I'll start with a little bit of background. In the 1960's Olympus starting making cameras that used a half frame of 35mm film instead of the full frame. They called these "half frame" cameras. Most of the cameras were little compacts that were very light weight and easy to use. People who made small prints bought them to save money. And, even back then, people were trying to shove cameras into their pockets...
The half frame is really the same size as a "full frame" frame of 35mm movie film. Honest. What we consider full frame is actually "double frame." But I don't want to head down that rabbit hole right now. Having enjoyed a certain amount of success in the market the designers and dreamers at Olympus thought that there would be demand for a more sophisticated camera system that would keep the half frame film size but include some really cool things like a rotary, titanium shutter that syncs at all speeds, interchangeable lenses that are really, really good, and a mirrored reflex finder. Which made the camera a genuine "SLR." This was known as the Pen F system.
The camera was used by plenty of photojournalists who embraced the camera for the same reasons people are flocking to mirrorless cameras in the present: They were smaller, more discreet, easier to carry and very capable. In fact, one of the most famous photographers in the 20th century, Eugene Smith, appeared in ads for the Pen F's and shot with them on assignments. My favorite ad for the Pens is one in which Olympus showed how the whole system can fit in a shoe box.
But the reason the system had legs and sold reasonably well was the lenses. That's something Olympus has always done well. I won't go in for the standard hyperbole and suggest that they made lenses that are just as good as the current Leica M lenses but they were damn good and the half frame lenses were specifically designed for the smaller rectangle of film that the smaller cameras shot so they were optimized for higher resolution than the typical 35mm lenses of the day. It makes sense, the frames would have to be enlarged to a much greater degree in order to make the standard, black and white 8x10 inch prints that were the lingua Franca of the day.
What finally killed the Olympus half frame cameras? In a word? Color print film. Why? Because the labs begged for automated printers and those printers were never designed to deal with the odd ball size of the negatives. If people couldn't get film printed cheaply they weren't really interested. So what worked well in the days when people did their own lab work, and when labs handled each negative individually, didn't work as well in the age of automation. Too bad because it's a great little system. I should know, I have five of the Pen FT bodies and the collection of lenses in the first photo, plus some duplicates of my favorites in the Olympus equipment drawer. The one guarded by angry black Mamba snakes...
When the new, digital Pens came out I realized that the shorter lens flange to sensor dimension would make mounting lots of different lenses on the bodies a pretty straightforward deal. When I heard that adapters were already being made I jumped into the micro four thirds cameras mostly in order to breathe new, digital life into a collection of lenses that were interesting and, in some cases, a little exotic. And I have not been disappointed. But I'd never done the real test where you mount the lenses on the highest res digital camera you own and put that on a tripod with the self timer engaged and start looking at how the glass performs....wide open. And stuff like that. So I did. And I found out some interesting stuff.
Two 1,000 bulb LED lights make for a quick and simple photo set up with lots of lumens for stopping down and using the slowest ISO on the GH2. I think that's 160. The black flag to the right is serving no purpose whatsoever. It just happened to be there when I was setting up.
I chose to the Panasonic Lumix GH2 for my tests because the sensor is acknowledged, at this juncture, to be the highest res of the m4/3 tribe. It's also easy to use in a studio setting. Set preview to constant and shoot in M and you'll see each change you make to aperture, shutter speed and ISO right on the screen. Tap on the screen to increase magnification for fine focus...
Let me introduce you to the motley crew of lenses and say a little something about each one. I feel like I'm introducing family. Why am I in so little hurry to snap up the new primes coming to market? Because I think I've already got cooler ones. Take the 60mm 1.5, for example. No other company makes anything nearly as cool for the smaller cameras. Center sharpness is okay at full aperture and, like most lens designs of the time, you'll want to add some contrast to your files. These lenses are not post processing free but when done well you can squeeze really good performance out of them. When you hit f3.5 you are sharp from corner to corner and it's a very convincing sharpness. Hell yes, I use it for theatre shots. And portraits in dark and moody coffee shops and more. It uses the same lens hood at the 50mm to 90mm zoom lens. It's becoming rare and a bit costly but if you find a clean one you might want to put in on your camera and give it a spin. If you shoot portraits I can pretty much guarantee that it's a struggle your credit card will win.
Reader Note: you can click on any of the photos and they will come up much bigger in a separate window. I uploaded files that are 1200 pixels on the long edge so you might want to depend on the text for my observations about their performance.
above and just below: the 60mm 1.5
In every system there's one lens that shows up everywhere. Like the ubiquitous 50mm 1.8's for 35mm cameras. Or the 18-55mm kit zooms for APS-C cameras. In the Pen F hierarchy that lens would be the 38mm 1.8. It's small, light, fast and well corrected. This was my everyday shooter in the film days. While most of the Pen F lenses are able to be used wide open they tend to mimic standard gauss designs in that the center is sharp at or near wide open and stopping the lens down brings greater and greater corner sharpness. By f4 the lens is really good and by f8 it's as perfect as you could want it to be.
Above: think of the 38mm as the budget "system lens"
I think of the 70mm f2 as the equivalent of the standard 35mm 135mm lens. In particular, I think of mine as the 135 f2 L series of the Pens. It's not nearly as sharp as that much more modern lens, when used wide open but it sharpens up nicely one stop down and, by f4 is monster good. If flares a little in contrajour light so I try to always use it with a hood or shade the front element with my hand... It's a great "candid" shooter.
the 70mm. half the weight of the chunky 60mm.
There are really two lenses that haven't jumped through the time travel portal with the same success as the longer focal lengths. Those are the 20mm 3.5 and the 25mm 2.8. The 20mm is widest Pen F lens that ever got made and it's really nothing to write home about until you stop it down to f5.6. And alarmingly, at least with my copy, it tends to start flying apart with diffraction softening right at f11. By the time you get to f16 you'll think you forgot to focus. Which actually brings up something we need to talk about. There's a lot of focus shifting, as you stop down, in some of these lenses (especially the zoom). If you focus wide open and then stop down you may or may not have some safety with depth of field but you'll be way better off to stop down first and then focus. Which is how the older lenses work on the mirrorless camera anyhow. If you need a 20mm you might want to pass on one of these and head straight of the Panasonic. The 20mm 1.7 Panasonic may be one of the most beloved optics of the entire family m43 system...
I've gotten detailed shots from the 20mm Pen F lens but I've had to boast contrast a lot to make them work. And adding a bit of saturation won't hurt either...
Above: the 20mm 3.5. Not quite the sharpest of the flock.
Now. Someone get me a drool bib. This is one of my favorite lenses of all. The fabulous 40mm 1.4. I think of it as the high speed standard of the entire small camera universe. There was faster and very rare 42mm 1.2 but it wasn't as well corrected as the 1.4 and weighed nearly twice as much. I shot some flat stuff in the studio today which is represented below. At 1.4 it's decent. Not a lot of micro detail in the files. But one stop down brings it to parity with just about anything out there. At f2.8 it's sharper than the Canon 50mm 1.4 at 2.8 and even a little sharper, to my eye, than the Zeiss 50mm 1.4 at 2.8. When you hit f4 it's like you put a macro lens on the front of your camera. Sharp and contrasty over the whole frame. Kinda like that Olympus 45mm 1.8 they've been shopping around.....only this puppy is a two thirds of a stop faster. And it looks even better because it's black.
It's my photojournalist wannabe lens. I love it for portraits and candids and street shooting and just about anything that requires a slightly longer prime optic. The Panasonic camera seemed to swell with pride when I put this on the lens mount.
The crowning achievement of PenF lens design.
Not because it's exotic but because it's nearly
Reader tip about lens adapters: I have three different adapter rings that allow me to mount Pen F lenses on the m4/3 digital cameras. All three of them will allow the lens to focus past infinity. That means that the focusing scale on the lens barrel becomes meaningless. And that reduced the lens's usability as a zone focusing "street shooter". If I had the time I'd probably figure out the positions for hyperfocal distances and mark them on the lens barrel with a red dot but.....I'm too lazy. Or I spend too much time writing. At any rate you are now warned not to trust the infinity setting on any legacy lens mounted via an adapter. Test before you set to infinity and go out for walk. Even with the wide angles. Especially with the wide angles...
And, Olympus knew how to do hoods. Nice hoods with
thumbscrews. You tighten, they stay in place.
Which brings me to a lens that is an enigma to me. The 25mm. For the longest time I thought this lens and the 20mm lens were not very good and not very sharp. Today I changed my mind. This is the first time I've put them on a tripod and then used live view to focus. My focusing skills with the smaller format are a pale ghost of my medium format focusing skills and I think it's because the finders on the Pen F cameras are old tech, very dark and the DOF of the short focal length makes everything look like it's in focus in the viewfinder (when viewed tiny) while it's not sharp if blown up.
Today I put this lens on the GH2 and focused at 8x magnification and shot test shots. And I like them. There's good detail everywhere. It's not going to replace a fast focusing and bright lens like the Leica/Lumix 25mm 1.4 but it's very well done and, when stopped down to 5.6 it does a very nice job with subjects that give you enough time to check focus. Sad about the lack of true infinity on the adapter rings because it's a focal length that would lend itself to zone focusing and shooting from the hip.
the 25mm 2.8. Beautifully made.
And now revealed to actually be sharp.
Which brings me to the longest half frame lens in my collection, the 150mm f4. If you play the equivalent game this optic gives you the same angle of view on m4/3 as a 300mm on a full frame film or digital camera. This is another lens that never really satisfied me until I put it on the EP2. With the benefit of adjustable (by focal length) image stabilization I was able to hold it still enough for distance shots to discover that it is really well corrected and sharp. One reader of a previous post about this lens pointed out what might be veiling glare but I think it's really just the lower contrast of a design from the late 1960's when a lower contrast lens with good sharpness was actually a benefit to people who shot black and white film in contrasty situations. You could always add contrast in the darkroom with graded papers or multi-grade papers but you couldn't bring back blown highlights or blocked shadows.
It was an epiphany to actually put the lens on a tripod and do the two second self time as a release mechanism. The magnification works against hand holding. Especially on the GH2 which doesn't have IS in the body. If used correctly I find the lens to be quite good wide open and at its best when used at 5.6. With a judicious boost of contrast and a moderate dose of saturation in your favorite post processing program you'll have snappy photos with some nice compression. And it works well as a long lens for video. As long as you're on the sticks.... A big benefit, vis-a-vis full frame, is that it's 1/3 the size and weight of the bigger format's equivalent.
Go long. And pack light.
I like the 300 f4. Especially now that I know
the sharpness issues were really just
my lazy technique.
Back in the late 1960's zoom lenses were really just a novelty and most of them (with the exception of the Nikkor 80-200 f4.5) were unsharp and unsatisfying. But this lens from Olympus is pretty good. Not nearly as good as the single focal length lenses above but head and shoulders above most of the dreck that was available way back then. I wasn't old enough to shoot back then but I used the older zooms when I was on a budget in the earlier times of my amateur career as a photographer.
The focal length is not long, is corresponds to about 100mm to 180mm's but it seems just right for a guy who likes to do classical portraiture. While it's not stunningly sharp at 3.5 it's pretty nice by the time you get to f5.6. And.....it's a constant aperture zoom. Nothing changes as you change focal lengths. It's not a true parafocal zoom. It does shift focus as you zoom which means you'll want to refocus every time you shift focal lengths. If you press it into service for video you'll find that it shifts the image a lot as you focus. The way to use this lens is to line up your shot and lock in your parameters, then shoot your scene and move on. I wouldn't try to follow focus with this one.
An early telephoto zoom that acquits itself nicely at
f5.6. And it's less than a quarter the volume of
a Canon 70-200mm L lens. This one I could
carry all day long....
While I'm not going to review it because I never really use it I also have a 2x converter for the system.
I haven't been able to suspend my belief that
older teleconverters suck so I've only tried this
once, on the 150 and handheld. If it's not sharp or
if it is sharp, how would I know? I'll try it sooner or later
and let you know.
40mm wide open.
40mm at f4
60mm wide open.
60mm at f3.5
70mm wide open
70mm at f4
50 on the zoom.
60 on the zoom
70 on the zoom
90 on the zoom wide open
90 on the zoom at 5.6
90 on the zoom
Physical Construction: The Olympus Pen F lenses are made in the way we've come to expect products from the height of the industrial age to have been made. Knurled metal barrel that are designed to offer just the right friction for your fingers, with areas of small indents alternating with big scallops to provide the sense that you'll always have a great grip. The lenses are small but dense and feel as though they are made to last a photographer's lifetime. And the proof is in the pudding. Several of the lenses I have trace their origin back to around 1968. And they were well used. But the focusing rings are still smooth and sure in operation, the spring back for the auto aperture is still free of drag and the mounting rings look brand new. Even the stop down button and the locking buttons are made of well crafted and robust metal. If there is plastic anywhere on any of the lenses I've not been able to find it.
If Panasonic and/or Olympus introduces focus peaking in their next generation of cameras I'll be in heaven and will probably put off buying the current, popular primes for a long time.
Recommendations. Of the lenses I've listed, most, beside the 38mm's, are going to be too expensive to be practical purchases. Both Panasonic and Olympus have better performing (and easier to focus) wide angle and wide/normal lenses than the 20mm and 25mm. The sweet spot for me would be the 40mm 1.4, the 60mm 1.5 and the 70mm f2. All are wonderful lenses that are competitive with just about anything you'll find today ( provided that the glass is in good shape and not fogged in the least).
If I had to choose just one it would be the 60mm 1.5. It's physically beautiful on the camera and the view through the EVF, or even on the rear screen, of the GH2 is wonderful. With one touch of a button I'm able to fine focus at 8x and, one stop down the lens doesn't miss a beat. A far cry from the slow kit lenses that most of us suffer with.
Since I own the 40 and the 60 Pen F lenses I've put off buying the 45mm 1.8. But I keep seeing images that impress me. If I do buy one it will be because I have become to lazy to manually focus my 60. But for now, I'll persevere.
So why do I write this when probably no more than a few handfuls of people have any interest in MF lenses for mirrorless cameras? Because the Pen F lenses deserve some recognition. They set a standard in their days that's taken forty years to be re-invented. And that's very cool.
Thanks for reading.
Below, the full sized, 4000+ pixel test of the 60mm at f3.5. Jpeg (8 quality) sharpened. click it and see.