USER REPORT: As Ubiquitous as a Pen by Sandy Ramirez

As Ubiquitous as a Pen

A few years back when Olympus started it’s ad campaign for it’s Pen series Digitals, I wondered aloud to myself “Could it be? Could I finally have a digital version of my beloved PenFT?” Sadly the answer was no. I won’t go into the technical reasons why I am not a very big fan of the current Olympus camera line, though I must admit Panasonic has done yeoman work iwith that technology. Suffice to say that 4/3rds and m4/3rds has left me underwhelmed.


For more than a decade the camera above has been my faithful carry with me all day companion. To be honest I prefer it to my M4, not so much because of image quality (both do an excellent job, though the Leica’s glass is certainly better), but simply due to the pure joy of shooting within it’s limitations. It’s a temperamental friend, old, skips frames occasionally, and the previous owner really put it through some hard use. Still when I first saw this camera, I instantly wanted one. The clean lines, and beautiful design called out to me. Here was a simply wonderful tool begging to be used.

The Pen SLR’s are descended from the Pen Series compacts of the early 60’s. Half Frame cameras sold to many to help popularize the use of color negative film (at the time something fairly new and very expensive to process) to the general population. The Pen F, FT, and FV come from that wonderful legacy. A 36 shot roll now suddenly yielded 72 shots! At the time the lenses designed for this system compared very favorably with those manufactured by Zeiss and Leitz, and as a first, the camera could be purchased with an internal light meter (though it was uncoupled from the aperture control).

Unfortunately the Pen SLR’s never really caught on, and after 8 or so years were discontinued in favor of the OM system. Still for many, like me, they captured the imagination. The first thing you’ll notice if you ever shoot a PenFT, is the vertical viewfinder. That’s right, holding the camera in the normal “landscape” orientation will give you a “portrait” orientation. The other thing you will notice is that the PenFT is very small. Actually it is smaller than M4, and roughly just a tad smaller than the new Fuji X100 without a lens mounted. One more oddity is the location of the shutter dial, a small drum on the front of the camera that goes up to a modest 1/500th of a second. On the FT it has the classic lift and turn setting for ASA as well.


I’ve never understood those who complain about the max shutter speed of their cameras. In all the years I’ve shot, I’ve rarely seen the need to go over 1/1000th of a second, much less 1/500th! Granted back in the day we worked with the limitations of our cameras, many of them being all mechanical affairs. Working within those limitations made us think a lot more about what we were doing, and in my opinion made us better photographers than the coddled group of digital only tyros coming up today. One benefit of the PenFT’s shutter is the fact that it was a rotary shutter, thereby allowing flash synch at all speed (not many DSLR’s can claim a 1/500th flash sync).

Now while I love shooting with a rangefinder, the fact that the PenFT is a SLR has some excellent benefits. The fact that you are not combatting parallax simplifies composition. You are seeing through the taking lens, and can stop down when needed to check DOF. The other benefit as shown below is the ability to focus very close, something my M4 (nor the M9) can do readily. The other benefit is the half frame itself! Using modern film emulsions, the FT lenses really show off their qualities well. Also the smaller film size (in digital terms a 1.4 crop factor) allows the use of lenses with a greater DOF than say with a standard 35mm system. For instance my favorite lens to use with my PenFT is the G.Zuiko Auto-W 25/2.8, the equivalent of a 35mm lens on a standard 35mm camera. At f8 and set to the hyperfocal, this lens will keep everything from 1m to infinity in reasonably sharp focus.

Shooting with this setup has been a constantly liberating experience for me. I seek out things to shoot with it. I get to use my feet over a zoom ring, and it’s small size makes taking candid street photos a simple exercise, even though there is mirror slap. No one notices this tiny gem. It’s a shame when Olympus first ventured into the digital world they didn’t use this camera as it’s template. If they had, I suspect their fortunes would have been much better, especially if they kept the sensor the same size as the film in the FT.

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  1. I love this Camera by all means. the build and quality is superb.

    But unfortunately I was not able to take any good pictures with it.
    To eliminate the problem I used the 38mm f1.8 ft lens on NEX camera using an adaptor and to my surprise the photos were so sharp with a very unique DOF that I love.

    So nothing wrong with the lens.

    I used one of the best films available these days that is the Fuji pro 400h I also used a very good light meter to rollout the issue that the camera light meter might be inaccurate.

    But still my photos are not sharp and infinity are never ever in focus.

    Land scape photos at f8 or f11 and f16 are never sharp and nothing in focus however close up pics at f1.8 and f5.6 is fairly better but never as good as when I used the pen ft lens with the Sony NEX body.

    I scan using Epson v700 and once I scanned at a professional lab but still not that great of photos.

    So what could be going wrong? The pen ft body is very clean and almost like new.

    Is it only me? Or this is how film photos are? Shouldn’t I be able to get a real sharp and in focus film pictures? Ok May be not as good as digital but it should be great too.

    Sorry but I am really frustrates as I really LOVE this camera and was doing my best to get something decent out of it at least for the sake of my love lol

    I don’t know if I am missing something but your views are highly appreciated

    • Sorry for taking over a year to reply. Yes the images should be as sharp as digital. Could be the film pressure plate spring is worn out. It keeps the film flat and if worn the film can curve away

  2. really must use my Pen FT more – I had some excellent results from it using Ektar 100 – the fine grain works well with the reduced frame size.
    I only wish I’d tried to acquire more lenses for it while I had the chance!

    • I have 5 and to be honest I could probably be fine with just two. Still I find uses for all of them 🙂

  3. wonderful images you have created!
    this is definitely a beautiful tool worthy of the tests of time! If i could afford to manage another system, this would be it 🙂

  4. Nice shots. My style too. I have been leaving my EM at home (well one of 5 that I have and they are super small too) and been shooting with a couple of Olympus XA’s recently. Great image, full frame and quiet. The reason for 2? The 1/500th limit. I keep one loaded with EI 100 film and another with EI 400. I then can shoot from 100 to 800 between the two.

    • I use to do the same with a pair of old Olympus Stylus Epics (the ones with the 35/2.8 lens). I loved those cameras as they had a spot meter! Thank you for the compliment 🙂

  5. I used to have an Olympus Pen. Sadly, it fell off a boat and is now under 3.5 miles of water in the Manila Trench.

    Still have the 38mm f1.8 though, and it is one of my favorite m4/3 lenses. As you say, it is brilliantly sharp, but not harsh. And the 40mm f1.4 is my best portrait lens.

    More importantly, your pictures are among the best that Steve has ever posted.

    • Thank You for the wonderful compliment 🙂 I’m following several bids right now on the 40/1.4 and the 70/2. I have 5 lenses already, but really want those two.

  6. top notch work that shows real craft and control of your chosen camera.

  7. brava! i am beholden with your great set of “captured moments” and likewise enjoyed reading the article and replies to the comments. hope to see more sets from the pen.
    on a sidenote, your POTD of may 23 is marvelous! both subject and photographer in timeless classic outfits (love the bag!) matched with the location.

    • Thank You. That shot you mentioned was shot while walking around in Soho with my old Sigma DP2. I usually spend a few hours each day walking some certain routes through the city looking for interesting things to shoot. So far it has proven productive 🙂

  8. Brilliant shots, just brilliant. Yet again proves it’s mainly down to the mind & eye and nothing to do with throwing money at photography and megapixels. The best camera is the one you are carrying, end of.

    Always wondered this though Sandy having never used these cameras, with the Pen being 1/2 35mm frame what are the largest print sizes you’ve been happy with before things start going south?

    • Thank You. In answer to your question, really depended on the film I had loaded. With Delta 100 I use to do 11×14, with Delta 3200 5×6, with HP5, 8×10 and when I use to use TechPan (god I miss TechPan) I’ve done 16×20’s I’ve been happy with.

  9. Sandy. Thx for the post. Although I like your images I’m not sure they could not be done with a number of other cameras….including the digital PEN series with the right lenses attached. I for one am still waiting for a digital Contax G2 which of course will never actually be forthcoming.

    • Thank You. I wholeheartedly agree. Any camera can do this, it’s what the photographer sees that is important. I just like using the PenFT because of the experience I get using it. Count me in on a digital G2 BTW 🙂

  10. Sandy, this is some of the best street photography I have seen on Steve’s blog in a long time, thanks for sharing this with us. I’m looking at getting my daughter an old film camera and I’m interested in which film types you used, particularly the colour film, and any other recommendations you may have for a 17 year old interested in trying film. Thanks again.

    • Thank You 🙂 As far as film, back when I use to only shoot film, as digital was yet to be in existence, I was very specific. Only Ilford for B&W, Only Kodak Slide film for color etc. Now I shoot film only because I still love shooting my PenFT. Usually I use what’s cheap to be honest these days, Fuji Neopan 400, and Fuji Superia 400 for color. I get it scanned in from the negs at processing time, usually at 6mp.

    • Oh my other recommendation. Get a nice Pentax K1000 and a Takumar SMC-M 50/1.4. Great camera, has a simple meter, and will shoot for decades.

      • Sandy – good recommendation on the Pentax, much more available and cheaper than the Pen. But a “street shooter” should also consider the Pentax MX. Much smaller, so more the feel of a Pen, HUGE bright viewfinder, simple LED meter gives half-stop readings. Besides the 50 1.4, look for the 35/2.0 and 28/2.0. These lenses are rarer, but very nice images also.

        • Very nice, but it’s for his daughter that is just starting 🙂 Actually really nice as far as street by Pentax was the LX, great camera, very small and you could put a waist level on it

  11. What a great set of photos Sandy! Enjoyed the photos a lot! Thank you for sharing!

  12. Great shots, Sandy. These are some of my favorite pics that I’ve seen on Steve’s blog, and they’re a fantastic testament to the photographer being more important than the gear.

  13. I really love your pics. It’s like if i can breath the history of the camera in every shot you take. The BW pics are outstanding. Thanks for posting.

    • Wow that’s a cool compliment. By “breath in the history” I’m guessing the softer draw of the lenses. It is a draw very similar to Leica glass of that time and modern Voigtlander lenses (why I like them a lot) and the draw of the Fuji X100. It’s what I like to call “soft sharp” where the image is sharp from the technical standpoint, but has a certain “soft” quality that has a certain “glow”. The best modern lens that does this today IMHO is the Voigtlander 35/1.4 or 40/1.4 Single Coats.

  14. Totally agree, really nice camera – the old ones have so much more than the new ones in so many ways (just photography not ‘menuitus’).

    • It’s a very different mindset that one of these put you in. More disciplined, but at the same time free. Hell the meter on my FT stopped working long before I got it, so in that sense it’s a lot like working with my M4 – no meter, just look and know what f-stop and shutter you will be at.

  15. .
    Lovely pics. For information about Mr Maitani’s trials and tribulations in designing the Pen F SLR, and the secrets of its revolving shutter, see here.

  16. One of the few cameras I’ve alwats wanted to use, but never got around to it.

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