OM-1: 50 years on

50 years after its release, the OM-1 has left an impressive yet self-effacing legacy. Not only did it test the limitations of the SLR form, but it expanded them through design and technological innovation.

The OM-1 was always conceptualised as a small SLR. At the end of the 1960s, professional 35mm SLR cameras were only becoming bulkier and heavier with technological advancement. The event of the Nikon F in 1959 was a revolution in innovation, being among photojournalists’ favourites; it was only weighed down by its size and mass. The only nearest and ‘serious’ alternative to these cumbersome cameras were rangefinders such as the Leica M-Series – but no such SLR existed amongst the professional field. Yoshihisa Maitani was a Japanese camera designer who worked with Olympus on the smaller Pen and Pen F cameras: he notes that, “In those days, it was important for a camera to be heavy, thick, long, and big. The phrase ‘Light-thin-short-small; didn’t exist yet. Small cameras were considered as toys.”

The Nikon F was among photojournalists’ favourite SLRs during the 1960s (Image credit: Sarah-Claude Lévesque St-Louis on Pexels)

As a later player in the market, Olympus needed a truly exceptional and professional 35mm SLR if it was to compete with the camera giants, Canon and Nikon. And it needed something fast – sales of Olympus’ Pen Series were falling in the US. The company was desperate.

Maitani was made chief designer of such an SLR, and he had a clear vision for what would become the OM-1 (originally named the M-1) – a compact 35mm SLR that placed simplicity and functionality at the fore. As Maitani emphatically puts it, “A camera is a tool to take pictures. It needs various functions. I try to take apart the camera into units by each function. Lens, body, film back, and a focal plane or lens shutter. The basic concept of the OM System is to enable the user to gather the components as necessary.”

It was to be a small camera with a big punch. So small, in fact, that Maitani tasked his team with engineering a camera which would be 20% smaller than the Nikon F – then the jewel of SLR innovation – in all dimensions, whilst also shedding 50% of its weight. An art of precision and perseverance, the design team often begged him for a few extra millimetres, but Maitani did not falter. The production camera was ultimately a mere 1mm larger than Maitani’s concept.

As for the weight, Paul Burrows writes that, “Alloys replaced brass for the body covers and the pentaprism viewfinder was completely redesigned to eliminate the traditional condenser, further saving weight. Even brass screws were replaced by steel ones, which helped save a few precious milligrams.”

Despite its size, the M-1 was equipped with features usually found in larger and heavier SLRs. In fact, it was because of its size that the camera could improve the efficiency and utility of its internal space, as well as exaggerate some of its features. For example, the small pentaprism hump actually houses a pentaprism that is on average 30% larger than those found on contemporary SLRs, meaning that the viewfinder covers 97% of the film frame. The use of silver in the pentaprism also brightened the viewfinder by 70% compared to its rivals – something that triumphed the notoriously dim viewfinders of the Leica M-Series.

The external design of the M-1, too, was a remarkably restrained. The top plate was free from excess, containing only formal and necessary components – the shutter button, the ASA selector, the advance lever, the on/off switch and the rewind crank. The shutter speed dial was now arranged around the lens mount; it feels definitive without being stiff. The overall metal build quality asserts the camera – it is not a “toy”, but an instrument. It is direct and purposeful.

To further reduce the camera’s presence, Maitani quietened the shutter by using lightweight curtain drums and over 20 shock absorbers to mitigate vibrations. But this wasn’t enough – the internal mirror also had an air damper to lessen the effect of mirror vibration. Maitani writes that, “Until I found my way to the air damper, I experimented with springs, oil, powder – all sorts of dampers, but none of them were any good. If the damper is too effective, it’s easy for the mirror to stop halfway. Then I remembered a time when we were cleaning the house. A sliding paper door fell down making a “swoosh” noise. That was air of course, and I hit upon using that. The air damper is next to the mirror system – air goes in and out of a cylinder and works as the damper. I bought a sound-level meter and set a test standard of under so many decibels. No other camera has had so much attention paid to its sound, or has an air damper for its mirror.”

A 1970s magazine advert highlighting the OM-1’s quiet shutter (Image credit: Nesster on Flickr)

The M-1 also did away with the complexity and liability of electronics, remaining at its core a mechanical SLR – something that has in turn historicised the OM-1 as a relatively reliable camera. Indeed, the only electronically powered aspect of the OM-1, the light meter, requires a specific, discontinued and rare mercury oxide battery. Nonetheless, the shutter and film loading were entirely mechanical, meaning that the camera could still be used if the battery failed. The use of the cloth shutter afforded the camera the standard fastest speed of 1/1000th. The professional market began to take interest.

The OM-1 MD model added a motor drive capability (Image credit: Nesster on Flickr)

To further foreground its practicality, Maitani designed the OM series to be a system (hence, ‘OM System’); and no, this was not some delusion of grandeur, as Olympus released the M-1 with over 30 Zuiko lenses and 12 interchangeable focusing screens, piquing market interest. The lenses were (and still are) famed for their optical performance, being fast, smooth and extremely sharp. Each lens was, like the SLRs themselves, of exceptional build quality and they were smaller than their contemporaries. Every prime lens used the same size of filter, 49mm, allowing filters to be swapped between lens as needed. Later iterations of the camera focused on accessories and modularity further: in 1974 the OM-1 MD was released with a motor drive (MD) capability; and in 1979, the OM-1n came with 34 improvements over the original model. And so on.

‘So on’ because thereafter, the OM series conceded to the increasing market trends of automation and electronics and, in turn, Olympus lost its edge over larger camera companies. When I use my OM-1n, I see it as an embodiment of forensic precision and robust, mechanical aesthetic. It strips photography down to its rawest, most elegant form. It has one unwavering purpose – to be the photographer’s friend.

No camera has been built with quite the same philosophy since.

(Featured image credit: Nesster on Flickr)

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