Olympus Pen S – The never-ending story

Most people have a love/hate relationship with half frame cameras.  They love that you can get 72 frames out of a 36 exposure 35mm film roll, but they also hate that it takes 72 frames to finish off a roll.  Also factor in that the frames are quite small, which again leads for some people to like them for small pictures and some to hate them and equate the results to a lower standard of photos.

Olympus used the Pen series, with the half frame format, to jump start the small camera revolution, replicating to some extent the philosophy that Kodak had in the early 1900s.  Make something convenient and people will want to use it.  These cameras were more popular than anyone ever expected.  So popular that Olympus has reintroduced the Pen name to its current range of crop sensor cameras, which coincidentally are Micro 4/3s and are exactly half frame compared to a full frame camera.  It’s a pretty good bet that the brains at Olympus had made that connection.  What is nice to see is that at least one of the major manufacturers of old, apart from Nikon and Canon, have survived and respect their history and heritage.

The Olympus Pen S is an early half frame film camera manufactured towards the end of the 1950s.  There were variants of the Pen series, one which has been already reviewed here, the Olympus Pen EE-2.

Most quality cameras have a following of sorts, but Olympus cameras seem to have cult status.  There are hundreds of forums where the virtues of the small, quality cameras the company produced are covered with passion.  The Pen series is spoken about in particular, which is interesting considering the limitations of the small frame.

Most of the Pen series are quite basic cameras to use, they are aimed at the consumer of the time, which wanted a point and shoot, before point and shoots were available.  The Pen S is a little different as it requires the photographer to manually set up the photo.

History

In the late 1950s, Olympus identified that there was a gap in the market for a quality small camera.  The limitations at the time included that the frame size of 35mm film would require the camera to be at least a certain size.  The introduction of the Rollei 35 in 1966 did overcome this, but at that time it was still a challenge.

In 1959, the now legendary Olympus designer, Maitani Yoshihisa, introduced the world to the Olympus Pen.  It was the first half-frame camera produced in Japan, and while it still used 35mm film, the reduction in frame size meant the camera would be considerably smaller.  In fact, it was named the Pen, because it equated to being something you could put in your pocket, like a pen.

Originally the Pen was manufactured by a subcontractor, Sanko Shoji.  Unexpectedly the Pen proved to be immensely popular, so after one year, and 30,000 copies were sold, Olympus took over the production and introduced the Pen S.  Not surprising considering it was built with a D Zuiko lens, which is a fantastic quality designed lens.

The Pen S is very similar to the original Pen.  Main differences were a different focal length, 35mm rather than 28mm and expanded shutter settings options.  From there, the range of the Pen cameras took off.  There were expensive models introduced, like the Pen D, and there was the cheaper, and easier to use, the Pen E series.  There was even a SLR system introduced which is highly collectable now.

In 2009 Olympus reintroduced the Pen series for the digital Micro Four Thirds system.  These have also proven to be quite popular and due to the shared and open mount which Olympus introduced with Panasonic, it now has a very wide range of available lenses and accessories making the Pen cameras the leader in this format.

Camera Specifics

The Olympus Pen S is a small viewfinder camera which shoots half-frames of 18x24mm exposures on 35mm film.  The orientation of the frame is in portrait format and requires the camera to be held on its side to make a landscape oriented photo.  It is solidly built and even though it is small, has some heft to it at 400g.

The lens is a 30mm f/2.8 D Zuiko lens.  There was also a f/3.5 variant offered in a later model.  The D Zuiko lenses are famous for the quality they produce, in a really small package, but also the amazing depth of field they can capture.  The controls for the focus, aperture and speed are all set on rings around the lens.

Focus ranges from as close as 60cm through to infinity.  At this setting it will have subjects as close as 30cm in focused.  The 2 metre and the 5 metre focus points are marked in red numbers and click into place.   2 metres will be sufficient for most closer focusing, including portraits.  The depth of field at f/5.6 at 2 metres is from 1.5 metres through to 3.3 metres.  Set at 5 metres and at f/5.6 the depth of field will be from 2.5 metres through to infinity, great for landscapes.  This is all due to the design of the D Zuiko lens.

Aperture can be set from f/2.8 through to f/22 giving the user all the usual apertures required in whole stops.  They click into position and do not offer any in between options.  The shutter speeds offered by the Copal shutter range from 1/8s to 1/250s plus Bulb.  The Pen S also offers a PC sync port for flash.

The viewfinder is a Luminous Bright Frame Finder with 0.5 magnification.  The frame lines are very clear.  Film is wound forward with the classic Olympus wheel at the back and when wound usually with your thumb, automatically cocks the shutter and counts the frame.  It is not possible to double expose with this camera.

On top of the camera is a very beautiful frame counter, one that many would argue is the best looking one ever.  It is manually set to 72 (or 48) when you load the film and counts down to zero.  This is done by twisting your thumb on the wheel in the middle of the counter.  Also on top is the film rewind, with a lever.  To rewind the film, a button on the bottom of the camera must be depressed and held, with a handy little indented area allowing room for your finger on the bottom.

The shutter button is located on the right at the front of the top plate.  If features a little grip pad as well as the ability to use a cable release.  Also on top is a cold shoe for accessories.

To insert film, the whole camera back must be removed which is achieved by releasing the lock on the bottom which has a flap to twist it.  Inserting film is standard, by inserting a 35mm cartridge on the left and threading the film through on the right.  A couple of twists gets it going.

Also on the bottom is the tripod socket, but also a set of four little bubbles, which allow the user to stand the camera on a surface with minimal opportunities to scratch the bottom plate.  This is a very well designed camera!

The Experience

I came across this Pen S on eBay, advertised by a seller in Pakistan for $7 AUD with free delivery.  Delivery to Australia alone usually costs more than that, so I was a bit dubious.  In the end, I thought the risk of $7 was not much, and the seller seemed to check out, and was a shop, so I ordered the camera.  I assumed at that price it would be many weeks to receive it, but funnily, it arrived in just over a week.  I cannot get something from the other side of Sydney that quick sometimes, at a higher cost, so hats off to this seller!

The first time I picked up the camera, I was really impressed.  I loved the feel of it, the great design, the workmanship that went into it and compactness of the camera.  I took one look into that frame counter and that was it, I knew I this is something special.

The view finder is nice and bright, with the frame lines clearly visible.  Being half-frame they are in portrait orientation, which is something that took me a little to get used to.  I have been quite busy at work lately, so I started to take it with me to work and heading out for walks during my lunch break.  Being so small and compact, it was no hassle to do that.

I found that if I pre-set the focus and the aperture, the speed would be the only setting I would need to adjust most times for some street photos.  The reason I took this approach is the one thing that bothered me with the Pen S is that all the controls are around the lens.  Very easy in a rush to get a great fingerprint on the front element.

As I walked around with this little pocket rocket, I started to appreciate the design more and more.  Everything worked just as it should, it felt good in the hand and with the wrist strap sat there quite nicely.

With some time, I became more familiar with the camera, and after a while I was wishing that the lens was a little wider, as with 30mm for half frame, bordering on the 60mm for full frame was a little too tight for me.  What really made it work though was the normal portrait mode, as this tends to lend itself to a tighter frame.

When it came to changing film, I found the same awkward feeling of not having enough hands when you are dealing with a camera which you need to take the whole back off.  I would need to find somewhere to sit down and ensure I did not drop anything.  Speaking of film, you need to ensure you use slower films with the Pen S, as the top shutter speed of 1/250s of a second can be limiting in film choice.

Now, why did I call this article the never ending story?  Because all other items aside, this is the one thing that I did not take to with the Pen S, it took a long time to finish a film!  72 frames is a lifetime for me.  Many photographers believe this is a benefit, similar to digital where you can shoot with abandon, but I don’t like to change my shooting habits.

When I finally finished off my rolls of film, I took them to the lab and when I picked them up I was impressed.  This little dynamo of a camera does have a great lens on it.  Straight away I could see the nice contrast, the definition is nice and sharp.  It is consistent through the frame, with only a touch more sharpness in the centre, which is normal.  You aren’t going to get any bokeh shots with this lens though, as it keeps quite a lot in focus.

The Olympus Pen S, being such a small camera does have it quirks, but overall it is not a good camera, but a great camera.  I have a lot of fun using it, and couple that with great results, it is a fantastic little package to have.  Of-course you need to set your expectations that you won’t be printing poster size pictures with the size of the frames, but that is not what it is intended for.  The price for these has gone up lately due to the popularity of the half-frame again, especially compared to what I paid for it, but if you do find one at the right price, there should not be anything stopping you from buying it.

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