The Olympus PEN half-frame camera system.
Olympus PEN-F, PEN FT, and PEN FV were some of the most capable half-frame cameras ever built. They were high-quality SLRs with a huge selection of lenses. Many were made for professional applications, such as dentistry, microscopy, and telescopy.
The company’s bet on the improvements in film resolution wasn’t misplaced. Professional-grade film stocks like Kodak Ektachrome look fantastic in half-frames, especially when digitized with a good scanner. Unfortunately, Olympus was ahead of its time. The world of micro four-thirds and tiny, high-resolution sensors was over fifty years in the future, and so the incredible PEN-F lineup saw the end of production in 1972. The public wasn’t ready for the half-frame format to take over the professional and high-end photographic markets.
But in 2022, the PEN system is remarkably relevant. We, the photographers, have better film, better scanners, and a newfound appreciation for grain. Prices on film have also gone up; thus getting the double amount of prints per roll is very useful. If you want to take advantage of the half-frame film format with some of the best lenses and SLR bodies ever made, you need an Olympus PEN camera.
42mm F/1.2 H.Zuiko Auto-S.
Many half-frame film cameras come with unremarkable fixed lenses that lack speed and bokeh. Olympus 42mm 𝒇1.2 H.Zuiko Auto-S lens is way ahead of all competition of the time, giving you the incredible 8.5 aperture stops in a normal/portrait focal length with great background separation and subdued light performance. Its specs are more impressive than those of most full-frame and medium format lenses of the day.
Very impressive, but how does it perform in practice?
Lens size, weight, and specifications.
Another advantage of a half-frame camera is the reduced amount of materials needed for a fast lens — when compared to full-frame and larger formats. Consequently, this lens weighs just 255g (9oz) — despite being made of predominantly metal and glass parts.
The lens takes 49mm-diameter filters and sticks out from the camera body by 5cm or two inches. Its full diameter is just over 5cm.
Like other Olympus PEN system lenses, it features a bayonet mount that is relatively easy to find adapters for. This lens can also be modified for digital cameras — micro four thirds and smaller.
H.Zuiko Auto-S’s “normal” focal length is 42mm, which translates to about 60mm on a full-frame film format. Its angle of view is 39° which should work well for portraits and general applications.
This lens can focus as close as 0.35m or on subjects just over a foot away, giving it even more bokeh power and versatility for product photography.
The focus throw is a comfortable 180 degrees.
The original lens cap is also made of metal, featuring the large gothic “F” on the front. The rear lens cap is made of hard plastic and is often hard to come by.
In addition to full-stop aperture clicks, the ring that controls the iris of the lens can be pulled towards the front of the lens and rotated 180 degrees to reveal exposure guide numbers used by the PEN light meter for easy metering.
I had high expectations from this lens with little experience shooting sub-𝒇2.0 lenses of the period. Naturally, I was somewhat surprised by its “dreamy” renderings when I fully opened up the aperture and got up close to test the extremely shallow DOF.
Even with a modern ultra-fast lens, getting anything in focus at such large apertures is challenging. The smaller half-frame format offers a slightly reduced background separation compared to larger formats — which should’ve been helpful. However, at 𝒇1.2, especially when photographing near the minimum focus distance, H.Zuiko Auto-S melts the scene completely. Even the details that are perfectly in focus are at risk of being washed away by the lens’ various distortions common for the glass of the era.
If you’re looking for that “dreamy” aesthetic on a half-frame camera — this lens is the one. The bokeh balls are enormous.
And while this lens does not create swirls, for the most part, you will notice some “rotation” in the blurry areas that are closest to the edges of its field of focus — see the raspberries on the cake (right).
Of course, using H.Zuiko Auto-S in the way described above will make taking sharp-looking images difficult — but not impossible. I’ve used it a lot for product photography on this website with what I think are decent results:
When stopped down past 𝒇2.8 and used for subjects further than a meter or a few feet away, H.Zuiko Auto-S begins to behave as a regular, non-“dreamy” lens capable of taking reasonably sharp, well-saturated photographs with minimal distortions and lots of contrast.
This lens tends to flare noticeably, especially when shot against the light. And in certain situations, particularly when shot at larger apertures, it may show a bit of “glow” around your highlights. Looks like its slightly-radioactive coating isn’t as effective as it used to be.
To its credit, this H.Zuiko showed virtually no chromatic aberrations and maintains its sharpness across the frame — corner-to-corner.
Lens build quality, handling, and ergonomics.
The lens is fairly small and relatively light. This is despite being made almost completely out of metal and glass — H.Zuiko Auto-S has no autofocus motor and image stabilization gear — an asset to its compactness.
The focus throw on my copy felt smooth and easy to change quickly. Aperture clicks are solid and helpful.
The overall feel of this lens is distinctly vintage and high-quality. They don’t make lenses like this anymore. Everything fits tightly and operates smoothly. Though not as premium as something that costs 10x from Leica, this lens certainly isn’t cheap.
The only issue I’ve had with this lens (common on many PEN system lenses) is sticky aperture blades. Thankfully, H.Zuiko Auto-S is relatively easy to take apart and clean — for someone who knows what they are doing. The only challenging aspect of putting it back together is the groves that have to fit in a particular configuration for the lens to have the correct focus setting.
Where to buy your Olympus 42mm F/1.2 H.Zuiko Auto-S lens.
The lens isn’t particularly rare; you should be able to find a copy on eBay easily. It’s not cheap though for what it is, I feel that the prices today are quite reasonable: $300-$600 (depending on condition). Most of the lenses are sold from Japan, so please keep the shipping and import fees in mind. My import fees (Japan to Canada) usually amount to about 15% of the total value.
If you are willing to pay for a mint copy, check pictures for fungus, haze, and major scratches on the glass elements — and the seller’s reputation ratings. For cheaper listings, ask the seller about the aperture blades, as the pictures won’t show whether they’re operational or not.
A good way to check the aperture blades is to set the lens to 𝒇16 and then press and release the DOF preview button. The blades should return to their smaller aperture size swiftly.
Hope this helps!
❤ By the way: Please consider making your Olympus 42mm 𝒇1.2 H.Zuiko Auto-S lens purchase using this link so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!