We talk a lot about form factors in photography. Whether in digital, where sensor size takes on an almost religious zealotry, or on the analog side with the seemingly inexorable discussion around the pros and cons of 35mm, medium format, and large format film. But there’s one film format that’s often overlooked – half frame. Half frame cameras use normal 35mm film, but they squeeze two images onto a single frame. This means you’ll get 74 exposures on a normal 36 exposure roll of film (great for budget-minded shooters), and half frame cameras are smaller than their 35mm counterparts (great for travelers). Half-frame cameras became popular with the Olympus Pen series of the 1960s and 70s, and those are still great cameras today.
But look a little closer and it’s easy to see why half frame cameras have been passed over by most shooters. For decades, standard 35mm film was relatively affordable and abundant (not as pricey as it is these days) so budget-minded shooters weren’t going broke shooting 35mm. And 35mm cameras kept finding ways to get more diminutive, with Minox, Rollei, and Olympus producing superbly tiny cameras that traveled just as well as any half frame Pen. I imagine the noisier prints and marginal savings on film just couldn’t keep the format alive longterm.
So, half-frame limped along as a bit of an oddity, with camera companies making a handful of half-frame models here and there throughout the remainder of the film heyday. Browsing for cameras in the format now, we mostly see a wave of Olympus Pen models produced over the years. The Yashica Samurai also looms large due to its odd camcorder styling, as does the Konica Recorder with its glorious Walkman appeal.
But being someone of thrift, I found these popular half-frame options a bit steep. In my price range, any Olympus Pen either didn’t include a light meter, or I had to trust an eBay listing about the accuracy of a selenium meter. The Recorder and Samurai are priced well above the value of their novel looks. Even the Canon Demi is hard to find under $100, and not totally reliable.
So my option seemed to be the Agat-18, a Soviet camera that seemed to offer some Lomographic thrills, but perhaps little else. Then I came across the camera I ended up exploring half-frame with, the endlessly quirky Canon Multi-Tele.
The Canon Multi-Tele is part of Canon’s well worn Sure Shot line of point and shoots. Usually these are fine point and shoots, but aside from a few standout models they’re nothing special. But the Multi-Tele buries the lead – it’s a secret half-frame camera!
I should back up here and say that this is by far the oddest camera I’ve ever owned. This device appears to have come out in the late 1980s, the manual is copyrighted 1988. So I figured this would be a pretty well sorted, rather boring product of a fully commodified photography market. Instead, the camera is a hodge podge of ideas and features that appear to be flung against the wall to see what sticks. Given it was the late ’80s, I suspect a pile of cocaine played a prominent role in its creation.
After putting batteries in the camera, I was sure that I had bought a dud. The frame counter on the back of the camera came to life, but I didn’t think the camera otherwise powered on. I flicked the lens selector switch on the back from Off through its other two settings and the camera did… nothing. The lens cover stayed in place and I didn’t hear anything to indicate it was functioning.
After trying that a few times, I pressed the shutter in frustration and discovered its first quirk. It’s got what I call a peek-a-boo lens. Unlike a lot of ’90s point and shoots that have a lens that opens and extends when the camera’s turned on, the Canon Multi-Tele lens lays in wait. Half press the shutter to focus, and nothing happens. You hear a slight click as the infrared system establishes distance, but the camera doesn’t appear to do anything. Fully depress the shutter, and after a slight delay, the lens cover opens and the glorious 35mm f/3.5 Canon lens appears in its glory for just long enough to take a shot. And when you take that shot, it sounds like a train going over a wooden bridge.
This camera came out near the end of a period in time when camera makers knew that the average customer wanted the versatility of a zoom lens in a compact camera, but couldn’t quite engineer the power zooms that would dominate in the ’90s (at least at the low price point these cameras needed to hit). So the Canon Multi-Tele was one of a bevy of black plastic cameras that tried to offer a bit of versatility with a dual lens arrangement. In this camera’s case, it isn’t actually a separate lens. Instead, when you click it into tele mode (a massive 70mm zoom) it extends the standard 35mm lens out from the body and a tiny arm brings out what I believe is a teleconverter to the back. It somehow makes the entire process even louder and slower.
Once I came to grips with a lens system that seems to have the most movable parts imaginable to take an image (and by extension, be the most easily broken), I started to look over the rest of the camera.
Opening the back reveals the best part about the camera, its half-frame bonafides! There’s a little switch marketed “X2” which extends two tiny doors to limit the frame to the appropriate size. It’s almost as if Canon was ashamed of the feature. While the manual does refer to this as half-frame explicitly, it’s relegated to the “special shooting” section in the manual. Own who you are, little camera!
I was hopeful when looking at the top of the camera when I saw a flash button, hoping this would let me override the auto-flash. Sadly, this is only used to invoke the fill-in flash mode.
Next to that is the weirdest addition to the camera, a button marked B-4. Having no idea what this could mean (maybe a manual one-frame reverse function for multiple exposures?), I turned to the manual. It was a bulb mode. As a photographer, I love bulb mode! It’s great for doing landscapes, showing motion, or shooting at night. But for bulb mode to work, you need two things (generally): the ability to keep the camera steady and full knowledge of the rest of the exposure triangle. And herein lies the problem.
Holding it steady isn’t easy. The camera does have a tripod mount, but it’s located on the end opposite the shutter release. And there’s no cable release. So I can’t image how you could use the mode without shaking the hell out of your shot.
But the bigger problem is you don’t have control of your aperture, so there’s no way to really judge your exposure. And even if you did, there’s no metering. This type of camera was marketed at families, not enthusiast photographers with handy spot meters. So who was this mode for? The manual suggests using it for fireworks, which I guess, sure? So there’s a dedicated fireworks mode button on the camera. Cool.
In terms of handling, the camera is pretty good. It has a small but nice grip that appears to be decked out in the finest ’80s vinyl. It gives you a nice hold on the camera. But because it’s a full-frame 35mm camera natively, it’s not exactly small. It can fit into a back or jacket pocket, but it’s nowhere as pocket-able as an Olympus Pen or even a full frame Olympus XA.
The Form Factor
If you’ve never shot half-frame, the experience can be liberating. Seeing the frame counter get into the 40s and realizing that you still have 30 shots left is a weird feeling. Sometimes with film photography, we can get the equivalent of range anxiety. When that roll of 35mm gets under 10 shots left, you start questioning and not taking shots. Not that this is a bad thing, it’s this encouragement to make every shot count and not just spray and pray that keeps a lot of people shooting film. Shooting half-frame on the Canon Multi-Tele hits a little different, though. It’s a slow camera, there’s no way to rattle off shots, so you’re not going to burn through shots like you can on digital. But you’re free to experiment.
A lot of people talk about using a small camera like a notebook, the Olympus XA and Rollei 35 are commonly cited for this. But these full frame 35mm cameras burn a full frame for every shot, which can get expensive and bring about hesitancy in the photographer. The half-frame format, especially today when buying and developing film is a real financial commitment, remedies this perfectly. (A bit of trivia to reinforce the theory that the half-frame camera is the ideal “notebook camera” – the original half-frame Olympus Pen was named “PEN” because its designer, Yoshihisa Maitani, intended the camera to be used like a pen and notepad, to quickly and photographically capture daily life as it occurred around the user.)
Granted, with the Canon Multi-Tele you’re still dealing with 1980s autofocus. As much as the extra frames can feel liberating and encourage experimentation, just know that you’ll have a handful of shots where the AF falls on its face. I’d say I’ve had an average of five shots per roll go bad.
That being said, I mostly like to share these images as diptychs. Sometimes a missed focus means I’m actually losing two frames, which is a bummer. This isn’t strictly necessary, even with the less than perfect 35mm lens on the camera, there’s enough resolution on slower films to create usable single images. I’ve really enjoyed Ilford Pan F and FP4+ and found even Kodak ColorPlus doesn’t get too noisy. I’d probably shy away from ISO 400 and above though (unless you’re a grain fetishist, in which case the camera does support DX coding up to ISO 3200).
A Beautiful Albatross
There’s no doubt the Canon Multi-Tele is a compromised, quirky camera. If you’re just after a good cheap point-and-shoot, it’s not the best choice even on a budget. If you just want something pocket-able, get a Canon Z155 from the 2000s and live with the slower lens, or something from Pentax’s IQ line, or a Nikon One Touch, or any of the other millions of excellent late 1990s point and shoots that are floating around in the world today.
If you want the truest promise of the half-frame dream, get the Olympus Pen F and manual focus to your hearts content. This camera has the best image quality in a half-frame machine, plus offers interchangeable lenses and is, generally speaking, a work of industrial art.
But if you want to get a taste of half-frame freedom in a true point and shoot form factor, and at thrift store prices, the Canon Multi-Tele is certainly worth a look. Oh, and it shoots full frame, too.
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