Digital Photography Review

Olympus OM-1 Camera Review – Casual Photophile

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Fans of the Olympus OM system are as passionate and dedicated as any in the world of cameras, and it’s over the original Olympus OM-1 that these acolytes most readily swoon. Spend any amount of time chatting with classic camera geeks and the Olympus OM-1 is sure to come up in conversation.

And I totally get that obsession. Last year I shot the OM-2 for a weekend. On Friday I expected nothing special, and on Sunday I had a new favorite SLR. Since then, I’ve shot the OM-3, OM-4, OM-2s, and the OM-4Ti, and I’ve encouraged countless would-be film shooters to hunt down an OM of their very own. But in all this time I’d still not gotten my hands on the original, the progenitor, the OM-1. That is, until now.

The past two weeks have found me shooting the Olympus OM-1, and it feels like coming home. The OM-1 isn’t going to appeal to everyone (it’s a camera that has some potentially ruinous shortcomings) but for a certain type of photo geek, shooting this Olympus will be as blissful a photographic experience as one can have.

To start, let’s get through the basics. The Olympus OM-1 is a fully-mechanical, 35mm film SLR first produced in 1972, though back then you’d never find an OM-1 on the shelves. That’s because in its original iteration it was called the M-1, named to immortalize its legendary designer Yoshihisa Maitani. When Leica discovered that Olympus had made a better camera than their identically-named and vastly inferior M-1 rangefinder, the boys from Wetzlar had a tantrum and “requested” the name be changed. Olympus bowed and changed the name to OM-1, and knotted lederhosen far and wide were swiftly unwound.

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[M-1 Image Courtesy of Instagram’s @Wilfredjaai]

Interestingly for collectors, a number of these early M-1s still pop up here and there, and seeking them out can be a pastime in itself. Olympus’ records indicate that only 5,000 were ever produced, but sleuthing photo-geeks put the number significantly higher. Lenses and accessories bearing the M-System nomenclature are also quite sought after, so keep an eye out next time you’re in the local thrift shop. And while uncommon, it should be mentioned that these cameras can be easily counterfeited, with many an OM-1 having been modified to sell at the much higher prices commanded by M-1s. Due diligence dictates buying only from shops you trust (like mine). Unfortunately, the M-1’s rarity will inevitably force many folk to wade through the murky waters of eBay.

With this in mind, here are some pointers. If you’re looking to get your hands on one of these original Ms, check these external indicators first. The bottom plate should have no ports except a battery cover, as the M-1 lacks the ability to mount a motor drive. Other easy indicators are the use of slotted screws in the lens mount (not JIS or phillips), and a smaller film pressure plate. The M-1’s plate should measure 51.5mm x 38mm while the OM-1’s plate measures 60.5mm x 38.5mm. Removing the pressure plate should reveal mounting studs 45mm apart, opposed to the later camera’s 52mm spacing. Internally things are more complicated, but we can tell the difference by removing the top plate and observing the coloring of wires, inclusion or exclusion of certain resistors, differences in the metering system, and a number of other minuscule clues.

This is all rather boring stuff, suited to a more obsessive website. M-1 or OM-1, when you buy the original OM machine you’re getting a serious shooter’s camera. That’s because this camera is a precise, concise tool. There’s nothing here to confuse the process of photography, which is good, but there’s also not much here to make the process easy for newcomers, which could be a deal-breaker for some photo geeks.

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We mentioned that this is a mechanical camera (it functions via levers, springs, and gears rather than being powered by electricity), but it’s also an entirely manual camera. If you’re going to use an OM-1 you’d better understand (or be ready to learn) the ways that ISO, shutter speed, and aperture impact your photo.

That said, the Olympus OM-1 does have a light-meter to assist things, but there’s no auto-exposure like we find in other, more modern OM machines. And this is likely going to be the thing that keeps many photo geeks from pulling the trigger on the OM-1. Whether the manual-only nature of the machine truly warrants preclusion is up to the individual. For me, I welcome it. Simplifying things often leads to magical moments in photography, and some of the best photos I’ve ever taken have been technically imperfect shots made with manual exposure cameras whose dials and knobs were set just shy of perfect.

But I acknowledge that for some people this review just ended. The exclusion of auto-exposure is a real shortcoming. But for those who are up to the challenge, for those ready for a serious camera, this shortcoming won’t matter.

So what do we get with the OM-1? In short, everything we need and nothing we don’t.

The top plate is delightfully sparse, with nothing more than a shutter release button, an ISO dial, a film advance lever, an On/Off switch, and a film rewind lever. That’s it. There’s no exposure compensation dial, there’s no multiple exposure switch or mode selector; even the shutter speed dial is placed elsewhere (surrounding the lens mount). On the front of the camera we find the self-timer and previously-mentioned shutter speed selector, film rewind switch, mirror lock-up switch, and flash socket. And again, that’s all!

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It would be easy to read the OM-1’s spec sheet and pass it over in favor of a camera that offers more gizmos and widgets. And in today’s digital environment, overlooking something on account of its quaint simplicity is practically the status quo. We compare and weigh and choose, and forever covet newer, flashier, more decadent devices. But to overlook this camera on account of its simplicity would be a massive mistake, for the entire allure of the OM-1 is in its ability to provide today’s shooters with something we so desperately need; clarity.

The OM-1 allows us to see the world with a simplicity that’s conspicuously elusive, especially for photographers who are used to looking through the latest EVFs or DSLR viewfinders. Through its eschewing of superfluous features, the OM-1 becomes an ideal photographic tool for our modern age, and indeed a truly timeless object of function and beauty. And this camera is beautiful. Maitani and his team of engineers worked tirelessly for years to refine prototype after prototype, until finally producing what we see today, the smallest (136 × 83 × 50 mm) and most appealing 35mm SLR around. It’s a quintessentially Japanese creation, with an economy of design that’s intentionally reserved.

In its era, the OM-1 was a revelation, and today it’s still a stunner. Place it next to the latest and greatest Nikon, Canon or Leica and you’ll immediately recognize that we’ve indeed been taking steps in the wrong direction. The OM-1 is compact, purposeful, slim, and sexy. While the most common machines of today (even some mirror-less cameras) are bloated, disproportionate, and needlessly complicated.

Counter-intuitively, these savings in size and weight do not forfeit quality. While stowing an OM body in our bag adds only 510 grams (18 ounces) to the load, these are some well-made grams. Build here is excellent. The camera is tight, dense, and solid, and the OM feels like a camera that can take abuse and keep on firing (a suspicion reinforced when my review camera spent the day photographing the New England Aquarium, even after tumbling from a footpath into rocky Boston Harbor).

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Functionally the camera is a joy to use, with a few minor exceptions. Ergonomically, things are excellent. Controls are implemented in an intelligent and thoughtful way. The locking tab on the ISO selector (a feature that usually annoys) is comfortably hidden in a convenient niche. The shutter speed selector actuates with a directed force that lets one know they’ve just adjusted something serious, and the shutter release button feels great.

These last two components are linked to a capable, if old-fashioned, horizontally-traveling cloth focal-plane shutter capable of speeds from 1/1000th of a second down to 1 second, plus Bulb mode for long exposures. Flash sync speed only reaches to 1/60th of a second, which is prohibitively slow for anyone shooting with a fill-flash in daylight. And while these limitations will likely only impact certain, more advanced photographers (new shooters seldom use strobes or have super-fast glass) they do hamper the OM-1’s performance a bit.

One other lowlight can be found when we advance the film. It just feels rough. Opposed to some other classic cameras, which implement advanced construction techniques such as self-lubricating ball bearings, advancing film and cocking the shutter of the Olympus OM-1 can almost make one cringe. The action sounds sandy, abrasive, and sad.

Luckily, with these two qualms we’ve essentially exhausted our stock of complaints, and we’re back to heaping accolades. And no area of the OM-1 impresses more than when we look through its absolutely gigantic viewfinder. A decidedly gorgeous .92X magnification finder shows 97% of the image area, with photons passing through twelve available interchangeable focusing screens. It’s amazing that on a camera so small we would find one of the biggest, brightest, and best viewfinders in all of classic photography.

The viewfinder also displays a “center-the-needle” light meter readout. Light passing through the lens is measured by two CdS cells placed on opposite sides of the eyepiece, and these provide through-the-lens open aperture light measurement. Simply adjust your aperture and shutter speed until the needle rests between the plus and minus symbols in the viewfinder and you should make a proper exposure. In reality, the light meter in the OM-1 isn’t exceptional. It’s decent. Exposure is measured fairly accurately, though it’s not as adept as some other metering systems we’ve used. And the subsequent OMs amazing auto-exposure and metering systems certainly overshadow the more primitive OM-1.

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