Once upon a Christmas Eve, when I was around five years old, I awoke sometime in the middle of the night. It was hours yet until the rest of the family would wake up for our Christmas morning together. For a while I lay awake, staring up at the ceiling, feeling gleeful anticipation tingling up and down my small limbs. Any chance of falling back asleep retreated minute by minute, finally vanishing altogether like a spooked creature into the snowy Minnesota night. I decided I simply could not wait to survey the tree, which my parents according to family tradition had decorated in secret after my little brother and I went to bed. I crept out to the living room and sat for a while, admiring the glorious tableau. In the quiet enchantment of those wee hours, I decided to open one present by myself–just one.
Have you ever been five years old and actually able to open “just one?”
One became two, became three, became four, a tiny quiet Christmas party of one, until I suddenly realized there remained only one gift with my name on it under the tree. I had kept skipping it as its shape seemed the least interesting. At this point, a vague feeling caught up with me that I was likely doing something I wasn’t supposed to. Slightly abashed, I decided to leave the last one there. In some small-child manner I reasoned that my parents couldn’t be mad if I still had one to open with the family in the morning and crawled off back to bed.
My parents, to their credit, weren’t mad the next morning. They were perplexed; I remember much chuckling and shaking of heads. And as it turned out, that package–the one I’d thought would be the boring one–was a camera.
If this were a perfect story, I’d tell you now that the camera I’m writing about all these years later is the one I’d found under the tree that Christmas. It’s not. I had that camera all through my childhood and into my teens, but it’s been missing for years. It was almost certainly one of the first Olympus µ[mju:] cameras, called Stylus in the U.S.; the Christmas in question was 1992 or 1993, and the first of the fabled series of Olympus clamshells designed by Maitani that have come to enjoy such immense popularity today was released in 1991.
Fast forward to the present day. Not too long ago, I found myself in a rural Pennsylvania thrift shop, poking through the section with old keyboards, dusty speakers, and odd unrecognizable electronic junk. Amidst the flotsam and jetsam, I found my first thrift store camera: the unmistakable little gold clamshell of an Olympus Stylus Epic (in this case, the Zoom 115 from 1997). Priced at $3.99, it had a few scuffs and bumps, but the inside seemed clean and the glass undamaged, so home it came.
Once I had it, it took me a few weeks to track down a battery and choose a roll of film for it. Oddly enough, I found myself almost reluctant to give it a whirl. I really enjoyed that camera’s forebear as a child, and can probably trace my love of photography in no small way back to endless hours of childhood exploration accompanied by it. But now, working more in fine art, I’m used to more control. I prefer SLRs for actually looking through the lens; I have a hard time living without an aperture ring; and even when shooting digital I tend to go for manual focus over auto. Beyond turning the flash on or off and zooming in or out, none of that was going to be possible with this little fellow. I figured I’d have a little fun running some Ultramax 400 through it for old times’ sake, but then I’d go back to my Rolleicord and my Pentax ME Super with a sense of relief. Maybe sell the Zoom 115 on eBay.
I gently cleaned up the camera one Saturday morning, loaded a battery, and held my breath as I slid back the integrated lens cover. Magic! It powered up and all the buttons did what they were supposed to. The roll of film wound into place precisely as it was meant to, as far as I could tell. Bolstered by a little rush of excitement, I fired off several shots around the porch and the front yard: a little morning bonfire, smoke, sunrays, the leaves of autumn. And I can vouch for its pocketability: while going to the grocery store later, I slipped it into my jacket pocket and promptly forgot it was there. When I did remember, I was surprised and pleased to realize I in fact had a camera on me.
Over the course of a couple weeks, I brought the Olympus with me whenever I was leaving the house and had no specific reason to bring my usual ME Super. I came to relish the gentle snick of the shutter each time I took a picture, as well as the soft whirr of the camera self-winding to the next frame. As far as I could tell, it was working fine, but I had no real idea: for all I knew, I was going to get back an empty, totally under-exposed, or freakishly mixed roll. My major annoyance at this time was remembering to turn the flash off every time I opened the camera: I just don’t really like flash, and it resets to default every time you close it. I also turned off the date stamp, until I finally tracked down a manual, figured out how to change it, and found it actually does go all the way up to 2020 (and beyond, though I haven’t tested how far). It’s a little slow to start up—a few seconds from sliding back the cover to being ready to shoot—so there were several street photography moments I missed because I didn’t have the camera on already. In addition, although I like its little startup mumble, it’s noticeable to anyone nearby, so it isn’t exactly a stealth camera (though neither is it as loud as the mirror slap on my Nikkormat EL).
I took it on neighborhood walks, a November camping trip, and several rainy autumn car rides through Philadelphia. I’ve shot more pictures out a car window with this Olympus than any other camera (very pandemic-appropriate, I suppose). Since I had no control over shutter speed, most of those shots came out fairly motion-blurred. Nonetheless, I like them: the impressionistic and amorphous are to my mind equally fair game in photography as tack-sharp, perfect exposures.
Throughout the test roll, I tried not to shoot anything I would be too disappointed to lose, so it became a roll of random snapshots, haphazardly framed. Yet to my delight, when the scans came back, every shot came through. Nothing was too under-exposed, and autofocus worked well for most shots, if not all. Not too different from getting a roll back in 1995 or so, in fact.
So. Did I sell it? Did I go back to my ME Super with relief and shelve the little guy? Well… not exactly. If I were being really picky, I might have asked to find the fixed-lens, 35mm f/2.8 version instead, but I’m not really complaining. I’ve already fed my four-dollar find a fresh roll of Kodak Pro Image 100. Although I’ll be sticking to my more advanced cameras for artistic work, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed handing off control to this little plastic ’90s camera. I liked having something easy to slip into a coat pocket and whip out for a snapshot at any given moment. Almost thirty years later, it’s brought back to me the feeling of surprise and delight I had upon opening the package with that first Olympus Stylus in it, and later laughing with my parents at how the gift I thought would be the most boring turned out to be in fact the most enduring and intriguing.
I guess that little champagne gold clamshell will always hold a little Christmas magic for me, and for that, I’m keeping it around. Happy Holidays, friends—and remember to give the littlest camera some love every now and then, too. You might just be surprised.
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