Last year I purchased an Olympus OM-2n with a 50mm 1.4 lens for a mere £35 via the British Heart Foundation's online eBay store. The item was described as 'untested', which, as all photographers will know, usually means 'not working, sold as scrap'. After a little cleaning and slotting in a silver-oxide battery, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find the camera fully operational.
The Olympus OM system was a legendary line of 35mm single-lens reflex cameras designed and made in Japan. Spanning from 1974 until 2002, the OM system was synonymous with all the finest qualities of a Japanese SLR camera; Well engineered, yet compact bodies; sophisticated while minimalist designs, and superb optics that provided uncompromising image quality.
This was not my first experience with the Olympus 35mm cameras, as I have many fond memories of using my father's Olympus OM-1 as a child. Although I shot few photos with it, the OM-1 was a wonderful object to simply hold in your hands, nicely weighted in a cold, brushed finish with tactile feel. Like a sophisticated movement on an old Swiss watch, every mechanical operation felt perfectly aligned, from the smooth tension of the film advance to the reassuring thunder as the shutter struck true. These memories of the the OM-1 evoked in me such nostalgia that I decided to pick one up myself, for a trip down memory lane and the novelty of shooting some film.
While opportunity presented me with an OM-2 instead, specifically the (n) specification, I was relieved to find that the OM-2n was largely very similar to the OM-1 for which I had such fond memories. The most significant differences were internal; while the OM-1 is mechanical, the OM-2 uses an electronically-controlled shutter and boasts Aperture Priority with a very-accurate TTL metering system, which I have found performs excellently even with modern battery voltages.
Although film stocks are becoming increasing obscure and expensive to find in stores these days, with a little shelf rummaging one can still find supplies of AGFA Vista 200 in pound shops, usually seated next to a stack of VHS tapes, also relics from a bygone era. It may come as a surprise to many that AGFA's stocks are now rebranded Fujifilm, offering Europeans a cheaper alternative to the identical Japanese stock. Many people resell these films on the internet for £3 a roll, which is making retail stock rare, so when I stumbled across a pile in my local store I excitedly bought a quantity that I knew I would use before the expiration date. Don't be greedy, folks!
The first test of the OM-2n would be a weekend at Download Festival at Donington Park. I found the OM-2 fit nicely in my backpack, and it was reassuring that I would never have to worry about it losing charge. The tiny film camera slipped past event security with no issues, whereas nowadays a digital camera often gets a lot of unwanted questions regarding taking unlicensed band photos.
Here's a few snaps from the weekend.
The OM-2n is a joy to use. Despite its tiny size compared to other mechanical classics such as the behemoth Nikon F2, the camera offers a stunningly bright, huge viewfinder housed within an inconceivably small pentaprism, allowing easy critical focus. I can make no exaggerations regarding how large the viewfinder really is. Compared to a modern digital SLR, the OM viewfinder experience is like glancing from a television to a cinema projection, such are its proportions. It really has to be seen to be believed.
Using the exposure compensation dial, I pushed the photos by 1.5 stops to enjoy the immense highlight latitude of print film. Exposures were bang-on every time, even with complex stage lighting. Slide shooters won't be disappointed, but I would recommend the OM-3/OM-4 series instead, as the meter on those cameras is the most sophisticated you will find on any camera, with a whole multitude of options for calculating exposure. Truly remarkable. My only knock on the OM-2n is that the shutter speeds max out at a relatively slow 1/1000th, which means you have to stop down quite a bit in daytime usage, or use slower film. The later OM4 allows shutter speeds up to 1/2000th.
Despite its size, the camera is amazingly robust. I've already dropped and banged it on a number of occasions, and it has proven to be quite indestructible, ideal for a traveling photojournalist. The low, sloped pentaprism sits confidently like a tank turret atop of an equally armored hull, absorbing damage easily without slowing down. I get the feeling you could take this camera and hammer nails with it all day, and tomorrow it would still be shooting fine. And yet, the aesthetics and feel are as refined and elegant as one would come to expect from a Japanese SLR.
Would I recommend the OM-2n for someone looking to get into film on a budget? Of course. I'd also recommend almost any other Olympus OM-series. For an observer today, there are few obvious differences between 1972's OM-1, and an OM3-ti manufactured in 2000; Such was the success of the OM design that Olympus found each camera a tough gig to follow. This is truly remarkable in our current fast-paced age of consumer electronics, where one only has to take an item out the store to find it has been succeeded by an item that makes your purchase redundant. There is a real sense of timelessness with the OM series. While competitors Minolta, Canon and Nikon moved towards high levels of automation from the late '80s, Olympus stayed true to their roots, offering conservative updates to their increasingly niche system. In the point-and-shoot era of mass produced plastic bodies and noisy autofocus motors, the manually operated Olympus OM cameras were truly swimming against the tide. Sales dropped. The digital camera age would be the final nail in the coffin for the OM-series, however, as Olympus, like many other companies, would be slow to adapt to the technology. The line was discontinued in 2002, but many traditionalists remained loyal to the end, and never felt alienated by their system.
One last photo from the OM-2n.