When I opened the package from Tokyo, I couldn’t contain my excitement. There it was, the Olympus PEN FV body I had ordered a few weeks before. I checked the serial number and determined that 1970 was the year of manufacture. The FV camera is one of those uncommon objects where everything about them is graceful and elegant. Does form follow function? Or, is this a case of style over substance?
I believe a classic camera review cannot be undertaken in 2020 as when it was new. My intention is the opposite of anachronistic. In half a century, the world has changed. A lot has changed in the first half of this year alone. And with it, the experience and expectations of users of photographic equipment. I will consider a few salient features of the FV camera based on my experience using it with seven native lenses and a third party 2X teleconverter, which I sometimes attach to the 100 mm lens. In this article, I will concentrate on the camera body’s performance rather than that of the lenses’. I will discuss some issues regarding output as I also consider some of the characteristics of half-frame photography I experienced with the FV. I will keep the film photographer in mind and those who use classic lenses on data cameras as I discuss some options for utilizing the equipment beyond the original design. Finally, I will draw some conclusions concerning photographers for whom the PEN FV could be most useful.
Pick up the PEN FV, and you immediately realize it is a precision instrument. Its weight seems just right. It is comfortable to hold, and the controls seem to be exactly where they need to be. It is the result of very original engineering solutions that tackled design and operational problems with both inventiveness and refinement. Its designer was none other than Yoshihisa Maitani (1933-2009). The same brilliant engineer would later create the full-frame OM series for Olympus and several other innovative cameras, such as the much-imitated XA full-frame compacts. He was one of the great camera designers of the 20th century. In the late 1970s and 1980s, his portrait frequently appeared in the Olympus adverts.
The PEN FV does not have a meter, and thus, it does not need a battery. Where timing is required, it is achieved mechanically. Truly it is a “clock for seeing” — to borrow the expression “horloges à voir,” coined by Roland Barthes.
The embodiment of the essential photographic functions, time and seeing, can be genuinely felt while holding the FV in your hands. This camera is nothing at all like most current equipment. The dials and levers for operation are so self-evident that you can feel instantly at home with it.
The PEN FV features an unusual focal plane rotary shutter that employs a single titanium blade. This shutter is more similar to the mechanism in an analogue movie camera than the conventional two-curtain focal plane or leaf shutter in cameras for still pictures. Moreover, just like a leaf shutter, and therefore, unlike a conventional focal plane shutter, this rotary shutter can synchronize with flash at all speeds.
A camera is a clock.
I will consider two concepts within the construct of time, used as the descriptive foundation for this camera. The first (I) is exposure time, i.e. how long the light is collected by the camera when the shutter release is pressed. Then, the moment that is chosen by the photographer to record an image (II). I will address II indirectly by discussing how responsive the FV is in use, so as not to miss a shot, and I will also touch upon its mechanical reliability.
I.I.: The shutter.
Every camera (and its shutter, if a shutter is not already a part of the camera), old or new, fully mechanical or computer-controlled, is also a clock. The PEN FV features an unusual focal plane rotary shutter that employs a single titanium blade. This shutter is more similar to the mechanism in an analogue movie camera than the conventional two-curtain focal plane or leaf shutter in cameras for still pictures. Moreover, just like a leaf shutter, and therefore, unlike a conventional focal plane shutter, this rotary shutter can synchronize with flash at all speeds. The PENs FV and the FT share a more durable shutter mechanism than the first generation in the original F. Unsurprisingly, for a mechanically timed system, there could be a certain degree of speed error, in particular at the highest of the settings, which is 1/500. Realistically, though, this may only be of consequence if using reversal film.
The shutter release button has an unconventional shape. Visually, it perfectly suits the flush profile of the top plate of the camera. I find it very well placed. The button is very tactile, and the user feels a very clear break-over point when pressed. This elegant machine resembles rangefinders so much (which are traditionally associated with quiet shutters) that the loud sound it makes when you take a picture may startle you. The thing is, of course, that the FV is an SLR camera. Most importantly, thanks to its superb engineering, vibrations are well controlled; they can only be felt at the end of the shutter cycle, thus not affecting picture-taking. There is a convenient standard thread for a cable release in the shutter button.
The response of the shutter release is immediate; there is no feeling of lag. The single stroke advance mechanism is also perfectly placed for quick operation. It is tucked away in a fitted groove in resting position, with only the tip curving out for ease of access. It is not, however, buttery smooth. Professional users of the PEN cameras must have lamented the absence of a motor drive. Apparently, a motor-driven body was in the plans, but the system was discontinued before this came to fruition.
I.II.: PEN FV vs. top of the line full-frame SLR camera of the era.
No piece of equipment can be understood in a vacuum. We learn by comparing one thing to another. The 1960s witnessed the ascent of the 35 mm SLR camera, particularly for photojournalism. The Nikon F quickly established itself as the camera against which all other 35 mm SLR cameras were measured. It was the choice of a high number of professional users. The particular Nikon model I refer to is the Photomic FTn because this body and finder combination would have been contemporary to the PEN FV. It will help us place the features of the PEN FV in the context as we advance.
I.III.: The PEN system.
The Olympus interchangeable lens PEN system was extensive, complete and very unique. It aimed to offer the professional user a possibility to address almost every photographic situation. Alongside general photography lenses, with a few wides, normal and telephoto lenses, there were zooms, super-telephotos, including mirror lenses for the sake of compactness, accessories for close-up photography, microscopy as well as two body variants for medical use featuring a different focusing screen. The lens range covered focal lengths from 20 to 800 mm. These Zuiko lenses came in all-metal construction.
Thanks to the PEN cameras’ relatively short flange distance, the system can expand even more due to the ease of adaptability of full-frame lenses from other brands. Olympus themselves created several adaptors. The adaptors require that all those non-native lenses be used in the stopped-down method, as they do not transfer over to the PEN body the automatic diaphragm function if available on the full-frame lens.
After the PEN system, the OM system was launched in the 1970s. An adaptor allowed the use of the new full-frame Olympus OM lenses and accessories on the PEN series. The PEN lenses could not be adapted to OM bodies. It would be impractical to attempt to do so: the PEN lenses’ image circle does not cover full-frame. Plus, optics would be necessary inside the adaptor for infinity focus due to the OM bodies’ longer flange distance.
Olympus always stood for miniaturization. The PEN system succeeded in making the most of the smaller half-frame format. The lenses and accessories available helped users benefit from all the advantages for telephoto, macro and microscopy photography, which are inherent in a small format. There is a magnification advantage offered by the 1.4 crop over using the same focal length on a full-frame. Provided that the distance to the subject and between the subject and background remain unchanged, a lens on the FV camera gives more depth-of-field at the same aperture than a lens with an identical angle of view on a full-frame camera. Recall: the focal length of the lens impacts depth-of-field; in a half-frame system, you would be using a shorter focal length than in full-frame to cover a given angle of view. A half-frame system allows for a good balance between size, weight and output.
The often-repeated argument about savings on film costs as you can, of course, get double the number of pictures per roll only makes sense to me when discussing consumer half-frame cameras. The FV, the other body variants, and the whole of the PEN system of lenses and accessories are in a completely different league.
In the digital environment today, arguably the best balance between weight, size and performance is achieved by some of the current APSC systems, a format which is practically identical in size to half-frame. Interestingly, we also see that a number of digital full-frame cameras do come in really small bodies, but unsurprisingly their lenses are not at all compact due to the bigger image circle required. In the early 1970s, the OM cameras that succeeded the PEN system had very small bodies, but their full-frame lenses could never be made as small as the PEN lenses.
I.IV.: The lens mount.
A good lens mount saves time. FVs’ bayonet mount instantly brings precise alignment of a lens to a camera body and is very resistant to wear, unlike thread fittings. By comparison, many camera manufacturers of the time still used either a thread mount or a breech-lock system. Neither of which permits one-hand operation.
The engineering of the lens mount is of the utmost importance for any camera system. It defines the system as the one element that brings it together as a family of bodies, lenses, and accessories. The mount designed for the Olympus PEN was stellar in every respect. Similar in philosophy and implementation to the Nikon F-mount, these PEN lenses and cameras use a bayonet system with a single locking point for every lens. And there is one more innovation here, which also appears in the OM lenses: the release button is on the lens itself, not on the camera body, thus facilitating even more fast one-hand lens changes.
Notice that a depth-of-field preview button also appears at the base of every Zuiko lens, and the same idea was carried over the OM system, although the button was relocated to the lower right side of the base. This is another example of refined engineering in the FV and its lenses, illustrating the brilliant solutions devised by Mr. Maitani.
I.V.: The viewfinder.
If the photographer can see clearly and focus quickly, no time is wasted, and no shots are missed. The viewfinder on FVs may be a little unexpected for users of 35 mm full-frame cameras, as it has a portrait orientation. Photographers who favour their right eye to compose and focus could certainly keep both eyes open when using this camera, mainly when photographing in portrait orientation but also in landscape orientation. Through the viewfinder, the view is reasonably bright but dimmer and considerably smaller than looking through the Nikon Photomic FTn (comparing the FV with a 40 mm f/1.4 lens and the Nikon with a 58 mm f/1.4 lens). The eye relief of the Nikon makes its viewfinder very comfortable, even for those who wear glasses. The PEN FV is perhaps more in line with a hobbyist camera in this respect, as it requires that you keep your eye close to the viewfinder to be able to see the whole of it.
The FV (like the original F) has a brighter viewfinder than the metered FT, due to the absence of a meter that requires for its operation a percentage of the light coming through the lens. The FV has a non-interchangeable Fresnel focusing screen with a central microprism area surrounded by a fine matte surface. It is very accurate, but it is not as easy to focus as the central split-image rangefinder focusing screen I put in the Nikon camera. The Nikon camera offers both interchangeable focusing screens and interchangeable finders. Although the viewfinder and focusing screen of the FV work well with my set of lenses, it may not be the most convenient for some specialized work.
At any rate, the PEN cameras must be the most rangefinder-looking SLRs ever manufactured. The look is complete with a flat top, and even a viewfinder window is slightly pushed to the left. The PEN cameras use a double Porro prism design, so the pentaprism typical of 35 mm SLR cameras is not present here. Moreover, Mr. Maitani designed the mirror to move away sideways during picture taking instead of the usual flip upwards. This configuration saves space and makes the camera body narrower.
I.VI.: Reliability and maintenance tips.
Reliable gear means no down-time due to camera failure. I asked at a long-established independent camera shop in London if they knew of weaknesses or breakage-prone aspects in the PEN cameras. I also asked about the overall reliability of these cameras over the years. They indicated that there are no known issues. The PEN cameras are solid. Like all vintage equipment, the PEN cameras benefit from an occasional CLA (clean, lubrication, adjustment) carried out by a qualified technician. The service would probably include the replacement of decayed light seals. If balsam separation is found in the lenses due to age, this could be a more expensive repair. In storage, avoid humidity to prevent the formation of fungus. Excessive heat is harmful as traditional lubricants emit fumes that could mist glass surfaces. Although these cameras are sturdy, they are precision tools and should be treated as such.
II.I.: The lenses.
By the time I purchased my FV body, I had already been using my seven PEN lenses for almost two years, adapted to a digital APSC mirrorless body. I rely on the experience of this usage (which is beyond their original design) for some observations I make in this article.
My quiver of lenses is as follows: 20 mm f./3.5; 25 mm f./2.8; 25 mm f./4; 38 mm f./1.8; macro 38 mm f./3.5, 40 mm f./1.4; 100 mm f./3.5, and a third party 2X teleconverter. To work out the angle of view equivalence by reference to full-frame, the crop factor for the PEN system is 1.4. The newer lenses have the aperture ring marked with numbers for the simplified exposure system Mr. Maitani created for these cameras. The exposure could be dialled in from the information provided by either the internal TTL meter on an FT body or one of the external dedicated meters made for the PEN system. If you want to ignore this because you are using a hand-held meter, another camera, an app on your phone, or perhaps you are just eyeballing the exposure, you will be happy to know that the rings also sport conventional f-stop numbers. You only need to do this once: simply pull the ring gently forward, turn it 180 degrees and release, and you can have the ring show the f-stops on top like any regular lens.
The Zuiko 40 mm f./1.4 lens, like some high-performance lenses of its era, uses a thorium glass element. Up until the 1970s, thorium was sometimes used as an additive in the manufacture of glass to enhance its optical properties. The tell-tale sign is a slight yellowing on the glass, and a Geiger counter (which, by the way, is a purchase I would recommend to any person interested in classic lenses) can confirm the presence of gamma radiation and its level. The radiation emitted by a mounted lens will not affect the film in the camera. Placing a Geiger counter on the camera’s user side shows that the body does not stop radiation from coming through. These lenses were more dangerous to the people in the production line than those who used them.
This Zuiko is, therefore, in the company of other much talked about radioactive lenses, which include the famous Aero Ektars used in bomber sights in WWII, a number of the Takumar lenses made in the 1960s and 1970s (M42 and medium format), and many others. Most of these lenses were designed for longer flange cameras and come in the popular mounts, which means they could be adapted easily to the PEN bodies.
If you are concerned about the safety of thoriated glass, there are alternatives. In the PEN system, there is the Zuiko 38 mm f/1.8, another one of the normal lenses, which does not have any thorium glass elements in it and offers a similar angle of view to the 40 mm f/1.4. It is only 2/3 stop slower, but more compact and more affordable.
II.II.: Olympus PEN lenses in-use.
I will not address matters of optical performance as, for example, depicted on an MTF chart. However, I will consider the characteristics of the Olympus PEN lenses in actual use and the differences I see between the native lenses I use with the FV and those that I deem “modern.”
Modern lens design tends to prioritize “sharpness” (as in acuity or definition) over all other attributes, together with an absence of chromatic aberration and other distortions as far as possible. Many modern lenses can be described to have a “clinical look” as in realistic, precise, or neutral. Sometimes this look isn’t ideal for creative purposes. For example, a dream-like atmosphere, or a “painted look” is often desired for art projects. The adaptability of lenses from other brands, old or new, onto the PEN cameras provides a choice for either modern or classic glass as you do not need to stay with the PEN system of lenses.
The classic PEN lenses can also be adapted to data cameras for that “painted look” on digital. The image sharpness/acuity provided by these Zuiko lenses is more than adequate: I noticed that they trigger the focus peaking function on my mirrorless body instantly and accurately. The lenses flare more than the modern analogs, which could be used for creative effects. The Zuikos also have a lower contrast overall — they are less “snappy” than modern lenses. I found that the 100 mm f/3.5 lens, in particular, has the lowest contrast in my set, delivering a distinct pastel colour rendition. Perhaps also because of the different coatings used, or the differences in the types of glass combinations, there are slight but noticeable differences in colour rendition between these lenses. However, the macro PEN lens stands out from the group as it renders relatively “clinical” images.
II.III.: FV’s half-frame nature and modern film’s advancements.
Some argue that a limit of sorts for prints from full-frame 35 mm negatives exists: 40cm x 60 cm if a viewer is to look at the print with their nose relatively close to the image. For anything bigger than that, and if the viewer’s nose is to remain close to the print, then the use of medium or large format seems advisable.
To understand these implications, I include, below, two examples, photographed in Trafalgar Sq., in Central London, using two very different film stocks, both C-41. One is from a set of photographs I took on Kodak ProImage 100, a modern, fine-grained emulsion. The other is Svema Color Negative 125 film, an emulsion currently produced in Ukraine, reportedly utilizing a Soviet times’ formula.
II.IV.: It is all about the format.
Before digital photography, photojournalism gravitated towards 35 mm full-frames, creating those grainy images which defined the style. Medium and large formats were also used widely. Photography with controlled lighting, such as portrait and product photography, as well as architectural photography, avoided 35 mm and relied on medium and large formats. Both half-frame and full-frame 35 mms were considered “miniature formats.”
Things have changed. APSC or full-frame digital cameras now cover photographic genres that would have previously called for medium format photography. Digital medium format has made several inroads into what was considered the preserve of large format film photography. In recent years I observed this shift in format categories and their traditional range of application. Although current digital equipment utilizes the same format categories to indicate size as set out in the film days, we should not look at it in the same way as the same format in film equipment. Any given digital format can be enlarged - while preserving detail - above its strict size equivalence in film. I have noticed that my Zuiko lenses, when adapted to an APSC digital body, deliver an output that is enlargeable beyond what is possible if we were to use a half-frame negative or slides.
The Olympus PEN system was the only high-quality half-frame system ever created. It addressed all (or most) areas of photography. There were only a few other professional level half-frame: one from E. Leitz (the Leica 72), one from Nippon Kogaku (the Nikon S3M) and the Swiss manufacturer Alpa also produced 18 x 24 versions of some of their Alpa full-frame SLRs. My research indicates that all of these are rare cameras produced in runs of less than 200 copies. They may well be of great interest to collectors today and would undoubtedly command very high prices. The cameras were essentially variants of their existing full-frame bodies, with the film opening masked down to the half-frame format, 18 x 24 mm.
All other half-frame cameras were consumer-grade, including those made in the USSR, e.g., the “Agat” and the various “Chaika” cameras manufactured by MMZ in Minsk. The Leica 72 was produced in the 1950s and early 1960s, and it can be fitted with their 39 mm thread mount lenses. It was mainly intended for archival, copying and filmstrip photography. The 1960 Nikon S3M was a completely different type of camera; it could use any full-frame rangefinder Nikkor lenses. It was explicitly designed to take a motor drive to deliver an incredible rate of 12 frames per second: and hence it could run through a 135 roll of film in 6 seconds flat. Notice, however, that these cameras were additions to a catalogue of items offered by their respective full-frame systems. The Olympus PEN system, on the other hand, had a different type of thinking behind it because it was a half-frame system in its entirety, and it had been conceived as such from scratch.
II.V.: Full-frames may have been over-rated in the late 1960s.
Full-frame cameras produce physically bigger negatives or slides than the PEN cameras and therefore, require less magnification to achieve a given size of print. In the late 1960s and early 1970s it was felt that half-frame was too small. An 18 x 24 mm negative or slide apparently could not meet the picture requirements desired for professional use, or so it was thought. The market spoke, and the PEN system was eventually discontinued.
The reality is that 35 mm full-frame is also a small format, and depending on how it is used the difference might not be so drastic. Full-frame does get grainy easily, and this is most noticeable if placed next to medium format images. But in 2020, it all seems to matter less. This is not just because we can benefit from the faster and much finer grained emulsions that became available in the late 1970s and early 1980s after the PEN film system was discontinued. We now seem more prepared to embrace grain for artistic purpose and even add just a touch of film-like distortion in the post-production of digital photographs to create visual “bite” and enhance the feeling of sharpness for the viewer.
We have the advantage of hindsight now that the Olympus half-frame system was ahead of its time. There is no denying that the system was impressive. Nonetheless, it can be argued that half-frame only reached maturity with the advent of digital technology. Whatever the case might be, we can see that the legacy of the Olympus PEN lives on in many of the current APSC systems.
Concluding thoughts and recommendations.
Would I recommend this camera? Who is this camera for? It all depends.
If you are considering an Olympus Pen FV and a few lenses, be aware that building an equivalent set up around a full-frame SLR camera could be achieved for less. Individual PEN items could be pricey. The macro Zuiko 38 mm f./3.5 could set you back as much as a new autofocus lens for a digital camera. The PEN catalogue includes a 38 mm f./2.8 pancake lens that could make the FV truly pocketable though a good copy is expensive and probably not so easy to find.
The original Olympus-made Nikon F-mount to PEN adaptor is much sought after; every time one appears on online auction sites, prices seem to keep going up. Other (original) adaptors are getting harder to find. There are, however, third-party adaptors that are available at much lower prices.
Purchasing cheaply an “as seen” body may not be a good idea, as you may have to face potentially expensive repairs. Be also aware that medical PEN variants cannot be easily converted to general photography use. The FV — and all the PEN cameras — enjoy the legendary status, and hence are collectible. High-quality classic cameras and lenses are worth a good CLA service from time to time, which adds to the costs of running vintage equipment. If you are looking for an entry point into 35 mm, the PEN system may not be the best option. The guide “The Unsung Heroes of 35mm Photography” offers excellent advice for beginner setups.
Now that cost implications have been addressed, let me draw your attention to the fact that the FV is the body variant that offers the most advantages for a user in 2020. It is the one with the best viewfinder of the PEN bodies; it has no meter and hence no batteries, it sports a second generation shutter, and it features a single stroke film advance mechanism. The camera has a lot of potential for those who have technical knowledge and awareness of the restrictions/advantages imposed by the format.
The FV is a small camera. Its size may not be ideal for balancing the longer (and/or heavier) lenses either from the native range or the full-frame lenses adapted from other brands or the OM system. It could be made almost pocketable when fitted with one of the smaller lenses, even more so with the pancake lens I mentioned. It can be used for candid photography, but it may not be the most discreet of cameras - the instant return mirror makes the shutter operation audible from quite a distance.
This camera is a prime candidate for achieving a deep connection with the photographer. But it is not just romance and beauty. The FV is a well-designed piece of equipment; in use, the hidden details of Mr. Maitani’s accomplished and refined engineering gradually become apparent, adding to the joy of ownership.
This camera invites hand-held use, particularly with the wide-angle lenses, to zone focus and pre-focus, to use the sunny 16 rule, walk about and be free from tripods and monopods. Imagine all those situations best photographed with one camera, one lens, and a few film rolls in your pocket.
You do not have to carry a lot of film either: the half-frame format doubles your “ammunition.” This opens up new photographic opportunities, particularly where the goal is to record things or people in motion or in fast changing environments. Olympus PEN is a flexible instrument, useful for many types of photography, including more pondered genres, like close-ups or microscopy, long lens photography and astrophotography. It could serve as a quick visual note-taking device for an architectural or landscape photographer, who would return later and re-photograph the scene with more appropriate equipment.
The PEN is a very capable camera, more importantly, it does not stand alone. The FV is part of a very comprehensive system. It can certainly be used for quality photography.
Roland Barthes, “La Chambre Claire, Note sur la photographie”, Cahiers du Cinéma: Editions de l’Etoile, Gallimard, Le Seuil, 1980, pp. 32-33 “Pour moi le bruit du Temps n’est pas triste: j’aime les cloches, les horloges, les montres – et je me rappelle qu’à l’origine le matériel photographique relevait des techniques de l’ébénisterie de la mécanique de précision: les appareils, au fond, étaient des horloges à voir…”
“Camerapedia: Radioactive Lenses,” accessed on August 20th, 2020.
John Foster, “Olympus Pen SLR Half-Frame System Cameras,” Biofos Publications, Hall Garth, revised edition 2019. This book is very comprehensive. The author, researching this book, was also in contact with Mr. Maitani. The resulting dialogue and correspondence enriches the information and excellent insights provided in the book.
Herbert Kepler, “124 Ways You Can Test Cameras Lenses and Equipment,” re-issue of the 1962 edition.
Frank Mechelhoff, “OLYMPUS PEN F und eine kleine Geschichte des Halbformats (18x24),” accessed on August 20th, 2020.
Christopher J. Osborne, “Olympus Pen F series,” accessed on August 20th, 2020.
Franz Pangerl, “The World of OM Systems” (English translation from German by Linda M. Ferris), Olympus Optical Co., 2nd. edition, Hamburg, 1977.
Camera Quest, “Olympus Pen F, FT, FV: Largest Half-frame System,” accessed on August 20th, 2020.
Robert Rotolani, “The Nikon Rangefinder Camera: An Illustrated History of the Nikon Rangefinder Cameras, Lenses and Accessories,” Hove Photo Books, 2nd. Edition, 1983.
Simon Stafford, Hillebrand and Hauschild, “Compendium: The Nikon Systems from 1917,” Hove Books Ltd., 2nd. Edition, 2003.
Victor Suglob, Sergei Kochergin, Grigori Shaternik, “1200 Cameras from the USSR”/Виктор Суглоб, Сергей Кочергин, Григорий Шатерник, «1200 фотоаппаратов из СССР.» Minsk: Medial, 2009, at pp. 513 and 559.
I am a late arrival to digital. At the end of 2012, I acquired my first pro-level data body, and this marked the beginning of a period of about five years in which I only used digital equipment. I revisited film photography in 2017—a new project required that I source a film body. I ended up re-acquiring a model that had been one of my favourites before I began shooting digitally. A few more film cameras followed that purchase.
I should mention, however, that I do not consider myself a nostalgic person. I am very happy that digital equipment does, in fact, exist. My goal at the moment is to embrace both types of gear in my photography.