Olympus OM1 and OM2 Overview
By Ed Ting
Compact, classy, and simple, the OM2N makes a
perfect portable astrophotograhy camera
The Cameras: The OM1(N) and OM2(N)
Introduced in 1972, the Olympus OM1, remains, to many astronomers, the
ideal camera for astrophotography. Long out of production, the OM1 (and its
more advanced brother, the OM2) is still highly sought after on the used
market. Sadly, neither the OM1 or the OM2 are still available; of the orig-
inal OM-bodied cameras, only the OM4 is still in production.
Manual-everything cameras were once the norm, but are all but extinct
today, having been supplanted by the new technological wonders. Metal-
bodied workhorses like the Canon F1, Nikon FM2, F, and F2, the Leica R
series, and Pentax LX and K1000 still reside in many astronomers' equip-
ment cases. Many are still producing stunning astrophotos today.
Why does the OM1 endure? Cute and classy, the all-manual OM1 was well-
made, relatively inexpensive, convenient, and extremely light weight (the
OM1 body weighs only 510 g.) Indeed, after handling a Nikon F or a Leica
"R" body, picking up an OM1 or OM2 felt like picking up a toy. For astro-
photographers, though, good things did indeed come in small packages.
But the OM1's lightness didn't signal cheapness. On the contrary, OM1
and OM2 bodies are well-known for their durability. I've shot hundreds
(maybe even thousands) of rolls through my OM2N over the past 15 years,
and it's been through only one major repair -- a replacement of its mirror
box (I had dropped the camera onto concrete while on assignment for my
Olympus cameras have never been best-sellers, in the manner of Nikon
and Canon cameras. For the reasons, you have to look at the design of
the OM system, which is a little different, even quirky.
For example, OM2s, OM2Ns and all OM1s accept flash units only through
a detachable "hot shoe" that screws into the prism. The problem is, just
about everyone loses the hot shoe (check out all the used ads which contain
the phrase, "W/O Hot Shoe.") Mine lasted less than a month. If you buy a
camera body, consider it a big bonus if you get the hot shoe.
The shutter speed dial sits on the bayonet mount of the body, and is
concentric with the aperture dial on the lens. On the top deck, where
you'd expect the shutter-speed dial, there's the film speed selector
(OM1). On the OM2 models, the film speed dial is imbedded within an
exposure compensation dial, marked in 1/3 stop increments, from +2 to
-2 stops. I've loved this exposure compensation dial ever since I first
used it. It's so easy to bracket shots with it, I've often wondered why
other manufacturers didn't copy it. The rewind button (actually a half-
turn dial) is placed on the front, "M6" style, so you can activate it
while the camera sits on a tripod. Neat.
Finally, the aperture ring is waaaay out there, near the front of the lens.
The placement of these controls is so non-standard, I've seen experienced
photographers pick up my OM2N and grimace at it. "Olympus is the Saab
of photography," someone once told me.
Once you get used to the controls, however, operation is easy, even
comfortable. The camera is so small and light, it feels more like a
point-and-shoot, than an SLR.
The OM1's operation is completely mechanical. You do need batteries to
operate the light meter, though. The meter itself is servicable, and maybe
a little crude-looking. For astrophotography, get yourself a #1-8 focusing
screen, set the shutter ring to "B", attach a cable release, and shoot away.
If you need automatic exposure, an OM2 is your cheapest option. The
automatic mode was aperture-priority only. In automatic mode, a shutter
speed meter moved into place (when OM2 is shut down, there's no meter
or scale at all.) While I've had my doubts as to the long-term durability of
this "moving meter" system, I haven't experienced a failure yet (and knock
wood, too -- broken meters seem to be the bane of these cameras.)
By the way, although the manual for the OM2 makes a big deal about the
camera needing batteries to operate, the "B" setting is purely mechanical.
The OM2 and OM2N are missing the manual mirror lock-up. Minimizing
mirror slap can be a big deal in astrophotography; without it, you'll need
to resort to placing cards, hats, etc., in front of your lens. All OM1s do
have the manual mirror lock-up.
Olympus later added an "N" designation to the OM1 and OM2, making them
the OM1N and the OM2N. The "N" improvements were minor, allowing, for
example, a 2 minute shutter speed and true off-the-film metering on the OM2
in automatic mode. "N" cameras don't seem to fetch much more than non-
"N" models on the used market, so you should go for one, if you can -- you'll
be getting a newer camera in the bargain.
The OM2S Program
In 1984, Olympus introduced its OM2S-Program, which added a "fully
automatic" mode, in addition to aperture priority and manual modes.
Also, the camera had a nifty spot-metering system. These features
may seem old hat to us today, but they were a big deal when introduced
Olympus-philes viewed the OM2S Program with suspicion -- the camera's
styling and graphics looked uncomfortably similar to Canon's AE1-Program --
but the newest member of the OM2 family eventually gained acceptance.
I broke down and bought an OM2S body when they first came out. I
remember being impressed with its workmanship; the dials, levers,
and buttons seemed smoother than on the OM2N. The only exception
was the shutter speed ring, which was sticky and stiff compared with
the OM2N and OM1N rings. At least there's a permanent hot shoe.
As time passed, I grew less enamored with the OM2S. The contacts
on the bayonet mount were very finicky; unless the lenses were
mounted "just so," the camera would calculate an incorrect exposure.
Also, Olympus had fitted a strange "dual mirror" system in its mirror
box. The first mirror was half-silvered, allowing light to pass through
to the second mirror, which was presumably used for the new spot-
metering system. This was just fine with me, except that the sound
of the two mirrors clanging together like a bag of loose coins began
to drive me nuts every time I fired the shutter.
What finally did the OM2S in for me was the way it treated its
batteries. Even with all circuits switched off, there was a residual
battery drain that left them dead after about a month, whether I used
the camera or not. In other words, I'd have to remove the batteries
after every shooting session. If I forgot (and I often did), I'd be
greeted by a dead camera a month later. This happened to me once
just before an important shoot, and that decided things for me. I sold
the OM2S, and haven't missed it for a moment.
The Zuiko Lenses
For all their neat features, camera bodies are, in essence, nothing more
than light-tight boxes. While the OM1 and OM2 bodies are eminently well-
suited for astrophotography, eventually you may want to use the camera
in daylight, or you may want to use one piggybacked with a lens installed,
or you may wish to take pictures for your club newsletter.
Or whatever. You'll need lenses to accomplish all of this.
While the Zuiko lenses are good, I cannot in all honesty say that any of
the ones I've owned have been exceptional. The complaints come not so
much in the optical department (Zuiko optics are fairly consistent, if not
spectacular), but from their mechanical construction.
All of the smaller Zuiko lenses (the 200 mm f/4 on down) share the same
basic construction. If you shake one, it rattles like a toy. The aperture
rings can have a loose, imprecise feel to them; I'm always afraid I'm going
to break one off. Ditto for the spindly little depth-of-field preview button.
At their price levels, you cannot expect Zeiss or Leitz quality from the Zuiko
lenses, but I do wish they were more ruggedly constructed.
What follows is a mini-wrap up of some of the more common lenses.
Zuiko 28 mm f/2.8: Very sharp, well-corrected lens, perhaps the best
of the lenses I currently own. Should be stopped down to at least f/4 for
maximum performance. When photographing constellations, try f/5.6 or
smaller -- avoid photographing stars wide open! Comes with a rubber
removable lens hood, which you should use. Can be stopped down to f/22.
Zuiko 50 mm f/1.8: Like Meade's MA25s, these cheap lenses are easy
to collect. I still have a drawer full of them, and use them as body caps.
Performance is good. It should be stopped down to at least f/4. Star
images are awful at f/1.8, with significant vignetting noted as well. The
good news is that these lenses are cheap on the used market (often less
than $20 from reputable outfits like KEH), so you can experiment. Amazingly
small and light (only 165g.)
Zuiko 50 mm f/1.4: A little bigger and heavier than the f/1.8 (above),
which is heresy to die-hard Olympus fans. Still, it's a slightly better
lens, and it's the one that spends the most time on my camera. It's
recommended, and still cheap (less than $50 from some used outlets.)
Zuiko 50 mm f/1.2: Much larger than the f/1.8, and not worth the extra
cost and weight. The weight (285 g, about the size of most 50 mm
f/1.8 lenses) is well-hidden, however. It's not much larger than the f/1.4
unit. Some feel these are not worth the expense. If you want a fast 50
mm lens, I'd suggest holding out for a good f/1.4 unit.
Zuiko 100 mm f/2.8 Classic portrait lens. Useful for short telephoto star
field/constellation photography. Good optics. Incredibly tiny for its focal
length - about the size of a standard 50 mm lens! Runs $125-$250 on the
used market. The f/2 version is said to be a great lens, but it'll cost you:
$300-$500, depending on condition.
Zuiko 135 mm f/3.5: Useful for medium closeups (Hercules, Lyra), it's a
good lens. Should be stopped down a bit for best performance, but it's not
as sensitive to this as some of the other Zuikos. Again, a very small unit,
about the size of most competitors' 90 mm lenses. Very inexpensive as
well ($50-$125). Has a retractable lens hood.
Buying Used -- What to Look For:
That's about it. The basic camera is sound, and the OM1s are simplicity
itself. Things to watch for include broken meters, meters that don't retract,
and "stuck" shutter speed rings. Check to see that the teeny (and flimsy)
"B" lock button works on an OM2. Also, inspect the little metal hook that
latches the back door shut -- make sure it isn't broken off (always close your
OM backs gently. The latch is a weak point in the OM camera design.)
Finally, if you have large hands, any of the OM bodies (and their small
controls) may be a little inconvenient for you. Try and use one before
Avoid the less-expensive OM cameras, like the OM10, OM-PC, OMF,
and OMG, (the OM20 and OM40 if you live outside the U.S) if astro-
photography is your goal. All lack a batteryless "B" setting. The
jury's still out on the new, all-manual OM 2000, but it looks promising.
Expect to pay $175-$300 for a clean OM1N, and perhaps $200-$300 for a
good OM2N. Lenses run the gamut from an $8 50 mm f/1.8 I once picked
up, to $2200 and up for the big telephotos.
If you always wanted an R6.2 but couldn't afford it, take a look at the manual
OM3, an exquisite camera. The OM4T is also excellent, but it's way too
complicated for an aperture priority camera. Also, the prices ($350-$600
for an OM3, $400 to $700 for an OM4T) may deter you from acquiring one.
A Word About Buying Camera Equipment
It is an unfortunate fact of life that mail order photographic supply houses
carry a ignominious reputation exceeded only by used car salesmen in
our society. In other words, it is possible, even likely, that you will be
ripped off, unless you know what you're doing.
Among new equipment dealers, B&H, Adorama, and Camera World of
Oregon have the best reputations. In the used market, KEH is the
largest. They're also a pleasure to deal with. I have done business
with most of the mail-order retailers, and I am not prepared to recommend
you do your business with anyone else at this time. While I've had
some good experiences with other retailers, none are consistent enough
to warrant an unqualified recommendation here.
If you decide to do stray from my advice, you may be rolling the dice with
your money. Don't come running to me if something happens to you. You
may be treated rudely by the two New York companies, but at least your
order will likely arrive correctly, and you will have someone to talk to should
something go wrong.
In short, stick with the companies listed above. The old adage, "If it sounds
too good to be true, it probably is" goes double for discount photo dealers.
Minor complaints aside, the Olympus OM1(N) and OM2(N) remain the best of
the portable astrophotography cameras. That they are available so readily
and so cheaply (at least for now) is a boon to astronomers. If you have
been thinking about the purchase of one of these cameras, my advice is to
do so quickly. They're bargains for now, and they aren't exactly making
any more of these. Good luck, and good shooting!
Sidebar: Leica Reflex
Leica's R3, with 50 mm f/2 Summicron
A German engineer once explained this to me.
"Let's say two teams of engineers, one Japanese, the other German, need
to bolt two pieces of metal together. The Japanese engineers will run all
these computer simulations and stress calculations and then come up with
this ingenious little bolt that no one has ever seen before.
"The German engineers still do the stress calculations, but at the end of
it all, they look at each other and say, 'Ah -- what ze heck. Let's use two
bolts. And make them big ones.' "
He was speaking in general terms, but this philosophical difference between
the Germans and the Japanese seems to apply in many arenas, from cars to
electric shavers, from industrial equipment to grand pianos.
And cameras. Like many hobbyist photographers, I often stared at Leica's
ads, wondering what was up, if they were worth the extravagant asking
prices. Were the Leicas really as good as their many fans suggested?
I had a chance to find out, during this past year, with the purchase of R3
and R4 bodies. With the introduction of the Leica R8, prices for previous
"R" models have fallen another notch, and are now a bargain (at least by
The R series is easy to decipher: the higher the number, the more recent
Leica R3 (1976-1980): There were no "R1" or "R2" cameras. The previous
generation of Leica SLRs were the SL and the SL2. While they were great
cameras, they lacked an automatic mode, and had dated styling.
Due to economic considerations, it was decided to form a partnership at this
time with the Japanese Minolta company. The R3 is actually a Minolta XE1
body, with a number of improvements, including a new mirror box. While it
is tempting to call the R3 a "rebadged" XE1 (and an expensive one), an R3
looks and feels nothing like the XE1 (a great camera in its own right, by
The R3 has an unbelievably solid, brick-like feel to it. If I ever need to
bash in a burglar's head with a camera, this is the one I'm reaching for.
Despite its solidity, however, Leica managed to retain the trademark,
buttery-smooth feel on all of its moving parts.
The R3 had a new aperture priority mode, absent from the previous SL and
SL2 models. It's large. Next to an OM1, the R3 is positively leviathan --
780g vs. 510g, and larger in every dimension. The R3 body alone weighs
as much as some of the larger Naglers and Panoptics, which you should
take into account if you intend to use one. All of the "R" series, by the
way, will operate on "B" without battery power. About $250-$400.
Leica R4 (1980-1983, R4s 1983-1987): Awesome camera. When Leica
sticks with the same body style for 16 years, you know it's good. Indeed,
at first glance, a 1980 R4 might easily be mistaken for a 1996 R7.
A completely new deisgn, the R4 adds full automatic, shutter priority,
spot and average metering, and a host of other improvements, all in a
compact, comfortable to hold body. For a Leica, the camera is tiny --
only 630 g, and not much larger than the OM series. In 1983 Leica added
the R4s, a "budget" model without the shutter priority or full automatic
Units with serial numbers below 1,600,000 are rumored to be prone to
electrical problems - test before you buy. Runs about $350-$600.
Leica R5 (1988-1988): An improved R4, with some added features,
primarily software upgrades. 1/2000 shutter speed was added as well.
Gorgeous finish, a beautifully-made camera. A clean, used R5 will set
you back about $650-$900.
Leica R6 and R6.2 (1988-1992): A fully-manual camera with mirror
lock-up. Just like an OM1, only much, much nicer. The R6.2 added a
number of minor improvements. The ultimate manual camera. Expensive.
About $1000-$1800 used.
Leica R-E (1990): An improved R4s. Lacks shutter-priority and full auto-
matic modes. While R4 models were assembled in Portugal, the new
R-E was built in Solms. Despite this, R-E's are a relative bargain among
the newer SLRs, only about $800-$1600. Don't expect the situation to last.
Leica R7 (1992-1996): Although it still looks just like an R4, the R7 was
almost totally new on the inside, with a brand new microprocessor. The
R7 kept the mirror lock up, and added an improved viewfinder, DX coding,
and other modern features. Runs about $1000-$1900.
Leica R8 (1996-present): A completely new camera. Curvy, looks like
no other Leica ever made. Huge (890 g, oh my!), loaded with automation,
and expensive ($2595 for the body alone.) Used ones are starting to appear
on the market for about $2000-$2200.
Again, a camera, even a Leica, is still just a light-tight box. The real
advantage of buying any "R" body is the access you will have to the
incredible line of Leitz lenses. Most are "pure" Leica designs, but
a few (especially the ultra wide angle and zoom models) are designed
and/or custom built for Leitz by Minolta, Kyocera, Schneider, and even
Zeiss. Leica users see no disadvantage to this whatsoever.
Leica lenses are exceptional. In terms of delianation between colors,
rendering of subtleties in shading and color, and tack-sharpness, they
cannot be beat. Furthermore, performance at wide-open apertures is
far better than you have any right to expect.
The "standard" 50 mm f/2 Summicron lens, for example, produces perfectly
acceptable constellation photos at f/2. Stopped down to f/4, the images
are extraordinary. I feel it's important to mention, that "standard" lens
retails for nearly $1,000 new (used, expect to pay about half.) For that
money, you could have an entire OM2 outfit, with many lenses. On the
other hand, that Summicron is likely to be a life-changing (and wallet-
changing!) experience; you may not want to shoot with anything else
after using one.
At the loftier end of the price scale, you could have the 70-180 mm f/2.8
APO for only $6000, or the 800 mm f/5.6 APO for a cool $10,000.
The Lens Cam Issue
No discussion of Leica lenses is complete without an overview of the lens
camming issue. It is vital that you understand this before taking the
plunge into Leica ownership, or you may wind up with some expensive
As the level of sophistication in cameras has risen through the years,
Leica has added more cams on its lenses, to provide exposure and finder
information. Here is a brief summary:
As if this weren't confusing enough, in the late 1980's, Leica began
supplying lenses with an "R" cam only (sometimes called a "third cam
only" lens.) The "R" bodies only used the third cam anyway, and the
old I, II, SL, and SL2 models seemed to be fading away, so Leica just
removed the 1st and 2nd cams from its lenses.
As a result of the above, if you buy an R3 (or newer) camera body, you
will need "3 Cam" or "R Cam Only" lenses, if you want full functionality.
All of this is important, because you will see ads for Leica lenses at
seemingly ridiculously low prices. Further research almost always shows
that these cheap lenses are 1 Cam or 2 Cam lenses. Any seller worth their
salt should be able to tell you immediately how many cams their lens has.
If they don't, move on -- something is wrong.
But here's the boon, for astrophotographers. If you only plan to use the "B"
setting on your camera, the 1 Cam and 2 Cam lenses WILL FIT on your
R body. You just won't have metering, exposure, etc. functionality. Thus,
you will have the benefit of those superb Leitz lenses at bargain-basement
prices (some can be had for as little as $200.)
Leica owners tend to take care of their equipment, and the many ads for
older models still in "mint" condition is a testament to this. Most of the
time, you will not have much trouble, if you do your homework and buy
from a reputable dealer.
As with any old camera, check to see that the meter still works. The Cds
photocell used in older cameras is said to have a 25 year life. However,
I've seen cameras a lot older than that with functioning meters.
R3s should be checked to see that the mechanical meter works. Check
all the electronics on an R4 or an R4S. Units with serial numbers before
1,600,000 are somewhat prone to electronic failures; as a result, more
recent models will fetch more on the open market.
I don't know of any significant issues with the R5, RE, R6, R6.2, or
R7. And if you're in the market for an R8, you probably don't need
advice from me.
Any of the Leica reflex cameras, especially the R3, R4, R4s, and R-E,
are "best buys" on the used market right now. You need to be aware
that you're buying, in some cases, a twenty year old camera, but these
products are notoriously overbuilt and reliable. And the lenses will
simply change your belief system as to what's possible in a 35 mm
format. Highly recommended to those lucky enough to afford it!
End Olympus OM1/OM2 Overview, w/ Leica SLR Sidebar
- "1 Cam" lenses are for the old Leicaflex I and II only.
- "2 Cam" lenses were used by the SL and SL2, as well as the I and II.
- "3 Cam" lenses are used by all "R" bodies, from the R3 through the
present model, the R8 (the R8 starts a new series, by the way, with
detailed electronic information passed to the camera body. However,
it still accepts the 3 Cam lenses.)