Visual storytelling, with Olympus Pen-F

Cliff Etzel is a talented and experienced photographer from the Pacific Northwest, focusing on documentary & street projects. Don’t miss this interview, in which Cliff describes his approach and the reasons why he uses a set of 3 PEN-Fs and multiple prime lenses.

Hi Cliff! Thanks in advance for this opportunity. Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is Cliff Etzel and I’m a freelance documentary & street photographer as well as a visual  & multimedia storyteller. I live in Eugene Oregon in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
Olympus Pen-F . Olympus M.Zuiko 45mmF1.8 @45mm . f/5.0 . 1/640″ . ISO 200
What do you like to do in your free time?
In my free time I still photograph in addition to Vinyasa yoga (I’m currently in my studies to become a yoga instructor), fly fishing, hiking and bicycle riding.  I’m also a foodie so I enjoy cooking as well.
Could you tell us how your interest in photography started?
My interest in photography began in 1977 at the age of 15 after my biological father passed away unexpectedly and I inherited his Miranda 35mm camera. Later that same year my grandfather gifted me his old Minolta Autocord 120 TLR camera. For my 16th birthday, my parents built me a full darkroom and outfitted it with a Beseler 23C enlarger. Little did they know at the time, that started my path to becoming a professional photographer.
The first time I saw a roll of film processed and then that first print come up in the developer tray under a safelight, something inside of me was ignited.  Within 3 years, I had read all three of Ansel Adams book The Camera, The Negative & The Print. By my senior year in high school, I was teaching my classmates as an independent study course on how to print b/w in the school darkroom.
Olympus E-P3 . Olympus M.Zuiko 14-42mmF3.5-5.6 @41mm . f/5.6 . 1/125″ . ISO 200
When did you decide to become a professional photographer?
When I tell people that I’ve been shooting professionally since 1987, and having started in 1977, they are surprised I have stayed with it all these years (It hasn’t been easy since digital photography hit 20 years ago). I like to say that I didn’t choose the career, it chose me.
At a professional level, what kind of photography did you decide to dedicate yourself to?
After graduating from high school, I got married at a young age and started a family. I was still interested in photography and it was trial and error in developing my vision, my shooting style. I had begun using the Zone System for 35mm and 120 roll film as a result of Fred Picker’s classsic book “Zone VI Workshop” and found that black and white was my preferred medium (I later learned that I am partially color blind to certain shades of red and green so that might be a contributing factor in my preference at that time).
As I progressed through the decade of the 80’s I discovered that inanimate subjects bored me, (landscapes, still life, food) and I found myself to be more interested in photographing people. By the latter 80’s after trying all the typical genre’s within photography (Weddings, portraits, etc) I came across a video series from Kodak that featured photojournalist David Burnett – and it was that video segment that led me to my becoming a photojournalist and documentary photographer.
Olympus E-M5 . Olympus M.Zuiko 75mmF1.8 @75mm . f/1.8 . 1/160″ . ISO 800
Olympus Pen-F . Olympus M.Zuiko 45mmF1.8 @45mm . f/2.2 . 1/800″ . ISO 80
By 1987, I had produced a modest body of self-assigned work that afforded me two internships at local papers that in turn allowed me to build a stronger portfolio. I joined the NPPA (National Press Photographers Association) and by that time, I was fully committed to a career in newspaper photojournalism. In 1989, I applied and was hired as a second photographer at a small-town daily newspaper that was 2 hours away from my family – beating out other college-educated photojournalism applicants.
Due to personal circumstances and the distance (living there during the week and commuting home on the weekends), as well as not seeing my family every night, I left that job to come back home and concentrate on my family and try to find a local newspaper photography job. I ended up working at a very small twice a week newspaper at that point as well as stringing for the Associated Press.
Olympus E-M5 . Olympus M.Zuiko 45mmF1.8 @45mm . f/2.8 . 1/640″ . ISO 200
We could say that you literally brought your work home and started photographing your own family, correct?
By 1990, I was scraping by as a freelancer while also being a stay at home dad. It was at the behest of a colleague that she recommended I begin documenting the story of my youngest daughter who was born with a severe developmental disability.
What is the importance of developing personal projects?
Personal projects are critical in creating your own unique view of the world.  In my instance, I was a father of three children, my youngest who needed constant care. As such, because of the advice of a colleague, I began documenting my family as it pertained to my daughter Christina.
I realized I needed a unique vision, so I documented her as I saw her as a father. This heart centered approach afforded me the ability to see in a way I had not up to that point in my career. The project ended in June of 1992 when Christina passed away due to cardiac and respiratory failure at the age of 5. 
Olympus Pen-F . Olympus M.Zuiko 25mmF1.8 @25mm . f/1.8 . 1/125″ . ISO 200
In your opinion, what are the advantages and disadvantages of Olympus equipment for the type of work you do?
The advantages of shooting the Olympus system (especially the Pen-F) in my documentary photography work has proven itself time and time again. The size is unobtrusive and isn’t intimidating to my subjects. The lenses are amazingly sharp and compact.
I think the biggest disadvantages are battery life and what seems to me to be a slightly lower dynamic range – probably due to the sensor size. The autofocus tracking isn’t as good as other brands, but in my work, that’s not near as big an issue for me as it would be for action and wildlife photographers. 
Olympus E-M5 . Olympus M.Zuiko 17mmF1.8 @17mm . f/4.0 . 1/1250″ . ISO 400
What was your first Olympus M43 camera, and what reasons led you to switch to a smaller camera system?
For all my years shooting film and into digital, I shot Canon 35mm camera and lenses, both FD and EF mounts. When I moved to digital, I shot with 50D’s and T2i’s when I wanted to shoot video. My back began to have problems as a result of carrying all this large, unwieldy camera gear.
In the fall of 2015, friend, colleague and Olympus Visionary Larry Price recommended I give Olympus M43 a try. So I purchased a couple of Olympus E-P3 bodies and kit zooms just to see what it was like. By December of 2015, I had sold all my Canon camera gear and haven’t looked back since – and in the process, my back thanks me.
Olympus E-M5 . Olympus M.Zuiko 17mmF1.8 @17mm . f/1.8 . 1/1600″ . ISO 400
Olympus E-M5 . Olympus M.Zuiko 17mmF1.8 @17mm . f/2.0 . 1/250″ . ISO 800
Recently, you moved from a set of three E-M5s to a set of three Pen-Fs, correct? What were the main reasons that led you to make this decision?
Although the first generation E-M5’s I was shooting were affordable and durable, there were certain features missing I was finding I really needed, specifically the silent shutter option and better focus tracking of moving objects.
I invested in 3 Pen-F bodies in the summer of 2019 not only for improved features, but also for the aesthetics of the cameras. I added Really Right Stuff Arca Swiss bottom plates to slightly extend the bodies height for ease in holding while shooting. I haven’t regretted the investment into the three Pen-F bodies over the more current offerings from Olympus.
Olympus Pen-F . Olympus M.Zuiko 17mmF1.8 @17mm . f/4.5 . 1/400″ . ISO 400
Olympus Pen-F . Olympus M.Zuiko 17mmF1.8 @17mm . f/3.5 . 1/250″ . ISO 200
Could you describe your current cameras and lenses setup?
Although I still have the 3 original E-M5 bodies, they are relegated to snapshots and personal photography when I’m out hiking or bike riding. My daily drivers are three Pen-F bodies in black. I come from the old school philosophy of having more than one body, and preferring to have all my bodies the same so that I don’t’ need to think about changing how the bodies function in shooting situations.
All three bodies are set up the exact same way so that no matter which body I have up to my eye, I can just shoot and not have to think twice, potentially missing a shot. I shoot with 5 Olympus Premium Primes:  the 12mm f/2, 17mm f/1.8, 25mm f/1.8, 45mm f/1.8 and 75mm f/1.8.  I carry all of this in a Domke J-803 Journalist Camera Satchel with a modified Domke four lens insert along with 12 batteries and a total of 8 – 64GB SD cards.
What are the reasons why you prefer prime lenses over zooms?
I come from the days when shooting primes was the defacto standard. They are optically faster, sharper and less obtrusive than zoom lenses. The Olympus Premium Primes especially are amazing for their size. The 17mm f/1.8 and 45mm f/1.8 are my workhorse lenses. The 75mm is my go-to portrait lens or when I need a little extra reach. The 12mm and 25mm are my least used lenses but I always carry them in case I need them.
Olympus E-M5 . Olympus M.Zuiko 12mmF2.0 @12mm . f/4.0 . 1/250″ . ISO 200
Olympus E-M5 . Olympus M.Zuiko 12mmF2.0 @12mm . f/2.0 . 1/640″ . ISO 800
And for that reason – using prime lenses, you prefer having multiple cameras with different focal lengths?
Whenever I’m shooting for a client (humanitarian, NGO, wedding, family, birthing and end of life documentary photography) or shooting out on the street, I almost always shoot with two bodies and occasionally with three. I’m used to this way of working and have done so for my whole career.
I’ve used zooms, but I find them to be a lazy approach to my way of shooting. I’ve developed my seeing eye to such an extent that using primes is second nature for me. For a short while, I shot with Leica rangefinders early in my photojournalism career and knew the Pen-F would afford me that same experience but in a digital acquisition tool.
Olympus Pen-F . Olympus M.Zuiko 45mmF1.8 @45mm . f/2.8 . 1/250″ . ISO 200
Would you mind sharing your impressions on the Pen-F, and the reasons why you prefer this format over the OM-D?
As much as I love my first generation Pen-F’s, it’s not a perfect camera. I have my gripes about the custom dial on the front of the camera (why is it even there!). The menus are overly complicated. And even though they have 20MP sensors, they just don’t have that dynamic range I’ve seen come out of Fuji’s similarly styled X-Pro and X-E camera bodies.
Having said that, The size and weight of the Pen-F’s cancel out my gripes. I just prefer the ergonomics of the Pen-F over the OM-D cameras. My subjects see my cameras and don’t feel self-conscious about my photographing them. In really sensitive shooting situations, the silent shutter is an absolute must-have in my opinion, and I have used it many times since acquiring them.
Olympus E-M5 . Olympus M.Zuiko 40-150mmF4.0-5.6 @100mm . f/7.1 . 1/100″ . ISO 200
Olympus Pen-F . Olympus M.Zuiko 75mmF1.8 @75mm . f/3.2 . 1/500″ . ISO 200
What’s your wish list for future Olympus releases? A Pen-F Mark II?
I think Olympus is missing an opportunity and giving it away to Fuji. There are definitely some design changes Olympus could make for a second-generation Pen-F MkII: Weather sealing, 4k video (nothing serious, just the ability to shoot 24p, 30p and 60 p with a cine profile option) and get rid of that dial on the front! Those are basically the things I would change and if Olympus released a Pen-F MkII, I would have the perfect camera for my work.
Olympus E-M5 . Olympus M.Zuiko 12mmF2.0 @12mm . f/2.0 . 1/13″ . ISO 1600
Olympus E-M5 . Olympus M.Zuiko 12mmF2.0 @12mm . f/2.0 . 1/15″ . ISO 1600
To conclude, would like to share with our readers any tips or advice?
Although gear is nice to have, it’s the operator, not the tool that creates the image. The camera and lens are there to record it, nothing more. When I first started shooting Olympus with a pair of E-P3’s, I created some pretty amazing images that hang on my wall today. I only use the Pen-F’s because they meet a need I have that my E-M5’s don’t.
And I don’t need the top of the line weather-sealed pro lenses in my work (so far). Olympus should refresh their current premium lens line with weather sealing – that would make the system way ahead of any other system out there. The Olympus system is the best bang for the buck in cameras today in my opinion. No one system is perfect. Each has its limitations, but we learn to work within those limitations.
For me, Olympus brought back that passion for shooting after having lost it due to heavy gear. I say, go out and shoot with whatever you have to work with and refine your creative vision first before thinking the latest and greatest cameras and lenses are going to make your images somehow that much better.
Olympus E-M5 . Olympus M.Zuiko 75mmF1.8 @75mm . f/11 . 0.4″ . ISO 800

"“My role is to be the observer, the curator of visual moments. I’m not there to make moments, I’m there to capture them.” I've heard it said that it's more difficult to document one's own community than it is to travel halfway around the world and photograph in a foreign land. My experience has been that there are elements of truth to this statement. And yet, it's these nuanced moments that are so familiar to many photographers, that most tend to not give them second thought. There is this subtle "something" to the way I see the world as a documentary photographer and visual storyteller that captures my subjects in a way that is quiet, understated, and yet says something to each viewer of these decisive moments. The images I capture of the everyday world I see in my local community through my cameras and the communities I visit in my home state of Oregon are a testament to this philosophy. My name is Cliff Etzel and I’m a Pacific Northwest award-winning photojournalist specializing in family, wedding and end of life documentary photography as well as working with humanitarian for profit companies, NGO’s and non-profits. My 30+ year experience for framing and catching fleeting moments and light is what gives my photos meaning and sets my photos apart from run of the mill photographers. In my photographic work, I feel there’s a real beauty in documenting authentic life experiences. My passion to document the lives of everyday people is inspired by the works of William Albert Allard, David Burnett, David Alan Harvey plus many others and my passion hasn’t diminished even after all these years."

2 Comments

  1. Hi everyone,
    Great interview and sad for his lost…
    Concerning his wishes about the Olympus gear, i agree 200 % with Cliff.
    It would be so easy to produce the same primes but weather sealed ! It’s a big mistake that Olympus made by bringing only big and heavy Pro lenses that are weather sealed.
    And the same goes for the Pen !
    But…what will be the Olympus future now!.. Let’s wait & see

  2. Hello.
    Very nice interview.
    Very inspiring.
    Thank’s for sharing your experience and keep up your good work.

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