Why Olympus Pen?
Yoshihia Maitani. If you have never heard of him, do a google search. This guy was a badass camera designer who helped Olympus make some of the best 35mm cameras ever. He was particularly adept at designing compact, functional cameras that were very reliable like the OM series, the XA series and of course many of the Pens.
Ubiquity. These cameras were produced in huge numbers during the 60’s and 70’s and as a result are relatively easy to find today. A quick eBay search can yield hundreds of Olympus Pens for under $100.
Durability. The above point is bolstered by the fact that many of these cameras still work perfectly. Sure I’ve had a few faulty PENs but the majority work great even though they are over 50 years old. Better still the all manual models and the ones which use selenium meters don't need batteries making them even more reliable.
List of Olympus PEN Half Frame Cameras
Full Manual Control
Full Auto (Electric Eyes)
Pen EE2- I always have it with me.
This camera is a point and shoot, fully automatic beauty with a selenium meter and 28mm/f3.5 fixed focal length. EE stood for “ Electric Eye” and this second model has only two shutter speeds 1/40 and 1/200 . You set the ISO from 25-400, point it something at least 6 ft away and click away. There is also a red flag exposure system which prevents you from taking a picture in insufficient light. The later Pen EE3 is the exact same and the EEF includes a flash. This sparse feature set may seem a bit limiting but once you get used to it, it’s actually quite liberating. You can spend your time focusing on composition and getting the best shot rather than fiddling with different setting while the action passes you by. This camera really lends itself to documentary, travel and landscape photography. In addition the simplicity and speed of use makes multi shot composition (diptychs, sequences, etc) a breeze. This camera also fits in a pocket making it a take anywhere option for me. There are a couple of hacks I’ve used over the years to get even more control out of this cameras. First is using the ISO setting as an exposure compensation. If you start at ISO 100 you have two full stops of exposure compensation available to use when, and this comes in very handy when shooting backlit scenes or you are looking for a certain aesthetic. Another trick is to manually set the aperture to 3.5 which fixes the shutter speed at 1/40 and shoots with the smallest aperture possible. This comes in handy when you want to shoot in low light and the red flag won’t let you shoot. The Trip 35 has the same feature and you can read all about it (see link at bottom of page).
Pen EES 2 - More versatile, but more fickle
This camera is almost the exact same as the EE 2 above but it has two differences. 1) The widest aperture is f2.8, for some this is insignificant but for others who like to shoot in low light this is huge. 2) Because of the faster lens, the camera has the addition of a 3 zone focus system similar to a Olympus XA2. For some this is a hassle (because they forget to adjust the focus zone before shooting :) but for others this gives you a bit more flexibility when shooting at close distances or great distances. I really loved my EES 2 but I dropped it and the zone focus system kinda stopped working and all my shots went blurry. In comparison I’ve dropped the EE2 a few times and everything still works. I’m using the older EES now in its place, which is the same camera with a max ISO setting of 200, which mostly doesn't bother me, except when it does ;)
Pen S- All manual, maximum control
This camera is even more compact than the Electric Eye cameras because there is no meter to worry about. The 30mm/2.8 lens is really nice and has a really swell feel to it. The camera offers full manual controls with shutter speeds of B, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125 and 250, distance focusing with a couple premarked sweet spots at 2m, 5m and Infinity. This is essentially a precursor to the zone focus system employed in later models. If you can shoot Sunny 16, this camera is great. As I mentioned above it’s more compact than any of the EE series and since the lens is near flush with the body, its fits in a pocket with minimal fuss. Most of the time when I shoot with this camera I load it with some 400 speed film, set focus to 5m, aperture to 16, shutter speed to 200 and shoot. The fully manual controls allows some more creative stuff too and I spent a bit of time pushing film to 1600 with good (yet very grainy results) There is a lot to like about this camera and I believe that spending any amount of time shooting full manual makes you a better photographer over time.
Pen F- ½ frame SLR
I really wanted to like this camera. It’s so beautiful and the ability to actually focus thru the lens is unique to half frame cameras, but it’s heavy, really heavy. When I first picked one up I was flabbergasted by it’s weight. (Colonel Mustard in the atrium with the Pen F!) I may be exaggerating a bit but there are several full frame 35mm cameras (Olympus OM1,2… or Pentax ME,MX…) which are just as small and weigh 50-100 grams less. The FT features a built in TTL meter but adds even more bulk to the package. That being said if you really want to shoot a half frame SLR, this is what you want to shoot. And if portraits are your thing, this would be a great camera to shoot them in mass. Viewfinder setup for vertical composition, ability to focus exactly on subject and control depth of field is pretty nice plus that whole 72 shot thing allows you to burn thru some film to make sure you get the shots you want. If I was going to make a book of portraits or catalog specific objects like antiques, art, plants, animals, etc. this camera would be a compelling choice.
Original Pen- Original Gangsta
Essentially the exact the same as the Pen S but a slightly slower lens and different shutter speeds ( B, 25, 50 100, 200) . I like this camera a lot, I would just rather have the S for the faster lens, which I also believe to be better for no immediately discernible reason. Also this camera crapped out after 3 rolls of film when the winding mechanism just gave up and lacked the oomph to advance film any further. But if I found a working one for less than $50, I would be on it like white on rice.
I believed this camera would be my half frame holy grail with its fast 30/1.7 lens, built in manual metering and abundance of focusing options. Alas, it was not to be and all these features ended up being hindrances. Why? Faster lense with metering means significantly less pocketability, in fact my Olympus 35 RC ( look it up) is smaller. Also the meter is an Old CdS meter which requires an old mercury battery which is rare, illegal and toxic. Lastly the enhanced focus options would be wonderful with a rangefinder, but this camera functions just like the Pen/Pen S/Pen W and require the use to know how far the object is away from the lense or to rely on the preset zones like the Pen EES. This pen was just too complicated for what it was and I ended up going back to my EES 2 after one roll.
I believe @arbitrarium said it best when he said “ I like automation on a half frame, suits the snapshot style they were made for”
Pen W - Wide angle rarity
I really want to shoot with a Pen W. They are rare and thus $$$ but I believe the wider angle lens 25mm would be fun to experiment with, adding a bit more functionality to landscape and documentary work. They also only come in black, which I suppose adds to the allure. But at the end of the day, this is probably more a symptom of an underlying GAS problem. The Pen S offers the exact same feature set with a 30mm lens, what is an extra 5mm worth to you???
Design my own camera- Pie in the Sky
If I could design a half frame camera today it would be really simple. An EES 2 with the addition of 1/500 shutter speed so you could shoot a bit faster film and guarantee the greatest depth of field. I would also adjust the lense to a 28mm/f2 to give it a bit wider angle and more low light capability. Lastly, I would add aperture priority mode because that's my preferred method of exposure all things being equal. Until then I will continue to carry my EE2 with me everywhere and bring my EE.S when I anticipate lower light and the need for greater control of focusing distance loaded with a few of my favorite half frame films like Portra or Acros ( another article in the works)
This article is not intended to be a full review of all the models but rather a quick overview of my favorites and my experiences using many of the above cameras. Your experiences may vary :)