Bucking the trend of large SLRs the Olympus OM-1 and slightly improved OM-1n were a revelation when released. From that point the diminutive camera with world class optics has held a special place in photographers’ hearts. A small SLR, with interchangeable lenses, accurate meter and full manual controls is a real recipe for creativity.
I personally don’t mind using a big SLR as I have a background of using pro cameras. As I found out with this camera there are great benefits of reducing size but not quality. I don’t particularly have large hands, so something like the OM-1n fits very well for me. It is a very capable companion to have on the move, or even more perfect for travel.
You cannot have a conversation about an Olympus camera without mentioning the excellent Zuiko optics. The optics are good, matching the innovative design of the camera, that Don McCullin switched to the OM-1 series in the 1970s! Jane Hope Brown, the famed Observer photographer, who took multiple iconic photographs of famous people in the twentieth century used an OM-1. Chris Bonington, the famed mountaineer and photographer also switched to compact Olympus SLRs in the early 1970s.
Those are three big endorsements, tough, heavy use and harsh outdoor environments. They trusted the little OM-1 to produce the documentary history that is so important. The fact the camera kept performing and was convenient says plenty about the camera itself. This camera was made to perform.
Luckily the world caught on and there were a lot of these Olympus SLRs sold which means even today they are not prohibitively expensive. This implies that while other cameras are being sold as good student type cameras, the OM-1n should be considered as a great option. A new user is likely enjoy photographing on one of these as compared to a bigger boat anchor of a camera.
I picked up my copy of the Olympus OM-1n on a whim and have been using it for about 9 months. This is a bit of a misrepresentation though, as at one point it sat in the bag with a film loaded through a four month lockdown here in Sydney. Interestingly during that time I did swap to using a Micro 4/3 camera in my neighbourhood as I could not get my film processed. The Micro 4/3 cameras do have a lineage to the OM series of cameras in design cue, whether Olympus or Panasonic.
I am lucky to have 3 native lenses for the OM-1n. The 50mm f/1.8, the 28mm f3.5, and the long reaching 200mm f/4. As I mentioned above, the Zuiko glass is a match for any of the main manufacturers and fills a camera bag quite nicely for any occasion.
The camera system is not without some quirks though, the shutter speed around the lens mount as an example. That does take some getting used to.
So how did I go with the Olympus OM-1n? Let’s find out a bit about the camera and how I got on with it.
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In 1919 the Olympus Optical Company was established, but with the name “Takachiho”. This is the name of a mythical mountain that is ruled by the Goddess of the Sun. The mountain is comparable to the ancient Greek Mount Olympus, where the mythical twelve gods ruled. Eventually the company used the Greek mountain’s name for branding.
Olympus started producing camera lenses in 1936. As lenses are used to capture light, the name given to the lens range was and still is “Zuiko”. This means “blissful light”.
The initial products produced in 1919 by Olympus was microscopes and thermometers. Above I mentioned that Olympus started producing lenses in 1936, but it was actually also its entry into the world of photography. The first camera produced was the Semi-Olympus I which of-course was fitted with a Zuiko lens.
From 1948 to 1956, Olympus sold the Olympus Chrome Six which could shoot both 6×6 and 6×4.5cm frames on 120 film. It was very similar to the Mamiya Six which in many cases actually also used Zuiko lenses.
One of the most iconic series of cameras that Olympus is well known for is the half frame marvels, the Pen cameras. These were the result of the work from legendary designer Yoshihisa Maitani. The Pen series was and is a popular line. That is both the fixed lens compact cameras through to the well sought-after Pen F/FT SLR. The Pen branding has such a strong appeal, that Olympus revived it in a range of Micro 4/3 cameras.
Unknown to the world at that time, the same team was soon to deliver another camera to become a favourite amongst new and experienced photographers. Maitani and team designed the Olympus M-1 which came to market in 1972. The “M” was a tribute to Maitani.
This brought on the attention of Leica and under threat of significant litigation, the M-1 was rebranded to the OM-1. So the final name tributed to both the company and the designer, where OM stands for “Olympus Maitani”. The overall system was then named the OM system, with the lens mount officially becoming the OM-Mount.
OM system, starting with the OM-1 and continuing with the OM-2, OM-3 and OM-4, with the consumer range of OM-10, OM-20, OM-30 and OM-40 continued until 2002. That’s a thirty year span!
The OM-1 brought some innovations to the SLR world. It started a trend towards compact SLR cameras. With the small body but full functionality, it set a new standard. Another innovation was the off-the-film (OTF) metering. Other manufacturers soon followed.
Just as important in making a system successful is the lenses. Roughly 60 lenses belonged to the OM system. Just like the camera, they were designed to be smaller and nimble, thus making the camera system very mobile though very sturdy. The naming of the lens system is covered in the Lens Specifics section of this article.
The Olympus OM-1n is a 35mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera, released in 1979, which takes interchangeable OM mount lenses. It came in silver, black, and occasional gold. My copy is black. Operation is mechanical with the exception of the Through-The-Lens (TTL) meter which is designed for use with a 1.35v mercury battery. These are now outlawed in most countries. I use an MR9 adapter which converts a 1.55v 359 type battery to that voltage.
Form factor is a small SLR but with classical placement of the features except for the shutter speed selector. The neck strap lugs are on the front of the camera allowing it to balance nicely with a lens on. The OM mount is front and centre.
Around the mount is probably the most contentious design element of the OM-1n, the shutter speed selector. Rather than the usual knob on the top of the camera, it is a dial that effectively sits at the base of a lens when mounted. Speeds available are 1s to 1/1000s and Bulb.
On the left side of the mount is the flash sync plug and on the right side is the depth of field preview lever. Also, on the front on the right hand side are the delay timer and film rewind release switch.
On the top of the camera from left to right is the film rewind/back open lever, meter on/off switch, viewfinder prism, film speed selector, shutter release button with remote thread and film advance lever. A hot shoe can be attached over the prism, on this copy it is without (just as well as I don’t use flash often). Film speed options are from 25 – 1600 ASA.
Underneath the camera is the tripod socket, battery compartment which needs a coin to open and a connection for a motor drive. This also requires a coin to open up.
Loading film is a very usual SLR approach, lift the film rewind lever, the back pops open, fit in a cartridge, thread to the right, close and advance to the first frame. Unloading requires the rewind lever to be set to “R” at the front and manually rewound with the rewind lever until you feel the leader let go.
One of the key features most users will agree on is the big beautiful viewfinder that the OM-1n has. It is heralded as bright, easy to use and uncluttered. Coverage is 97% of actual picture area. There is not much in the viewfinder to interrupt the photographer’s flow.
In the centre is the microprism circle, which within it is a rangefinder spot. In this particular copy it has the 1-13 Microprism/split image-matte type focusing screen, but other options can be found for specific uses. The rangefinder of this screen will only work for lenses with higher than f/5.6 aperture, otherwise the matte area of the viewfinder has to be used.
On the left of the viewfinder is a simple +/- needle exposure meter reading, which reads the light while the lens is wide open. If the needle is in the centre area, the camera’s average weighted reading believes you have the correct exposure triangle set. As mentioned earlier, the exposure meter relies on the battery to operate. Note, this copy does have a viewfinder with some dirt which needs cleaning through a CLA, but as it operates really well, I have chosen to leave for now.
The Olympus OM ecosystem has way too many lenses to cover in this article, but this means there is a lens for almost any situation. Everything is available from wide angle through to super telephoto. Olympus really put effort to set up a professional system. All lenses mount/unmount to the camera connecting through the shutter speed selector collar. Pressing a couple of buttons on each side of the lens releases the lens from the mount.
Before we look at the lenses I have for the system, a bit of information on how to understand them. You may have noticed that some lenses have a prefix, for instance G.Zuiko. This relates to the number of elements the lens has. So in the example used in this article, the G.Zuiko 28mm has 7 elements. If it had been called B.Zuiko, it would have had 2 elements.
Towards the end of this series of lenses, Olympus abandoned the prefix and lenses were just labelled as Zuiko.
The word AUTO in the name signifies the automatic diaphragm. When there is a suffix, it describes the type of lens, for instance: S=Standard, W=Wide Angle and T=Telephoto.
Another key differentiator is that earlier lenses also had a chrome nose, which in the second evolution was changed to all black lenses.
I personally have three Olympus OM lenses, the 50mm, the 28mm and the 200mm. Here are the details of these.
Olympus OM Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 Auto-S
The Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 Auto-S lens is as both the focal length and the “S” suffix signify, a standard lens. This was a kit lens with a lot of purchases of the OM-1n. It has 6 elements in 5 groups with 6 aperture blades. Minimum focus distance is 45cm. It has a 49mm filter diameter.
This wonderfully small and light lens (165g, 32mm) is a great budget performer. When stopped down it is sharp from centre to corner and being one of the later models, the multi-coating is sufficient for shooting into the light. Wide open it has a reasonable central sharp area. There is mixed opinion on the bokeh of this lens, I find it quite pleasant.
Olympus OM G.Zuiko 28mm f/3.5 Auto-W
The Olympus OM G.Zuiko 28mm f/3.5 Auto-W is a wide angle prime lens. It has 7 elements in 7 groups, with 6 aperture blades. Closest focus is at 30cm and it has 49mm filter thread.
Absolutely tiny at 31mm in length, it comes in at 180g, and it packs a punch. At f/5.6 it is sharp right across the frame, with really good contrast in good light. This lens is a favourite, in combination with a small Olympus SLR it becomes a great package. I also use it on a Micro 4/3 camera which makes it into a slightly longer standard lens.
One drawback is that it doesn’t handle backlighting or shooting into the sun well. Flare can be out of control.
Olympus OM Zuiko 200mm f/4 MC Auto-T
The Olympus OM Zuiko 200mm f/4 MC Auto-T is a long telephoto lens. Comprising of 5 elements in 4 groups, it has 6 aperture blades. Closest focus is 250cm, so not a great option for macro. It has a 55mm filter diameter.
At 127mm in length, the weight comes in at 490g. This lens is perfect for the extra reach without overburdening with heavy glass. It is quite sharp not just stopped down, but open too. The maximum aperture of f/4 helps here. Great for portraits with a pleasant bokeh, which is limited due to slower maximum aperture.
Put on a Micro 4/3 camera and it becomes a compact 400mm lens! If you can manually focus at weekend sports, very fun to use.
Handy feature is the built-in hood.
My Olympus OM-1n came in a roundabout way. I had purchased the 200mm lens years ago to use on my Micro 4/3 system and was the first lens I ever adapted. A little while ago I was browsing the camera sales on a local listing site and came across this little gem for a really reasonable price. The seller specified it was in working condition and the 50mm lens was in good shape.
When it arrived, I could see what was also clear on the photos, this has been a well used machine. I can only imagine the photos this has produced since the late 1970s or early 1980s. Setting out to get a wide angle and came across the 28mm f/3.5 being offered very widely. I had heard good things about this lens, so picked one that was local, saving shipping fees, and ordered it.
The first time I took out the camera I was really surprised how a SLR with two lenses fit into a tiny shoulder bag. Very handy indeed. One thing to note though, this is not a lightweight camera. Though light due to size, it is very solidly made, so has some heft to it in proportion.
Loaded up with a test roll of Kodak Gold 200, I headed into a central city suburb and had a walk around for a few hours. While checking out the meter, I found it was spot on so was confident to let the camera guide me.
One of the really pleasant surprises is when I looked through the viewfinder. While mine has some dirt there, it is a beautiful viewfinder. Bright and more importantly, big. In fact, probably the only thing in the camera that is big. The coverage easily matches much more advanced modern cameras, but the brightness, even with some dirt is truly great.
I then hit the first thing that to this day has not sold me on the camera. The shutter speed selection around the lens. I can understand why it is designed in this way, but not something I have been able to get used to easily. This is shared in design with some older Nikons, the Nikkormat.
My theory is that it must be something you just get used to, so I’ve kept on using the camera. It did become more natural as I progressed. Where it became a problem for me is that my eyesight is not what it used to be. With no indication in the viewfinder of your speed setting, pulling the camera away from the eye and looking down on it was problematic. I found it harder than if there was a dial on top of the camera.
That brings me to the information in the viewfinder. I love simple and clean viewfinders. There is nothing but the exposure reading in the left bottom corner. Some setting information would have been handy, but I feel this viewfinder helps the photographer concentrate on what they are framing. This is a matter of personal taste though.
Over the time I have carried this OM-1n it grew on me a lot. It became more and more a camera I looked forward to shooting with. Apart from some of the street photography, I even took it to shoot a protest. It performed wonderfully.
*** Please note, I am not sharing my views on anything related to the protest, I only photographed it ***
With it being small and unobtrusive, people took no notice of the camera and I was shooting freely. I could get in close, and not one person thought I was press, which is very different if I went there with a Nikon F4 or F5.
In terms of performance, it never missed a beat. I was able to easily focus on the subject, and even with gloomy light and having to push the film, was able to get shots I am happy to keep. The lenses were great to use, no heavy glass to carry.
Results were nice and contrasty in all situations, but I did notice the Zuiko colour was a little on the warm side. Obviously for negative films, whether colour or black and white, this is not an issue. For me on slide this would be a benefit, but again this is a matter of taste.
I have now had this little Olympus OM-1n for quite a while. I consider it one of my favoured cameras. The shutter speed selector is still not something I particularly like, but this camera has so many things going for it that I can overlook this. Especially with that viewfinder. If you looking for a dependable, small and quality SLR, I can definitely recommend the Olympus OM-1n.
Alex Luyckx, well known for Classic Camera Revival podcast, and one of my favourite reviewers, gives us his thoughts on the OM-1n (and agrees with me on it being a great student camera) in: Camera Review Blog No. 50 – Olympus OM-1n
Quite a few of my other favoured reviewers also have reviewed the OM-1n. They can be found on the following links: