Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
Olympus "OM" is the system I grew up on and still use today. Despite that fact
that Olympus have now abandoned this market in favor of focussing on 35mm and
digital compact cameras, they made some of the finest and innovative manual focus
SLRs and lenses of all time that are still in use today by many amateurs and
professionals alike. On eBay, many good deals can be found on used equipment and
many used equipment dealers will have stock. Because Olympus is not as well known
by many newcomers as Nikon and especially Canon are, used prices are generally
lower than those brands. Bad news if you bought new, but good if you want to
build an inexpensive, high quality system. Second hand items do keep their value
very well, though, so if you buy now, you will be able to sell it again without a
Why would you want an 80s manual system? For many reasons. First of all,
pictures taken with the system are of the same quality as professional auto focus
cameras and lenses are today, while you save yourself a lot of money compared to
buying new. Second is that the kit is small, light and easy to use. Many people
beginning photography tend to buy consumer grade auto focus cameras and lenses
and never really learn about how to properly use a camera, or taking a long time
to learn because it is so easy to just set it to automatic and snap away while
the manual overrides are hard to use. Manual cameras force you to learn quickly
because you have to think about shutter speed and aperture from the word go.
Another reason why so many travel photographers use systems like these is not
only because of the size and weight, but also because it does not draw as much
attention from people with less then honorable intentions with your gear and as
someone in the forums once said it: "Local people feel a lot more comfortable if
you don't aim something the size of a bazooka at them."
This article is not written as an equipment review, rather it is, as the title
suggests, a quick overview of the system aimed especially at those who are
looking to invest in a manual camera system or extend on a camera they have had
for years but are only now really getting into photography.
Many models have been made over the years, from consumer types to very solid,
accurate and expensive professional cameras. With a few exceptions all Olympus
cameras operate aperture priority or metered manual with a center weighted
averaging meter. The main exceptions being the OM-1 and 3, which are metered
manual only, the OM-10, which is aperture priority only but can be made into full
manual with the optional manual adapter and the OM-40, which has a "program"
mode, where it sets both aperture and shutter speed and can even automatically
over-expose in back lit situations, though not very accurate. The OM-2S(P) and
OM-4(Ti) both also have a 10 percent spotmeter. Olympus bodies tend to be a lot
smaller than their competitor's counterparts, quickly slipping my OM-4 with
50/1.4 lens into a pocket of my all-weather jacket is not much of a problem.
It is good to know that, apart from the OM-1 and 3, all Olympus cameras have
an accurate, electronically controlled shutter speed. I mention this because many
people seem to think that all manual cameras have unreliable fully mechanical
Aperture priority in the Olympus world is very well designed. Olympus simply
coupled the aperture ring on their lenses to a lever in the lens mount which
tells the camera's exposure system what it is set at. While it would be possible
with this set-up to do shutter priority, no Olympus camera offers this feature.
On the cameras with a "program" mode, you simply set the aperture to the minimum
(i.e.: f/16 or 22) and the camera is able to control the aperture by only
pressing the lever that stops down the lens when taking the picture part of the
way. Personally, I don't find shutter priority very useful and don't miss it. The
shutter speed only needs to be high enough so as not to create any motion blur,
aperture is much more a creative decision as it controls the depth of field.
Sometimes you have to sacrifice that depth of field for a higher shutter speed,
but that is simply a case of opening up the aperture more. For this reason very
few people use shutter priority and it's not worth making sacrifices for on the
Unfortunately, the selected aperture is not shown in the viewfinder, only the
(camera) selected shutter speed. In metered manual mode, either a 1/3rd of a stop
accurate bar shows the exposure as compared to what the camera's meter thinks is
OK (like in OM-4) or the camera simply shows it's selected shutter speed as well
as what you have set it at. (OM-10, OM-40)
As with many manual SLRs, exposure compensation on an Olympus is set by simply
turning the film speed knob and this can be set to +/- 2 stops in 1/3 stop
increments. Many models feature "Off The Film" (OTF) flash metering with
dedicated flashes, of which many are available from Olympus as well as other
OM-1(n) A true mechanical camera, this one only needs batteries for the
light meter, everything else will operate just fine without them. The downside is
that it only features metered manual exposure, not the much used aperture
priority. I would not recommend this camera for that reason. That and any you
find will be old and most likely (ab)used by professionals.
OM-2(n, s(p)) There are three camera's named OM-2. There is the
original, the N and the SP (Simply "S" in the USA). If you like high speed black
and white film, you won't like the original as it only goes up to 1600ASA. The N
version does not add that much more interesting apart from some flash indicators
in the viewfinder and exposure compensation warning. I would not recommend either
version. Much more interesting is the SP version. Internally it is much more like
an OM-4 and sports a spot meter, 3200 ISO film speed and program mode where the
camera selects both the shutter speed and aperture. (Still prefer aperture
priority, though) Like all other professional OM cameras, it is built like a tank
and I can recommend this camera. On eBay they go for about US$150-250 with a
Like the OM-1 a fully mechanical camera. Too expensive and the same drawbacks as
the OM-1 has. Among other things, the Ti version supports TTL dedicated
OM-4(Ti) Probably the greatest manual SLR ever built and the non-Ti
version is my work horse. Built like a tank and has a spot meter, a maximum
1/2000th shutter speed and film speed up to 3200. The viewfinder is clear and
bright. The Ti version has a titanium top and base plate, has a flash sync of
1/125th with any flash (OM-4 only does 1/60th) and at any speed with the Olympus
F280 or T45 flash guns. Both versions have TTL/OTF flash metering. Highly
recommend! On eBay they are usually sold with 50/1.8 lens and go for about
US$250-400, depending on state and, as always on eBay, luck...
OM-10 This is Olympus's basic consumer offering. Without the manual
adapter it only works in aperture priority mode. The maximum shutter speed is
1/1000th and the maximum film speed is 1600. Unfortunately, this one does not
support TTL dedicated flash but it can work dedicated auto, with the light
reading being done on the flash and the camera showing flash ready and OK. This
is a great budget/beginners camera or as a backup body. Expect to pay US$100-150
for a set containing body, manual adapter and 50/1.8 lens.
OM-40 This camera is known as the OM-PC in the USA. Similar to the
OM-10, but bigger, it has a program mode and full manual; the shutter speed
selector is built in. It has dedicated TTL/OTF flash metering. I own one that I
took some great pictures with. I wouldn't say it's better than an OM-10 with
manual adapter, but it is easier to use. It's a good option but there are not
many of them around. Probably because it is not well know, they tend to sell for
less than the OM-10 does.
OM-2000 This one is not actually designed or built by Olympus, it is
merely an OEM product made by Cosina that uses an OM lens mount. I have heard
nothing good about it so I would suggest to not bother.
Olympus has manufactured many different "Zuiko" lenses for the OM system. In
their wisdom, they never changed the lens mount or features like Canon has done
over the years. (Nikon is even better; you can use your old manual lenses on
their latest AF SLRs) This means any Zuiko lens will work on any OM body. What
lenses you buy depends on your needs and budget. As usual, faster is better but
there are more things to consider when selecting a system, like filter thread. I
will give an example of a few different basic combinations:
The cheapest fully usable set of lenses will probably be: 28/3.5, 50/1.8 and
135/3.5. All three are the cheapest in their range, but still much better than
you would expect to get from a modern 28-135 consumer zoom and they all have a
49mm filter thread, so only one set of filters needed. Because 28mm gives a lot
of depth of field at any aperture and the wide angle doesn't require very high
shutter speeds to hand hold, f3.5 is fast enough. The 135/3.5 may be a little
slow (though still almost 2 stops faster than a yuppie cheap zoom!) but very
usable as a short telephoto/portrait lens. The 50/1.8 is bog-standard and needs
no further introduction. On eBay, this set will set you back about $150, though
the 50mm will most likely be included with the camera you buy.
In the same focal range as above, but faster lenses: 24/2.8, 50/1.8, 100/2.8.
The reason I went for the 100/2.8 and not the 135/2.8 is that the small focal
range difference does not weigh up against the fact that the 135 has a different
filter thread, where as in our selection, they all have a 49mm thread. There is a
faster 24mm lens, but again, this takes 55mm filters. If you think 24mm is too
wide, the 28/2.8 or 28/2.0 are also good options. Expect to pay US$375 for this
There are many longer lenses in the Zuiko range, a good budget choice would be
the 200/4 at about $200. Faster an more expensive in the same focal range is the
180/2.8 at about $400-500 or if you don't minding lugging 2Kg of glass, the
massive (and massively expensive) 180/2.
If you are into nature photography, a 300mm lens is essential and Olympus has
a 300/4.5 in this range for about $350 or a 350/2.8. This beast of a lens has a
diameter of almost 15cm, weighs in at 3.9Kg and will set you back $3000+ easily.
In all honesty, if you want quality glass this long, heavy and expensive, you are
probably better off with a brand new Canon system. I personally would rather pay
$1100 for a new image stabilized 300mm f/4L IS made by Canon. It won't break your
back or the bank as much as the 350/2.8 and will most likely yield better
Olympus makes even longer lenses, but they tend to be relatively slow, heavy
and expensive. Get a new Canon EOS system instead.
There are two Zuiko macro lenses, a 50/3.5 and a 90/2. Both are more expensive
second hand than a brand new Canon 100/2.8 USM Macro. You do the math.
Don't bother. 80s zooms are notorious for having poor, slow, low contrast
optics. Primes are a much better choice.
There are some out there, but I know very little about them or if they are any
good. With the amount of Zuiko lenses available, I am not prepared to find
Nothing special here, all filter are easy to get. If you use a polarizer, it
can be one of the cheaper linear type, unless you use the spotmeter on the OM-2s
or OM-4(Ti), where you will need a circular polarizer. You can use a linear
polarizer with those cameras for normal metering, it is only required when using
There are many models available that work dedicated with Olympus OM cameras.
Cheap and simple, but not very powerful and without a head that can tilt is the
T20. One step up and recommended is the T32, which has a guide number of 32 (ISO
100 in meters) and a tilting (but not swivel!) head. There is an Olympus flash
bracket, the Power Bounce Grip 2, available especially for the T20/32 that takes
some big batteries and adds swivel. If you have an OM-3Ti or OM-4Ti, you can also
use Olympus flashes F280 and T45, which sync at all speeds. There are also many
units available from third party suppliers, they offer either manual, auto or TTL
dedicated operation. More on OM series flashes can be found
on this site.
My two cents
Despite buying into a new Canon EOS system, I not only still use my Olympus
OM-4, I am actually upgrading the lenses I have for it. I like both systems a lot
and as great as the EOS is, I like going out on a Sunday afternoon with my small
OM and 50mm lens and just snap away. Traveling is something I quite like to do as
well and with plans to go to many "non-western" countries the prospect of getting
a lot of attention with my shiny new Canon gear is not an attractive one.
While being an excellent choice for casual and general photography, for
specialized work it is not good value. If you are heavily into macro or nature
work, look elsewhere as the lenses required for that are too heavy and expensive
compared to modern systems.
If you decide to buy into an Olympus OM system, or are just getting interested
into photography and intend to extend on what you already have from way back, you
can be sure that this system will let you take the best pictures you can.