Olympus Pen Cameras

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In 1958 Yoshihisa Maitani, the youngest designer employed by the Olympus Optical Company and who had only been with the company for two years, was tasked with designing a new camera. This camera was to have a price of only 6000 yen, when the company's cheapest camera at that time cost over 20000 yen - quite a challenge!


To be able to meet such a low target price Maitani decided to completely relook at the way cameras were made and used, although he would not compromise on lens quality. He persuaded Olympus lens designer Yoshisada Hayamizu to design a high class Zeiss Tessar type 4-element in 3-group wide-angle lens for the purpose. The cost savings were made by adopting the half-frame format (18x24mm images on 35mm film) to reduce the size of the camera, and by reducing the number of gears required. Gear-cutting was expensive and gears required strength and precision - a typical camera required up to 100 gear wheels. Maitani dispensed with a lever-wind mechanism and replaced it with a thumb-wheel film advance, which enabled him to use a total of only three gear wheels. The camera, called simply the Olympus Pen, was launched in October 1959 and was an immediate success. Several variations of the original design were produced until August 1967.


In May 1961, another camera was launched to be sold in parallel with the Pen. This camera, the Pen EE, was a similar size to the Pen but was fitted with automatic exposure controlled by an Electric Eye meter surrounding the lens. It was to be the basis for a range of a long production run that lasted (with several variations on the Pen EE design) until October 1986. The same metering system was used in the highly successful Olympus Trip and Trip 35 cameras, which most people will have heard of - those who have ever seen it will undoubtedly always remember the "David Bailey, who's he?" series of television adverts in the 1970s and early 1980s.


The Pen and Pen EE range were somewhat limited by the relatively slow f2.8 and f3.5 lenses that were fitted, so yet another model was launched in June 1962. The Pen D had a faster f1.9 lens and a built-in light meter, although the meter was not connected to the shutter or aperture at all. Two modifications were made during the life of the Pen D, which was produced until September 1969.


Now Olympus had a successful range of compact cameras, some with fast lenses and some with automatic metering but none with both. Therefore, in March 1967, the two designs were amalgamated to produce the Pen EED - a new, modern-styled camera (slightly larger than its predecessors) which combined a fast f1.7 lens with fully automatic metering which would nowadays be referred to as a Point & Shoot camera. It was produced until March 1972.


Prior to the Pen EED, the company produced the Pen EM. This was also equipped with a fast-ish f2.0 lens and automatic metering, but the real innovation was that it also had motorised film advance and rewind - the first Japanese camera to do so. However, the motor was problematic so it was not produced for long, from June 1965 until August 1966.


Not content with the success of the Pen range of compact cameras, Olympus decided to produce a Single Lens Reflex camera, also in half-frame format. Launched in September 1963, the Pen F was at that time the smallest and lightest SLR camera readily available in the world. As with the original Pen, the design was innovative. A porroprism mirror system eliminated the characteristic "hump" that houses the pentaprism in most other SLRs, whilst the shutter was a rotary design (made from titanium since no other material was strong enough to take the forces generated by the high speed rotation) that allowed flash synchronisation at all speeds. In 1966, the Pen F was upgraded to the Pen FT, with the addition of a built-in meter and a self-timer, whilst a version without the meter (Pen FV) was also available.

The Pen F and FT were also available with special focussing screens and circular masked viewfinders for microscope and medical use. The FT Medical had no light meter fitted although (to reduce the number of parts to manufacture) it still had the meter illumination window in the top plate and a battery housing in the baseplate. Of course, there was also a wide range of lenses available to fit all the Pen SLRs.


As with the later OM-series of full-frame cameras, Olympus didn't just make Pen cameras and lenses, but a full system. This included many accessories, including copy stands, bellows units, slide copiers, flashguns, microscope attachments, viewfinder accessories, etc. They even included projectors designed specifically for slides taken with half-frame cameras and a couple of 8mm cine cameras.


In 2009, the 50th anniversary of the original Pen launch, Olympus relaunched the Pen name with the Pen E-P1 and Pen E-P2 digital SLRs.


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All content and images copyright Chris Maddock, www.f22.org.uk and may not be reproduced by any means without my prior permission.