Camera Reviews

Operation Thin the Herd: Olympus Stylus

Carrying a jug

Olympus’s Stylus line is well known to deliver the goods, with fine lenses and easy pocketability. The granddaddy of all Styluses is this, the ∞ Stylus (aka the μ[mju]: in markets outside North America).

Olympus Stylus

I’ve put a lot of film through this little camera. Here’s one of my favorite shots from it ever, on expired Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400.

Garfield Park

I hadn’t shot black and white in my Stylus in a while, so I spooled in a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400 and slipped it into my winter-coat pocket. It went everywhere with me for a couple weeks.

House at Coxhall Gardens

That’s the beauty of a camera that’s about the size of a bar of soap — it’s so portable. Anywhere I happened to be, I could quickly photograph anything I thought was interesting.

Chevy Citation

All was not skittles and beer with my Stylus. Several shots were marred by a little leaked light, a problem this camera has previously not had.

Rushing water

I like to focus close sometimes, but the Stylus doesn’t. I suppose someday I should read the manual and find out its closest focus distance. This subject isn’t exactly easy for autofocus to figure out, either. What was I thinking?

Berries, out of focus

And then there’s the infernal flash. Every time you turn the Stylus on (by sliding the cover out of the way) it goes into the mode where the camera decides whether the flash should fire or not. You can override it, but it’s so easy to forget to. I get at least one shot on every roll with flash reflecting harshly in something. Here I shot the sun poking through the trees and reflecting onto the creek, first with flash, and after I dropped an s-bomb, without. The effect turned out to be negligible.

Reflected on the water 1
Reflected on the water 2

Its meter struggles with high-contrast scenes. I shouldn’t be surprised; it probably meters near the center, which isn’t going to result in nuanced work. Nothing a little Photoshop can’t rescue, though, as here.

Lion graffiti

Finally, it requires films that are DX coded, and you can’t manually override the ISO. I like to shoot color-negative film a stop fast sometimes, and you can’t do it with the Stylus.

Black Dog Books

But when the Stylus hit, it hit big. Look at the great tonality and contrast it delivered.

Branches

Its 35mm lens grabs lots of the scene, which I like for general walking-around photography.

Decorated fence

To see more from this camera, check out my Olympus Stylus gallery.

I want to own a solid, extra-compact point-and-shoot 35mm camera. Ideally I’d keep film in it all the time and always carry it in my coat pocket. The Stylus’s feature list ticks every box for me, and it has loved every film I’ve ever thrown at it. It’s a brilliant little camera.

I know I sometimes ask too much of it, which leads to most of my wasted shots. But I do have a legitimate gripe with its automatic flash. I almost never use flash and want a way to leave it off by default. Every time I use this camera I waste shots thanks to that infernal flash.

Perhaps I haven’t found my perfect point and shoot yet. Or maybe I have: my zone-focus Olympus XA2 is no bigger, can be used like a point and shoot under most circumstances just by leaving it in the middle focus zone, and lacks any frustrating behaviors. Perhaps it should be my carry-everywhere camera.

This has been another tough-call camera, where I’ve waffled for weeks about whether to keep it. The sheer number of rolls of film I’ve put through it says I like it a lot. Despite its troubling light leak, I’m going to hold onto it for now. Its fate will be sealed only when I finally decide on a carry-everywhere camera. I look forward to trying more of them on the road to deciding.

Verdict: Keep

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Film Photography

Vacation camera audition: Olympus Stylus

In deciding which film camera to take with me to Ireland, I’ve been auditioning some of the contenders in my collection. I’m taking the camera with me and pretending I’m on the trip, shooting the kinds of things I plan to shoot, to see how the camera feels and performs. First up: the Olympus Stylus.

Olympus StylusI thought surely this would be The One, given how it slips easily into my jeans pocket, is dead simple to use, and packs a sharp 35mm f/3.5 lens.

Overall I had a great time shooting the Stylus, enough that I put two rolls through it: Kodak Gold 400 and an expired roll of Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400. But a couple flaws, one fatal, caused it to fail the audition.

Readers with long memories will remember that my Stylus failed the last time I used it. It was so messed up I just dumped it into the trash and bought another. This one came with date imprint function. I left it off except for one trial shot in my living room.

My living room, dated

Margaret and I have been taking a lot of walks lately to get into better shape for the trip. A favorite destination is the streets of Zionsville. Here’s a typical home in town.

Zionsville Village

Just dig the birdhouse built into the roof gable on this house.

Zionsville Village

Here’s a shot from Monument Circle in Indianapolis. The camera was performing so well, letting me get all the kinds of shots I expect to take in Ireland, landscapes and architectural shots leading the way.

Circle Theatre

I’m especially pleased with this dusk shot in Garfield Park in Indianapolis. I did have to bring this shot into Photoshop and boost shadows, however, to bring out the fountains.

Garfield Park

But the camera is not without issues. First, a few shots had a strange light area in the upper-right corner.

Lit

Second, the Stylus seems to focus on whatever is at the center of the frame. The cars in the background of this photo are perfectly sharp, but the tree is a little fuzzy. You can see it at larger sizes.

Lit

Margaret was the intended subject here, but is so out of focus the shot isn’t usable. I’ll bet if I put the subject in the center of the frame, press halfway down to focus, and then reframe, I’d get the shot. But I’d always be anxious the camera would muff focus anyway.

Margaret out of focus

But here’s the Stylus’s fatal flaw: every time you open the camera, the flash defaults to “auto” and fires in low light. I almost never want flash; every time it went off I muttered a bad word under my breath. There’s no way I’m going to remember to shut the flash off every time I open this camera.

Garfield Park
Garfield Park

So I’ve been auditioning other cameras. I put a roll through my Nikon N2000 SLR with a 35mm lens attached, just to see whether I’d find lugging an SLR around to be too much. (Answer: not as much as I thought.) Photos from that session on Monday. At the moment I have film in my Olympus XA, and that’s going well, too.

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Film Photography

Not-so-easy shooting

Olympus StylusI felt like some easy black-and-white shooting, so I loaded a roll of Kodak Plus-X into my Olympus Stylus.

It didn’t go so well. About halfway through the roll, the Stylus malfunctioned. When I pressed the button, the Stylus made a wheezy noise but wouldn’t fire the shutter. I’d close and reopen the camera and try again, and again, and again, until it fired. Eventually it wouldn’t fire at all. Unfortunately, I still had five shots left on that precious roll of Plus-X, which isn’t made anymore. Reluctantly, I threw in the towel and pressed the film-rewind button.

At least I got this totally awesome selfie while looking the camera over, trying to figure out why the shutter wasn’t operating. I discovered that the wheezy noise was the lens extending part way.

Why won't this thing fire? ...Oh.

I got some pretty good shots before the problems began, however. I really like the tones in this shot of my front yard. It’s one of the last shots I took with any ash trees in it.

Front garden

I took the Stylus along when Margaret and I spent an evening strolling through Fountain Square. These preserves were for sale in a former Sunoco station converted to a little market.

Preserves

It seems nigh onto impossible to get a bad photo of the Fountain Square Theater building. It anchors this hip Indianapolis neighborhood so well.

Fountain Square

I’ve shot the front of the former G.C. Murphy store many times, but always in black and white. Someday I should shoot it in color. But the bricks always look so silvery in black and white.

Murphy

I carried the Stylus around for a few weeks, shooting whatever. I met my pastor for lunch one day and shot the front of this nearby McDonald’s. Around here, all of these older McDs are being torn down and replaced with stores in the chain’s new corporate look. I prefer this style. I do not, however, enjoy how washed out the sky and the top of the roof turned out. It was a blisteringly bright day, though.

McDs

I also shot a few photos around what is now my former workplace. One of my colleagues drives this old Honda Prelude when he doesn’t ride his motorcycle.

Prelude

I also got this snap of my desk, just a couple weeks before it wasn’t my desk anymore. I’m not a fan of flashes on point-and-shoot cameras; they always seem to be too bright. This is no exception. But I’m glad to have this photo now, so I can remember this good little space.

My former desk

I’ll probably send this Stylus to the Great Camera Store in the Sky and just buy another one on eBay. The Stylus is too good not to have one here for those days when I want good optics but point-and-shoot simplicity.

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Camera Reviews

Olympus Stylus

All hail Yoshihisa Maitani, the master of photographic miniaturization. He designed the camera you see below, the Olympus Stylus. He spent his career at Olympus shrinking cameras, actually, first the 35mm SLR (the OM-1; see mine here) and then the 35mm rangefinder camera (the XA; see mine here).

Olympus Stylus

Maitani then turned his attention to shrinking the 35mm point-and-shoot camera. Olympus was very late to that party as good-quality point-and-shoots upon the Stylus’s 1991 debut. But when Maitani delivered a camera no bigger than a bar of soap, he delivered another small winner for Olympus.

Olympus Stylus

In most of the world, Olympus gave its small camera a small name: µ, the prefix for “micro” in scientific measurements. As sometimes happens in the camera world, the µ got a different name for the American market: Stylus. That’s probably just as well, because the average American probably couldn’t pronounce µ anyway. (It’s myoo, by the way.)

Olympus Stylus

I thank reader Derek Wong (see his film photography blog here) for donating this little camera to the Jim Grey Collection. When I mentioned in an earlier post that the Stylus was on my short list, he e-mailed to say that he had several of them sitting around doing nothing, and that he’d just send me one. Here it is!

The Stylus packs a 35mm f/3.5 lens, of three elements in three groups. It sets exposure for you; there is no manual control. I don’t know how far down the lens stops, but the shutter operates from 1/15 to 1/500 second. It reads the DX coding on the film canister to set ISO from 50 to 3200. Olympus claims the Stylus has an “active multi-beam 100-step autofocus system,” whatever that means. The Stylus automatically advances and rewinds the film. It includes an electronic self-timer and a tiny flash that you can set to fill and to reduce red eye. An LCD panel atop the camera counts down frames, indicates the flash mode, and tells you how much charge is left on the CR123A battery, which the Stylus needs to run everything.

Slide the front cover back to turn the camera on. The lens extends a little. Frame the shot in the viewfinder. Press the shutter button down halfway to let the camera focus and set exposure, and the rest of the way to take the photo.

If you like point-and-shoot 35mm cameras, also check out my reviews of the Canon AF35ML (here), the Kodak VR35 K40 (here), the Nikon Zoom Touch 400 (here), the Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 (here), the Olympus µ(mju:) Zoom 140 (here), and the Pentax IQZoom EZY (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

I loaded some expired Kodak Gold 200 and went a shootin’. This iron bowstring pony truss bridge dates to around 1900 and was originally part of a longer bridge that spanned a creek in Montgomery County. This span was moved here, to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where it crosses the canal that flows behind the museum. It is open only to pedestrians.

Bridge at IMA

The Stylus feels great in the hands. After having recently shot cameras that demand a lot of interaction with the photographer, I found it freeing to take this a competent point-and-shoot camera out for a day’s fun. This is my neighbor’s house. Even on expired film, the Stylus grabbed great color and clarity.

My neighbor's house

Despite the “active multi-beam 100-step autofocus system,” I found it impossible to know what the Stylus decided to focus on in the frame. I also didn’t know how close I could get with the Stylus, though I expected it to be around three feet. I moved back what I guessed was three feet from these leaves and pressed the button. As you can see, the closest leaves are out of focus. I was probably just too close. But I like the swirled effect in the blurred background.

Little leaves, out of focus

I took a couple of shots with the flash, too, and it did the so-so job typical of tiny, built-in flashes. This turned out to be the last photo I took of my dog Gracie before she passed away. Boy, did she look old and tired.

Gracie

On another outing I loaded some expired but always cold-stored Kodak Plus-X. I just brought the Stylus along everywhere I went for a while.

Arby's

The Stylus is so easy to carry. It slips into the back pocket of your jeans or into your coat’s side pocket, riding undetected until you want it.

Fountain Square

I seem to shoot a lot of expired film in the Stylus, here Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400.

Garfield Park

The Stylus gives me good results on any film I throw at it. Here’s a photo on Eastman Double-X 5222.

Along the Wall

And here’s one on good old Kodak Tri-X.

Carrying a jug

The Stylus handles challenging lighting conditions surprisingly well.

Reflected on the water 1

The Stylus has bungled a few shots when it couldn’t figure out what the subject was and focused behind it. That’s my only complaint with this camera, and it’s happened to me on only a handful of frames.

Lion graffiti

See the rest of my Olympus Stylus gallery here.

The only barrier to owning an Olympus Stylus is cost, as prices have risen considerably over the years. I used to see these sell for $20 all the time, but now they start at three times that, and minty ones sell for more than $100. Quality point-and-shoot cameras are hot! Don’t hesitate to pick one up if you find a good bargain, though. You’ll have a great time with this tiny camera.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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