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
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.
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 auto-focus revolution
Olympus’ first auto-focus 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.
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 offered to the photographer
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 anachronistic 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.
- 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).
The OM2-s is 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).
The OM2-s’ 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