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Half-frame or half-baked?

The new Pentax 17, made by Ricoh

With all the hoopla surrounding the launch (and immediate sell-out) of the Pentax 17 half-frame camera, I was inspired to dig into my archives for my own half-frame images. There weren’t many, and that might be significant.

Back in 1981, I was working as a section editor on The Photo partwork. A colleague and I were invited by Olympus to a press event that, I think, was for the launch of the Pen EF – what would prove to be the last in the storied line of Olympus Pen half-frame cameras.

I say ‘I think’ because, as was common then, it was … how can I put this? … it was an extremely hospitable and well-lubricated event. Anyway, my colleague and I each came away with a goody bag containing a Pen EF, an Olympus Pearlcorder portable dictation machine (ie, micro-cassette tape recorder) and, I dare say, multiple other treats.

Olympus Pen EF half-frame camera

We went straight to a fireworks party – as you do in London, in summer. The Photo had long lead times and my colleague was working on an article about how to photograph fireworks, in readiness for an issue that would come out in November. To illustrate it, he’d hired a photographer and bought an unfeasible quantity of professional-grade fireworks, which we planned to set off in someone’s back garden.

He needed some people as extras for the photos – to make it look as though it was November 5 and we were having a Bonfire Night party. Those ‘extras’ turned out to be pretty much the entire staff of the magazine plus their friends and partners. Yep – it was a party.

Lots of drunk people and powerful fireworks – what could possibly go wrong?

Well, spoiler alert, nobody got injured. The biggest issue was the photographer getting grumpy because so many people were using cameras with flashes that they kept setting off his slaved studio flash units just as he was about to take a picture.

One of those idiots was me. The Pen EF’s main claim to fame was that it had a built-in flash unit.

I still have the negatives from that night somewhere, but they’re probably not worth digitising. Like I said, most of the day had been well-lubricated.

A few good shots

But I did hang on to the Pen EF for a while. The pictures here are pretty much all I have to show for that brief flirtation with the format.

In some ways, they illustrate the one strength of the half-frame format – portability. These pictures were all taken while strolling around London. The Pen EF was small and light enough that it was easy to stick in your pocket ‘just in case’. I wouldn’t have considered buying a half-frame camera for this purpose, but as I’d been given one … well, why not?

However, even back then you could get similar portability from full-frame 35mm compact cameras. Around this time I was also the owner of an Olympus XA which was smaller and more capable. In fact, I still have that camera.

The image on the right, by the way, is not one photo but two. These were consecutive frames and I liked the way they worked well together so mounted them both in a full-frame 35mm slide mount.

A matter of taste

I quickly learned that half-frame cameras were not for me.

It wasn’t so much the camera itself. It was typical of its breed, being very much in the ‘point and shoot’ class. Indeed, it was better than some, having built-in light metering that used a ring of selenium cells around the lens, in the same fashion as the famous Olympus Trip. The range of shutter speeds was very limited – 1/35th to 1/250th – but as a ‘carry everywhere’ snapshot camera it wasn’t half bad.

My beef with it applied to all half-frame cameras – image size and picture orientation.

As a serious photographer, the standard 35mm frame was about as small as I ever wanted to go. Cutting it in half sacrificed too much image quality for the meagre benefit of twice as many shots per roll. For snapshots, it was fine. For anything more ambitious, it was a step too far.

The other issue is that the camera’s natural framing is portrait mode. In this era of smartphone images, where even video is frequently shot in portrait format (grrrr), this may seem like a strange gripe. But for me, landscape format is the default and more natural image orientation. I do shoot portrait-format images, of course, but they are more the exception than the rule. With the Pen EF, I was constantly having to turn the camera on its side – something I found annoying.

I think I ended up giving the camera away.

The new Pentax 17 has many people in the analogue photography community excited – primarily, I think, just because it’s a new film camera from a major brand (the Pentax name now being owned by Ricoh).

But for me, it retains the serious disadvantages of all half-frame cameras, and adds one more. At $500 it’s ludicrously overpriced given its specifications (not even an auto-focus lens).

But at least it’s a sign that one major manufacturer thinks film photography is alive and well, which has to be a good thing.

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