Saturday, 10 October 2015

Olympus Stylus Epic / Mju-II

Fuji Velvia 50

Let's have a look at the Olympus Stylus Epic. It's a compact 35mm camera from 1997 that was also sold as the μ[mju:]-II, for reasons lost to time. You were supposed to pronounce it "micro mew-two". The Stylus Epic was in some respects the pinnacle of mass-market compact 35mm camera design, but despite its strengths - more of them later in the article - it was quickly overshadowed by early digital cameras. Although the Stylus Epic isn't exactly forgotten nowadays it never had time to establish a legend, and unlike the contemporary Yashica T4 it wasn't embraced by hipsters.

The previous page has a review of the Nikon Coolpix 100, Nikon's very first consumer digital camera. The Stylus Epic was the last of its breed. In the review - published in 1997 - top photographer Roger Ressmeyer describes his ideal digital camera, which is essentially a Nikon D3x! He had to wait twelve years.

I was alive in the 1990s, but I ignored the Stylus completely. If you were a man under the age of fifty in 1997 you didn't give a stuff about compact 35mm film cameras. APS was the future of film, and digital was the future of photography, and you were saving up for a Nikon Coolpix 950 or one of those Sony Mavicas, as well as a Minidisc player and a Sega Dreamcast and a DVD player and maybe an internal DVD drive for your souped-up AMD K6 and perhaps a pair of Technics decks because you were learning to be a DJ, except that you didn't need to save up because you could just put all of that on your credit card.

The Stylus Epic followed Olympus' popular Stylus / Mju, which was launched in 1991. The original Stylus had a slower, 35mm f/3.5 lens and a different physical design. It remained on sale alongside the Epic for a few years; eBay has loads for £20 or so. I haven't used it. The Stylus Epic was accompanied by a family of Stylus cameras with zoom lenses, and in its day the Epic led a double life. On the one hand it was the cheap, entry-level Stylus for poor people. Unlike the more desirable zoom-lens Styluses it had a fixed lens, a moderately wide 35mm f/2.8. Judging by the price lists in old issues of Popular Photography the Epic sold for $89-99 in the late 1990s, versus $199 for the more desirable zoom-lens models.

Zoomy compacts were all the rage back then, which is amusing because they're worthless now. They had flimsy, sticky-out zoom lenses that generally went from 35-105mm f/5.6-f/11, which is very slow. You were supposed to use a new wave of high-speed films to compensate for the slow f-stop - Kodak made Max Zoom 800 especially for these cameras - but there was only so much that Kodak's engineering could do to combat grain, and furthermore the zoom lenses were only designed for 6x4" prints. Modern digital cameras have it easy because the lens only has to cover a tiny sensor; it was simply impossible to combine a decent compact zoom lens with full-frame 35mm in the 1990s.

Sitting next to its distant ancestor, the Olympus XA (1979). The XA was designed by Yoshihisa Maitani, who also oversaw the original Stylus. As far as I can tell he didn't have a hand in the Stylus Epic, although it's obviously spawned from the same genetic material.

The Stylus Epic had a second life as the cognoscenti's choice, because it had a sharp, fast lens that didn't stick out or take ages to deploy, unlike the zoom lenses. Eighteen years later the Stylus has aged well. It was still on sale during the very early internet years, but it didn't have much of a following when it was new - the Lomo crowd didn't care for it because it wasn't quirky, and young people had moved on to other things. On the used market it has depreciated gracefully, in fact if you ignore inflation it seems to have appreciated, which is unusual for a plastic film camera of the 1990s.

What's it like to use? Physically it's tiny, small enough to put into a jacket pocket with space to spare. In fact it's small enough to fit into the palm of a hand, and this is how I carried mine. The flash defaults to automatic every time you open the lens cover, so I turned off the flash and left the lens cover open all the time. The camera takes a single CR123 battery, which lasts for ages. A motor drive loads, advances, and rewinds the film. You can't tell it to leave the film leader out, so for black and white I had to rip open the cartridges with my bare hands as if I was the Incredible Hulk.

Not once did a smart woman stop me in the street and ask me to debate the future of Syria over a coffee and then go back to her place to watch Netflix, so in that respect it was a bit of a disappointment. As a photographic tool it was however superb.

On the whole it reminded me of the XA, in the sense that after five minutes I stopped thinking about it and just took shots. The control buttons on the back are tiny but the shutter button is big and has a positive action. The autofocus system apparently has the standard SLR-style focus lock whereby you half-press the shutter button and recompose; of all the photos I took only one was out of focus, and then only because I was too close.

Too close to what, eh? You'll just have to imagine. I was too close. The 35mm f/2.8 is fast for a compact but not all that fast, but handholding the Stylus at slower speeds is easy as cake, because the shutter just goes snick, viz the following image shot in dim light with ISO 50 slide film:

The motor drive can shoot a frame every couple of seconds or so. Minimum focus is just over a foot, and it doesn't do focus tracking, so combine all these things and it's not great for shooting pets, children etc indoors. It can however shoot rainbows from a moving train, which is useful if you ever find yourself in a moving train and there are rainbows.

It's interesting to compare it with the XA. They both have 35mm f/2.8 lenses. The Stylus has autofocus, a motor drive, and a clever built-in flash that is apparently good for close-range fill light, although I haven't tried this and can't comment. On the downside it only has program autoexposure - the XA lets you select the aperture - and the viewfinder isn't very good. It's like the viewfinder on an early digital camera, with a very narrow field of view that blacks out unless you put your eye in exactly the right place. It's easy to get too close. That's why men hire prostitutes; they don't want to get too close.

As a clandestine camera the XA is essentially silent until you manually wind the film, whereas the Stylus has a noisy motor drive. When the film runs out the camera spends a minute or so winding it back. Furthermore the Stylus rigidly enforces a 36-shot frame count - when you shoot the 36th shot, it rewinds - whereas the XA usually gets 37 or sometimes 38 frames out of a roll.

The XA's lens is fixed in place and focuses by moving an internal element back and forth. The Stylus, on the other hand, moves the whole lens assembly; when you press the shutter button the lens quickly rushes forward to the correct focus position and takes the shot, so there's a tiny delay before the shutter goes off. In practice I didn't have a problem with it.

Fuji Velvia 50, the modern version of Velvia. I've written about Velvia before. It has a distinctive hyper-saturated look that was very popular in the 1990s, but it quickly became a cliché, and on an emotional level it feels a bit charmless. I mentally associate it with car adverts.

Performance-wise the XA's lens is sharp and has negligible distortion, but tends to suffer from vignetting even when stopped down. The corners have a bit of colour fringing at the edges wide open. On the whole it's a very good lens, and back in 1979, it demonstrated that you didn't have to buy an SLR if you wanted great image quality.

Shot with an XA

The Stylus Epic's lens fixes the vignetting and is by all accounts super. It consistently impressed me. I don't have a way of formally testing its sharpness, and by 1997 Popular Photography had given up on that kind of technical nitty-gritty, but in the following image, shot at sunset with Velvia 50, it was detailed and CA-free in the corners.

Physically the Stylus is smaller than the XA and feels a bit flimsier, although unlike the XA it is officially weatherproof. Mine had been been in storage for a while - the first roll had a couple of blank frames but all subsequent rolls were fine, so perhaps it benefits from being taken for a spin every so often. As far as I can tell there were no infamous quirks, no reliability issues, no obvious flaws in the design. The metering was consistently on-point with all the films I used, ranging from ISO 50 Fuji Velvia slide to some expired Ilford HP5 400-speed black and white.

On Earth in 2015 you are never more than sixty feet away from a manifestation of the Miley Cyrus media machine. I wonder if the photographer demanded that she not do that thing with her tongue.

The exposure system reads film speed from the DX coding on the cartridge. You can't set speed manually - it defaults to ISO 100 - and although there's a spot meter, it's awkward to use. On the whole the XA is more flexible but the Stylus has a better lens, which does nothing for my OCD, but why not carry both?

In the eighteen years separating the XA and the Stylus Epic Olympus sold the Olympus AF-1, which had a 35mm f/2.8 and a primitive autofocus system. It also had a built-in flash which you couldn't turn off, and perhaps because of this the AF-1 is forgotten nowadays. It was replaced by the AF-10, which solved this problem but appears to have been passed over by the world. In 1991 Olympus launched the Olympus Stylus, which was Yoshihisa Maitani's last design for Olympus. It had a slower, 35mm f/3.5 lens, making it analogous to the Olympus XA2. Physically the Gen One Stylus looks like a bar of soap, the Gen Two is a wedge, and by all accounts the Gen One has a smashing lens as well. Used examples pop up on eBay for £15 or so, you have no excuse not to own one.

Point-and-shoot cameras were generally pooh-poohed by serious photographers in the 1970s and 1980s, but there was a wave of posh point-and-shoots in the 1990s. The concept was pioneered early in the decade with the Contax T2, which was built out of titanium and had a sharp, contrasty 38mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss T* lens. Nikon followed this with the Nikon 35Ti, which was also made out of titanium and had silly little dials on the top. In the 1980s and 1990s SLRs had gone big and fat - culminating in the Nikon F5 of 1996, which resembled a big square rubber brick - and there was a backlash.

The Stylus Epic range was contemporaneous with the Yashica T4 and T5, which also had Carl Zeiss T* lenses, and the Ricoh GR1, which was criminally overlooked. It had an unusually wide 28mm lens, and I like making text different colours, it's fun. I have never used a T4, but I imagine that the combination of Zeiss purple and Fuji Velvia would have been eye-popping.

There's something melancholic about Kodak signs. They pop up here and there, fading away as they journey into a future that was not meant for them.

Stretching the definition of point-and-shoots a bit, there was also the Konica Hexar, which had a 35mm f/2. The Hexar resembled a rangefinder camera but was actually autofocus-only. At the more expensive end of the market there was the Contax G1 and G2 rangefinders, which were autofocus too, but unlike the Hexar the G-system had a range of interchangeable lenses, also by Zeiss. Hovering above them all was Leica. The Stylus Epic itself was never really sold as a posh point-and-shoot - Olympus has always had a populist, mass-market image - although it had all the attributes of poshness. Can you read that? It's not too dark, is it? Is you okay? Is you?

On the whole the T4, G2 and so forth vanished off the face of the Earth in the late 1990s. By the early 2000s they had been overshadowed by the new Voigtlander Bessa rangefinders, and of course digital photography was overshadowing film, and within a few years mobile phones overshadowed cameras. Where will it end? Also, how do I stop the

stop the oh that did the trick. The Stylus Epic was the last of Olympus' fast-fixed-lens film cameras, and one of the last new film camera designs. There were a few 35mm compacts in the early 2000s, but they tended to be cheap knock-offs sold under the Praktica name. I'm not sure I feel sad about the demise of 35mm cameras; the Stylus Epic was essentially the definitive evolution of the compact 35mm. Stagnation beckoned. Ninety years or so after the invention of 35mm film and eighty years after the Ur-Leica, the problem of creating a small, excellent automatic camera that the average worker could afford was solved. the mobile phone and Facebook, because the next problem - how to share these pictures instantly with the entire world, using an interconnected global network - was incompatible with physical media. To progress, photographs had to become pure energy. Human beings have a sentimental attachment to 35mm because we are physical as well, our brains are physical media, and just like film we are doomed to perish. But the energy we radiate lives on.

Postscript: Later the very same year I took the camera off to Berlin, where it was supposed to be an emergency backup - but my main camera broke! And so, in the second decade of the digital revolution, my Stylus Epic had one more fling. Did I feel underdressed? No.