Camera Reviews

Olympus OM1n - A Little Bit of Nostalgia

In the years that this model has been available, there can be nothing left to write about it that has not already been said. When released it rapidly became the darling of the photo industry, praised for its compact size and robust build quality. It was used in harsh environments, taken to the top of the world and carried by some of the leading photographers of the day. Its popularity meant that it remained in production for around 14 years, during which time modifications were made to the original OM1 culminating with the OM1n. And as time went by many imitators rose and fell but few, in my opinion, left behind them such an impact on the photo world. It is not in the scope of this article to cover aspects such as this – a quick search on the internet will provide a treasure trove of information.

Olympus OM1nSo why am I taking the time to write about it? I guess I wanted to pay personal tribute to the machine that defined my photography for decades to come. I am not a particularly nostalgic person, but the OM1n does bring a little of this out in me, no doubt due to our long relationship that can be traced back to May, 1982 when I parted with £124 for the body and ubiquitous 50mm f1.8 lens. I was not exactly a stranger to the OM system as a friend had been using one for a couple of years so I often had chance to take control of it - and more so after he purchased the OM2n.

The OM1n is a wonderful all mechanical camera that has served me extremely well, and continues to do so. It is tough, reliable and compact, and even after 30 years of use remains in good condition, bearing just light traces of situations where is was used in less than favourable environments.

The 1.35v mercury cell powers only the light meter, therefore the camera can be used without batteries, assuming that the user has other methods of metering. Mercury cells were phased out many years ago, but I stock piled several due to their long (10 Years+) shelf life. Various battery replacements or conversion kits allowing other cell types to be used are readily available today, but I recommend having the camera professionally converted to take 1.55v silver oxide cells as a long term solution.

During our three decade relationship the camera has performed flawlessly irrespective of conditions. I have often taken it overseas, subjecting it to high and low temperatures, dust and humidity. It has met with several soakings, been dusted with snow and kept in freezing conditions in tents for days and never once failed me, apart from the hot shoe cracking badly due to low temperatures and my over-zealous efforts to screw it to the prism too tightly. Having said that, the shoe was a poor design and almost all on the used market today bear similar damage. For the sake of completeness, I purchased a new one many years ago and exercised more care when attaching items to it.

In retrospect I guess it was inevitable that I should grow quite close to my Om1n and it forms a valuable addition to my equipment – not from a monetary viewpoint as this model can be purchased for very little today. But it terms of inanimate companionship I have nothing else quite like it.

When shooting film today, I tend to favour the OM3Ti and 4Ti models due to their more sophisticated metering systems and ability to use brighter focussing screens without having to apply any compensation. This does not mean that the OM1n gathers dust in the back of a wardrobe – far from it in fact; It still sees use particularly when travelling abroad and usually paired with a Zuiko 35mm f2 lens. This combination also makes a perfect companion for hiking as like other OM System bodies, its diminutive size takes up little space in a rucksack. If I want to make the load even smaller, I attach the tiny 24mm f2.8 Zuiko and a polarising filter.

My only film shooting medium for many years has been transparency and it was using this type of film that I found that the OM1n has a tendency to overexpose a little. Transparencies are notorious for their very narrow latitude so it is very important that exposure values are as close to optimum as possible. Trial and error has found that compensating by around minus two-thirds of a stop is needed for me to get a well saturated result.

Olympus OM1nThis is the only camera I have ever had serviced. A couple of years back, I noticed the shutter ring was becoming difficult to turn and some debris had built up in the viewfinder (stuck to the prism) over the decades. I sent it across the pond to Camtech in Huntington, New York, who stripped it down and serviced it. As well as relubing all moving parts, and tidying the viewfinder up, the service also included a conversion to silver oxide batteries, adjustment of the shutter timings and replacement of the film door and mirror bumper foam. In essence, I received my camera back in like new working condition which should last me many more years.

Today, my primary concern is that the supply of most spare parts must have dried up by now and such parts will probably have to come from donor bodies. Additionally I am concerned that ‘Old School’ repairers will not pass their skills on as they approach retirement and we will ultimately lose the ability to repair old classics.

I was 21 years old when I purchased this camera and I never thought that I would be still be using it now I have passed 50. Nor would I have thought that it was possible to bond with what is simply a camera. The real beauty of having used it for so long is that it has witnessed many personal changes in my life. From those last youthful years growing up, holidays and travel, marriage and other significant family occasions and very importantly, the birth of my Son; The 1n captured them all. Sentimental? - You bet; When I reflect on some of the photographs taken during this period I am reminded of things that would be long forgotten if I relied on my memory alone. Even insignificant items that appear in backgrounds have the ability to evoke memories, and this makes me very aware of life's steady passage. I guess a camera, be it still or movie, is the closest we have come to producing a time machine. Like many other people who have been blessed with children, I have taken countless pictures of my Son, from the memorable night he took his first breath to the present day. I am only too aware that his childhood years have long passed and he has shrugged off boyhood, youth and grown into adulthood. Childish ways that were once so important to me, my Wife and him have long been discarded; Without some kind of memory jog, memories soon become dusty and lost. My personal project to capture and preserve moments of his life is on-going and will become more important the older I get. Hopefully, it will retain an element of importance to him too.

So my past is littered with work taken using my OM1n and this makes me look on it with a degree of reverence. I have every intention of continuing to enjoy it at every opportunity and love taking it abroad each year to continue doing what I originally purchased it for - a travel camera.

If anyone is looking for reliability in a camera body, I can vouch for the OM1n. They remain plentiful on the second hand market and are inexpensive. Given that the camera has been out of production for 25 years or so, it would be fair to assume that a service would need to be factored into the price of purchase. And it would also be worth taking a close look through the viewfinder; Many OM1n's were produced with foam between the outer casing and prism, which degenerates and attacks the prism silvering over time. Bodies exhibiting this kind of damage can be repaired, but it would mean replacing the prism from a donor body if the damage was bad. Similarly, the foam forming the lights seals in the back of the camera, and mirror bumpers, will need to be replaced. Shutter timings may also have strayed a little from what is acceptable and a service would be a good opportunity to get the battery conversion done.

Mechanically speaking, once back in top shape there is no reason why any OM1n should not continue to be taking photographs for decades to come – I hope this is the case for mine.