They breed. They must. What other possibility explains the ever-expanding progeny of film cameras spilling forth from a hallway cabinet, which once housed a similarly promiscuous collection of CDs and DVDs? So gaping is my ignorance of camera mating habits that I must sheepishly admit to not even knowing how one determines their sex.
The brood seems to expand exponentially (as broods sometimes do), which correlates directly to a rather precipitous decline in my use of digital cameras. In fact, over 90% of this years’ images have been shot on film. Of course, I could always discourage propagation by separating the film cameras into different drawers and cabinets — but where’s the fun in that? They seem to be enjoying the debauchery, and I’m perfectly happy playing nanny to each new film camera that springs forth from such unholy cyber union.
A couple months ago, I engaged in a small selective-breeding experiment. I have long wanted an Olympus PEN F, which is an old SLR film camera that’s actually as compact and beautiful as an early-model rangefinder. Perhaps I could engineer its conception? I gathered my Leica R4, Canon AE-1 and two Leica IIIs, placed them in close proximity on a single shelf, dimmed the lights, and put some Marvin Gaye tunes on infinite loop. Success! Through the gear-meshing mysterious mechanics of camera procreation, a new little Olympus PEN FT has joined the ULTRAsomething film camera family.
The PEN FT is a half-frame single-lens-reflex camera system, which was designed and developed by Olympus in the early-to-mid 1960s. The PEN FT shoots an image that’s half as wide as a standard 35mm film frame, which means that a single roll of film contains twice as many shots as a “standard” 35mm camera — a boon for anyone shooting film in today’s trying economic downturn. A second benefit, and paralleling the mirrorless trend of today, is that half-frame images require a much smaller imaging circle. This allowed Olympus to create smaller lenses, which makes the camera far more portable than a typical 35mm film camera.
Because two frames sit side-by-side in the space normally occupied by a single 35mm frame, the PEN takes photos in a vertical, portrait orientation — that is, the images are taller than they are wide. This, to me, is one of the most desirable properties of the PEN. I tend to see and compose an inordinate number of vertical shots, and the PEN allows me to do so without turning the camera sideways. Additionally, each frame’s aspect ratio is more squat than an upturned 35mm frame — closely conforming to a 5×7 image, rather than the standard 4×6 format of 35mm. I think vertical images benefit from the tighter ratio, which makes the PEN even more ideal for my purposes.
Since the Olympus PEN F exposes vertical frames, its mirror is also vertically oriented — flipping to the side when the shutter is released, rather than flipping up. This results in a rather unique through-the-lens optical path that completely dispenses with the big pentaprism hump that sits atop traditional full-frame 35mm cameras. Because of this, the PEN FT look nothing like a typical SLR.
I believe the PEN FT is one of the most visually appealing cameras ever produced — an attribute that doesn’t necessarily make it a better picture-taking machine, but one that will likely increase its probability of breeding with my other cameras in the future.
I like to run at least three rolls of film through a camera before I form any impressions, so it took more time than usual for me to evaluate the Pen FT. When you shoot as frugally as I do, 75 frames per roll is a daunting task — and doing it three times is just that much more challenging. But in actual use, I found the PEN’s massive frame count somewhat liberating. It encouraged me to experiment, which turned out to be a good thing.
You see, the PEN is not overly adept at sweeping scenic vistas, grand architectural cityscapes, or any other subject that demands copious resolution and detail. Nor is it ideal for “street” work since, in spite of appearances, the camera is still an SLR — which means it houses a clacking, vibration-inducing mirror; restricts you to a through-the-lens view; and contains the usual assortment of SLR-related issues. In general, I think the PEN best serves a photographer who wishes to take photos that are as simple and elegant as the camera itself. Because my photos are rarely simple or elegant, the PEN FT forced me into experimental mode, meaning its 75 frame capacity was no longer daunting — it was necessary.
The bulk of my experiments, and my main reason for acquiring a PEN in the first place, involved film grain. Anyone who’s followed this site for the past few years knows of my predilection for film grain. Well, maybe “obsession” is a better word. I often like a crunchy image. It’s why I tend to shoot with higher speed films, and it’s why I frequently develop that film in Rodinal. So what better way to squeeze more grain from a photo than to shoot with a half-frame camera, then blow-up the image to match the print sizes from a standard 35mm frame? The PEN is a grain lover’s dream camera — and it’s an attribute I’ve been exploiting to the fullest these past few weeks.
That’s not to say the PEN is incapable of taking high fidelity photos — it can absolutely do so. It’s just that I have plenty of other cameras for that purpose. The PEN? With it, I’m looking for something else. Something indescribable. Something experimental.
Speaking of experiments, PEN shooters have long been masters of the diptych — experts in contrasting and/or complimentary pairs of images. This isn’t because diptych lovers sought out the PEN; it’s because the PEN essentially gave its owners no other choice. In ancient times, people would send their film to a lab, which would develop the negatives and make prints. Because most labs were configured to spit out full-frame 35mm prints, Olympus PEN shooters would get prints that contained 2 photos, side-by-side, on a single print. This resulted in all sorts of unintended but interesting juxtapositions, which caused many PEN owners to embrace the reality and begin purposely shooting complementary frames.
Although I scan my negatives and can thus produce single-frame prints, I was instinctively drawn to the PEN’s diptych roots — often looking for two ways to photograph one subject; two subjects with a similar theme; or two photos that I just thought might look nice next to each other. It was also an excellent way to help me blow through those 75 shots per roll. The following two photos (along with several others, which I’ve used to “decorate” this article) illustrate my earliest efforts to construct pre-conceived diptychs. Obviously, my skills are still in the embryonic stage…
I also used this mutli-frame approach to address the resolution issues inherent in half-frame photography — going old-school to create multi-frame “PEN-o-ramics” that completely dispensed with the modern convenience of software stitching.
The camera is comfortable to carry around in-hand (unlike most older film SLRs) and its film advance is reasonably smooth and quick (it should be — it only needs to advance the film a half-frame). It took me about two shots to get accustom to the vertical framing, and those of you with noses will be pleased to learn that the viewfinder sits toward the edge of the camera, rather than smack in the middle like most pentaprism-equipped SLRs. Focusing is, of course, manual — aided by a centered microprism. Shutter speed is adjusted by the dial on the front of the camera — ranging from 1s to 1/500s, plus a bulb setting.
There is no hot shoe, but flash is supported via an integrated sync terminal, which features switchable M & X contact points. Although X-sync worked perfectly with my Pocket Wizard, there’s no place to mount one on the camera. Those wishing to use the PEN’s flash capabilities should invest in an ingenious (but optional) little cold-shoe contraption that Olympus designed for attaching to the viewfinder. Because the PEN F uses a rotary focal-plane shutter (rather than the more traditional two-curtain shutter), it can sync at any flash speed, including its maximum of 1/500s.
The PEN FT is obviously a beautiful camera. Less obvious is the functionality contained within all that beauty. For example, the decorative flag to the right of the PEN F logo is not just for decoration — it sets and triggers the self-timer. Rotate the flag upward, then push the little button at its fulcrum. The flag will begin to descend, and in about 10 seconds your PEN will take a photo. Those who prefer taking self-portraits at arms’ length (the Facebook method) will be pleased to learn the camera has a minimum focus distance of only 35cm, so pointing the camera at your own face is totally practical. Less practical, however, is figuring out how you’ll focus — unless you happen to be a scale-focusing dinosaur like me!
In its decade-long life cycle (1963-1972), Olympus made three different PEN F models — the original “F,” the “FT,” and the “FV.” Of these, the FT is the only model to feature a built-in light meter, and is thus the most populous. Keep in mind that “built-in meter” is not the same as “auto exposure,” which was a feature that didn’t appear en masse until the 1970s. Like other meters of its era, the PEN FT’s is a source of information, not control — the photographer must actually look at the meter reading, then manually set the camera’s exposure controls to match. Since many amateur photography enthusiasts were intimidated by the whole idea of f-stops and their seemingly random numerical sequencing, Olympus concocted a new, “simpler” system. The PEN FT reads the light value as seen through the lens, then displays this value in the viewfinder using a scale that’s numbered 0 through 7.
To support this meter design, Olympus began shipping lenses with dual-scaled aperture rings. Photographers wishing to expose manually can set the lens aperture normally. Those wishing to make best use of Olympus’ internal meter can rotate the aperture ring 180 degrees, where it displays the numbers 0 through 7, rather than traditional f-stops. To set exposure with a PEN FT, you first select the desired shutter speed, point your camera at the intended subject, look through the viewfinder to see which number (0 – 7) is indicated by the needle, then manually rotate the lens’ aperture dial to the same number. Because the meter sits behind the lens, stopped-down metering is also possible — thus allowing it to check exposure, even if you’re using older PEN lenses without the dual scale. Like much of this camera’s design (and the bulk of designer Yoshihisa Maitani’s many camera developments), this was pure genius.
It’s important to remember that the PEN FT is now a 50 year-old camera, so any model you buy is likely to possess enough “issues” to infuriate all but the most masochistic of photographers. My PEN FT is no exception.
Let’s start with exposure. Anyone hoping to rely on the PEN FT’s built-in meter might want to reconsider this plan, since finding one that’s accurate is nigh impossible. Mine usually recommends that I underexpose by about 1.5 stops. Potential buyers also need to know that the meter uses an outlawed 1.3v 625 mercury battery, which means you’ll need to find an alternate power source (I use CRIS adapters). Complicating things further is the fact that film emulsions weren’t exactly fast in the golden days of yore, so the PEN FT’s ISO setting maxes out at only ISO 400 — meaning you’ll need to do a bit of long division in your head, should you actually be lucky enough to have a camera with an accurate meter and choose to load it with fast film.
Since I’m quite comfortable exposing manually (a necessary consequence of owning so many meterless cameras), I never actually intended to use the PEN FT’s meter. It’s the healthier and saner approach to PEN ownership. If you wonder why I didn’t just get one of the meterless PEN models, the answer is “supply and demand.” Specifically, there aren’t many of the older “F” models available in North America and even fewer of the newer “FV” models. Both models are now desirable and rare — code words meaning “expensive.” Ironically, the FV was once the entry-level PEN SLR, but is now the more valuable model. That’s because, even though the FV is nothing more than a meterless FT, it has one major advantage — a brighter viewfinder. Due to their unique design, PEN viewfinders tend to be darker than those in most other SLRs. It can be particularly challenging to focus a slower lens (like my 25mm f/4) in low light, and the dimmer viewfinder makes the camera’s depth-of-field preview feature nearly pointless. Since the FT’s meter “borrows” light from the viewfinder, it’s actually dimmer than the down-market FV. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the pleasure of shooting with an FV, so I can’t quantify exactly how much brighter its viewfinder might be… but every lumen would definitely help.
Olympus manufactured numerous lenses for the PEN F series, though many are now quite rare and expensive. Naturally, these rare and expensive optics are exactly the ones I most desire. As it is, I have only the two most popular lenses, both of which are readily-available and thus quite inexpensive: the 38mm f/1.8 (which was the “standard” lens for this camera) and the 25mm f/4. Unfortunately, both lenses have “issues,” which are rather common for lenses of this age and quality level.
The 38mm (which is roughly equivalent to a 50mm lens on a full frame camera) is the most problematic. To begin with, it’s a bit soft at both ends of the aperture range. For these early test rolls, I just followed the lens’ lead and adapted my photos to match its dreamy “character.” But in the long run, it’s not a lens I’d choose for daily shooting. Further cementing its classification as a “character” lens is its inability to work reliably when stopped down. Like many old lenses, its aperture blades stick ever so slightly as they close. On an old rangefinder, this wouldn’t really be a problem, but it’s a big problem on an SLR. The reason is that, because you look through the lens on an SLR, it’s always kept at its widest aperture. This allows the maximum amount of light to pass through the lens, which provides more accurate focus and a brighter viewfinder. When you press the shutter release on an SLR, a mechanical lever quickly closes the lens’ aperture to the chosen value, thus exposing your film properly. So you see the problem? If the aperture blades hang for even a fraction of a second, then the lens won’t stop down in time, and your picture will be overexposed.
I discovered this problem after overexposing almost an entire roll of film. One dark and rainy day — with even more darkness and rain forecast for the remainder of the week — I loaded a roll of Tri-X and started shooting with it pushed to ISO 1000. Naturally, the weather forecast was wrong, so I suddenly found myself shooting the next 60 frames in bright, sunny weather using an ND filter and the aperture stopped down to f/16. Every one of those photos turned out drastically overexposed. The photo shown below, along with “Stevestonesque” (shown earlier), are both examples of what happens when you overexpose Tri-X by about 6-stops. Although they do possess a certain ethereal pleasantness, I’d prefer to make these aesthetic decisions consciously, and not be surprised by the camera.
Also, since I knew all the overexposed photos were shot at 1/500s, I was fearful that the PEN might have shutter issues. I took it to my camera technician, who proclaimed all the shutter speeds to be reasonably (and surprisingly) accurate. So the overexposure is indeed caused by the lens’ aperture blades hanging for a split second before closing. Since this will be less of a problem at wider apertures (and no problem at the widest aperture), I’ve just loaded a fresh roll of ISO 100 film into the camera, which I’m currently pulling to ISO 50, and I’m adopting the process of pressing the depth-of-field preview button a couple of times before I take a shot — thus exercising the aperture blades and lessening their chance of hanging when I release the shutter. This might be a good time to reiterate the statement I made a few paragraphs ago: “the PEN FT is now a 50 year-old camera, so any model you buy is likely to possess enough “issues” to infuriate all but the most masochistic of photographers.”
Interestingly, the 25mm f/4 lens (which is roughly equivalent to a 35mm lens on a full frame camera) has the opposite problem — its blades hang briefly when the aperture opens, rather than when it closes. This has had no effect on its usability since it doesn’t really matter if the lens takes an extra half-second or so to return to full-aperture after exposing a shot. Also, unlike the 38mm lens, the 25mm is sharp at every aperture and ready for as much detail as I choose to throw at it.
My PEN has but one additional quirk: its film advance lever offers absolutely no resistance when the film reaches the end of a roll. This initially lead me to believe I’d stumbled upon a magically infinite roll of film, but after clicking off around 85 shots, I finally awoke to the realization that this wasn’t overly likely. I’m no longer fooled by this quirk of operation, and have simply adopted the habit of rewinding a couple shots after the meter passes “72.”
In spite of its issues (or maybe because of them), the PEN FT is easily one of the most inspiring cameras I’ve ever used. It’s ingeniously conceived, reasonably robust, beautiful, practical and economical. Of course, I’m fully aware this camera will appeal to very few of today’s photographers. One must possess a fondness for quirkiness and a tolerance for adaptation if one is to truly enjoy using an old PEN F camera. For me, there are two types of cameras: those with which you attempt beauty through perfection, and those with which you accept beauty through imperfection. The PEN FT falls squarely into the latter group. Its unique aspect ratio, coupled with the lower resolution of the half-frame format, demands that I alter my photographic vision. It yanks me out of my comfort zone and forces me to explore a different visual language.
At this point, I’m only three rolls into that exploration, but it’s enough to have learned two things: 1) I’ve got a long way to go before I become fluent in the visual language the PEN demands, and 2) I’m going to have an absolute blast learning to speak this language. Because of this, I know the PEN FT will be a camera I’ll use and cherish for many years to come. However, I do feel the need to augment my existing 38mm f/1.8 with another 38mm lens (or a 40mm f/1.4 or, if I get lucky, a 42mm f/1.2). The problem is that any replacement lens I find will also be 50 years old, meaning it’s just as likely to have “issues.” This makes mail-ordering a dicey proposition. If anyone reading this has a problem-free PEN lens to sell (no oil on the blades, snappy aperture, no fogging, no fungus), feel free to click the contact link. In the meantime, I’ll continue shooting the PEN using my assortment of eccentric work-arounds.
Overall, I’m quite happy with the results of my latest experiment in selective breeding. Next, in hopes of producing a Hasselblad XPan, I’ve rearranged my camera shelf once more — surrounding my Widelux F7 with several different medium format cameras in hopes they’ll do what comes “natural.” The lights are dim, and the Marvin Gaye is back on infinite loop. Wish us luck.
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