Cameras, Photography

Olympus OM-1

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I love my rangefinder cameras because they’re generally compact and pack great glass. This made them very popular in the 1950s and into the 1960s – but that popularity began to wane in 1959 when Nikon introduced the F, a fine single-lens reflex camera. It swung the pendulum hard and persistently toward SLRs.

But unlike the once-popular rangefinder, the F and the many other SLRs it inspired were big, heavy, and noisy. Olympus set out to make a quieter SLR of rangefinder proportions, and thus was born the OM-1. Released in 1972, it blazed a trail that many other camera makers, including Nikon, would soon follow. OM-series cameras were produced for the next 30 years and retained a loyal following for a long time, even as the digital SLR grew in popularity. These cameras still have a cult following today.

Two OM-1s joined my collection this year thanks to my friend Alice. (Check out her Web site!) Her father gave her all of his gear several years ago, but she never got around to using it. So she placed it all on permanent loan in the Jim Grey Camera Collection. The first OM-1 has a silver top. The standard F.Zuiko Auto-S 50 mm f/1.8 lens is attached.

Olympus OM-1

Alice’s dad also kept an all-black OM-1 in his camera bag. I attached the Promaster 28 mm f/2.8 lens to it for this shot.

Olympus OM-1

These cameras came with several other lenses, including a Vivitar 70-150 mm f/3.8 Close Focusing Auto Zoom (below), a Zuiko 5 mm f/3.5 Auto Macro, a Portragon 100 mm f/4, and a big Spiratone 500 mm f/8 Mintel-M mirror lens. The bag also contained a Vivitar electronic flash, some lens extenders, a bunch of filters, and other accessories. I’m set for bear.

Olympus OM-1

Looking at the camera from the top, it’s easy to see that its curtain shutter operates up to 1/1,000 sec and that it can be set to use film up to ISO 1,000.

Olympus OM-1

While the OM-1 is a mechanical camera, it does contain two CdS light meters inside the lens and they don’t work without a battery. It was designed to use the dreaded, banned 625 mercury battery. Fortunately I found two in the bag and they both still worked. When they die I’ll just buy Wein cells in that size and get back to shooting.

The light meters don’t drive the OM-1, however. When you look through the viewfinder, a small needle appears near the lower left corner. When you’ve set the aperture and shutter speed for a good exposure, the needle is horizontal, smack dab between the + and – symbols. North of there the photo would be overexposed; south of there, underexposed. On some other OM-series cameras, the meter set the shutter speed for you against your chosen aperture, but of course a photographer needed to cough up extra dough for the privilege.

I didn’t miss aperture-priority shooting very much when I loaded a roll of Fujicolor 200 into the silver-topped OM-1. It was plenty easy to twist the shutter-speed ring on the camera and the aperture ring on the lens until the needle lined up, even with my eye planted firmly against the viewfinder. I attached the F.Zuiko 50 mm f/1.8 lens to start, and took this self-portrait in my car’s rear-view mirror.

Self-portrait (crop)

Of course, it’s not a camera post in 2011 without a shot of my petunias. The little golden smudge near the top left is my dog.

Petunias

My friend Debbie came to visit, and we went to the zoo. I attached the Vivitar zoom lens to the OM-1 and off we went. The monkeys were active.

Swinger (crop)

This guy appeared to be deep in thought.

The Thinker (crop)

After all these years I’ve been collecting and using vintage cameras, I’m finally starting to think of myself as a photographer. I look at photographs others have taken that I like and am trying to learn from them. I study my own photos and think about ways I could have made them better. One of my big bugaboos is seeing the subject but not the background. I meant to capture the three meerkats in front, but utterly failed to notice the guy standing up in back. Had I noticed him, I would have moved up a little to avoid cutting off his head – and he would have made the shot.

Family

The one time I did wish the OM-1 offered more help was in photographing this bear. Just as I’d get exposure and focus set he’d move quickly away and I’d have to set everything again. This was the only shot I got of him that didn’t have him exiting the frame. I had my Canon PowerShot S95 along too, and though it lacked the deep zoom my OM-1 packed, its auto-everything mode readily captured this active bear.

Bear

Only in Indianapolis would the zoo post checkered flags at its entrance.

Flags

In the end, I’m thrilled to own these OM-1s with all these lenses and all this gear. I plan to use one with the stock 50 mm lens just for the pleasure of it and as a means for learning how to take better pictures.


Do you like old cameras? Then check out the rest of my collection!

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22 thoughts on “Olympus OM-1

  1. A great camera that has triggered some memories. I had two of these; one after the other. Both were black and both were stolen. The second one had fallen into disuse by the time it disappeared so I didn’t go for a third. I was always sort of proud of the fact that the camera was quite functional even without the battery. Without power to the meter you’d have to bluff it on exposure but mechanical everything else meant you could still shoot away. The cameras I have today are totally worthless when the battery’s drained. They’re not even heavy enough to make much of a weapon. OM-1 ownership coincided with some of my more “carefree” days and more than once I got some long distance concert photos by tucking the body into one boot and a Sigma zoom into the other. Try that with a Nikon F. I may just have to go digging for those ’70s Springsteen pics.

    I recognize the mirror shot as your current favicon but didn’t realize that was an OM-1. Always thought it was a Supmylo.

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    • How the heck do you tuck something as large as an OM-1 or a zoom lens into a boot and still be able to walk?!?! :-)

      I also like that the OM-1 is still useful without the battery if you know your way around f stops and shutter speeds. I shoot the Sunny 16 rule with cameras that don’t have onboard metering and that works pretty well; I could do the same with the OM-1.

      I recently got a Pentax ME, a late-70s autoexposure SLR, and without a battery the shutter works at 1/100 sec and that’s it. So it’s not deader ‘n a doornail, but it’s still not that useful.

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      • That does sound a lot more awkward than I remember it being. I’m sure skinny legs helped and boot-cut jeans or maybe even full tilt bell bottoms (“carefree” days, remember).

        I seem to recall that the fixed shutter speed with a dead battery was a trick used by several cameras though I’ve got no idea which ones. Of course, it makes no sense for digitals since you gotta have juice to make the “film” work.

        BTW, I think Sunny 16 was the name of a girl I met at one of those camera-in-the-boots shows.

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  2. ryoko861 says:

    That is the only thing I hate about these types of cameras, if you’re not quick enough, the subject moves and you have to refocus everything again.

    I have a Minolta something or other that was given to me back in the 80’s. You’ve inspired me to dig it out. I took great still photos with that!

    I also think it’s cool you can use other manufacturers lens on these cameras.

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    • The Pentax ME I mentioned in the comment above solves that problem. If I get a good zoom lens for it, it would be a better choice for the zoo, as after I set the aperture it will set the shutter speed for me all day.

      A few companies made lenses for all the major SLR systems. Promaster and Vivitar were among them.

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  3. Great review of that fine camera from Olympus; they never disappoint. I saw one in a yard sale not long ago I could have had for about twenty bucks. It was very tempting, but I felt I would be betraying my faithful Spotmatic.

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  4. Jim: I happened to obtain a near-mint OM-1 with a couple of lenses a few years ago, and love its design and size. It’s such a classic SLR, and the lenses are of course, excellent. It’s a joy to shoot with. I am mostly a Nikon guy, but Nikon never had a compact SLR that can go toe-to-toe with the OM-1.

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  5. We’ve got an Olympus OM1 which we thought we wouldn’t be able to use again, but now we have that heads-up on the batteries we’ll be able to. We did have a house fire and when we got the camera checked afterwards we were told that the lens interior had some ?fungus growing on it. I haven’t taken any shots since to prove or disprove this. Should be interesting. By the way, do you scan your photos on? We’ve also got an old Praktica FX3

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    • The Wein cells do work fine, and thank goodness for them! They don’t last anywhere near as long as the old mercury cells, but that they exist at all is good enough.

      When you get a Wein cell for your OM-1, shoot a roll with your fungus-infected lens and see how it performs. If it doesn’t work out, you can get OM-compatible lenses on eBay.

      I have a negative scanner that takes 35 mm negs, but I send my film out for processing and have the processor scan them for me.

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    • It’s a great camera. I’ve shot with it other times and am never disappointed with the results. I buy Fujicolor 200 in four-packs for under $7, and my nearby CVS still processes film for a few dollars plus a CD of scans for a few dollars more.

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  6. Not for nothing is the OM-1 known as the SLR Leica SHOULD have made. Less known perhaps is that it designed very much as a Leica killer…it slides into the same case bottom the footprint is so similar and even first bore the name M1 until Leica shouted “Oi! Enough!”

    I have a black OM-2 SP and just lost a pristine restored OM-1 alas with my rare and also mint, 55mm f/1.2 lens on its front. :-( Cannot afford to replace that but just bought a 50mm f/1.4 which I suspect will flare far less.

    Black OM-1s go for more money but I like the silver most. I think the engraved lettering seems better defined without being paint over paint. That said I think David Bailey and Patrick Lichfield both used black bodies…they don’t reflect on any glass you may have to shoot through.

    My OM-2SP is black and by then they had switched to black chrome which wears better.

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    • Having both a black and a silver body, I think the silver looks better too! The OM-1 is one of my top favorite SLRs because of its size and weight and because it’s just a jewel to use.

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  7. nick says:

    Dear Jim,
    coming along on a reread I discovered the Vivitar 70-150 lens previously overlooked in your post and in the meantime making a very nice addition to my little collection. Put it on a m/ft camera, or any other digital, also. It’s a little gem! Use the “macro-focus” feature on the zoom ring while filming and make things appear out of nowhere.

    Coincidentally a nice OM1 came alongside with it. I put in a 1,5V battery with a schotky diode taped to it.
    With twisted leads and tape will make it nice and easy to load if you do it right, and will last for years.
    This camera is so good I will be giving it the full service.
    Thanks for posting.
    Nick

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  8. Hey, what can I say, you’re awesome Jim! In my head, I thought you must’ve had one of these already being a film camera fan! Anyway, these are awesome classics so undervalued in today’s market, probably because they’re so abundant. Great shots also, I hope you’ll do another post on the OMs! I’m working on one, but too many other projects ahead of it. Thanks for sharing this post! :-)

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