The Holy Trinity of Half Frames | Olympus Pen F Review | Part I

The Holy Trinity of Half Frames | Introduction

I was taught that there are three things you don’t talk about at work: sex, religion, and politics. Someday, when I have children of my own I intend to add a fourth item to that list, cameras. It seems that cameras have potentially become more controversial than any of the aforementioned topics, and I violate this last rule now to tell you about what I consider to be the holy trinity of half frame cameras: the Olympus Pen F, the Olympus Pen D, and the Yashica Samurai. 

Half-frame cameras are unique in that they use one half of a 35mm frame and effectively double the number of photos you can take on a roll. A 24 exposure roll of film will yield 48 exposures and a 36 expire roll of film will now allow 72 exposures. This economy has both pros and cons which should be considered.

Olympus Pen F w/ 40mm F/1.4 lens | © Cameron Kline

Olympus Pen F w/ 40mm F/1.4 lens | © Cameron Kline

From a beginners standpoint the half frame camera is enticing since you’re getting more frames to practice with at a lower cost than you would with a standard 35mm camera. You’re turning an $8 investment in Kodak Portra into a $4 investment for two rolls, or so my mind works. The downside to this is that you’re stuck with film in your camera for twice as long as you would normally be. So if 36 frames in you decide you want or need to push a roll of film you’re going to need to finish off the other 36 frames before you can make that happen. If you’re a photographer who has a hard time finishing a roll of film you may want to stay away from half frame cameras or consider buying 24 exposure rolls of film. 

For a handful of users the half-frame format will likely not be viable. If you believe that bigger is better with regard to print and or scan sizes then you’re best to take a detour and avoid the half-frame camera. It’s said that there is no discernible degradation in half-frame images up to 8x10” when printed optically, but your final use might dictate that to be inadequate. For 80% of my personal use half-frame more than suffices. In fact, I prefer the effects that can be achieved with grain that occurs when using the smaller frame and enjoy the additional benefit of not worrying so much about the economy of film. For client work or anything in which absolute detail is a concern it’s best to leave the half-frame at home. 

Olympus Pen F w/ 40mm f/1.4 | © Cameron Kline 

Olympus Pen F w/ 40mm f/1.4 | © Cameron Kline 

On a personal level the half-frame format has taught me some important lessons. All too often I’ve tried to make a photo which isn’t appropriate for the format, or more plainly, my composition isn’t well thought out. This happens a lot when you’re photographing in the streets since things happen so quickly. The half-frame format really beckons you to fill the frame in order to succeed. That shot of the amazing interaction happening across the street — it’s not going to turn out so well. A lot of the comes from the aforementioned detail. You can only record so much information with a smaller piece of film and so for me it’s important to fill the frame.

Garry Winogrand famously said, “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed,” and the half-frame format allows me to take some risks without worrying about the economy of film. On occasion these risks have paid off with a photo that I like, but that I might not have shot with a conventional 35mm camera.

 

The Olympus Pen F | Camera Review

I pined after an Olympus Pen-F for what seemed like an eternity. There’s an Olympus ad that features a contemplative W. Eugene Smith smoking a cigarette and looking out through wire framed glasses. It’s the epitome of cool and often, when I’d come across that ad while researching the camera, I’d imagine for a second that it was me instead of Smith in that ad. 

Over the months my lust for the Pen F grew. In Tokyo there was a retail shop that for a period of time seemed to only have Olympus Pen F cameras in the display case that faced the street. I’d walk by late in the afternoon when the light was really good and look through the glass longingly. They looked like gemstones in that case, and one day I couldn’t resist; I entered the store and bought the only Pen F I could afford. 

The model I bought was an original Olympus Pen F and not the later FT or FV models. The front faceplate featured the large gothic font “F” and the body was silver in color with leatherette in need of replacement. Affixed to the camera I purchased was a 40mm f/1.4 lens with more fine scratches than you could count, but no visible fungus or haze. At the time I paid $220 for the camera and the lens with a six month warranty. 

Olympus Pen F recovered in an Aki Asahi leatherette | © Cameron Kline

Olympus Pen F recovered in an Aki Asahi leatherette | © Cameron Kline

At a glance the Pen F looks like a rangefinder, albeit missing the viewfinder, but it is in fact an SLR. It uses a rotary shutter which is unique and allows for flash sync all the way up to the maximum shutter speed. Whether you’d use this feature or not is up to you, but it’s high sync speed is noteworthy. Additionally, the rotary shutter of the Pen F aids in keeping the overall size of the camera to a minimum. Remember, this camera is an SLR, but with a diminished footprint, and no mirror box courtesy of that rotary shutter.  

Olympus Pen F Rear Door | © Cameron Kline

Olympus Pen F Rear Door | © Cameron Kline

 

While not all half-frame cameras have portrait oriented viewfinders it’s important to know that the Olympus Pen F does. If you were to hold the camera in your hand to make a photo in the normal landscape orientation you’d actually be taking a photo in portrait orientation. Confused? I was too at first, but in practice it’s actually a unique exercise that trains you to think about photos differently. The Fuji GA645 is similar in this regard with it’s natural portrait orientation, and after a little use you become quite use to it. 

Native portrait orientation | © Cameron Kline 

Native portrait orientation | © Cameron Kline 

The Pen F has no internal meter so you’ll have to use the “sunny 16 rule” or an external meter to calculate a proper exposure. The later Pen FT version does have an internal meter, but sacrifices viewfinder brightness in order to accommodate the feature. The FT is also designed to use a Mercury battery which may or may not be available depending on your location. 

Olympus Pen F w/ 40mm f/1.4 lens | © Cameron Kline 

Olympus Pen F w/ 40mm f/1.4 lens | © Cameron Kline 

The design of the Olympus Pen series is really something to behold. They’re beautiful cameras with flowing lines, and in my opinion very good ergonomics. In size it’s slightly smaller than a Leica M and it fits just right in my hand. The construction is solid and the camera feels substantial without being portly.

The camera I purchased in Tokyo was admittedly in rough condition and just over eight months after I purchased it the camera died. The exact cause of death is still unknown, but here is what I do know. After purchasing it I noticed that the lens mount had just a bit of play in it. With a lens affixed you could move the lens in it’s mount ever so lightly. I shot with the camera daily until one day it jammed. Nothing but a hard smack on the baseplate of the camera with my hand would release the jam.

Olympus Pen F w/40mm f/1.4 lens | © Cameron Kline 

Olympus Pen F w/40mm f/1.4 lens | © Cameron Kline 

One day, while trouble shooting the issue by wiggling the lens back and forth (in the motion you’d focus with) the fine screws in the focus ring on the lens barrel disintegrated leaving their threaded ends in the barrel and their heads in the focus ring. This effectively ended my troubleshooting phase and further use of the camera. I requested quotes from a couple of reputable repair shops only to find that their prices were simply too high, no matter how much I loved my camera. 

I took the camera to a local shop where I showed them the issue. Put on my 40mm lens, fire the camera, and the mirror won’t return. Cock the camera, fire the lens, and the mirror won’t return. Each time the camera required a firm slap on the baseplate to return the mirror to it’s original position. The sales clerk grabbed another lens from a display case, mounted it to my camera, and voila, it worked. It seems that the wear in the mounting flange allows the mount to be out of spec which causes the mirror to hand.

Today I am no longer using the Olympus Pen F I purchased in Tokyo. It was an excellent camera that changed the way that I thought about taking photos and I can say that the format helped me to improve on the things I was concerned about with photography. The decision to retire this particular camera was a matter of finance more than anything, and while my Pen F has been retired I haven’t given up on half-frame photography. In part two of the holy trinity of half frames I’ll discuss the Olympus Pen D which replaced my beloved Olympus Pen F.

Southern California photographer, Cameron Kline, breaks half-frame cameras, and photographs people in San Diego, CA. Connect with him on .