In 1967, the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco marks the start of the Summer of Love and the hippie movement. In the UK, the BBC transmits its first programmes in full colour. And the first Saturn V rocket – the one that will transport the first humans to set foot on the Moon – takes off for the first time from the launchpad at Cape Canaveral.
Something else launches this year too. It is chunky-yet-compact 35mm camera with a fixed lens and few frills, made by the Japanese photographic giant Olympus. It is nothing less than a revolution in photography.
The Olympus Trip 35 is aimed at the most amateur of amateurs; the kind of people who take their camera on the annual two-week holiday, and are unlikely to take the manual along with them. It is a camera that’s designed to document days of sun and sand and surf – and make those pressing the button confident that they’ve got the shot.
It is 50 years since the Olympus Trip 35 was born, a half-century that saw it become one of the most popular film cameras ever made. The Trip 35 was in production for 17 years, the last of them only coming off the assembly lines in 1984. It’s believed that more than 10 million of them were made.
The Trip 35 was not particularly novel when it appeared – it was, cosmetically at least, very similar to another Olympus camera, the Pen EES. The Pen EES was a half-frame camera using 35mm film (and giving the photographer 48 images of a 24-frame roll of film, or 72 off a 36-frame roll), a diminutive snapshooter with a large selenium meter cell arranged around the lens.
With the half-frame format starting to fall out of favour thanks to the cheapness of colour film, Olympus’s designers decided to build a cheap, tough little compact small enough to stick in a jacket pocket and able to be used by almost anyone – as long as you pointed the right end of the Trip at the subject – that Zuiko 40/2.8 lens the camera’s built around – you should be able to get a properly exposed picture out of it.
So if it was so simple, why did the Trip 35 make such an impression?
“I the in the UK the TV advertising campaign that featured David Bailey and a host of British actors in the 1970s has a lot to do with it,” says Dr Michael Pritchard, the director-general of the Royal Photographic Society, who wrote the book A History of Photography in 50 Cameras. “The ads are still fondly remembered by a generation who grew up at that time and the tag line “David Bailey? Who’s he?” has entered the language even if a generation doesn’t know it’s origins.
“That said, the Trip was a competent, well-made, camera and it found a ready market amongst amateurs who were increasingly travelling on package holidays and wanting a reliable, compact camera capable of producing good result. With the resurgence of interest in film, coupled with nostalgia, there’s a generation now wanting to buy the camera again and use it.
“In some ways the camera wasn’t exceptional, but Olympus’s marketing on TV and in print at the time was both extensive and clever, although ultimately the camera was competent and produced good results which made it popular.”
The Trip 35 was light and compact but robust, thanks to its mostly metal construction. This was a camera intended to be taken out into the great wide open, so Olympus’s designers made it relatively tough. Drop a Trip 35 on your big toe and you’re more likely to need to go to a doctor than a camera repairer.
It’s that robustness that’s also part of the Trip 35’s longevity, says Paul Lamb, who repairs and sells Trip 35s through his site, Trip Man.
“I think the Trip is the equivalent of a VW Beetle – a camera for all the people. It was so well built and so simple to use, but returns such great results, it has earned the label ‘cult camera’.
“Olympus built this camera for people to take on trips with them – it was small enough to take anywhere but strong enough to survive the average person’s adventures.
“The recipe of strong build with a high quality 40mm Zuiko f2.8 lens ensured sharp images were easy to obtain. The automatic exposure with the built-in light meter was a stroke of genius.”
There’s another reason the Trip might have been popular – unlike more sophisticated cameras, it didn’t need any batteries.
“The camera works without batteries, so it can go anywhere and won’t let you down,” says Lamb.
The David Bailey ad campaigns certainly helped, but Lamb says something even simpler might have been a big factor was another big reason behind the camera’s astonishing success.
“I think word of mouth has something to do with the great sales too – if your friend uses one and loves it, they’ll be the best advert for the camera – the results also speak for themselves. The Trip 35 seemed to beat the competition too – no other compact 35mm lasted this long in production.”
The Trip was the ideal travelling companion. The timing was just right – Paul Lamb, Trip Man
The Trip was also helped by a major societal change – cheap air travel to sunny places, especially in Europe. The arrival of cheaper flights to sunnier climes in the 1960s and 70s meant more and more people were able to take their holidays abroad. Tourism exploded.
“This was at a time when people had a bit more disposable income and time and were starting to travel further afield,” Lamb says. “The Trip was the ideal travelling companion. The timing was just right.”
The Trip 35’s specs underline its simplicity. But this was not a camera intended for portraits in low-light or freezing split-second sports action. The Trip 35’s mission was to capture holiday snaps – and for this it was spot on.
“I would argue that it was a forerunner of the point-and-shoot cameras – starting with the Konica C35AF from 1978,” says Pritchard. “These were incredibly popular in the 1980s and 1990s which used electronics (as opposed to the Trip’s mechanics) to control settings, and added auto-focusing, film advance and built-in flash. These really took the concept of the Trip and pushed it further with new technologies, which digital has since taken further.”
Lamb finds the Trip 35 is still in demand, even some 30 years after production stopped.
“We buy a camera every day pretty much,” he says. “Almost without exception, some work is needed to bring the camera up to a standard that is fit for me to sell. I am fussy about the cosmetics; I don’t like cameras with dents or bad scratches and it must have a good clear lens and viewfinder.
“Often we see dented filter rims where someone has dropped it. We have lots of spares so can change any dented or badly marked parts. The leatherette was pretty hard-wearing, so most are usable, but some are dirty and these cameras really benefit from a new set of leathers.
“All cameras of this age need new light seals. They go all sticky and probably leak light. Some Trips have had a hard life but still work! They have a bit of patina, which I don’t mind. Funnily enough, the most common problem is aperture blades sticking shut. This is just from lack of use.
“Thankfully it is an easy fix and we take the lens apart anyway to clean inside. The shutter nearly always works. It was simple, with just 2 speeds, 1/40 and 1/200, so less can go wrong.”
So what’s it like to shoot with?
The Trip 35 was designed to be as simple as possible. Instead of a rangefinder focusing system, it uses a zone focus viewfinder system; the lens can be set to one of four different distance settings according to how far away the subject was. The cartoonish little symbols – a stick figure, two groups of stick figures, and then a far-off mountain – were a guide to help you keep the Trip 35’s lens focused in the right place.
The Trip 35’s shutter only has two speeds – 1/40th and 1/200th – but the key to its ease of use lies in its simple, battery-less automatic exposure system. The Trip 35’s lens has a full range of apertures from f2.8 to f22. When the shutter button is pressed, the Trip chooses any aperture that will work with it’s preferred speed of 1/200th. If that doesn’t work, it will try and match them to 1/40th. That doesn’t work? A little red flag pops up in the viewfinder window to tell you that a picture can’t be taken, and the shutter button locks – which means you won’t waste frame of film.
Olympus stripped out everything that wasn’t strictly necessary (the camera only meters up to 400, which is as as fast as consumer film was back in the day), making a camera that was intuitive and easy to use. But one thing they didn’t scrimp on was the lens.
The Trip 35 is almost ridiculously easy to shoot with; the lack of rangefinder or SLR-style focusing means that, as long as you’ve got a reasonable eye for distance, you’ll most likely get acceptably sharp photos. The Trip 35 excels in good light.
Should you want to over-ride this “computer says no” approach, you can. Take the camera off the A setting, and choose your required aperture – the Trip 35 will snap away at 1/40th. Hopefully, that will result in a well-exposed shot – you won’t know until the film is developed. It makes sense to do what most Trip-toting tourists would have done back in the day – load it up with negative film and shoot it in good light. If you want to add filters, you won’t need to compensate, as they’ll sit right over the selenium meter. However, because this is a viewfinder camera, you won’t see the effects of the filter through the viewfinder (worth bearing in mind if, for instance, you put a yellow filter on with black-and-white film and then use a roll of colour afterwards).
The filter size isn’t standard, either – like some of Olympus’s other compacts, it takes the slightly eccentric 43.5mm mount. Thankfully, so many Trip 35s were made the filters are still relatively common.
There’s nothing automated on the Trip 35, so rewinding the film is the usual manual rewind via a crank handle and a button on the bottom of the camera.
I’ve shot a good dozen or so films with the Trip 35 over the last few years, taking it out on trips to the South of France and recently to India and Sri Lanka aswell.
The Trip 35 isn’t a replacement for a decent SLR, nor is it a high-end compact like the Yashica T4 or the Contax T2 (but then neither does it sell for upwards of £250 on the secondhand market, either). But it’s a fantastic summer travel camera, perfectly suited for street photography in good light. Pair it with 100 or 200-ISO print film in strong sunlight and the Trip will default to 1.200th and as narrow an aperture as it can, making exact focusing unnecessary – perfect for shooting on the street. And the 40mm lens, considerably wider than the perspective of the human eye, gives a nice wide view of the world.
And those who might be put off by the heavy vignetting from other viewfinder cameras like the LOMO LC-A might find the Trip 35 more appealing – get your focus right, and the pictures are very, very sharp indeed.
After all – 10 million Trip owners can’t be wrong.