Monday, 23 February 2015

Olympus OM-1

It used to be that people moved to the shining city on the hill, lived in squalor, did the work, saved up, and then bought houses and became the general population; but that's all broken. Now people live in squalor, do the work, work in squalor, never earn enough to save, never earn enough to leave a mark, live in squalor, die in squalor. Their bodies are thrown into a mass grave. Repeat.

An OM-1n (left) next to an OM-2n, its auto-exposure brother.

Just like New York. And New York still exists and is an economic powerhouse, and Rio de Janeiro still exists and has its favelas, which still exist, and if that model works why not London? Why not everywhere? For thirty years Belfast was a war zone of barricades and petrol bombs, but Britain survived; what does it matter if poor people kill each other? They breed, and some of them are good-looking.

And Detroit and Chicago, there are bubbles within bubbles. The counteracting force of gentrification simply pushes poverty off the edge of the page, where it becomes invisible. The inner-city slums become suburban slums, and then the wasteland, with the shining city on the hill not a beacon of hope but a meat grinder.

Today we're going to look at the Olympus OM-1, which was launched with great fanfare in 1972. It was Olympus' first heartfelt stab at making a conventional 35mm SLR, and was very influential in its day. On a conceptual level it was a bit like the first Half-Life game, in the sense that none of its elements were new, but everything had been stripped down and polished and redesigned and assembled with fresh ideas and modern materials.

Top late design genius Yoshihisa Maitani managed to squeeze a professional-level SLR into a body that was lighter and about half a centimetre smaller in all dimensions than competing designs, without compromising its functionality. This extended to the rest of the expansive OM system; the motor drives, flash units and particularly the lenses were all very compact. The OM-1 and its heirs sold well, and within a short time compact was in - the Pentax ME and Nikon EM followed a couple of years later. On a broader level the 1970s saw the SLR become a popular consumer gadget, and if the 1960s was the golden age of the posh SLR then the 1970s was the heyday of the SLR-as-Package Holiday-Accompaniment, with half of them bought by dads who imagined that one day they might be top fashion photographers.

The old Foyles has now become a tat bazaar / sushi bar / laser tag arena (!) called O YES, which is both a clever reuse of the original sign and utterly naff. On the positive side, the new Foyles (just up the road) is fantastic, but it's now surrounded by boarded-up shops, and what future is there for a big prestige physical bookshop on Charing Cross road? Since when did it make sense to put a bookshop in the middle of London? The city's residents are split between people who don't read books and people who don't go to shops or read books.

I was originally exposed to the OM system via its lenses, which are tiny and can be adapted to work with modern digital cameras; I picked up an OM-2 and liked it, but I was always curious about the OM-1. The OM-2 has aperture-priority autoexposure and requires batteries to work, whereas the OM-1 is mechanical and only requires batteries for the built-in light meter, which drives an indicator needle in the viewfinder. The needle is perhaps the camera's only flaw; it's a bit too small to see easily in dim light, and this being 1972 it's not illuminated. Having said that the viewfinder is enormous and (again, this is 1972) unencumbered by readouts of any kind. It doesn't matter what you wear, just so long as you are there.

The OM-1 was sold from 1972 right up until the mid-late 1980s, although there were different models, each one more advanced than the last. The first OM-1 was actually the Olympus M-1, but after a complaint from Leica Olympus changed the name. There is some debate as to how many M-1s were sold, with estimates extended into the tens of thousands based on the serial numbers of surviving units. This fan site has lots of images of lens boxes and the like, which reveal that the M-1 was part of the M-System. It must have been a bother having to redesign everything. The system's logotype was originally a slanted-forward M. The OM system dropped the slant, perhaps because the letter O looks odd when it's slanted. OOOOOOOOOOOO, see what I mean?

The M-1 brochure has an addendum pointing out that the system's name will be changed for trademark reasons, so the change must have been unexpected and sudden. The brochure also lists an impressive range of lenses:

On the whole the OM lens range didn't expand all that much over its production run; it seemed to stagnate in the 1980s. The original OM-1 was replaced in 1974 by a new OM-1, unofficially known as the OM-1MD although never badged as such, which could accept motor drives. The MD was replaced in 1978 by the OM-1n, which added a flash ready light in the viewfinder (mine is very faint, but still works) and a modified wind lever.

As far as I can tell there's no reason other than nostalgia to buy one of the pre-1n models. The 1n was discontinued in the mid-late 1980s. Most sources say 1987, but my hunch is that Olympus gave up on it in the middle of the decade in favour of the OM-4, and sales beyond 1985 or so were just a trickle from Olympus' stockpile. Judging by Google Books' archive of old magazines, the price had fallen to budget level by 1985. I was only a kid at the time, but I imagine that the OM-1 would have felt a bit naff in the late 1980s.

The OM-1 was very fresh and new in the 1970s; Olympus' adverts big it up as a state-of-the-art SLR embodying the latest technology in electronics, metallurgy and optics. It lived long enough to become a modern classic, and ironically Olympus' print adverts of the 1980s tout its conservatism:

It's a camera, not a computer made of metal, not plastic. Olympus struggled with its SLR range in the 1980s. The OM-3 was an improved OM-1n that nonetheless felt superfluous and was discontinued quickly, before being revived with an expensive titanium body in the 1990s; the OM-4 was an improved OM-2 with a clever multi-spot metering system that must have been difficult for camera shop employees to sell. The company's attempts to sell a plastic, autofocus SLR were half-hearted, and eventually Olympus concentrated on the compact market instead. It's often said in marketing circles that you should sell benefits, not features, and Olympus seems to have a problem with this; the Four-Thirds system was sold as the first-ever native digital SLR system that was a marvel of modern technology, but the cameras were initially no smaller than the competition and did nothing better.

My OM-1n must be around thirty years old, and has a patina, but the shutter still fires with a reassuringly dampened cuh-chunk sound. The adverts also tout the camera's ruggedness, although as far as I can tell Olympus never seriously attempted to take on Nikon for the professional photojournalist market. There were a couple of fast telephotos - including a 250mm f/2.0 which still sounds impressive nowadays - but otherwise the company seemed to be content with the macro / scientific market. Olympus also sells medical equipment, and there was an extensive range of OM macro bellows and lenses.

For the images in this post I used a Vivitar 28-85mm f/2.8-3.8, which is bigger than the camera and large enough to act as its own carrying handle.

It's the year of the sheep. We're going to be sick of "you're all sheeple" by the end of the year. Yeah, and what if the sheeple DO rise, and we don't like it?
I mean, the Daily Mail is the best-selling newspaper and most popular news website in the UK. *They* outnumber *you*, isn't it likely that a popular revolution would sweep *them* into power?
That's why democracy doesn't work, and that's why you don't have it.

And also why you can't be trusted with scissors. Physically the lens is awkward. It's one of Vivitar's auto variable focusing designs, built by Kiron in Japan. You grab the barrel and pull back to zoom out, push forward to zoom in, twist to focus, and as you focus it zooms a little bit, and as you zoom the focus changes, and ultimately it's a bit like flying a helicopter or playing the bagpipes, you have to use all of your limbs plus your mouth.

As far as I know it's a late 1970s / early 1980s design, unusually fast and wide for the period. It focuses very closely at 28mm and throughout the range until 85mm, at which point the minimum focus distance abruptly goes up a few feet; there's noticeable barrel distortion at the wider end and some obvious vignetting, but otherwise I don't have a problem with it. I use it as a 28mm that zooms in a bit.

On the negative side, it turns the compact OM-1 into a large, heavy lump. On the positive side, Olympus never made a lens with the same specification - the company concentrated on primes instead - but on the negative side again I could probably have got by with a 28mm f/2.8 and some footwork and a piano and some drugs.

It's London Fashion Week. There it is, right there. Somerset House had a crowd of youths with cameras near the entrance. My hunch is that when an attractive lady comes along, they jump out and say that they're the official photographer; their goal is to get her number and put her into an environment where it's easier and less painful to just get naked than resist.
Eventually you come to despise the poor and the weak. They can't be bothered to help themselves, let them perish.

Film-wise I used HP5 and TMAX 400. Which is which? Cast your eyes over the images in this post; the grey images are HP5, the black images are TMAX. The meter was accurate enough for them. The OM uses long-discontinued PX mercury cells, but luckily I have an adapter that lets me use modern batteries. The meter needle goes snick-snick-snick instead of waving about.

Did I like the OM-1? I think I was spoiled by the OM-2, which is physically almost identical but has autoexposure. The OM-1's only real advantage is that it will work without electricity, but in 2014 the chances of me being without electricity are very small.

The OM-1 also has a mirror lock up, but again in 2014 the chances of me using the camera for astronomy or macro photography are very small. The problem is that if I have to grab a 35mm film SLR, why not the OM-2?

The OM-1 has essentially just one usability quirk. The shutter speed dial goes around the lens mount, shown here on an OM-2:

Nikon used this idea in the Nikkormat FT of 1965, but gave up on it thereafter. The OM-1's implementation is much better - the OM system puts the aperture ring at the end of the lens, away from the body - but it's a shame the two finger-grabs aren't larger. If they were a little bit bigger and projected further forwards the camera would be easier to use; in practice I left it at 1/125 and changed the aperture instead.

Electronics-wise the OM-2 supports automatic flash whereas the OM-1 doesn't, but again I doubt I'll ever use the OM's flash system except to test that it works. The OM-1 seems to have had no design faults or reliability issues (later OMs had electrical gremlins).

It's good that Facebook has billboard advertisements. I might never have heard of them otherwise. Also, friends are useful. Are we on the verge of something? And if so, what?