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

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-1 (front view with 35mm cartridge)
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.

Olympus OM-2s-5
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 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.

    Olympus OM-2S 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.

    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).

    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

    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

And now for something completely different: the Polaroid PoGo Instant Printer

Almost 10 years after digital photography started replacing silver-halide technologies for everyday use, there is still no equivalent to the user experience that the instant cameras (Polaroid) of yesteryear used to offer. With a digital camera (or a good mobile phone), you can take pictures and immediately visualize them, email them or post them on social networking sites, but you still need a relatively bulky equipment to print pictures. Distributing prints during a party of a social event – a very common (although expensive) practice in the Polaroid days, now requires some planning: you need a laptop, a printer, a table and one or two power outlets – a far cry from the press-the-shutter-release-share-the-print experience of instant cameras.

Polaroid PoGo printer next to a Pictbridge compatible camera
Polaroid POGO printer next to a Pictbridge compatible camera. A picture taken by the camera and printed on the PoGo is shown next to a business card. The business card is a bit wider than the printed picture.

A few weeks ago, Polaroid started selling a relatively low end digital camera (5MP), the PoGo Instant Digital Camera , equipped with a built in printer. It is a welcome evolution from the PoGo Instant Printer they launched last year.

In both cases, Polaroid is using a technology developed by a company named ZINK (for Zero INK). In a nutshell, ZINK is using a thermal paper containing cyan, yellow and magenta crystals, which are revealed by the heat provided by the printer head. Apart from the paper itself, no consumable is needed, and the process does not use any liquid and produces no waste. It does not need a lot of power either, and can be packaged in a pocket sized device powered by Lithium-Ion batteries.

The PoGo Instant Printer was the first product based on ZINK technologies to be widely available in the US. The size of a paperback book, it fits in a large pocket. It is battery powered, contains a pack of 10 sheets of ZINK paper, and is ready to use provided you find a cell phone or a camera compatible with it.

Printing with the PoGo printer:

Compatibility is one of the issues that the user of the PoGo printer will face:

  • cell phones can only connect to the PoGo if a “Bluetooth print” driver has been implemented by the phone manufacturer.
  • Polaroid published a long list of compatible phones, but it does not include the iPhone or any Android device, or any phone brought to market during the last 18 months. It looks as if the cell phone makers (and the carriers) had stopped supporting the PoGo technology. Too bad.

  • digital cameras supporting the PictBridge standard.
  • Pictbridge is an industry standard adopted by the major manufacturers of digital cameras. I tested the PoGo printer with a tiny Sony Cybershot T20, and with a Nikon D80. In both cases, it is necessary to use the USB cable provided with the camera. The PoGo is very sensitive to the connection sequence (practice before you use it in public for the first time) but once you know what to connect and power on first, it works as advertised: select the picture to print on the camera, activate the Pictbridge “print” command, and after sixty seconds, the PoGo magically ejects a print. It has to be noted that the PoGo only prints JPEG files (no RAW files – convert them to JPEG in the camera before printing).

    Print with a Pogo Printer
    Color print produced by a Pogo printer connected a Nikon D80 with the Pictbridge function enabled)

    The quality of the prints

    The prints are small – 7.5cm x 5.0 cm (approximately 2×3″). Since the camera and the PoGo printer are directly connected, all the adjustments to the images have to be done through the menus of the camera. The color balance is difficult to set right – the pictures coming from the Sony T20 tended to have a pinkish-redish hue, the pictures coming out of the Nikon D80 were a bit yellow, but it can be fixed. The definition of the pictures is surprisingly good, and dynamic range of the prints is acceptable: the shadows are detailed, but the highlights tend to be a bit washed. The prints are perfectly usable, and thanks to their small size, they will fit in a wallet between two credit cards.


    The PoGo printer is a first attempt at producing a really pocketable printer. It works relatively well, and is not very expensive ($40 for the printer, $0.30 per print), but it it is not very practical to use and looks a lot like a proof of concept for the ZINK process.

  • Most of the cell phones and smart-phones that people currently buy and use are not compatible with the PoGo
  • cameras have to be connected to the printer with a USB cable (the printer only offers Bluetooth connectivity for cell phones, and does not support WiFi).
  • Its battery is depleted after 15 images have been printed, and the power brick is as large – and heavier – than the printer itself.

  • The ZINK process shows lots of promises – it’s a relatively cheap and eco-friendly way to produce pictures on the go. Polaroid’s decision to integrate the printer in a digicam (and to resurrect the old Polaroid instant camera experience) is obviously the way to go. Zink is also proposing 4 x 6 paper, but nobody so far has tried to integrate a 4 x 6 printer in a digital camera. That would be great, though. A sort of modern equivalent to the SX-70 cameras. Mr Polaroid, please…

    More about the PoGo printer

    An interesting review by Tracy and Matt (that’s the name of their Web site)

    Polaroid SX-70 Alpha 1 Model 2 (close up) - when will we get a ZINK equivalent?
    Polaroid SX-70 Alpha 1 Model 2. The lens (4 glass elements with close focus capabilities) is much better than the single element plastic lens used on the non folding Polaroid cameras such as the One step.

    The Allure of the Automobile – until June 27th, Atlanta High Museum of Art

    It is very unusual for an art museum to have cars on display. Maybe one. Or two. But eighteen? Eighteen unique or extremely rare hand built cars, selected by a true car lover for the beauty of their bodies, and the quality of the craftsmanship. Works of art. The High Museum of Art of Atlanta is presenting “the Allure of the Automobile”, until June 27th.

    Pierce Arrow Silver Arrow (1933)
    Pierce Arrow Silver Arrow (1933) - The Allure of the Automobile - Atlanta (Olympus OM-2s -28 mm - Kodak Ektar 100)

    I like cars, and I have visited more than a few car museums, and I’ve probably never seen so many remarkable cars under the same roof. A Duesenberg and a Packard, both built for Clark Gable, a Pierce Arrow – so modern, a Ferrari berlinetta which won its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Steve McQueen’s Jaguar – a loud brute as could be expected, the Porsche 550 which earned the “Carrera” name for its remote descendants, the prototype of the Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray.

    Some of the cars shown at the High are also technically significant or innovative , but all are stunningly beautiful.

    Taking pictures in a museum is never easy, and, shame on me, I came unprepared. I only had an old Olympus SLR with a 28mm lens and 100 ISO film, and the few pictures I took can not be compared with the images posted on the Web site of the High Museum of Art, or with the wonderful pictures of the book celebrating the exhibit(“The Allure of the Automobile” – Ronald T. Labaco & Ken Gross). But the Olympus OM-2s did a very good job, with a precise exposure and very few vibrations. More about the Olympus OM family soon.

    Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray (1959)
    Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray - The Allure of the Automobile - Atlanta (Olympus OM-2s -28 mm - Kodak Ektar 100)