In Praise of the Olympus OM1N

Some designers produce items which are just about ‘perfect’. One such designer was Yoshihisa Maitani who worked for Olympus from the mid 1950′s through to the 1990′s. Influenced by Leica , he designed many superb cameras, amongst them the 1/2 frame PEN cameras, but my particular favourite is the OM1N, my first ‘proper’ camera, and still in active use 35 years later. It’s still by far the best designed camera I’ve used – here’s a brief description.

_MG_8208

Lens off showing the film rewind release switch (marked ‘R’ top left), mirror and self timer ratchet (left of lens mount). The 35mm film is there for scale (it’s Adox Silvermax). The scratched black paint is due to attaching a dodgy 3rd party lens 25 years ago on holiday – I can still remember my horror!

What’s so special about it? It’s a small, light, all metal mechanical 35mm SLR with only the most basic controls required to take great pictures with the minimal of fuss. The viewfinder image is huge and bright, especially compared to most DSLR’s. The exposure control is manual only – a match needle system indicates the ‘correct’ exposure’. The battery powers only the meter so the camera works perfectly well without any power if you’re happy to guess the exposure.

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The minimalist top plate – the exposure meter on/off switch, shutter release, wind on lever and film speed dial.. Can’t get simpler than that! The dial around the lens mount (top) is the shutter selector ring. The yellow bit at the back is a ”Post-It’ pad sellotaped on to remind me which film’s in it…

In addition there’s a mirror lock up for macro or astro photography and access to the huge range of OM accessories -  autowinders and motordrives, bulk film backs, an electronic flash system and 14 easily interchangeable focussing screens! The Olympus OM system provided at it’s peak top notch lenses from 8mm to 1000mm in focal length – almost all of them prime lenses. The depth of field preview button is placed on all the lenses at the lower right of the barrel.

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OM1N and 50mm f1.8 next to a PEN EPL3 to show relative dimensions. The aperture ring on the OM1N’s lens is at the front of the lens marked 1.8, 2.8 etc. A depth of field scale is included on all OM Zuiko lenses (next to the shutter dial).

In use its amazingly simple and makes you wonder why modern DSLRs are so complex. Exposure is set by changing the shutter speed (round the lens mount throat) and the aperture (in front of the focussing ring) until the needle in the lower left of the viewfinder is in the centre of the bracket. The nice thing is that as you gain experience, you set any anticipated exposure compensation as part of this process – not on a separate dial. All the exposure and focus controls are operated by one hand as part of a fluid, simple process.

viewfinder

The OM1N’s magnificently minimalistic viewfinder with the match needle exposure system to the lower left and the split image microprism focussing aid in the centre (the red arrow shows the direction it will move on increasing exposure).

exposure_control

Setting exposure compensation – simplicity itself and no extra dials or controls to fiddle with!

Focus precision is achieved with the central split image centre/microprism collar. If you’d like a depth of field preview just press the button on the lower left of any Zuiko lens and the aperture will close to the selected aperture. Shutter speeds (the shutter blinds are made of rubberised silk!) run from 1000th to 1 second plus ‘bulb’ (open as long as you like).

As a camera to learn photography with it’s brilliant – nothing to distract you from the basics as there is nothing but basics….. Most people who’ve borrowed it for a day don’t want to give it back!

Problems?

Well the battery type is one, which is the now banned 1.35V mercury oxide (E)PX625 battery. However the camera can be converted either by a service engineer (if you can find one) or by using a battery insert which wraps around a 386/301 silver oxide battery and has worked beautifully for me. Batteries last 1 year or more.

The depth of field preview isn’t that useful at smaller apertures as the viewfinder darkens so much but that’s inevitable.

The light seals around the film chamber will have deteriorated over 30 years  and will need replacing but this is a very simple and cheap job. Foam around the pentaprism can also deteriorate leading to a blotchy/dark viewfinder – this is more serious and needs some more expensive attention.

Finally of course, the OM system is now no longer in production, which means getting to grips with the second-hand market where some items are rare and expensive, or not available at all. The upside is that a ‘new’ chrome OM1N is around £80 (black ones are more expensive) so even if your old one packs up, picking up a working one isn’t that difficult.

The superb OM lenses go from mid £30 up to £hundreds depending on their rarity, but a working setup with a 28, 50 and 135mm lens, or a few zooms should be around £250 – cheaper than a digital compact! You can use them on your DSLR too with an adaptor with some restrictions (no AF, stop down aperture metering).

All in all, a camera for that ‘pure’ photographic experience – rugged, minimalistic and simple producing great results with no fuss. I’d recommend one to anyone hoping to improve their photography or those wanting try something radically different to a DSLR.

There – I’ve always wanted to do a camera review – hope you like it and thanks for looking.

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25 thoughts on “In Praise of the Olympus OM1N

  1. I have an OM-1 that my father-in-law passed down to me. I love it! The match needle meter system is so nice and the viewfinder is huge. Am also a huge fan of the, shutter sound. It just sounds/feels like butter.

    • That shutter sound is magic! Mine needs the mirror dampener foam replacing so it’s not quite as silky smooth as it was… You’ve reminded me to get that fixed!

  2. My first and favorite SLR (or DSLR). I look forward to using it again soon as another digital has died on me. Shooting with the OM1 has always been more fun than digital and based on my last couple of digitals may be cheaper in the long run. Thanks for the review.

    • Hello Thomas,

      I agree completely – much cheaper in the long run. I use my OM gear along with digital kit and it seems to work really well. The OM1 always takes me back to a ‘proper’ photographic experience and keeps my skills sharp!

  3. that’s most interesting, thanks, Bob. My OM-1 is now 38yrs old from new, still functioning. Yes, the body seals have been done, the old foam rotting onto the pentaprism problem has left some marks, but otherwise working, the meter is still OK. Will be hard to find a technician next time nowadays.

    I’ve penned a wee piece about my “old trusty” on my Dark Lantern Owen blog page, you might enjoy:
    http://darklanternforowen.wordpress.com/
    Cheers. Owen

  4. Yes there are some film camera repairers down here, however getting scarce now. The chap I have used, has now retired but has kindly attended to my OM-1 recently at his home! (The winding jammed up & also supplied with an old type battery – I haven’t done the batt mod yet.)

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