Vintage Camera Review: Olympus OM-1

Vintage Camera Review: Olympus OM-1

This post first appeared on my Photography blog: Zulu Fox Photo

I am just going to say it up front, this is a beautiful camera.  It is nice to look at, it is nice to hold, it is great to shoot, with a couple of caveats.  I fell in love with this camera the first time I saw it when it came in for repair (meter wasn’t working).  I usually focus on cleaning and repairing vintage Canon cameras, so having something different was also nice.  The lines on the camera, the colors, the way the knobs and buttons feel, feel like precision, which is great for something the size of a Pentax ME.

Before I even got the light meter working, I put a roll of film in it and set about to Sunny 16 my way through the backyard with the dogs.

That’s where things started to go a little wrong.  I had read a few reviews of the camera before I started shooting it and I was excited to get going, maybe a little too excited.  I am not a stranger to cameras from the early 70’s-early 80’s.  I have had a bunch of them come across my desk, thanks to a great partnership with a local camera shop, Southerland Photo.  They bring their vintage cameras for me to repair from time to time.  So if its a more budget-friendly level Nikon or Canon then I have probably held/fixed/shot it.

Back to the story, I look at a lot of these vintage cameras like vintage cars.  Some of them are really nice to look at, then you drive them.  No fault of the car, but state-of-the-art in 1970 is a far cry from where it is in the early 2010’s.  Go drive an old car sometimes, after the nostalgia wears off and you have to live with it awhile, the novelty wears off.  Things you take for granted in new models are missing from the older ones, this can be a good or a bad thing.  For the Olympus, it’s something you have to decide if you want to live with.

First things first.  The controls.  I will use the Canon AE-1 for example since it is my go-to vintage film camera.  The Olympus keeps only one control on the top, the ISO selector.  It is where the shutter speed selector is for the Canon (and Nikon).  Where is it on the Olympus?  At the base of the lens where it connects to the camera body, where you would normally select the aperture, in a manual shooting mode, on the Canon (and Nikon).  Where is the aperture ring?  Out at the end of the lens just past the focusing ring.  I kept missing it and unscrewing the lens filter.

Olympus OM-1

Inside, what is arguably one of the biggest and brightest viewfinders I have had the pleasure of using, is a little tiny, single needle, light meter.  It is the “get the needle in the middle” kind.  No other information.  No aperture, no exposure compensation, no speed indication, nothing.  You have to remove the camera from your eye to check your speed and aperture settings before taking the shot.  Now to be fair, the Canon doesn’t bring you much either, but at least you can see what aperture the camera is selecting in AE mode based on the speed you select, which you can’t see in the viewfinder.  The Nikon FE wins here. It has a small mirror that shows the current aperture on the lens ring. So there is a lot of unfamiliar fumbling around with the lens trying to get the needle to center.

Now if this is your first camera and it’s the only system you have ever known, then it’s probably great.  I had a tough time with it.  Not only are the nubs on the speed ring hard to feel for without looking, the DOF preview buttons feel about the same, so I kept trying to turn something that couldn’t turn.  Also, if you happened to pinch the lower button, past the speed ring, and twist, the lens would come off.  It’s like the designers wanted to put as much as possible in the control of your left hand.  I for one was not a fan and found the process really slow.  I don’t know how I would take pictures of faster moving objects without a lot of practice.

I didn’t get to try this process outside with a working light meter when I had film in the camera.  I later fixed the light meter (broken battery cable) and was able to test the camera indoors.  The needle is quick and responsive, but it’s better to pick what speed you want and then adjust the aperture to match.  That’s how I think when I am composing my pictures anyways.  I have a decent understanding of what the Depth of Field will be, so it’s about not getting a blurry picture with to slow a shutter speed.

This camera I think, would be really hard for the beginner.  There are a lot of good vintage film cameras out there, while nothing in the 70’s vintage is going to have a small learning curve, there are a few others that bring a few more conveniences to the shooter.  The all-mechanical nature of the Olympus is an advantage since the battery only runs the light meter.  The camera will operate perfectly fine without the battery.

A quick word about the battery, this camera was designed for a no longer available mercury battery.  Modern lithium and alkaline batteries will work, but their voltage is too high.  This causes poor readings in the light meter.  There is a fix that requires soldering a diode into the camera to reduce the voltage coming from the battery.  This is not an easy job.

Film loading is straightforward as far as film loading in these cameras goes.  Pull out the film leader, lay across the back of the camera, making sure not to touch the shutter curtains, feed a little bit into the takeup spool, wind, hit the shutter button, wind, shoot, do this till the counter says “1”.  To take the slack out of the film it is necessary to flip the “switch” in the front of the camera to “R” so you can rewind the film a little (or all the way when you are done shooting) make sure you flip it back off R before shooting or your film won’t advance.  You should see the crank wind as you advance the film.

So, I went out in the backyard, like I said to do some Sunny 16 shooting since I hadn’t repaired the battery wire yet.  I tried my best to get familiar with the different controls.  It’s hard to undo a lot of well-learned Canon muscle memory.  I kept trying to change the shutter speed by accidentally turning the ISO adjustment, which locks in place, and I kept turning the aperture selector instead of adjusting the focus.  I really wanted to like this camera, something so great looking, should not be so hard to use.  Kind of like a classic car.  They are great to look at and take for a spin on occasion but are really hard to use day-to-day.

Check out the creamy bokeh! And lens flare

Focus was a little off, it’s hard to get her to lay still

Sadly, once I finished the repair I had to take the camera back to the shop to be put on sale.  Not saying I couldn’t borrow it again in the future, but I think, for now, I will continue to appreciate it’s fine to design and sleek look across the counter.  I don’t know that it will ever make it back into my collection.  It’s a camera I enjoy, but I don’t think I would give it the use it deserves.

If you are in the market for a vintage camera, the Olympus OM-1 is a solid choice, as long as you understand what you are giving up.  This camera will not help you in any way.  I would recommend it to someone who has been taking pictures in manual modes for a while or is already familiar with the 35mm process.  If you are new to film, I would actually even recommend getting one of the much-maligned mid to late 80’s film SLRs.  They are closer in function to modern DSLRs and can usually be had for around $10 on eBay.  They take modern batteries and can even interchange with DSLR lenses.

If you have been shooting film for awhile and want to add a beautiful well-designed camera to your collection, you really can’t go wrong with the Olympus OM-1.  Just keep in mind the battery issue for the light meter.  Other than that, feel free to Sunny 16 all day long.

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Look for more reviews coming soon.

-Zulu Fox Photo

Film Friday – Nikon FE

Film Friday – Nikon FE - Nikon FE Review


Welcome to the first of I hope many, Film Friday reviews

Nikon FE 35MM Film SLR

As I talked about in a previous post, I have been looking for ways to slow down and go analog once in awhile.  I stumbled back into film photography about a month ago when I picked up some film cameras for my daughter.  After checking out the cameras and feeling the action of advancing the film winder and listening to the mirror slap when opening the shutter, just stirred something inside of me.  I thought I should check it out for myself.  So rather than just using one of the two cameras she got, I went out and picked up one of my own from Craigslist.

That camera was a very nice condition Pentax ME.  It even came with the receipt from its original purchase in March 1978.  That’s a year and month before I was even born.  There is something that touches your soul a little when you handle something that predates yourself.  For me, it’s a connection to a simpler time.  Before our digital selves started overrunning our analog brains.

So that camera sent me off on a shopping spree of sorts.  I started looking on eBay for other examples of the Pentax ME.  I found one for $.99, and bought it.  Now I had two.  Then I read some more reviews about the Pentax ME and I found out about the black one, mine is chrome, so I had to find one of those.  I was able to get it as part of a lot of three cameras, the black ME, a Pentax P30t and a Pentax MV1.

One day after work I checked a local thrift shop, the Downtown Rescue Mission here in Huntsville.  In the case, they had a Pentax ME Super, which is the next model after the ME I was currently using.  It was complete with a lens, which honestly is worth more than the camera body, but was in rough shape.  They wanted $49 for it, which was way more than I was willing to pay for a camera in the condition it was in.  While chatting with the manager about a lower price he mentioned he had an old Nikon FE in the back.  I didn’t know much about the Nikon’s at the time, but I knew it’s a great name, and always has been.  The manager brought it out and mentioned he thought it was broken since it wouldn’t wind and the back wouldn’t open.  It also was lacking a lens.

I told him how I was getting into film and was interested in both cameras.  He let me have them both for $24.  Pretty good deal.  So take make short story long, I ended up with a great black Nikon FE.  I had purchased a Nikon EM a few days before so I had a lens for it at the house.

A brief history of the Nikon FE

From Wikipedia: “The Nikon FE is an advanced semi-professional level, interchangeable lens, 35 mm film, single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. It was manufactured by Nikon in Japan from 1978 to 1983 and was available new from dealer stock until c. 1984. The FE uses a metal-bladed, vertical-travel focal plane shutter with a speed range of 8 to 1/1000 second, plus Bulb, and flash X-sync of 1/125th second. It had dimensions of 89.5 millimeters (3.52 in) height, 142 mm (5.6 in) width, 57.5 mm (2.26 in) depth and 590 grams (21 oz) weight. It was available in two colors: black with chrome trim and all black. As on the FM, its model designation did not appear on the front of the camera, but was engraved as a small “FE” preceding the serial number on the rear of the housing.”

Look and Feel

In the hand, this is a hefty camera.  It’s heavy by today’s DSLR (Digital) standards but not uncomfortable to hold.  Really the weight and heft is reassuring to a novice photographer like me.  I don’t think the occasional bump is going to break anything on this camera.  The weight is a throwback to a bygone era of things being overbuilt in a way.  The more lightweight materials and processes were not available to the engineers of the mid 70’s.  The fact this camera still works 30+ years later is a testament to their abilities.

The camera is comfortable to hold and operate.  Speaking of operation, this camera will not work without the batteries installed.  The batteries really only run the light meter, but the lack of power does prevent the winder from operating, hence the problem in the store.  This camera takes 2 “357” style batteries, or LR44 these should last about a year unless you leave the light meter on.  There is an on-off switch on the left side of the camera, also the light meter stays off if the winder is pushed all the way into the body of the camera.  If you want the meter to work, you have to put the winder in the “ready” position.  Which is just off the back of the camera.  I found this to be a little annoying since the winder handle hits you in the forehead while looking through the viewfinder.

Using the camera

Loading the film is easy, it works like every other 35mm SLR of the time, open the back by pulling up on the rewind knob.  The trick with this camera is you have to push in the lock button in order to pull the rewinder all the way up to release the back.  This is the other thing I couldn’t get to work in the store.  Put the film in the left side, pull out on the leader, feed into the spool on the right side, work the winder, waste a frame, repeat one more time and your off and running.  The manual does state to repeat this process until the film counter shows 0.  I did this and got exactly 36 frames from my roll.

Here is a great intro to shooting 35mm film, it shows the loading process and gives you a couple of great tips to get started, if you are new to this hobby also.



www.avgguytech.comThe Nikon FE does allow for automatic or manual operation.  If you put into an automatic mode,  the camera will select the correct shutter speed for you based on the light available.  This system is called aperture-priority autoexposure.  Basically, the camera knows what aperture (the opening in the lens) you have selected, the amount of light coming in, and then when you press the shutter release, the camera uses the correct speed to expose the picture.  Sounds complicated I know.  But it takes some of the guess work out of the picture taking experience.
If you want to go manual, then both needles in the viewfinder work together.  You select your aperture on the lens and the shutter time on the knob above your right index finger.  When the green and black needles line up, you should have a perfectly exposed picture.  If you want to experiment or get a different look, you can over or under expose by a stop with either shutter speed or aperture.  This is beyond my skills right now.  I am still working to get pictures that are well exposed and framed correctly.  One thing I found with the viewfinder is that is only illuminated by the ambient light, so if you are shooting in low light or in a shadow, it’s hard to see the needles.

You can also set the camera to do a double exposure, that is, exposing the same frame of film twice.  How you do that is, take a picture, then before you wind for the next shot, hold the button under the winder while you advance the winder.  This resets the shutter without advancing the frame.  You can get some cool effects with this. Double Exposure

The FE is also setup for flash photography, but I am not quite there yet.  I found it handled low light indoor shots well, but did let some shadows creep in.  Again, I am still learning the photography process, so most of the picture taking issues are mine, not the camera.

Taking Pictures

To try out the camera I took it to downtown Montgomery, AL to take pictures around the Alabama State capital.  It was a bright and sunny afternoon, so I felt the light would be good to not challenge my feeble skills to much.  Here are a couple of the shots I captured:


Bottom Line

www.avgguytech.comThe Nikon FE is a great camera if you are looking to get back into, or start with film photography, it is a camera that will grow with your skills for sure.  It is easy enough to be approached by a beginner and advanced enough to offer the features you need to take more control over your pictures in the future.  You can usually find them on eBay for under $100.  I will also be starting to sell them also via a new page I will be setting up in the near future.  I have taken to film photography and I am excited to get others involved also.  So grab a camera and some film and get shooting.

The Nikon FE also can use almost any lens Nikon ever made in their F mount connection.  So you could even take the lens off a brand new Nikon Digital SLR and put it on this camera, and shoot it in manual.  It’s really kinda amazing.  Try and find that kind of compatablity anywhere else.



One tip, you can still buy film at Walmart, I recommend 400 ISO to start, it’s a good all purpose film.  You can also have Walmart develop, but I would recommend trying to find a local film lab or use a couple of the mail order ones instead.  Just personal experience.

Good luck and good shooting!  Remember, the best camera is the one you have with you.

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