October 25, 2010

The Olympus OM-2 series – a revolution followed by 12 years of limited evolution

Filed under: Gear, Olympus cameras — Tags: , , , , — xtalfu @ 2:59 pm
Olympus OM-2s and Olympus OM-2n

Olympus OM-2s and Olympus OM-2n

Look at the picture at the left – showing side by side the OM-2 (produced from 1975 to 1984) and its short lived successor, the OM-2s (also known as the OM-2 Spot/Program or OM-2s/p in other parts of the world), which soldiered from 1984 to 1986. They look so similar.

During the same period, Canon went from the huge EF body to the AE-1 and finally launched the first SLR with a computer inspired interface, the T70 of 1984. Minolta evolved from the XE-7 to the XG before it changed the world of SLRs forever with the first successful autofocus SLR, the 7000. And the always conservative Nikon went from the massive Nikkormat EL to the compact Nikon FE2, which integrated most of the advances of the OM-2, and coupled them with a very fast aluminum shutter.

It is true that the OM series had a significant technological advance when it was launched. But by the end of the seventies the competition had more than caught up, taking advantage of miniaturized integrated circuits and micro-processors to offer compact and feature rich cameras. Olympus was slow to adapt to the micro-processor revolution, and had to face a lot of teething problems in the process.

The early years

Olympus OM-2n - Close-up (Front)

Olympus OM-2n - Close-up (Front) - Note the round rewind release button on the front of the camera.

Olympus OM-2n - Close Up (back)

Olympus OM-2n - Close Up (back). Note the screw-in flash shoe and the mode selector with 4 positions: Manual, Off, Auto and Battery Check

The OM-2 came a few years after the OM-1. The OM-1 had changed the world of SLRs by offering pro-level features in an incredibly compact body. The OM-2 was the automatic exposure declination of the OM-1. Interestingly, it still integrated the whole semi-auto exposure metering system of the OM-1 (with its two CdS sensors located in the prism housing), but in automatic exposure mode, it relied on blue silicon sensors located at the bottom of the reflex chamber, under the reflex mirror. Here was the true revolution: the silicon sensors measured the light reflected by the curtains of the textile shutter (and by the surface of the film) during the exposure itself. The capabilities of the camera in low light scenes are still unsurpassed, and with a compatible flash gun, the camera could control the duration of the flash exposure while the picture was being taken. Within a few years, all major competitors had adopted a similar system on a least a few of their models. In 1979, Olympus launched the OM-2n, a relatively minor update of the OM-2.

An attempt to catch up

Olympus OM-2s - close-up (front)

Olympus OM-2s - close-up (front) - the rewind release button is now on the top plate (marked with an R), between the shutter release button and the film advance lever.

Olympus OM-2s - close-up (back)

Olympus OM-2s - close-up (back) - The flash shoe is now integrated in the body of the camera, and the mode selector now has the following positions: spot/manual, auto, program and battery check.

The OM-2s is not an evolution of the OM-2n. In fact it’s a spec’d down version of the OM-4, which was launched in 1984 as the true successor of the original OM-2 series.
Inside a body which looks very similar, the OM-2s is much more modern than the OM-2n. On the OM-2 and OM-2n, the silicon light metering system, being located under the reflex mirror, did not receive any light when the mirror was in its usual (low) position, and could only be used during the exposure, if the camera was set in auto exposure mode. That’s the reason why the CdS metering system of the OM-1 had also been retained: not only to support the semi-auto mode, but also to provide an indication of the shutter speed that may be set by the automatic exposure circuits when the camera was set in aperture priority mode.

The architecture of the OM-2s is different. It introduces a second (and smaller) mirror under the main (now semi-transparent) reflex mirror, which redirects 20% of the light to the silicon sensor: there is no need for a separate circuitry for the semi-auto mode anymore. The Olympus engineers took advantage of their new setup to offer multiple exposure metering patterns: when configured as an aperture priority auto camera, the OM-2s uses a weighted average pattern, and, very logically, switches to spot metering when set in semi-auto exposure mode.

There are other differences between the OM-2 and the OM-2s. Two of them are of particular interest: the match needle in the viewfinder is replaced by a vertical LCD panel at the left of the viewfinder, which can be lit by a small lamp when the user presses a button on the right of the reflex chamber, and the absence of the “off” position on the big switch on the left of the top plate. The use of LCDs has no adverse impact on the ergonomics, and whether the photographer will prefer the LCD or the OM-2s to the needle of the OM-2 is primarily a question of taste.

The absence of an “off” position on the main switch is more of an issue: even if the photographer sets the speed ring on “B”, the OM-2s is never be completely off, and it needs new batteries regularly (every few months) even if the camera is not used. The situation is made even worse by a design fault in the circuit controlling the flash, which causes the battery of the body to be rapidly drained if a cobra flash is left in the flash mount. The LR-44 (1.5v Silver Oxide) batteries ued by the OM-2s are still easy to find and relatively inexpensive, but the poor management of the batteries was and still is a major issue for the occasional users, and it explains why this model is not as eagerly sought after as its siblings.

Using an OM-2 camera

In everyday use, there is very little difference between the OM-2n and the OM-2s. The ergonomics is almost identical, the viewfinders are very similar, and both cameras can be used alternatively on a photo shoot without any inconvenience. Both share the same qualities – small size, great ergonomics, large viewfinder, good perceived quality – and the same limitations – primarily the textile shutter, limited to 1/1000 sec, with a maximum flash synchro speed of 1/60. The performance of the shutter was in line with what the competition had to offer when the original OM-2 was launched, but in 1984 Nikon proposed much better with the FE2 and the FA, and the OM-2s was outclassed.

I used both cameras recently; I did not perform any scientific testing and my opinion is just based on my limited experience with a few rolls of film. I tend to trust the metering system of the OM-2s a bit more than the OM-2n’s, and the OM-2s is the camera I will chose if I can not bring both with me. I will just have to be sure that I always have a set of fresh batteries in my equipment bag.

More about the OM-2 family of cameras

Olympus is proud of its past, and presents the history of its cameras in its global Web site.

While not as detailed as the pages dedicated to Nikon cameras, Leo Foo’s “Photography in Malaysia” Web site still provides interesting information about the Olympus OM-2.

A long list of pages dedicated to the Olympus OM cameras is maintained by Wim Wiskerke. It is worth checking.

CamerAgX already published a blog entry covering the family of the Olympus OM bodies, and one about the differences between matrix metering and the multi-spot system of the Olympus OM-4.

Gull - Boston Harbor - Olympus OM-2s

Gull - Boston Harbor - Olympus OM-2s

June 23, 2010

The Olympus OM system and a camera to rediscover: the OM-2s

Filed under: Gear, Olympus cameras — Tags: , , , , , , , — xtalfu @ 1:37 am

Take any line of manual focus 35mm reflex camera from the eighties and mid-nineties, Leica R included. Comparable models will be worth less, on the second hand market, than an Olympus OM-4T, not to mention the OM-3 and its ultra-rare and ultra-expensive offspring, the OM-3T. Why, in spite of their very serious limitations, are the single digit OM cameras so sought after? In this test of the OM-2s, the little brother of the OM-4, we’ll try and find out why.

The OM system

Olympus OM-1n next to a 35mm film cartridge. The competition needed almost 10 years to introduce more compact SLRs, but they were designed for beginners. In the enthousiast-amateur and pro categories, the OM family remains unchallenged to this day.

Launched in the early 70s, the Olympus OM-1 and its system of lenses and accessories were incredibly compact, very well designed, and at the same time solid enough to please the pros and the very serious amateurs. The competition (Nikon in particular) needed years to develop models approaching the size of the OM-1, which sold by the millions.

The OM-2, introduced in 1974 with the same ergonomics and a similar external appearance, was the automatic exposure version of the OM-1. It pioneered the use of direct exposure metering in the film chamber, and was the first camera with Through The Lens Flash metering. The competitors followed Olympus’ example, and almost every SRL cameras introduced after 1985 measures the exposure in the film chamber and offers TTL flash metering.

The OM-2s, OM-3 and OM-4 which followed in the eighties were relatively minor updates of the previous models. They shared a new body and had much more elaborate metering options, but they retained the relatively slow shutter of the OM-1 and OM-2. Their viewfinders were not as great as the ones of the OM-1 and OM-2, and the first models had some reliability issues. The OM-3T and OM-4T (with titanium top and bottom plates and more reliable electronics) raised the level of quality of the OM line, and soldiered on until Olympus finally stopped the production of film cameras, in 2002.

The limitations of OM-x cameras

The incredible prices reached by the OM-3T and to a lesser extent by the OM-4T on the second hand market could lead us to believe that those cameras are perfect. They have some unique qualities (more about them in the next section), but they also suffer from serious limitations.

The textile focal plane shutter of the OM-2S is virtually identical to the mechanism mounted in the other automatic OM cameras. In this version it is limited to 1/1000sec. The OM-3 and OM-4 reach 1/2000sec, but the synchro flash speed remains the same for all models: 1/60sec.

  • The textile focal plane shutter.

    The shutter of the OM-1 and OM-2 cameras was in line with what the competition proposed in 1975 (1/1000 Sec, Synchro Flash at 1/60sec), but ten years later, the OM-3 and OM-4 were confronted to the Nikon FM2n, FE2 and FA or the Canon T90, all with metallic shutters reaching 1/4000sec and offering 1/250sec synchro flash. A slow shutter is a serious limitation now that 400 ISO films are the de facto standard (it means that in sunlight you can only work with an aperture of f:16 or f:11), and it reduces the opportunities to use the fill-in flash technique in the open air.

  • The reliability and the power consumption of the electronics

    Olympus experienced some difficulties when the engineering of cameras became almost exclusively focused on electronics. All models suffered from glitches, some models more than others. The first OM-2S cameras, in particular, were plagued with electronics related issues. The bad apples have most probably been eliminated in the past 25 years, and reliability should not be too much of a concern for a photographer buying one of those cameras now. Excessive power consumption affected all the models launched in the first half of the eighties (when using a flash or at rest), and was only brought back under control with the OM-3T and OM-4T models.

  • Olympus missed the autofocus revolution

    Olympus’ first autofocus SLR was really horrible (it had no focusing ring at all) and was rapidly withdrawn from the market. It was so bad that Olympus did not even try to replace it with a better autofocus camera, and just placed the manual focus OM system on life support without any significant upgrade for the subsequent 15 years. Contrarily to Nikon’s or Pentax’s film SLRs, which can still share some lenses and accessories with modern digital SLRs, the OM bodies and lenses have very little in common with today’s digital cameras. If brought along modern Olympus digital cameras on a photo-shoot , they will need their own lenses, which at least doubles the weight and the volume of the equipment to be carried around.

    The unique qualities of the OM series

    The cameras of the OM series also have unique qualities, which gained them the unconditional support of a small group of passionate photographers.

  • The size and the fit and finish

  • When Olympus launched the OM-1, it was the smallest 35mm Single Lens Reflex camera ever made. The competition needed almost 10 years to catch up, but if their cameras were marginally smaller, they were entry level models made of plastic, and could not be compared to the high end “single digit” OM cameras available at the same time. The fit and finish of the OM-1 was impressive, and the black or grey “”T’ and “ti” models remain among the nicest cameras ever made.

  • The Viewfinder

  • Bring an OM-1 to your eye, and you will still be impressed by the viewfinder. With 97% coverage and 92% magnification, it presents a very large image of the subject. They eye relief is short (at 14mm approximately), but since the viewfinder does not provide any information at the periphery of the image, it is not an issue, and even photographers wearing glasses can see all of the scene easily. Only much bulkier and high-end cameras (such as the Nikon F3) offer a better user experience. The subsequent models were still very good, but not as impressive: over the years, Olympus had to shoe-horn LCD displays at the periphery of the viewfinder (in support of the increasingly elaborate metering system of the cameras), and introduced a diopter adjustment mechanism, which led to a progressive reduction of the magnification. But the user experience was still far better than what a Nikon FE2 or FE had to offer.
    (More about the viewfinder of SLRs in this Post of CamerAgx)

  • The ergonomics and the level of control offerred to the photographer
  • The shutter speed command ring is positioned around the lens mount

    Olympus OM-2S. The shutter speed command ring is positioned around the lens mount, and the aperture ring is at the front of the lens. 1/60 and B shutter speeds are mechanical (marked in red). Setting the camera at 1/60 when at rest addresses the battery leak issues this camera is famous for.

    Until the end, Olympus remained attached to the ergonomics defined with the OM-1: the shutter speed selection ring was positioned around the lens mount, and the aperture ring was pushed at the front of the lens. It made a lot of sense in 1970 – when the command of the mechanical shutter was stiff and the ring needed to be as large as possible, and when the settings on a lens were limited to the focus and the aperture. The generalization of (very soft) electronic shutter commands and of zoom lenses made the Olympus ergonomics a bit of anachronic at the end of the seventies.

    More important is the conscious decision made by Olympus to put the photographer in total control of metering. When most of the cameras manufacturers were trying to make photography less intimidating (using databases and analysis algorithms to make the process of determining the exposure transparent to the photographer), Olympus decided to offer spot metering (OM-2s/OM2-SP) and multi-spot metering (OM-3 and OM-4 bodies). On the OM-3 and OM-4 cameras, the photographer could make up to eight successive spot measurements, whose result were presented in the viewfinder on an analog bar scale showing each individual result and the average. The cameras also had a “shadow” and a “highlight” push button, letting the photographer compose his picture following the principles of the zone system (more about metering in this Post of Cameragx)

    This approach did not get a lot of traction on the marketplace (matrix metering has become the standard) but the small group of photographers who really wanted to be in control of the exposure of their pictures still use OM-3 and OM-4 cameras today. Their unique metering capabilities also explain why they kept their value so well.

    Olympus OM-2S The body of the OM-2S is identical to the OM-3 and OM-4.

    Olympus used the same body for the OM-2S and for the OM-3 and OM-4. They are marginally larger than the OM-1 and OM-2 models, but have a built-in flash mount.

    Olympus OM-2s- the control of metering and exposure modes

    The control of metering and exposure modes of the OM2S. The OM-2S operates in aperture priority and in program mode with a center weighted average metering, and in semi-auto mode with spot metering. Those combinations make a lot of sense.

    Olympus OM-2 S was named OM-2 SP on some markets.

    Olympus OM-2S was named OM-2 spot/program (or SP) on some markets.

    Using the OM-2S
    The OM-2S is not as sought after as its OM-4 or OM-3 brothers. It is true that the latter gained their status of “classics” when the “T” and “ti” versions were launched. The OM-2S never benefited from the titanium parts of the later OM bodies, and remained an entry-level model during its short commercial career. The OM-2S also gained a bad reputation because of power leak issues (the integrated circuit was not properly designed, and when a flash was mounted on the body, it tended to drain the battery of the camera rapidly).

    It’s a very pleasant camera to use, though. Compact, with a large viewfinder, it leaves total control of the exposure to the photographer in the semi-auto mode, which is logically combined with the Spot metering system. The exposure parameters are presented on bar graph at the left of the viewfinder. They’re visual and very easy to read. When determining the right exposure is not too tricky, the photographer can rely on the automatic (aperture priority) mode, which uses a more conventional center weighted average metering. The Program mode is almost useless, because the photographer has no way of knowing the aperture selected by the camera (the selected shutter speed is displayed in the viewfinder, but aperture is not).

    Its biggest limitation is the shutter (its fastest speed is 1/1000 sec). The situation is made worse by lenses which can not be set to an aperture smaller than F:16. When taking pictures on a bright sunny day with 400 ISO film (like Kodak’s CN400 that I use a lot because it’s still easy to have it processed), the photographer can only use a narrow combination of speed and aperture, and can not play with the depth of field as much as he would like.

    Not too common but not eagerly sought after by the Olympus fanatics, the OM-2S is a good pick for a photographer looking for a compact SLR with a big viewfinder and exceptional control of the metering. With unconventional but well designed commands, the OM-2S is simpler to use than the OM-3 and OM-4 with their complex multi-spot and zone system metering functions. The OM-2S can be found for less than $150 (stores specialized in second hand cameras) and even cheaper ($50 to $80) on eBay. Small aperture Zuiko (Olympus) lenses are dirt cheap (a 28mm f:3.5 or a 135mm f:3.5 can be had for less than $30), but wide aperture Zuikos are very rare and very expensive.

    More about the Olympus OM-2S

    Ken Norton’s Zone-10 web site has interesting reviews of Olympus cameras (film and digital) and wrote a few pages about the OM2-S.

    Photography in Malaysia is primarily focused on Nikon cameras, but they have very good pages about the OM-1, OM-2 and OM-2S cameras.

    Historic center of Powder Springs (GA). Olympus OM-2s with OM-Zuiko 28mm f:3.5. Kodak CN400

    August 22, 2009

    Why are manual exposure cameras worth more than automatics ? (Intro)

    The facts

    Let’s take three lines of manual focus cameras which still have a very active second hand market today: the Leica R series, the Nikons FM & FE and their derivatives, and the Olympus OM-1 & OM-2 and their “single digit” descendants. Each line contains automatic exposure cameras (Leica R4, R5, R7; Nikon FE, FE2, FA; Olympus OM-2, OM2s, OM4, OM4t), and manual exposure cameras (Leica R6, R6.2; Nikon FM and FM2; Olympus OM-1 and OM-3).

    For a given generation of camera, manual exposure models are almost always worth more than their automatic exposure siblings.

    Average retail price of a camera in Excellent Condition (source: a reputable specialist of used photographic equipment)

    Brand Manual Camera Auto exposure Camera
    Leica R6.2: $ 999 R7: $ 550
    Nikon FM: $ 190 FE: $ 170
    Nikon FM2: $ 245 FE2: $ 199
    Olympus OM-1: $ 150 OM-2: $ 190
    Olympus OM-3: much more than $500 * OM-4: $ 235
    Olympus OM-3T: much more than $1,000 * OM-4T or TI: $ 450

    More after the jump

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