« Out and About with a 'Bent and a Box | Main | Blog Notes: The Umbrella Lady »

Sunday, 27 September 2009


Purchased in Vietnam in 1969, a PenFT was my first 35mm camera. Film at that time (and place) could be hard to get and the half frame was a nice feature.

A friend later borrowed and broke the camera and it wasn't worth the cost of repairs at the time. I didn't fail to point out that I carried it for a year in a combat zone, used it just about every day - and he couldn't make it through a weekend wedding without totaling the camera.


It was a nice piece of kit.

Thanks Ken.

I love this kind of post! - Informative, interesting,thought provoking, and the kind of thing I probably wouldn't run accross at other sites.

I used a half frame camera for family snaps when I was a teenager. I still have a few hundred negatives from it. It was not the Olympus though. I think it was a Ricoh. I am going to research that right now.

"the Pen F, the first and only single-lens reflex half-frame camera"

Not really.

The original Konica Auto-Reflex could be switched between full frame and half frame, even in mid roll. Alpa also made half frame versions of most of their SLRs. I owned a Konica and an Alpa for a while when I was in art school to make filmstrips, then stupidly sold them. Exacta and Practica made short runs of half frame SLRs for police departments and Nikon also made a short run of FM2s for the Norwegian Police.

Olden camera bought out all of Apla's stock in the late 1970s and dumped the half frame cameras for about $250 complete with a Macro Switar.

The Konica Auto-Reflex is probably the only one of these that had a production run that much higher than a hundred or so.

Great article, but there are a few errors/confusions:

1. There were 3 versions of the Pen SLR. The original Pen-F and the two later versions based on the same updated chassis, the FT and Fv. Only the FT had the built in meter. The F and Fv had no built-in meter although a clip-on external meter was made for the F. That means that the FT was not both the second version and the last. I don't know if there was a timing difference between the introduction of the FT and Fv, but the last Pen SLR introduced was either the third model or there was a tie. The FT was the last to be discontinued. As with almost all SLR lines at the time, TTL models had meterless sister models. The meterless models fell from the market before the TTL model needed updating in almost every (every??) case.

2. The original Pen-F vintage lenses did not have the second special aperture scale. There were marked only with conventional f/stop numbers. You could buy stick-on labels for the original lenses that would give you the special meter numbers.

Also, the Olympus use of "single-frame" instead of "half-frame" was not their invention, though it was a good marketing choice. It is, instead, the original term. The original 35mm frame was the 4 sprocket movie frame. Barnack's original Leica was billed as "double-frame" and used the now standard 8 sprocket frame. It was quite some time before "full" and "half" became universal. You still saw "single" and "double" in common usage in the 1960's.

I had a fixed lens half frame before I knew anything about cameras. From there I went to the OM1, and never felt the urge for anything else until I went digital. I have a soft spot for Olympus, but they were a bit slow out of the gate with digital, so I have none of their gear now.
If I was just starting, or could afford two systems, I expect I would be with them again.

"The result was the Pen F, the first and only single-lens reflex half-frame camera."

Apart from the Yashica Samurai range, although they had a fixed zoom lens. So the pens are perhaps the only intercangeable lens half frame SLRs.

Thanks for the PEN article.Are you aware of
any biography of Mr.Maitani?

Hi Ken,

Thank you for this great survey of an unknown (to most of us) camera.


The Pen Fs also flash synched at 1/500 sec due to their wonderful focal plane metal rotary shutter. I repaired Olympus cameras for 30 years. The PenFs were a bit of a b... to repair anything other than simple CLA. Their mirror/"prism" slowly deteriorated, but were still usable. I had a collection of "F" lenses, including a 60mm f1.5, and a pancake 40mm 2.8. Their 50-90 zoom was a model for the 75-150 OM zoom made later. I sold the lot to buy my wife's engagement ring and start to fund our marriage. We're still together 31 yrs later, but I wonder where my Pen F collection is??

Great article. I acquired a Pen FT off eBay some time ago. I'd always wanted one, but when they were originally out they were more than I could afford. Takes a while to get used to the metering system, but with a fine grained film like Kodak Ektar 100 I have had some pretty good results.

Maitani was a genius (how many camera designers can people name? I can think of Barnack and Maitani), and I hope his final days were made happier by the knowledge that his legacy lived on in the form of the new Pen.

As far as forgotten goes... well, I'm a big fan of Japanese animation, and was delighted by a recent series where a main character had what was (although the name on the front was made up) definitely an Olympus Pen F - on top of which the animators got the viewfinder orientation and even the negative orientation correct, suggesting to me that someone on the production team really loves their Pen F.

Thanks. That was a very enjoyable read. I've never owned a Pen, nor had interest in a single-/half-frame camera, but with GAS and flickr reference...we'll see.

Hey, I was hoping fellow TOP readers would find this story as interesting as I did. I was also hoping for some of the corrections, clarifications, and addenda comments that Dwig, Hugh, Skip, and Barry have scribed so far. I did my best research (most of this summer) and even grabbed a Pen FT for myself. But I was hoping folks with first-hand in-the-day experience would chime in...and they have! (Dwig, I only encountered one reference to the Fv during my research so I thought it was a typo! Awk.)

@ Danny: The best bio sketches on Mr. Maitani that I've found are in the links I noted. His "fan site" (which is curiously unavailable as I write this) has a nice sketch. But Maitani's own remarks in the transcript of his speech present more intimate, first-hand bits of his life. I don't recall if this bit was in Maitani's speech or a in a separate sketch but apparently his family was in the sake brewing business.

By the way, in case readers overlooked the Oly ads featuring Maitani that Mike featured in the July obituary, do click over to take a peek. They were, and still are, very unusual.

Enjoyed the story of the Pen cameras. Here is my story of the Pen FT and Gene Smith.

In December 1968 I was on my way from Japan to Vietnam. I had to stop on Okinawa to store all my uniforms. The whole process took 3 days and I didn’t want to hold on to my Nikon since I had no place to keep it safe a night. I put it the hands of a friend who was stationed on the island. In short there is always a screw-up, we were suppose to leave on Monday but we left on Sunday. My camera didn’t.

Once I got to my base outside Da Nang, Vietnam, I went directly to the PX. What I purchased was a Pen FT. Used it frequently even after my own Nikon F finally showed up.

Back in the states I looked up my best friend from high school who was attending LA Art Center. A couple of months later Gene Smith showed up at the school for a three day talk. I attended even though I wasn’t a student of the school.

On the third day I took some pictures of Smith. After it was over I went up to Mr Smith to thank him and he gave me the strangest look. He barely shook my hand and said nothing. I left thinking this guy is really weird.

I later learned that he was a big fan of the Pen FT cameras and we figured he must have thought I was some kind of groupie.

I still have my Pen FT but it now retired along with the Nikon F I used in Vietnam.

You can see the pictures I took of Gene Smith here: http://www.photoessayist.com/stories/misc/smith.htm

Knowing what the original Pen F was, is one reason I detest what Olympus now calls a Pen. You don't hold a real Pen out at arms length to take pictures.

I knew all about the cameras -- I had a Pen F, an OM-1, and still have several XA's, but knew very little about Mr. Maitani. Thanks for a really interest posting.

Darn you, Ken.... after my post (above), I was sucked back to your article's links and have just spent four hours reminiscing over the Pen F system I sold. One mistake -the pancake lens was apparently a 38mm f2.8 , not a 40. The links also dared me to take another trip (pun intended) down memory lane to the wonderful Pen D3 with its excellent 1.7 lens, which was beautifully designed and easy to repair. I never saw an 800 mirror lens or a 400, but I did see a 250 f5 once and drooled all over it. I refuse to read the article again.. I must be off to repair an OM1 for a friend.

Nice article, Ken. It's nice to see Maitani getting some well deserved props here at TOP. I was disappointed by the lack of coverage of his death here and elsewhere on the internet (so much so that I wrote a blog post of my own to fill the void-- I'm generally a pretty lazy blogger!).

Your disclaimer at the end is good to know, though not surprising-- I never would have thought you were on the take from Olympus. That said, I can't help but think that articles like this are exactly why Olympus revived the Pen name for the E-P1. That name really is a bit of marketing genius, in my opinion-- it both captures a retro vibe that is becoming popular with photographers, while at the same time reminding the public that Olympus has been around for a long time making cameras and should be taken seriously again.

"I had a collection of "F" lenses, including a 60mm f1.5, and a pancake 40mm 2.8. Their 50-90 zoom was a model for the 75-150 OM zoom made later. I sold the lot to buy my wife's engagement ring and start to fund our marriage. We're still together 31 yrs later, but I wonder where my Pen F collection is??"

Here in England we trade cattle for our womenfolk (Scots just raid across our northern border and steal them). I can't help but think it's a more civilized custom.

Thanks you very much for such a lovely and interesting description of the history of the Olympus PEN.

Thanks very much Ken for this informative and interesting article.

So did the focal length of pen lenses require the equivalent of todays "e" calculation to determine their functional 35mm equivalent? (There is probably a better way to phrase the question.) ch

One lesson I wish today's camera designers would take from the Pen F is that it's possible to put a decent optical finder on a small camera. For some reason designers seem to think that it's too complicated to make an optical finder that zooms with the lens and is parallax-corrected. Have they forgotten that SLRs don't have to be big?

The E-P1 is only a little smaller than the Pen F, but uses a sensor much smaller than half-frame. Should be possible. If necessary, increase the size of the camera to Pen F size.


Lomography has just released a new 35mm half-frame "Diana Mini" (modeled after the lo-fi 120 format Diana). I've got one, and it's a lot of fun to put 72 exposures on a single roll of film. You get lots of interesting diptychs as well if you have prints done normally.


Maybe the format has a future?

One of the regulars on the Olympus mailing list (Mike Johnston is a list alum) and a former Olympus employee, once wrote that the idea for using Maitani in advertising came from Olympus USA. As others have noted, this sort of recognition is rare for a Japanese company.

"I believe there are two barriers: the technology barrier and the barrier of accepted wisdom. You can't achieve anything until you break through both of these barriers."

(Maitani-san, quoted from:
http://www.olympus-global.com/en/corc/history/lecture/part2.cfm )

Maitani's OM-1 was my very first 35mm SLR. I "graduated" to it from a huge and bulky Zenza Bronica S2A 6x6, having unsuccessfully sought a used Pen FT. Apparently, no one would dream of giving up a Pen. My first reaction: This is precisely what a Leica SLR ought to have been! (Mind, this was the time of the Leicaflex SL2.) No other camera I have worked with, except the Leica M, was ever so unobtrusive, so smooth, so well balanced. The EP-1 and its undoubted successors have still a long road ahead before they truly achieve the standards set out by Yoshihisa Maitani.

Great article, Ken. Very interesting to read.

I went to the Olympus link and found their wallpaper library. Lots of cool old pictures of the Pens and OMs and even a prototype M system camera that looks like a medium format camera. They even have a wallpaper of a Pen F with an Olympus Penrecorder magnetic tape audio recorder! Very strange.

@ Charlie H: "So did the focal length of pen lenses require the equivalent of todays "e" calculation to determine their functional 35mm equivalent?"
Good question. I don't think that folks in the 1960's gave thought to such conversions. The Pen F would, however, be considered a "cropped" medium camera. But the nature of the crop is different than that of, say, the E-P1 and would probably throw a wrench into such conversions.

A full 35mm frame is 24mm x 36mm with a 43.3mm diagonal and area of 864 sq.mm.

According to Wikipedia, the E-P1's Micro Four-Thirds sensor has effective image dimensions of 17.3mm x 13mm with a diagonal of 21.6mm and an area just about 225 sq.mm.)

The Pen F's half frame is much longer, measuring 18mm x 24mm
with a diagonal of 30mm and area of 432 sq.mm.

So making a frame coverage conversion for focal lengths would be tricky.

@ Jared: Interesting about the Diana Mini camera. I doubt that half frame film format has a robust future but having used my Pen F all summer I do wonder why the half frame format did not have longer success. Yes, the aspect ratio is somewhat severe but getting 72 shots from a single roll of film was terrific and arguably more economical. (Perhaps therein lies one clue to the half-frame's demise?)

@ Andy Marfia: My disclaimer was actually meant as a bit of a joke, since I finished this piece during the time when Mike was writing about reviewers' conflicts of interest. Still, I suppose it's earnestly appropriate, at that.

@ James McDermott: Thanks for giving me a morning laugh that shot coffee from my nose.

@Charlie H.
Re: equivalent focal lengths

Multiply the nominal lens focal length by approximately 1.4 to determine the equivalent full frame field of view. For example, the Pen F's 38mm f/1.8 provides a FOV approximately equivalent to that of a 53mm lens on a full frame camera.

The manual for the Pen F listed the lenses available for it and the chart also included their 35e focal lengths.

There were a number of lens adaptors available for the Pen F series too, necessitating this conversion.

To those who noted that the Pen F was not the only half frame SLR thats true, but it was the only half frame SLR designed from the ground up to be only half frame and to take advantage of the smaller size neg. The raw measurements of the Pen F do not give indication of how small it feels in the hand. With no prism hump or mirror box it it truly svelte.

For more information visit www.biofos.com, John Foster has a lot of info on the Pen.

The `focal length multiplier' for Pen F lenses is 1.4, so a 25mm would be roughly be 35mm, putting the `sensor size' very close to modern DSLRs (Ken Rockwell would probably call the Pen F format `RealRaw DX' :-) )

The aspect ratio isn't that strange, 4:3 is very common, think 645 (which often also shares the portrait orientation), pretty much all consumer digicams, (m)4/3, etc.

Only 35mm is hung up on 3:2.

Digicams also use the focal length equivalent trick, despite having a different aspect ratio.

Good article (and expensive FT, those black ones are rare!) I also have an old Pen FT in a closet somewhere. Slightly battered, and with a meter that only works in daylight (and even then is still several stops off). Last time I used it, it also gave a lot of double exposures, but I may have inadvertently pressed the rewind button, so it could be user error.

Actually, thinking about it more, wasn't the Pen more like the world's first panoramic camera, accomplished by just chucking away 1/2 the image. ch

Great article. This is a camera that I never paid much attention to, but now wish I had.

Re the new EP-1, I am disappointed. This is a camera that I thought I'd buy, but having played with one a little at a local camera store I was unimpressed with the build quality. The sheet metal covering feels flimsy, and the overall impression is not of a well-made camera. My Fuji F30 feels more substantial. Hopefully the GF1 will be more of a Pen F equivalent, in terms of build quality.

Wonderful post Ken. Very informative and delightful to read. I never had a Pen camera though. My involvement with Olympus started soon after I finish the university, when I got my first brand new camera, an OM1 (then an OM2 and later an OM4T). Although I also have a couple of Leicas (M4 and M6) and a Hasselblad, the Olympus cameras have been very dear to me, they have allowed my best shots. In the digital age, I have an E3 and would like to get a digital Pen. Thanks very much for your post.

Best regards

aside from the diana mini, there's also superheadz' "the golden half" camera. I suspect the optics on the Pen are much higher quality, though. :)

The comments to this entry are closed.