Olympus OM 1 – An Appreciation
Since the release of the Olympus OM 1 in the UK 40 years ago it is perhaps difficult today to appreciate the impact this camera had on the photographic world. ‘Stunning’ does not do it justice.
Nikon Fs, the serious, mainstay system 35mm SLR were acknowledged to have to be heavy, bulky and noisy to do their job and stand up to the rigours of professional life. This is just the way it was, right? Wrong. The Olympus OM 1 changed this belief for ever.
How could an OM 1 body be about 30 per cent smaller and lighter than a Nikon F, and be an improvement with a larger mirror, a bigger viewfinder, replaceable screens, have a quieter shutter and be built to take the punishment of a motor drive? How?
By the genius and vision of one man, Yoshihisa Maitani, who already had ‘form’ having created the Pen and Pen F, cameras noted for their compactness and elegance. Maitani drove his design team to completely re-think how a SLR should be built, work and handle, by thinking outside of the box, and using every millimetre of internal space to make a different camera.
For example, to save valuable space the shutter blinds are connected using cords rather than tapes – this took the team months of research, testing and trial to get it right so that the cords did not buckle and tangle under use, especially with a motor drive. Also, the shutter mechanism was moved from the top of the body to space under the mirror box, the speed dial being put around the bayonet mount. Frankly, no camera since then has come close with so many innovations and its impact. Look my drawing below, the design brilliance cannot be overstated.
When I first handled an OM 1 in the 1970s I was gob-smacked by its watch-like precision (listen to the self-timer running), diminutive size, large controls and sure handling, beautifully dampened mirror and especially its monster, bright viewfinder image… and those Zuikos! I was struck immediately by how Leica-like it was, both in design execution (look at the rewind release catch and where it is placed… remind you of anything?) and size. The late, great Maitani has been quoted as saying that the Leica M3 was his inspiration and guide for the OM 1. It is no exaggeration to say that many fans of this little jewel fondly refer to it as the ‘Leica SLR’ (conveniently overlooking the fact that Leica had their own SLR range!), insisting it is the SLR Leica should have made.
Sadly, all those years ago I just could not afford to buy into the Olympus OM 1 system, having invested in a ton of Nikon glass, but I never forgot the effect that first Olympus OM 1 had on me.
The Olympus OM 2
This year I bought a 1977 OM 2 with 50mm f1.4 and 28mm f2.8 Zuikos, as a film back up for my Leica. What was once out of reach is now affordable – considering its abilities and quality, ridiculously so. I’ve not been disappointed. It is an OM 1 and more.
First shown at the 1974 Cologne Photokina, Maitani did not rest on his laurels with the OM 2, it being the world’s first through-the-lens (TTL) off-the-film (OTF) camera, an idea licensed from Minolta, which has today evolved into an exposure control method used by virtually all camera manufacturers.
The OM 2 operates exactly like an OM 1 when the mode selector lever is turned to ‘Manual’, the viewfinder display has the same match needle scale as an OM 1 (+ and -). Setting it to ‘Auto’ brings up a full shutter speed scale in the viewfinder showing the camera’s choice of speed. The actual speed (1/45 and longer) is made from light reflected off the film at the moment of actual exposure. The TTL OTF metering, in particular, opened up a whole new world of photographic possibilities, which previously involved tedious exposure calculation, particularly with flash.
Of course, with any vintage camera – mine is 36 years-old – there can be issues. Not least with an OM 2 is the problem of deteriorating foam in the prism housing, which eventually eats into the prism coating and is seen in the viewfinder as marking or dark patches. Once this happens the prism is irreparable. Mine does not shown any marks – yet – but in time it will. The top plate will need to come off and the foam removed.
Also my OM 2 has what I can only describe as an occasional shutter ‘cough’ or ‘sneeze’ when fired. After 36 years the lubrication is probably almost dry and my OM 2 needs a clean, lubrication and adjustment (CLA). At the same time I would like the foam to be removed. It’s the least I can do for this little jewel.
Something else to watch out for are decayed foam body seals. Replacements are readily available on the web: it is a DIY job. Apart from this OM 2s are surprisingly robust.
Occasionally one will see advertised an OM 2 that has a jammed shutter and locked up mirror, the seller thinking it is broken beyond repair and thereby being sold for parts – cheap! More often than not the battery is dead and the mirror is stuck in the up position because of this. Turn the shutter dial to ‘B’ by pressing in the small button next to the red triangle on the right bottom of the bayonet mount (the collar is marked ‘Reset *’ as a reminder) and the mirror will drop and reset. Fit a new battery and the camera is good to go. The reset instructions are different for an OM 2n.
An Olympus OM 2 is a joy to use, undiminished by time and fashion – a genuine classic, and a fitting testimonial to the genius of one man, Yoshihisa Maitani (8 January, 1933 – 30 July, 2009).