Olympus was quite late in the 35mm film SLR game when they launched the Olympus M-1 in 1972. For reference, the Nikon F was out in the market some 13 years prior to the Olympus M1. And since they were already late, Olympus had to stand out some way for the M-1 to succeed. And they rightly did so with its design. At a time when SLRs were evolving to be large and bulky, the Olympus M-1 stood out with its sleek, light, and compact form factor.
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In fact, it was acclaimed as the world’s smallest and lightest 35mm SLR. Apart from the no-nonsense design language, users really loved the camera’s incredible viewfinder. It’s bright and has a 0.92x magnification, which makes focusing so much easier. The camera is fully mechanical and also sports a light meter. Turning the camera “ON” activates the light meter, but leave it to the “OFF” position if you want to use it without the light meter.
The battery is thus not a matter of concern for the functioning of the camera. But even though the camera features a light meter, Olympus has excluded the auto-exposure modes (aperture priority and shutter priority). Interestingly, although the camera was launched as the M-1, Olympus had to rename it to OM-1 later. It was after Leica approached Olympus concerned with a similar nomenclature (hint: Leica M1) that the camera had to be renamed. This is why you can still come across a few of the initial M1 cameras.
Who is the Olympus OM-1 for?
The sleek and light profile of the camera makes it a perfect choice for light travelers and street photographers. You can fit it pretty comfortably in your bag, or even carry it the whole day with you without even noticing. It is an excellent example of portability at its finest.
The affordability and the inclusion of a light meter mean that it doesn’t matter if you are a working pro taking photos casually, or someone who’s just starting out with film photography; anyone will find it comfortable to work with the camera. While beginners may find the exclusion of auto-exposure modes haunting, I rather find it a better way to learn film photography.
This enables new photographers to learn the relation between the different components of photography: shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. For professionals who want to use the OM-1 in professional shoots outdoors with flash, things can get challenging. The camera has a flash sync speed of just 1/60s. This will overexpose the shots if precautionary measures are not taken.
Olympus OM-1 features
|Lens mount||Olympus OM Mount, bayonet type|
|Dimensions||136 x 83 x 50 mm|
|Shutter speed||1/1000s – 1s, Bulb mode|
|Flash sync speed||1/60s|
|ISO range||ISO 25-1600|
|Battery||1.35-volt mercury battery|
|Self-Timer||Approx. 4-12 second delay lever type|
The design language of the Olympus OM-1 can be referred to as simple yet practical. It has everything that we need, and nothing that we’d never use. The camera actually set new industry standards for SLRs in terms of functionality, portability, and ease of handling when it came out. Its design made it clear to the market that SLRs could be compact too, and thus changed the course of how 35mm cameras would evolve.
If you look at the top plate of the camera, you’ll get an idea of how minimal the design of the OM1 is. On the right-hand side, you can see that it only has the film advance lever, the shutter release button, frame counter, and the ISO dial. There’s no exposure compensation dial, no double exposure button, and even the shutter speed dial is missing.
On the left-hand side, we just have the on/off switch for the light meter, and the film rewind knob. The exclusion of the shutter speed dial from the top plate does not mean that you don’t have control over shutter speed. You can set the shutter speed on the camera via a ring mechanism around the lens mount area of the camera. This is similar to the aperture ring mechanism that can be found on the lens. This may seem awkward at first but once you get used to it, you can adjust the shutter speed and aperture with the camera up to your eye.
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The viewfinder on the Olympus OM-1 is one of the greatest talking points about the camera. As soon as you look through the viewfinder, it gets quite apparent that the viewfinder is noticeably big and bright. It is about 30 percent greater than most other 35mm SLRs in the market. That’s because it has a magnification of 0.92x at infinity when used with a 50mm lens.
Also, the viewfinder coverage is about 97 percent of the actual picture field. Thanks to the large viewfinder, nailing critical focus is quite convenient with this camera. The view that you get when looking through it is quite basic which makes it easy to understand and use. It just has a central rangefinder spot for focusing and the exposure meter needle.
The exposure meter of the OM-1 is the CdS full aperture type, reading the screen illumination with the aid of a pair of light-sensitive sensors on either side of the viewfinder eyepiece. It uses the center-weighted average metering system which delivers excellent results in most of the lighting conditions that we come across. Understanding how metering works is quite simple.
Just remember that the “+” sign is for overexposure while the “-” sign is for underexposure. For “correct” exposure, you need to adjust your shutter speed or aperture until the needle of the meter lands exactly between the “+” and “-” signs. If you do not see the needle on the viewfinder, make sure that you turn the lever on the left side of the camera to the “ON” position. This is to turn the meter on. The camera will work even when this lever is in the “OFF” position, but with the meter turned off.
If there’s one thing that you should be least bothered about with the Olympus OM-1, it is the availability of lenses. There are plenty of Zuiko lenses manufactured for the OM-mount. The lenses cover a wide variety of focal lengths and have great performance. Whether you need a fisheye lens, an ultra-wide-angle, standard, or telephoto lens, you will find a lens that fits your Olympus OM-1.
The great thing about the OM-mount is that Zuiko was not the only manufacturer that produced lenses for it. Besides Zuiko, you can also find lenses manufactured by third-party manufacturers like Vivitar, Kiron, Sigma, Tamro, and Tokina.
Should you get the Olympus OM-1?
The OM-1 is a camera that will fit in with the purpose of any type of photographer. Unless you want to take it to extreme climatic conditions, you will do fine with the OM-1 shooting almost anything. If you’re into travel and street photography, the OM-1 makes a lot of sense worth getting. Also, having a light meter but no auto-exposure modes makes it a good tool to learn film photography with. So, no matter if you are getting the OM-1 to learn film photography, it will be a good choice.
Final Verdict on Olympus OM-1
The Olympus OM-1 is a camera that has everything you need, and nothing that you don’t. The fact that Olympus managed to pack so much of the camera within such a small footprint is an example of the company’s brilliance in engineering. While almost everything about the camera ticks the box, there are two major areas I feel the company could have done better. To start with, the film advanced lever feels horrible compared to other parts of the camera.
See quality-checked Olympus M-1 bodies at eBay here.
Turning the lever feels rough and is not a good experience. It sounds very sad compared to the other high-quality aspects of the camera. If I compare it with the Leica M3’s film advance lever, it doesn’t even come close. You can also check out our full Leica M3 Review here. The next concern is more of an issue now.
It surely wasn’t an issue in the 70s. Thing is that today, we cannot find the 1.35V mercury battery, which is needed for the light meter to work, in the market. Thankfully, you can get it modified by a technician to work with the modern 1.5V batteries. So, if you’re sending your OM-1 for a CLA service, I advise that you get the adjustment done as well. Other than these two little quirks, I am totally satisfied with my Olympus OM-1. If you are thinking of getting one for yourself, you have my recommendation.