Tuesday, 22 February 2011

In Praise of the Olympus Pen

 The original Olympus Pen was a series of half-frame cameras produced by Olympus between 1959-1983 (the name has recently been revived for its Micro Four-Thirds digital system cameras). The Pen EE3 model came out in 1973 and was produced for a decade. It has a fixed-focus 28mm f1:3.5 Zuiko lens, which equates to 40mm in full-frame 35mm format. Exposure is controlled by a selenium cell meter surrounding the lens that matches aperture to one of two shutter speeds, either 1/40th or 1/200th. ASA (ISO) settings run from 25 to 400, and the camera has a hot shoe and PC socket for use with an external flash. If there is insufficient light, a red indicator appears in the viewfinder, and the shutter won't fire. There isn't much scope for manually overriding the automatic exposure, except by turning the film speed ring away from the ASA settings: there are distance markings from 1 to 4 metres for the dedicated GN14 flash, or aperture numbers for a generic flash. Without a film speed selected, the shutter defaults to 1/40th of a second for flash sync.

When I was at college in the 1990s, with the internet in its infancy, information about different cameras was harder to come by. Much of this simply came from talking to people with more knowledge and experience. A photography tutor at college, Mick Williamson, had been keeping a half-frame photo-diary, and I was inspired by this a few years later when a half-frame camera appeared in the window of the local camera shop. Before Ebay, a decent camera shop would have at most a few dozen secondhand cameras in stock at any one time. It could have been any model of half-frame camera; it happened to be the Olympus Pen EE3. I bought the camera just as I was about to leave college, and it came in useful for documenting the build-up to my end of year show. Using the Pen EE3 then was rather like the way most people use digital cameras today, film felt a lot less precious when one could shoot 72 frames before needing to change the roll. Compact for a film camera, it's small enough to carry around, works without batteries thanks to the selenium meter, and is easy to use: not needing to set exposure controls or focus the lens makes operating the camera simply about framing.

Olympus Pen EE3 sample

Of course, having an image area half that of a conventional 35mm frame does mean that the resultant photographs will have larger grain relative to their size. Set against the smaller frame size however, the Zuiko lens is pretty sharp, and the results are good especially when used with slower, finer grained films. The above image was shot on FP4 film, rated at 200 ISO (I personally like the slightly increased contrast of pushing the film 2/3s of a stop, as well as the extra speed), developed in Rodinal at a dilution of 1:50.

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