The recent holiday weekend found me embarking on a small trip to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusett’s Cape Cod. Reaching my destination would mean an hour’s ride on a motorcycle and an hour’s ride on a ferry, and after arrival I’d spend much of my time exploring on foot. Packing beforehand, I knew I’d need enough clothes and paraphernalia to live comfortably for four days, and a camera to take some shots. Camera gear alone can get pretty heavy, and lugging around a giant sack of photo toys can fairly quickly ruin a perfectly good vacation. So when choosing my gear, I decided pretty early that size and weight were of paramount importance.
I wanted to use an SLR for the sake of variety, as the last camera I’d spent any considerable time with was a rangefinder; the exceptional Canonet. So it was fortuitous that only a few days earlier I’d received an Olympus in the mail, the OM-10. A descendent of the OM-1, this consumer-grade camera is as well-renowned for quality and compactness as its illustrious progenitor, but I’d never used an OM-of any kind, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I equipped the camera with a 35-200mm off brand lens, threw it in my bag, and hit the road.
A brief history- by the early 1970’s, SLR cameras were firmly positioned as the preferred format for working professionals and hobbyists alike. For over a decade, Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and others had been producing hugely successful ranges of SLR machines. If Olympus were to create an impactful camera and garner any kind of respectable market share, they’d have to create something big. After more than five years of development, chief designer Yoshihisa Maitani and his crew unveiled Olympus’ first, major SLR, and the next big thing ended up being very small indeed.
The OM system was launched in 1972 with the professional grade OM-1. This machine ushered in an era that found SLR cameras trending more and more toward smaller, lighter bodies. There were certainly small cameras before the OM system, but before the OM-1, any emphasis on compactness always came at the cost of features and overall quality. In the face of opposition from Olympus’ designers, engineers, sales people, and even the board of directors, Maitani’s unflagging dedication to his ultimate vision succeeded in creating a world in which less camera didn’t necessarily mean less capability. This machine, and subsequent consumer OMs like the OM-10, spurred competition amongst camera makers, and pushed the entire industry into a mindset that the consumer could, in fact, have it all.
With the OM-10 being a consumer model, it’s understandable that build quality would suffer in comparison to the professional OM-1. This isn’t to say the camera is a complete toy. It’s certainly metallic enough, with just a bit of unfortunate plastic creeping into the design. The body weighs in at a feathery 430g, remarkably light for the era and, as I discovered, a welcome benefit when trudging around an island all day in blistering heat.
Levers and switches are a bit lacking, with the plastic On/Off switch being especially spongey and unsatisfying. The ASA selector is coupled with the mode dial and exposure compensation control, and this also feels cheap. The film advance lever is a moulded plastic affair, and cranking it over yields a sad, stuttering stroke. Still, it’s important to remember that while these bits are certainly lackluster compared to some of the high end vintage machines, the OM-10 feels pretty damn good when compared to modern consumer-grade machines. It’s also perfectly in line with what other makers were creating for consumers at the time, such as Canon’s AE-1.
Niggling build characteristics aside, the OM-10 is pretty nice when shooting. The camera latently operates in an aperture priority auto exposure capacity, with the photographer setting the desired aperture (depth of field) and the camera handling the business of selecting a proper shutter speed. Shooting in “Auto” mode, it’s very difficult to get badly exposed shots, but exposure is center-weighted, so situations with extreme contrasts in light value may create some issues. For this, the camera is equipped with selectable exposure compensation of +/- 2. ASA/ISO speeds range from 25-1600, covering everything the average shooter could ever dream of using. One thing to remember is that the shutter is extremely loud. Street shooting will attract attention, so choose subjects with caution.
For those who must have “Manual” mode, the engineers at Olympus had a solution. A socket on the front of the OM-10 exists to accept a manual adapter. By switching the mode dial to “Manual Adapter” and inserting the device, the photographer has access to full control of not only aperture, but also shutter speeds from 1 sec. to 1/1000th of a second. The same mode selector also features a setting for Bulb mode, for long-exposure photography. By using the manual adapter, the OM-10 creeps closer to its more professional-grade siblings, and can essentially handle everything an advanced amateur can muster. Unfortunately, the adapter is located in a cumbersome spot, so using it is a bit of a chore. It also feels entirely too “plasticy” for my taste.
Other typical features are included, such as self-timer mode (15 sec. delay), and battery check (light and sound). The usual frame counter is present, indicated through a small window on the top plate. A threaded socket for using a cable release is included in the shutter release button, so tripod-mounted long exposures are possible.
The viewfinder is sparse, but acceptably illuminated, and uses the common microprism/split image matte focusing screen seen in numerous vintage SLRs. The finder displays 93% of the actual image field, and shows a twelve-step shutter speed scale. When in “Auto” mode the automatically selected shutter speed is indicated by an illuminated, red LED. When using “Manual” mode the appropriate speed is shown in the same way, but the shutter can naturally be set to whatever speed is desired. Flash charge status is also represented here with an LED light. There’s no indication in the viewfinder for the selected aperture, something that personally irks me.
Olympus’ OM-10 manual lists 37 available lenses for the OM system, and the Zuiko lenses in particular are well-respected amongst enthusiasts. The options range from a ridiculously wide 8mm fisheye to the outrageously tele 1000mm. Most users will find their needs rest firmly in the middle of these extremes, and Zuiko multicoated lenses abound in the most common focal ranges. These lenses are among the sharpest and highest quality from any manufacturer. Additionally, most OM lenses feature a conveniently built-in depth of field preview button.
The camera is unremarkable, aesthetically. It’s one of those inconspicuous machines that carries itself with quiet dignity. There’s nothing about it that’s exceptionally beautiful, nor glaringly ugly. The only bits included are the ones that absolutely need to be there to ensure functionality. To look at the OM-10, one would get the impression that everything else took a back seat to the designer’s obsession with size, and what they ended up with was a conveniently decent looking camera. It’s a simple, handsome machine.
I ended my time with the OM-10 feeling strangely conflicted, and spent much of my return trip considering the machine. It’s undeniably a quality camera, but it suffers some unhappily cheap components. It’s a perfectly capable machine, yet it needs an adapter for proper manual shots. Its compactness lends itself to shooting all day, but I didn’t feel that familiar desire to keep shooting. It’s a strange dichotomy, to be sure, and I wondered if I’d ever use the OM-10 again. As I watched a seagull trail above the roiling foam of the ferry’s wake, I found myself wondering over the price of a mint OM-1. With no cell service on Nantucket Sound, I’d have to wait to find out, and try to be satisfied with my consumer-level Olympus.