Trio of Olympus cameras (Pic: Stephen Dowling)
(Pic: Stephen Dowling)

Olympus’s decision to sell off its photographic division brings to an end more than 80 years of camera making.

The decision was made public on Wednesday (24 June), as Olympus pivots towards its medical devices business. It had sold the camera division to Japan Industrial Partners (JIP), the same investment firm which bought Sony’s Vaio PC business in 2014.

While digital photographers will know the firm from the OM-D and Pen digital mirrorless models, Olympus’s pedigree is built on a line of classic cameras in the latter half of the 20th Century. It is the end of 84 years of camera making at Olympus.

Olympus didn’t make luxury rangefinders like Leica, nor did its cameras capture conflict like Nikon’s F-series SLRs. Much like Pentax, Olympus’s cameras were aimed at enthusiasts rather than professionals – no copy of the National Geographic was complete in the 1970s was complete without an ad for an Olympus OM-series SLR in it. But the OM line certainly felt pretty professional, with superlative lenses and a dizzying amount of accessories.

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Olympus’s classics – many of them made by the genius designer Yoshihasa Maitani – spanned half-frame cameras to no-nonsense rangefinders, SLRS to perfectly pocketable compact cameras. As Olympus leaves the camera-making business, Kosmo Foto looks back at 10 classic film cameras which carried its name.

Olympus Flex (Pic: Se Cro)
The Olympus Flex (Pic: Sue Cro/Flickr)

Olympus Flex (1952)
Oddly, for a camera maker renowned for its diminutive designs, one of Olympus’s early successes was a Rolleiflex-rivalling medium format SLR. The Olympus Flex, one of a raft of twin-lens reflex cameras to come from Japan in the 1950s, built on the reputation of the Olympus Six, a series of increasingly more impressive 6×6 folding cameras. The Flex – the first TLR Olympus produced – was no cheap-as-chips stopgap. At its centre was a bright and sharp Zuiko 75/2.8 lens, and a shutter which speeds as fast 1/400.

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Review and some fantastic example images on Rangefinder Chronicles

Olympus Pen F (Pic: Ashley Pomeroy/Wikimedia Commons)
The classic Olympus Pen F (Pic: Ashley Pomeroy/Wikimedia Commons)

Olympus Pen F (1963)
Medium format might have been de rigueur in the mid-1950s, but Olympus could see which way the wind was blowing. In 1959, they released the first of the Pen half-frame viewfinder cameras, a beautiful example of 1950s camera design. By the 1950s, 35mm film was becoming more popular and capable, but was still somewhat expensive, with many camera designers deciding to eke out the rolls by doubling the number of pictures you could take on each roll. This meant the camera produced an 18×24 mm size (meaning that if you put in a 36-frame roll you would end up with 72 pictures.

The ultimate iteration of the Pen family was the F, essentially a scaled-down SLR in a beautifully minimalist body, with a suite of fantastic Zuiko lenses. The Pen F was not only a thoroughbred amongst half-frames, it was also a beautiful object, showing the nascent genius of its designer, Yoshihasa Maitani.

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Review on Shoot It With Film

Olympus Trip 35 (Pic: Gerry Lauzon)
Millions of Trip 35s documented holidays across the globe (Pic: Gerry Lauzon)

Olympus Trip 35 (1967)
The Kodak Brownie of the Cold War. As jet airliners made international travel quicker and cheaper, overseas holidays became the preserve of the working classes instead of the higher-ups. Olympus built a camera designed to be idiot proof: no annoying manual to read, just choose a distance setting, set the camera on “A” for automatic, and if the light wasn’t good enough for it take a picture, a bold red flag would pop up in the viewfinder. The Trip 35’s giant selenium cell meter around the lens also meant no wasted holiday time bellowing in broken English for batteries instead of enjoying sun, sand and sangria.

The Trip wasn’t just a success, it was a sensation; millions of them were made and production didn’t end until 1984. The Trip 35 was an example of Olympus’s genius, creating a camera perfectly suited to an emerging market.

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Review on Kosmo Foto

Olympus 35SP (Pic: Alex Luyckx/Flickr)
Olympus 35SP (Pic: Alex Luyckx/Flickr)

Olympus 35SP (1969)
Just because Olympus’s rangefinders don’t come with a Leica price tag doesn’t mean they weren’t desirable in their day. Well regarded even today, the Olympus 35SP matched a seven-element 42/1.7 lens with a centre-weighted or spot meter, depending on what’s needed. The 35SP also boasted an auto-exposure system, an exposure lock with a half-press of the shutter button, and a “Flashmatic” system which helped choose the right  flash settings. It put all of this in a clean, classic, uncluttered body which would influence the following decade of Olympus rangefinder innovation.

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Olympus 35SP profile by Ken Rockwell
Review on EMULSIVE

Olympus 35RC (Pic: Stephen Dowling)
The Olympus 35RC, one a classic rangefinder family from the 60s and 70s

Olympus 35RC (1970)
AKA “The Poor Man’s Leica”. The 35RC is one of the the smallest rangefinders built with an auto-exposure system – just click the aperture collar to “A” and choose a shutter speed, and the camera chooses the right shutter. Tiny but with some reassuring heft, the 35RC has a 42/2.8 lens and a handful of street-shooter’s shutter speeds. This was the perfect camera for people who wanted a touch of helpful automation, a cracking lens and little else. Should the light be too low, the 35RC doesn’t let you take the shot, a handy little hangover from the Trip 35.

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Profile by Ken Rockwell
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Olympus FTL (Pic: Stephen Dowling)
The Olympus FTL was the company’s first “proper” SLR

Olympus FTL (1971)
Before the OM series, Olympus dipped its toes in the full-frame SLR market with the FTL, the only Olympus camera made for the M42 lens mount. Coming between the Pen F and the OM-1, the FTL was only produced for a matter of months in 1971 and 72 before making way for the Olympus OM series. Its place in Olympus’s pantheon seems to be mostly forgotten today, probably partly because it used the ubiquitous M42 mount and was bigger and less stylish than Maitani’s OM-1. The FTL, however, came with a cracking set of Zuiko M42 lenses and is a fantastic, no-frills 70s SLR.

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Olympus OM-2 (Pic: Ashley Pomeroy/Wikimedia Commons)
The Olympus OM-2 was arguably the camera which cemented the OM family’s classic status (Pic: Ashley Pomeroy/Wikimedia Commons)

Olympus OM-2 (1975)
The Olympus OM-1 introduced the famous OM marque in 1973, but arguably it was the OM-2 which catapulted this family into the realms of timeless classic. Where the OM-1 was an all-manual SLR, the OM-2 could be used both fully manual or aperture priority.

Small and perfectly laid out, the OM-2 features one of the brightest finders ever found on a film SLR, plus incredibly accurate metering measured from the film plane itself – the first camera in the world to feature this witchcraft. The OM-2 ran with its predecessor’s modular system, with every accessory interchangeable without the need for modification. Some professionals sniffed at the OM-2 because it was deemed to be too small and light to be a serious camera, but more fool them.

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Olympus XA (Pic: Dave Fayram)
The Olympus XA, Maitani’s pocketable classic (Pic: Dave Fayram)

Olympus XA (1979)
Inspired by designer Yoshihisa Matani finding himself without a camera while enjoying a hot pool in the spa town of Suwa – and while he was soaking a truck parked just outside the spa burst into flames. Maitani later recounted it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, and he didn’t have a camera to capture it. “Even if your camera can capture shots of outer space or bacteria, it’s useless if you don’t have it with you. I was determined to make a camera that people could carry with them everywhere,” he later told a seminar in Japan in 2005. He decided to build a proper cameras that could be slipped into the smallest pocket. The XA was that camera.

A design classic far beyond the world of cameras, the XA is a masterpiece of miniaturisation, a rangefinder that can be fitted in the palm of the hand, but which comes with a superbly sharp lens and aperture-priority auto exposure. The sliding clamshell door, which protect the lens and stops the shutter button being activated in your pocket, was another masterful detail that would influence another generation of cameras.

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Review on Kosmo Foto
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Olympus OM-4 (Pic: Daft Racer/Wikimedia Commons)
The Olympus OM-4 stayed in production until 2002 (Pic: Daft Racer/Wikimedia Commons)

Olympus OM-4 (1983)
Even as DSLRs began their dominance of 21st Century photography, Olympus was still making the ultimate OM SLR,; the OM-4 was only discontinued in 2002. The camera looked just like the OM-1 and OM-2, but its metering was even more advanced, a multi-spot meter which would take up to eight different readings and average them. In 1987, the OM-4Ti added strong titanium body plates and and improved weatherproofing. Of Olympus’s SLRs, it’s the closest thing they made to take on the high-spec manual-focus SLRS made by Nikon and Canon.

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Review by Alex Luyckx

Olympus Mju-II (Pic: Ronald Hogenboom)
The Olympus Mju-II: common, but anything but cheap (Pic: Ronald Hogenboom)

Olympus Mju-II (1997)
Millions of these compacts were made in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but today they fetch upwards of £200 each – why? Well, thank Mr Maitani once again. His last major project at Olympus before retirement, the Mju (or Stylus Epic in the US) brought an autofocus brain into a compact plastic clamshell body not a million miles away from the XA. Boasting a sharp 35/2.8 Zuiko lens, and an autofocus with 100 different steps for more accurate focusing, the Mju-II was supposedly superseded by following models with ever more ambitious zoom lenses. Sometimes, less is definitely more.

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Review on Kosmo Foto
Review on Vogelius

What’s your favourite Olympus film camera? Let us know by leaving a comment.

Stephen Dowling
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Jer
Jer
5 months ago

I bought a XA2 in 1981 specifically to use when I was in the army and recovered the money from a small profit on the sale of copies to my buddies then. Great camera, but now the clamshell is stuck

Nigel Kell
Nigel Kell
5 months ago

The first SLR I owned was an OM1, while at university in the late seventies. Before that, I had used my Dads Spotmatic; the difference in size was astounding! Continued with the OM system through life, until the collapse in value of film gear when digital came in allowed a bit of a splurge…… Now I have OM1’s, OM2’s and an OM4,not to mention an OM10, Zuiko lenses 24mm to 300mm and a cabinet full of motordrives and flash stuff. It’s my main photography gear. Also a couple of rangefinders and the obligatory Trip. Which is favourite? Not sure that… Read more »

C Routledge
5 months ago

I’d dispute the notion that Olympus cameras were not used in war zones or aimed at professionals. Don McCullin used them in Vietnam in the 1970s (and for the next 30+ years), largely because of their small size and light weight. Also Jane Bown is famous for using the OM1 for her photojournalism and celebrity portraits–that’s just off the top of my head. I have two OM2n bodies, which are lovely to use.

C Routledge
5 months ago

Was she/he the one who didn’t have a bad back?   They’ve always been a small player in the West (apart from the Trip, which was around the neck of every tourist in the late 1970s). I use Olympus cameras professionally now, and I think in the digital age there is a certain type of enthusiast who sees the small size off-putting. I’ve had a few comments by people (men; let’s be frank) at events I’ve been shooting explaining that I wouldn’t get a good photograph from that distance using “a wide lens like that”, when in fact it was… Read more »

C Routledge
5 months ago

Yes, I realise, just noting that they’ve continued the small size USP into the digital age. I want an OM4 too.

spider-mario
spider-mario
4 months ago

Medium format might have been de rigeur in the mid-1950s,

Is that supposed to be de rigueur?

Bob Klein
4 months ago

In the seventies, United Press International equipped it’s staffers with OM gear. Also, one of the most famous Nat Geo covers was shot with an OM. Bruce Dale mounted two cameras on the tail of an airliner with 250 exposure backs (and protective boxes). Olympus had a lot of gear aimed at pros, like 250 backs, motor drives, and long lenses that others did not have. I once shot with a 250mm f2 and 350mm f 2.8 in the nineties.

Steven Hicks
Steven Hicks
4 months ago

I know it is said too often, but if they’d just make an OM-D that took those lenses!

Jim Graves
2 months ago
Reply to  Steven Hicks

There is an adapter, but I hear what your saying. I can imagine a world where an Olympus OM-D full frame sensor camera that uses the OM Zuiko lenses not only exists, but is a best seller too. Why did they have to go micro 4/3rds? Don’t get me wrong, the MFT OM-D cameras are excellent and filled with great tech, but in low light they suck.

John A Horsfall
John A Horsfall
4 months ago

Worth mentioning the off-the-film-plane real-time flash metering also in the OM2. And their macro stuff was outstanding. I won the BBC Wildlife Magazine Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in 1982, I think the only time that competition has been won by OLY stuff. And, of course, remember David Bailey….

Jim Graves
2 months ago

I wanted an OM-1 since I was a kid growing up in the 70’s. the “David Bailey, who’s he?” adverts were never off the telly and it left a lasting impression on me. I eventually got my hands on an OM-1 in 2019 which proves childhood dreams can come true, they just take a while. My Olympus line up includes an OM-2 that does everything the amatuer photographer should ever need in an auto exposure SLR and a 35RC which is an incredible camera for it’s time. So small it fits right in your pocket and, with a lens capable… Read more »