Sony Cybershot T77 – the new Pen?

I’ve written about the joys of using an Olympus Pen for film photography, in particular its small size and light weight.

Now here is my digital equivalent, and it’s smaller, lighter and smarter.


The DSC-T77, as it likes to be known, is a tiny little digital camera that folds a zoom lens inside the body. There is nothing to pop out so it doesn’t change shape when zooming. The camera uses a drop-down sliding cover, so one flick of a finger fires it up. Or it would, if it wasn’t so shiny. Until I put some Sugru on this baby it was like handling a thin bar of soap.

Sony made a whole range of these, including waterproof versions.

The camera is genuinely tiny – just 94mm wide, 57 tall and 15 thick. I can hide it in my hand. In the package you get a 10 MP sensor and a zoom equivalent to 35-140. The down side to this is that the on-screen menus need a fine finger to fettle them. Sony provide a little plastic pointer on the wrist strap, so this serves in place of my stump of a fat digit.

It comfortably fits into a pocket and doesn’t even spoil the line of a suit. I’ve got an old wallet for a Blackberry that’s a perfect fit as a case.

The very small size and a useful macro capability make this camera good for pictures too small to get a different camera, or any camera plus your head, into. I’ve taken shots from inside a bunch of flowers, for example. The closest macro distance is 8cm.

The downside of the small size is a small battery. The camera seems to use the battery even when it is shut down – probably to maintain its settings and allow the quick start-up. I bought a second battery for it, so I’m in the habit of swapping-in the fresh battery before I take the camera out. The first start-up after a battery swap always takes longer, but thereafter it’s quick. Much quicker than my waterproof Fuji one, for example. Even so, if I was taking the Sony away for a weekend I would take both batteries.

It uses Sony’s memory stick duo storage card, but that’s no great problem as my card reader takes them. Plus it’s a snapshot camera. You put a card in, clear the old photos off as you go and never bother with a second card.

The lens and pictures are capable. I’d like to tell you how I’ve shot pictures of brick walls to measure the resolution and aberations, but that’s not what the camera is for and I can’t be arsed. This is a tiny little, easy to carry, quick to use, snapshot camera. The zoom lens is handy, particularly as it doesn’t trombone out of the front of the camera. The widest aperture runs from f3.5 to 4.6, which isn’t too bad since you can push the ISO to 3200 if you really need to. There is a tiny flash which is really only useful close up but does offer slow sync.


It also does face detection and various focus and exposure modes. What’s not to like? Granted, it’s small and fiddly. Since the camera body is so smooth, there are no dials and everything is driven by menus. This can be a pain trying to find things, so I tend to set the camera up the way I like it and then leave it alone. I would only tweak it if I was going into a known different situation – people running about or dark backgrounds, for example.

People sit under it to each their packed lunch.

So this really does fit with the idea behind the original Pen, in being an image note-taker. The zoom lens makes it more useful than a mobile phone camera and the quick start-up means that it is not less handy. It’s also smaller than my mobile phone.

A troll, caught by sunrise and turned to stone.

Let’s hear it for the snappy Sony!

The beauty of good design

There’s a great book called The Psychology of Everyday Things that was my introduction into why I found some things strangely difficult to operate. I remember a pal’s Alfa Romeo car that had a bank of identical, black, flush, push-switches to operate things like the heating and air flow. Not only was it impossible for the driver to use them without taking their attention away from the road, I can vouch for struggling to work out which one to use when I was the passenger. Was it in the Hitchhiker’s Guide that the spaceship had a black control panel of black buttons that lit-up black when pushed? Alfa got there first (or I suppose they would be called Omega).

Good design works because it leads you. Bad design breaks the flow or works contrary to expectations. Have you ever pulled on a door that had a handle, only to find it opened with a push? Poor design. There is a wonderful blog series called The Weekly Design Roast that I recommend for examples to make you weep.

In camera terms, I find that digital cameras usually have poor operating design. It’s probably because the camera is capable of so much and there is a strong commercial pressure to add features. You know how it goes – “ooh look, this one can do focus-stacking or that one can do HDR, or do I spend a bit more and buy the one that can do both?” And then we have no idea how to use the special function because we didn’t memorise the manual. A guy recently mapped-out the menu system of a Sony camera. That’s what happens when a very complex device is squeezed into a small package. Or when features are added to the point that they exceed the interface.

Canon did a thing with their digital compacts. It made sense in production to use the same processor in different models, so they disabled some of the features in the cheaper ones. And then we found out how to turn them back on again. The common component build is very sensible in manufacturing, and what an Easter Egg of delight for the fanboys who found out how to hack them. It also made sense to remove features from the simpler models in the range, and this was an easy way to control the feature set with a limited range of electronics.

Perhaps a better example is a humble clip. This is a thing used by sailors and divers to attach one thing to another. Exhibit A is a stainless steel item comprising five components and requiring machining, drilling and bending to assemble. Exhibit B is the alternative that does the same job with two components, only one of which needs bending. Good design makes manufacturing easier and creates less waste. The simpler clip also has no sharp edges that could damage a rope or fingers.


The opposite of this would be a microwave oven. What you want is to control the power, control the time and be able to stop and start it. What you get is usually so confusing that you need the manual. A manual, for a machine with two variables?

Or if you want an example of a very simple machine with poor design, take a look at one of those cute-looking anthropomorphic vacuum cleaners. They get stuck on every doorframe or piece of furniture. If you pull them, they stay stuck but the side catches open and the top falls off.

So what has this to do with photography? Camera design can be a collision of feature bloat and bad ergonomics.

There are cameras that it is possible to hold wrong – see the Contax/ Kiev 4.

There are some where you have to wind on before changing the shutter speed or you break them – see old Russian rangefinders.

Then there are cameras that make you wonder what the designers were smoking – how about the Konica AiBorg?

Or there’s my experience with The Ergonomic Disaster.


I’ve had a long-running fight with more than one digital compact to try and get the built-in flash to balance with an external one. And the clever dedicated flash for my dSLR needs me to carry the manual to have any hope of changing the settings. In fact, the flash is a microwave: it has strange controls with weird symbols and no obvious way to change the main settings. I admit to writing on my dSLR with a white marker to differentiate the metering control from the focusing control.

If I look at my Canon G9, an up-market compact, it has nine buttons, four rotating dials, two rocker switches and a shutter release. Some of the buttons bring up menus on the screen to choose more options. Some of the buttons are used a lot – flash on/off, macro on/off and zoom. Some I’ve never used, like print. There’s one button that I hadn’t noticed until I counted them and I’m not sure what it does.

I suppose the opposite extreme is my little Sony compact that has almost no physical controls and relies completely on menus and a touch screen.

I recognise that digital cameras are so clever, with so many options, that multiple controls or menus are needed. But perhaps what I want is the sort of design that was built into the BlackBerry phones. On the surface, they just worked. But there were features and shortcuts built in that you could use to do things easier or quicker. Using them gave a feeling of delight, but not using them didn’t get in the way of its core function.

What’s a well-designed camera then? I don’t know, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen or used one. You may think a camera is a simple design, so try this on a beginner:

This is a film camera. Wind it on after every shot with this lever. Yes, or it won’t take a picture. You will know the film is finished when it won’t wind on, but don’t push the lever too hard. Then press the little unlabeled button on the bottom of the camera. Pull up this little folding handle here and wind it round. There may be an arrow to tell you which way to turn it. Or not. You will know when the film is rewound when the handle turns easily. Or jams. Pull the whole winding thing up to open the camera. Yes, it does look like you are breaking the camera. Pull it some more. The back of the camera will then pop open. Pick up the film from the floor. And the camera. Try to wind the end of the film completely back into the cassette so you don’t shoot it again. No, twist it the other way. See that bit inside the camera that you poked your finger through? That was the shutter. Yes, it was important.

Why do you think point and shoots and compacts sold so well?

I’m not a klutz and I am comfortable with technology, but I can tell good design from bad. And there ain’t half some bad design out there. What’s your experience?

Lomo LC-A

So what’s all the fuss about?

Obviously, it’s the camera that started the whole Lomography thing. It’s a Russian copy of the Cosina CX-1, made at the Lomo factory in (what is now) St Petersburg from 1984. The camera was discovered by some people in Vienna in 1991 and led to the formation of Lomography International in 1992. In 1996 the factory intended to cease production, but were persuaded by Lomography to keep going. Mine has a serial number started with 96, so is likely to be one of the crossover ones.

Everyone raves about the look of the lens – sharp, fairly wide angle, contrasty and vignetting in the corners. But, being groovy, the cameras are expensive new. I never thought much about them as I had them tagged as too expensive for a casual experiment. But then a cheap one turned up on fleabay. Needed batteries and new light seals and it had a ding on the front cover. So I slid in a low bid and won it.

I already had batteries and light seal material, so it was a quick clean-up and refurb and ready for action. I had loaded some film in my Olympus XA but not shot it, so I stole it for the LC-A. It also made me think: I am very familiar with my XA, so perhaps I should compare them? Consider in this that my XA dates from around 1982 so is about 14 years older than my LC-A.

Size – not much in it. The LC-A is a touch taller and thicker than the XA but feels bigger.

Weight – about 280g for the LC-A and 240 for the XA, both loaded.

Lens – the LC-A has a 32mm f2.8 and the XA a 35mm F2.8. But there’s more to it than that. The Olympus has a telephoto design with internal focusing and is a clever thing. Reviewers say the LC-A lens is sharp in the middle and fuzzy at the edges.

Exposure – the LC-A uses program mode – the camera decides what combination of speed and aperture you get and it doesn’t tell you. You can use the flash setting though to shoot in manual mode with a choice of apertures at a fixed speed of 1/60. The XA is aperture priority and shows you what the shutter speed will be in the viewfinder. There is no manual control, but there is a little lever on the bottom of the camera that gives you +1.5 stops for a backlit subject. One reviewer said that the LC-A has the equivalent of rear-curtain sync for flash: it triggers the flash when the shutter closes, not when it opens. This might be worth a play.

Range – the only real difference is that the meter on the LC-A tops out at 400ISO while the XA goes to 800. The XA offers speeds from 10s to 1/500 while the LC-A shutter will stay open for up to 2 minutes. The LC-A will stop down to f16 while the XA goes to f22.

Handling – the viewfinder on the LC-A is very small and I find it difficult to align, making it hard to see the frame lines. The XA viewfinder is much bigger and clearer. The difference is that the LC-A viewfinder is about 8 by 7 mm, while the XA is 13 by 7 – which is 60% bigger in area. This is why the Lomo crowd shoot from the hip.
Both of them will zone focus, although the XA also includes a rangefinder so it’s easier to focus accurately in the dark or close up. The LC-A has a normal shutter button, while the XA has the notorious red patch. This either fires when you look at it, or you find yourself moving your finger around to find the sensitive spot.
The XA comes with a little dedicated flashgun, while the LC-A has a hotshoe. If you move the aperture lever on the LC-A away from the Auto position to use a flash, you will need to know the guide number. The shutter fixes at 1/60 and you have to set the aperture to suit the distance. Or use an automatic flash.

Pictures – this is supposed to be why people use these cameras. The XA is known for having a sharp lens; the LC-A for having a contrasty lens with vignetting. The XA is supposed to show a little bit of barrel distortion, the LC-A a lot of pincushion.

This was a straight and flat wall

The first issue though was that it seemed to drain the batteries. A half-press on the shutter button should illuminate an LED in the top right corner of the viewfinder. It did when I first put batteries in, and then it didn’t. A quick check with a voltmeter said that the batteries were ok. A quick check with the Google said that they often don’t fit very well and lose contact. The cure is to pack them with a bit of folded foil behind the positive end of the end-most battery. Simples. It works, too.

I noticed too, when I was playing with the battery compartment, that the camera has fittings for a power-winder. What an odd idea for a snapshot camera. The Lomography website says the LC-A models had this but the winder was never produced (or at least, never sold in the West).

Then I had a crisis of confidence. The viewfinder, tiny as it is, has a couple of red LEDs hanging down in the top corners. One was the confirmation that the battery was ok, the other a warning that the shutter speed will be slower than 1/30. But the slow-speed warning on mine stayed on while the battery confirmation would light then go out. I was sure I had a bad connection somewhere. Luckily I had the sense to download the manual (and I was grateful enough to pay for it). I had the meaning of the LEDs the wrong way round. Eejit! And I had already rewound the film to avoid wasting it as I played with the LEDs. So how do you load a part-used film into an automatic exposure camera? You put in a darkbag, put the aperture control on f16 for flash (which puts the shutter onto 1/60), wind on and count. This makes it easier than the later LCA+ model that doesn’t have a manual setting.

So, back in business (and to my shame as an IT person, I had to RTFM). The other compelling reason for it actually working and not malfunctioning was that the shutter speed was obviously changing with the amount of light.

With the camera reloaded, off we went for a walk. Then, film shot, I developed it. The first good sign was that there were visible frames on the film when it came out of the tank. The frame spacing on the film is a bit irregular, but the camera has probably not been used for a while so this may improve with use. It also showed one of the camera’s difficulties, which is the tiny and fiddly ISO setting. This is a minute toothed wheel protruding from the front of the camera. It can be knocked off setting by careless handling of the camera and the visible setting is so small as to almost need a magnifying glass (for these old eyes). So there were a few overexposed frames from when I nudged the ISO dial with my fat fingers. This camera needs fairly careful handling – you need to check that you haven’t bumped the ISO setting, or knocked the aperture lever off the A position, or knocked the focus lever away from where you want it. Those aside, it’s quick to shoot with if not easy to frame. It makes it tempting to go all Lomo with it and shoot at arm’s length though and rely on the wide lens to get some of your subject in. The metering, crude though it might be, did a reasonable job. The zone focusing was good enough. But did the pictures show that LC-A magic?


Probably not in the same way as they get displayed on t’interweb. I shot mono so that I could develop it quickly myself, so I didn’t get the high colour contrast you typically see. But there is some vignetting in the corners and some definite pincushion distortion. You probably wouldn’t know this was the famous LC-A though. I don’t think I got that so-called LC-A look, probably because I’m not shooting cross-processed colour. And you know what? If I want vignetting and contrast, I can dial them back in later.

Berwick upon Tweed

So does it have a place in my bag? It is small and quick to use and makes me look like a groovy hipster. I think the XA is a better camera all round and easier to use though, and my Espio has a wider lens. The LC-A is, or should be, a cheap snapshot camera that introduces a bit of chance into the results, not a cult. It’s a one-trick pony though. So I may be selling this one.

Infrared conversions

I have Peggy to thank for this.

I’ve been fascinated for a long time with the look of infrared photography. I even got to shoot a roll of the famous Kodak HIE before it dodo’ed.

I went so far as to convert an old Agfa Super Silette to IR-only by fitting (gluing) a piece of infrared filter behind the lens. That didn’t work too well at first because I misjudged the exposure. What I really wanted though was an IR-converted digital camera so I could see the results as I was taking the pictures. This involves removing the infrared absorbing filter that sits in front of the sensor. I didn’t have a spare dSLR and my various other digital cameras were too difficult or too expensive, so it went on the wish list.

Agfa IR

That’s a bit of Lee polyester IR filter (730nm cut-off) behind the lens.

And then came Peggy’s article about Panasonic Lumix compacts. It seems that the sensor, and hence the filter, are ‘easily’ accessible through the back of the camera. What could possibly go wrong?

The first thing was to find a suitable camera. There are loads on fleabay, but the prices vary quite a lot. There are even some that have already had the filter removed – it seems that people attach them to rifles as a night sight. Eventually one turned up that was the right type but suitably undesirable, so cheap.

The screwdrivers were the next issue. I have several sets of jeweller’s screwdrivers that I have accumulated, but the camera used particularly tiny screws. Eventually a specs repair kit yielded a suitably tiny screwdriver. And then as soon as I got the back off the camera I went looking for a magnet – I didn’t want to be turning the camera over to shake out any screws I dropped. A few swipes over the magnetic clasp of a camera bag made the screws stick to the screwdriver and we were away. It really was fairly simple to lift away the sensor and remove the IR filter. I then cut a tiny piece from my Lee IR filter (8 by 10mm) to go in its place. This makes the camera permanently IR only, but means that I don’t need to mount a fragile bit of filter gel on the front of the lens. Besides, I can always go back in and remove it now I know how.

Challenge two is to charge the battery. The camera came without a charger, hence it was cheap. I have a USB cable that fits the camera, but this doesn’t charge the battery. I tried hot-wiring the battery + and – terminals to a USB cable (which delivers 5v) and to a 4.5v mains adapter. No joy. It looks like the battery also needs the ground terminal connected, which is why proper chargers have three pins and not two. So a charger is on its way to me from China. <interlude with hold music> The charger arrived and did its chargey thing and then we were charged.

And it only darned well worked! The first shot out into the garden looked like it had been snowing. I immediately took the dog for a walk and photographed everything.

IR 1

So it works very well indeed. But… Now I know why nobody fits the IR cut-off filter inside the camera. It restricts you to mono-only pictures without the option of the weird false colour effect you can get without the filter. So how to fit a filter to a camera with a pop-out lens?

Taking the IR-cutoff filter out was easier than fitting it in the first place, as I knew the sequence and the non-obvious screw that has to be removed. Without the IR cut-off filter in front of the sensor the autofocus hunts a bit. This is probably because visible and infrared light focus at different points. Fair enough – the camera has a setting that gives priority to infinity focus, so that’s what I went for. That didn’t work very well, but the next option was to use multi-point focus rather than a single spot. That seems to work a lot better.

Back to the bits box, and the benefit of hoarding old junk is that you can cobble some of it into gadgets. There in the box, previously unloved, was a 29mm push-on filter. The outermost segment of the lens, when it telescoped out, was 29.3mm diameter. The push on filter was thin brass. The crude and violent use of a socket and a hammer spread the mouth of the filter to be a snug fit over the lens. In the same box was a lens hood that was a reasonable fit over the filter. A trial fit showed that it was too deep and vignetted the corners. A few minutes with a hacksaw took care of that. A dab of glue and hello push fit IR cut-off filter with wide angle hood.


And now I can play. With the hood on and the camera in mono mode, I have the traditional Wood effect of white leaves and black skies. With the hood off I get the false-colour effect of purple leaves and weirdness. Most excellent!

IR 3

Plus, pop the filter back on and I can do the high contrast black and white thing.

Monk Stray

So, many thanks to Peggy for the tip that this could be done at home.

I have refitted the cutoff filter in front of the sensor. The external filter/hood gadget worked but I was in constant danger of dropping something while fiddling it on and off.

Pentax Espio 928

Of all the models of film compact that Pentax made, and they made a lot, this is the one I fancied. I even had one briefly, but it turned out to be broken (which was probably how it ended up in the charity shop). Anyway, it’s a 928 – so it has a 28-90mm zoom. The extra wideness is, to me, more useful than being longer at the top end. It’s a Pentax too, so the lens is sharp and it has useful features.

This one turned up on the usual online market as ‘unknown condition, needs batteries’. I already had a battery from the previous purchase, so away we went. It seemed that most punters were put off, so I got it for about half a pint of beer.

The only fault with it appears to be that the diopter adjustment for the eyepiece has fallen off. This has left the viewfinder a bit out of focus. It makes little difference in use – I can see the autoexposure point and the frame lines and the camera can focus itself.

The camera is smaller than my other Pentax compact, a Zoom 105. But then, most cameras are.


It’s just small enough to be an easy one-handed carry with the strap round my wrist and the camera in my palm.

The 928 has some nice features: there is a B setting with flash; it will do multiple exposures; you can do exposure compensation; there is a ‘fake’ panoramic mode that masks the film gate and the viewfinder. There is also a snapshot mode that sets the zoom and focus point for taking pictures with no shutter lag. It was probably an expensive bit of kit in its day.

Aysgarth Falls
Aysgarth Falls

The inside of the camera was nice and clean but the front of the lense needed a wipe. Because it retracts and covers when the camera is switched off, it probably never got noticed. At least this means it probably wasn’t scrubbed with a tissue.

It really works quite well. Like a lot of compacts, it doesn’t like the sun in its eye. The front element of the lens is barely recessed at all, so its surrounding provides no shade.

Castle Bolton
Bolton Castle, at Castle Bolton

So it doesn’t really like taking pictures into the sun. There is a fill-in setting for the flash though, so providing there is no direct sun into the lens it can work.

Castle Bolton

Like most of the Espio range, you can play tunes with the flash. You get the usual on and off, plus on with slow shutter, on with B shutter. So in a dark leafy tunnel of a path I can force the flash off to avoid the nearby leaves being brighter than the background. It also does pretty good fill-in in sunny conditions.


Overall, pretty good. I believe the one to have is the 928 rather than the 928m, so I struck lucky.

Does a photo have to be good to be good?

Scanning my way through a bunch of my parents old negatives I came across a couple of curious but dreadful shots. They were a pair of scuffed and fuzzy shots of a tv screen. They were taken on a 126 camera, so no choice of shutter speed or focus and the aperture probably fixed around f8. Hardly worth a second glance. Except they were of the first moon landing. My mum had taken pictures of the launch of the lander top section at the end of the mission, on its way to meet up with the command module. So the pictures are low quality snaps of low-key video on an old mono tv. And they are wonderful.


I was young at the time, but I remember how excited my mum was by the landing and mission. So I have something that reminds me of both a momentous event and my mum’s enthusiasm. Who cares about technical perfection?

It’s the same with old family photographs: sharp, well-framed or well exposed are immaterial. There are pictures of my dad doing his national service, my granny in her nurse’s uniform, great grandparents and all the cousins of various degree. The key thing is not whether the picture is any good, but if you can name who is in it. Old prints are good if a kind relative has written on the back. Negatives are more difficult. The best thing I have found is to scan them or even photograph and invert them, then put them on your phone. Any family gathering is the chance to ask about the pictures. Why bother? Because family trees can send branches in all directions. One of ours went to America and became (a former) president. He was a cousin (probably not a first cousin) to my grandad. They actually looked alike, too. Not that I supported either of their politics.

Dan and great gran
Dan and great gran

So I think the conclusion is that I could have wasted my time and money on cameras and lenses when all I really needed was snaps of family and friends. Really? No – I have more and better pictures of the people who matter, so at least some of the investment was returned with interest. Pictures of people or special events are treasure.

I suppose I’d better print them and write names on the back for my own kids.

This is one of them.


Tell me you were looking at the tonal rendition and bokeh…

Konica Genba Kantoku Wide 28

This is one of the site foreman’s cameras built for the Japanese construction industry in the late 80s and early 90s. They made a variety of these, some with a 35mm or 40mm lens, one with a zoom and a twin-lens (switching) version. My one has a 28mm lens.

It’s a big, chunky package but not heavy. It’s not waterproof to the extent you could take it in a pool, but enough to survive rain and being dropped in the pool. More to the point, it is dust, sand and muck proof and will take a bit of a beating.

I have written about it before, but not shown what it can do. This is a look at the output.

Konica 1

What you can see on the front of the camera is, to the left and around the logo, a pair of autofocus rangefinder windows, then the viewfinder and finally the flash. The viewfinder is unusual that it follows a folded path. This lets the eyepiece site quite high on the camera body, while the viewpoint is lower down and closer to the lens.

Konica 2
There is a tripod thread if you really need one, below the battery cover.

The lens is sharp and contrasty and reminiscent of a Lomo LCA in that it shows some vignetting. The colour pictures here were shot on expired film, hence the colour cast.

Fence 2

The mono picture of the Chevy was developed using a semi-stand method, which has evened-out the corners nicely. In use the viewfinder shows a central circle which is the autofocus spot. It’s actually quite fast to use – a half-press on the shutter finds and locks focus, a quick reframe and shoot. The viewfinder also has some parallax marks for closeups, as it has a macro mode.


What I was not expecting from a wide angle lens was smooth bokeh, but this has it. It’s probably difficult to see at this scale, but the books to the right of the dog are smoothly blurred with no repeating patterns.


The controls are simple – you have an on/off button and a mode switch. The mode switch cycles through the options of auto focus with auto flash (the default); flash on; flash off; self timer; flash off with infinity focus; macro with flash on.

Nice blend from sharp to out of focus.

The only thing I have found to be careful of is the protective front glass, which can catch the sun and cause flare. This is not the camera for sunny days though: this camera is for British summers.

In case you can’t be bothered to go back to the earlier review, the technical specs are:

Fixed 28mm F3.5 lens of 8 elements in 7 groups. Minimum focusing distance of 0.5 meter. Shutter speed range from 1/4 to 1/280 second. Metering by a CdS sensor with a range of 5.5 to 16.5 EV (ISO 100). The built-in flash has a range up to 5m at ISO 100 and 10m with ISO 400 film. Film loading and advance are automatic with a motor drive. Film speed set by DX coding.

OK, so it’s not a Pentax Espio 928, but I would rather take the Konica on a windy beach.



The Olympus Pen EE

I’ve written previously about the fun you can have using a camera with very few controls. I have a camera which, despite being much more modern than my bullet-hole cameras has even fewer controls. Even better, it uses film like I spend money.

Say hello to the Olympus Pen EE, which burst upon the world in 1961. Fixed focus. Fully automatic exposure. Tiny. You get to point it and press the shutter button (which locks if it’s too dark) and the camera does everything else. At least 72 little frames of goodness on a 36-shot film. The EE branding obviously shows that this camera meets with the official approval of the Republic of Yorkshire for its parsimony.

Pen 1

Part of the joy of this wee thing is that there is nothing you can do with it but frame and shoot. And since it sips film like a maiden aunt takes sherry, there is no reason not to shoot, then try something a bit different and maybe again. A pair of shots takes up the same space as a 35mm frame, so it’s tempting to combine shots in pairs. As you hold the camera, the next frame when you wind-on comes in from the right. So if the first shot of a pair has something facing right and the second one facing left, they will be looking at each other.

The camera itself started the trend for the way the later Olympus Trip worked: there are only two shutter speeds of 1/40 and 1/200 and an automatic aperture. The camera starts out in dim light using the slow speed and then jumps to the faster one when the automatic aperture hits f8. Going from bright to dark it holds onto the faster speed until the aperture hits f4, and then it drops. The lens on mine is the f3.5 Tessar design of 28mm focal length. This gives you an angle of view of around 46 degrees across the long dimension of the frame, so about the same as a 42mm lens on full-time 35mm.

Pen pic 4

The lens is fixed focus, so is probably set for a tad less than 2m, which is the hyperfocal distance at f22. This means you can usually ignore it except when it gets dark. Then your sharpest subject will be about 2m away. Remember that and it works well. In the midst of this coronavirus, you shouldn’t get closer than that anyway.

Pen pic 3
The default portrait orientation means a lot of your snapshots will be too.

Mine is the later EE-2 model, which has a hinged back rather than removable. One less thing to drop. It needs no batteries: the light cell around the lens powers and controls the aperture. The shutter locks and shows a red flag in the viewfinder if there is insufficient light. So by keeping the lens cap on you both prevent accidental exposures and prolong the life of the light cell. Take care though – the lens cap on mine is a bit loose and is knocked off easily.

The camera is tiny: 105mm wide, 68mm tall, 46mm deep. You can carry it easily in a pocket or your hand. The leaf shutter is quiet and discrete. The best thing though is that, even though you are shooting little 24×18 negatives, the lens is sharp. It’s capable of quite surprising results, given a bit of care and reasonable light. And as you get 72 shots to a roll of film you feel free to just try things out. Being tiny and portable means you are more likely to have it with you, too.

Pen 3
We will miss you, Olympus.

This little camera is definitely a glass half-full.

A Pen EE for your thoughts? (Sorry).

Testing a camera

“I’m going to run a film through it to test it” is what people say. But what do they do? If you stumble across the apocryphal 50p Leica or Nikon in a flea market or charity shop, how do you even know it works?

The first thing, even before putting film in it, is to check that the shutter works. Always wind-on the camera before changing shutter speeds. You really only need to do this with Russian and some other old cameras, but it is a good habit to get into. Teach your hands the habit and you might avoid breaking something in future.

With focal plane shutters, you are looking for both curtains to move smoothly without binding. When you wind-on the camera, the gap between the shutter curtains or blades should be closed as the shutter is re-cocked. The different shutter speeds should sound different. It is not unusual for the slower speeds to either not work or to be much slower than they should be. Your decision – it might free-up with use, you could pay to get the camera serviced, or you avoid using the slow speeds.

Needs a clean. The mark on the shutter is due to it being left uncocked. No obvious holes.

With leaf shutters, the ones that are built into the lens, you can listen to check that the speeds sound different. The slower speeds on old cameras can often be either very slow or frozen. Again, they might loosen-up in use or you could avoid using the slow speeds. Don’t bother trying the self-timer. It has probably never been used and will stick part-way through its run. If it does you will have to try persuading it to finish so that you get control of the lens back.

What shape are the light seals in? If they are sticky, broken or absent, it’s pretty straightforward to replace them.

Does the camera back (or base for that old Leica) fit properly? If not, the camera may have been dropped. Check the lens mounting at the front as well, this might get damaged if the camera was dropped.

Take a look through the front of the camera with the lens off as you work the shutter. Do the internal bits all move as they should? Does the mirror on an SLR swing up and return? Does the aperture-closing plate on a screw-mount SLR swing forward and back? Take another look at the shutter – can you see any wrinkles, bald spots or holes?

Take a squint through the lens. Threads of fungus needn’t be the end of the world: some lenses are simple enough to clean yourself and some can be serviced. Or plan to throw the lens away. Lenses can also be cloudy, scratched, dusty or have the glued elements separating. However bad it is, at least try shooting through it to see what sort of effect you get.

Put the lens on and try focusing the camera. Does it focus at about the right distance? You can recalibrate the rangefinder on many rangefinder cameras, but I don’t know how you would fix an SLR that didn’t focus correctly (unless it’s due to having the wrong lens on it).

If it has a lens, does it focus smoothly and does the aperture close-down properly? Many SLRs have a method of closing the aperture down to the set value at just the point you press the shutter. Does this work? Does the lens close-down to the same size of hole each time? Does it open up immediately again? Sleepy apertures are a common problem with old lenses. You can pay to have it serviced or put up with it and shoot with a pre-closed aperture. Or throw the lens away and keep the camera body.

Needs a clean. The lens looks OK. The rust is external.

So – all that before you put a film through it. If the camera passes these basic tests then it might work. Now put the film through it.

Try to shoot at all the workable shutter speeds. Shoot stuff at infinity and close up. Shoot some close-ups with the subject in only part of the frame, so you get plenty of out-of-focus background. Make it really obvious in the close-ups where the point of focus was or shoot a ruler or a long fence. Take some shots into the light. At least one interior is useful, with bright windows and lots of stuff in the shadows.

When you get to see the results, the first things to look for are that the frames are about the same density and are evenly spaced. Even density means the camera was exposing correctly at different shutter speeds and that the lens aperture is closing correctly. Even spacing means the mechanical windy-on bits are working. You can also check the film for scratches.

Neg sheet
The spacing is a little irregular but the exposure seems fine.

Did the camera focus correctly close-up? There are ways of calibrating some rangefinders to fix this, but it would be an unusual fault in an SLR. The out of focus background in some shots will give you a sense of whether you like the lens or not. Some will give a sharp subject on a smooth background while others will make the out of focus areas look busy and distracting.

Shooting into the light will give you a sense of how well the lens resists flare. For the interior shots with bright windows, look at any halo around the bright spots and whether there is detail in the shadows or it is hidden by flare. You can improve things with a good lens hood or just call it character.

So there you have it: you now have a fair idea of how well the camera works and if there are any dodgy settings to avoid. Which might be why it was in the charity shop in the first place.

The new instant camera?

I’m a lucky old dog, because for my birthday I was given a My First Camera Insta 2. Rather than APS, this thing ought to be taking on the world by storm.

What you get in the box is basically a mobile phone camera with a thermal printer, in a neat package with big buttons. This has to be the best social camera there is. The camera is cute. It looks like a bear with one eye open. Press the print button and the bear pokes its tongue out.

First 1

First 2
Also available in blue

Instant picture cameras are great, but they have issues. Each picture is unique – when you give away the picture it has gone. And instant film is expensive. But what this camera does is let you take reasonable quality colour digital pictures and save them to a memory card. You can then print single or multiple copies directly from the camera. The prints are on thermal paper, so are contrasty and lack detail. But they are immediate and perfect for sticking on a fridge or in a wallet. The prints have an image area of 83 by 48mm, so have a nice slightly panoramic ratio of around 1.7:1 which is roughly 25% wider than a standard 35mm frame.

Bear set

Specifications? The lens appears to have a horizontal angle of view of around 48 degrees, so the equivalent of a 40mm lens on 35mm. It shoots at a choice of resolutions, the best being 12mp. If set to 12 though it does seem to default to 9 on power-down. But nine is fine: this is not a pro camera. It also shoots video and has a selfie lens. See why it feels like a repackaged mobile phone? There is a clue in the name it gives a memory card when you format it: Dragon Touch. So this is likely to be a little Android tablet at heart.

I fell in love with it immediately. We now have six prints on the fridge, one in each of our wallets and a couple more up around my desk.

The camera comes with two rolls of ordinary paper and one of sticky-backed, and Amazon does a box of 20 for £6.50. At around 60 prints per roll, that’s a lot cheaper than instant film.

Any down sides? There is a bit of shutter lag. But hey, it’s digital – take a dozen pictures as the marginal cost is zero. Print the good ones. On the highest resolution it does some hard compression to the files, so there are jpg artifacts. Leave it on 9mp.

Bear 1
Why do selfie cameras reverse the image? To make it look like what you see in the mirror? I see a handsome fellow, so it must work.

Would I take this out to do ‘serious’ photography? No – this is a people camera. Would I use it for street photography? Yes – it looks cute enough to make people smile and you can give them a print. This camera is putting the fun back into taking pictures of people.

I’d also recommend this to anyone who’s feeling bored with their photography or creativity: get some lo-fi fun back in your life with a pukey bear cam.