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Olympus Pen FT: An Idea Whose Time Has Come Again?

The Olympus Pen FT is a camera that proved Maitani's evil genius. Breaking from traditions of full-frame, pentaprisms, bladed focal-plane shutters limited to synchronization at 1/125 sec. and prism-mounted meter cells, the Pen FV was a technological tour-de-force. Olympus Pen lenses, by virtue of their short focal lengths (shorter for half-frame), had greater depth of field and ultra-high resolving power (many lenses topped 80lp/mm at multiple apertures).

As time went on, film became cheaper, and the world moved away from Olympus's prediction that 18x24mm would become the standard film format. Olympus ultimately stopped making the Pen and concentrated on its full-frame OM line. In addition, later cameras like the Contax T demonstrated that full-frame 35mm could be made much smaller than even the Pen F. Half-frame became something of a fetish in Japan, but died with the 1980s.

Today, the Pen has some added relevance:

– Modern films make enlargements more practical. New films like Kodak's T400CN deliver huge enlargements with no grain and little tonality loss. Given the fact that half-frame 35mm is only 25% smaller than 35mm if you are doing an 8x10, this means very little real quality loss in enlargement.

– In a 3600dpi negative scan, the Pen's 17.5x24mm format still delivers close to 22 megapixels of resolution (equivalent in the digital world, where it is three pixels to each image file pixel, to 66 megapixels). Two Pen frames fit within the image of a 24x36mm frame, meaning you can scan two at a time. Figure (roughly) that you get 1.5 gigabytes of data on a roll of film (72 frames, color, 3600 DPI). Do they even make compact hard drives that big?! The advantages that on-film storage has are big: (1) more economical storage); (2) better archival life; and (3) independence of storage technology (well, until they make the very last film scanner).

– The Pen F titanium fan shutter still synchs at 1/500 sec, which no modern 35mm SLR can. And it is virtually vibration-free.

– Pen F lenses are miniscule. The 40mm f/1.4 pictured above is the same size (actually a bit shorter) than any Leica-mount rangefinder 50s. Consider that it is the equivalent of a 60mm lens in full-frame.

– Pen F normal lenses focus to about a foot, obviating any need for telephotos.

Maybe the proof is in the pictures.

This is our base 17.5x24mm negative, shot on Fuji Neopan 1600, a very grainy film. Our reasonable expectation would be that there would be grain galore.

This is roughly a 6x8 inch enlargement (15x20cm) or 8.5x. Looks pretty good in terms of grain.

This is roughly a 33x46 inch enlargement (84x116cm), or about 48x enlargement. Here we are maxing out the scanner, but note that this is not really that grainy. Imagine what this exercise would yield with 100-speed b/w film, or better yet, T400CN. More to come. Part of the reason why this doesn't look so grainy is that half-frame only really requires 25% more enlargement than full, due to the crop factor for 8x10 and the fact that the long side of a half-frame negative is still 3/4 that of full-frame.