Camera Reviews

Olympus OM-1

35mm SLRs had become the defacto standard “good camera” by the early 1970s. But by and large they were big and heavy.

Olympus set out to make a smaller, lighter SLR, and thus was born the OM-1. Released in 1972, it blazed a trail that many other camera makers would soon follow. OM-series cameras were produced for the next 30 years and retained a loyal following for a long time. These cameras still have a cult following today.

Olympus OM-1

Deservedly so. Even this many decades after their debut, an OM-1 feels sleek and modern. One in good condition, as mine is, operates with smooth precision. With the standard 50 mm f/1.8 F.Zuiko Auto-S attached, this is still a formidable kit.

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 1,600.

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. I use 625 alkaline cells in mine. The voltage isn’t quite the same, but they work well enough.

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.

By the way, if you like compact SLRs like the OM-1, also check out my reviews of the Pentax ME (here) and the Nikon FA (here). Not quite as compact but still on the small side are the Canon AE-1 Program (here) and the Minolta XG 1 (here). Or just check out all of my camera reviews here.

I didn’t miss aperture-priority shooting very much when I loaded a roll of Fujicolor 200. 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. With the F.Zuiko 50 mm f/1.8 lens mounted I took this self-portrait in my car’s side mirror.

Side mirror selfie

This gem of a lens does nice work up close. The little golden smudge near the top left is my dog.

Petunias

My friend Debbie came to visit, and we went to the zoo. My OM-1 came with an ugly beast of a zoom lens, a Vivitar 70-150 mm f/3.8 Close Focusing Auto Zoom. This guy seemed deep in thought.

At the Indianapolis Zoo

The lens did its basic job of letting me zoom in close to the distant animals. It’s decently sharp and captures good detail, but I’m not wowed by the way it rendered color onto the Fujicolor 200. The 50mm F.Zuiko lens is brilliant in this regard.

At the Indianapolis Zoo

The OM-1 calls my name every so often and I must go out with it. Once I took it and the 50/1.8 to the Indiana State Fair and photographed people. It’s not exactly the kind of inconspicuous camera best for street work.

Chatting

But it handles easily, and that 50mm lens surely loves Fujicolor 200.

Singing the shaped notes

Another day I walked around Fountain Square, a hip Indianapolis neighborhood, with the OM-1, the 50/1.8, and Kodak’s BW400CN film loaded. That film’s main advantage was that it was developed in C-41 color chemistry at any drug store. But drug stores don’t develop film anymore, and so BW400CN is no more.

You Are Beautiful

The OM-1 truly fulfills its mission: so light and easy to carry, feels so good to use, gives such outstanding results. I can sling it over my shoulder all day and barely notice it’s there.

Peppy Grill

If I have a complaint about the OM-1 it’s that the shutter-speed control is a ring around the lens mount, rather than a dial atop the camera as with most SLRs. It takes me half a roll of film to adjust to it each time I pick up the camera. Here we’re back to Fujicolor 200. This is my bike, a 1986 Schwinn Collegiate three speed.

Schwinn Collegiate

But that’s not a dealbreaker. Even though I’ve focused my SLR collection on my Pentaxes and Nikons, I keep my OM-1 because it’s so brilliant.

Circle Tower

My OM-1 also came with a 50mm f/3.5 Zuiko Auto-Macro lens — it focuses down to just a few inches. I shot some Kodak Gold 200 with it.

Field notes

Finally, I was in the right place at the right time to capture this butterfly as it paused.

Butterfly

To see more from this camera, check out my Olympus OM-1 gallery.

The OM-1 is a gem, full stop.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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32 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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  9. Mike says:

    I just found this article while doing some research on the OM-1. I have had one just show up across my repair desk. I usually tend towards the Canons. I have a collection of AE-1’s, AE-1 Programs, A-1s, TL, and FT. I also have a Rebel X2000 and a Canon T3i. Oh and the Powershot. Anyways, I say all that to say this. When I pulled the Olympus out of a box of “for repair” from my local shop, I fell in love with it. I love how it looks, It’s one of the few 70’s/80’s SLRs that I think I like better in Chrome/Black instead of all the way black.

    I still have not put a roll of film through it and I plan to do so this weekend. I will try to remember to come back and let you know what I think about it. Thanks for the great reviews.

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      • Mike says:

        Finally got to put most of a roll of film through it. Before I got the light meter working again. I pulled the bottom off and found the battery cable to be broken. Since I had to repair it anyways, I made the modification to use modern batteries. I wasn’t able to shoot it after I got it fixed. I might still be able to sometime in the future. Coming out of almost only shooting Canon’s I found the Olympus to be somewhat awkward to shoot well. I spent a lot of time fighting the camera since I the controls are vastly different from the Canon AE-1’s I normally shoot. No fault of the camera, but it does have a pretty steep learning curve. I wrote up a review on my website: https://www.zulufoxphoto.com/vintage-camera-review-olympus-om-1/ I hope that’s okay if I share the link here. Thanks for your great reviews. I will give this camera another chance down the road.

        Mike

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  10. Enjoyed reading your updated review!

    Now that I have had my Olympus OM-1n serviced and re-calibrated to work with 1.5v batteries, it is quickly becoming my go-to SLR. I really love small, light cameras. And the little Olympus is just so much fun to use.

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    • It’s really a gem. I used to not like the shutter speed selector being around the lens mount but I’m getting used to it. I have two bodies, a minty chrometop and a battered black one. I had the black one in my desk drawer here at work with film in it, and took it out on photowalks when I had lunch to myself or a 30 minute break and needed to clear my head. It was wonderful to use. I put a hand strap on it and carried it around and made some lovely photos. Now I want a 35mm lens for it, as that’s a great focal length for in-the-city work.

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  11. I started out with an OM-D (E-M10 Mk II) with an adapted Zuiko 50mm f1.8. That combo shoots some beautiful portraits with a very film-like/cinematic feel)

    My first OM-1 was a rescue from the “defective camera” rack at my local camera store. The leather was peeling, the motor drive cover was missing and the prism foam had deteriorated which had started to de-silver the prism.

    I had an OM-F that I had already shot with (didn’t really love the experience) that was sitting on the shelf, so I sacrificed it for a donor prism. I consulted the “Fix Old Cameras” channel on YouTube and wouldn’t you know it, he had made a video detailing how to clean the prism foam from the OM-1.

    Long story, short – swapped the prism, replaced the leather with a blue lizard grain from hugostudio.com and took it for a spin.

    The pictures were exactly what I expected – beautiful.

    Being an Aperture Priority shooter, I’d have to say I prefer my OM-2n, but the OM-1 is my choice when I want to go just a bit slower.

    Slightly off-topic, I saw an exchange earlier in the comments about electronic cameras with a fallback manual speed. You mentioned the Pentax ME. I can confirm this feature om:

    Pentax
    ME (1/100)
    ME Super (1/125)

    Nikon
    FE (1/90)
    FE2 (1/250)
    FA (1/250)

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    • I’m more an aperture-priority guy too, but for a camera as beautiful to hold and use as the OM-1 I’ll match needles and be happy about it!

      What did we do before we had YouTube to tell us how to do every arcane task ever?

      Like

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