'member the other day when I mentioned the size comparison that shocked a young Fuji X100 owner. The comparison was between an X-Pro-1 and an OM-1 film SLR. Well the shot at the top of the post is what the mailman brought me today. Five rolls of Fujifilm Pro 400H and an OM-2 with a wonderful 50mm f1.4 attached. I have not even blown the dust off it yet. All I did was remove it from it's never-ready case where it has probably spent it's entire life. I actually bought this while twittering links to that X100 owner that was looking for a small film camera. I have this habit of buying ooodles of this old film gear whenever the price is somewhere in the neighborhood of nothing - especially when I see something in this good of shape with a large aperture prime.
I wanted to take the opportunity to write I tiny little mini-review and guide for anyone interested in the Olympus OM system considering how wonderfully small they are. I am not going to do this as if the cameras were new. Instead I'll do it more as a practical guide for what to expect when acquiring a reasonably priced OM on flea-bay as well as some context as a Nikon film shooter since the stone age.
The OM-1 and OM-2 are the classics. They were the smallest full featured SLR bodies and associated motors, lenses, etc when they were introduced and continue to be tiny compared by just about any measure. They are extremely comparable in size to Leica M series cameras and lenses for the most part. The fit and finish are gorgeous. They are all metal. Either chromed brass or black paint over brass. Despite being extremely small they have absolutely HUGE viewfinders. Actually amazing - the apparent image size is far bigger than any DSLR FX or DX, bigger than any of the compact SLR's that were contemporary, and bigger than other much larger pro DSLR's of the 60's 70's or 80's. Amazing - looking through an OM-1 or OM-2 is astonishing and one of the big reasons you might want one especially combined with it's diminutive size.
As you might know the OM-1 is fully mechanical with no need for batteries unless you want to use the built-in meter. The OM-2 while looking very very similar needs a battery to function at all. Sort of like the Nikon FM vs the FE. There are some other differences as well - most notably the dedicated mirror lockup on the OM-1. I won't go into differences in metering and flash as I think it's kind of pointless from a user point of view now. If you want great in-camera metering and flash ummmm digital kills these 70's cameras just forget it.
You have probably read that the Olympus OM-1/2 as well as the 2sp, 3, 3Ti, 4, etc are pro cameras in the sense that they are well built, durable, blah blah. They are - they are very well built but let's put that in context rather than just letting float out there by itself. They are well built like a great watch vs well built like a Caterpillar bulldozer. If you are used to well built as in Caterpillar or Nikon F2/F3/FM/etc kind of well built the OM's are not that. They will last but need TLC vs a Nikon F2 or F3 that you can use as a hammer and shoot pictures to.
Anecdotally I have a dozen or so OM-1/2 cameras I have roughly the same number of Nikon FM/FE cameras - I will leave the F series and the FM2 and the like out of it because they are in a different class. The FM/FE are a bit bigger - not terribly so - but enough to be noticeable but every single solitary one out of more than a dozen that I have purchased on eBay work in their entirety. Not only do they work 100% but the meters all agree with each other and they agree with my brand new DSLR's. Let's compare that with the OM1/2 cameras which I also have a dozen of the N and non-N varieties. More than half of them have some sort of "issue" yea they work but those issues range from self-timers that don't work to film advance levers that have lost their ability not to flop about when tucked in, to meters that are just dead or "sticky". Speaking about meters every single solitary OM1 or OM2 I have except one vary wildly with each other and one of my known good meters from -1 1/2 stops to + 1 stop. Don't get me wrong I still love these little guys. So here are a couple of thoughts…
- All things being equal I would rather have an OM-1 than an OM-2 but there is a really good chance that the OM-1 will need about $100-$200 worth of service to be really really right in terms of metering, accurate shutter speeds, etc. I don't convert my OM-1's to "normal" batteries instead I just buy a converter designed with an internal diode that allows the use of a silver oxide 1.55 volt and also allows me to swap it with other cameras. Chrome OM-1's are much easier to find in good shape than black ones. Both of them are good looking - I have both (habit from long ago when I carried two cameras always one silver one black - silver loaded with B/W film, black one with color). If you like black ones good luck finding a really really cheap one that works well and looks great. Typically I use my OM-1s with a hand held meter so I don't really care if the meter works and is accurate. I also shoot negative film and the shutter speeds that I use most likely will be a bit slow hence a bit of over exposure - so what.
- OM-2's look exactly like OM-1's except for the OM2 label on the front and top plate (OM1's have no front label at all). They are far easier to find in black and really cost no more no matter what the color. The black paint finish is gorgeous - even when it is worn a bit with the brass showing through they age well. There is a good likelihood that the shutter speeds will be more accurate than a mechanical camera on manual mode even if the meter is off. They are electronically timed. They are a little less desirable than an OM1 and you should pay less money generally. Sort of like an FE is a little less desirable than an FM - they are every bit as "good". There is a slightly better chance that the meter will work but there is a good chance it will be off. Just figure out it how much and dial in the compensation - make sure it's linear in various EV values. They seem to like silver oxide batteries a whole lot better than alkaline. Unless you are shooting slide film you should be good to go.
- If you are a couple of lens kind of guy OM's are great little cameras - buy one with a lens that you want and you are good to go. If you are okay with a 50mm f1.8 and a 28mm f3.5 you can have everything you ever wanted for under a hundred bucks total and probably in black if you go with an OM2. I was lucky I got both of the 50mm f1.4 lenses with cameras for less than what 50 f1.4's go for alone most of the time. Don't get me wrong a 50mm f1.4 is not super expensive - just not as common and usually not dirt cheap/free. If you want lot's of glass and you want fast glass OM glass is not plentiful and not cheap - so know what you want before you dive in. I am fine with my cheapy 28 and cheapy 135 because I actually only use 50mm lenses on my OM's. Things like 35 f2, 28 f2, 85 f2, etc will cost you and there is not page after page after page of selections - you probably will not get lucky and steal one like you sometimes can with Nikon glass just because there is a whole lot less of it.
- As lenses go OM Zuiko glass is pretty good - not fan-freaking-tastic as some would have you believe but plenty good. I would not get into hair-splitting with the collector/expert/zealot/fan-boy crowd over versions of lenses etc. Buy the stuff that is not voted the absolute best by the popular constituency - they are mostly full of crap for real world photography. Overall I would have to say Nikon glass of the same era is superior overall taking all factors into account.
The bottom line is that if you want a really good looking really small camera that also has very compact lenses and one of the best viewfinders ever it's hard to go wrong with $100 worth of OM1/2 - the OM2sp, OM3's, and OM4's are a slightly different story. Generally they are a bit more expensive - like 2x more expensive at least - the OM3 is nutty expensive no matter what condition. They have slightly worse viewfinders - worse as in smaller image area due to reduced magnification. They really don't look quite as good because they don't age as well. The "Ti" cameras look downright ugly when the finish starts to wear and the black versions that are brass are finished using a completely different technology - some sort of electro plated black with matte black paint over them. So they are more durable but look less good when they get a bit of wear as compared to old school shiny black lacquer over brass. Sort of like aluminum or vinyl siding vs real wood with paint. If you do want better metering in a "newish" camera the OM2S/P can be a bargain if you get one in good shape. They are generally the black sheep of the OM family (not counting the truly awful consumer OM cameras). The battery eating stories are not really relevant in todays world - they are compared to say an OM-1 where the battery will last years vs months in an OM2S/P but the two OM2S/P cameras that I have take far far fewer batteries than my Leica M6 cameras.
Hope you found this of any use…