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The first ‘proper’ camera I bought was a silver and black Olympus OM1 which I bought with a 50mm f1.4 Zuiko lens from the London Camera Exchange in Southampton whilst I was at university.
Like many things that come to me in life, I wasn’t quite ready for it at the time it came. I sensed its potential, but I didn’t quite get it. Ironically, like so many other photographers out there, it wasn’t until digital photography woke me up that I realised what the OM1 and film photography was all about. So it sat in a shoebox for a few years until I was ready to give it my full attention. Roll on 10 years and I’m pleased to say it is getting properly used now.
The Olympus OM1 is a fully manual 35mm film SLR camera manufactured by Olympus. Yes, that means manual exposure and manual focus, manual film advance and manual film rewind. Everything about the camera is mechanical, except the light meter, which the camera works fine without. Both the Camera bodies and the Zuiko Lenses are made in Japan and are built to a very high standard.
The OM-1 was first introduced in 1972 as the M-1. Leica had an issue with Olympus’s naming strategy, being too similar to the Leica M1, so they added an O to the front to make it an OM-1. The team which developed the OM-1 borrowed from the clever design of Leicas at the time, so they were clearly fans of the Leica M system.
The OM1 is a mechanical device, beautifully engineered, cheap to buy and own, and really fun to use.
The camera is small for a 35mm film SLR, not quite Leica dimensions, but this isn’t a rangefinder. It is about as small as you can make an SLR camera which has a mirror inside it. Constructed mostly out of metal, the body can take some knocks, but it also means that it is quite heavy for its compact dimensions.
There’s not much in the way of functionality on the OM1, but all the basics are there to allow you to expose your photos. It’s a very simple camera. If you’re using Zuiko lenses, the aperture ring is mounted at the end of the lens just behind the filter thread.
The camera shutter speed selector is a ring located on the camera body directly behind the lens mount, this helps to adjust the exposure when looking through the viewfinder. B, 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500, 1000 are the shutter speed settings. With 1/1000th being the fastest shutter speed, shooting wide open in daylight with a fast film requires an ND filter.
The inbuilt light meter can be adjusted for ASA 25-1600 film and is accurate given the right battery (see below)
The camera also accepts a traditional shutter release cable which screws into the top of the shutter release button.
There is an inbuilt shutter timer, which is mechanical of course. You wind the lever round and when you are ready to start the timer, flip the switch. As long as the camera has been advanced to the next frame, the shutter is cocked and will fire automatically when the timer expires.
There is a mirror lock up operated by a small wheel on the side of the body, a Flash PC sync socket which is on the other side of the body, and a hotshot mount, which is removable. Both the mirror lock up and film rewind knob are operable by hand or using your nail or a small screwdriver if you’re a bit pretty.
On the side of the lenses is a depth of field preview button which stops down the lens to the selected aperture, so you can check what’s in focus. This also forms one of the two buttons which is used to remove the lens from the body.
The viewfinder is big bright and beautiful, with 97% coverage. It is a real pleasure to use. Focussing is carried out by means of a split image focussing zone in the centre of the viewfinder. It can take a while to get used to focussing, so help yourself by using larger apertures like f5.6 when you are getting started, to give yourself a chance to nail your focus.
Zuiko lenses have a nice feel, and focus smoothly and easily, without excessive or too little rotation on the focussing ring. The focussing ring is knurled hard rubber, and is easy to operate even in the wet and damp, and once you are comfortable with the focussing direction, it’s easy enough to do. Practice makes perfect, however.
The Motor Drive version of the OM1 (marked with MD on the front) accepts the Motor Drive accessory. I’m not sure why you would buy one of these for the OM1 as they make the package so much bulkier. If you want to shoot fast film, I recommend you get yourself a Nikon F100, or if you need really fast, an F5.
The OM1 is designed to take a 1.35V mercuric oxide PX625 battery, sadly these are no longer available to buy due to heavy metal regulations. Using newer silver oxide alternatives can cause inaccuracies in metering, but the camera meters can be modified to work accurately with these new cell batteries by adjusting the resistance of the circuit. Wein Cells are available as an alternative to the original batteries, but these don’t last long and are relatively expensive to buy.
The lenses available for the OM system are pretty good quality accepting the limitations of film. The zuiko lenses are especially compact for their performance. As long as you don’t go too looking for anything too obscure, you can find good lenses at a good price. The 50mm F1.8 and 28mm F2.8 and 35mm f2.8 are all reasonably priced and compact lenses compared to modern glass. Sharp enough for film, their compact dimensions make them easy to use as carry around primes.
The lenses are all manual focus with the aperture adjustment on the end of the metal body. They are pleasing to use with a nicely damped focussing ring. With the MF-2 OM Lens Adapter, they can be used on newer Olympus M4/3 cameras such as the OMD EM5 mk2. A 28mm has a 56mm equivalent (full frame) focal length due to the 2x crop factor.
Image Quality and Camera Feel
Considering the age of the camera the image quality available is impressive. I recently attended my brother’s wedding in Bali, and took along my two OM1-n bodies and 50mm f1.4 and 28mm f2.8. My brother and sister in law selected two photos from the wedding to enlarge, neither were taken by the official photographer, and one of them was mine. I was pretty pleased considering the camera and lenses are nearly as old as he is.
The camera is a solid little jewel of a thing. Metallic, solid yet compact, it also happens to look fantastic. You just feel proud carrying an OM1 around, like some kind of 1970s bare-bones photojournalist.
The camera is not really light, but it is fairly compact, especially with the wide angle f2.8 Zuiko lenses. This makes it an easy carry around camera. It won’t kill you if you have it with you all day like an F100. The OM1 with 50mm f1.4 lens is about 800grams.
It feels nice in your hands, and while you don’t have a great deal to hang onto, you can hook your thumb under the film advance lever to give yourself a bit more purchase on the body. A light leather or fabric strap would look the part and would help in this regard. The front of the camera has metal eyes to accept a strap.
Unlike bigger SLRs, shooting with the Olympus feels fun, which means that your subjects also seem to have fun too. There’s something quite intimidating about having a big black NIKON badged beast thrust into your face. By contrast the nice little silver and black OM-1 looks so pretty that it distracts your subject with its shininess. If you’re having fun, they’re having fun. If you feel like paparazzo, they will feel rightly intimidated.
How to shoot the OM1 most Effectively
We all develop ways of using the cameras in our lives most effectively. With the OM1, shooting is simplicity itself. First you need to know what your apertures mean as far as depth of field is concerned. Fortunately this is written on the Zuiko lenses to help you out.
Adjust the shutter speed until your light meter is showing correctly, and have a quick check to make sure that the shutter speed is not too low that camera shake is likely. I use the 1/focal length rule, and it works well enough.
The OM1 is better with negative than with slide film, as the shutter speeds increments and F stops don’t give you the incremental adjustment you need to expose slide film properly. That’s not to say that you can’t shoot slide film, but you will need to be confident in your exposure ability. Both shutter speed and apertures are adjusted in whole stops only.
How Much does it Cost to Run?
Not that much. For such a beautiful little camera, OM1’s can be picked up for a song, especially on eBay. Check proper camera shops too. They were extremely popular when available, and so there are many used examples on the market. As fully automatic cameras became more popular, the OM1 was left behind in the drawer. A decent example will cost you around £100-£200, and you’ll probably get a 50mm f1.8 lens thrown in for free. The 50mm f1.4, 28mm f2.8 and 35mm f2.8 are all available second hand for not much money either.
If you buy an OM1 off eBay, I recommend you get it CLA’d (cleaned, lubricated and adjusted). I live in the UK, and I’ve found a company in Liverpool, Newton Ellis, which will service Olympus cameras like the OM1 for £75+VAT, which includes adjusting the light meter circuit so it can accept a more modern PX625 silver oxide battery. Replacing the light seals is an additional £20. So after purchase price, budget another £120 or so to bring it up to scratch, or buy from a reputable camera dealer and get them to clean and service it before you buy. See the recommended reading at the end of this review.
Here are some frustrations that I have experienced in using the OM1 system.
- Film Spool Take-up – Loading the film onto the spool is not straightforward, and it doesn’t always catch. If you don’t load the film correctly, you won’t know about it until you have shot the whole roll, when you go to rewind it and discover that the film is still on the first frame. These are the moments you curse your film camera and want to throw it into the sea. I did this on a recent trip to Indonesia, and was happily snapping away only to discover at the end of 40 odd exposures that I’d not exposed a single frame. Arghhhhh!!!!
The best advice I can give you is to get a feel for how the film advance mechanism feels when winding on with no film in the camera (it is very easy to wind on), versus the additional resistance required to advance the film lever when there is a film loaded on the spool. If it feels too easy to wind on, THE FILM IS NOT ON THE WIND SPOOL!!!!
- Light Meter – More specifically the battery. I was lucky enough that I managed to get hold of an original mercury battery in another old camera I bought, so one of my two OM1s works great. The other one gets either a PX625 and over reads slightly (not the end of the world with negative film as it quite likes overexposure), or you can use a wein cell, but these don’t last very long and have a limited shelf life once opened. The light meter has also been a bit temperamental. All the more reason to get the camera serviced asap.
- Vignetting – If you are using lens hoods or screw on filters, be careful what you choose. Due to the compact nature of the Zuiko lenses, especially the wide angle primes, and the short distance to the filter thread, they are prone to vignetting. I recommend shooting without a hood, unless it specifically came with the lens (I don’t have any zuiko lens hoods, so I’m not even sure if they come with them). I had to crop a lot of my photos to square format just to hide the vignetting.
- Focussing Errors – Just because it is a teeny tiny camera, don’t forget that it is effectively full frame, so remember your f1.4 lens has a very shallow depth of field. If you normally shoot a cropped DSLR, you will need to nail your focus as wide apertures. If you are going out and shooting portraits at f1.4, expect most of your photos to be out of focus in the beginning. Start with something a bit more forgiving like f2.8 and work it up from there. 50mm f1.4 is a bit soft at 1.4, much better at 2.8. It is easy to misdiagnose focussing errors for camera shake. You have it all to do, the exposure, the framing and the focussing, and in the beginning it can be a bit too much.
Conclusions and Sample Photos
Unlike some cheaply built plastic-fantastic cameras, the Olympus OM1 is built to last. This is a good thing. As long as there are people out there who can service them, they will keep going for quite some time yet. They are not Leica build quality, but then again they are not Leica price either.
As a popular camera there are plenty of spare parts out there. Expect to be able to sell your camera for the same as you paid for it. Olympus don’t make 35mm film cameras anymore, and due to the rock solid build quality, these things will have a place in the world of photography for some time to come.
Here are some photos taken with my OM1-n:
If you want to read more about film cameras, the following links are worth a look:
Olympus OM1 review – andrewgoodman.me
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