Olympus today released the Olympus PEN-F digital EVF camera. I thought we should look back at the original PEN-F.
When I was a kid my father had an Olympus PEN F. I remember using this innovative camera and loving it. It was designed by the now legendary Yoshihisa Maitani who also conceived the much-loved OM series of film SLRs and the XA Capsule camera. The original 1963-1966 PEN F (there were two more variants, FT and FV, which was made between 1966 to 1972) was a half-frame 35mm format (18 x 24mm) SLR camera with interchangeable Zuiko lenses. The PEN-F was a revolutionary camera — it had a rotary shutter that synced with flash at any speed and a vertical reflex mirror to move out of its way to expose the film. The viewfinder image was created using porro prisms. Here's what the viewfinder looks like when you peer through it:
And the light path:
How cool is that? Granted, the light had to be bent 3 times through 2 porro prisms so the viewfinder was a little darker than traditional SLRs but come on — this is cool. Here's an old ad highlighting the 'Rotary Metal Focal Plane Shutter' (I've included pictures that shows the frame aperture open and closed):
And here's a video of the shutter in action:
Many companies produced half-frame 35mm cameras (over 70!). Even Leica had a prototype (the Leicaflex 18x24) but didn't put it into production, probably because it was too expensive. It wasn't the first (that honour belongs to the Kochmann Korelle K, produced 1932-1934 in Dresden, Germany) but the Olympus PEN-F was king. The PEN series of half-frame cameras sold over 17 million copies worldwide out of which the PEN F, FT and FV sold about 490,000 units (they were the only PEN cameras that were SLRs). Absurdly, even with those numbers and because Olympus knew they had to sell the cameras as cheap as possible, the 490,000 units was considered an economic failure by Mr. Maitani. Even worse, since Olympus owned most of the patents pertaining to half-frame cameras, no one else could produce them which meant a healthy competitive market never developed. Such is the life in the photographic equipment manufacturer's fast-lane.
The raison d'être of the half-frame camera was thrift — smaller than traditional SLRs so Olympus thought it should be cheaper and you could shoot 72 pictures on a single roll of 35mm (36 exposure) film. Despite this Olympus never skimped on quality. In fact, the Zuiko lenses were given extra care and were known for their high quality.
The PEN-F had a unique human interface design. You set the ASA (ISO) in a window on the front dial next to the lens. You set the shutter speed on the same dial. You set your aperture on the lens and of course, you focussed on the lens barrel. What this means is that every single control you needed to take a picture was on the front of the camera. From a usability standpoint, this layout worked well. With minimal hand movement, you could control every photographic exposure and focus parameter without taking your eyes off the viewfinder. I think this kind of simplicity is missing in today's over-spec'ed digital cameras. Creating something simple is deceptively difficult and it was Mr. Maitani's genius that gave us this wonderful human interface design.
Even the placement of the mechanical self-timer is unique. Notice how long it is. You pulled up on the lever to start the timer. This made the lever stick out from the top of the camera, making it easy to see. I've always wondered why the self-timer was located between the left side of the camera (looking towards the camera) and the lens. I've personally never used the self timer while I was gripping the camera. It's this kind of attention to detail that makes the PEN-F such a joy.
The PEN-F is styled according to Leica's rangefinder cameras. Here, the lens is more off-centre than a Leica rangefinder, creating an ample grip area. The visual centre of mass is the lens axis so the area to the right is only slightly tapered down and the characteristic cut, or dip, to the above left of the lens is to help visually balance the camera. Overall, the visual balance is excellent. It's a handsome camera.
If you've never seen a PEN-F in real life and have never held one, you should. It's a piece of camera history. They're not too expensive on auction sites and paired with the Zuiko 42mm f1.2 for portraiture or 38mm f1.8 (standard 50mm on a 135 format camera), it is simply sublime. It's the perfect camera if you want to try out film photography because of the 72 exposures you can get on a roll of film.
The next Maitani designed camera to come along is the OM series of compact SLR film cameras. With it, Mr. Maitani achieved what he set out to do — create a compact SLR system camera that used the full 36 x 24mm frame. But thank goodness he created the PEN-F along the way. It was a revolutionary, innovative and eminently loveable camera.
From what I can see, the new PEN-F digital camera is just styled like the original PEN-F. It's called the PEN-F because it sort of looks like the original — and that's about it.