I have a confession to make; I’m a bit of a dilettante when it comes to cameras. I can quote some specs and have a pretty decent understanding of what I’m supposed to like and covet. For instance, it’s my understanding that there’s never been a better film than Kodachrome, though that’s easy to say when it’s no longer available. And if my camera has a little red dot on it then I’m cooler than cool. I guess I’m not that cool. I’m alright with that.
I’m not going to talk about the greatest, coolest, best, most coveted cameras today. Instead, I’m going to talk about something I didn’t know existed until just a few years ago, though I’m sure the average camera nerd has been aware of this type of camera for decades.
It started with a church junk sale late one afternoon. There were two cameras on the folding table, one was a Yashica T3 with a Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 lens (more on that a different time) and the other was some quirky looking Konica pocket-type camera.
“How much for the Yashica?” I asked, appreciating that the “Zeiss” branding might cause the price to soar as high as twenty whole bucks.
“You can have it. We’re done for the day. Take the Konica too, if you want.”
I walked away with two little cameras. I knew the Yashica was probably decent, but the Konica? I had no idea what it was. Total investment – zero dollars.
The Konica EYE
The Yashica with its periscope viewfinder was fascinating to such a degree that I didn’t even look at the Konica for two days. When I did eventually take a peek through the viewfinder I noticed something very odd; the Konica’s viewfinder framing was not in the usual landscape mode, but vertical portrait mode. That’s weird, right? Weird enough that I decided to ask TheGoogle about what I’d found. It was then that I learned the term “half frame camera.”
I suspect that if you’re reading this web site, you probably already know what a half-frame camera is. But they’re unusual enough that those of us who are in-the-know can suffer through a little redundant explanation for those who aren’t.
Camera makers in the mid 1960s (mostly in Japan) decided that consumers might appreciate cost-effective rationing of film. They did this by building cameras that could expose the traditional 35mm film frame (36mm wide by 24mm tall) into two vertical frames, each 18mm wide by 24mm tall or thereabouts. This meant that the user would get double the number of exposures out of a normal roll of film.
Being of Scottish descent, I’m relatively frugal. Alright, I’m downright cheap. Knowing this about me, you might assume that I’d have heard of a camera that doubled the number of photos I could take with a normal roll of film, but alas, this church junk sale was my first exposure to half frame cameras.
This particular Made in Japan Konica was called the EYE. It featured a 30mm f/1.9 lens that range focused and allowed for manual adjustment of the aperture. The viewfinder showed what aperture and focus range we’ve picked and what out resulting shutter speed will be based on our aperture setting.
It was a tidy little package, and not knowing if it even worked, I dumped an old roll of Kodak 400 color film into it and took a whole whack of random photographs over a day or two. Upon developing the roll I was pleased with what I saw and quite amused at the resulting diptych type photographs that were the result of a scanner not giving a rat’s ass about half frame cameras.
Encouraged by these early experiments, I immediately loaded another film into the Konica EYE and spent a bit more time composing this set of photographs. The camera was a little clunky when advancing the film, but it didn’t concern me too much until it felt like I had taken way more than 72 photographs with it. Then I sat down and wound and clicked the camera over and over again. The film counter dial on this camera didn’t work, so the only way to determine if the film was finished was to wind the film and click away until it wouldn’t advance anymore. When I counted 50 or so extra exposures, this after estimating I had already expended the film in the camera, I figured something must be wrong.
Developing the film showed many multiple exposures and overlapped frames. The film wasn’t advancing. An hour fiddling with a set of small screwdrivers and a bright desk lamp resulted in the camera taken far enough apart to discover the film advancing gear wheel was stripped and jumping. My free camera had died after exactly one and a half tantalizing rolls of film.
But I was bitten. I wanted, nay, needed another half frame camera, and eBay would prove to be my friend. I ended up with a half frame camera made by Olympus in 1961 called the PEN-EE. There’s an “S” on the front of it too, which I assumed stood for “superawesome” or something similar. It cost a mere $20 from a used camera shop plus a couple of bucks for shipping.
The Olympus Pen EE S
When it arrived it was rattling like a maraca. With some careful experimental shaking, the source of the rattle became apparent. In the viewfinder; a single, unmounted screw. I emailed the shop who sold it to me. They told me to keep the camera and gave me my money back, and since I already had the little screwdrivers out on my desk from working on the Konica I endeavored to take the Olympus apart. I got it to the point where I had the screw in my hand and could see a single threaded hole that looked like it would fit said screw perfectly. A small dab of blue Loctite on the screw (because if it happened once, it could happen twice) and I had taken my first step toward reassembling my little PEN-EE S.
Like the Konica, the Olympus PEN-EE S is a zone focusing camera modeled after a rangefinder, pocket-sized, point-and-shoot camera. It’s a tiny bit smaller in all dimensions in comparison to the Konica EYE, and a bit simpler in operation. The Olympus is fully automatic, with a zone focusing ring on the front. There’s an ASA ring on the front with a range of 10 to 200. There are framing lines inside the viewfinder that are nearly impossible to see in most light, and there’s a frame counter that isn’t even close to accurate. The lens is a tiny 3cm D. Zuiko with a maximum aperture of F/2.8.
It’s generally a pretty simple camera with an auto adjusting aperture, and the camera will pick either 1/40th or 1/200th for shutter speed depending on light, but there’s no way to tell which it’s going to choose. A little transparent red flag will slowly rise up into the viewfinder and lock out the shutter release if you’re outside the camera’s ability to take a properly exposed photograph, but in my experience the little red flag would sometimes appear when there was plenty of light, and sometimes it would let me take a photograph when it should have been much too dark. That said, the camera has a good weight to it and, most importantly, the film advanced when I turned the thumb wheel on the back of the camera, so it was at least one up on the Konica already.
The film went in and I clicked through a roll and, well, it was alright. Not great. Not terrible. Just alright.
The Canon Demi
After these two experiences, I still liked the idea of a half frame camera, but a replacement Konica EYE was difficult to find at a reasonable price and the Olympus PEN-EE wasn’t making me super happy, so I dove once more into the used camera fray. This time I managed to find a half frame camera on my local Craigslist, a Canon Demi with all the usual characteristics of the Olympus and the Konica, except this one was a manual exposure camera. This is a good thing, right?
The viewfinder appeared to be a full frame composition tool; no framing lines this time. Exposure was set by rotating a dial on the front of the camera until a pair of pointers on the top of the camera lined up with each other, signaling I’d adjusted the exposure appropriately. Aperture and shutter speed are tied to each other, both going up and down together as we adjust the exposure.
The 28mm lens starts at F/2.8 linked to 1/30th plus a bulb option. It speeds up to F/22 paired to 1/250th. No clicks in between, just a linear slide of shutter and aperture depending on what we set as the exposure.
I immediately fell in love with the Canon Demi for its exposure control and light meter, but I was also enamored with a delightful little bobble of a lash point for a lanyard, or similar, that screwed into what was ostensibly a tripod mount. It affixed with a coin used as a wrench (a quarter is preferred) and the loop spun freely on the mounting point. Undoubtedly the folks at BlackRapid etc took this as inspiration for their more modern renderings of a strap mounting concept. Canon had it figured out on this camera in 1963. It made it easy to attach to a carabiner on my shoulder bag.
Of added benefit was a film frame counter that actually worked, and a conveniently placed zone focusing chart on the back of the camera body. The Demi perfectly embodied the old school cool look that a modern Fuji X100F aspires to but, in this case, was totally legit.
The Canon Demi became my holy grail of half frame cameras.
Thoughts on the Half Frame Format
Truth be told, the half frame camera was always about getting more for less, which is not usually the best way to approach a problem. To put it in modern terms; the half frame camera essentially cut your resolution in half while limiting your control over exposure and composition. And since frugality was a goal, the cameras were often made to a low price resulting in suspect build quality. All of these compromises allowed us to shoot twice as many pictures for the same amount of money, it’s true. But that’s a hard trade-off.
Most film scanners aren’t concerned with what camera you’re using. As mentioned earlier, when scanning, your exposures will be paired based on what a 35mm frame should be with no regard to your frugal use of film. Your doubling up of exposures will still end up with 36 scans of paired compositions. Obviously you could crop each frame down to halves but the unintended result is you read some magic into the somewhat random pairings of photographs.
Standalone photographs can lack context, so pairing one to another gives a deeper or broader reading of your subject matter. You’ll know what came next, or what came before, or something like that. Even if one photograph seems unrelated to another you end up looking for connections, and more often than not find them, real or imagined. By poetry, luck, kismet, divine intervention, or whatnot, random pairings manage to be intriguing.
The native vertical/portrait orientation of many half frame cameras may change your approach to taking photographs. The ergonomics of most of our cameras favors the landscape composition. Half frame cameras will challenge this norm and have you framing shots differently and making types of photographs that are slightly different from what you may be used to.
The three cameras performed very differently. The Konica took decidedly better photographs than the other two; this probably due to the lens being about twice the diameter of the others. The automatic exposure worked well in easy light but didn’t handle subdued or very bright light very well. The Olympus PEN-EE S exposed very consistently and the focus was accurate, but it consistently overexposed nearly everything, so in the future I’ll cheat the ASA to trick the automatic metering into properly exposing images, if I don’t sell it before then. The Demi, well, let’s be honest, none of the three cameras take “good” photographs, but I liked having some control over the exposure and the worst photographs out of the Demi were due to a user who forgot to adjust a focus point between shots, but even some of those out of focus shots have a lovely feel to them that normal 35mm film cameras don’t have.
The soft focus and bad exposures of this trio of half frame cameras is fairly common among the class of affordable, easy-to-use half framers of the olden days. Just as the detrimental hiss and pop heard when playing vinyl records somehow makes the music better, the less-than-perfect lenses in these less-than-perfect cameras somehow makes the photos more enjoyable. Graininess and off exposure wouldn’t be acceptable in a modern Nikon or Canon, but the reason these old half frame cameras have appeal is because, no matter the filter or post production, there’s something really genuine and simple and honest about the pictures these things make. I like that. And you might, too.