Olympus OM1 and OM2 Overview

By Ed Ting Updated 6/23/08 OM2n 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 college newspaper.) 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 back then. 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.) Weighs 230g. 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 purchasing. 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. Caveat Emptor! Conclusion 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 Astrophotography

Leica R3 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 Leica standards.) The R series is easy to decipher: the higher the number, the more recent the model. 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 way.) 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 modes. 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 surprises. 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.) Buying Used 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. Conclusion 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
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