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.

Did you like this review?  Please share it with your friends and on social media.  You can also leave a comment or email me via the Contact Us page.

Look for more reviews coming soon.

-Zulu Fox Photo