark and cluttered like that in the FT (which has a meter and readout in the finder making it cramped). It has the double stroke wind lever which I prefer and lacks a light meter which makes it simpler and more spartan- but this is the beauty of it.
The construction is up there with the Germans, it is a solid hunk of crafter metal, a solid and satisfying shutter button, the shutter mechanism is a Ti Rotary Focal Plane Shutter and along with the Half Frame (APS sized) negative is very much like that on a Cine camera.
The Portrait format finder is like this as it is a Half Frame camera, with a 18x24mm negative which when exposed resembles that of negative stock shot with a 35mm motion picture 35 camera.
It has a nice set of compact lenses, with the 38mm f1.8 being the usual standard lens. 38mm on half frame is equal to 55mm in Full Frame Format.
I managed to get an almost Mint example from a seller in Japan with the fast 40mm f1.4 lens (pristine condition) and the Gothic F lens cap!
I also procured a classy leather strap and a 43mm Tiffen Yellow Filter to go with it.
Needless to say I absolutely adore this. It has so much character, it attracts so much attention and is so different and unique. It features nothing but the shutter button, the Shutter speed dial at the front, the wind lever and Film crank and that’s about it! it’s all i need! This is a keeper, especially the mint version I have.
Shooting with this is a different style altogether.
The portrait format with the half frames gives another dimension to the photography, and I am forced to think out side the box, to compose and shoot differently within the constraints of the narrow 60mm focal length of my 40mm f1.4 G Zuiko and the upright view finder I explore different compositions and subjects, with the added creative benefit of having a go at Penography – of shooting three consecutive pictures as a sort of three frame panorama, and using the unique format to create pairs of frames, telling a story or portraying something in chronological order, such as a triptych or montage. The possibilities are endless and with the fine grained sharp Film available Grain or resolution isn’t an issue. And I forgot to mention, one roll of a 36 exposure Film goes on seemingly forever! You get double the amount of frames courtesy of the Half Frame format!
The lens is a beautiful piece of work, solid in construction with an aperture ring and a depth of field preview button, and it has some interesting bokeh and gives delightful shallow depth of field effects. It is sharp at f4 and above and a very nice lens to own and use.
Using and owning the Olympus Pen F is a pleasure and will open many opportunities in creativity and satisfying and interesting results. It won’t make you into W. Eugene Smith, and you won’t look as cool as him, and nor will you be as great as him, but it sure as hell puts a smile on my face and has kindled the love of photography in my heart again.
I took it for a trial run to some of my favourite walks in Epping Forest near my home (Strawberry Hill Ponds and Great Monk Wood and Wanstead Park for those interested). I used my trusty Minolta Autometer III and took the reading from the shadow areas this time!
The rest I left to experience and managed to gauge the light levels and loaded with Rollei Retro 400s (fast becoming my favourite 400 speed Film) I played with light and shadow of the sun beams amongst the trees.
I then took it to the woods in and around Burnham Beeches in Berkshire with the Missus, the Film eventually finished and I loaded it up with some Agfa Ultra 100 colour Film for some fun and games with the magic of the Bluebells and ancient Oak and Beech around here – but that is for another story!
The results were vey pleasing, and the double frames an interesting way of portraying photographs. I have used it as a gimmick though and haven’t really used the two frames or any triptych as they should be used here, though I did take a triptych of my Missus which is superb (but she’ll kill me if I upload any of her photos). I’m going to have a go at ‘Street’ photography with this delightful and beautiful camera soon, as I usually shoot Nature, travel portraiture and architecture I am pretty useless at reportage and street – but i think this camera will be ideal!
So in searching for a 5×5” Large Format Micro technical camera I’ve bought a Half Frame instead thanks to W. Eugene Smith and his über cool look. Anyway, for those bored of nature and trees, look away now. These snaps are a first roll trial.
Olympus Pen F
G. Zuiko Auto S 40mm f1.4
Rollei Retro 400s
Developed in R09 Rodinal
Scanned with Plustek 8100
Digital darkroom using Photoshop CS4 and Apple Aperture 3.6