Olympus OM-1 or Fujica ST-801?

They were launched at the same time (1972), and were both highly innovative. In different areas.

The Olympus OM-1, the first of a family of cameras which  sold until the end of the twentieth century, was remarkable by its small size, its impressive viewfinder, its great built quality, and its very good ergonomics.

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Olympus OM-1n MD – a very clean copy. A triumph of industrial design.

The Fujica ST801, although not a large or heavy camera by any means, looked bulkier and more primitive in comparison, but in 1972 it was very advanced technologically – the first to combine the use of Silicon diodes for metering with LEDs for the semi-automatic determination of the exposure in the viewfinder. And  – with full aperture metering and a shutter capable of 1/2000sec exposures – it was the most elaborate of the screw mount cameras.

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Fujica ST801 with a Pentax Super-Takumar lens – the camera is compatible with almost any 42mm screw mount lens (with stopped down aperture)

With the OM-1, Olympus introduced a whole new system (new bayonet, new lenses, new motor drives), as compact as the camera itself. The OM-1 was  a starting point.

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Fujica ST801 – the lens mount flange is surrounded by a recessed and spring loaded rotating ring. The little pin on the rotating ring is pushed by the tab at the periphery of the lens.

The ST801 could use any screw mount 42mm “universal” lens, but could only offer full aperture metering when equipped with a new range of Fujinon lenses, which added an aperture transmission mechanism and a locking pin to the standard 42mm mount. The screw mount standard was already at the end of its route when the ST801 was launched, and in 1979 Fuji was the last major camera manufacturer to abandon it for a new proprietary bayonet. The ST801 had no real successor, and the relative short production run of the Fujinon lenses explain why they’re so scarce now.

Back then: how did the two cameras compare?

  • Cost and Availability: Both brands were widely distributed, in brick and mortar stores and by mail order distributors. In 1977, the OM-1 was still the only high quality small size semi-automatic SLR, and as a result Olympus was in the position to extract a very significant premium for it. The OM-1n (with a f/1.8 50mm lens) was selling for almost $300.00 in 1977, when Nikon could only ask $270 for a Nikkormat FT3. The Fujica ST801 (which was at the end of its career) was selling for approximately for $200.00, in the same ballpark as the old SR-T models from Minolta. It was more expensive than the other screw mount cameras from Practika or Vivitar ($170.00) but significantly less than semi-auto cameras of the newer generation such as the Canon AT-1: $ 240.00 (all figures sourced from the Sears catalog of 1977 – courtesy http://www.butkus.org/).
  • Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics
    Figures can be deceiving. Only 135g and less than one centimeter separate the weight and the height of the OM-1 from the ST801. It’s not a huge difference (the ST801 was significantly narrower and lighter than the semi-auto cameras sold by Canon or Nikon in the early seventies),  but the OM-1 looks and feels significantly more compact than the Fujica. It falls perfectly in the hands. The position of the commands is not conventional (shutter speed ring around the lens mount, aperture ring at the front of the lens, ISO selector where the shutter speed knob generally is) but extremely convenient for a photographer shooting with a semi-auto camera and a prime lens: the right hand holds the camera, the left hand operates the shutter and aperture rings, which are clearly separated by the large focusing ring. Advantage Olympus
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Fujica ST801 – viewfinder (shutter speed on a disk on the left, 5 LEDs on the right)
  • Viewfinder – Even to this day, the viewfinder of the Olympus OM-1 is exceptional. There are very few manual focus SLRs with a finder feeling larger (I can think of the Nikon F3, but it’s a pro camera and it’s bulkier). Every time you bring the viewfinder of the OM-1 to your eye, you’re still impressed. The Fujica’s viewfinder is more informative, and was praised for being luminous when the camera was launched.  But compared to the OM-1, it’s narrower and darker.  Clear Advantage for Olympus
  • Shutter and metering system: Both cameras use a shutter with horizontal cloth curtains. The OM-1’s tops at 1/1000sec, the ST801 at 1/2000sec. It probably did not matter much in 1973 (when 64 ISO was the normal film sensitivity) but a faster shutter speed is a serious advantage today (400 ISO is the normal sensitivity for negative color and B&W film, and photographers looking for “bokeh” use very wide apertures). The OM-1’s metering system is very conventional (2 CdS cells, mercury battery, matching needle at the left of the viewfinder). The ST801 was the first camera to use Silicon photo diodes for metering, and LEDs. Advantage Fujica.
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Olympus OM-1 – viewfinder with the matching needle on the left
  • Lens selection: when the two cameras were launched, the Fujica had the advantage of accepting all the 42mm screw mount lenses manufactured not only by Fuji, but also by Pentax, Yashica, and literally dozens of other brands. Of course, metering was stopped down (only the new Fujinon lenses supported full aperture metering with the ST801). In comparison, Olympus was starting to build a new camera system. A few years later, the situation had evolved – the 42mm standard was being abandoned by all its major proponents, and Olympus had succeeded in imposing its OM system on the market – and the offer of lenses (from Olympus themselves or third party vendors) was abundant.  Tie

And now

  • Reliability: both cameras were launched at a time when the Nikon F, the Nikkormat and the Canon FT/QL were the gold standard for Japanese SLRs. In comparison, both the OM-1 and the ST801 must have looked small, light and fragile. Today, none of the cameras is known to be unreliable- they’re simple mechanical devices – but the oldest copies are now 45 years old. Tie
  • Scarcity:  The OM-1 sold over 1 million units over a long period, and aged very well. A small and beautiful camera, it must have been handled with care by its owners – nice copies of the OM-1 are abundant on eBay, on Shopgoodwill.com, and in the stores of used equipment retailers. The Fujica ST801 – while not as easy to find as the OM-1, is still relatively common – you just have to be a bit more patient if you want to find a nice copy at a reasonable price. Advantage Olympus
Olympus OM-1 (above view)
Olympus OM-1 – the commands layout is unique (large on/off switch, knob for the film sensitivity, a ring on the lens flange for the shutter speed, and the aperture ring at the far end of the lens).
  • Battery: The ST801 uses one 6v silver oxide battery (the same as the Canon AE-1), which is still easy to find. The OM-1 was originally designed for Mercury batteries, which have disappeared from the market a long time ago due to the health hazards represented by Mercury. Mercury batteries deliver 1.35 volts. The simplest option is to use the zinc-air batteries sold by pharmacists for hearing aid devices – they deliver the same voltage, are very cheap and ubiquitous, but have a limited life (a few months at most) once they start being used. Other options exist (like having the camera converted to the voltage of silver oxide batteries – 1.55v) but I don’t like the idea of opening the camera and soldering diodes on the circuitry that much. My take on it: live with the zinc-air batteries, or buy an OM-2.  Advantage Fujica.
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Fujica ST801 – the battery door at the left of the viewfinder – and 1/2000sec on the shutter knob. For the rest, a conventional layout of the commands
  • Lens selection: In my opinion, the ST801 only shines with lenses supporting full aperture metering. Except for the most common focal lengths (50mm, 135mm and the 43-75mm zoom) Fujinon lenses designed for the Fujica ST series are difficult to find, and seriously expensive when you can locate one. A more cost effective option is to use Tamron Adaptall lenses – Tamron developed an Adaptall Mount Adapter specifically for the Fujica ST cameras – the mounts are still available at a very moderate price, and the Tamron lenses are less  expensive than Fujinons. Olympus OM Zuiko lenses have an excellent reputation. They were often offered  in three versions representing three price points (slow aperture, medium aperture, fast aperture) for every major focal length category. Today, while the faster lenses are rare and expensive, the slower ones are still easy to find and comparatively cheap, much more so than the Fujinons. Big advantage for Olympus.
Fujica ST 801 (launched in 1972) and zoom Fujinon-Z 43-75mm (launched 1977). The Z-43-75 was the first zoom bundled with a SLR (the AZ-1) and is easy to find. It’s a very good lens – if you can live with a minimal focusing distance of 4ft (1.20m)

Conclusion:

  • The usage value of the two cameras is the same – both are good semi-auto exposure cameras. the Olympus has the better viewfinder, a significantly wider lens selection on the second hand market, and it looks and feels more modern. The Fujica’s  metering system and its shutter are better, and it works with a myriad of screw mount lenses.
Olympus OM-1 – the lens release and the depth of field preview buttons are on the lens, not on the camera’s body
  • You can argue that the Fujica line of SLRs reached its peak in 1972, with the ST801.  The subsequent screw mount models (ST901, AZ-1) were designed with amateurs in mind (auto exposure cameras without any semi-auto mode), and the last screw mount Fujica cameras were budget models priced just above Practika cameras from communist East Germany. This whole line of cameras and lenses met its end in 1979 when Fuji switched to its new X bayonet.
  • If you consider the whole system, spending your cash on Olympus makes much more sense. The OM-1 is the first member of a large family. It’s a nice camera of high historical importance, but in the OM system, there are even better choices: the OM-2 and the OM-4t.  In semi-auto mode, the OM-2  works exactly like an OM-1. It also operates in Aperture Priority auto-exposure mode, offers a pioneering flash metering system and accepts silver oxide batteries. If you wanted to spend a lot more money, the OM-4t with its 1/2000sec shutter, its very elaborate metering system and its titanium top plate would be my recommendation.  It was sold until 2002, and is often considered the pinnacle of 35mm manual focus SLR design.

More about the other Olympus OM cameras in CamerAgX: the OM-2 Series, the OM-2 S Program

More about the  Fujica screw mount line of cameras in CamerAgX:

As usual, MIR is a very good source of information about cameras of the seventies and eighties: Olympus OM-1 and OM-2

Hilton Head – 2010 – Shot with an Olympus OM camera.

 

The Fujica film cameras – the best screw mount SLRs ever?

Fuji Photo Film has been in the photo business since 1934, but only entered the single lens reflex camera (SLR) market at the beginning of the 70s. At that time, Pentax, Minolta, Nikon and Canon had been selling SLRs for more than 10 years.

Fuji introduced important innovations – the Fujica ST701 was the first SLR using a  silicon photo-diode for exposure metering, and in 1974, the ST901 was the first camera to use numerical LEDs to show the selected shutter speed in the viewfinder.

But Fuji bet on the wrong lens mount – their first SLR had a “universal” m42 screw mount that only supported stop down metering at a time when the market was already demanding full aperture metering. They rapidly had to create a proprietary derivative of the “universal” mount to  support it. Their implementation (a protruding tab on the outside of the aperture ring to transmit aperture information to the camera) was clever and maintained the inter-compatibility of the lenses with the cameras of other vendors (I tested Fujinon lenses on Pentax and Yashica cameras – and there was no problem).

In 1979, Fuji was the last major vendor to abandon the screw mount, and finally launched a brand new proprietary bayonet, the “X” mount,  supporting all types of auto-exposure modes.

Fujica ST 801 (launched in 1972) and zoom Fujinon-Z 43-75mm (launched 1977).
Fujica ST 801 (launched in 1972) and zoom Fujinon-Z 43-75mm (launched 1977). In my opinion, the best screw mount camera from Fujica.

Switching to a new lens mount is always a difficult exercise for a camera manufacturer, as it’s a powerful signal sent to its installed base that the investment they’ve made in the lenses of the brand is going to be worthless; at some point, the photographer will need a new camera to replace the existing one, and that day, he/she will also have to buy a whole new set of lenses. But if you have to buy everything anew, why stay with the brand that “betrayed” you?

The m42 bodies (Fujica ST 701, 705, 801, 901) were technically innovative and were praised by the press,  but the bayonet mount cameras (Fujica STX, AX-1, AX-3, AX-5) were nice but unremarkable me-too products that never found much traction on a market place dominated by Canon and Minolta. When Minolta launched the first modern autofocus SLR, the Maxxum 7000, in 1985, Fuji was already folding down its SLR business, and did not even try to launch its own line of autofocus SLRs. They left the market for good in 1987.

Today, some of the Fujica screw mount cameras are highly regarded by the supporters of the m42 Universal mount. They were very modern when they were launched, and are far more pleasant to use than cameras of the same generation such as the Pentax Spotmatic.

  • I would avoid all cameras requiring Mercury batteries (ST 701, ST601) as  they are not compatible with the silver oxide batteries that most other cameras of the same vintage accept (as does the Pentax Spotmatic, for instance).
  • The ST901 is an interesting curiosity (the first camera with a numeric LED display in the viewfinder), but it’s 1.0 implementation of the feature and the camera only has an aperture priority auto exposure mode (no semi-auto exposure control).
  • The AZ-1 is a derivative of the ST901, without the numeric display in the viewfinder, and was the first SLR from a major vendor to be equipped with a zoom as its standard lens. But it does not constitute a reason to buy an AZ-1 now, as it offers very little control of the exposure parameters to the photographer (the exposure metering only works in the automatic exposure mode – there is no semi-automatic mode, it’s automatic or fully manual).

Fujica AZ-1 and Fujinon-X f/3.5-4.5 43mm-75mm zoom - the AZ-1 was the first mass market SLR bundled with a zoom as the standard lens.Fujica AZ-1 and Fujinon-X f/3.5-4.5 43mm-75mm zoom – the AZ-1 was the first mass market SLR bundled with a zoom instead of the  standard 50mm lens.

It leaves us with the ST801 and ST705 (both semi-auto cameras with full aperture metering), and the ST605 (an entry level semi-auto camera with stopped down metering and a slower shutter).

  • the ST 801 boasts a silicon diode cell for metering, LEDs in the viewfinder, silver oxide batteries, 1/2000 shutter, and a very bright viewfinder. It was produced from 1972 to 1978. It’s still perfectly usable today and can be found at reasonable prices (less than $50.00) if you are patient and wait for a good opportunity.
  • The ST605 is really abundant and cheap ($10 to $30), but is very limited (slow shutter and stopped down metering). The ST705, which looks like a good compromise on paper, was only produced for two years, just before the launch of the Fujica X mount cameras. As a result, it’s much more difficult to find.

Fujinon lenses have an excellent reputation in the world of m42 lenses and apart from the 50 or 55mm lenses which are abundant, they are pretty rare. As the result, they’re probably the most expensive m42 screw mount lenses you can find on eBay. In particular, they are significantly more expensive than equivalent (and similarly highly rated) Pentax screw mount lenses.

Tamron used to sell an Adaptall 2 ring specifically designed for Fujica’s full aperture metering system. Tamron Adaptall lenses are more abundant than Fujica’s, and are an interesting option if you don’t want to spend $500.00 on a Fujica EBC Wide Angle lens (for instance).


ST 801

The ST801 was the top of the line of Fujica in the seventies – it was significantly more expensive (maybe 25% more) than the Pentax Spotmatic F – which would have been its closest competitor in the word of screw mount cameras, and was probably in the same price bracket as Nikon’s Nikkormat.

Fujica ST801 with a Pentax Super-Takumar lens - the camera is compatible with almost any 42mm screw mount lens (with stopped down aperture)
Fujica ST801 with a Pentax Super-Takumar lens – the camera is compatible with almost any 42mm screw mount lens (with stopped down aperture)
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Fujica ST801 – the battery door at the left of the viewfinder – and 1/2000sec on the shutter knob.
  • The ST801 had a long career (1972-1978) and no real successor in the Fujica line up. The Fujica AX cameras that followed benefited from multiple automatic exposure modes and could be fitted with a winder, but their shutters and viewfinders were not as good as the ST801’s.
  • Its modern metering system was distinguishing the ST801 from its competitors (silicon metering cell, LEDs in the viewfinder – no fragile galvanometer- , Silver Oxide batteries). The ST801 aged well in that regard.
  • It’s a very pleasant camera to use – the viewfinder is very bright and clear, the eye relief is OK for a camera launched in 1972. It’s easy to compose and focus, the commands are few and logical, and the camera is relatively small and light.
  • It works at full aperture with Fujinon lenses. Full aperture metering really makes a difference in ease of use. If possible, buy Fujinon lenses, or if you can’t find them, Tamron Adaptall lenses with the specific Fujica mount.
  • It meters stopped down with non-Fuji 42mm screw mount lenses. It’s a bit acrobatics as usual – press simultaneously Depth of Field lever to stop down the lens and  the shutter release half way for metering – it works but there is an issue: when the DOF lever is pressed, the shutter release becomes over-sensitive and it’s very easy to take a picture inadvertently while trying to do a metering.
  • No motor drive – not an issue today but could have been in the mid seventies.
  • It has a reputation for being a “delicate” camera – I don’t know if it’s justified – Olympus OM-1 cameras were also shunned by press photographers because they were “fragile”. It could have been a reaction from people used to the large and heavy Nikon  cameras of that time – so solid that you could (supposedly) use them to drive nails in a wall.
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Fujica ST801 – a close up. The “LED” logo reminds of the LEDs of the semi auto exposure metering system in the viewfinder. Contrarily to all other 42mm screw mount lenses, the Fujinon lenses were locked into position by a pin on the lens mount. The black button with the white arrow has to be pressed to released the lens.

Conclusion – for a camera of the early 70’s, the Fujica ST801 is much more usable than equivalent models from Nikon or Canon. The viewfinder is brighter, the metering system is modern and reactive, and the body is comparatively smaller and lighter. The contrast with the Pentax models of the same era (Spotmatic) is also striking. Maybe it’s because of the sorry state of most of the copies of the Spotmatic you can find today, but a Pentax feels really clunky compared to the ST801. The Fujica is much more satisfying to use.

In my opinion, the ST801 is the best screw mount Fujica camera, and arguably the best 42mm screw mount semi-automatic camera to reach the mass market. Ever.


Singer and Videographer working on a clip - Mable House - Mableton, GA - (Fujica ST801, 43-75 Fujinon zoom)
Singer and Videographer working on a clip – Mable House – Mableton, GA – (Fujica ST801, 43-75 Fujinon zoom)