The Essentials – A Guide to the Best of Olympus Camera Systems

The Essentials – A Guide to the Best of Olympus Camera Systems

3000 1687 James Tocchio

Lusting after rare Nikons and Contaxes keeps me in occasional blinders. But every now and then, one of the writers here sends me a wakeup call. This happened the other day when Dustin, our resident Olympus freak, forwarded a gorgeous photo of a mint condition OM-3Ti, and I couldn’t think of a good reason not to own one.

Oh yeah. I forgot. I love Olympus.

So here I am, a few days later putting the final touches on the latest edition of our ongoing feature, The Essentials. We’ve already listed the very best from Nikon, Minolta, and Canon, and today we’re showcasing the best of the best from the brand that Maitani built. From impossibly small rangefinders to never-miss point-and-shoots, revolutionary SLRs and even the odd Olympus TLR, here are some amazing Olympus cameras to add to the collection.

Best Professional-Level 35mm SLR Camera – Olympus OM-4Ti

Olympus professional-level cameras don’t get the sort of talking time enjoyed by the robust and versatile system machines that Nikon and Canon produced for photojournalists and war reportage. But that’s not because they weren’t as good or as capable. Olympus has long created cameras and systems capable of working for a living, most obviously in their OM series of 35mm SLRs. Over thirty-odd years, each of the flagship cameras in the OM line offered all the features of their era, plus a full range of lenses and attachments for all uses; microphotography, dental photography, laboratory use – the list goes on.

But what made the OM series special, compared to professional camera ranges from other makers, was their size. When the OM-1 launched in 1972, it showed the photographic world that it was possible to have a professional-level camera in an incredibly small package. Olympus’ OM-1 shocked the photo world and spurred every camera maker to continual pursuit of higher technology in smaller form factors. And of Olympus’ many pro-spec 35mm SLRs, the one to own today must certainly be the OM-4Ti.

Debuting in 1986, the OM-4Ti enjoyed a remarkably long production run for a film camera, not being discontinued until 2002. It was a new and updated version of the earlier OM-4, enhanced with titanium top and bottom body plates, improved weather sealing, and a higher-speed flash sync. But beyond these important improvements, the OM-4Ti retained the earlier camera’s core DNA. And this is wonderful, considering that camera’s spec sheet.

It offered an electromechanical shutter capable of speeds from 240 seconds to 1/2000th of a second (plus bulb mode), aperture-priority auto-exposure mode, plus manual exposure shooting mode, a world’s first metering mode in which the camera automatically averaged eight different areas of the frame plus a built-in spot metering mode, and the OM series’ incredibly massive viewfinder rounded out the major features.

The quality of its construction and the high-tech feature set made the OM-4Ti a remarkable camera when new, and today it’s still one of the best film SLRs that money can buy.

Best Enthusiast Camera – Olympus XA

Legendary Olympus designer Yoshihisa Maitani’s entire professional life’s pursuit was miniaturization. In his earliest days developing the Pen half-frame camera (Olympus’ first major sales success) he was driven by the compactness and quality of his Leica camera. For the rest of his life he pushed Olympus to design and produce smaller cameras with better lenses. The culmination of this pursuit (and the final Olympus camera that Maitani personally designed) was the Olympus XA.

The impressiveness of the XA can’t be overstated. For me, a shooter who values compactness and prefers to shoot in aperture-priority semi-auto mode, the XA is virtually perfect. It’s a tiny 35mm rangefinder camera with aperture-priority, manual focus, an in-viewfinder rangefinder patch, and one of the best metering systems I’ve ever used. Creative controls in the form of aperture selector and exposure compensation make it a true artistic tool, and its form factor means it can fit into a pocket (indeed, Maitani designed it to fit in a front shirt pocket).

Adhering to Maitani’s overarching philosophy that a camera is only as good as its lens, the XA features an amazingly sharp and distortion-free Zuiko 35mm F/2.8 fast prime lens. It is one of the best lenses ever placed in a fixed-lens camera, and it’s the single aspect of the camera that elevates the XA from a good camera to an amazing one. In fact, the XA is one of my favorite cameras ever made and I’m still fuming that Josh, and not I, was the CP writer who reviewed it. Who’s running this place anyway?!

Best Beginner’s Camera – Olympus 35RC

People who are just getting into film photography are often looking for a classic camera that looks gorgeous, makes beautiful images, offers a helping hand in the form of automation, and allows them room to grow. The Olympus 35RC checks all these boxes with emphatic, red ink.

What makes this camera ideal for the beginner is that it offers shutter-priority auto-exposure. This will allow the new film shooter to quickly understand the parameters of shutter speed and aperture and how each setting impacts the final image. The manual focus rangefinder will help the shooter understand composition and feel more connected to the act of image-making, and the inclusion of full-manual mode will offer the photographer greater creative control as his or her experience grows.

It’s not as rare as some other Olympus 35 series cameras (such as the top-of-the-heap RD) so prices are pretty low, another important factor for those just getting interested in film or photography. It also looks fantastic. And that never hurts.

For the Collector

Olympus has made quite a few collectible cameras. There’s the pre-name change Olympus M-1 (named after its designer, Maitani, the M-1 would later be renamed OM-1 after protests from Leica). M-1s were made for a very brief period and had matching “M-System” Zuiko lenses (further details in our full OM-1 review). Then there’s the also-rare OM-3, a mechanical SLR that was so similar to the still-in-production OM-1 that most buyers of the day purchased the earlier camera at a much lower price. The low sales numbers and brief production run has made the OM-3 something of a collector’s item today, like the M-1, and it’s the rarity of these machines that makes them each a must-have for the Olympus collector.

There’s the weird and wonderful Olympus O-product from 1988, an industrially-designed point-and-shoot film camera created by a truly characterful Japanese designer, Naomi Sakai. This point-and-shoot looks like no other camera out there, functions surprisingly well, and can actually make really pretty photos (a full review was penned last year).

Then there’s the Olympus Pen W, the incredibly rare, wide-angle-lens-equipped, half-frame compact that was manufactured for less than one year. This machine is the least common Olympus Pen production model ever made, and finding one in pristine condition today is many Olympus fans’ Holy Grail (got one – review coming soon).

And I must mention Olympus’ Twin Lens Reflex camera the Olympus Flex. This range of machines was made during the TLR boom of the 1950s, which saw Olympus doing their best to replicate the design (and success) of the famed Rolleiflex. They have relatively quick f/2.8 viewing and taking 75mm Zuiko lenses that make great images, even if they don’t enjoy the reputation of the famous German TLR on which the original was based.

Essential Lenses

Rumor has it that Maitani, wanting a perfect standard lens to use on the OM cameras, had the OM System 40mm f/2 designed and built to his personal and exacting specifications. According to our writer Dustin, who’s been shooting the thing for the past two months, perfect it is. Somewhat rare, a bit pricey but worth every penny, the 40mm f/2 is a fast, sharp, and characterful standard lens. If you’re shooting an OM, try to get one.

The OM System 28mm f/3.5 is well regarded as one of the best 28mm lenses ever to come out of Japan. It’s a distortion-free wide-angle lens, and though the sluggish maximum aperture might turn off some shooters, those who overlook this supposed fault will be shooting one of the best lenses ever made.

Dustin tells me the 50mm f/2 macro lens is the sharpest 50mm ever made. I’ve never used it, but I believe him, since he’s shot more rolls through Olympus cameras than anyone I know. I’ll whip him into reviewing the thing and we’ll see if he’s right, together.

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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
  • Great article!

  • Don’t forget, for collectors, the Olympus FTL – Oly’s only M42-mount camera.

  • Personally, I prefer the OM1/2 over the 3/4, the latters fantastic multi spot metering system not withstanding. Why? Because the OM1/2 have much brighter finders, look more elegant and do not have the double mirrorslap of the later camera’s that so annoy me…

  • The Pen FT is missing from this article. Seriously. 🙂

  • Nice write up! I’ve got to put a hand up for the Olympus OM-2n. Love mine!

  • Good write up! Love it or hate it, I think you forgot to mention the MJU II. And how could you leave out the Trip?

  • The article is dry and full of cliche. Didn’t expect it to be so plain. Want a pro level camera? Buy the most advance one. Want an ‘enthusiastic’ camera? Buy the hispter cam. Come on. Surprise me somehow. This might be good for those unaware of Olympus but for dedicated users there’s nothing new here, except for missing out a few cameras worth mentioning.

    • Point taken. The Essentials articles are something of a “greatest hits” from each brand, so of course we’ll pick popular cameras (although the Pen W, O-Product, and even the Olympus Flex are all pretty unknown to the average photo geek in 2018). We will do a “deep cuts” article soon that picks out the really rare and unusual from a number of popular brands, and perhaps that will be more in line with what you’re looking for. Something for the veteran collectors! Hope you check it out.

    • Your highness, I would have hoped it be obvious that anything described as a “guide” is meant for those that are unaware.. Olympus gurus like yourself have no need for a mere guide.

  • I started my photographic adventure more than 20 years ago with an Olympus OM20 and it was a very good starter camera to learn shooting. I still have it in perfect working condition and lend it to some of my students who want to learn analog photography. And today, I really enjoy shooting with the OM2 (In fact I have 2 of them, a shiny silver OM2 and a beautiful black OM2n) and the Zuiko glass is just perfect: I enjoy the 50/1.8 the 35/2.8 and the amazing small 135/3.5. Along with my Nikon FM3a, the OM2n is really one of my favorite SLR’s! 🙂

  • Don’t forget the Ecru for the collector! I’m the same balanceb as the o product for sure in terms of oddness with what I’m pretty sure is an mju-i lens .

  • Yeah Olympus OM-1 can be most standard but best at the same time with most efficient functions.

  • Bit of misinformation here: the OM-3 didn’t sell badly because it was so similar to the OM-1, it sold badly because it was so similar to the OM-4, that had a electronic shutter offering automation, which is what mid-80s buyers were long used to. And I guess those who still sought mechanical cameras didn’t want all this fancy metering options but a simple, no-frills camera for a lower price.

  • I bought an OM20 back in 1984 and still own it, my first SLR, it still works and looks like new. Only ever had the 50mm 1.8 and was thinking of buying a wide and telephoto hence reading here to find out which lenses are the gems. I’m a Nikon guy but that Olympus still has a place in my heart.

  • Everything wonderful about this. Good background information, good to read stuff I’ve read before and known for years, because when the topic is Olympus and Maitaimi, who, who loves Olympus, can ever get enough? I got an OM-1 in 1973 and my daughter still uses it. I got another and another and another and use them all, actively shooting all year ’round year after year. I have other cameras, Hasselblads and Fuji 6×9 and all of that, but my favorite is the OM-1. Take my Hasselblad 903 SW, you can have it. The OM-1 is better than I am, and so easy to use. The 50 1.8 is perfect, and I have nine others, but that’s the one I go to. I can back up and simulate a 40. The match needle is so nice, easy, and better than any lit-up red or green dot. No battery, wow, how great. If I was down to my last OM-1, I wouldn’t sell it for $10,000. Thank you so much for your enthusiasm for this wonderful camera. I love reading this stuff, I always learn something, and it makes my OM-1 even more special to me.

    • Thanks for your comments and enthusiasm a well! Enjoy those Olympuses (Olympai?) and happy shooting.

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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