Olympus OM System: A Landmark in Compact SLR Camera Design

Let’s revisit some noteworthy models of this popular 35mm SLR series and the cool facts that make them film photography favorites.

Sometimes, size does matter in the photography world, as there will always be photographers who hold a preference for more compact and pocketable cameras. In the realm of SLR cameras, one series has retained its title as a lightweight champion: the Olympus OM-System. At nearly five decades and counting, it remains the SLR camera of choice for many film photographers who prefer more portable options that don’t compromise optical quality. Just in time for the 100th anniversary of Olympus this year, join us as we look back at one of the most innovative 35mm SLR systems ever made.

Yoshihisa Maitani: The Man Behind the Icons

We can’t speak of Olympus and any of its iconic cameras without first mentioning the man behind them. The renowned Yoshihisa Maitani joined Olympus in 1956 and worked for the company for 40 years. As the chief designer for Olympus, he was integral to many of the company’s legendary cameras, such as the Pen and Pen F half-frame cameras, the OM System, the XA rangefinder camera, and the mju/Stylus compact series. Maitani’s first successful design was the Olympus Pen, a half-frame compact camera revered for its sharp fixed lens. In 1963, he led the design team to develop and advance the Pen into an SLR complete with a lineup of interchangeable lenses and a host of accessories. The result was the Pen F, a half-frame 35mm SLR camera that later expanded into a system of its own. The Pen F is noteworthy for having a rotary focal-plane titanium shutter instead of the two-curtain-focal-plane shutter typically installed in SLR cameras.

Soon after the success of the Pen and Pen F cameras, Maitani and his team set to work to build a full-frame professional 35mm SLR camera unlike anything photographers had seen before. In his lecture at the JCII Camera Museum in October 2005, he said the company initially wanted it to be similar to those made by other manufacturers. Maitani thought the opposite, and wanted to create something that didn’t yet exist.

The Making of a Cult Classic

Maitani believed that if people were to choose between a rebranded Olympus 35mm SLR camera over an original Nikon or Pentax, they would always go for the original. In his mind, there was no option but for Olympus to come up with its own iteration.

“In one sense we aspired to make SLRs, yet I didn’t want to make something that you could already buy in a store. I had my philosophy. What should I do? I researched the problem, and I thought about it from the perspective of my own experience.

“Ultimately, I realized that the real reason why I couldn’t get enthusiastic about conventional SLRs was the problem of their weight and size. This is a major difference of 35mm cameras compared with the Leica. The half-size camera that I made was also the result of my efforts to create a smaller camera.”

So, Maitani came up with the solution to create a more compact and lightweight camera that would rival the features and performance of existing professional cameras. At the time, a Nikon SLR weighed around 1.4 kilograms. He wanted to half not only its weight but also its total volume, which meant reducing both height and depth by approximately 20%.

“I realized that it was meaningless to reduce the size by one or two millimeters since the difference would only be apparent if you measured the camera with a ruler. Basically, you perceive the size of a camera by holding it in your hand. I wanted to achieve a big enough reduction in size and weight that people would realize that the camera was smaller and lighter than one they’d held in their hands a month earlier.”

Olympus OM-1n, essentially the OM-1 with a few modifications. Photo by Martin Taylor, used with Creative Commons permission.

Olympus OM-1: The Game Changer

Olympus joined the professional 35mm SLR game pretty late. It unveiled the Olympus OM-1 in 1972, during Photokina in Cologne. By then, Nikon, Canon, and other camera companies had already established their respective SLR lineups. The OM-1 began the long-running Olympus OM-System, which was manufactured until 2002. The all-mechanical SLR camera was initially called M-1 but was renamed OM-1 after Leica disputed the name because of their M1 model.

The Olympus OM-1 was a game-changer. It pushed the boundaries of what was achievable with camera design. Maitani achieved his goal of a lighter and more compact professional SLR camera with only a few compromises. The camera body featured a remarkably compact design, one of the best and largest viewfinders in any 35mm SLR camera, a full aperture TTL CdS exposure meter, and a wide bayonet lens mount. It was also paired with equally compact OM-System Zuiko lenses, one of the best ranges in optics ever made.

While the original OM-1 bodies were not compatible with motor drives, it was possible to attach a motor or winder with some modifications: replacing the bottom cover; adding a motor drive switch; and replacing some speed components. Newer OM-1 bodies at the time only needed the MD switch and a new bottom cover with switch calibration. Two years after the OM-1 was released, Olympus introduced the OM-1MD, a model developed out of the 19 different adjustments that had to be made to accommodate a motor drive.

As noted by Camerapedia, the OM-1 remains a favorite of astronomers, astrophotographers, and photographers involved in imaging for many scientific fields. Its portability, lightweight, manual operation, and mirror lock-up feature make it great for attaching to microscopes and telescopes.

Olympus OM-2: Going Automatic

In 1975, Olympus announced the OM-2, the automatic version of the OM-1, at the 31st Photo Salon in Paris. A prototype was unveiled during the 1974 Photokina, but no features were announced. It looked externally the same as its predecessor, but featured an electronic shutter, and automatic (aperture priority) or manual exposure modes.

Among the OM-2’s claim to fame is its through-the-lens (TTL) off-the-film (OTF) metering, which measures light reflected directly off the film. This feature was the world’s first direct TTL metering system and it allowed the camera to compensate for changes in brightness during long exposures. The meter was also responsible for automating the flash duration and intensity during exposure. It even allowed the OM-2 to use two available electronic flashguns. Together, these features ensured excellent results in the most challenging shooting situations.


Olympus OM-4: The Perfect OM Series Camera

Dubbed by Olympus as the perfect model in its iconic series, the OM-4 was introduced in 1983 as a top-of-the-line model. It boasted a top shutter speed of 1/2000s, a light metering system based on up to eight multi-spots (which made it the first camera to have a built-in multi-spot exposure meter), and the direct metering technology of the OM-2. It also had an LCD bar graph that displayed the exposure readings in the viewfinder. All of these features were packed into an all-new, more durable, aluminum body with a new viewfinder type that had a dioptric correction. In addition, it was made compatible with all the Olympus motor drives for the system, along with the Motor Drive 2 that was designed to include a motorized film rewind on top of the automatic film advance.

Olympus OM-10: Cheaper But Capable

In 1979, Olympus introduced the OM10, the first consumer model in the OM Series. It was compatible with all OM lenses and most OM accessories. Despite being a “budget” version, it proved to be a capable camera that followed the elegant and compact designs of its pro-level contemporaries. It was equipped with aperture priority auto exposure that was simple and accurate enough for most lighting conditions. However, it also came with exposure compensation that allowed more advanced users to work with more complicated lighting conditions. To shoot in manual mode and choose from shutter speeds between 1s and 1/1000s, a small plug-in adapter (an optional accessory) must be attached before setting the selection dial to Manual Adapter. Without the adapter, the shutter speed in this mode is fixed to 1/60s for shooting with flash.

Today, the Olympus OM-System remains popular among film photographers, astrophotographers, camera collectors, and photography historians. The OM-1, in particular, is still a coveted model, especially among photographers who prefer having an all-manual camera. Part of the series’ legacy is the landmark camera design by Maitani Yoshihisa, whose creative vision and unwavering development philosophy are rivaled by only a few in the field. It’s safe to say, therefore, that the OM System definitely did for Olympus what the Nikon F did for Nikon: it addressed a specific need through an innovative and enduring solution.


Photos used with permission from Olympus Global