The Dynamic Duo: Olympus OM-1 and OM-2

About 47 years ago, the camera world was shaken up by a new player in 35mm SLR cameras; Olympus. Olympus, known in Japan for it’s optics and scientific equipment, introduced a new SLR that would compete in some ways with Nikon’s F2 and Canon F-1. The OM-1 wasn’t nearly as flexible as the best Nikons or Canons, but it was a new design. It was compact, with professional features. Since my focus then was journalism, and I hoped to somehow get my break into photo journalism, I remember the cameras that journalists used, and the Nikon F & F2 or the Canon F-1 were the cameras that all journalists used back then.

In the early 1970’s, the Olympus OM-1 was a remarkable camera. Then in 1975, Olympus introduced the OM-2. At the time, the OM-2 was remarkable in many new ways. First, Olympus provided what professionals wanted from a camera system. A totally new camera was introduced, that was fully compatible with the lenses and other accessories used by other cameras in the system, and by doing so, the OM System was born! One of the features I like about the OM-2 is that when you switch to manual mode, the viewfinder is almost identical to the OM-1 viewfinder. When in automatic mode, the OM-2 transformed into a totally new camera with aperture priority automatic exposure. Very cool!

OM-1 Viewfinder
OM-2 Manual Mode Viewfinder
OM-2 Aperture Priority Mode Viewfinder

When I was taking classes at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, I was also doing freelance work for the Associated Press. I was intrigued at the time, with the other major news agency, UPI, who had started using Olympus equipment for all their photo work. All the AP photographers I new used Nikon equipment, but I had an OM-1. I remember showing my OM-1 to some of my friends that had Nikon or Canon equipment – trying to explain the technical advancements that Olympus had built into the OM cameras. I didn’t understand their indifference back then, but I do now. They weren’t really interested in how smooth or quiet the shutter and mirror were. They didn’t care that it was smaller and lighter than their cameras. They were mostly concerned (like any professional would be) with getting their job done with the equipment they had, or were given to use. They had any lens or accessory they needed, because of a system that most of the photographers shared. To them, their camera was just a tool to get a job done, and that’s the way most professionals view their cameras. They are their tools, like a hammer and saw are a carpenter’s tools. You always want something that has a certain degree of quality, that will last a long time, a camera that will just keep working. But those aren’t things photographers with Nikon or Canon equipment were concerned about – they already had that. I thought the technical features were very cool – but that just didn’t matter to them. Their tools got the job done.

But the Olympus OM System was intriguing, and it attracted enough of a following that it caused Nikon and Canon to innovate and design new cameras in response. The OM cameras appealed not only to professional photographers, but they were also priced within reach of semi-pro or just hobbyist photographers. Cameras like the Nikon F2 was slow to sell to anyone but high-end professional photographers. It was too expensive, and too complicated, and too heavy for anyone but a profession to lug around.

Red Wildflowers taken with my Olympus OM-2, 50mm f1.4 Zuiko lens, and Portra 400 film

Nikon and Canon continued with their flagship F2 and F-1 respectively, while seeing the potential to market to another tier of photographer. They saw the chance to market and sell to a whole new demographic, the amateur and semi-pro. So, if nothing else, the success of the Olympus OM-1 and OM-2 demonstrated that there was value in marketing new cameras to other than high-end professional photographers. In fact, I see this even now with the newest Canon bodies. The use the semi-pro models (a whole line of products created back in the 1970’s and 80’s) to actually test new technology before it makes it’s way to the professional models. It’s a proving ground that semi-pros are happy to experiment with, but that professionals, who’s livelihood depends on their equipment working as expected day in and day out, don’t want to be troubled with.

I loved my OM-1 back then (I couldn’t afford an OM-2), and I love all the OM System bodies and lenses I have now. I love new things for the sake of just playing with new things. I guess that’s why I’m not a professional, full time photographer, but I do this mostly as a hobby. I’m glad I had the chance to live through the 70’s and 80’s and see all the changes to cameras and photography! The OM-1 and OM-2 were important cameras, and helped inspire new models and a whole new direction in camera design. Very cool!