A few frames … Olympus Pen EE3

Over the years I’ve acquired a fairly random collection of cameras alongside the day-to-day “system”. One that only gets the occasional outing is the half-frame, 35mm Olympus Pen EE3. I loaded it with a roll of high-contrast Rollei Blackbird recently and it spent three weeks in my bag being used as and when I got the inspiration.

The Pen EE-3 is a compact, yet tough little half-frame camera from the 1970s and as with all half-frame cameras, you get two pictures on a single 35mm frame. The EE-3 has fully-automatic exposure with the EE standing for Electronic Eye. It measures the available light with the selenium cell meter which surrounds the lens and chooses between two shutter speeds: 1/125th and 1/30th of a second. The aperture is fixed via the ISO/ASA rating of the film which is set just below the lens.

My method of using this camera has evolved since I’ve had it. I started by making individual pics in the same way as I would use any other camera. However, I’d not had it long before I realised there was, for me, a better way. In-camera diptychs. Pairs of complementary images occupying a single 35mm frame.

More recently I’ve taken that further and have made three-, four-, five- and six-frame sequences. This takes the diptych concept further and the four-plus sequences fit the panoramic format very nicely.

For the last three weeks I’ve picked this little camera out of my bag on around half a dozen occasions slowly using the 72 frames at my disposal. Mostly pairs and triplets but also plenty of four-, five- and even six-frame sets. The biggest problem is cutting the negatives to fit into a conventional sleeve. My solution is to scan the full roll before cutting it and ensuring I have full runs of consecutive negatives captured.

Blyth beach. Six consecutive half-frames to create a panorama Olympus EE3, Rollei Blackbird rated at 64. Id11 (1+1) 10.5mins

I will write a few notes on scanning at another time although I will just say that I used a Pixl-Latr for the three- to six-frame sequences and an Essential Film Holder for the diptychs.

Ode to a wooden box

Fear not, I’m not about to get all poetic in my appreciation of the aforementioned wooden box. The box of which I speak is my Zero Image 612b pinhole camera. The ‘b’ is for basic of course, whereas the 612 indicates a maximum negative size of 6×12. In reality the negative is bigger than 6×12 as I’ve mentioned before. It is also multi-format as baffles inside can be moved to create 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7 and 6×9 in addition to the titular 6×12.

When I bought it I felt it was expensive for what it was and even more so when it languished on a shelf for month after month once the first couple of rolls had been exposed. None too successfully at that if I’m honest. However, just recently I’ve used it more and have started to learn to appreciate it properly. I’ve also started to get the hang of using it more effectively too.

The biggest thing I’ve learnt is that it likes to be close to the action – very close! I’ve taken a couple of images recently featuring coffee mugs – with said mugs never more than three inches from the wooden box. Really, that close. I’m finding that for my taste, using a very obvious main subject very close to the box helps create depth and a real sense of three dimensional space. That’s not to say that every pinhole image I make has a subject right up close but it’s fair to say that I’ve never been disappointed when I’ve got in close and many images could have benefitted from being closer to the subject. This little box does have a fair sized field of view!

One of my early mistakes with this box was with regards to exposure calculations. I metered as I would normally but still seemed to get under-exposed negatives. My mistake was treating the given aperture value as gospel – my box likes light, plenty of it too. I now almost always add on at least a stop to the exposure time I calculate and am never afraid to bracket if in doubt. Reciprocity should also be taken seriously in my experience, especially with the Fomapan 100 I favour for my pinhole work. I chose Fomapan precisely because of its huge reciprocity values. It is actually helpful to have longer exposure times when your shutter is manually opened and closed by simply sliding a piece of wood to reveal and then hide the pinhole.

This is a seriously lightweight piece of kit and despite accommodating 6×12 negatives it is surprisingly small. It fits comfortably in my shoulder bag even with an SLR/DSLR with a second lens already present. Spare film and my mini tripod also fit in and I’ve made plenty of images that I’d not have been able too if the box took up more room. I like to travel with minimal kit and this box adds extra artistic capability without being a burden.

Not only is this box light and therefore easily carried in my shoulder bag “just in case” I need it, it is also pretty water resistant. No electronics to fizzle under the persistent rain we are blessed with here in the UK for a start. No lens to become rain spattered and smeared either. A quick wipe with a micro-fibre cloth and it’s like it was never wet. I’ve used this little box in torrential rain, on the beach, low down on a mini tripod with the sea lapping around and whilst I’ve been careful not to submerge it in water I’ve yet to have any issues with a malfunctioning box!

Of course, this isn’t my only pinhole camera. It isn’t even my only Zero Image camera. I have pinholes in 35mm, 120 and 5×4 large format. All of them are simply wooden boxes. I’ve written about them regularly, including this post which could have been sponsored by a rubber band company! It wasn’t but I’m still open to offers!

For some people, pinhole equates to fuzzy, unsharp images but whilst I’ve my fair share of such pictures, with or without a lens, it is my experience that a pinhole camera can also produce lovely crisp images. To support this assertion I present the image above created with the Zero Image 5×4. The key is technique. Which applies to all forms of photography I guess. Whilst a pinhole camera may be a very simple technological concept it is true that you still need good technique. For a start there are no electronics to assure good focus, the correct exposure or even adjust for slight camera movement. The first requirement is that the camera doesn’t move either during the exposure or at the time the shutter is opened or closed. This requires two things. Firstly, a tripod or other support to keep the camera still. A wall is helpful here if you find yourself without anything else although for my part a mini tripod is always in the bag with the camera. Secondly, a steady hand to ensure the camera isn’t knocked whilst operating the shutter. Some pinhole cameras have a cable release mechanism built in allowing the use of a standard threaded cable release although sadly none of mine feature this innovation.

The last ingredient I want to mention is aesthetics. Specifically YOUR aesthetic. It is my view that pinhole photography does not rely on technique alone. Good technique will help tremendously but it is not enough on its own. Using the camera regularly is vital if the photographer is to start to “see” through the pinhole. Not everything you point the pinhole at will work visually in two-dimensions and it takes time and practice to judge what will and won’t work. There’s little point though in me trying to tell anyone what will or won’t work; photography is a very personal medium and what works for one person may not necessarily work for others. Of course, it’s great when other folk appreciate your work but as ever the most important viewer of your work is you.

This has been a short appreciation of the humble pinhole camera and I have hopefully shared a few thoughts that will help those new to pinhole photography or indeed those thinking of jumping in to the fascinating genre. Technique is the key to successful images but even technique is subservient to the aesthetic.