The photography brand which was formerly known as Olympus has now been transformed into OM Systems. This is because the still-extant corporation, Olympus, sold its photo division, but without including the benefit of the brand name. Let us take a look both into the past and the future.
The rebranding to OM Systems is a good opportunity to look at the legacy of OM cameras which featured ground-breaking innovations until Olympus started to get things wrong. And there even are some very interesting connections to Leica.
It was at Photokina in 1972 that an Ernst Leitz representative approached the booth of a Japanese camera manufacturer called Olympus. It was no insignificant company even then. Olympus had seen success with the half-frame SLR system called PEN, and it was known that the company had been working on something new for quite some time.
The company’s activities were taken seriously. But how dare Olympus to call their new, rather cute single-lens reflex camera system the M? M, that was Leitz’s designation for its venerable rangefinder camera system. The model M4, following the M3 and M2, had been launched five years before.
First, they wanted to call it M-system
Perhaps to avoid a legal war, Olympus decided to rename their line of products. The first camera of the new system was re-labelled from M-1 to OM-1. Allegedly, the choice of M was intended to honour the Olympus designer Yoshihisa Maitani, but maybe it was also just a provocation. However, the system name was changed into OM which could have stood for Olympus Maitani.
Small size as a design principle
So, the camera that was launched was marketed as OM-1. It was the smallest and lightest 35mm SLR of its time, and Franz Pangerl in his book published to coincide with the launch wrote, appropriately: Rückkehr zum Ideal der Kleinbildkamera (return to the ideal of the miniature camera).
Alongside the camera came an ambitious line-up of lenses with almost all important focal lengths covered by a duo—one outstandingly small choice and one remarkably fast alternative.
Conservative evolution—or just too slow to innovate
From 1975 onwards, the OM-2 followed with its revolutionary auto-dynamic off-the-film automatic exposure control in several iterations. It made TTL flash control possible and maintained at the same time the tiny size of the body. In 1978, the first two-digit model was launched, the OM-10. It was an entry-level camera with slightly limited system compatibility.
The Eighties saw the OM-3, again a fully mechanical model with improved exposure measurement (probably the best to this day, with an incredibly elegant multi-spot metering), and its electronic sister, the OM-4. The latter came as OM-4 Ti in a titanium body (not titanium finish as Leica did, crucial parts were really made from titanium oxide).
The last real OM camera to be launched was the OM-3 Ti in 1995, intended to honour the OM designer, Maitini. The official discontinuation of the system was announced in 2002.
Great ergonomics, but one inexcusable shortcoming
All one-digit OM cameras had some design features in common. Most notably, it is the setting for the aperture speed (mechanical in the OM-1/3, electronic in the OM-2/4) by means of a control wheel around the bayonet flange. If you ever use it, it will convince you. So much nicer than the hard-to-reach wheel on the camera’s right shoulder.
The cameras featured exchangeable matte screens (but no exchangeable viewfinder/prism), flash control via a screw-on (in the beginning, to make the camera even smaller) or a built-in flash hot shoe. None of the cameras was able to show the aperture setting in the viewfinder, because the aperture ring was on the front of almost all lenses (Leica style) to keep it away from the exposure time setting.
A slow cloth shutter and its limitations
The early models had 1/1000 of a second as the fastest exposure time, the last ones achieved 1/2000. This was behind the competition from the Eighties onwards. And even worse, the flash sync time was only 1/60. Clever Olympus engineers steered around this by inventing FP flash with an extra-long firing time. But by then, Nikons and others had 1/250 flash sync making daylight fill-in so much easier. Leica users know all this—the slowness of the shutter is caused by its principle. It has, horizontally travelling, a long distance to cover, and the textile material set further limitations.
No convincing answer to the auto-focus revolution
Conservative market assessments broke the OM system’s neck from 1985 onwards. Minolta released the Dynax 7000, the first SLR with integrated AF and motorised film advance. At Olympus, they fiddled with a terrible AF zoom and made an attempt with an AF camera (OM-707) that was not able to succeed, mainly because it seemed to be made from really cheap plastic, but also because it lacked manual control when used with designated AF lenses.
Everyone expected a serious OM-5 which never came. I heard from dealers that some Olympus people believed that photographers who were worthy of a real Olympus SLR could of course focus manually and would not want to be bossed by electronics. This story is also familiar to us Leica photographers.
The lenses were designed to be small, lightweight, sharp and beautiful
The design principle for the bodies—small, lightweight, ergonomic, and beautiful(!)—was also used for the lenses. And if you take a well-kept OM lens from the 1970s in your hand, you could well experience a Leica moment. The optics are remarkably small and extremely well manufactured.
All the lenses feel very dense, have a clean and unmistakable exterior design and frequently use separately designed lens hoods (screw-on or clip-on). All this was quite conservative but definitely elegant, and one wonders if Leica lenses were one of the paragons.
Much light and little shadow in the lens performance
By today’s standards, the lens line-up will be assessed from a different perspective. Some of the early designs, such as the 50/1.8, the 50/3.5 Macro, the 21/3.5 or the 85/2, were landmark achievements. Others appear to be rather average.
The line-up saw some interesting additions in the 1980s. One example is the Shift 24/3.5 from 1984, another is the 100/2 with ED, high refractive glass and floating elements (the fast wide angles have them, too), let alone the superfast tele lenses 250/2 and 350/2.8.
All of these were daring designs, to say the least. Many lenses were produced more or less unchanged (the laurels, again!) over a very long time. A few were discontinued long before the system’s death. Others were available new, even after the official end, from some special sources.
Unbelievable macro possibilities
In its heyday, the OM system was remarkable in many ways. Early in the Eighties, they played in the same league as Nikon or Canon. However, instead of catering for the professional market, Olympus addressed the interesting niche of the discerning amateur photographer. Unfortunately, this brought less fame and seemed to trigger some kind of inferiority complex.
A special mention is deserved for the excellent macro components with unique variable extension tubes, a great variety of TTL flashes and more accessories for scientific or special-interest photography.
How did things go wrong for Olympus?
Jumping back to the 1972 Photokina event, when Olympus was seen as a threat to Leica, one might ask what has gone wrong since then. Leica is stronger than ever, Olympus lost its faith in its photo business and sold it. I do not know of any other company that messed it up so often when it came to defending a deserved number one.
Better listen to your customers
Back in the early Seventies, Olympus had the camera that everyone wanted. Small, well-built, easy to use, later leading flash technology — a huge advantage over the then competition. But the company rested on its laurels and did not listen to customers. Photographers wanted autofocus while Olympus wanted to educate them that they didn’t need it.
When Olympus finally understood, they offered an autofocus camera and some lenses but in a half-hearted manner. They had no success, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Customers wanted fast shutter speeds and, even more urgently, faster flash synchro speed — Olympus stuck to cloth shutter curtains which are beautiful, quiet, have low vibration but which were utterly outdated when compared to the competition’s fast metal-blade shutters.
Four Thirds – another pioneering achievement and another dead end
And, tragically, history does repeat itself. In the early part of this century, Olympus had the digital products that everyone wanted. Small, affordable digital cameras. Sturdy semi-pro cameras with excellent build quality and great optics such as the C5060. Cameras for professional use such as the E-10.
Then came the Four Thirds system, the new first camera system of the digital age and without compromise from the film days, with both amateur and pro cameras. It was Olympus sowed the digital seeds in co-introducing the concept of the mirrorless camera with the Micro Four Thirds system ten years ago. Yet it is Sony, Canon and Nikon which are bringing in the bulk of the harvest now. Olympus received great public acclaim; the idea of a small camera lives on, but Olympus’ market share is small.
You can only wonder why they did not have more success
Maybe it was because the photo division was always only a small part of the big Olympus corporation. Maybe they were too slow in R&D or, more likely, in strategic business decision making. Maybe marketing really was always underfunded. Maybe they were not good enough at telling their story. And maybe they just did not develop their customers into fans the way other brands managed to, most notably Leica.
The current Olympus line-up features several great products
Despite all this, Olympus never gave up. They kept going at their own pace, and they released great products. The OM-D E-M5 (how did they come to choose such a clumsy name) was a pioneering product, and many of the OM-D cameras featured real innovations.
Olympus products were and are at their best when they play the compact card. The 40-150/2.8 is an 80-300/2.8 equivalent tele zoom of immaculate optical quality and makes a brilliant kit with the equally excellent 12-40. The OM-D E-M5iii is packed with technology yet is still very small. Even for professional nature and wildlife photographers the (not so small) flagship cameras and the new 150-400/4.5 are serious options, especially if you have to carry your gear or if you are working under harsh conditions.
What’s not lacking in the resurrection of the OM brand is pathos
Right now, we see a small resurrection of the OM brand. The first lens of the OM System has just been released. It is a sensible 20/1.4 optic that appears to tick many boxes and might be quite popular. I do hope the OM System people succeed with this lens and more future products (new cameras are due). Times could hardly be more difficult for this undertaking, with the market shrinking and cluttered by far too many camera models, systems, and players.
Hopefully, the OM System people take pride and energy from such a brand name and its legacy. What I have seen so far in this respect appears more theatric than inspiring to me, but probably I am just a sober old Teuton.
One of the more significant analogue projects I shot with Olympus OM cameras was a four-week study journey through the South of England back in 1995. This was an important time for me in many respects. Also, as a tribute to the England-based Macfilos blog and its editor, I am happy to share a few images from back then. The colour photos are digitised slides, the black and whites are scans from 5×7 inch prints that I processed in my own darkroom all those years ago.
First loves never really die. True?
So I personally will cherish my old Olympus gear, exchange the occasional lens with other enthusiasts, and shoot a roll every now and then. I esteem the film OM cameras and their lenses as design icons. I will also continue to work with my digital Olympus OM-D outfit in certain conditions and enjoy the small size, quality and ease of this system and remember that a small sensor is no obstacle to taking great pictures.
OM is alive, and let’s finish with this good news.
What memories of Olympus OM film cameras do you have? Ever owned one? Or dreamed of one? Or always despised them for being outdated and toyish-looking? Did you ever systematically try out the old Zuiko lenses on modern mirrorless full-frame cameras? Or is the whole retro thing just an embarrassment in times when so many excellent new autofocus aspherical APO ED glass lenses are widely available? Join the discussion!
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