Saturday 23 January 2016

Olympus Pen F 40mm f/1.4: Ruined Smiling

Let's have a look at the Olympus Zuiko 40mm f/1.4. It was one of the standard lenses for the Olympus Pen F half-frame SLR of the 1960s, faster than the standard 38mm f/1.8, less pancake-y than the 38mm f/2.8, and cheaper than the flagship 42mm f/1.2. Half-frame cameras had a 1.4x crop factor, so the 40mm is a slightly narrow 56mm in full-frame 35mm terms.

Physically the 40mm and 38mm are very similar. My 40mm lens is an early model with a conventional aperture ring. When Olympus launched the Pen FT they modified the lenses to work with the FT's lightmeter - the aperture ring could be rotated to show a set of numbers that corresponded with the lightmeter scale, although you could use conventional f-stops if you wanted.

As you can see the coatings appear to be different - the 40mm has a golden hue, the 38mm is much subtler. Compared to full-sized SLR lenses they are both tiny little jewels with cute end caps. The lens hood is a retro affair that clamps gently onto the front of the lens.

Performance-wise they're essentially the same; sharp in the middle at all apertures, no obvious optical deficits. Judging by this test the corners aren't so good at wider apertures, but for a fast standard lens that doesn't really matter because the corners will never be in focus. For the night-time shots in this article I used ISO 100 Agfa Precisa slide film, with the lens wide-open and the shutter at 1/30th or 1/15th, and it was sharp where it mattered.

Perhaps because the frame is vertical I find that lenses seem wider on the Pen F. The 40mm didn't feel limiting. If you already have the 38mm there isn't really a compelling reason to switch to the 40mm, but on the other hand you could sell the 38mm to fund your purchase of the 40mm, which is what I did.

The Pen F
Along with the lens I got hold of an original Pen F. Olympus sold three Pen SLRs. The Pen F (1963) was manual-everything, with no lightmeter. The Pen FT (1966) added a lightmeter and some tweaks, and the FV (1967) kept the tweaks but removed the lightmeter. The FT had a dimmer viewfinder window than the other two - some of the light was diverted into the meter - and having compared them them side-by-side with an F I can confirm that this is noticeable. The Pen F's ground glass focus screen seems to "pop" whereas the FT is a bit vague. Let's have a look at those tweaks, Pen F on the right, FT on the left:

Full-frontal nudity was taboo in Hollywood films for most of the first half of the 20th Century. There were scattered instances of full-frontal nudity in some of the edgier, artier films of the 1960s, but pubic hair didn't became hot box-office until Catch-22 in 1970. From that point onwards almost every Hollywood film had pubic hair, until of course Star Wars ushered in a new era of family-friendly blockbusters, but surely Chewbacca is naked, so perhaps Star Wars had masses of pubic hair after all.

Apropos of nothing, a Pen F shot with an infrared camera

I grew up in the 1980s, a time when pubic hair was no longer in vogue; it's not that nudity was unacceptable (NSFW), it's that pubic hair was seen as a throwback to the unwashed hippy era, and so women shaved it off. Nudity in the 1980s was clean-shaven, generally topless, and the women looked as if they had been to the gym at least once. The FT added a self-timer lever so you can take selfies, and the shutter speed dial became one of those lift-and-twist things so that you could set the lightmeter's ISO. Along the way the F's peculiar gothic logo was removed, although it remained on the lens caps. Why did Olympus decide on a gothic font for such a modernist camera? Dunno.

Let's look at the back and top:

The FT has a little rectangular window that shines light into the viewfinder, illuminating the lightmeter scale. It works surprisingly well provided you don't put your finger over it. The FT also has a single-stroke winder, whereas with the Pen F you have to pull the little winding lever twice when you advance the film.

Hollywood has had an odd relationship with bottom nudity. In films such as Splash and Cocoon it was a way of showing nudity in a PG context, but back then bottoms were not nearly as central to our collective sexuality as they are today. In the past bottoms were funny rather than sexy, but over the last twenty years or so Western culture has embraced bottoms. Celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez and Elliot Offen have built business empires on their bottoms.

The F and FT have slightly different bottoms; the tripod mount is in a different place, and as a consequence you have to use different cases:

The FT also has a hole for the battery.

How about the sides? The F's more compact winding lever looks more elegant. NB there wasn't a motor drive or speed winder for the Pen F system; on the whole it had a limited range of accessories, mostly concentrated in the macro and medical imaging fields. Half-frame was apparently also popular for police mugshots, although the police generally used modified full-frame SLRs.

The Pen F range had cold accessory shoes that mounted on the viewfinder, which is why so many of them have chipped or broken viewfinder surrounds. The cameras had flash sync at all speeds with the PC socket above (the X marking is for electronic flashes, the M is for old-fashioned flash bulbs).

I like the Pen F. It's small and perfectly-formed, and it's a proper SLR. So far I've used the 38mm, 40mm, and 25mm f/2.8 lenses; the system was modest and concentrated in the normal-to-telephoto range, perhaps because the vertical format lent itself to portraits, or perhaps because the smaller format wasn't ideal for large landscape prints. There was only one lens wider than 25mm, a 20mm f/3.5.

Pen F lenses can be adapted for use on Micro Four-Thirds and NEX cameras with a simple metal ring; they're generally smaller than their modern autofocus equivalents, and a couple of them will fit into a jacket pocket. Alas there's no easy way to mount them on a full-frame SLR, so I can't objectively evaluate their performance. Nonetheless the 40mm f/1.4 pleases me, and that's what matters.