Surviving 2020 with an Olympus Pen FT

1800 1011 Josh Solomon

いらっしゃいませ.An elderly man, perhaps the owner of the camera shop, bows almost imperceptibly towards me. He holds back a chuckle as he watches me stumble clumsily across the shop’s entrance.

“Sumimasen,” I reply, collecting myself and bowing in return. 

Amused, the man gestures towards a glass cabinet. Inside, a beautiful Tele-Rolleiflex, a perfect matte grey Mamiya 7, and a sea of Zeiss lenses surrounding a pristine limited edition Hasselblad 500 C/M. My eyes widen.

The man gestures again, this time toward banks of camera-filled glass cabinets that populate the tiny store, labeled with every camera manufacturer and film format in existence. Leica, Nikon, Pentax, Contax, Canon, Olympus, even luxury point and shoots and heavily used bodies have their own cabinets, all packed to bursting with cameras and lenses. Whatever space isn’t filled by cameras or lenses is taken by accessories – filters, straps, flashes. Even the ever-ready cases have their own perfectly organized little space.

Yeah, I think, this is the right place.

The feeling is overwhelming. Just an hour and a half ago, I set out to finally fulfill a dream of mine – explore Tokyo in search of cameras. The journey was a bit like how I dreamt it would be; I boarded a train from the outskirts of the city, threw on one of my favorite albums, and watched the expanse of the Greater Tokyo Area blur past, awestruck. After navigating the dizzying Tokyo subway system and nearly getting lost in Shinjuku’s shopping district, I arrived at a nondescript building which, according to a small yellow sign, housed a camera store on the second floor. When I finally walked in, there was a sense of completion, a sort of culmination of the hopes and dreams that come with writing for a camera website for so many years –  a sense of happiness. I would’ve hugged the elderly store owner right then and there, had it been polite to do so.

But I straighten up and regain my composure – I have a job to do. The little store contains a sea of legendary cameras, but I’m only there for one. After many minutes of wading, I find it. Sitting in the middle of a cabinet labeled “Olympus” is a pristine Olympus Pen FT, complete with a tiny Zuiko 38mm f/1.8.

There you are, I think, looking at the tiny camera. Sorry I took so long.

A shop assistant notices me gaping at the camera, comes over, and offers to take it out of the cabinet. He leads me to the counter where he sets the camera down and gestures for me to inspect it thoroughly.

I pick it up, run my fingers along its engraved sans-serif logo, turn the front-mounted shutter dial down to its one-second demarkation and press the shutter button. The camera chirps back with a healthy “chk-chk”, timed perfectly to what sounds like a single second.

I advance the wiry, almost hidden advance lever tucked below the top plate and look through its viewfinder. It’s dim, with a sequential set of whole numbers on the side, perhaps for the in-built light meter. That’s weird. And why is this thing vertical? How the hell… I then turn the camera around, unlock the 38mm f/1.8 Zuiko, and take it off the body.

Holy sh*t.

Staring back at me is a mirror mechanism more sideways than Paul Wall in 2005. I turn the shutter dial to bulb mode, hold the shutter button down and see the mirror flip sideways and snap right back when I let go. I turn the camera around, open up the back, and see a curious dimpled gray shutter curtain. I click the shutter again, see it rotate out of the way, and settle back in its perfect half-frame window. So weird.

I shut the back of the camera, mount the tiny Zuiko back onto the face of the camera, and look at it square in the lens. Internally it’s unlike any other camera I’ve ever shot, and yet it outwardly feels oddly familiar. The size reminds me of my old Leica IIIc and other vintage compact cameras, but there’s something different about this one. The clean mid-century design, the solid build, and the small bayonet mount and lens makes the Pen FT feel like, surprisingly, my Leica M2.

As soon as the thought crosses my mind, I motion to the store clerk. He understands, cracks a smile, asks me for some amount of yen, and places a small tray in front of me. I put the money in the tray as he gathers the camera’s ever-ready case and the iconic “F” script metal lens cap. He fits the camera into its case, affixes the lens cap, and holds it out to me with both hands.

Arigatou gozaimasu.” I say to the store owner as I leave.

“ありがとうございます.” He replies with a smile.

* * *

“カ…メ…ラ? Ka…me…ra…. CAMERA!”

My pride in my rudimentary understanding of katakana disappears within a couple seconds when I see a big red neon sign that reads “YODOBASHI CAMERA” in English sitting right next to it. I contemplate going in and buying some film, but after a day of trekking across the city I need a quick breather. I sit down on a nearby bench, and decide to swap my trusty Nikon F3 out for the new Pen.

I unsling my F3 from around my neck and take a good look at it. After seven years of adventures, my old friend looks a bit tired. Its brassing goes just a little deeper, there are more nicks and dents on the pentaprism, and its once-bright red stripe looks dirty and worn. I undo its strap, and affix it to the Pen FT.

I strap up the Pen FT and head into Yodobashi Camera’s film department, brushing off the usual offerings from Kodak and going straight for the Fuji stuff that’s unavailable in North America. I choose a couple rolls of Fuji Venus 800, pay, and go back outside. Just as I stow these new rolls in my film holder, I notice a roll in the last slot. It’s my last roll of Fuji Natura 1600, generously gifted to me by Dustin, fellow Casual Photophile writer. I’d been saving it for something special, as it’s currently out of production and incredibly expensive on eBay.

I take a look around. The neons of Shinjuku begin flickering to life and the lights of Tokyo’s skyscrapers start to dot the sky. The sound of restaurant workers welcoming passersby colors the air, as does the faint smell of curry. A small kei car motors down the street, and I hear its motor sputter a little as it rolls to a stop nearby. 

I’m in Tokyo, I realize. I think that’s special enough. I leave the Venus 800 in the film holder, and load my last roll of Natura 1600.

I pick the incoming kei car as my first subject. ISO 1600 is the number of the day, so the light meter will be of no help, as it only goes up to ISO 400. Lighting will also be tricky – the only available light comes from the neons and shop lights of the Yodobashi Camera, which in this case only serve as backlight. 1/30th of a second at f/2 seems to cover my bases into the shadows, even though it will likely blow out the backlight. I twist the front-mounted shutter dial to 1/30th of a second, and click the aperture ring to f/2. My finger finds the serrated surface of the shutter release, and I point the Pen FT at the kei car.

Wait, hold on.

I forgot – the viewfinder is sideways. I turn the camera ninety degrees to achieve landscape orientation, reframe, hold my breath and press the shutter release. The camera recoils gently into my right hand, and the viewfinder blacks out for a second. For a split second, all is quiet and still. Without taking my eye from the viewfinder, I click the aperture dial two stops down, advance, and fire off another shot at a slightly different angle. Again, all is quiet and still. I exhale, and look down at the film counter.

2/72.

Seventy more shots.

I relax my grip on the Pen FT, and feel it nestle into my hands as if it’s always belonged there.

* * *

A couple of days later I’m standing outside of a train station. The text on my phone reads “Exit A4? I’m at Exit A, but I think I can get down there….” I’m getting a little anxious, but soon enough, a familiar face emerges from the underground with a smile. It’s Miki, a college friend from Los Angeles who now lives in Tokyo and wants to show me around Sensoji, one of Tokyo’s most famous temples.

After we get a quick bite in the Asakusa neighborhood, we walk towards a beautiful temple surrounded by almost-bloomed cherry blossom trees, gift shops, and Tokyo’s urban sprawl. I look through my Pen FT’s viewfinder to get a feel for how to frame my surroundings.

The Pen FT and I have become fast friends – I’ve spent a few days going around Tokyo learning its quirks. Its sideways viewfinder doesn’t startle me anymore, and neither does its weird numbered metering system. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to remember to turn the camera sideways, nor does it take a ton of effort to match up the numbers on the lens with those in the viewfinder (though I admit I’d prefer standard F stops). But I’ll have no need for the meter today – it’s sunny out and I’m still shooting through that 72 exposure roll of Natura 1600. I max out the shutter at 1/500th of a second and close the lens all the way down to f/16. Two stops of over-exposure never killed anybody (at least not on quick color negative film) and besides, I’ve got more film in case it doesn’t work out.

I snap away as we walk around Sensoji. After a couple days of getting used to half-frame, I still feel I have unlimited exposures on this single roll, which relaxes my normally conservative trigger finger. The little Pen FT seems willing to do anything, and entirely at home shooting this beautiful temple in the middle of Tokyo.

While walking along, I can’t help but look down at the camera and admire Olympus head designer Yoshihisa Maitani’s ingenious design. His love for the simplicity of classic Leica cameras shows in every line and curve. Its unbroken, smooth line that runs along the top plate (that cleverly hides the shutter release), as well as the small bayonet mount Zuiko lenses are straight from the Leica M playbook, yet it’s all shrunken into a chassis as small as an earlier Barnack Leica. But Maitani decided to take it a step further and do what Leica couldn’t – he created an SLR from the proverbial rib of the rangefinder. For this, he invented a new porroprism-based viewfinder and a lightweight titanium rotary shutter just to make sure everything fit both the chassis and the half-frame format itself. The only compromise – a vertically oriented viewfinder, resulting from the dimensions of a split 35mm frame. I’d call the Pen FT a miracle, but it makes far too much worldly sense. It’s simply a work of genius.

And it actually works. Every shot through the Pen FT has been a joy. It’s light, it’s portable, easy to shoot, easy to understand. It’s also incredibly well-made, all buttons, dials, and levers operating with a solidity and smoothness that would elicit poetry from any Casual Photophile staff writer. The control layout itself is straightforward – both shutter speed and aperture present themselves next to each other on the front face, and the advance lever is tucked just under the top plate, easy to reach when you need it and out of the way when you don’t. And unlike many SLRs, the Pen FT is naturally stable. The mirror slap recoils back into your hand, and the rotary shutter doesn’t introduce directional vibrations. Many SLRs try to solve this problem through vibration dampening systems (the Leicaflex, Minolta SRT-101 and Nikon FM) or through sheer weight (Nikon F, Canon F-1), but the Pen FT solves them simply through better design.

I raise the Pen FT to my eye and point it at a bottle left as an offering near the temple entrance. Focus, snap, advance. It’s the same action as any camera, but I’m enjoying it more than usual. The Olympus Pen FT is simply beautiful, but so is everything it’s capturing today. I turn around and look up at Sensoji through its viewfinder, press the shutter, and feel a warm crescendo of emotion as the finder blacks out and becomes clear again. This, I think, is happiness.

Miki leads me up the temple steps to the altar, says a prayer, and tosses a coin into a slatted pit. I say a prayer myself, and toss my coin in. I follow her down to a nearby booth, where I put another coin into a can, shake it about until a straw comes out, and pick from the straw’s corresponding drawer for a fortune.

“Oh no…” she says, reading the fortune.

“What happened?”

“…you got the worst one.” she says, frankly.

“Really?” I reply.

“Yeah. It says things are going to go very badly. It says you won’t be able to realize your dreams right away, and that you should prepare yourself for disappointment.”

I look back at her, confused.

“It also says that things won’t get any worse than this, so I guess that’s good? I don’t know. Luckily, there’s a rack over there that we tie all the bad fortunes to, in the hopes that they’ll actually turn out to be wrong.”

She leads me to the rack. I tie my fortune to it, look back at the temple behind me, and say a small, nervous prayer.

* * *

I’m lying down on my couch back in LA, air conditioner blasting, the thousandth rerun of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air droning on the living room TV. I’m not entirely sure what day it is, but I’m not sure that it matters either. It might be a Saturday, but I said that yesterday. Who knows. Who cares?

I wish I had never opened that fortune. It’s now June, nearly three months since that trip to Japan, and life has been just as bad as the paper predicted. The global coronavirus emergency exploded while on that trip, which nearly stranded me in Japan. The rest of the trip saw me spend hours and hours on a phone trying frantically to find a direct flight back to Los Angeles as soon as possible. And when I finally returned to LA, I found that home as I knew it didn’t exist anymore. The city was on full lockdown, all of my live shows and recording sessions were canceled and there was no hope of seeing my friends any time soon.

True to the fortune, things kept getting worse. One day during the lockdown, my father knocked on my door half in tears. My mother was having heart trouble and had been rushed to the emergency room. An ER visit turned into full-on double bypass surgery, and let me tell you, during a pandemic major surgery is doubly terrifying. Two weeks passed with no visitation. Nothing but teary, nervous updates on the phone, and some of the worst anxiety I’ve ever experienced. The day my mother finally got out of the hospital, something else happened – my nine months pregnant sister gave birth, which meant another fraught hospital visit at the height of pandemic. After everybody finally came home safe. I found myself taking care of my mostly incapacitated mother and dealing with a newborn in the house.

And the hits just kept on coming. My brother-in-law had to be quarantined separately due to a COVID outbreak at his workplace, which meant missing the first two weeks of his newborn son’s life. During that time, the virus hit scarily close to home; I heard from my mother that it killed a relative of mine in New York, and that it had infected a number of other relatives there as well. The same weeks saw protests erupt around the country, and here in Los Angeles’ protests, a few of my own friends were arrested and others shot. 

I wanted to help everyone with all of these things, but I couldn’t. Or at least I couldn’t do as much as I wished. All I could do was look on and tend to the family, knowing I couldn’t risk anything to help keep my own fragile family alive.

While these days faded into a nauseating blur, the Pen FT sat unmoved on my shelf, still loaded with the same unfinished roll of Fuji Natura 1600 from all those months ago. I never forgot about it – I just couldn’t bring myself to shoot it. Today doesn’t seem any different. Nevertheless, I know I have to finish the roll.

I text a friend who lives nearby and ask if they want a drink from the nearby coffee shop. We’ve not had contact with anybody outside of our homes for months, and I figure hanging at a distance in a parking lot with masks on is about as safe as it gets. As soon as he agrees, I put on my cloth mask, grab some hand sanitizer, and pull the Pen FT off the shelf.

I look at the frame counter. 71/72.

Ten minutes later I’m looking at the first familiar face I’ve seen since that afternoon in Asakusa. This time it’s my friend Devonte, a longtime friend and fellow Panorama City native. I gesture to his order on the takeout table and he takes the drink.

We talk for what seems like a few minutes, but what actually lasts for a couple of hours. He catches me up on his life; I catch him up on mine. It isn’t looking good either way. It doesn’t look good around us, either. Most businesses we’re passing are boarded up, some windows are smashed in. There’s a new anxiety in the air, and we can see it in everybody who passes by. Soon, we recognize it in each other too.

Devonte takes a look at me.

“But how about that trip to Japan? That must’ve been pretty cool. I mean you’ve got that new Olympus with you.”

“Yeah,” I reply, looking down at the Olympus Pen FT in my hands. 

“How is it?” he asks, warily.

“Oh, it’s just about perfect for my shooting style and budget. The half-frame format gives me twice as many exposures, the thing’s built a lot like my M2 and feels just as good, and it’s just a great camera all around….”

“…but?” he asks. He knows I’m avoiding something. I think of mentioning the dim viewfinder, but there’s no point in dancing around the subject.

“Well, to be honest, it’s too good.” 

“What do you mean?”

“It’s hard to explain. 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.”

Devonte nods. I think he knows where I’m going with this.

“And now whenever I look at the Pen, I start to miss that feeling I had when I shot it, you know? I start reliving that trip all the way down to the last detail, like I’m trying to keep that memory alive somehow. I look through the viewfinder and I’m back in Asakusa in the spring, back in Shinjuku hunting for film, back on a train half-asleep, watching the Tokyo night lights blur past, without all this worry about death and disease and…”

I start to feel the blood rise to my cheeks with the memories, and feel my chest sink beneath the weight of the months that followed. The emergency hospital trips, the tearful phone calls and countless fraught text messages, and the terrifying helplessness that comes under a worldwide quarantine all hit me at once.

“…to be honest, I think that was the last time I really felt happy this year.”

The world around me starts to feel distant and alien, nearly unrecognizable. Even though I’m only a couple miles from my house, I feel just as far from home as I do from Tokyo.

“I think that’s what makes it so hard to shoot this camera these days. I know it’s just a camera, but to me it’ll always belong to that time, that place, that feeling. I don’t know when, or even if, that’ll ever come back.”

I try to take a sip of my coffee, but realize there’s nothing left in the cup. Devonte notices, and sighs.

“I feel you, man,” he replies, with characteristic sympathy.  “But it’s a new world now. I don’t think we could go back even if we tried.”

He’s right. I can’t make any of it come back. No amount of reliving, writing, or photography could ever bring that back. It’s gone, and I don’t know what will take its place. I don’t even want to know.

But then, there’s still this little camera by my side. There’s still one frame left. If I can’t find shelter in the past, and if my fortunes don’t bode well for the future, I at least need to give myself a shot at finding some happiness in the present. Might as well try with the last camera that made me happy, once upon a time.

The sun’s setting. The light’s running out. It might as well be now.

“Hey Dev,” I start. “Before I go, can I take your portrait?”

“Sure.”

I pick the Pen FT up, and immediately my hands remember it. The dials still snap beautifully into place. The sideways viewfinder still charms me. The design is still ingenious, and the whole body of the camera still feels like it belongs in my hands, just like it did before. I know it’s just a camera, but I think this one’s different. I’ve been through enough with this camera to really call it mine. And I want to keep going with it, no matter what happens.

I press the shutter release and the camera plays its familiar split-second symphony for me one more time. The camera recoils gently into my hand, and the viewfinder blacks out. All is quiet and still, once more.

72/72. There you are. Sorry I took so long.


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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
29 comments
  • Quite wonderful.

    • Thank you for sharing your story. We are definitely living in strange and difficult times. I hope that some day you will look back on those little half-frame images and be reminded of all that was still good in the world, friends like Devonte who have, hopefully, made the world a little less lonely. Keep shooting.

      • Thank you Jason and Merlin! I’m hoping to keep this camera and these friends for a very, very long time. Stay safe out there!

  • I believe the camera store was Chuuko Camera Box Shinjiku, the holy mecca! I got my first proper film camera there too, a Minolta XD. Served me well for all the photo’s I’ve taken, and the future memories we all will soon make. Thank you for the lovely photos and writing, I hope you and yours stay safe and well.

  • Avatar
    Cheyenne Morrison August 28, 2020 at 8:55 am

    Poetry Josh, very well written! I had organised a week in Tokyo for April, catch up with Bellamy, shoot cherry blossoms with Fortia SP, trawl camera stores, and then Covid hit 2 weeks before I was due to go.

  • Just wonderful. Wonderful camera, wonderful photos, and wonderful essay.

  • Avatar
    Charlotte – 35mm August 28, 2020 at 9:44 am

    Such a beautiful piece, Josh. There can be such a difference between the beginning and the end of a roll of film (more so when you have 72 frames!), and the transition along the way is something I adore about shooting film. Gorgeous images too – I especially love the last shot, Dev’s portrait.

    • Thanks so much Charlotte! 72 exposures is definitely a marathon, and can bear witness to some very radical change in a year like this.

  • Really great essay. I have a Pen F and it has been with me for much of the lock down on my daily “exercise”. Just the perfect little camera.
    Thanks

  • While reading this article it was like I was actually going through the emotions and could actually visualise the things happened to the author. It’s been a very long time since I read something on internet which was as touching as this.
    I really appreciate the author for such a wonderful article.

  • First time I’ve cried reading a camera review! Absolutely beautiful honesty and vulnerability, a wonderful piece of writing.

  • A tour de force. Thank you.

  • Every time : great to read and watch Josh work 😉
    Thanks Josh

  • Wow really wanting to pick up this cam now

  • Bravo Josh, bravo.

  • Beautiful photos and story, thank you for sharing your experience with us. We’re all going through such unique and scary times. It’s good that you were able to take your trip when you did, who knows when things will get back to “normal” again. Take care of your new friend, your story makes me want one of my own.

  • Try finding a battery for the light meter. Great designs but behind in battery technology.

  • Avatar
    Michael S. Goldfarb September 2, 2020 at 9:52 am

    Great piece.

    Just coincidentally, I’ve been shooting an Olympus Pen F that I had repaired earlier this year through the whole spring and summer. I’m getting great results on good old Tri-X, mostly found-subjects and interesting juxtapositions that I shoot on my almost daily walks around Beacon, NY. The Pen F is a real pleasure to carry, and a simply gorgeous example of midcentury design and engineering.

    It has been a great project to focus on through these scary and depressing times.

  • Now THAT’S how to write a camera review 😁😁

  • The was the most beautiful and evocative things I have read – part review / travelogue / journal / diary/ documentary / story / account – everything ! I have an Olympus Pen FT so know the feeling about using this amazing camera!

  • Thank you so much for reading and enjoying this Satya! Enjoy your Pen FT!

  • This was my first half frame camera and that roll of 72 lasts for what feels like forever. When quarantine happened, I felt the same way as you. A bit sad seeing not only this camera but all my other ones sit. So when my birthday came around in August, I decided to use this camera, my first half frame, and my Bronica EC-TL, my first medium format, to do a somewhat daily photo project. 2 photos in the Pen and 1 shot of the Bronica each day. Just photos of things around my house and on my walks. And I have to tell you that the Pen is perfect for it. I haven’t even finished the first roll in it yet. But just like the days of this year, I can’t remember what was on the beginning of this roll. Just got to live in the present frame and maybe some day look back and find something happier.

    This article is not only about one of my favorite cameras (I debate on the Pen or my F3 lol) but it pretty much summed up my feelings for what we are going through right now.

    Thank you for not only giving us a review on a camera but also sharing a very vulnerable part of your life. Keep pushing forward, keep shooting, and I look forward to continue being inspired by more articles on this site.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon