Well, I’m trying to, really! But hear me out. This one’s a little different…
When I started delving into learning film photography again, I decided to stick with 35mm. The cameras are the most plentiful, there’s heaps of really good ones, 35mm film stock is readily available and relatively affordable. All of the 35mm cameras I’ve used up until this point are “full frame”: the negative image area is 36mm by 24mm. But there is one other semi-common frame size available, and that’s “half-frame”, 18mm by 24mm!
Why does this frame format exist? Well, back when color 35mm film was starting to become popular in the later 1950’s,* the film and developing was still pretty expensive. To make color 35mm photography more affordable for the masses, Olympus introduced their half-frame Pen camera in 1959. What would normally be a 20 exposure roll** now became 40, and the 36 became 72! While there was some loss in image quality because of reduced image size, the overall savings was worth it for many folks. And because of the smaller image area, Olympus could make these cameras smaller, hence the Pen moniker: One could theoretically put the camera in a pocket, much like a pen. Olympus sold scads of different Pen cameras throughout the next two decades, even as color prices came down and small full-frame cameras were introduced.
I had heard about half-frame cameras when I started reading up on film cameras. At the time I thought they sounded neat, but they didn’t excite me. Why would I want half the frame? Then over the last month, I got tempted by the pics that Tim in Wisconsin was getting with his Pen FT. And I also started to think about the “hole” in my camera collection a half-frame camera could fill.
The camera that started my new love of film photography, the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s, is great. But it’s a beast. When I got excited about shooting film all the time, I immediately thought about long bike rides and bike tours, and the kinds of cameras that would work best for that. I’d need something smaller. The Olympus XA2 fits that bill. And the new-to-me Olympus 35RD is also compact enough to take along. But there’s still the film to worry about. Yeah yeah, I could just go digital with my iPhone and not worry. But I’ve been having heaps of fun with film, so I want to explore the ways I can keep on shooting film while on a bike. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could double the amount of shots I got from a roll? That’d mean I wouldn’t have to bring as much film, especially on a longer bike tour…
I started to check out ye olde eBay for half-frame cameras. The cheapest ones to be found come from the former Eastern Bloc, as they made their share. (Makes sense since there wasn’t as much disposable income there.) But I heard some not-so-great things about these cameras, and most of them would have to be shipped from those former Eastern Bloc countries. I am not opposed to buying stuff from Russia, but the last time I ordered something from there it took over two months. No, I wanted something that would be shipped from the US. And while most Japanese companies had at least one half-frame offering, I was tempted by the cachet and selection of the Olympus Pens. While this would break my streak of getting Olympus cameras for free, it was a streak I’d be willing to break.
Now which Pen to get? Not only were there many models, but also several categories. The F series are SLRs, the best of the lot. But they aren’t cheap. Neither is the D series with fast (sub f/2) lenses and manual metering. The original Pen and Pen S feature manual exposure control but no meter. Cool, but I was thinking that the Pen I wanted first would be more “snapshot” like, something more in line with my Olympus XA2. That steered me to the EE series.
EE stands for “electric eye”. This term was used a lot in the 1960s to denote cameras that had metering. In-camera meters were then sexy and new. The EE series got their metering via selenium cells. They’re sort of primitive and not as good as the cadmium sulfide (CdS) cells that came after. But they don’t need batteries, which is a point in their favor, especially since many CdS cell cameras from the ’60s and ’70s needed now-banned (and always-toxic) mercury cells to operate. There is one caveat: selenium can lose its “oomph” over time, especially if its been continuously exposed to light. And the Pen EE series require the meters to operate, since they are automatic exposure: there’s little to no control over it. A dead meter means a dead camera. I hope I would luck out…
The one model I put my sights on was a Pen EES-2, which came out towards the end of the ’60s. The EES-2 looked to be the best option in the EE Series: It has a fairly fast f/2.8 lens. It also has a four-zone focusing system (some EE Series cameras are fixed focus),*** and while it is designed for automatic exposure at two shutter speeds (1/40 and 1/200 second), it has an aperture override ring (primarily designed for flash use).**** While this aperture control only works at the 1/40 second shutter speed, I’d really only be needing it in low light, so that’s okay. (If you try to shoot on auto exposure and there’s not enough light, the camera will lift up a red flag in the viewfinder and lock the shutter, preventing you from taking the shot.) The EES-2 is basically the venerable Olympus Trip 35 in half-frame format. People really like the Trip 35, so it made me feel pretty good about this diminutive shooter.
So I got one for pretty cheap on eBay. It was untested and had a bent filter ring, which seemed common for these cameras. It was a chance I was willing to take. Famous last words! When I got it, I noticed that the aperture wasn’t working correctly. I could get it at apertures from f/22 to about f/8, but it wouldn’t open up any wider, no matter what I did. I took it to the camera shop when I was picking up the Olympus 35RD. They fixed the problem: Whatever bent the ring knocked the aperture selector out-of-whack as well. So it was good to go! Now the critical test: how does it shoot?
I put a test roll of Kodak Ultramax 400 through it and shot over a couple days. Most of the shots came from a bike ride I did to St Johns. The Pen EES-2 was pretty easy to shoot with, and fun! I was used to zone-focusing already, so I didn’t have the hang-up some people have with it. As long as I was in the “mountain” or “group shot” zone, I should get good shots. The biggest thing to get used to is “portrait” orientation of framing. With any other 35mm camera, the default shooting is landscape, turning it sideways for portrait. But on a half-frame camera, it’s reversed. I guess this isn’t as big of a deal nowadays, since smartphone cameras have turned everyone into a portrait-mode shooter. Olympus was ahead of the game!
I filled up the roll and sent it to Citizens Photo for processing. I waited with anticipation: Will I get decent shots? I got the pics back on Friday December 11th and the answer was: Yes! The pics came out great. The automatic exposure worked well, and most shots were in focus. I even did some low-light shots where I turned the aperture ring to f/2.8 and got some decent results.***** This camera is a keeper.
Next up will be testing the Pen EES-2 with black and white. Unfortunately due to the dented filter ring means I can’t use threaded filters. I could theoretically use a 45 mm “press-on” filter that would go around the ring, but they seem extremely rare, and I wonder if they’d stay on. Then again, I’ve been shooting a lot of black and white on the Olympus XA2, and there’s no practical way to filter that camera either. We’ll see what the results look like. And I think I’ll try out some 200 speed film for the next color roll. With the smaller image, the grain of the 400 speed film was much more noticeable.
I’ve had a lot of fun shooting the Olympus Pen EES-2. It definitely would be a good companion for a bike tour, whenever I get around to it…
Photos from/of the Olympus Pen EES-2 can be seen below, or click here.
*There were some half-frame 35mm cameras that came out earlier, but by the time the late ’50s rolled around there was nothing on the market.
**The 20 exposure roll standard moved to 24 around 1980.
***It’s interesting to think that Olympus would go to the extreme of making a half-frame SLR, but as far as I know all the rest were viewfinder cameras with either fixed or zone focus. I’m surprised they never got around to making a half-frame rangefinder. That would be awesome!
****I’ll also point out that the EES-2 has a hinged film door and auto-reset film counter, whereas many of the other Pen cameras feature a removable back and a manual-reset film counter.
*****To note: I was expecting to see two images together in one jpg, as this seems to be the standard when photo finishers deal with half-frame processing. Nope, Citizens scanned each individual image separately, and they did it at their full resolution of 3000x2000dpi.