Semi-Random Photo(s) for 30 March 2014

Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 400 in Caffenol-C-L
Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 400 in Caffenol-C-L

Meet the Camera: Olympus Pen D3

In “Jaws,” as a drunken Quint (played by, according to those who would know, the equally drunken Robert Shaw) recounts the story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, he says “Sometimes shark’d go away…sometimes he wouldn’t go away….” Ideas are like those sharks – they come along whenever they feel like it, and if you know what’s good for you, you try everything to make them go away. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. And with ideas, as with sharks, when they don’t go away there are bound to be consequences.

Recently the idea of doing some half-frame photography popped into my mind. I have my Yashica Samurai Z, so I grabbed it and popped in a roll of film. As I was shooting (nothing in particular, just general walking-around photography), my thoughts turned back more than once to the Olympus Pen EES-2 I used to have. The selenium-metered auto-only exposure of that camera never sat quite right with me (the Samurai is auto-only as well, but rather more sophisticated), but the packaging was always impressive. The camera was well-built and easy to carry. I liked it – I just wished it allowed some control over exposure.

But all is not lost. A quick troll through the magic Interweb is enough to tell anyone curious enough to look that Olympus built a few variants of the Pen that did indeed offer the user some control. The original Pens were meterless manual cameras, and the later D-series added a meter and considerably faster lenses to the manual setup; all of these are far less common than the automatic variants, naturally with higher prices.

If I was going to try to act on this idea, the trick was how to do it inexpensively. As a general rule, I don’t like spending significant amounts of money on things that might not pan out the way I hope. Thankfully, I’m happy to buy less-than-perfect things and bring them back to working order. In short, my route to a manual Pen was likely going to begin with a busted, dirty, or otherwise flawed camera. Ebay, here I come….


After a few false starts and some annoyingly persistent bidders, I landed myself a candidate, and pretty rare one at that. My new Pen is a last-of-the-line D3, complete with a CdS meter and the fastest lens ever installed on a Pen – a six-element Zuiko 32mm f/1.7. The auction photos were lousy (honestly, how hard is it to take halfway-decent digital pictures?), but clear enough that I could see there were a few dings, ample dirt everywhere, and maybe something worse going on with the lens. But it was complete, a relatively rare model, and ended up being cheap. What could possibly go wrong?

Camera arrived intact, no thanks to the indifferent packaging the seller opted to use. Beginning the cleaning process, I found that most of the dirt was pretty easily removed, and most surfaces came up pretty well. Two larger issues emerged: the battery cap was stuck in place with corrosion, which was relatively easily dealt with, and the front element of the lens had some persistent spots of crud on it, small deposits closer to the outer edge. Repeated efforts with a variety of methods (all gentle, non-damaging techniques) slowly took them down, only to reveal shallow pitting where the deposits had been. Thankfully, the rest of the glass is perfect.


Having unstuck the battery cover, I replaced the battery with a 675 hearing-aid battery. Unfortunately, the meter failed to respond. I ripped into that and found a dodgy wire connection, which I resoldered, but it still sat there inert. Since there’s no automatic exposure – the meter is uncoupled – and since I rarely use a meter anyway, I’m leaving it dead for the moment. If I get ambitious I’ll take it fully apart and replace the CdS cell.

I tore down the Copal shutter and cleaned everything up – it was a bit sticky, and the double exposure prevention mechanism wasn’t working reliably. It’s a fairly straightforward leaf shutter with a five-blade aperture. Once I cleaned it everything seemed fine. The focusing mechanism was smooth and did not require service. Further testing proved, however, that the shutter was still not quite right: it would sometimes trip when wound, especially when the camera was held at certain angles. While trying to sort this out, all the shutter blades decided to fall out. This meant a full tear-down. Thankfully it’s a fairly straight-forward process, and while a few things required some force to remove, it wasn’t too hard to figure out. Nothing was broken (I think the shutter blade retaining plate screws were loose), and so it’s all back together now and seems to be behaving itself.


After all that, it was time to test with film. Before heading out I got a small screw-in metal hood to deal with any potential loss of contrast due to the damage to the front element. Now that everything was working, my attention turned to the capabilities of the lens. It’s quite sharp, especially considering the tiny negative. The damage to the front element doesn’t seem to have much effect, certainly nothing I can identify. Zone focusing is easy due to the short focal length, and this plus the small size make this an ideal street photography camera.

So I now have the manual Pen my brain somehow decided I needed. It didn’t come easy, but I didn’t shell out much money for it, and as you’ve probably figured out by now, I don’t mind a project. As I said earlier, when kicking and hollering won’t dissuade them, the ideas that won’t go away are bound to have consequences. I’ll never put on a life jacket again.

UPDATE – April 2014: As much as I don’t particularly care about the functionality of uncoupled meters, I got a bug in my head about trying to sort this one out. After extensive testing with a multimeter to see just what was connected to what and just where the battery’s voltage was actually going, I determined that the problem was simply connectivity. Cleaning all the bits of the battery chamber thoroughly (the brass screws that a responsible for connecting the positive battery terminal to the body of the camera were badly corroded) and adding a small aluminum spacer to improve the contact between the battery and the cover seems to have solved it. The meter is now working and did not even require adjustment. Maybe now this camera will stop haunting me.