Sunday, 16 December 2012

Olympus OM-2N: Hot Black Heart

Olympus OM-2N / Zuiko 50mm f/1.4 / Adox CHS 25 / Kensington & Chelsea
R09 / an hour

With the end of the world only a few days away, I went for a stroll with my OM-2. The old Olympus OMs were occasionally described as the Saab of cameras, which is to say that they were technically clever, a little bit quirky - in a clever way - but geeky and not at all sexy. Not like Nikon.

For proof, here's Muhammad Ali posing with a Nikon. And here's Michael Jackson, also posing with a Nikon, back when he was still Michael Jackson. Serge Gainsbourg, no doubt photographing a very young girl, with a Nikon. Benny Andersson of Abba - Abba! - short pause Nikon. Joey Ramone, Nikon. Marilyn Monroe, Nikon. And so on. Going over this post two years later I'm struck by the unwisdom of linking to Tumblr blogs. They're transient and trivial and for the most part consist of the same small pool of photographs passed around endlessly; and a few months later the owners get bored, or they're hit with a copyright infringement notice, and then they're gone, leaving nothing behind, comma, comma, full stop.

I think it's supposed to be Kanye West (the sign gives it away)

Yeah, some of those photos predate the OM system, and of course I'm being selective. And those people are actors and musicians, not photographers. But still. Nikon is the sex camera of sex people. Rolleiflex was for the gentleman or lady. Polaroid for the artist. Pentax for Ringo Starr. Olympus had David Bailey, but only because the company were paying him to appear in their adverts, and I can't find a single picture of him holding an OM-1.

The OM range was popular with astrophotographers and photomicroscopers, because it had a good range of macro accessories and the shutter didn't require power during long exposures. You can imagine that it was popular with radio enthusiasts and solderers and model aeroplane builders. Stamp collectors. These people are irritating because they seem so happy. Why should they be happy?

Still, the OM system has had a strange kind of afterlife with the in-name-only OM-D, a good-looking modern digital camera that attracted favourable reviews last year. I was always curious about the older OM cameras so I decided to find out what they were like. I shall now present to you my findings. Unlike other, smellier blogs, this one has actual pictures taken with the camera itself. By a photographic genius e.g. me. Not just a lot of pictures of the camera.

The OM system was formally launched in 1973, although it was originally going to be called the M-System; the first camera was launched as the Olympus M-1. Leica was not happy with this - from the 1950s their own cameras had been M-something - and so Olympus agreed to change the name. The M1 is also a motorway, it connects Leeds with London so that the people of Leeds can escape.

The OM-1 was very late to the SLR party. During the 1950s and 1960s Olympus had been a lone wolf hunting away from the pack, its mouth stained with the flesh of its prey as it dove through banks of snow, driven by a satanic lust for warm blood; it had long since filled its belly, now it hunted in a futile quest to discharge the mounting howl of rage that swelled within its hot black heart.

The first manifestation of this sadistic exercise in brutal power was the dainty half-frame Pen F, which Olympus had sold throughout the 1960s. The Pen F was followed by the anonymous Olympus FTL, an M42 stopgap that no-one remembers much nowadays. By 1973 the competition had been in the game for over a decade, but there was a constant influx of new buyers who were not wedded to an existing system and the OM-1 was very popular with first-timers. Olympus' SLRs were good value, slightly more expensive than Pentax, but cheaper than Canon and Nikon, and looking through old issues of Popular Photography with Google Books it seems that the magazines liked them as well.

They were clever, too. Olympus knew that they couldn't compete at the high end of the market - Nikon had that sewn up - and churning out rebadged, OEM-designed bodies would have been a shameful admission of defeat. Furthermore they had the great brain of Yoshihisa Maitani to hand, so they decided to compete with cleverness. Maitani was perhaps the only superstar Japanese camera designer of the 1970s - at a time when some people in the West still thought of Japanese people as interchangeable units, Olympus was happy to put him in their US adverts. already covers the minutiae of the OM system in mind-numbing detail and so I won't duplicate their work. The OM-1 was smaller and lighter than the competition (in particular, it was noticeably shorter). This was achieved by some clever engineering and sheer force of will, and by moving the shutter speed dial so that it went around the lens mount, which freed up space on the top plate. Nikon had used a similar arrangement with the Nikkormat FT-N of the late 1960s but seemed uninterested in the idea and never used it again. Apart from the camera body, the system as a whole was designed for compactness. The lenses were tiny and the winder was half the size of competing designs. An OM-1 body with a couple of lenses was not much larger than an equivalent rangefinder setup. The OM also had an unusually voluminous viewfinder, which was impressive given the small size of the body.

Conceptually the OM-1 was much more conservative. It had a mechanically-powered shutter and used battery-powered match-needle metering with centre weighting. Unfortunately the meter uses the long-discontinued mercury PX625 battery and so it's not an ideal choice nowadays. Which is why I bought an OM-2 instead.

The OM-2 was launched in 1975, at a time when the OM-1's influence was starting to be felt. Small was the in thing, but the OM-2 added something new to the mix - electronics. It had aperture-priority automatic exposure and a stepless, electronically-timed shutter that needed batteries to work properly, although fortunately it uses SR44 silver oxide cells, which are still being made. Without the batteries the camera is useless, which was a controversial issue at the time. When Nikon launched the battery-power F3 in 1980 there were howls of protest from professionals worried that they would run out of batteries in the middle of Afghanistan or El Salvadore; the consumer marketplace had fewer qualms, and in the wake of the OM-2 there was a wave of electronic cameras. Late-70s post OM-2 cameras such as the Canon AV-1 and Pentax ME tended to use microprocessor-controlled digital electronics, whereas the OM-2N is in contrast analogue. Olympus didn't introduce a microprocessor-controlled professional-level SLR until the OM-4 of 1983 (the OM-3, launched the following year, was essentially an OM-1 in an OM-4 body, with a mechanical shutter and uncoupled meter).

The OM-2 had an off-the-film metering system that had a little cell inside the camera body pointing directly at the surface of the film; it measured the amount of light hitting the film during the exposure, and closed the shutter accordingly. For ordinary daylight exposures this was overkill, but it transformed flash automation. Until the OM-2 came along, a camera's flash system had to estimate the correct exposure before the shutter opened and then hope for the best. The OM-2 could measure flash exposure as it happened, and the basic concept of measuring the surface of the film was quickly adopted by the rest of the industry.

My OM-2 is an OM-2N, which has a few minor refinements that smoothed out the flash system. Here it is, sitting next to a Leica R8, being small:

It's ironic that Leica's SLR designs were so anti-Leica. The early, in-house Leicaflex was blocky and anonymous; the Minolta-Leicas of the 1970s and 1980s were just anonymous; the later in-house R8 and R9 are distinctive but blocky. It's a shame that Leica didn't dump Minolta and climb into bed with Olympus instead. The OM system was more Leica than Leica.

On a technical level the OM-2 is simple by modern standards. Compared to the R8 above it has a slower top shutter speed - 1/1000 vs 1/8000 - and there's no mirror lock-up. It only has full-frame averaging aperture priority metering, no spot or multi-spot, and the viewfinder is not illuminated, so it's hard to see what shutter speed the camera has chosen in low light. It's neat the way that the viewfinder display changes when you switch from automatic exposure to manual; the transparent shutter speed overlay slides out of the way and is replaced with a +/- match needle tab.

"Self-portrait with sticker"

The OM-2 remained in production until the mid-1980s, when it was replaced by the OM-4, which had a tougher body and a more versatile metering system. There was also the OM-2SP and OM-2S, which were product-engineered mid-level models based on the OM-4. They added a spot meter and program exposure but were bedevilled by electrical problems that drained the batteries quickly, even when the cameras were sitting unused. The OM-2S and SP were only in production for a couple of years in the mid-1980s. The OM-4 remained on sale until 2002, by which time it was an anachronism.

There was also a lower-cost range, starting with the OM-10, which was launched in 1979. The double-digit OM cameras were very popular in their day and mirrored the features of their single-digit counterparts. The OM-10 parallels the OM-2, with aperture-priority autoexposure, although the manual speed control was an optional extra. Here's an OM-10 body sitting in front of an OM-2:

The OM10's hot shoe is fixed in place, the winding lever is simpler, and there are a few more plastic parts. The insides are apparently not as robust, although mine still works. In some respects the OM-10 is more advanced than the OM-2 - the viewfinder has a larger, LED-illuminated shutter speed display - and the shutter has the same top speed. Physically the two bodies are almost exactly the same size. On the used market OM-10s are staggeringly cheap, because Olympus sold lots of them.

Ah, but what's the OM-2 like as a camera, as a means of expression; as an extension of my senses? It's wonderful, to be honest, small enough to carry around all day without becoming a burden - it thrashes the R8 in that respect - and easy enough to use that it doesn't become fussy. With a 50mm f/1.4 it's ready for anything, provided that thing isn't very large or very far away. A small lens kit consisting of 50mm and a 21mm, 24mm, or 28mm takes up less space than a single zoom lens.

Olympus' lens range mirrored Leica's rangefinder line-up, with a lot of wides and very short telephotos, and a few longer telephotos that no-one bought, with an overall emphasis on prime lenses. The OM system dates from a time when entry-level cameras came with a prime lens, and by the time zoom lenses had become the default choice the OM range was aimed at a slightly higher market segment. My 50mm f/1.4 is one of the older models, and it's no great shakes at f/1.4, but good enough. I have seen better bokeh.

I used Adox CHS 25 for most of the black and white images in this article. I had some rolls lying around. It has a great look - very moody - but it's a nightmare to use, because it's very fragile. Contemplate the following:

Bear in mind that for every white speck you see in this thumbnail, there are a dozen smaller white specks that only become apparent at full size. If you have OCD it's the worst film in the world.

Well, perhaps not; if you actually do have OCD, you probably wash the negatives thoroughly and develop them in a dust-free environment. The following picture was brought to you courtesy of the number nine, plus Photoshop's spot healing and clone brushes. In fact I often have to do so much cloning and spot healing that the film's supposed resolution advantage is cloned away (brickwork or anything with a regular pattern is horrendously time-consuming to retouch):

And that's the OM-2. More versatile than a point-and-shoot, far smaller than an elephant, more dangerous than a two-horned narwhal. I took all these pictures with mine, but remember that it's the genius behind the camera that matters, i.e. me.

Me and London. London matters. Because every genius needs something to feed his mind, and London has a lot of things to look at and think about. And eat, too. It has shops as well. An integrated transport network. Staggeringly expensive houses, filled with people who are not there.