Olympus Chrome Six – An Idiot’s Guide / A Trip to Helsinki

What kind of idiot would go on a once in a lifetime trip, to a place they have never been, and take a camera they have never used?

Well, me I guess.

So this is the story of learning to use the Olympus Chrome Six.  Let’s start with some context.

In late March, I spent 8 days between Helsinki Finland and Tallinn Estonia.  This was my yearly photo trip.  No wife, no kids, and no agenda other than wandering around a new (to me) place with a couple of cameras and 18 rolls of film.

In my bag I also had my trusty Nikon FE2 and for ultimate back up a well-used digital Sony A7s with a Nikon F mount adaptor.  I swore not to use the Sony except in emergencies, like the night a Finnish metal band was playing in the small bar next to my hotel.  That turned out to be an ISO 10,000 emergency.  But other than that I left it in the hotel.

As for the Chrome Six, I really wanted to shoot some medium format and the options I had didn’t seem suited to either air travel or to carrying around on foot all day.  I wanted something light and compact and a folding camera seemed like the best bet.  After looking around, I settled on an Olympus Chrome Six.  It appeared to be in excellent condition and when it arrived everything seemed to test out just fine.  I just didn’t have time to run any film through it.  Or actually you know, get used to operating it.  What the heck, how hard could it be!?

Roll one:  Not off to a great start

Roll one:  Getting a little better

Day one, where I remember this is a multiple format camera:

One nice thing about the chrome six is it can shoot either 6×6 or 6×4.5 formats.  This is accomplished using a small metal frame that snaps into the film chamber.  It is kind of a flimsy little thing, so after figuring out how to remove it, I just stuck it back in the camera and forgot all about it.   Forgot all about it until I was about 2 thirds of the way through the first roll and figured I had been framing everything for 6×6, but shooting everything at 6×4.5.   I was also struggling with the “red window” film advance system.  Different film types use different symbols to indicate you are approaching the next number, and I really was struggling to figure out what I was looking for.  In response I did the logical thing; put on my reading glasses and found a nice beam of sunshine to illuminate the window.  The wrong window of course, since in my mind I was still thinking 6×6.  In somewhat of a miracle, I actually got a few usable frames from roll one, which I guess proves the old stopped watch being right twice a day adage.  And if you didn’t get the sarcasm, exposing the little red window to bright sunlight is a really bad idea.

Day two, calm down and take a deep breath:

It’s just a camera.  By day two there is less jet lag, the 6×4.5 frame has been removed, and I finally get some keepers.  I’m using  cine-still film rated at ISO 50, in a nod the camera’s top shutter speed of 1/200.  The day is cloudy and cold, just around the freezing mark.   I’m checking the iphone app occasionally for an exposure reading, but the cloud cover keeps things pretty consistent.   Another thing about the Chrome Six is these early models don’t have a range finder, so focusing is a guestimate.  If you want to get fancy you could say “zone focusing” but really it all depends on guessing distances.  With the heavy overcast I’m using slower shutter speeds and apertures between 5.6 and 11, so not everything comes out with that medium format pop, but when I get the film developed, I’m more than happy with this roll!

Helsinki, day two:   Slowing down and thinking is starting to get some results.

Helsinki, day two: I almost feel like I know what I’m doing

Helsinki, day two: The Chrome Six is a hard camera to use for moving subjects, but I’ll still keep this one

Helsinki, day two: Downtown Helsinki

Days 3, 4 and 5:

I’m no Ansel Adams, but I am getting the hang of this.   At this point I’ve taken the ferry across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn and have immediately fallen in love with the city.  The town is centered around the old medieval city, and scattered with aging Soviet monuments.  The weather is deteriorating and a light snow is falling.  I’m walking the cobble stones of a city built in the middle ages and could not be happier.  Every once and awhile I pull in to a café for an espresso and a change of film.  I am convinced this is what photographer heaven is like.  And I’m developing a process.  Open the camera, set the shutter speed and aperture, cock the shutter, frame the shot, take the shot, open the red window (in the shade), advance to the next frame, close the camera and keep walking.  I’m running low on color film and throw in some HP black and white (ISO 100)   There is a couple of inches of snow on the ground and shots of the old Soviet structures are really contrasty.  On the ferry ride back to Helsinki, the weather has warmed and I’m feeling ridiculously over confident.

Taking the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn

Tallinn Estonia. Cobblestones in the old city

Tallinn Estonia. View of the old city

Tallinn Estonia: Another crumbling Soviet structure (Linnahall built for the 1980 Olympics). Snow on the ground, dark stone and a heavy overcast.

Tallinn Estonia: Unintentional double exposure at the old Soviet monument (Maarjamae Memorial).

Tallinn, Estonia:  Maarjamae Memorial (Soviet)

Tallinn, Estonia:  The old soviet statue collection at the Museum of Contemporary History just north of Tallinn.

Tallinn, Estonia:  Bus stop on the Baltic coast. Part of the Maarjamae Memorial

Taking the ferry back from Tallinn to Helsinki

Final days in Helsinki:

I hate the final day or two of vacation, thinking about packing and flight times and things I should have planned better.  I’m down to my last roll of 120 film, and I get my favorite shot of the trip, although I wouldn’t know it till I got home.  As a young college film student, breaking down the sequence of shots showing the massacre on the Odessa Steps (Battleship Potemkin / 1925) was required viewing.  Here in Helsinki, a couple of hundred kilometers from the Russian border, I’m picking up the same vibe.

On my final day in Helsinki, down to my last roll of film, I finally get the shot I want

As for the Chrome Six?  Let’s just say I’ve not mastered it yet.  It’s older than I am, and had to put up with some inexpert use.  But the bigger issues were generally on my end.  I shot 7 roles of 120 film, and that’s theoretically over 80 frames.  I, um, didn’t get that many.   On the positive side, once I got the hang of using the camera, I got a couple shots I really like.  As a medium format travel shooter, folding cameras are a fantastic option.  This Olympus is well built, with a great lens, but is limited in shutter speeds and doesn’t have even an uncoupled rangefinder (Note, there is a more recent Olympus model with a rangefinder).

It’s a keeper for me, but there are a ton of other options out there for relatively low prices.   Higher end models will come with a rangefinder, but only some of those are coupled to a focusing mechanism.  An uncoupled rangefinder still requires you to hand set the focus based on the rangefinder’s distance measurement.  More expensive models may also feature a mechanical film advance and frame counter, eliminating the need for peeking through the red window.  Older film formulas, especially the B&W films that dominated photography when these cameras were designed, were not as sensitive to red light but it can be an issue with modern film stocks.  (For a deep discussion about how B&W film reacts to light, there is a great resource here.)  Keep in mind that these film advance mechanisms are often one of the first things to fail if the camera hasn’t been well cared for.  You can see lots of examples of homemade windows cut into the backs of cameras to salvage their use.  One feature of newer, higher end cameras are the faster shutter speeds, and although 1/500 is probably about as fast as you will find, I don’t see a downside to the faster shutters.

Just a mention of the Nikon FE2.  It’s a system I’m very familiar with and compared to the folding Chrome Six it is modern and predictable,  Still, when I see the results, they seem…predictable.  I’m satisfied, but not as excited as finally getting a decent shot from the Chrome Six.  Part of the adventure was the challenge of trying something new and adding a bit of risk.  The Nikon seems very low risk at this point, and I’ll have to take that into consideration on the next trip.   But to be fair to the camera I’ve loved for years, here are a few of the 35mm results.

Dog Walker, Helsinki

A Soviet view of capitalism

The Baltic sea

Maarjamae Memorial, Tallinn

Tallinn, the old city

Tallinn Estonia. I’m in a medieval city, it’s snowing, and I’m walking around drinking espresso and shooting actual film. Heaven on earth

The paid photography I do is all digital these days, and I have no issues embracing the latest technology.  Yes, I shoot mirrorless.  But at least once a year, I try and find some time to go out on my own and get back to the analogue roots of my love for photography.   And every time I do this, it feels as though I have to relearn something that used to be second nature.  I’m convinced that every struggle helps you grow as a photographer, and that shooting today’s digital cameras has just made me lazy.  Although I own several dozen film cameras, this was the first folding camera I have ever owned or used.   I had some issues between the ears, which made any success that much sweeter.  I hope you enjoyed the story and the pictures.  You can see my lazy work here.

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About The Author

18 thoughts on “Olympus Chrome Six – An Idiot’s Guide / A Trip to Helsinki”

  1. Love the feeling of a journey of exploration both of the camera and of the areas you visited.
    You are obviously very much enjoying your own photography and at the same time earning from your commercial work

    1. Thanks John, the paid stuff is a second job for me and mainly fun stuff to shoot. All the profits seem to disappear into a black hole of more old cameras 🙂

  2. Karen McBride

    Ah, what a trip! I loved the story and the photos. It was nice to see your progression as you became familiar with the camera. The moody colours you captured were divine. My favourite shot was the double exposure. Also loved the concept of lazy work. What a great expression for digital photography for someone who shoots both. I will be using that from now on.

    1. Thanks Karen, and yeah shooting with a modern camera just seems so disconnected now. I just picked up an early Sony 4mp CD Mavica that records to mini-cd disks. Anything to make it weird and experimental!

  3. That Olympus glass is amazing. The two shots on the ferry, going to and coming back, felt just like I was there. That’s a keeper camera.

  4. What a wonderful trip. My favorite frame is the unintentional double exposure, which looks like it was executed with a vision. I have an old Zenobia C that I have shot only a couple of rolls with, so I’m very much in the experimentation phase with it. But your images inspire me to continue.

  5. Great writing and lovely pictures, sounds like a wonderful trip. My favourites are the gentleman on the mobility scooter in Helsinki, the view down the Helsinki street with the tram lines and the reflection in the cobblestones in Tallinn, oh, and the statue in the Soviet statue collection in Tallinn. As others have said, the unintentional double exposure works well too. “…walking the cobble stones of a city built in the middle ages … pull in to a café for an espresso and a change of film…” – as you say, heaven! It doesn’t get better. Well, maybe, if there is jazz music as well.

    Nice to see a Chrome Six being used, I’m still getting to know mine, I’ve only put a couple of rolls of Fomapan through it so far. Being so used to 35mm SLRs my biggest issue is remembering to set both the aperture and focus with not having any reminder in the viewfinder.

    1. +1 on the music idea. And yes I’m falling in love with the folding camera concept. I think it is a system that rewards practice and somewhat regular use, since any deviation from the process invites some sort of unintended consequence 🙂 Good luck with yours, maybe we’ll see a story here in the future?

  6. I’ve long admired the Olympus Sixes, and you inspire me to look again. Mixed results as expected but when you hit it right the images really pop out in an exceptional way :). Funny how we all have favorites: for me it’s the ferry to Tallinn, the reflections in the cobblestones of old Tallinn, and the moody bw of the stone steps of Helsinki. Great inspiration:)

    1. Thanks David. Honestly, the shot on the stone steps is one I’ve had in my head for a number of years. I was so happy I didn’t mess it up! I strongly encourage you to take anther look at the folders!

  7. Well, this article and photos are the reason an Olympus Chrome Six f2.8 is on its way to me from Japan. Don’t know if I should thank you, though as I already have too many cameras!! 🙂

    But seriously, I enjoyed the article and I’ve been wanting to add 6×4.5 format back into my arsenal for some time. I had it at one time in a Mamiya 645, but the native orientation of that camera is landscape (horizontal) format, and holding that big-ish camera sideways to get portraits was never very comfortable. Folding 6×4.5 cameras have a native orientation in portrait (vertical) format, something that’s important to me since I do mostly portraits. The Mamiya 645 wouldn’t fold up and fit in my coat pocket either, so there’s another plus I found attractive.

    So anyway, thanks for the inspiration to add an Olympus folder to my collection.

  8. Ha, that’s awesome. I’m really starting to appreciate the folding camera as a travel companion. When closed they are like a small protected turtle. Hope all goes well with your new purchase!

    1. I got my camera. Looks like someone removed the focus ring at some point and put it back on wrong, as none of the distance scale actually intersects with the focus indicator mark when you twist the focus ring back and forth. The scale is on the bottom part of the ring instead of the top where the focus indicator mark is. I’m fairly certain someone removed it and put it back on the wrong way. I might attempt to correct it. Could you tell me at what distance the focus indicator mark on your camera is pointing to when you turn the focus ring toward close focus until it stops? And when you turn it back the opposite until it stops, is the focus indicator mark pointing at the infinity mark? This info will be very useful if I decide to try to fix the camera. Thank you in advance for any information you might have.

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