Olympus OM-1: My Favorite 35mm SLR

Back in 2012, I bought my first OM-1, a chrome MD model from ebay. Although I had prior experience with some leftover film SLR's handed down from my parents, this camera rapidly became my favorite and really activated my passion for film photography. At the time, I was using the Nikon D800 for digital work, and the OM was the first camera to slow me down, helping me focus on the art of composition. It's hard not to get excited writing about this camera... it is the pinnacle of SLR design to me. Since then, my OM collection has grown to include a black OM-1, an OM-4T, and several lenses.

The OM-1 MD in Black

History

In 1972, Olympus released the M-1 body, beautifully designed by a Yoshihisa Maitana. Shortly after, Leica expressed concern about the name being too similar to their M-series rangefinders, so it was renamed the OM-1. By 1974, this was replaced with the OM-1 MD, which added a coupling on the bottom plate to allow the use of electronic motor drives and winders. Some standard OM-1's were also modified to add this linkage as well. The OM-1n, with several updates including automatic flash synchronization and a smoother film advance lever, was released in 1978, but by 1988 most of the single-digit professional level OM's were discontinued, except for the OM-3T and OM-4T lines.

The OM-1 was designed as a professional level, fully mechanical camera, but with an emphasis on a small form factor. Unlike the beastly Nikon F, F2, or Canon's F1, which had set the standard for pro-level SLR's at the time, the OM was far smaller, lighter, and nicely refined. It also came announced with a wide system of lenses, many of which followed the same size philosophy as the bodies. It also offered flash integration, with a removable shoe that screws in to a socket on top of the prism housing, much like a modern SLR.

The small size and quality of optics really endeared this camera to a number of photographers, and is at least somewhat the inspiration for later small-bodied mechanical cameras such as the Pentax MX (1976) and Nikon FM (1977). The later OM-2 is also highly praised, offering aperture priority automatic exposure and several other interesting features, but relying on batteries to control it's electronically timed shutter mechanism.

Eventually the OM-1n evolved into the OM-3 and then OM-3T, although they were sold alongside each other for some time. The OM-3/T bodies are the same size as the OM-1, offer a marginally smaller viewfinder, have a fixed hot shoe, a similar mechanical shutter with a higher top speed of 1/2000, but most notably an advance spot metering system accessed on the top plate next to the shutter button. These cameras have prices that outweigh their practicality, but it's impossible to ignore the level of innovation and accuracy of the spot metering systems they include.

Mir.com has an extensive history, listing of lenses, and other information on the OM series in great detail. See here: Mir.com

And in chrome, the more common finish

Specifications

  • Horizontal travel cloth shutter
  • Shutter speeds from 1s to 1/1000s
  • Flash synchronization at 1/60s and below, shown by blue shutter speed numbers
  • Pentaprism viewfinder with 97% accuracy and 0.92x magnification (it's huge!)
  • Interchangeable focusing screens
  • OM bayonet mount
  • Hot shoe socket
  • Single stroke film advance
  • Through the lens, full aperture metering, with needle shown on left side of viewfinder
  • Shutter speed selectable via a ring around the lens mount
  • ASA/ISO speed for meter selected via a locking dial on the top plate
  • Self-timer on front, approximately 12 second maximum delay
  • Removable film door
  • 1.35v PX625 or equivalent battery powered meter (can be modified to use modern 1.5v)
  • Weighs 510g
  • Takes 135 36x24mm film

Ergonomics

The blue shutter speeds, which allow flash synchronization, are clearly visible on the black body.

Probably the most remarkable attribute of this camera is its deviation from many of the conventions to operate a camera at the time. Not only was it far smaller than any full frame SLR at the time, it also contained almost all of the features of larger cameras. It also offered an enormous and bright viewfinder, complete with thirteen different, interchangeable, focusing screens to tune the camera for a specific purpose or preference.

The other feature most noticeable at first glance is the shutter speed ring surrounding the lens mount, as opposed to being on the top plate as many other SLR's. Instead, the area usually designated for shutter speed is replaced by an ISO dial, allowing the shooter to choose from 25-1600. This has no effect on exposures, only the calibration of the metering needle. The metering system can be turned on and off by a rotating switch on the top plate, between the prism housing and the rewind knob. This simple switch makes it easy to use the meter only when necessary, saving batteries and time.

The ASA dial rests on the top plate, an interesting departure from traditional camera design.

The lens mount release and depth of field preview buttons are both mounted on the lens itself, so the body also has a minimalistic front panel. The self-timer lever is mounted to the front panel, and this is controlled by turning the lever to point away from the lens or down, then pressing a tiny lever over which is exposed after turning the timer lever. This begins the countdown to fire, and unlike other SLR's with a similar mechanism, pressing the shutter button will immediately fire the shutter, so care must be taken to remember to trip the small lever on the self timer instead of using the top plate shutter button.

The film door is opened by pulling up the rewind knob, then another upward motion against a spring loaded mechanism releases the door. Rewinding requires the user to turn the small dial just under the shutter button on the front plate so that it is facing the "R," then flipping out the rewind knob and turning it in a clockwise direction until the film is completely inside of the canister.

The bottom plate is home to the battery compartment and motor drive connections, if available. Early M-1's and OM-1's did not have the coupling cap or electrical contacts to allow usage of motor drives or winders. However, many OM-1's were modified to add this functionality. These are sometimes identified by the small "MD" name plate being added on the front of the body, but unlike models produced as "OM-1 MD," it is located on the opposite side near the top, outside of the film rewind switch. I have used the Winder 1 before, which is limited to single shots and takes AA batteries, but I doubt I would ever use a motor drive with these bodies - it increases the noise and size drastically, taking away its best advantages. However, I can see why this would have been important at the time, marketing this to compete against other professional level cameras.

Focusing

Focusing action is very smooth on the Zuiko lenses, although many of them are very small in size and thus have thin focus rings. Some of the body of the lens is also shared by the aperture ring, and a ring at the base of the bayonet which includes the lens release button and depth of field preview button. Lenses such as the 50mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.8, 35mm f/2.8, 28mm f/2.8, 28mm f/3.5, 21mm f/3.5, and 18mm f/3.5 all have thin, though nicely dampened, focusing rings. Longer lenses, such as the 85mm f/2.0, 100mm f/2.8, 135mm f/2.8 or 135mm f/3.5 all offer wider rings.

Film door open, revealing the cloth shutter mechanism.

The camera itself offers interchangeable screens, allowing for a nearly endless set of possibilities. The standard screen is a horizontal split-image type, with a rough microprism collar, all over a ground microprism matte. This allows depth of field to be previewed on the entire frame,  easy focusing on vertical lines such as buildings and faces using the split-image, and the microprism collar for fine tuning on other subjects. Lenses with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or smaller do darken one half of the split-image, but the other screens available, such as the 1-4 or 1-7 screens offer a brighter image field designed for use with smaller apertures on super telephoto or macro lenses (though these are microprism only, no split image).

Most importantly, the viewfinder image is extremely large and bright. While it doesn't show the shutter speed or aperture setting, this means the field is uncluttered and free from distractions or obstructions. I find this arrangement to be the pinnacle of viewfinder design, and although extra attention must be paid to avoid mistakes in exposure, it does not hinder composition in any way.

Image Quality

Due to the ease of composition and mechanical operation, I find this camera optimal for my shooting style. I have gotten a number of nice exposures with this camera, and these two OM-1's are my most used film cameras by a wide margin. It may seem strange to some, but I frequently carry one of these with me, and my focus is so much on composition that sometimes I come back having only taken a frame. There's something about these bodies that provoke an intimacy with the art of photography for me, and I enjoy this type of imaging, which has also had the outstanding benefit of improving my artistic eye with my digital cameras as well.

Technical quality is excellent on most lenses, and some such as the 35-80mm f/2.8, 100mm f/2.0, and 18mm f/3.5 all have high values on the market. In my experience, the 50mm f/1.8 is one of the best lenses available for any system, and it is somewhat sharper than the f/1.4 version at all apertures. I have not had the chance to use the 50mm f/1.2 or 55mm f/1.2's, but I hear these are excellent stopped down and have dreamy character wide open. I have also found the 28mm f/2.8 and 21mm f/3.5 to be excellent, the 28mm being one of the sharpest lenses I have adapted to use on my mirrorless cameras like the Fuji X-E2. I also have an 85mm f/2.0, which I acquired very inexpensively due to fungus on the front element and an engraving around the lens mount. After removing the front element and cleaning off the fungus, I had some issues with the aperture ring occasionally locking up. This lens for me is quite sharp stopped down to f/4.0 or so, but has a slight dreamy haze at f/2.0, at least on the digital bodies I used to test. A more pristine sample is likely much sharper wide open here. I've also been lusting after the 135mm f/2.8, which from what I've seen has excellent optics and a nice built-in slide out hood.

Samples below taken on either Fuji Provia 100 & 400, or Kodak Ektar 100, or Portra 400, or maybe also Lomography brand 400 or 800 C-41.

Final Comments

This isn't exactly an unbiased review, but I really can't restrain my enthusiasm for this camera system. Some of my best memories were recorded with these, and I felt a lot of nostalgia perusing my library to decide which photos to include in the samples section. As a buyer, they are relatively inexpensive, and if the lack of automatic exposure modes is an issue the OM-2 isn't much more. It is very resilient, and mine have been to parties, out in the rain, and fired many times without so much as a single jam. I also measure my shutter mechanisms, and both of these are still dead on accurate at the lower speeds, and issue many older mechanical cameras have issues with. Black bodies exhibit beautiful brassing when worn in, and the chrome finish also ages nicely. There were enough black ones made that they don't cost much more than chrome. I suppose the only negative I can say is that they are dangerously addictive, and while I'd absolutely love to have some of the rarer specimens such as the OM-3T, 35-80mm f/2.8, or 100mm f/2.0, the prices are astronomical. However, I completely understand because for many, this system is unequaled in 35mm photography.

Looking to pick one up yourself? Check here:

Current OM-1 Listings on eBay