Almost 50 years ago, a camera that gave you 72 shots per film!

That’s right!

The camera we are going to chat about today was first designed and manufactured back in 1959…in the good old, bad old days…when I was just xxx years old…;)

It was the brainchild of one of the foremost camera designers the world has ever seen. Yes, Leica has always been synonymous with high-end cameras, but let’s not forget that they had a whole massive team of engineers working on the Leica camera, with the might of West Germany egging it on.

The man behind the Olympus Pen was Yoshihisa Maitani.

“The object of photography is to express what is in your heart and mind.  A camera is just a tool for taking pictures.  As a designer, I want to design a camera that becomes an inseparable part of the photographer, a camera that does not get in the way..” -Yoshihisa Maitani 1933-2009

Maitani was requested by his bosses to build a camera for the masses, a cheap and affordable camera that every Tom, Dick and Harry could use from the word go. But, as with all the cameras he later went on to design and manufacture, they all turned out to be solid masterpieces of ingenious design and workmanship, certainly not very cheap, but most certainly usable by anyone.

If I just mention the Olympus XA, OM series and the world beater (some say Leica beater!) Pen F, you will understand.

Back to the camera I want to tell you about…it’s the Olympus Pen. This was a range of half-frame cameras, which means that they used exactly half the 35mm negative that ordinary 35mm cameras use. So with a 36 exposure film loaded into one of these cameras, you got 72 shots out of one roll of film…magic!

my first Olympus Pen–the very first model manufactured


I well remember lusting after one of these cameras (well…ok…that’s not the only thing I lusted after…!) for a long time when I was a student back in the UK, but money was short, so all I could do was lust. Finally, when I got my first job after graduating, a few months later, I was the owner of a brand new Pen. But as you do, it got used a few times and was then relegated to the back of some mouldy cupboard, and then sold to a friend for half the price!

That Pen I had was the very first model, with an f3.5 28mm, 4 element lens, and a very compact profile lens it was too. You really have to think about what these designs meant to a bona-fide user to really appreciate why Maitani had decided to choose those parameters for his lenses. If you know a little about lenses, focal lengths etc, you will know that lenses with small dimensions, such as the 28mm one on the Pen, inherently give very good depth of field.

What that translates to in the case of the Pen, is that because the camera has no rangefinder for focussing, the excellent depth of field afforded by the lens virtually guarantees that all your shots will be in great focus, even if your estimate was slightly off.

The Pen was fitted with a fantastic Copal shutter, fantastic because it was virtually noiseless and vibration-less, meaning you could handhold your shots even at slow speeds of 1/25s…try selecting that speed on your modern digital camera and taking a shot hand-held!

Another clever innovation in the Pen camera was the way the viewfinder was designed. With normal cameras, the viewfinder is almost always arranged in the well-known 4:3 ratio view, ie 4 horizontally and 3 vertically, giving the common landscape format. But the Pen used a viewfinder that was portrait shaped; in other words, when you look through the viewfinder, you shot will be presented to you in portrait format, which is an entirely different way of arranging a viewfinder. So to get a normal photo, in 4:3 format, you have to turn the camera to it’s side.

Maitani knew that most people wouldn’t bother to turn the camera to it’s side, and so the photos they would take would come out in a unique portrait format, giving them a totally different look.

sample 35mm film showing half frame shots (notice each frame has 2 shots in it)

That is the nitty-gritty of the Pen design. What is the camera like in use? Well, I bet Maitani is laughing away in that camera heaven where he probably is now, because, as a twist of fate, the films that are available now are way better than films that were around when his camera first came out, meaning that even though the frame from a Pen camera is only half the size as from a normal 35mm camera, it’s shots are in many cases much better than those of full frame cameras costing substantially more.

And the Pen will give you 8 x 10 enlargements very easily indeed, too.

Maitani went on to produce other world beaters after this one, namely the Pen F and that micro-marvel, the Olympus XA, but we’ll talk about those in a later article!

the complete Pen range of cameras

“I have used and loved many cameras in my 65 years of photographing and this was one of my favorites. The reasons are simple: it was compact, easy, had great depth of field and 72 frames to a roll — meaning, cheap! Since I bought my film in 100 foot rolls and loaded it myself, it was even cheaper! As a half-frame camera, the orientation for holding the camera produces the opposite format photograph (e.g. hold the camera vertical to get a horizontal photo and vice versa).

Olympus made a number of versions of the Pen camera (so named because it aspired to be small like a pen!) The one I owned was the Pen W. The depth of field of its 25mm lens meant that when I went out to shoot street photography, I would set it for 8 feet and everything from 3-20 feet was in focus which was a great advantage.” Harold Feinstein, photographer.

“It has a very sharp lens; there’s no camera nonsense about it; no accessories or interchangeable lenses; people aren’t intimidated by a guy carrying so unimposing a gadget…” Gene Smith, photographer, talking about the Pen camera.


all photos courtesy unless otherwise indicated


About filmcamera999

ME & MY PASSION! ok, you probably looked at the length of this "about me" page and thought, god, what's wrong with this guy!....does he have to start telling us his life story or something!!? well, youve come here now anyways, so why not hear what im like as a person, eh? ive been using film cameras for well over 30 first one being the family yashicamat twin lens! over the years, ive both bought sold and collected film cameras...too many to tell the truth! in fact, ive been buying and selling cameras well before the internet came on the scene, so anything you purchase from me is backed by my self-styled moneyback promise.....if you dont like what youve bought, send it back within 14 days and you get all your money arguments!! WHERE I STAND ON THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION! yes, i do use digital as well, but only as a ready-reckoner...i try and take most shots with my simple 2megapixel digicam....if the shot looks good, i pull out my film camera and shoot! i most defintely do not believe in digital manipulation of photographs....that in my eyes is not photography...its cheating! WHERE I USED TO LIVE, WHERE I AM NOW & WHAT I WOULD LIKE TO DO! i used to live in Ontario, Canada, but moved back to the UK a little while ago (its a long story..!)...but now i'm living in the one place i always wanted to be...Vancouver, BC..the next best thing to paradise on earth! as i work as a freelance writer as well as other things, i often find hat my work takes me to europe for short spells, so i get to travel a lot...not a blessing, as i just hate long flights! im a qualified Quality Assurance guy (you know...ISO 9000, auditing, documentation etc) ....99% of my skill-set is transferable so i can handle any admin or documentation-related roles....see you in BC! otherwise, i specialise in ISO 9000 auditing and documentation. my dream? to have my own thriving camera shop in Vancouver BC, whilst living in the mountains somewhere.....the best of both worlds!
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6 Responses to Almost 50 years ago, a camera that gave you 72 shots per film!

  1. I remember my father carrying his half frame oly almost everywhere he went. He still uses it occasionally, for black and white work, though I aren’t aware of him developing a film in some time! 😉

    • hi, steve!
      yes, i still use my Oly Pen as often as i can…and develop the film myself, too…..a better half frame camera i havent seen in all my years of playing around with cameras!

  2. artsifrtsy says:

    I have always wanted a Pen – I shoot the digital Pen and love the feel of it in my hands. Someday I will find one and I will shoot it 🙂

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