Desert Island Cameras No. 02 – Olympus Edition

Desert Island Cameras No. 02 – Olympus Edition

2000 1125 James Tocchio

We’re back with another installment of Desert Island Cameras, the recurring article in which we answer the question, “If you could only have one, which would it be?” That’s right – in a quest to help you choose the very best from the most popular camera brands, we’ve taken on the near-impossible task of paring down and choosing just one camera and lens we’d be happy to have for the rest of our lives.

Last time we talked about Nikon, and today we’re focused on an equally legendary (if slightly less popular) maker, Olympus. So which Olympus would the CP staffers pick if we could each only choose one? Here are our absolute, be-all-end-all, one-and-done, stuck-for-the-rest-of-our-lives Olympuses. Olympai? Whatever.

Josh’s Pick

The core of my desert island Olympus kit is the quintessential Olympus camera – the Olympus OM-1n. It’s elegant, portable, and versatile – all things for which Olympus film cameras came to be known over a long run of uninterrupted success.

The OM-1 body is Olympus’ most iconic design. With it, Olympus and designer Yoshihisa Maitani (after whom the OM is named) proved SLRs didn’t have to be bulky and ugly; they could be svelte and sexy. Its massive viewfinder and streamlined control layout makes the process of shooting simply beautiful. Olympus went on to evolve the all-mechanical OM-1 in subsequent models in the OM line by adding electronic doohickeys to it, but none of these cameras were quite as impactful as the original, which did no less than usher in a paradigm shift in the industry.

Paired with the minuscule OM-1 is my choice of lens, the equally small Zuiko 28mm f/3.5. On paper this lens might not look like much, but for those in the know, this is one of the brand’s best. Distortion is virtually nonexistent in this wide-angle lens, color rendition and contrast are stunning, and it’s sharp across the frame at virtually every aperture (yes, even sharper than its f/2.8 counterpart). Softness and vignetting show when shot wide-open but when the results look this good, who cares?

Pair the OM-1’s huge viewfinder with a wide-angle lens like the 28mm f/3.5 and what results is one of the finest wide-standard setups in 35mm photography, and a kit that could handle the bulk of any photo geek’s needs for an entire lifetime of shots. And in true Olympus fashion, it’s compact enough to take anywhere, even, say, a desert island.

For the full scoop on the OM-1, see James’ excellent review.

Buy it from our own F Stop Cameras

Dustin’s Pick

The task of selecting my “desert island Olympus” wasn’t one to be taken lightly. I shoot my Olympuses a lot (I own 4), and every one of them would happily comfort me ’til the moment of my expiration on some desolate, sandy rock. However, there is one Oly that holds a special place in my heart. It isn’t flashy or popular, but if I had to pick only one Olympus to last for the rest of my life, it’s the 35RD. Here’s why.

The 35RD is one of the smallest and lightest compact rangefinders Olympus ever produced, perfect for shooting all situations without slowing me down. Common to many premium, fixed-lens rangefinders of its era, the 35RD boasts a fast maximum shutter speed of 1/500th of a second and a lens capable of a maximum aperture of f/1.7, which is less common. The beauty of the RD is that it’s fully mechanical, relying on battery power solely for the meter. If the batteries die, the camera continues to shoot at every shutter speed.

The feather-damped, short throw film advance is lovely, and the focusing ring is extremely easy to turn, making rapid-fire snaps a piece of cake. Loading film is also a breeze. A simple pull of a tiny, recessed tab, and the door pops open. I rather prefer this design over the traditional rewind crank pull simply because I’m afraid i’m going to pop the thing clear off the body with any significant force. Of course, it does possess a shutter-priority auto mode, but using this little pocket rocket manually is just too good to resist.

All this praise said, the RD does come with a few quirks. Lackluster aperture ring ergonomics, a fixed rewind crank, and a tiny finder have been challenging, but the image quality I get from this lens make it worth the effort. The fixed 40mm f/1.7 Zuiko delivers razor sharp images with a classic vibe. I absolutely adore the rendering of this lens, even more so than any of my OM mount Zuikos (which is saying a lot).

The 35RD is somewhat of a rarity these days, and many users complain that a sticky shutter problem plagues neglected copies, but if the camera has been reworked with modern lubricants it will shoot beautifully for many decades still. My RD isn’t perfect, but a recent cleaning has reassured me that countless worry-free images lie ahead.

Buy it from our own F Stop Cameras

James’ Pick

If you haven’t yet figured it out based on Dustin and Josh’s picks, Olympus has historically been known for two things – exceptional technical ability, and incredibly compact size, and the camera I’ve chosen for my one-and-only showcases this design ethos more than any other Olympus. It’s the XA.

Just as with the OM-1, the XA was designed by legendary Olympus genius Yoshihisa Maitani, and his fingerprints are all over this thing (not literally, of course – that would be a real collector’s piece). It’s just about the smallest 35mm rangefinder camera ever made, handily out-tinying other compact rangefinders like the CLE and Canonet, and you might expect that this compact form factor means we’ve been cheated out of technical ability. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Not only is the XA exceedingly tiny, it also offers user-selectable aperture control, full manual focus with a built-in rangefinder mechanism, a superb metering system, and most amazing of all, aperture-priority auto-exposure. And if you think this compact size and incredible ability means we’ve been cheated out of decent image quality? Wrong again.

The XA has one of the finest and sharpest lenses ever fitted to a compact camera. Better than the Rollei 35, better than the Nikon L35AF, better than many interchangeable lens camera optics, it’s a lens that’s simply legendary. And unlike some “legendary” cameras, the XA actually deserves its reputation.

For these reasons (and some others that I’ll save for my upcoming review) the XA is the Olympus I’d choose if I could only choose one.

Buy it from our own F Stop Cameras

And that’s that. Our ridiculous list of desert island Olympuseses is complete. But not really, because we only put this list together to hear your opinions. Tell us in the comments what your “one-and-only” Olympus would be, whether you’re stuck on a sandbar or not!

Want an Olympus we didn’t pick?

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • They all need batteries. Regret the battery shop on my desert island closed some time ago 🙁 Ignoring batteries, I would opt for either an OM-1 or a Pen F, probably the Pen F, as if the battery shop has closed, the film shop will follow on soon afterwards and you get twice as many shots per roll out of your Pen F.

  • Great choices! I own all three. The Olympus I use the most is the XA’s zone focusing, completely auto exposure sibling, the XA2. It’s one of most compact cameras I own and hands down the fastest to shoot. Sometimes speed is the crucial factor, particularly in the street. I can’t count the number of times I’ve shot street scenes with my XA2 while dodging traffic.

  • Gonna have to agree, I’d bring my OM-1. No batteries required, and the thing could drive nails. It endured a brief stint in an icy river in Utah about 20 years ago, and still fires happily away to this day.

  • You can also use the RD without batteries.

  • It would be the OM-1 for me, but I’d try to find the original M-1 version before Leica stepped in and blocked that naming convention.
    (of course I don’t know if there are any M-1s out there!)

    p.s. the link to flickr for the 28mm lens does not work for me)

    • There are certainly M1s out there. I’ve had two or three come through the shop along with their M System Zuikos.

  • I’d want to say my OM-1 but My Trip would outlive me by decades and is solid as a rock, and a lot smaller for pocketing in my tattered castaway style short shorts.

  • Preston Anderson April 25, 2017 at 6:59 pm

    Currently own an XA2(zone focus version of the XA) and an Oly 35 RC. Just picking between the two everyday is a difficult task on its own! Love the XA2 for its snappy zone focusing and pocket sized body, and love the RC for its manual controls and f1.7(I think) glass.
    At the end of the day, if I were on a desert island, I’d have to choose the RC but only because even though these are both small as chips, I wouldn’t have to worry about pocketbility. Plus the faster lens would be amazing to set up for bokeh nature shots, and I could set her down on a rock(being as tough as one as well) and manually adjust for those landscapes.
    Now the next question is what film stock to use for my inevitable lifetime on said island… 👀

  • Or the OM3 – all mechanical but while the batteries last you get the very fancy meter.

  • Charlotte – 35mm April 27, 2017 at 5:19 am

    My XA4 would be the last camera I give up – beautiful lens, solid design, portability.

  • Being the proud owner of about 20 different Olys it would be almost impossible to bring only one to my desert island. Since no one else has mentioned it I’ll nominate the spot metered 35SP with its gorgeous 7element G Zuiko lens. The 35LC would be an alternative with its similar lens.

  • I began my teenage lens collection on a small budget with the Zuiko 50 f1.8, the 28 f3.5 and the 135 f3.5. I honestly thought distortion and colour fringes were things that happened to other people. 12″ x 16″ mono prints were no problem, nor were Ektachrome slides projected several feet across.

    Then my Dad introduced me to 6×6 with German lenses.

  • Olympus photographer here since 1974. The original OM-1 didn’t need power to operate. It’s a good cold weather camera. I’ve used it under 40 below zero. The XA is great for the cold because it can be kept in a shirt pocket. I’ve used it at -62F. I’ve also had an Olympus 35RC. When I was a photographer on the Dakota Photo Documentary Project in 1976, my favorite combination was the OM-1 with the 24 mm f/2.8, which is a jewel and provided a wider angle of view that allowed me to put my subjects in their context. I kept that camera loaded with Ilford HP-5, and I kept a 50 mm f/1.8 and 100 mm f/2.8 in my coat pockets along with film and light meter. The 35RC I kept in my shirt pocket and loaded with Ilford FP-4, which provided the smoothest grays of any film I’ve shot. I also shot with a Nagaoka 4×5 film camera which is another jewel.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio