Olympus Pen EES-2: Constant Companion

For the uninitiated: The Olympus Pen EES-2 camera was produced for a few years starting in 1968. It uses standard 35mm film, but like every other camera that is part of the original Olympus Pen film camera series that started in 1959, it creates an image only half the size of a standard 35 mm frame–18 x 24 mm vs the standard 24 x 36 mm. This format is referred to as “half-frame”. Olympus created this line to give consumers more bang for their buck, as film (especially color stock) was still fairly expensive in the 1960s. Instead of the standard 36 frames on a full-length roll, one can get 72! Half-frame cameras fell out of favor by the end of the 60s as film prices came down, but Olympus still produced Pen cameras into the early 80s.

Read about when I got my first Olympus Pen EES-2 here, and what happened to it here.

Since I got back my second Olympus EES-2 camera from the shop in January, I have used it a lot. Besides a few dalliances with my Minolta SR-T 101 and Olympus 35 RD, I’ve used it pretty consistently since then. (I also generally bring the Olympus XA-2 along as well.) It’s a great “bring-along” camera: While not as small as compact as the XA2, it’s still fairly compact, weighing in at a hair under 14 ounces sans film (385 g), my only other camera (besides the XA2) that falls below a pound.*

The small size screams “pocket” camera, but it also has two conventional lugs. I often throw a shoulder strap on it and have it with me when I bike. Since it’s under a pound it barely feels like anything on my back. And a simple zone-focus camera is a lot easier to shoot on the fly from the bike, especially since I keep it in the “group snap” zone, which keeps things in focus from 10 feet (3m) to almost infinity. This simplicity has made it a great biking camera. It’s what I took with me when I biked to Milo McIver last month to camp. I can see the Pen EES-2/XA2 being a great combination for bike camping and touring.

A self-portrait with me holding the Pen EES-2. Laurelhurst Park, 27 April 2021. Shot with Olympus XA2, Kodak Tri-X Pan.

Another thing that will make the Pen EES-2 a great bike tour companion is the economy of half-frame. One can get 72 shots on a 36 exposure roll, though I’ve managed to squeeze out 78 exposures on a couple of rolls! Getting the most out of a roll of film will be handy when I’m on the road, especially when I don’t want to be encumbered by loads of spare rolls. Let’s face it: the days of reliably picking up a roll of film at any store are long gone, so stretching out what I got is useful.

But size and economy don’t mean anything if the results suck. Thankfully the Olympus Pen EES-2 takes great pictures! I’m amazed by the sharpness and rendering of the D.Zuiko 30mm f/2.8 lens.** Some photographers look down on the half-frame format because of the smaller negative image, saying things like “an iPhone 6 gives better resolution than a half-frame film camera”. I’ve owned an iPhone 8 for a few years and have taken many photos with it. I like the images I get from my Pen EES-2 so much better, resolution be damned. It is true that pictures can look a bit granier when you blow it up, but for the sizes that I view the images, it hasn’t mattered. It also helps that my lab, Citizens Photo, scans each image at the same resolution as a standard-frame image.*** And while a camera with auto-exposure and just two shutter speeds (1/200 and 1/40) may be perceived as limiting, it’s the results that matter. And the results with the Pen EES-2 are great.

I’ve shot mostly in color, but did put a roll of Kodak Tri-X to test it with black and white stock. I was impressed by the results! I want to shoot more black and white, but I really want to find a yellow (or even red) filter in the oddball 43.5mm size. I did use a 49mm yellow filter with adaptor ring when I shot the Tri-X, but the bigger filter is definitely noticeable in the (already small enough) viewfinder window. I know that Tripman in the UK sells filters in this size, but with shipping I’d be paying as much for the filter as I did for the camera!**** So I’ll keep my out. (And yes, I’m interested if you happen to have one, so long as you don’t want too much!)

1 April 2021. Camera: Olympus Pen EES-2. Film: Kodak ColorPlus 200.

Of course, the Olympus Pen EES-2 is not perfect, then again no camera is. I wish there was a self-timer, and an indication in the viewfinder as to what focus zone and aperture setting you’re on. (The Olympus Trip 35, the full-frame sister to the Pen EES-2, does this.) But it might be hard to fit all that into the small viewfinder. Speaking of that viewfinder, I mostly shoot in portrait mode, since I’d have to turn the camera sideways for landscape. It’s a refreshing change from my other cameras and it gets me thinking differently about composition.

The Olympus Pen EES-2 has become a constant companion. Half-frame cameras make great take-everywhere cameras: Since you squeeze more shots out of a roll, it lowers your inhibitions and gets you to take more photos. I realize that a big selling point for getting (back) into film photography is the finite nature of film, which makes you more thoughtful about what you shoot. But having a camera where I can get almost 80 shots to a roll is more akin to using a smartphone for photography. It allows me to document my day and the world around me without stressing out, wondering if that last shot was worth the 43 cents.***** It allowed me to take a lot of photos of things like trees blooming and flowers blossoming this past spring. And I did that all without getting hung up about “not taking photography to the next level” or something. And it’s even better when this little camera that squeezes out the shots produces great results!

For photos from the Olympus Pen EES-2, see the dynamic flickr album below. Or, click here.

Oh yeah, pick up an Olympus Pen EE that I made from my Etsy shop.

Trunk texture. 25 Jan 2021

*The next biggest, the Olympus 35 RD, comes in at 1 pound 3 ounces.

**Since it’s a half-frame camera, the 30mm focal length is comparable to a 43mm focal length on a standard-frame camera.

***And doesn’t charge me extra for doing that!

****Not counting the money I spent on servicing the camera.

*****Estimated cost per frame of a 36 exposure roll of Kodak ColorPlus 200 ($5.00) with develop and scan at Citizens Photo ($10.50)

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