Sunday, 14 December 2014

Olympus Pen FT: Marrakech

Olympus Pen FT / 38mm f/1.8 / Fuji Velvia 100F

Off to Marrakech (and Essaouira) with an Olympus Pen FT. At this time of year Britain's weather is the meteorological equivalent of a boot stamping on a human face forever, and I can't think of any reason to stay. In fact Britain doesn't have much going for it even at the best of times. On a strategic level the location is superb; our bombers can reach the Continent, Scandinavia, North Africa and the Middle East, and so can our airlines. Historically Britain once had vast coal deposits, which came in handy during the industrial revolution and meant that Britain was, for a time, an energy powerhouse. Nowadays Britain is an attractive investment haven. It has a stable government, a strong military, and a police force that doesn't ask questions of the very wealthy or demand bribes.

But unless you are wealthy Britain is no good. The people are stupid and fat, the weather is awful, there's no cultural or artistic tradition, everything is very expensive, and yes not all of the people are stupid and fat - Steven Hawking is clever, Keira Knightley has a BMI of 18.6, which puts her at the lower end of the normal range - but the vast majority are worthless. Keira Knightley obviously is an exception. She is valuable. She is good and pure, and when I am King she will be Queen. Or Helena Bonham-Carter if Keira Knightley refuses. I know that some people don't like Keira Knightley. When I am King they will learn to love her. Or else.

It's not so much that I dislike stupid fat people. I don't have a problem with stupid fat happy people. It's not even a lack of intellectual curiosity that bugs me. The problem is that Britain has a tradition of aggressively stupid people; people who aren't simply dumb, they're actively ignorant and suspicious of knowledge. As if they were dimly aware of their own inadequacies but unable to man up and confront them. I mention this because despite the obvious merits of eliminating most of the population plus the existing Royal Family and replacing them with myself and Keira Knightley and our offspring and some robots to do the work, neither of the main political parties have so far agreed to implement my plan. Indeed the police were downright angry when I tried to present my ideas to David Cameron and they have forbidden me from sending letters to the Duke of Hamilton as well.

The Pen F is a half-frame SLR from the 1960s. Olympus made almost half a million of them spread across three different models. Mine is a Pen FT, the most popular of the three. It accounted of over half of the F's sales. Compared to the original F, the FT has an uncoupled lightmeter, single-stroke film wind-on and a couple of other tweaks. Judging by the serial number mine is apparently the very first Pen FT to leave the factory in 1971, which means that it's five years older than me.

The original Pen F was launched in 1963, in the midst of a short-lived half-frame boom. Design-wise it was the work of top late genius Yoshihisa Maitani, who had sparked off the boom in 1959 with the original viewfinder Pen, a tiny but well-made compact that shot twice as many images on standard 35mm film as the competition. Maitani wasn't quite on top of his game - in my opinion the OM models were his high water mark - but at least on a visual level the Pen F is one of the best-looking cameras of all time, one of the most attractive objects of the last half-century. It looks like a cross between a rangefinder and a compact camera, but it's actually a full-blown SLR, with a through-the-lens viewfinder and an interchangeable lens mount. The half-frame format allowed Maitani to fit the shutter, viewfinder, and lens into a space about three inches cubed, with the mirror arrangement turned on its side, and as a consequence the F has the lens mount shifted off to the left.

What was half-frame? Half-frame cameras used standard 35mm film, but the images were half the size. They were the same shape as standard 35mm pictures, but turned on their side, and so when you look through the viewfinder of a Pen F the image is in portrait orientation. Half-frame was popular for a while because you could take lots of shots with short film rolls, but perhaps because of this Kodak never embraced the format, and it didn't take off in the United States. Kodak wanted people to buy more film, not less, and in the US half-frame was dwarfed, nay crushed by Instamatic and 110. Most blog posts that talk about half-frame blame the format's demise on the Minox and Rollei compact 35mm cameras of the 1970s, but half-frame was already dying off by then, and the German cameras were generally aimed at a posher market.

I've always had a soft spot for half-frame. The resolution is essentially the same as 35mm motion picture film, and it's neat having 72 shots per roll. Photo labs process it without any issues because the frame gaps are in the same place as standard 35mm, and my Epson V500 scans it without any problems. The scanner assumes that each pair of pictures is a single 35mm image with a black lamp-post running through the middle. I like the way that the images are paired; I can see a little bit of my thought processes as I selected shots, and the juxtapositions are sometimes striking.

The original Pen F was manual everything. You had to use an external meter or informed guesswork if you wanted the pictures to turn out right. It was sold between 1963 and 1966. Olympus enlisted top late photojournalist and Hemingway-esque photographic icon Eugene Smith for the adverts, although I have no idea whether he actually used it. He was a fan of smaller film formats, and had been sacked by Newsweek in the 1930s for refusing to use 5x4 plate cameras, and photojournalists are a pragmatic lot, and (breathe in) the Pen F would have been pretty much a drop-in replacement for contemporary Leicas, and I began this sentence some time ago, and it now has a life of its own, and it would be wrong to end it

The FT was sold from 1966 right until the end of the run, in 1972. The uncoupled electronic lightmeter means that you still have to set the shutter and aperture yourself, but with the FT there's a readout in the viewfinder that helps you. It has a strip of numbers, running 0-7 from top to bottom, which match up with numbers on the lens. You're supposed to set the shutter to roughly the correct speed, check the meter, and then select (say) 3 on the lens. The lens also has a conventional aperture scale which you can bring into play by pulling and twisting the aperture ring.

The shutter runs from one second to 1/500th, with flash sync at all speeds. The Pen FT has a PC terminal but no hotshoe, so you have to mount the flash on a bracket. As far as I can tell the original Pen F didn't even have a PC terminal, so I'm not sure whether it supported flash at all. My FT was made in 1971, forty-three years ago, but the shutter and meter are still accurate. The shutter fires with a reassuringly solid sound. This is one respect where rangefinders have the Pen F beat; rangefinders are usually much quieter.

The meter uses PX625 mercury batteries, which were discontinued long ago. I have an adapter that lets me use silver oxide 386 batteries instead. Of late a Russian source on eBay has started selling PX625s, apparently from a military stockpile, so you have to ask yourself whether you want to (a) buy one of these batteries for £10 but run the risk that it will explode or contain a bug (b) spend £30 on an adapter (c) spend £100 on a second-hand Sekonic L-308. Good luck! Assuming you want to use the meter at all. Mine is still accurate, you might want to check yours before you shoot slide film. For this article I used an external meter for the first five minutes and then gave up on it because the FT's meter is accurate enough for slide film.

Velvia 100F

The FT had a couple of physical tweaks to support the meter. There's a window in the top plate that channels sunlight into the meter display so that you can see it clearly. The viewfinder itself is apparently dimmer than the F, because some of the light is diverted to the meter, but I haven't used an F so I can't compare them. The shutter speed dial runs from ISO 25 to ISO 400, which means that you're going to have to do some mental mathematics if you want to use faster film. Given that this is 2014, and the only films left are Ektar 100 and Fuji Superia 400, that's less of a problem than it was in the 1990s.

The FT was followed by the FV, which was essentially an FT without the meter - but with the original Pen F's brighter viewfinder. It was available in chrome and black, and was sold as a budget alternative to the FT. As fate would have it the black FVs are now the most sought-after Pen F model, because they look awesome and they have a nice viewfinder. The Pen F range was discontinued in 1972, making way for the compact, full-frame Olympus OM.

The Pen F was the only half-frame SLR with interchangeable lenses, although surprisingly it wasn't the only half-frame SLR. In 1988 Yashica tried to revive the format with the Samurai, an autofocus bridge camera with a through-the-lens viewfinder and a built-in zoom lens. It looked like a video camera and seems to have sold well enough for a plethora of badge-engineed copies, although nobody remembers it nowadays.

Olympus sold a modest range of Pen F lenses, which ran from a 20mm wide angle to a rare and expensive 800mm mirror lens plus a couple of telephoto zooms. For years after the demise of the Pen F they languished in obscurity until a new wave of interchangeable-lens digital rangefinders made them desirable again. They're well-made, cute little metal lenses that can be adapted for Micro Four-Thirds and Sony NEX bodies. Half-frame has a cropping factor of 1.4x, roughly the same as APS-H, and so the 20mm f/3.5 is a 28mm, the standard 38mm is a 53mm, the 60mm f/1.5 portrait lens is an 84mm, etc. On M43 digital bodies the focal length is doubled, on NEX it is multiplied by 1.6.

The big star lens was a 42mm f/1.2. The slightly posh normal was a 40mm f/1.4. Apart from the 800mm mirror lens there were no exotics - no fisheye, no soft focus, no tilt-shift, although there was a 38mm macro and a 38mm pancake. Zeiss built a prototype 54mm f/2, but otherwise there were no third party lenses for the system. Olympus sold adapters that allowed standard SLR lenses to fit on the Pen F, but these adapters are rare and expensive nowadays. I have only ever seen M42 and T-Mount adapters, but there were apparently Nikon and OM adapters as well. There was also a Leica M39 adapter, although sadly this only allowed M39 lenses to focus in the macro range.

I only have the standard 38mm f/1.8. EDIT: Although many years later I bought the 25mm f/2.8, which is just as good but less bokeh-licious. I don't have a problem with it. It focuses very closely, I didn't notice any distortion or CA or glow. The filter thread is an odd 43mm. It's interesting to compare it with the later OM lenses - the aperture stop-down and lens release buttons are mounted on the lens rather than the camera body, but whereas OM lenses had them at 180 degrees from each other Pen F lenses mount them at 45 degrees, like Dalek ears.

I mention up the page that the Pen F is a good-looking camera. The styling has something of the jet age about it, particularly the dynamic step in the top plate. Maitani reused this design idea in the later Trip 35, which seems to have been based heavily on the Pen F but with the lens mount put in the middle rather than off to one side. The gently curving body is nice to hold and looks as if it is bulging with goodness. It's roughly the same size as an Olympus OM or Pentax ME but shorter and flatter; it's not as small as I was expecting, although it fits into a pocket much more easily than a conventional SLR because it's smooth. It's surprisingly heavy, too, although that makes it feel more expensive. I'm sure that Mr Man-About-Town circa 1962 would have been thrilled to buy a Pen for his wife, and would have felt that he got his money's worth. Judging by an article on Popular Mechanics, September 1964, the price of the Pen F was around $140 back then, which hovers around $1,000 nowadays.

On the negative side the shutter speed dial looks like an afterthought. It's not quite in the right place to turn without taking your hand off the camera, and it spoils the body's smooth lines. The OM system had the shutter dial mounted around the lens mount, and it's a shame Maitani didn't have the idea ten years earlier. On a mechanical level the Pen F is apparently a tricky repair. The shutter is a metal semi-circle that rotates very quickly rather than flapping up and down. It's made of titanium, but it's very thin and easily damaged. It seems that there were no obvious design flaws, but with twice as many shots per roll the cameras apparently wear out and the compact innards are difficult to work on. Mine has a sticker inside the film area stating that it was served by South Coast Camera Engineers, Southsea, although sadly there's no date. The company appears to have gone bust in 1985. It's odd to think of the Pen F and 1985 in the same mental breath. The F's metal body and curvaceous styling would have seemed centuries old in the mid 1980s.

And, yes, Marrakech. And Essaouira. It was the beginning of December but not once did I hear Slade's "Merry XMas Everybody". Marrakech has not changed very much since I was there last, reason being that it is starved of investment. There is a new shopping mall under construction between the centre of town and the airport but in general the potholes are the same, the crumbling semi-completed buildings are still half-finished. The poverty is charming if you're a tourist - poor people are cute - but probably not much fun if you have to live there; if you're a young man looking forwards to a future of sitting behind a market stall until you die, earning just enough to live but nowhere near enough to improve your life or the lives of your children.

My solution would be to demolish the marketplace, move the poor people to slums on the outskirts, slash tax, basically strip-mine the country and use the locals as slave labour, with myself as king and the most beautiful Moroccan woman as Queen, although we would spend most of our time outside the country, in an expensive house in London that the people of Morocco paid for. This wouldn't help the people of Marrakech very much, but as King of Morocco I would have to ask myself whether it is better for all Moroccans to be poor, or for one of them to be very wealthy. And if the burden of wealth has to fall on my shoulders, so be it.

Putting on my serious hat, it seems that without oil or any other means of "cheating", Morocco's economy relies on slow, steady growth, and that in order for this to work and for the people to have a better life, the economy has to be managed; managed efficiently; managed efficiently over the course of decades, nay centuries; and that it has to be managed openly and transparently, so that the population understand why they can't have 4K televisions now, but their children might. The problem is that stable, effective long-term economic management is difficult, and Morocco is at the mercy of crises both external and internal.

Is it that simple? Are the problems facing North and South Africa really that simple? Is it the case that wisdom, strength, unity and respect are the only things needed to manage a country effectively? Why haven't more countries adopted those values? I can only attribute it to human error.

The Atlas Mountains are far away