Olympus OM-4 Thoughts

I’ve been shooting with my OM-4 for several weeks now. I’m circling through several different cameras (Nikon F2, Nikon F, Olympus OM-1, Olympus OM-2, Canon F-1, Canon A-1, Olympus OM-4) to compare features, and generally how they feel to shoot with. I’ve come back to the OM-4 and would like to discuss my likes and dislikes and give you my impression of what it’s like to use the OM-4. Whenever I travel someplace, I always want to bring some film photography equipment, so this is for me as well. Will the OM-4 be the film camera I take on my next holiday?

I vacillate between a couple different trains of thought whenever I try to decide which camera I should carry. On the one hand, I want something that’s light and simple (the minimalist in me talking). On the other hand, I hate to not have enough features (the techie in me speaking). Finding a balance that will satisfy all of my photographic desires is a large task for any one camera.

I remember, from a previous post, I shot 120 film with my Zenza Bronica – a camera that I really like, however it’s difficult to carry around since it’s large and heavy. It is fun to use though. Very retro, and high quality output from this camera.

So, first, let’s discuss what I like about the OM-4.

On the top of my list is the compactness and high build quality of this camera. If it didn’t feel good and work well, I don’t think I’d be writing this.

Next, let me say, I love the technology of the OM-4. Now, compared to today’s digital, high resolution, mini-computer cameras, it may not seem that technically advanced. However, compared to its peers, this camera was very advanced. For some reason, I love the idea of off the film metering. It just seems to make sense to me – I mean how much better could metering get, than to measure light reflected directly off the film as your shooting? So, there you have it, I love technology, and I love to see it used in practical ways.

I also love the way the OM-4 handles spot metering. Before evaluative or matrix style metering was conceived of, spot metering was the way accurate metering was done. It was tricky though, and if you didn’t know what you were doing, you could easily get bad exposures. Olympus took this idea one step further. It’s a manual process (maybe that’s why I like it) where the photographer actually chooses the points in the scene that are most important (up to 8 different spots) and meters each of those spots independently. The OM-4 remembers each spot you meter, and averages those spots to, in theory, come up with a more accurate reading than a simple scene average, or a single spot reading for that matter, could provide. So, while Nikon, Canon and Minolta were developing and perfecting their matrix metering cameras, Olympus went this route and allowed the human photographer to choose the spots in the scene to meter for exposure. The others programmed their cameras to decide which spots were important to meter via their various matrix metering systems. It’s interesting because the whole question of whether a person could make better decisions than a computer was obviously being discussed and debated here. Olympus chose to allow a person to make that choice, but the other manufacturers decided that a computer could make as good, or better choices when it came to exposure – or it could at least 90% of the time, which is probably good enough for most people.

Other things, like the ergonomics of the OM-4 are important to mention. However, most of these features were not OM-4 specific, but were features found on most of the OM cameras. I like the way the controls are laid out, in a simple, easy to reach way. Even things like the film package tab holder, on the back, was designed a little smarter (in my mind). While most other cameras allowed you to slide the cardboard end tab from a film box in from the top, Olympus turned it over and allowed sliding in the bottom. This was actually a smart design, since sliding in from the top was obstructed by the viewfinder eyepiece (and whatever else you had attached there). Sliding in from the bottom was just easier since there were no obstructions.

The OM-4 also had a viewfinder diopter adjustment. This is great for me, since my vision isn’t as good as it once was. The other OM viewfinders are pretty good, and I can still use them since they are bright, and seem to magnify enough to allow me to focus easily. The adjustment on the OM-4 is a nice feature though, and allows me to make the viewfinder image more sharp, even with my poor vision.

Now, let me also describe a couple small things that bug me about the OM-4.

First, it really bugs that when you set the ISO, you have to re-align the ISO ring so that exposure compensation isn’t set. For the sake of size (I would guess) they’ve combined the dial for setting ISO with the dial for setting exposure compensation. So, after I change my ISO, I have to click the exposure comp back to zero – or center. Just a pain, but I’m getting old, and remembering to do stuff is sometimes hard for me.

Second, information in the viewfinder is fairly complete for a camera of this age. I like to shoot in manual mode quite a bit though, and I’m really not a fan of the led bar across the bottom of the viewfinder, but it works.

OM-4 Viewfinder (manual mode) showing led metering bar across the bottom.

I really like the older style needle on the side of the finder – that moves up and down until it’s centered between the top and bottom edges of the frame. The OM-1 and OM-2 had this (and the Nikon FE & FE2, which I like a lot, had something similar), but with the newer electronic features, they chose to move away from those mechanical needles.

In spite of this, the OM-4 viewfinder is easy to understand. The bottom of the screen shows the current shutter speed, and an exposure bar. The line between the 2 arrows is exact exposure. The tip of the arrow would indicate 1/2 stop either over or under, and the flat edge of the arrow would be 1 stop over or under, and the small lines show 2 stops and 3 stops over or under. Pretty simple and clean. In aperture priority auto mode, all shutter speeds are displayed, and the bar stops at the whatever shutter speed is going to be selected when you take your shot.

The OM-2S, OM-4 and OM-3 bodies also had 2 new focusing screens, that were developed to be brighter and clearer that the original focusing screens. These screens had a larger tab, and therefore couldn’t be used with the older bodies. The screens are 2-4 (clear matte) and 2-13 (split image with matte ring). These are basically new versions of 1-4 and 1-13. I’m fortunate to have a 2-4 and a 2-13 as they are both hard to find, and if you do find them used, they can be very expensive. I saw a 2-13 for sale on eBay for $199. So, if you have one, consider yourself fortunate. If you are selling an OM camera with one of these screens, you might want to replace with another focusing screen, and sell the focusing screen separately since they are in demand and hard to find. I’m not sure, but the OM-3 or OM-3T might have come standard with the 2-13.

Those are some of my likes and dislikes. All in all, the OM-4 is one of my favorite film cameras (along with the whole line of Olympus OM cameras). I’ve been testing the spot metering functionality to see how it works. Here’s some photos I shot using my OM-4. Kodak Portra 160. Most shot with my Zuiko 35mm f/2.8, but some shot with a Zuiko 100mm f/2.8.