“The future is coming,” shouted Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, CEO of Olympus, probably, “and we must prepare!” It’s 1989. The world is in upheaval, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to Emperor Akihito coming to power in Japan. That signaled the beginning of the Heisei period, which would last until 2019. Computers are getting faster and better at a pace nobody but Moore expected, with new technologies sprouting up all over the world.
Cameras were no different, with autofocus recently becoming a major focus of even professional SLRs. Gone were the days of heavy, metal, mechanical beasts, all slain with Canon’s introduction of their plasticky, electronic EF mount in 1987. The future was calling, and it was coated in matte-gray plastic. It also beeped a lot.
In this hectic world, Olympus and Ricoh decided to partner up and imagine what the future would look like for camera design. The results were the Olympus AZ-4 and Ricoh Mirai, which literally means “the future” in Japanese. The Olympus didn’t get a romantic name like that, but it did appear in 1989’s Batman movie. So that’s cool, I guess.
Fast forward to present day, and this time I’m the one wondering about the future. Like a lot of people, my life has been in total upheaval, but things go a lot deeper than quarantine. I’ve lived in four cities in the past year, and haven’t really felt at home in a long time.
Coronavirus had ripped all my plans in two and took my grandmother from me at the same time. I lost my job in a city that never felt like home anyway, and ended up moving back to New Jersey. My childhood room was (and is) littered with boxes from various moves, to the point that finding anything specific could mean hours of work. It was like living inside a monument to my own inability to put down roots, and I knew I couldn’t stay for long. I needed my own Berlin Wall-falling, epoch-changing fresh start.
And that fresh start came when I decided to move halfway around the world to Tampere, Finland, where I’ve started working at Kamerastore.com. Arguably a dream job for a camera nerd like me, and something I’d been considering for over a year before it happened. But I still had doubts.
Living in the moment when everything around you is in flux can be almost impossible, especially when you’re alone in a new city. And I truly was alone in a new city. Forced to quarantine in a three bedroom apartment by myself, I was “working” alone in a basement and only exchanging three or four words a day with an actual person.
The work, even if it was a task I enjoyed, felt heavy and slow. Time didn’t mean much when all I had to look forward to was an empty apartment and instant noodles for dinner. I should have asked for real food, but I panicked.
For a while it felt like there was a pane of glass between me and the rest of the world, and my thoughts tended to echo around in my head for hours as I sat alone at work, in the park, or at my apartment. My Finnish coworkers would (and will) tease me for admitting that I need a bit of human contact to stay sane.
How I Met My Russian Dads
That’s when I received a text from my boss saying I would be getting two new roommates, one French and one Russian. I had never even left the US before, and now I’d become an actor in a bizarre international sitcom.
“Cool,” I thought, “better than being alone.”
When they arrived, we set up an area to work during our quarantine, and were given boxes of cameras to sort through. Cheap cameras, broken cameras, the “extra” stuff that isn’t really worth selling on its own. We were to organize them into groups, box them up, and sell them as lots. Exactly what I was doing when I was alone. Easy enough, but soon the camera nerds in all of us began playing with everything.
That’s when the Olympus AZ-4 poked its head out of a box. The part of my brain that made me want to review the Samsung ECX-1 or even the Yashica Samurai was set ablaze by what can only be described as a camera resembling three Sony Walkmans (Walk-men?) glued, first to each other, and then to the handle of a tennis racket. “Ding ding ding, we have a winner!” chants my brain, and I take it out of the box.
It’s heavy, creaky, plastic, and every bit as 1980s as you can imagine. Absolutely coated in buttons, dials, flaps, dots, switches, and LCD screens; truly there are no Stranger Things than electronic cameras from the ’80s. Get it? Ha. It’s so ridiculous, James used it as the cover photo for an article on unusual camera designs that failed. It wrote the book on it.
My new roommates, Alex and Roman, looked at me like I was crazy as I made that joke in my head and then proceeded to say I had found my new favorite camera. I stopped our workflow to find batteries and see if it worked. Ten to fifteen buzzes and whirrs confirmed that it did, so we were ready. I was gearing up to continue my trend of bashing silly and weird camera. And then we found a Ricoh Mirai.
Alex pulled the Ricoh out of the bin and we had yet another celebration. The cameras are nearly identical, only differing in style slightly and requiring different batteries. Which is stupid, why work together on such an outlandish camera design and draw the line at using the same battery? They could commit to the same articulating handle but not on AA’s? Sorry, sorry, let’s stay on track.
After some consideration, Alex and I decided to both shoot one while we adjusted to life in Finland and waited out our quarantine. Some of the photos in this article are his, and some are mine. I’m the one with the mop of hair, and he’s the one with the beard.
We loaded up some cheap Kodak film and got back to work, sorting through cameras and trying to find nice ways to organize them for people.
Compared to before, working alongside these two was completely different. We could talk, listen to music, share stories and trivia about our lives and cameras and countries. We were in it together, and it felt like home. We even started learning Finnish and scared a few people who walked in on us repeating basic Finnish phrases together in monotone, like a really lame cult who only worships small talk.
The work days passed faster and faster, and we occupied our quarantine time by taking socially-distanced walks towards the edges of our new city. Cameras in hand, of course. We went everywhere within a 10 mile – sorry, I can hear them being like “what?” – 16 kilometer radius, laughing and talking and drinking beer the whole way.
After a week or so of working, exploring, and living together, we had learned quite a bit about each other. I learned Alexei is of Russian descent when he and Roman started speaking Russian to each other. I learned they’re both 32 years old when we celebrated Roman’s birthday with vodka and folk music. I learned of Alex’s love for the sauna when we sat next to each other in the hottest, sweatiest room I’d ever been in. I lived in Georgia, but my weak American skin is still getting used to that kind of heat.
And we all learned about the Olympus AZ-4 because I would not shut up about it. Even before I had shot with it, I was ranting, raving, and complaining.
I could try to compare the Olympus AZ-4 to other cameras, but the only comparable model is the nearly-identical Ricoh Mirai. No other camera has a three-position articulating grip like the Power Rangers action figures it released alongside. If you’re a fidgety person like me, this grip is what you’ll want to play with.
The grip is necessary to support the massive body, which combines the features of an SLR and compact camera in whatever the opposite of “effortlessly” is. Effort-fully? Whatever. The 35-135mm lens, pop up flash, TTL viewfinder, and “advanced” computer brain take up space and weight, and there’s really no ideal way to hold the camera, so they added a hand grip. Mine even came with a leather wrist strap for extra padding and support. I hope you can feel my sarcasm.
When Alex and I tried to actually shoot our ridiculous cassette-deck cameras, it was raining. We got through three or four shots before we gave up and went back home to read the manuals instead. And wow, does the manual make this camera out to be incredible.
It has a spot meter, it can do multiple exposures, its zoom covers all types of photography. The viewfinder tells you all the settings (even if you can’t really change them). It has a manual-focus macro mode. It has a dedicated RESET button, which is maybe an indication that the controls on your full-program point-and-shoot are too complicated. It tells you the distance it’s focused to, both in the viewfinder and the LCD screen on top. The one on top even reminds me of the distance scale in the viewfinder of the Contax G1, so there you go. The Olympus AZ-4 is just like the Contax G1 in every way. Pick yours up today and save a ton of money.
Please don’t take my advice.
The Contax G1 isn’t nearly as nice as the AZ-4; its grip doesn’t articulate at all.
Starting Over, Like it’s 1989
By the time I had finished that first roll, I’d be lying if I said the Olympus AZ-4 hadn’t grown on me. Or perhaps it was Alex gushing about his Mirai and telling me I complained too much. You know how dads are. Unfortunate as it may be, they’re normally right.
The AZ-4 was making me smile, and felt more solid and capable than its point-and-shoot style. The grip, loathe as I am to say it, is comfortable. I was very excited to be sharing this with my new friends, and to use the camera as a mechanism to explore my new city. The more we walked around, the more I recognized places, and the more we talked the more I felt at home.
It felt like I was finally starting my life, after a period of uncertainty only bookended by the coronavirus pandemic. Finally, I had perspective enough to process some of how I had been feeling the past few months.
Alex and I finished our first rolls at different times. He’s more trigger-happy than I am, keen to plow through rolls. He takes a lot of pictures of his friends, which is undoubtedly part of why he burns more film than I do. I admire that, the gusto with which he documents life. I think it takes me a bit too long to be comfortable enough around people to snap them so candidly. But he’s already taken some of my favorite photos of myself, so it’s probably just in my head.
Eventually I found my way to my second roll while on a walk through Atlaspuisto towards Jalkasaari. Don’t worry; I can’t pronounce those with confidence yet either. This time out, feeling more confident in my partnership with the Olympus AZ-4, I opted for Portra 400.
And the photos? Well, they’re great. I love them. The ones on consumer film suffered from a gray day, but they’re sharp enough. But that Portra? Hell yeah. A sunset-stained Finnish park provides some intense, possibly tricky light, but the AZ-4 did its best. The zoom gets a bit soft towards the long end, like every zoom ever, and the focus isn’t exactly fast or accurate. The macro mode, though, works surprisingly well once you’ve read the manual.
A beautiful environment on flexible professional film is maybe not the best place to do a scientific review, but it is the best place to actually take photos. And the AZ-4 does just that. Give it the right environment, and it’ll wow you, plain and simple.
Plus, I just like it. The buzzes I teased earlier became a calming, confidence-inspiring presence after only a few shots. I found myself pushing further, walking away from my friends for the shots I wanted as I grew more comfortable. In this new place, a camera feeling like home was the kind of tiny solace I could cling to until things felt better.
And things did begin to feel better. Our walks got longer as the last few days of summer eeked out, and by the end of our quarantine we really did feel like a family, me and my two Russian dads. It sounds silly, and I’m giggling as I write it, but, like I did with the AZ-4, when things get chaotic I try to find whatever tiny niches of home are available to me. Even if they’re two large Russian men and a brick of beeping plastic.
The Olympus AZ-4 and its partner, the Ricoh Mirai, are not incredible cameras. They’re ridiculous, huge, and over-designed, but they’ve meant more to me than I ever thought a lump of plastic could. This camera is my connection to my new friends and family, and the bridge by which I start my new life.
When life is uncertain, and it may be that way for a while, try to cling to those people, places, and things that make you feel home. No matter how small they are. If you’re able to surround yourself with them, life’s changes will be manageable. When I’m struggling with visa applications, or missing my family, or anything else, I can re-read this article or look over at the Olympus AZ-4 on my shelf and realize home is where you make it, and life only starts when you do.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, Alex is asking me to go to the sauna. Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a great day.
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This is so wholesome. Thanks for a great read!