“Oh no…” she says, reading the fortune. “…you got the worst one.”
April 8, 2022 8:05 AM   Subscribe

“The Pen’s perfect, or at least it’s everything I want a camera to be. Its design is genius, it’s easy to use, and it’s the most practical film camera I’ve ever used. More than even my most trusted cameras, it makes me want to keep shooting, keep having adventures, keep loving photography. I don’t think I had more fun shooting a camera than I did shooting this thing in Tokyo. I had plans to take it back with me to LA to shoot shows, recording sessions, tours, everything. It was going to be my number one. But then I actually got home, and all of those plans just… vanished.” — Surviving 2020 with an Olympus Pen FT, from Casual Photophile.
posted by oulipian (33 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
beautiful essay
posted by glonous keming at 8:23 AM on April 8, 2022 [3 favorites]


yes, my exact thought - a beautiful essay in this time of tweets, rants, and snark filled substack and medium dreck.

he lived that time in japan. he didn't perform it.
posted by j_curiouser at 8:42 AM on April 8, 2022 [6 favorites]

This is a beautiful essay. We too have had rolls of film that have taken far too many months (years?) to finish in the last few years. I've never read writing before that talks about holding sadness of an unfinished roll. Winter is grey here, and our Nikon FM has been sitting at 33 for months now. But we are about to stock up on rolls before a trip next week.

I've been dreaming of owning this camera for a while now, after seeing one for sale at a market for a very reasonable price and not buying it. I know I could get one shipped from Japan for money I could just about afford, but I can't quite bring myself to do it. Later I discovered that my mother-in-law used one for years, and lost the camera body when she left it with a local repairman who suddenly closed down and disappeared. She also says that there are a box of lenses hidden somewhere in this house. This camera is haunting me.
posted by distorte at 8:47 AM on April 8, 2022 [9 favorites]


Modern Olympus ('scuse me, OM System) cameras are still incredibly satisfying to use. I've got two camera bodies and a whole bag of little lenses and even when I'm fully loaded my kit only weighs about five pounds. Quite often I head out with nothing more than a (digital) PEN on a wrist strap, and it's a delight.

And I've barely taken any photos in two years. It's hard to get that feeling back.
posted by fedward at 8:49 AM on April 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

I love Tokyo, and until the convenience of digital and then phone cameras gradually lured me away, I loved improving my photography skills in an attempt to conquer the sometimes-frustrating, sometimes-thrilling uncertainty of shooting with film. And of course we've all had to contend with the turbulence and losses of the pandemic in our own way. This is wonderful; thank you for posting it.
posted by Tuba Toothpaste at 8:49 AM on April 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

What a moving essay. Thank you for sharing it.
posted by brainwane at 8:51 AM on April 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

I was a film holdout for a long time after the writing was on the wall in terms of digitization. There is definitely something about film that forces you to be more conscious about what you're doing, both because of the limited number of exposures per roll (and cost/effort per exposure), and the lack of instant gratification via a camera-back display. Many of the best photos I've ever taken, my personal Greatest Hits, were taken on film.

But... hot damn, it's a lot of work. Digital photography is a hard drug to detox from. Cameraphone digital photography even more so. Take a picture—take 10, 20 pictures, if you want—pick the best and trash the rest, crop, adjust, upload, share. Bask in feedback. That's a nice quick dopamine hit.

Going back to the pace of film is hard.

And the cost! I had a whole side-gig job in college just to pay for film processing when I switched from B&W to color. (I worked in a 1-hour lab as a camera salesman; the pay wasn't great but the manager let me run as many rolls as I wanted for $2 each. He was a large-format guy and I'm pretty sure was fudging the numbers so he could make off with half-used chemistry from the E-6 machine, and used to take waste ends from our paper rolls and mount them in his 8x10 film holders.) All this shenanigans so we could take pictures.

Like the author, now I have these cameras sitting in a shelf like objets d'art, and I always think about taking one of them, but it feels hard to justify the film, the chemicals, the time, the risk to the camera, eh—maybe just bring the digital.

Hope his roll comes out well.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:30 AM on April 8, 2022 [9 favorites]

I don’t know anything about photography but I really liked this essay. Thanks for sharing it.
posted by bookmammal at 9:37 AM on April 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

If your hiragana is rusty,
Arigato gozaimasu > Thank you very much.
posted by zamboni at 9:57 AM on April 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

物の哀れ (mono no aware)
posted by pol at 10:03 AM on April 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

I'm pretty sure was fudging the numbers so he could make off with half-used chemistry ...

Film photography is a helluva drug. I'd hate to think what the bill for ms scruss's learned-on-digital habit would be. Her trusty S95's shutter counter must be somewhere north of 50k by now.
posted by scruss at 10:13 AM on April 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

The Pen F series is just a wonder of camera engineering. It was designed by the amazing Maitani Yoshihisa who also designed the OM-1 and the glorious Olympus XA. I keep thinking about getting one and have had my cursor poised over the offer button on Ebay for a clean example more than once but I do try to not buy too many more cameras than I need. I still shoot primary on film (135, 120 and 4x5) and won't git it up until they finally stop making it and even they I'll probably resort to coating glass plates with emulsion to keep shooting.
posted by octothorpe at 10:14 AM on April 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

I'd hate to think what the bill for ms scruss's learned-on-digital habit would be.

I remember the first time I played with a camera that had a multi-shot bracket mode. We had a Minolta Maxxum 9 show up in a shipment from the warehouse—a weird mistake, not something we'd usually stock, way too high end for our customers. Beautifully made SLR, all titanium, beast of a camera. And I was playing with it in bracket mode and remember thinking "who the hell can afford to shoot like that?" Eight pictures per roll? Ridiculous.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:44 PM on April 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

This essay is right out of my own experiences. This?
The Pen’s perfect, or at least it’s everything I want a camera to be. Its design is genius, it’s easy to use, and it’s the most practical film camera I’ve ever used. More than even my most trusted cameras, it makes me want to keep shooting, keep having adventures, keep loving photography.
That's me. But you know once you handle one of the original Oly Pen F series (or frankly any of the Maitani designed Olympus cameras) they really get under your skin and it is hard to quit them.

My half frame Oly discovery came 16 years ago or so when I was pretty exhausted and disenchanted by digital photography. I hadn't shot really anything in a few years at that point but I happened upon a Pen EE3 second hand. That camera reminded me why I loved photography. I could be spontaneous, I could get a quality of image that film offered which digital (certainly at that point) didn't offer me and it was fun to use... That camera really inspired me. Not to be all hipster here but I found what I shot on that little camera to have a lot more soul then the digital. The Pen cameras really lend themselves to experimentation and linked / serial images. They are fun cameras - so I was hooked! After that initial camera, I scoured eBay and second hand stores and ended up with a lot - various Pen EEs, Ds, a beautiful EED but the Pen F series! Those are my favourites - I have a couple Fs, a few FTs and, my favourite, the FV. I even had, at one point, a medical Pen F which had a colonoscopy attachment!

One of the interesting things about the Pen F series, aside from being a beautiful engineering marvel, is that it was a huge system - so yeah they had the lenses which are still prized today but they also had all kinds of attachments including adapters for other lens systems - Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Leica screw mount lenses and even Exakta - which you could get to work in various capacities. Olympus sunk a lot into that camera and I think it really shows. I heartedly recommend them.
posted by Ashwagandha at 6:08 PM on April 8, 2022 [8 favorites]

Ashwagandha: if you're interested in discussing it, what's your workflow like when you shoot half-frame? Like, okay you load a roll of film and shoot it—then what? I guess for darkroom prints you could just use a regular enlarger with a half-frame film plate? Or do you scan? I think my cheap film scanner would balk at them.

I've always been interested in the half-frame cameras, and find the 3:4 aspect very pleasing for some reason...
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:53 PM on April 8, 2022

So glad of the mention of an Olympus M-1. It was my first camera, back in the late 70s, and I can still remember the sheer pleasure of its compactness. I’ve never even seen a PEN-F in the flesh, but the whole idea of the half-frame always interested me.
posted by lhauser at 9:02 PM on April 8, 2022

I don't do prints anymore as I don't currently have access to the equipment but I still develop and scan at home. When I did print them, I treated them as polyptych, specifically either as a diptych or triptych. Regarding scanning I won't lie, the negs are a pain to scan as they are not standard image size for most scanning programmes and scanning brackets. Cheaper negative scanners or even maybe drum scanners likely will get tripped up by them. So it is a lot of faffing about - I usually save the half frames up and do them all at once as a result. I do a lot of hand holding for the programme. Expect maybe double the amount of time, initially, compared to a typical full frame neg though with practice you can shorten it. I'm cutting the negatives generally in the same size range but occasionally a little longer or shorter depending on what I'm doing - I'm often taking a series of related images so sometimes I like to scan them together as polyptych. I've been using an older Epson scanner (a v500) with anti-Newton Ring glass but I haven't been super happy with the results but I'm not sure if it is me, the scanner or the various software. Probably a combination and it might be time for an upgrade. I've also used the method of scanning using a digital camera (or smart phone) and those are fine in a pinch but... I think I'm just fussier then I should be and I found I do way more post processing of the images but maybe I'm doing something wrong.

So if you're looking Kadin2048, there's a world of half frame cameras out there to try. Some are better than others but I really prefer the Olympus Pen F series personally (I think they are very easy to fall in love with but that's me) but the simpler point and shoot half frames from Olympus are all nice (the Pen EF for instance). Don't bother with the EMs or Rapid EEs though as they have issues. If you want a Pen F series, try for the Pen F (which has a double stroke film advance) or the FV (which has the single stroke advance). The FT while nice often has a dim viewfinder (they all have dim finders but the FT especially due to the coupled metering [which you can TOTALLY IGNORE as it usually isn't accurate] that was dependent on the old mercury batteries ). Be careful with buying the lenses as I've found they tend to be prone to fungus - make sure you can have a good look. Try to find the OM adapter for it as those lenses are good and work well with the Pen F bodies (though they look comically large - I often use my OM MACRO 50mm f/2.0 or the 24mm f/2.8 with good results though it is kind of heavy with them!) But if you have say Nikon or Pentax or Canon lenses you may want to invest in those adapters - I have limited experience with those so I can't speak to how well they work but good glass is good glass. The key standard Pen lenses to look for are the F Zuiko Auto S 38mm f1.8 which was roughly a 55mm (in 35mm equivalent) and as a secondary the G Zuiko Auto S 40mm f1.4 which was about a 58mm. I've always wanted the 38mm 2.8 "pancake" lens but never found one in my price range. Its pretty common but I'd skip the 50-90mm zoom as the optics are not great. There's other decent lenses but they are much rarer and can go for too much money (at least on auction). The medical Pens are a fun curiosity but you can't "convert" them into a standard Pen F so I would save your money. Sometimes, at least on Ebay, the Oly half frames get put into camera lots because the sellers don't know what they are so you can score them that way as well. And lastly, it is tough to find someone to service them so opt for the mostly mechanical SLRs (F & FV) as those have problems that are pretty typical (some of which you can do yourself) though the mirror mechanism is fairly unique. A lot of the ones I've looked at have issues with the timer - sometimes this is an easy fix other times it is too broken but it is hard to tell from an eBay listing. Corroded battery chambers on the FT can cause similar "broken" conditions that might be fixable. If the curtain or the mirror are damaged in anyway don't bother with it. I think that's the extent of my Oly Pen knowledge - hope it helps!
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:49 PM on April 8, 2022 [6 favorites]

Roof and porro prisms, for the uninitiated.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:13 AM on April 9, 2022

Uh, it wasn’t me who asked, but that’s a fantastic guide for getting a Pen F, thank you Ashwagandha.

I’d always imagined getting the FT because I’ve never really had a relaxed time without some kind of metering, but you have me doubting it. Do you use an external meter? You’re making me consider an original F with a hot shoe mounted meter or something…
posted by distorte at 3:21 AM on April 9, 2022

Yes, I use an external metre and / or the Sunny 16 rule. Even if you get an adapter for the battery or get the camera adjusted for modern battery voltage I've found the coupled metre on the FT just isn't accurate enough - it also uses its own proprietary system which is not complicated just a little weird so I never relied on it. YMMV of course. The Pen F has a clever little light metre gadget that fits over the shutter speed dial, similar to the ones that you see with the older rangefinders, that effectively acts like a coupled light metre. I've found those to be a bit more accurate but you have to find one that's functional first (I went through 3 before I found one that worked correctly). My only complaint with the Pen F is the double stroke advance vs the single of the FT and the FV. The single seems more natural but it is hardly a deal breaker. And the shutter is pretty loud especially if your coming to the Pen F from a quieter camera. I'm use to it but I know some people are taken aback by it.
posted by Ashwagandha at 6:46 AM on April 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Seconding or thirding the amazing XA. Even though it lacks the rangefinder the wider XA4 is a jewel too. I used to keep C41 B&W 400 in my XA and color print 200 in my XA4, with transparency in my SLR and was always ready for whatever situation came my way. Never tried a half frame but have been curious. My default has always been to shoot in portrait mode when suitable and it was a nice trick for unexpected compositions before everyone started shooting with wide angle smart phones.
posted by St. Oops at 11:26 AM on April 9, 2022

I picked up an XA at a yard sale for $10 last year and it's a great little camera. It's got some light-leaks from the foam being ancient so I wrap gaffer tape around it after I load it but I have a re-seal kit to fix that.
posted by octothorpe at 5:53 AM on April 10, 2022

Just make sure you don't get the XA 1 - that's the "bad" one of the series. The others are great but for clarity's sake - the XA (no 1 on the name) is a range finder and justly well regarded. The others (XA2, XA3, Xa4) are scale focus cameras though I think the standout is the XA4 which has a nice 28mm wide macro. They also come in red.
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:42 PM on April 10, 2022

My main problem with the XA is that I have giant hands and it's hard not to shoot a picture of your fingers.
posted by octothorpe at 7:24 AM on April 11, 2022

I have an XA too – a thrilling $5 thrift store find! – and it's a beautiful piece of gear. However, after shooting a couple of rolls where I repeatedly failed at focussing, I switched to carrying around an Olympus Trip 35. It's not too much larger, and much more forgiving. I'll pop another roll in my XA again soon and give it another shot (or 36).
posted by oulipian at 8:26 AM on April 11, 2022

oulipian, I wouldn't feel to bad with focusing as sometimes old rangefinders go out of whack (speaking as someone who's tried to have a go with rangefinders but was only happy with the images from a borrowed [that is to say out of my price range] but recently readjusted Leica) and even still they take some practice to get right. Though I did have some decent luck with an Oly 35SP and the Canon rangefinders - a Canon P & the fixed lens Canonet QL17. For my rangefinder friend his top compliment is "that's well focused."

The Trip 35 is remarkably forgiving (as long as the metre is working) - the half frame Pen EE & D work in a similar way so they might be worth a look for you.
posted by Ashwagandha at 7:48 AM on April 12, 2022

Still shooting film here 😌 I have an Olympus XA, a Nikon F2020, a Hasselblad 500 EL/M, a Fuji GSW690ii, and a Ricoh XR7. Two of my friends have the Pen F and I plan on getting one eventually.
posted by gucci mane at 12:58 PM on April 12, 2022

Oh the Fuji GSW690ii! Those are nice. I have, on semi-permanent loan from a friend's collection, a Fujica GS645W (has a wide fixed lens that's the equivalent of a 28mm on 35mm). My friend jokes that it is like the half frame of medium format (shoots 6x4.5) so it had a better home at my place. They look gigantic in small hands but they are beauties.
posted by Ashwagandha at 1:25 PM on April 12, 2022

I have way too many film cameras:

Olympus XA
Canon Elan IIe
Canon AE-1
Canon EOS-3
Canon AF35M
Yashica MG-1
Bronica ETR
Calumet 4x5 Monorail
Graflex Super Graphic
A bunch of Kodak Brownies
Pentax Spotmatic
A couple of Polaroid 600s
posted by octothorpe at 8:13 AM on April 13, 2022

I have way too many film cameras

My GAS has subsided in recent years, partially due to the cost of cameras going up, having less people around who can fix them reliably and having tried or owned most of the cameras I wanted, so I haven't been accumulating as much. Though there is always the issue of just getting rid of stuff - I have too many shelf queens. I think that's likely why I ended up focusing on a specific format and brand - a finite number to acquire, use and spark joy.
posted by Ashwagandha at 11:45 AM on April 13, 2022

I'm thinking of selling off the Elan, AE-1 and AF35M. The Elan was my main shooter but I've replaced it with the EOS-3 which is an amazing piece of technology. It's basically a Canon 5D but for film.

The Spotmatic was my Father-in-laws and has been all over the world so I can't get rid of that even though I seldom use it.

Mostly I use the EOS-3 and the Bronica and the monorail on occasion. I should drag it out more often because it can make some stunning images.
posted by octothorpe at 12:49 PM on April 13, 2022

The Bronica ETR is another of those medium format cameras I've tried and liked. There's a Bronica SQA (I think that was it) in a pawn shop that I go by that's been there for years. I asked once about it - it came from a retired wedding photographer and was in ok shape. I think initially they were asking for $600 Canadian for it but over the years it has steadily decreased but not enough for me to buy it on an impulse. There's a part of me that just gets sad for unloved cameras and wants to give them a home but there's also a larger part of me that usually wins that says "Do I really need another camera I don't shoot with?" When it comes to photography I think sometimes the gear gets in the way of the simple act of taking a picture.
posted by Ashwagandha at 10:25 PM on April 13, 2022

I've probably made most of my favorite images with the ETR (and even sold a few). It's got its quirks but 6x45 is such a wonderful format and the lenses are great.
posted by octothorpe at 4:55 AM on April 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

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