It is 50 years since Olympus launched the OM-1. Stephen Dowling looks at the legacy of the little camera that changed SLR photography forever.
Back at the end of the 1960s, SLRS were gradually becoming more sophisticated. But what they weren’t getting was any smaller.
In this golden age of camera design, those with big hands were king. It wasn’t just the no-nonsense Communist Block Prakticas and Zenits built to uncompromising scale. Only Pentax’s relatively diminutive Spotmatic series seemed to buck against the bigger-is-better trend.
One Japanese camera designer however, decided it was time to shake things up. Yoshihisa Maitani had joined Olympus back in 1956, and three years later came up with one of its most successful designs – the PEN half-frame camera. The PEN was not only the first half-frame camera to be made in Japan, but it was also one of the smallest 35mm cameras ever made. The original PEN spawned a range of compact cameras that lasted until the early 1980s.
In 1963, Maitani designed Olympus’s first SLR – though it didn’t look like any SLR made by any of the other major camera manufacturers. The Pen F, another half-frame camera, hid its reflex prism within the body, thus avoiding any spoiling of its sleek lines.
Olympus needed a full-frame 35mm SLR if it was to compete on an even footing with the likes of Nikon and Canon, so Maitani set to work on what intended to be a revolutionary rethink of SLR.
Small is all
“A camera is not designed or developed by only one person. It’s always a product of teamwork,” Maitani said in the 2001 book ‘All About Olympus’.
Olympus was compelled to produced a full-frame 35mm SLR in the mid-1960s, partly due to falling sales of the PEN cameras in the US. The company was playing catch-up with some of its biggest rivals, especially Nikon, whose F SLR had been such a revolution on its release in 1959. Maitani, still only in his early 30s, was chosen to lead the design team after a meeting in 1966.
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There was just one issue. Maitani had a recurring issue with the SLR cameras of the day – they were too big. “In those days, it was important for a camera to be heavy, thick, long, and big,” Maitani told ‘All About Olympus’ . “The phrase ‘Light-thin-short-small; didn’t exist yet. Small cameras were considered as toys.” Maitani’s biggest influence on his SLR project wasn’t an SLR at all – it was the Leica rangefinder he had used as a teenager. The Leica was small, light, and it fit easily in the hand. Why couldn’t an SLR be more like that?
Olympus’s line in the sand was that they wanted something new, and a small camera didn’t satisfy the “new factor”, ‘All About Olympus’ wrote. Maitani was only able to overcome the company’s opposition to his smaller-is-better concept at the end of 1966 after copying the specifications of a camera from an instruction manual to make it look like he was adding new features.
The first full-frame concept was the Olympus OM-X, a modular camera that bore a striking resemblance to the classic Hasselblad – though it shot 35mm film instead of 120.
“A camera is a tool to take pictures,” Maitani told Japanese magazine Asahi Camera in 2002. “It needs various functions. I try to take apart the camera into units by each function. Lens, body, film back, and a focal plane or lens shutter. The basic concept of the OM System is to enable the user to gather the components as necessary.”
The OM-X never went beyond the prototype stage, partly because of the modular system’s complexity. Olympus realised Maitani’s idiosyncratic design would take too long to bring to market and asked him to come up with something more conventional. In the meantime, they rushed out an M42-mount SLR called the FTL (in production for little more than a year) while Maitani and his team worked on the camera that would redefine how SLRs were made.
The camera Maitani called the M-1 was always envisaged as a small camera. He took the Nikon F – still seen as the pinnacle of Japanese SLR design – and instructed his team that the new camera would have to be 20% smaller in height, width and depth. When it came to weight, the restrictions would be even more dramatic – the M-1 would have to weigh 50% less than its rival.
As John Wade pointed out in a recent profile of the camera in Amateur Photographer, Maitani kept to his guns, even as his engineers struggled. “Time and again the design team begged him for a few extra millimetres, but Maiitani stood firm. In the end, the production camera was a mere 1mm larger than Maitani’s concept.”
Inside the camera Maitani had also strived far outside the envelope. Most SLRs had a shutter capable of around 10,000 actuations – the M-1 would have to have one capable of 100,000. This was perhaps with one eye towards the professional market, even though Olympus’s cameras have never been aimed at photojournalists.
The M-1 might have been small, but it came with the kind of features normally found in much larger, heavier cameras. Improvements in microtechnology allowed Maitani to reconsider how the inside of a camera body could be used. In larger cameras, there were areas that were under-utilised or even empty. Maitani pushed his team to reconsider all the previous ways a design team might structure a camera body so they could pack as much as possible into the smallest space.
As Wade noted in his article, the push to use every millimetre of available space meant the M-1 could exaggerate some features. The best example of this is the camera’s pentaprism. The small pentaprism hump belies the size of the pentaprism inside – it’s some 30% larger than those found on contemporary SLRs and meant the M-1’s viewfinder covered 97% of the film frame – an extraordinary feat. Widening the camera’s lens mount also mean the mirror could be larger than normal.
The use of silver in the pentaprism also meant the viewfinder was 70% brighter than many of its rivals. It compares favourably to many DSLR viewfinders, 50 years on.
Maitani’s quest for lightness went so far as the materials used, writes Paul Burrows in a recent profile of the camera on Digital Camera World. “Alloys replaced brass for the body covers and the pentaprism viewfinder was completely redesigned to eliminate the traditional condenser, further saving weight. Even brass screws were replaced by steel ones, which helped save a few precious milligrams.”
No other camera has had so much attention paid to its sound, or has an air damper for its mirror – Yoshihisa Maitani
The M-1 was indeed tested to 100,000 shutter actuations and also at temperatures between _20C and +50C – exactly the kind of range professionals might find themselves in. Maitani also made it quieter – perhaps a nod to the Leica rangefinder he loved – by using lightweight curtain drums to decrease noise and no less than 20 shock absorbers to ease vibrations. The large mirror also had an air damper to reduce mirror slap.
“Until I found my way to the air damper, I experimented with springs, oil, powder – all sorts of dampers, but none of them were any good. If the damper is too effective, it’s easy for the mirror to stop halfway. Then I remembered a time when we were cleaning the house. A sliding paper door fell down making a “swoosh” noise. That was air of course, and I hit upon using that. The air damper is next to the mirror system – air goes in and out of a cylinder and works as the damper. I bought a sound-level meter and set a test standard of under so many decibels. No other camera has had so much attention paid to its sound, or has an air damper for its mirror.
Despite the ever-increasing lean towards electronics and automation, the M-1 was a resolutely mechanical camera, only needing a battery to power its light meter. The meter was a classic +/– model, and powered by a 1.35V battery loaded into the bottom of the camera. The camera’s shutter speeds were entirely mechanical, meaning the M-1 could still be used even if the battery failed. Maitani opted to go with the classic cloth shutter, which offered the standard fastest speed of 1/1000.
The little SLR did have some flourishes which set it apart from its competition, apart from its small size. The shutter speed selector was arranged around the lens mount, much like some models of Nikon’s Nikkomat family, instead of on the top plate. Where you’d normally find the shutter speed selector was, instead, the ISO selector. Apart from the shutter button, the film advance, the on/off switch and the rewind crank, the M-1’s top plate was remarkably uncluttered; an exercise in restraint. The whole camera measured only 136mm x 83mm x 81mm and weighed only 680g with a 50mm 1.8 lens attached. Without a lens the camera weighed nearly 20% less than the target weight of 600g, which is remarkable given that it is a mostly-metal camera.
“The functionality of the OM-1 wasn’t limited by its size,” the Royal Photographic Society’s programmes director Michael Pritchard tells Kosmo Foto, “and one of several credits that Maitani deserves is that he was able to retain the functionality that consumers expected within a more compact body. That really was a design and engineering feat.”
More importantly, the camera felt small. “Engineers’ attention to small detail means that 1mm difference makes it the world’s smallest camera, 1gm difference makes it the world’s lightest,” Maitani told Classic Camera in 2001. “But I was thinking about the user. The photographer has to take the camera and feel that it’s small and light. Someone taking a ruler to it and saying ‘Wow, this is small’ doesn’t make it small. Then I decided that the weight and volume should be half that of an ordinary SLR, with a 30% cut in dimensions. Now that would feel small! Development started from this basis.”
The only staple feature the Olympus design team couldn’t include was an integral flash hotshoe; when the camera went on sale, flash-happy photographers had to buy one as an optional extra. And while most top-level SLRs of the time featured removable prisms and a choice of focusing screens, Maitani decided not to feature these on the M-1, again in an effort to keep the camera lighter.
Maitani had created an SLR camera smaller than anything on the market, built it robust enough to tempt the professionals and made it look like nothing else, satisfying the Olympus top brass’s desire for the “new factor”. Poised for its full-scale release, Olympus unveiled the camera to the world at the Photokina photographic fair in Cologne, West Germany, in May 1972.
Then, a problem appeared…
There was, of course, another camera manufacturer that had a range beginning with “M”: Leitz in West Germany. The M-1 was already in production when Leitz registered their disapproval, saying the new Olympus clashed with their M series. In the end, some 52,000 M-1s came off the production line before Olympus bowed to Leitz’s pressure and renamed the camera the OM-1. The first of OM-1s began arriving in stores in February 1973, with Olympus dutifully selling most M-1s in the Asian market instead of in Europe to avoid Leitz’s backyard.
That the OM-1 was small was one thing. That it was small and had been built to tempt professional photographers away from bigger and heavier cameras was another. It started an arms race among the major camera manufacturers to come up with something similar, Pritchard says.
“There was a general trend to smaller SLRs – the Pentax range was the closest to the Olympus but Nikon and Canon began to work to producing smaller models amongst their respective ranges of SLRs,” he says. “So, for example the Canon A-1 was more compact than its earlier FTb and I think this was a response to demand from consumers which Olympus had opened up with the OM-1. What is interesting is that other makers generally orientated their more compact models to more amateur models, rather than their directly professional models – in Canon’s case, this was the F-1, which remained bulkier and heavier.”
‘Universe to bacteria’
Maitani intended his new SLR to be a true system camera. This was no delusion of grandeur; when the M-1 was released, Olympus released with it almost 30 lenses. The Zuiko OM lenses (Zuiko a Japanese word which translates as “light of the gods”). Along with an ever-increasing range of lenses, the OM-1 came with an extraordinary array of accessories – everything from focusing screens to bulk film backs to microscope attachments. All of this was in the back of Maitani’s mind when he was designing the camera. “We had to make a mount that didn’t vignette when used on a telescope,” he told Classic Camera. “Or on a microscope. Large aperture lenses, for example f1.2, were designed and tested. The size of the mount was decided so that vignetting did not occur with any of these three.”
One side effect of the OM-1’s outsized lens mount was that Olympus could make the lenses smaller. The OM System Zuikos – almost to a lens – are smaller than pretty much all their contemporaries. Every prime lens for the OM System, from 21mm to 200mm, had the same filter size – 49mm. It meant filters could be swapped from lens to lens as needed. It’s the kind of detail which hints at the almost obsessive effort from Maitani’s team to get the SLR into production.
The OM-1 stayed in production until the mid-1980s, though the design did evolve. In 1974, two years after release, an updated version was released, the OM-1MD, which included a motordrive attachment. This had been planned from the offset, but some of the earliest generation had a baseplate without a motordrive attachment. Given Olympus’s ambitions for their plucky little SLR, this had to be rectified. A later version, the OM-1n, was released in 1979. According to the website MIR.com, the OM-1n had no less than 34 improvements over the original OM-1. “Most noticeable are a direct contact at the camera back to use with cordless Recordata Backs (Older back can also be used with PC terminal), a convenient flash ready/sufficient flash LED in the viewfinder as with the OM-2n, and regardless of the position of the FP/X switch is set at, automatic X-sync with Shoe 4 when any of the dedicated flash is used.”
The OM-1 killed for good the idea that SLRs had to be big and bulky to be considered serious. “At the amateur end of the market making smaller cameras had been a long-standing trend and was made possible by advanced in film emulsions,” says Pritchard, who profiled the camera in his recent book ‘The History of Photography in 50 Cameras’. “For the SLR this was less critical as most – but not all – used 35mm film. I think Olympus tapped in to a latent demand from users who wanted the advantage of the 24 x 36mm 35mm frame size but didn’t want the bulk of the current SLR cameras. The OM-1 fitted the bill perfectly – and one shouldn’t forget the quality of Olympus’s Zuiko lenses, which really were excellent.”
In the UK, the OM-1 was, like the cheap-and-cheerful Trip 35 compact, promoted by famed British photographer David Bailey and the aristocratic Lord Lichfield. It made people view Olympus – not a company known for cameras hauled from war zone to war zone – with a different eye. Ads for the OM-1 and its plethora of lenses (the OM System would by the end boast more than 60) were a regular sight in the pages of the National Geographic from the mid-1970s. It even graced the cover once, in a memorable image cradled in the hands of Koko, the lowland gorilla who had been taught American Sign Language.
Whether many working pros swapped their Nikons for the OM-1, Pritchard isn’t so sure… “Olympus did promote the OM-1 as a professional camera and had endorsements from [Don] McCullin, Bailey, Lichfield and others, but I am not sure who active they were as regular users, and whether their advertising endorsements were more marketing. In reality I suspect it was mainly serious amateurs using the OM series who wanted a properly spec’d SLR that was more affordable than some of the higher-end pro models. I suspect most pros stayed with Nikon and Canon, and perhaps Pentax, as much because they had already invested in such systems and didn’t want to shift, those marques were also closely associated with professional photography – also used by Bailey and McCullin – and there was probably some snobbery from pros about using Olympus.
“As a result I think Olympus’s main market for the OM series was the amateur.”
And the amateurs liked what they saw. The OM-1 spawned a family of film cameras which only bowed out in 2002, with the end of the decidedly refined OM-4Ti. The OM-2 of the mid-70s added some automation and an innovative metering system which read light from the film plane rather than the camera’s exterior; a host of double-digit models like the OM-10 and OM-20 offered entry to the OM System at a friendlier price.
The OM-1 is a time capsule of pre-electronic aesthetics; a small, quiet SLR with a rangefinder’s soul
OM-1s remain widely regarded today, a testament to Maitani’s skill at finding new directions in camera design. With the reputation of the Zuiko OM lenses undimmed, prices have steadily climbed. The only fly in the ointment is that the mercury battery that powered the OM-1 is banned; its modern replacement causes the meter to overexpose a couple of stops. Many OM_1s had their circuitry adapted, however, or an adapter for modern, safer batteries can be used instead. For those who don’t need the OM-4Ti’s spot-metering or the OM-2’s aperture priority, the OM-1 is a time capsule of pre-electronic aesthetics; a small, quiet SLR with a rangefinder’s soul.
Maitani’s diminutive camera lives on, in a way, in the new breed of OM-1 cameras, this time OM System’s OM-1, a digital tribute to the original camera. “The new OM-1 digital model has moved away from Maitani’s original concepts and doesn’t quite have the distinctive look and functionality of the original,” says Pritchard. “In part, this is because it is competing with the wider mirrorless camera sector, especially some of the Sony models, that have all the advantages that defined the original OM-1 when it was offered to the film market back in 1972. It would have been a tough challenge to try and repeat that a second time, in today’s marketplace.”
- Many thanks to Michael Pritchard for his insight and to Theo Panagopoulos and Jim Grey for the use of their OM-1 photos.
Read more on the OM-1:
- OM-1 concept and history
- OM-1 history on MIR.com
- Review on Cultured Kiwi
- OM-1n review on Photo Thinking
- Review on Casual Photophile
- Review on Digital Camera World
- OM-1n review on EMULSIVE
- OM-1n review on Imaging Pixel
- Review on Down the Road
- Review on Shoot It With Film
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