How to Improve an Olympus OM1N – an OM2N?

Well, it’s just possible to improve an OM1N – Yoshihisa Maitani put an auto exposure mode in a body of the same size and weight but kept to the same design ethos. Olympus didn’t just put a simple ‘aperture priority’ mode in the OM2N, they put the most advanced exposure control system for its time in place – more sophisticated than most even today.

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Basically the same as an OM1N from the front – the film rewind release to the left along with the self timer ratchet.

Flick the top plate switch to ‘manual’ and the OM2N is essentially the same as an OM1N. Push it into ‘Auto’ mode and the  OM2N’s ‘Off the film’ (‘OTF’) exposure control takes over. The exposure indicated in the viewfinder is an approximation – the final exposure is determined in ‘real time’ by the OTF exposure system. Variations in light during exposure, from natural or from multiple flash systems is all taken care of. Exposures of from 1/1000th of a second to 120 seconds will be used – however film reciprocity failure is not catered for (how could it be?) so beware. Pretty amazing nevertheless.

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Standard OLY 35mm controls – from top to bottom – aperture, focus and shutter speed. The blue shutter speeds indicate the risk of camera shake which is a bit superfluous but looks pretty. Exposure compensation/film speed dial and film winder on the left of the pentaprism, main mode switch to the right.

So what changes were made? The basic controls stay the same. The film speed dial is incorporated into a dual ISO/exposure compensation dial on the top plate – in ‘auto mode’ you might need dial in exposure compensation. The only unfortunate omission is the lack of a mirror lock up – something which is useful on the OM1N but wasn’t possible with the dual metering system.

OM2 Metering Display

The 3 metering mode displays available in different exposure modes. The displays seem to be transparent plastic and slide in and out of view as the mode switch is moved.

One significant feature is that it’s possible to use the camera even when it’s mode switch is in the ‘off’ position. The ‘OTF’ exposure system trips in and sorts it all out , limiting  the shutter speed to shorter than 1/30th of a second as a safety mechanism against battery drain during accidental activation. The ‘B’ mode is only available via a release switch and is the only mechanical shutter speed.

If you plan on using slow film – Adox CMS20 for example – the lowest ISO rating is 12 which is one of the recommended ‘box speeds’.

As the shutter is electronically controlled and is dependent on battery power, there’s a check/reset setting on the main control lever just in case the batteries run out, the shutter is tripped and the mirror locks up.  When the batteries have some charge this setting provides a battery check from an LED on the back plate. As an added extra there’s somewhere to push the card film box top into to remind you what film’s loaded – very sophisticated!

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Back plate showing – well not much other than wear and tear! The battery check LED is to the left of the viewfinder, and the film reminder thingy in the centre of the back plate. This pic shows the black paint wearing through to the metal body under the film winder – I hadn’t noticed that before…

The OM2N is 100% compatible with the OM1N – the complete range of small and fast OM lenses, motor drives and focus screens etc. It shares the same massive, clear viewfinder, smooth shutter release and lovely handling.

Problems?

None really other than those of an obsolete system. The seals may need replacing which is a cheap and easy job. I’ve got two OM2Ns, and they both just keep going faultlessly – bought not as collectors items but as working cameras ‘earning’ their living.

The batteries are cheap 2xSR44’s silver oxidies – don’t use alkalines as their charge drops slowly over time. If they run out of power the OM2N is dead – unlike the OM1N. Rumours abound that the camera will still fire at 1/60th of a second without power – I’ve tried it and it’s not true on the OM2N but is apparently on the OM2SP (which is where the confusion has arisen). The dependency on batteries isn’t really as much of a problem as I used to think it was – I change them every year and have had no problems.

So all in all a real pleasure of a camera to shoot with. Put it into ‘auto’ mode for average scenes or when you’re feeling a bit lazy. Where the lighting is more tricky switch to manual or stick to ‘auto’ and use the exposure compensation dial.

Cheap, simple and rugged, adding a bit of sophistication to an OM setup – though for some reason I still prefer the OM1N but only by a whisker! For those who dislike ‘pure manual mechanical’ cameras it’s worth a look, and at under £100 for a good working example definitely worth a try.

Thanks for looking – hope you find this useful if you’re considering one.

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.