The first generation of Olympus "small sensor" cameras.

Painter in the marketplace.  San Antonio. Scanned at 4800 dpi for a final size of 10x15 @300DPI.Reduced to 2000 by 1300 for the blog.

Scanned at 2400 DPI and reduced for the blog.

I've written often about my admiration for the original line of Olympus Pen-F and Pen FT cameras but I rarely show many photos from that camera.  One reason is that I long since gave away my dedicated film scanner and I didn't think the cheap flat bed scanner I used for everything else was up to doing scans of really small transparencies. The actual film size is less than half a frame of 35mm film.  I think that makes this ancient line of cameras the first real "smaller sensor" professional cameras.

Once Eugene Richards, a bunch of Life Magazine photographers and a few Magnum photographers adopted to the half frame, with it's very small and discrete form factor, the photo community at large didn't even try to start arguing about "equivalence" or the impossibility of doing professional work with small cameras.  Back then all that mattered was results.  And generally the images were judged for things like: content, timing, composition and juxtaposition.  Not ultimate sharpness and certainly not a camera's performance at a zillion ISO.  Maybe that's why they called the 1960's and 1970's the "golden age" of photography... It was largely done by impassioned artists and not geeks with the hots for working out the SNR on a graph.

I was cleaning up the studio this week, in anticipation of painting the walls, when I came across a metal case full of 1/2 frame transparencies.  Most of it is portraits of Belinda from the 1980's and Ben from the 1990's but there were a bunch of slides I shot in San Antonio that I always liked.  So I decided to give the much maligned flatbed a test run.  I tossed on the slide holder (holds four) and revved up the Epson Scan Software (runs with no hitches on OS 10.7).  

The images above and below were all shot on some day in 1980.  That's what the slide mount says. That's 32 year old film technology in a small space.  I was pretty amazed at how well it holds up when scanned.  If I remember correctly I was using a standard FT camera with the 40mm 1.4 lens.  The meter had long since given up the ghost so I was dependent on guessing and conjecturing.  Which is kind of scary given the limited dynamic range of color slide film at the time.

These informal tests tell me lots of different, unconnected things. First they tell me that, for around $160 new right now, the Epson V500 is a pretty darn good, all around scanner.  Just about perfect for the person who is knee deep in digital but still wants to tool around with film.  It tells me that the half frame format was capable of doing good service up to 8x12 inches for most uses. The lens seems sharp and snappy for something created over 45 years ago.

I can see that I was able to focus manually much better thirty years ago but I'm convinced it's a practice thing rather than whole scale disintegration so I'll keep practicing.

Finally, looking at the images reminds me that there was so much less to decide on back then.  If you left the house with a pocket full of 100 ISO daylight film you made due with that.  If you left the house with one lens and a body you tried to squeeze the most out of that combination.  Largely, everything else is just a distraction.  

I'm not saying I hate digital or I'm only going to shoot film from now on but I would like to be on record as saying that someone could satisfy a big niche of the market by putting out a digital camera with only five controls on it:  Focus. Aperture.  Shutter Speed.  Color balance.  ISO.

All the rest of the stuff we keep getting is just bullshit to fill our minds with mush and make the process of taking photograph harder than it needs to be.  If we had fewer decisions to make we sure have a hell of a lot more concentration on what's in front of the camera.

And, to the smarty pants who will write and tell me how I can turn off all the unwanted items, I have to respond:  It's not the same thing as designing elegantly in the first place.

Raspas by the Alamo.

The black and white conversion in SnapSeed is not bad.


Sean Staples said...

I love these little looks into the past. The photos and your commentary. Bill Cunningham talks for a second in his documentary about the original PEN cameras. Someone gave it to him and told him he could shoot twice as much on a roll and he was sold.

I'm curious Kirk, did you go on your photo walks back in these days like you do now, or did you just always have a camera most places you went?

Bat54 said...

.....a digital camera with only five controls on it: Focus. Aperture. Shutter Speed. Color balance. ISO.

Other than flash control, that's pretty much all I use on my D700. When I bought it, I didn't (and still don't) care that it had all that other "stuff" on it. I just wanted the full-frame sensor.

If Nikon made, say, a D600 with those 5 controls (plus flash control), I'd take one.
I don't even like lookin' at that stuff in the menus ;-)

ginsbu said...

"…someone could satisfy a big niche of the market by putting out a digital camera with only five controls on it: Focus. Aperture. Shutter Speed. Color balance. ISO."

That's one too many: Make it raw only and ditch color balance!

Ed Lara said...

I always look forward to your musings on the original Pen F system, my favorite of all time. Great color--I need to take mine out for a walk this weekend.

John Krill said...

In December 1968 I arrived in Vietnam without my Nikon F. It took another month for me to get it. In the mean time on the first day in country I went over to the PX in search of a camera I could afford. There were 2 Pen Fts. I bought one. Not more than 15 minutes later I was back at the photo-lab showing the crew my new camera. Two of the crew ran over to the PX but they were too late. In not more than 30 minutes both cameras were gone. I got one and who knows who got the second Pen FT.

Here is a page of photos I took with the camera: http://www.photoessayist.com/vietnam/stories/marines/marines-01.html.

Still have the camera but it's now in retirement.

Ed Lara said...

John - thanks for the link to your site. Just did a quick look through, interesting photos. Enjoyed the Cherry Point series. Those were all taken with a Pen, huh? Very sharp and contrasty images, nice.

jrapdx said...

I still have my FT, bought it used ~1968 for $100; it came with the 42mm f/1.2. While I haven't shot film in at least 10 years, the FT remains a treasure.

It's worth mentioning that with an adapter the 42mm works very well (albeit in manual mode) on my EP-2/3 cameras, and might be still better with the EM-5. Nice for portraits especially.

cidereye said...

Really nice scans Kirk! I'd really love to know your scanning workflow (Any chance of you doing an article on scanning? Pretty please?) because for 1/2 frame slides those scans look far better than any 35mm transparency scan I get using an Epson V700 and Epson Scan software. They look superb!

MartinP said...

That would be Leica then? Making a digital camera equipped with the basic controls ;o)

Costs too much to be a practical professional system perhaps, and the S2 would be overkill for almost everything.

Ken Hurst said...

Wow, what a coincidence. Just yesterday I was thinking about getting a V500 for my medium format slides and negatives that I never got around to scanning. Good to hear how well it performs on tiny film - probably really well on 2 1/4!

Mark Davidson said...

I had seen the Pens since high school (early 70's) and though I admired them I was suspicious of a smaller neg. Those doubts were blown away when I saw a cropped 11x14 from a friend's tri-X neg.

I was able to get a Pen and three lenses for very little money in 1980 and went on to have a great deal of fun with it.
The real bonus for me was the ability to x-sync at all speeds as I was doing a lot of outdoor flash.

I never worried about the fashion of ultra -thin DOF or the last bit of detail. The camera delivered and I had a enormous (and economical) fun.

Thorsten Wieszniewski said...

"Focus. Aperture. Shutter Speed. Color balance. ISO." - Sounds like Leica M9 or: why not, the 1.3 crop Leica M8? But why are there no Japanese alternatives? The X-1 Pro? No! To much to play around imho.

Anders C. Madsen said...

"Focus. Aperture. Shutter Speed. Color balance. ISO."

Well, that would probably be the Sigma SD1 Merril I guess. No LiveView, no video and a unique film-like sensor technology - what more would you want? :)

JJ Semple said...

And depth of field markers on the lenses...