Sunday, 4 August 2013

Olympus Pen: Pony Plumes

Olympus Pen (1959) / Kodak Ektar 100

Yeah, Lemony Pups, Spume Pylon, Pulpy Omens... Lumpy Spone, it's easy to make anagrams of Olympus Pen. It's easy to make anagrams, but it takes strength to be gentle and kind. Today we're going to have a look at the original Olympus Pen, a half-frame compact camera from 1959.

Ah, Boris Johnson. I will miss him. As Mayor of London he has a knack of taking things that his predecessor thought up, and making them his own. There are few more dramatic ways of making something your own than by exhibiting a big blue cock on it.

I was originally going to call this post Half-Frame Haberdasher and perhaps in a future life I might do that. Here's what it looks like, nestling behind an XA2. Nestling, lurking, sidling up behind an XA2:

The two cameras were designed by the late, great Yoshihisa Maitani. They date from different eras and were created to solve slightly different problems. The XA2 was a budget variation of the Olympus XA, which had been designed in the late 1970s so that naked Japanese truck drivers could take pictures of burning trucks. No, seriously. Maitani was in a bathhouse when he noticed a truck on fire, but he hadn't brought a camera with him, and couldn't take a picture. The XA was designed to solve that problem. It was sort-of water resistant-ish, I assume the idea is that it could be slipped into a jacket pocket (which would be dangling next to the bath) so that if a truck caught fire the photographer could whip it out.

The Pen, on the other hand, was never designed to photograph burning trucks, although I'm sure it could do so - it was instead meant to give Olympus a budget model that the company could sell to the masses, and if the masses wanted to photograph burning trucks that was up to them.

Maitani joined Olympus in 1956, and after completing his induction he decided that Olympus needed a budget model to fill out the lower end of Olympus' range. A tiny pocket camera that would appeal not only to men but to the other people - women - as well, who at the time made up a tiny proportion of the camera market. It would use standard 35mm film, but to save money it would take half-sized pictures, squeezing 72 shots out of a 36-shot roll (or, in those days, 40 shots from a 20-shot roll). Here's what half-frame looks like:

Half-frame vs full-frame 35mm. The 36x24mm format was picked by Leica in order to maximise the frame size on 35mm film - Hollywood stuck with 24x18mm in part because it used less film. In the 1960s, the widescreen VistaVision format used 36x24mm, but didn't catch on.

That's some Kodak TMAX 100, with standard 35mm in the middle, flanked left and right by half-frame images shot with the Olympus Pen. Olympus called it "single frame", because each frame is roughly the same size as a single frame of 35mm motion picture film minus the soundtrack. In movie-making terms it would be called four-perf, because each frame has four sprocket holes.

From a marketing point of view single frame sounds a lot better than half frame, because half implies that the consumer is getting... well, half, which is less. Canon called their own half-frame cameras Demi, and Yashica called the format Double 35, a neat bit of copywriting. On the other hand, Yashica and Fujica were bold enough to embrace half (for the f/1.7 Yashica Half 17, for example), but then again some companies have better marketing men than others.

In the 1950s Olympus sold a mixture of medium format folding cameras that dated from before the war, and a line of fixed-lens rangefinders, but they were all quite expensive - as the story goes, the cheapest Olympus cost 23,000 yen, one and a half months' wages for a young Japanese salaryman. Maitani decided he could do better than that, and with some clever engineering the Pen ended up selling for only 6,000 yen. How much is that nowadays? How much did a car cost in late-50s Japan? I have no idea. The yen was set at 360 to the dollar in those days, so 6,000 yen would have been about $16.6 dollars, which equates to $131 nowadays, but I doubt that's a meaningful comparison. Japan's economy was still suffering from post-war austerity in 1959, but it was picking up, and perhaps because of this the Pen was a big seller.

Maitani spent most of his budget on the lens, in this case a 28mm f/3.5, roughly equivalent to a 40mm in full-frame terms. The depth of field is such that once stopped down to f/8 you can simply use zone focus, and to this end the focus wheel has d├ętentes at seven and fifteen feet. The lens is just fine, although later Pens introduce a more versatile f/2.8 design, and the posher Pen D3 had a 32mm f/1.7. Bear in mind that without an SLR mirror you can take hand-held shots at very low speeds so in practice I don't mind the slower lens.

Beyond the slightly fussy lens surround the Pen's body is sleekly minimalist and has aged very well. The plastic frame winding wheel and manually-reset frame counter are testament to Olympus' budget constraints, but otherwise it feels very tough and solid and has a nice heft.

At first Olympus was too busy for the Pen, and the first batch of cameras were outsourced to Sanko Shoji, a company that apparently still exists. They sold like hot cakes and soon Olympus brought production in-house. Mine is a v1.3 model, with two strap lugs. The v1.2 model had one strap lug and the original had a number of other differences. In practice I don't bother with a strap, I just hold it in my hand. It's the same size as a modern digital compact rangefinder and roughly the same weight, because the body is made out of metal.

The original Pen is manual everything - later Pens introduced automatic exposure, with a selenium "Electric Eye" lightmeter, but I had to use a handheld meter for the shots in this post. The EE models were very popular, and sold in even greater numbers than the original Pen. The range culminated in the late 1960s with the Pen F, an SLR which remains one of the most beautiful cameras of all time, perhaps one of the most beautiful consumer objects.

Overall, Olympus sold 17 million half-frame Pens. Maitani went on to repeat his success with the Olympus Trip 35, essentially a full-frame variation of the later Pen EE models, and then the OM SLR range and the XA.

As formats go, half-frame was big in Japan, not so much elsewhere. US-based Popular Science ran a feature on half-frame cameras in its December 1965 issue. The article points out that Kodak was not keen on the format, which is entirely understandable. Kodak wanted people to buy more film, not less. People feel sorry for Kodak nowadays because it's a wounded giant, but during its heyday the company was frustratingly hard to love. Its goal was to dominate the film market by forcing consumers to pay more money for less film, generally wrapped in a spurious plastic case so as to justify the cost. A plastic case that only Kodak knew how to make.

At the time of half-frame's heyday Kodak was pushing the 126 Instamatic format, which took twenty 26x26 images. The company's next idea was 110, which used even smaller negatives, and for the 1980s Kodak reached a kind of nadir with Disc, which had an 8x10mm negative area on 15-shot discs. Disc was a notorious flop. By the 1990s Kodak was no longer the dominant force in the film world, and APS was co-promoted by Fuji and most of the leading camera manufacturers. Just like 126, the format was smaller than 35mm and housed in a special plastic case. It had a number of features that no-one ever used, such as the ability to switch film mid-roll, and a magnetic strip that could be used to select which frames should be printed.

A version of Marc Quinn's "Alison Lapper Pregnant" - the first thing I associate with the fourth plinth - was exhibited at the 2013 Venice Biennale, still pissing off the right people.

All of these formats were sold with lots of guff about how easy they were to load into the camera, but the reality is that they were all driven by a desire to sell a smaller film format at a higher price (in a special plastic case). I'm old enough to remember APS when it was new. It was trendy, very briefly, or at least the original Canon Ixus was trendy:

But compared to 35mm the APS cartridges cost more and were more expensive to process. Conventional wisdom has it that half-frame was killed off by a new wave of compact cameras that shot full-frame 35mm, but that doesn't convince me. It seems more likely that it was displaced by 126 Instamatic, which was launched just as half-frame was starting to sell outside Japan. Popular Science presents half-frame as the other, whereas Instamatic is normal. Mr and Mrs 1970 didn't care about frame sizes, and probably didn't understand the difference between half-frame and full-frame; they bought Kodak Instamatics instead, because the cameras were slightly cheaper and came in a nice case, and they were normal and sold by Kodak, which was a normal company like Ford and General Motors. It's true that full-frame rangefinders and compacts took off in the 1970s, but they were aimed at a higher price point than the half-frame models, which were already dead by that time. It was 126 and 110 that killed half-frame. Specifically the cameras, which were sold in Argos and bought on impulse by people who took pictures three times a year, using the film cartridge that came with the camera. Not the Rollei 35.

Half-frame briefly sprang back to life in the late 1980s, with the Kyocera / Yashica Samurai, an all-in-one bridge camera that looked like a camcorder. It failed to produce a half-frame renaissance, although the Samurai brand lived on into the digital age (it came to an end with the Samurai 2100DG, a two megapixel digital camera).

Surprisingly, the half-frame Pen range lingered on into the early 1980s, by which time Olympus still made the EE-3 (a metal-bodied throwback to the 1960s) and the Pen EF, which resembled a typical plastic early-80s compact with a built-in flash. And then for twenty years there was silence.

Epson's Digital ICE seems to have gone a bit wonky (notice the blue square third from bottom in the right frame - it must have had one heck of a dust speck).

"That is not dead which can eternal lie /
and with strange aeons even death may die"

In 2009 Olympus revived the Pen name with the Pen EP-1, a compact digital camera with an interchangeable lens mount. The New Pen used a mixture of design cues from the Pen F and even the original 1959 Pen - the mode select control is the spitting image of the Pen's plastic film advance dial. At a time when the digital camera market was stuck in a rut, the EP-1 was a huge and influential success that opened up a whole new market for compact digital rangefinders. A plethora, almost a glut of interchangeable-lens rangefinders followed in its wake.

Yoshihisa Maitani lived just long enough to see it. He passed away in July 2009. Almost immediately afterwards Olympus became embroiled in a messy accounting scandal, as if fate had decided to spare Maitani from having to watch his company torn apart. Nonetheless Olympus pulled through, and in 2012 the company launched the OM-D, a digital reincarnation of Maitani's 1970s OM system. Assuming that Olympus is working through Maintani's legacy in chronological order, their next product will be a digital XA.

But what's the original Pen like? The fact of being able to take 72 shots per roll is a mixed blessing. It's awkward if you just want to take snaps of the dog in the garden. On the positive side, it encourages a storytelling style of photography, and it's the only miniature film format that is entirely unproblematic to process and scan nowadays. Photo labs cut the film strips at the gap in between frames, and my Epson V500 film scanner simply treats the format as standard 35mm, scanning two frames at once.

Happie Loves It at Covent Garden. I think the logo is supposed to represent the sun peeking out from behind a pair of sprouts, or y-fronts, I'm not sure. Is it a testicle? The shop is supposedly run by a pair of people called Sean and Happie, but there seems to be no evidence that either of them exist except as names.

Ergonomically the Pen has an awkward shutter speed dial - it's too small - and I kept wishing it had a rangefinder. Surprisingly there was never a rangefinder Pen, and if you want proper focusing it's the Pen F SLR or nothing. Sadly, used Pen Fs have fallen into the same grey area as the Leica CL and old Contax rangefinders - they're too expensive to buy as novelties, too old to mend if they break, and lenses for the system are expensive and hard to come by (they have been hoovered up by a new generation of photographers, because they can be adapted to work with modern digital rangefinders).

The Pen's implementation of half-frame is orientated portrait-style. A few half-frame cameras were designed so that the film ran vertically, just like a movie camera - such as the Canon Dial 35 and the Russian Agat 18 - but most were held horizontally. If you're used to taking photographs in landscape orientation, half-frame forces you to think about composition, which is a good thing.

The tiles are made by a French street artist called Invader, by the way. He pastes them up all over the place.

What else? My Epson V500 is not the last word in film scanning technology, but the resolution of half-frame 35mm is more than enough for the internet. The Pen's small size is somewhat offset by the need to carry around a lightmeter, although one of these little chaps would be a perfect accompaniment for the Pen's good looks. The lens seems to have succumbed to flare a couple of times, and with a 22.5mm filter thread you can't easily use a screw-in hood or filters.

Kodak Ektar is a meaty, beefy film. It goes a bit yellow when it's overexposed, which I seem to have done most of the time. I suspect my decision to take my Pen for a spin without sticking in some new light sealing foam was rash. Several months after writing this article I bought this light sealing kit for the Pen S, which used the same body. You get a wooden poking stick, which was very useful. It was easy to replace the seal in the base, very difficult to replace the seal in the body, and in the end I just jammed in some foam using the poking stick.

Judging by the picture just below the leak was coming from the top but with new foam in the base, the back of the camera fits more snugly now, so I'll have to take it for another spin to see if I've cured the problem.

With a top shutter speed of only 1/200 I found myself shooting at f/16 an awful lot, and if you load 400-speed film indoors you face a choice between shooting off 30-odd frames before you can change rolls, or wasting film. It's a shame there was never a mid-range Pen model, with a rangefinder, a 1/500 shutter and an f/2.8 lens. That would be perfect. A Ricoh 500 ME that shoots half-frame would be sweet as a nut.

It was interesting to experience half-frame. In the early days of 35mm, the pre-Leica period, it seemed to be the dominant format (either that or 24x24mm). The Leica A was an expensive, premium product then as now, and it wasn't until the mass-market Argus A of 1936 that full-frame 35mm took off. Even as late as 1948 Nikon's early rangefinders used a slightly narrower 32x24mm frame. Transport me back to the 1930s, and I would have bet against full-frame 35mm - if you want a big negative, shoot medium format - which just goes to show that if you and I are ever transported into the 1930s, you shouldn't rely solely on me for advice.