“How old is that one?” My daughter pointed to the Olympus 35-S in my hands. The glistening, silver camera with its coal-black lens pointed back.
“Let’s see,” I said. Basic math, but I had to think. “It’s… 67 years old.”
“Is that older than you?” She asked.
“That’s older than Papa!” I replied, and pressed the shutter release to catch her look of disbelief.
This math equates the birth year of the Olympus 35-S to 1955, and it’s an impressive camera for its era.
A compact body made entirely of metal, an acceptably capable fixed lens, a viewfinder with integrated rangefinder focusing patch, a fast focusing tab, rapid wind lever, and the first ever rapid rewind knob built into a Japanese camera (the rewind knobs of prior Japanese cameras were all simple knobs, lacking the flip out lever of the 35-S which later became ubiquitous), the Olympus 35-S is no slouch on the spec sheet. At least, not in its own time. For film shooters today who are looking for a fixed lens rangefinder to burn their 35mm film, there are better choices. Minolta, Canon, and Olympus themselves all made cameras in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s which effectively evolve the formula of 1955’s 35-S.
Still, for collectors of Olympus cameras or people who simply appreciate all-mechanical, all-metal and glass film cameras with no electronics and simple design, the Olympus 35-S is pretty nice.
Olympus 35-S Spec Sheet
- Format – 35mm full frame
- Lens – Olympus E. Zuiko F.C. 48mm F/2.8
- Aperture Range – F/2.8 – F/16
- Shutter – Seikosha MX leaf shutter; speeds Bulb, 1 second, 1/2, 1/5, 1/10, 1/50, 1/100, 1/250, 1/500th of a second
- Shooting Modes – Manual Only
- Focusing Modes – Manual focus, rangefinder integrated into viewfinder
- Light Meter – None
- Flash Capability – External flash sync X/F/M
- Other Features – Accessory shoe (cold), film frame counter, film speed reminder, strap lugs
- Weight – 620 grams
I shot my Olympus 35-S at a coastal park amongst stunted conifers and sandy seawalls. It was the kind of late-March sunny day that looks like spring but feels like winter. The wind never stopped for a moment and I could feel the salt sticking against my face and lips. My daughter hung in there admirably, screaming into the wind between exposures and doing her best not to squint. The ocean lapped at the feet of the gulls, and I wondered how the hell any creature could stand to stand in the one-inch-deep ebb and flow of frigid sea water at low tide. But they do it. And I photographed it.
The wind did its best to freeze my fingers and pry the camera from my mitts. But the Olympus 35-S fits nicely in the hand. It lacks contoured grips of any kind, but it’s large enough that my fingers can find purchase. The lens is dense and balances the weight of the body perfectly when held two-handed.
The controls are all localized on the lens barrel so that adjusting aperture and shutter speed are easily achieved with one finger and one thumb. The aperture selection is displayed in a cut-out window on the top of the lens barrel (which is beautifully finished), and these are accompanied by easily-legible scale focus markings. The focusing tab allows rapid focusing and the focus scale is marked in feet. All of this is executed beautifully, comparable in design and quality to the many similar West German cameras of the era (many of which I’ve written about previously).
The shutter release, film advance lever, and film rewind lever are all located on the camera’s top plate. These all actuate as one would expect (assuming that one has used an old film camera before). The internal film compartment is typical fare, with a metal pressure plate, metal rollers, and a gorgeous metal sprocket advance gear. The film take up spool is sheathed in plastic, which could be a weak point in the camera’s reliability, though mine seems strong and stable.
There’s a film frame counter and a film speed reminder on top as well. These do what they do.
The viewfinder is small and somewhat dim. However the rangefinder focusing patch is built into the viewfinder, something that not every 35mm rangefinder of its era could claim. If there is a weakness in the overall Olympus 35-S package it is certainly the smallness of the VF. And for those of us who wear glasses, well, the VF could be a deal-breaker. Not just because it’s even harder to peer through for glasses-wearers, but also because its bezel is metal and it scratches lenses. I changed into contact lenses just prior to shooting this thing after testing it first with my glasses. It’s bad.
Old lenses are great, and they have personality that can sometimes be lacking in the standard fare of today’s Canon and Nikon and Pentax and Sony do-everything-perfectly modern lenses. A big part of this hobby, in fact, has coalesced around easily adapting old film camera lenses to digital bodies. There’s just something about images made with old lenses that’s hard to quantify or replicate, but whenever I see a shot from an old ~50mm lens I instantly know that I’m seeing an image that was made by something other than Canon’s latest nifty-fifty.
Fixed-lens cameras like the Olympus 35-S offer much the same, let’s call it interesting, image quality.
This particular fixed-lens camera uses a 4.8cm (48mm) Olympus E. Zuiko F.C. with a maximum aperture of F/2.8. Images are very sharp when stopped down to F/8, and sharpness is still excellent even when shot wide open. At this aperture, F/2.8, and with a close subject the background is nicely blurred as well. There’s lovely gradual shift from out-of-focus to in-focus areas of a shot, and on the whole, the lens is a solid performer. It’s just a good, old lens that packs a lot into a small, affordable package.
The Olympus 35-S is a beautiful camera. It’s nicely made and competes easily with the fancy West-German cameras of its class and era. Its rangefinder works well, its controls are laid out intelligently, and it’s easy to use (so long as we’re comfortable using a fully manual camera with zero user aids). The fixed lens is of a versatile focal length and with a fast-enough aperture that we’ll be covered in all but the dimmest light. It’s just a super pretty and capable classic camera, and one that’s flying under the radar these days. Of course, this is in part because they’re somewhat uncommon in the USA and Europe.
For those wondering if they should buy – I can’t recommend this camera for someone who simply wants to make nice film photos. There are much better cameras for that. Point and shoots from the 1990s will do the same things as this Olympus, and more, and easier. SLRs offer far greater bang for the buck. And for those of you who are specifically looking for a fixed lens, classic rangefinder film camera, I’d recommend later models (some of which were also made by Olympus!).
If you’re an Olympus collector or someone who simply loves true classics, by all means seek out your own 35-S and enjoy the tactile, old-world experience of shooting a camera made after the big war and well before the era of electronics. But for everyone else, the Olympus 35-S will probably feel a little too old and limited. That said, it’s a gorgeous thing.
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