It’s strange how a camera that cost me nothing (it was gifted to me) and has precious little in the way of controls became my joint favourite camera. The Olympus PEN-EE, like it’s spiritual successor the PEN E-PM1, is a simple and capable little thing that never fails to make you smile. Besides the fun factor, common to both are a compact, lightweight, solidly built body and a half-35mm frame size. In the PEN EE, this gives a cute wee unit that can pack up to 72 frames on a 36 shot film. Whilst that pales in comparison to the latest digital cameras, I think its astonishing for a mechanical device, especially considering the first PEN camera was launched in 1959. This is testimony to the skill of Yoshihisa Maitani, who developed the PEN film-camera series, and OM-series SLR cameras, amongst others.
Two generations of PEN-EE were made, before derivatives such as the EE2 and EE3 came along. The earlier PEN-EE has a leather-like finish, whilst the later ones (such as mine) have a basket-weave finish. The camera automatically adjusts the lens aperture, according to the lighting conditions seen by the selenium-based meter surrounding the lens. Being the later model, mine has a fixed shutter speed of 1/250s if you set the ISO of the film you’re using, as opposed to 1/60s of the original model. To use flash, the ISO ring has an aperture setting available, which changes the shutter speed to 1/30s (the original remained at 1/60s). This aperture setting also functions without flash for those times when you want manual control. The meter, like all selenium meters, is likely to have degraded over time. This hasn’t been the case with mine, I’m pleased to say.
The four element D.Zuiko 28mm f/3.5 lens of the PEN-EE is focus-free in a similar vein to the Olympus 15mm f/8 body cap lens available for Micro Four Thirds cameras. This is achieved by setting the lens at the hyper-focal distance, where the maximal amount of the image is in focus. The variable aperture in the PEN-EE is a slight hindrance, as the ensuing depth of field variations can make it difficult under lower light to get everything you want in focus. However, in critical applications, you can cheat by using the manual aperture setting.
Composing shots is interesting, as the frame in the camera is vertical (i.e. you take portraits when the camera is horizontal, and landscapes when the camera is vertical). The viewfinder is very simple, with a bright rectangle in the window showing the rough framing of the shot. There is no readout of any description, so you’re forced to focus on the composition. Personally, I like this in a camera I’m going to be walking around with, as it prioritises taking photos, rather than missing photos for the sake of changing a few settings.
The only modification I have made to my PEN-EE is the installation of black felt and black wool, as I find these are more robust and effective than the perishable foam ones normally fitted. Other than that, the camera is as it was gifted to me, paint chips, minor dents and all. It even wears an unmarked original Olympus UV filter on the lens, in the impossibly small 22.5mm diameter.
The Olympus PEN-EE is a fun camera, whose elegant lines and rugged simplicity have borne the past fifty or so years with aplomb. It’s a camera I relish taking off the shelf and running a roll of my favourite film through, and one which will always have a home in my collection.