Shooting with the Olympus Pen FT/F Film Camera


Olympus Pen FT half frame film camera 

Film cameras are pretty cheap to procure from eBay these days and for me, I wanted to experience what having a half frame camera would be like. It's moments like these that challenge you as I have shot on 35mm film but never in half frame. The reason was simple. I didn't have the money to buy a half frame camera and had to settle for a 110 type compact film camera. Moving up to a 35mm camera was my next step up the ladder as by that time, the only half frame camera still selling was an automatic Yashica Samurai. It looked perfectly space age but I felt something wasn't right. It just didn't look like a real camera!

This is a single 35mm frame, captured by a half frame camera

After doing some research, I settled for two classics from the 60s, the Pen F and FT. The difference is one comes without a light meter while the other one has one built in. The F model was the first and chirpy to use. The viewfinder is bright and the lenses are pretty good. So good in fact many idiots ended up selling the lenses to MFT digital mirror camera users, leaving the bodies behind to gather dust. That means you can get plenty of F cameras but they are without any lenses. 

To be fair, there are Nikon F mount adapters as well as OM Lens versions. The problem is the availability of these mounts are pretty hard to come by these days. After all, the camera is close to half a century old (I must admit that I was born after the camera was introduced to this world). 

Having had experienced some of the best full frame film cameras like the Nikon FM and F4, going back to a camera that takes half frame is a bit disconnecting. Both the Pen FT and F are SLR type cameras, the only difference is that they have a very different type of lens arrangement and the FT suffers from a much darker viewfinder as some of the light has been siphoned off to power the light meter—making it a shade darker. This also means that in low light scenes, it will appear a little more difficult to focus. I prefer the F's focus screen as it's split screen so you can nail the focus faster than the FT. 

Anyway, if you want to start shooting with half frame pen cameras like the FT, and F, here are a couple of tips. 

Do not use a film faster than ASA 400 

ASA 400 film has more grain than ASA 100 film, so it goes to show that it's better to use lower ASA film to get a better result. The larger the grain, the more it will show once you enlarge the frame. 

Another thing is that film stocks differ too. For example, negative film has less contrast quality than compared to slide or positive film. You need to know the types of film and their quality before hand to get the best out of them. No two film stocks are alike.

Even for B/W film, those processed specifically in C-41 color chemicals exhibit a lower quality of contrast than those processed specifically with B/W chemicals. 

Some people even shot slide film with the half frame camera and there were half frame slides that could be used on slide projectors at one time. Slide film would be awesome but exposure would have to be spot on. 

Crop your scene in the camera viewfinder

Subjects like city skylines and landscapes are poor choices for half frame because you have a much smaller image to play with. In terms of distance to subject, the best are within 15 feet from your camera. If the subject is too small within the frame, you will have to crop it to make it look larger and unless you get high quality scans at 300dpi and above on positive film, chances are those images won't be suitable for further cropping when captured on negative film. 

this is a tight crop with the whole subject area filling the frame

In a full frame 35mm slide or negative, you don't have this problem as the film area is twice as large this allows for better clarity and composition as you can still crop the frame for a tighter composition and still have plenty left over for a good print. In half frame, you are discouraged from doing this as cropping it further will not enhance the detail and clarity as you are already stuck with a smaller frame. Blowing that up will lead to more dot grain. 

You have to think in terms of how much can you enlarge your half frame image before the quality starts to suffer. In camera cropping of the scene to fill your frame is recommended

Always use a Light Meter

Got an iPhone? Cool! Now download that light meter app that lets you use your iPhone measure spot exposure. The Pen FT has a built in meter but the F only comes with an external one. The problem with the FT meter is that it is not entirely accurate for spot readings. In light meters apps there are two varieties. 

The incidence light meter measures falling light from a source while a spot meter measures light at where you are pointing. The incidence light meter has a diffusion dome for a head while the spot meter uses the iPhone's camera to measure light from a desire location. It's not the most accurate but it does fine for general lighting but when it comes to high contrast scenes you have to take several measurements using the Zone System to best bring out the hidden details. 

Kodalux and Voigtlander lightmeters for film cameras

The zone system of film exposure tells you to measure both the highlight and low lights to ensure that the details are captured on film. 

You can also get those analogue light meters but the new ones are more accurate. Take for example the Voigtlander meter, it is very accurate and uses 2x LR44 batteries. Whereas the Kodalux doesn't use any batteries and can be subject to wear after the photo sensitive element wear out over time. 

Scanning and Post Production

Developing a roll and having it scanned is relatively easy but I must warn you that some photo labs don't do this. You need to have someone who has a color lab that also caters to the needs of film photographers to get high quality scans as most of the scanning done through color lab process is of a lower quality. 

I have not shot these on positive film but these will pose a bit of a problem as half frame slide mounts are very difficult to come by these days. In the old days, there were easy but I have only come across one or two sellers so far on eBay. 

That's not to say you can't shoot with positive film using half frame cameras if all you want is a scanned image for sharing and a physical slide frame for archival purposes. 

The half frame camera is quirky at best, something which you should be aware of from the very beginning. It's probably quite good for street photography and anything casual but wide angle shooting like landscapes and cityscapes would be extremely difficult to achieve. 

For one, the wide angle lenses from Olympus for the FT and F cameras are extremely's probably even next to impossible to get them now as can be seen by the relative prices of these lenses once they are available on eBay. Wide angle is probably the half frame camera's weakest point, and it shows. 

When you scan, and depending on the scanner used. The scanned image is no larger than 4 megapixels if you are using a 8 megapixel full frame scanner. You must not forget that you will lose picture quality once you start to divide the image in half. Bummer....but that's how it is. 

The last hurdle is really the lenses for the Pen F. These have become very hard to come by over the years because mirrorless camera users have been snapping them up. That also means there are a whole load of F cameras that sell without any lens and you can bargain that down cheap. To use, you will have to find a way to obtain a lens mount for full frame Nikon or Olympus OM lenses which is also relatively difficult to find these days. Besides this, shooting with a half frame is really an experience where you can learn to appreciate analog photography. The challenge is what you should be looking forward to as the mere click of a shutter to get a picture can easily be satisfied with just your mobile phone camera while the same can't be said for film cameras. 

Pen F, note the F motif. This is the first model


Training your Eye for Photography


It took many failed shots, many failed attempts to do what you read on those camera magazines and the result wasn't always perfect. That's how analog photography was in its heyday.

I started shooting on those point and shoot 110 cameras. No brainers really, they were fun...and limited in every aspect. I was in high school and there wasn't any money to buy better gear. I used my Dad's Minolta SRT which still works now, but the thing was far too heavy a responsibility for me to carry around if I accidentally lost it.

Besides, I spent whatever money I had on Popular Photography Magazine, and that had to pay off. You learn to use techniques featured to capture interesting photography. Take for example the Orton Slide Sandwich or double exposure. For me, I started to experiment with 110 cartridge film double exposure by taking one exposure and going to a dark place to open the camera, take out the film cartridge and winding the next frame in camera before putting the film cartridge back in. It worked!

The Orton Slide Sandwich was a failure though, I got a slide duplicator and sandwich two slides in between them to see what you got....the Orton technique wasn't rocket science. How you determine your line of sight needs some training. This is what people refer to as the Photographer's Eye.

What you see is what you Get

The first steps towards good imaging is that you have to engage your brains and heart all at the same time. I know that digital photography has changed things to the point that you don't really wait for a moment to happen but rather just fire away. What you see in frame is what you get. That's a whole lot easier than shooting with a compact film camera like the 110 camera I started with.

Learning to compose isn't that difficult. With digital, your learning curve is much lower. With every shot you make on a digital camera doesn't cost you a cent, shooting film on the other hand does cost you dearly.

Michael Doohan. Copyright Benard Quek
When I was shooting film, I could not afford to waste the moment. You had 36 frames and if you actually ran out of film at a crucial moment, you'd have lost that one moment while you were busy switching rolls.

The judicious use of film was crucial and you had to learn to spot the moment. You could of course carry two cameras but in the days of analogue you only did so because you carried different stocks of film in each camera. If you had one roll of slide in one camera, you'd carry b/w or faster slide film in the other. You did so as to avoid replicating what you are shooting with one camera to the next. People these days shoot countless selfies i the toilet. That's how cheap it is to capture a picture.

Today, with digital, you don't have to worry about this since you can dial in the filters even after shooting them. Post processing allowed you to do lots of stuff later. In analogue, you can't. The roll had to be processed, and to do any kind of post production, you had to scan them. Digital images on the other hand could easily be edited in-camera. No need to worry about highlights or blowouts. In RAW format, you can recover that in post processing.

Composition is Key

People often ask, what's the most important thing to learn in photography. For me, it was only one thing...composition. How you place you subjects within a frame mattered. Everything else is secondary.

Copyright Benard Quek

When I started in analogue, I didn't know that until much later. Then after countless rolls, you get the idea that you can compose better pictures by taking it from various angles and placing objects in the frame according to a grid of thirds. Once you get this, there is nothing else to learn as digital cameras often do everything for you, from calculating the right exposure to the white balance settings.

In film, we had so much more to worry about. White Balance had to be corrected using colored filters. And if you were shooting slide film like Kodachrome, the exposure latitude is very narrow and if you miss it, you are totally fucked. The wrong exposure will leave you with a unusable picture.

Learn to be Aware of your Surroundings

When you get up in the morning walk down the path to your nearest Starbucks, your level of awareness is not at the optimum. This is why you need to train your level of awareness to be alert for photo opportunities. Think of yourself as a hunter, except that you're on the look out for picture perfect moments. 

Copyright Benard Quek

In the digital age, we have a camera by our side all the time. Your smartphone is your weapon of choice. So learn to use it. 

By being aware of what is going on around you, everyday things starts to take on a different dimension. It becomes a challenge on how you can capture it as a good picture. You become aware of the angles, the dimension of given to your by the chose focal length of the lens, that sort of stuff.

You then realize that by training your eye constantly to look out for such things that it becomes second nature to you to chose the best angle and the best composition allowed.

Be Smart and See what Others See

After being exposed to a place or location for too long, you don't get to see much as you have seen it all before this is why photographers who want to build their eye for composition need to get out, see new things and get new inspiration. You get the lazy eye and you stop looking for picture moments. 

This helps to alleviate 'photographers fatigue' which often happens when you keep going back to the same place too often. I do agree that some places are just plain boring but it is for you to challenge the norm and come out with a picture to tell the tale. Other times, you get plain lazy to get out of the car just to snap a picture when you see one.

Once you have the Photographer's Eye, it remains with you until you consciously learn to turn it off. You learn to spot moments along the street, or as you go out for lunch and dinner and see something which you can do to make a beautiful picture.

Photography today is more accessible more than ever for people to take it up as a hobby and you don't need big heavy equipment for this like in the old days.

I started capturing photos used in print magazines using two used cameras, a Nikon FE2 and a Nikon FM2. The learning experience was extremely valuable but when transitioned to the digital age, most of what you needed to know no longer applied. All you need was your eye for a good picture and the camera would do the rest.


Making that Winning Shot!


Recently, one of my photos was featured in a photo competition by photocrowd and was subsequently carried by The Telegraph in the UK.

A lot of you would have asked, how this the picture came about? Fluke shot? The only way to tell is to look at a photographer's workflow or raw reel. From here you can tell what he was seeing. I had the pleasure of seeing these raw workflow from Michael Yamashita of NG and Michael Freeman when working with Sony Asia Pacific. And from this, you can tell where they were hitting and framing their shots.

This is something that most photographers do not want to share with you, choosing only the shortlisted or best shots. So you never learn what really happened.

Video of the Shots in Action

This was captured about five years ago, in Macau during the annual Grand Prix meet and the girls in the paddock were all strutting their wares (sponsor logos) and in it, I could not believe the number of photographers on hand to capture what was going on.

So throughout the three days, I was actually busy capturing content for a iPhone app and for that, there were lots to see and do.

The workflow for the winning shot is seen in the video enclosed and there was a few misses when people walked onto the frame, which happens very often.

When you are working in a hot and crowded environment, things are expected to go wrong, and with people walking all over the place, this is bound to happen.

A photo opportunity is missed because someone walked in, not caring if they were in frame and out again and as you wait for the moment to clear, that moment is history. You never get your shot.

This is why in digital, you have the option of working fast.

Angle of the frame is very important as you can see from the workflow shots in the video. In the shortest time possible, you have to nail this. And this isn't just from the perspective you want, that is on eye level.

Most of the time, photographers see scenes only from eye level. Sure you can have a variety of shots by zooming your lens in and out to frame it but going higher and lower is to me, your sense of perspective. This is what the photographer's eye is all about.

The camera I was using, a G1 from Panasonic didn't have that freedom as it was the first generation M43 sensors. I still love this camera and use it once in a while. It's dated of course, with a 12 megapixel sensor, my smartphone is a Galaxy Note 4 with 16 megapixels. So that's how far behind technology from yesteryears is.

I tried to make several shots of different crops. One was without the photographers in the picture, the others included them in various angles. The winning shot was cropped as there was someone walking right into frame.

Because the girls themselves were the main subject, the background became secondary. You basically shifted the main subject from across the frame, from center to off center to see how it works.

You cropped tight, and wide both while maintaining the perspective of the models. Remember when shooting such scenes, the environment is very fluid. They can be posing like they are now but not later. So no two scenes are going to be the same even if the models are hanging around the paddock area all the time.

Fortunately, the Sun was shining brightly, and into my LCD display which made it difficult to shoot. The color of the wings and attire just jumped out of the picture. So this was the main reason why it looked good. 

Stock Options?

The other thing is that, the photo itself has no commercial value if you include photographers in the picture, including the models' faces also means your photo is pretty much worthless when the faces are identifiable. This is main reason why I took the shot, one of the photographers shooting them for editorial value, the others without the photographers for stock image value.

To further enhance the image stock value, you have to personally remove the logos on the model's attire. A process I have yet to find time to do.

So if you happen to chance upon moments like this, think first about the sort of photos you wish to capture. Include both editorial and stock image possibilities as who knows? You might get lucky.