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Why You Need a Half Frame Camera

I was hesitant to try out a half frame camera. Once you shoot medium format and get used to only having 12-15 shots per roll, it seems to take forever to shoot through 36 shots with a full-frame camera, let alone 72 shots for a half frame camera. But in the end, I've grown to really love my little half frame camera.

What Does "Half Frame" Mean?

Let's start with correcting a common misconception about half frame cameras. A number of people have asked me what type of "special film" I have to get in order to use my half frame camera. The answer is: normal film. Half frame cameras shoot on the same 35mm film as your normal full frame film camera.

Two half frame shots take up the space of one full frame shot.

So how does a half frame camera work? How does it shoot 72 shots on a normal roll of 35mm film? Just as you have to advance the film forward between each shot with a full frame or medium format camera, with a half frame camera the film only advances half a frame forward. Additionally, the area of the film being exposed to light is cropped to be only half of a frame. This means you get 2 individual shots for every full frame area of film. So on a typical roll of 35mm film you are able to capture an incredible 72 unique half frame shots!

Getting a Half Frame Camera

When I was searching for my first half frame camera, I was looking for something in the middle ground between automatic and manual (and of course not too expensive). I ended up landing on the Ricoh Auto Half SE, a Japanese-made camera manufactured from 1960-1963 (a 60-year-old camera!).

The Ricoh Auto Half is a pretty cool little device. It boasts a fixed 25mm lens and maximum aperture of f2.8. It can be fully automatic or you can manually adjust the ISO and aperture settings to fit your needs (the shutter is fixed at 1/125 unless using the flash sync override setting in which it is 1/30).

For an exposure meter, the Ricoh uses a light sensitive selenium cell on its front panel (see the black window covered area surrounding the lens in the image above). No batteries are needed. Just don't accidentally cover that panel with your fingers! The camera also includes a self-timer, an exposure assist in the viewfinder, and an auto film advance which functions via wind-up power.

Looking through the viewfinder, you'll notice the image is framed in portrait (tall sides, short top and bottom). Because half frame is using half of a full frame, the normally landscape image is turned into a portrait-framed image. To shoot a landscape image, you must turn the camera 90 degrees. Interestingly, this portrait mode viewfinder makes the half frame camera feel quite modern because you see the world how we tend to use our smart phones these days: shooting "portrait mode" for IG Story and Tiktok.

My Results

I've had a chance to shoot at least 7 rolls of film on my Ricoh Auto Half on a mix of black & white and color films (Lady Grey 400, Kodak Max 200, and Fuji 200). I brought the camera along with me on trips to Korea, San Francisco, and Portland and overall I've been pleasantly surprised by the results. A lot of the time they are not what I expected with framing or exposure being off or strange, but with 72 shots there are always unique little gems to be found. Often, if there's a shot I really like, I'll shoot it twice just in case the camera decides to do something weird on one of the frames.

Auto vs. Manual

I found, when relying on the automatic exposure, the camera tends to lean on the dark side (underexposing). My solution to this: I compensate for that underexposure by setting the ISO/ASA adjustment to overexpose. For example: while using 400 ISO film, I tell the camera that I'm using 300 ISO film. The camera then exposes in a way that lets more light in, thus adjusting for its underexposure problem. This type of workaround fix is common with any old camera: you have to get to know each camera individually, its quirks and all, and find unconventional ways to get it to function correctly. And honestly, this camera, being 60 years old, is amazingly accurate and reliable.

The Wind-Up Auto Advance

The Ricoh Auto Half is not a stealth camera. It may be small, cute, and compact, but it's noisy! In order for the auto advance to function properly, you have to wind up a dial under the film canister. Eventually it becomes a habit to just wind it casually between shots. When it's fully wound it should be good to advance up to 10 shots without having to be wound again. The winding part is not noisy, it's the auto advance.

Immediately after taking each shot the camera will auto advance the film to the next frame. This is accompanied by a sharp "wkeeeehk!" sound. It's not crazy loud, but it's an uncommon sound that tends to turn heads. This, however, has not swayed me from snapping casual shots on the go... and a number of people have started talking to me about film photography after they noticed me shooting with the Ricoh. Often photography is about being bold.

Exposure Assist

The exposure assist through the viewfinder is a really fun and simple way to know when it's okay to shoot. Take a look at the .gif below.

Observe the large dot at the center of the viewfinder. The idea behind it is really simple: a RED dot means DON'T shoot (too dark) and a YELLOW or WHITE dot means DO shoot (enough light). It's an easy way to approve exposure, and in this case of the hot tub in the .gif, the following image shows the pleasant results (I turned the camera 90 degrees to get a landscape view).

Anonymous in the Hot Tub

Diptychs and Triptychs

The idea behind diptychs and triptychs is that you can intentionally (or unintentionally) pair up images as you're shooting. Juxtaposing two or more shots on a film roll is a cool way to compare/contrast/match objects, moments, people, and scenes. It's a fun way to tell a story or show patterns of an area. Here are a few I've captured. Some were surprises to me and others were planned (I'll never tell you which ones though! Haha!).

16mm Man
Dutch friend at Fisherman's Cove :)
Cousins walking up the hill.
Pohang Fish Market
New Passport Photo
Yellow Line. Stay Behind.
Game Boy on the BART
Gate Ceiling and Gate
City Girls.
Morning Walk with Father-in-Law
Look Both Ways

Final Take

I highly recommend getting yourself a half frame camera. They are compact, easy to use, and a fun way to capture life on the go! Shooting on half frame is just another great way to open up creative pathways and see the world in new ways. Slip a half frame camera into your pocket and head out the door!

I hope this gave enough insight into half frame cameras. Now get out and shoot!

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