Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Olympus Pen F 25mm f/2.8: Tender Cruelty

A while back I had a look at the Olympus Pen FT, a half-frame SLR from the 1960s. At the time I only had one lens, the standard 38mm f/1.8. This bugged me, because what's the point of having an interchangeable-lens SLR if you only have one lens? All you can do is take the lens off, and put it back on again. Take it off, and put it back on again.

The problem is that Pen F lenses are hard to come by nowadays. The system sold decently at the time but was never a smashing success, and Olympus gave up on it in the early 1970s in favour of the OM. Half-frame Pen F lenses were basically useless without a Pen F, and for the next thirty years I imagine that a lot of them were thrown away or left to rot in cupboards and attics and sheds and trunks and suitcases and garages and water towers and hangars and basements and wine cellars and hidden compartments and buried safes and kitty litter trays and saucepans and coffins and dirigibles and trousers and sovereign nations and medicine bottles and oceans and clouds and the pouches of kangaroos and discarded wallets.

What do you get if you make several men wobble back and forth? A mendulum. The system became collectable in the 1990s, if only because the Pen F's sleek good looks were an antidote to the naffness of an age of plastic. The advent of modern rangefinder-type digital cameras accelerated that process, because Pen F lenses can easily be adapted for Micro Four Thirds and the Sony NEX system. Furthermore the lenses look kawaii and perform really well; they're well-built and, because they were originally designed for a sub-frame format, they have a useful range of focal lengths.

Half-frame 35mm is essentially the same size as APS-H, and Pen F lenses were designed with a 1.4x focal length multiplier in mind. They will cover all of the popular sub-frame digital formats, including in theory the APS-H sensor in the Leica M8, although as far as I know there isn't a Pen F - M adapter. The standard 38mm acts as a 60mm on an APS-C camera, a 76mm on a Micro Four thirds camera, and a 53mm on a Pen F.

The Pen F system had a modest range of lenses, stretching from a 20mm f/3.5 wide to an 800mm f/8 mirror, with a pair of zooms, which were novel at the time. The subject of this post is a 25mm f/2.8 that seems to have been introduced slightly after the other lenses. It doesn't appear in the early brochures, which instead talk about the compact 25mm f/4.0 instead.

I have only ever heard good things about the Pen F's lenses. So the story goes, Olympus tried to mitigate the lower resolution of the format by making the lenses super-sharp; at least the standard 38mm f/1.8 I have is perfectly fine wide-open with slide film. Is this hype? Sales gumpfh dreamed up by a copywriter working for Olympus back in 1963, when the Pen F was launched? How do you spell gumpfh anyway?

Adox Silvermax.

For this article I used Adox Silvermax, a black and white film which apparently has a wider dynamic range than other films when developed with Adox's special developer, which I don't have. Instead I splashed on some Rodinal and left it to stand for an hour and a half. Straight from the scanner, the results look a bit flat and grey, reminiscent of Agfa APX, but that's a good thing because it's easier to add contrast than take it away.

It's bumph, isn't it? Sales bumph. Not gumph. Completely different word. Have I been wrong all these years? What did people think of me?

On a Pen F the 25mm acts as a wide-ish 35mm. It has a 43mm filter thread, and so I used a 43-49mm step-up ring for the polariser. How does it cope with flare? I have no idea, I live in England, there's no sun. Looking through these images I can see an extremely mild, almost imperceptible amount of barrel distortion.

I'm not in a position to evaluate the lens' resolution - I was shooting wide-open at 1/60th on an overcast day and the medication was only just keeping the tremors in check, and I developed and scanned the film myself, and focusing with the FT is something of a pain because there's no split-circle focus, just a very fine microprism and the viewfinder is quite dim. Looking at the scans I can't tell the difference between f/2.8 and f/5.6 or whatever I stopped down to.

I can find barely anything about the 25mm f/2.8 on the internet. eBay suggests that the system was far more popular in Japan than elsewhere. The serial number of my lens - 105566 - suggests that Olympus didn't sell very many. Presumably they started at 100000, and if there had been millions, what are the chances that my random example would be in the first six thousand?

Back in 1969 it sold for $99 in the US, which is about $600 today, and the Pen F was not a major mainstream success. The Pentax Spotmatic outsold it eight to one, and my understanding is that SLRs didn't really take off - or at least they didn't become must-have toys - until towards the end of the Pen F's run. In contrast Olympus went on to sell roughly two million OM-1s, at which point hopefully they gave Yoshihisa Maitani a big bottle of champagne.

As always the Pen F is wonderful. If only it had a split-image focus aid and autoexposure. The shutter thunks away with a neat clack and you never have to change film, and because everything is vertical the world seems new.

I often wonder to myself, is there a photographer in China, right now, documenting Chinese industrial buildings in the same way that Bernd and Hilla Becher documented water towers and mines in Germany? Is that man worried about the fate of China's heavy industry, given that rising wages will eventually drive it abroad? Where will heavy industry end up when everybody in the world is paid fairly? Antarctica? Also, if you assume that Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Mender was recorded at 45rpm, and you slow it down to 33.3rpm, it sounds terrible.