Olympus OM-1 Camera Review

Olympus OM-1 Review (1 of 12)

Fans of the OM system are as passionate and dedicated as any in the world of cameras, and it’s over the original OM-1 that these acolytes most readily swoon. Spend any amount of time chatting with classic camera geeks and the OM-1 is sure to come up in conversation.

And I totally get that obsession. Last year I shot the OM-2 for a weekend. On Friday I expected nothing special, and on Sunday I had a new favorite SLR. Since then, I’ve shot the OM-3, OM-4, OM-2s, and the OM-4Ti, and I’ve encouraged countless would-be film shooters to hunt down an OM of their very own. But in all this time I’d still not gotten my hands on the original, the progenitor, the OM-1. That is, until now.

The past two weeks have found me shooting the OM-1, and it feels like coming home. The OM-1 isn’t going to appeal to everyone (it’s a camera that has some potentially ruinous shortcomings) but for a certain type of photo geek, shooting this Olympus will be as blissful a photographic experience as one can have.

To start, let’s get through the basics. The OM-1 is a fully-mechanical, 35mm film SLR first produced in 1972, though back then you’d never find an OM-1 on the shelves. That’s because in its original iteration it was called the M-1, named to immortalize its legendary designer Yoshihisa Maitani. When Leica discovered that Olympus had made a better camera than their identically-named and vastly inferior M-1 rangefinder, the boys from Wetzlar had a tantrum and “requested” the name be changed. Olympus bowed and changed the name to OM-1, and knotted lederhosen far and wide were swiftly unwound.

Olympus OM-1 Review (9 of 12)

[M-1 Image Courtesy of Instagram’s @Wilfredjaai]

Interestingly for collectors, a number of these early M-1s still pop up here and there, and seeking them out can be a pastime in itself. Olympus’ records indicate that only 5,000 were ever produced, but sleuthing photo-geeks put the number significantly higher. Lenses and accessories bearing the M-System nomenclature are also quite sought after, so keep an eye out next time you’re in the local thrift shop. And while uncommon, it should be mentioned that these cameras can be easily counterfeited, with many an OM-1 having been modified to sell at the much higher prices commanded by M-1s. Due diligence dictates buying only from shops you trust (like mine). Unfortunately, the M-1’s rarity will inevitably force many folk to wade through the murky waters of eBay.

With this in mind, here are some pointers. If you’re looking to get your hands on one of these original Ms, check these external indicators first. The bottom plate should have no ports except a battery cover, as the M-1 lacks the ability to mount a motor drive. Other easy indicators are the use of slotted screws in the lens mount (not JIS or phillips), and a smaller film pressure plate. The M-1’s plate should measure 51.5mm x 38mm while the OM-1’s plate measures 60.5mm x 38.5mm. Removing the pressure plate should reveal mounting studs 45mm apart, opposed to the later camera’s 52mm spacing. Internally things are more complicated, but we can tell the difference by removing the top plate and observing the coloring of wires, inclusion or exclusion of certain resistors, differences in the metering system, and a number of other minuscule clues.

This is all rather boring stuff, suited to a more obsessive website. M-1 or OM-1, when you buy the original OM machine you’re getting a serious shooter’s camera. That’s because this camera is a precise, concise tool. There’s nothing here to confuse the process of photography, which is good, but there’s also not much here to make the process easy for newcomers, which could be a deal-breaker for some photo geeks.

Olympus OM-1 Review (7 of 12)

We mentioned that this is a mechanical camera (it functions via levers, springs, and gears rather than being powered by electricity), but it’s also an entirely manual camera. If you’re going to use an OM-1 you’d better understand (or be ready to learn) the ways that ISO, shutter speed, and aperture impact your photo.

That said, the OM-1 does have a light-meter to assist things, but there’s no auto-exposure like we find in other, more modern OM machines. And this is likely going to be the thing that keeps many photo geeks from pulling the trigger on the OM-1. Whether the manual-only nature of the machine truly warrants preclusion is up to the individual. For me, I welcome it. Simplifying things often leads to magical moments in photography, and some of the best photos I’ve ever taken have been technically imperfect shots made with manual exposure cameras whose dials and knobs were set just shy of perfect.

But I acknowledge that for some people this review just ended. The exclusion of auto-exposure is a real shortcoming. But for those who are up to the challenge, for those ready for a serious camera, this shortcoming won’t matter.

So what do we get with the OM-1? In short, everything we need and nothing we don’t.

The top plate is delightfully sparse, with nothing more than a shutter release button, an ISO dial, a film advance lever, an On/Off switch, and a film rewind lever. That’s it. There’s no exposure compensation dial, there’s no multiple exposure switch or mode selector; even the shutter speed dial is placed elsewhere (surrounding the lens mount). On the front of the camera we find the self-timer and previously-mentioned shutter speed selector, film rewind switch, mirror lock-up switch, and flash socket. And again, that’s all!

Olympus OM-1 Review (3 of 12)

It would be easy to read the OM-1’s spec sheet and pass it over in favor of a camera that offers more gizmos and widgets. And in today’s digital environment, overlooking something on account of its quaint simplicity is practically the status quo. We compare and weigh and choose, and forever covet newer, flashier, more decadent devices. But to overlook this camera on account of its simplicity would be a massive mistake, for the entire allure of the OM-1 is in its ability to provide today’s shooters with something we so desperately need; clarity.

The OM-1 allows us to see the world with a simplicity that’s conspicuously elusive, especially for photographers who are used to looking through the latest EVFs or DSLR viewfinders. Through its eschewing of superfluous features, the OM-1 becomes an ideal photographic tool for our modern age, and indeed a truly timeless object of function and beauty. And this camera is beautiful. Maitani and his team of engineers worked tirelessly for years to refine prototype after prototype, until finally producing what we see today, the smallest (136 × 83 × 50 mm) and most appealing 35mm SLR around. It’s a quintessentially Japanese creation, with an economy of design that’s intentionally reserved.

In its era, the OM-1 was a revelation, and today it’s still a stunner. Place it next to the latest and greatest Nikon, Canon or Leica and you’ll immediately recognize that we’ve indeed been taking steps in the wrong direction. The OM-1 is compact, purposeful, slim, and sexy. While the most common machines of today (even some mirror-less cameras) are bloated, disproportionate, and needlessly complicated.

Counter-intuitively, these savings in size and weight do not forfeit quality. While stowing an OM body in our bag adds only 510 grams (18 ounces) to the load, these are some well-made grams. Build here is excellent. The camera is tight, dense, and solid, and the OM feels like a camera that can take abuse and keep on firing (a suspicion reinforced when my review camera spent the day photographing the New England Aquarium, even after tumbling from a footpath into rocky Boston Harbor).


Functionally the camera is a joy to use, with a few minor exceptions. Ergonomically, things are excellent. Controls are implemented in an intelligent and thoughtful way. The locking tab on the ISO selector (a feature that usually annoys) is comfortably hidden in a convenient niche. The shutter speed selector actuates with a directed force that lets one know they’ve just adjusted something serious, and the shutter release button feels great.

These last two components are linked to a capable, if old-fashioned, horizontally-traveling cloth focal-plane shutter capable of speeds from 1/1000th of a second down to 1 second, plus Bulb mode for long exposures. Flash sync speed only reaches to 1/60th of a second, which is prohibitively slow for anyone shooting with a fill-flash in daylight. And while these limitations will likely only impact certain, more advanced photographers (new shooters seldom use strobes or have super-fast glass) they do hamper the OM-1’s performance a bit.

One other lowlight can be found when we advance the film. It just feels rough. Opposed to some other classic cameras, which implement advanced construction techniques such as self-lubricating ball bearings, advancing film and cocking the shutter of the OM-1 can almost make one cringe. The action sounds sandy, abrasive, and sad.

Olympus OM-1 Review (11 of 12)

Olympus OM-1 Review (10 of 12)

Luckily, with these two qualms we’ve essentially exhausted our stock of complaints, and we’re back to heaping accolades. And no area of the OM-1 impresses more than when we look through its absolutely gigantic viewfinder. A decidedly gorgeous .92X magnification finder shows 97% of the image area, with photons passing through twelve available interchangeable focusing screens. It’s amazing that on a camera so small we would find one of the biggest, brightest, and best viewfinders in all of classic photography.

The viewfinder also displays a “center-the-needle” light meter readout. Light passing through the lens is measured by two CdS cells placed on opposite sides of the eyepiece, and these provide through-the-lens open aperture light measurement. Simply adjust your aperture and shutter speed until the needle rests between the plus and minus symbols in the viewfinder and you should make a proper exposure. In reality, the light meter in the OM-1 isn’t exceptional. It’s decent. Exposure is measured fairly accurately, though it’s not as adept as some other metering systems we’ve used. And the subsequent OMs amazing auto-exposure and metering systems certainly overshadow the more primitive OM-1.

It should also be noted that using the light meter can slow down the process of photography on account of the viewfinder lacking any indication of the selected aperture and shutter speed. Still, a built-in light meter is certainly useful for new shooters or for double checking more proficient photographers’ judgement. I suspect that most old-hands will ignore it completely, or never turn it on, and shoot according to their own assessment of the light.

A camera is only as good as the glass fitted to it, and Olympus optics are among the best and most varied (with some reliability caveats). Their Zuiko lenses can produce some simply incredible images, and we’ve seen a few that outperform all of the competition. Optical coatings from the brand are advanced and capable, and do a good job of mitigating unwanted optical aberrations and producing nice contrast and color.

Lens construction mirrors the ethos of the system, in that most lenses are amazingly small, and placing Zuiko glass next to comparable lenses from other manufacturers nearly always leads to wonder over why those other guys’ stuff is so big.

Olympus OM-1 Review (12 of 12)

Build quality of the lenses is superficially good, with focus rings, aperture rings, and stop-down levers actuating nicely. But we’ve seen an inordinate number of Olympus lenses come through our shop suffering much higher rates of fungus and focus helicoid oil seepage compared to lenses of the same age from different makers. Whether this is just bad luck, a product of the habits of typical Olympus owners, or truly bad manufacturing is hard to say. But there seems to be a problem. When looking for lenses, make sure the one you’re buying is in good shape and take proper care of it.

It should also be mentioned that these classic lenses are easily fitted to today’s crop of mirror-less cameras. Those shooting a Sony a7 or Fujifilm X-series camera will want to pick up an adapter and double the usability of legacy Zuikos.

Olympus OM-1 Review (6 of 12)

What kind of shooter will most readily appreciate the charms of the OM-1? We see it most comfortably in the hands of someone who’s been shooting for a little while, or is ready to learn more about photography. It’s a more demanding camera, in that it does little to coddle the photographer, but that’s not to say it’s an incapable camera. The OM-1 is a high quality machine that grows with the shooter. Travelers, adventurists, and those who want to document life without being weighed down by gear will appreciate its diminutive nature, and those obsessed with image quality will love well-kept Zuiko lenses.

The Om-1 is the kind of heirloom treasure that can be passed from generation to generation, and indeed many have been. If you’re looking for a masterful mechanical camera to be, essentially, the only film camera you’ll ever need, the OM-1 should certainly be considered. It’s quite simply one of the best.

Buy your very own Olympus OM-1 on eBay, on Amazon, or from F-Stop Cameras 

You’ll also need some film

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  • Reply
    Ed Worthington
    April 25, 2016 at 7:15 am

    At last you posted this 🙂 I’ve been waiting ages to read your view’s on my favourite camera. I absolutely love the OM-1 and most of the image’s taken on film on my blog are from it, I agree with you it’s one of those camera’s that you’ll either fall in love with or hate because of it’s peculiarities but I’d urge anyone who get’s their hands on one to give a good crack at it, it’s well worth it. Other than the size saving you didn’t mention the cost saving the OM system has, I’ve got 28mm, 50mm and 135mm prime’s and not one of them cost me more than £25 each with my OM-1 costing me little more than £45 body only. It’s a small lightweight package that’s light on the wallet compared to other comparative camera’s of the time from the big boy’s.
    Yes I’ll admit, my name is Ed and I am an Olympus fan boy.

    • Reply
      April 25, 2016 at 10:27 am

      You’re right on about value. One of the best.

    • Reply
      Randle P. McMurphy
      April 28, 2016 at 11:20 am

      Dear Ed,
      I got a Olympus OM-1 with Winder and 1,4/50 at a flee market for nearly nothing.
      I loved that combination for traveling.
      The only thing that bothers me was setting the time over the ring at the bayonett.
      20 years later I run into a Nikkormat FTn and fell in love with it out of the sudden.
      I have to admit that the building quality of Nikon is a level higher, also the lenses
      from that decade !

      Have fun and always good light !

  • Reply
    Jim Grey
    April 25, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    I’ve got two OM-1s, one chrome-topped and one all black. They are wonderful. The only quirk to get used to is the shutter-speed ring on the lens barrel, rather than in the idiomatic place atop the camera by the winder. Once over that, this camera is a delight. I don’t even mind it being match-needle only, despite preferring aperture-priority shooting — I seem to be able to work it fast enough. In contrast, as much as I love my Nikon F2AS, its little +/- LEDs in the viewfinder just feel slower to use.

  • Reply
    April 26, 2016 at 9:03 am

    At last after ten years of using Olympus cameras (The OM2n OM2SP and my hidden jem my OM40 ) I am getting a OM1.To use I think it will be like using the OM2n in manual mode. but also have a character of its own ..Thanks for another great review .

    • Reply
      April 26, 2016 at 10:44 am

      Enjoy it!

  • Reply
    April 26, 2016 at 6:21 pm

    There’s a reason Jane Bown owned 12 of these babies. It really is an amazing tool.

    I have mine with Dr. Hermanson now. Looking forward to getting a “brand new” OM-1n back very soon. I’m curious to see if the film advance will be crunchy or smooth (probably the only annoying aspect of this camera for me).

    Awesome review!


    • Reply
      April 26, 2016 at 6:22 pm

      Let us know when you get it if that lever is silky or not. It’d be really great to know, as that really is the only aspect of the camera that doesn’t feel fantastic.

      • Reply
        April 26, 2016 at 6:47 pm

        Will do.

      • Reply
        May 21, 2016 at 6:11 pm

        My OM-1n arrived today – back from Dr. Hermanson. The film advance is noticeably smoother, and it literally looks brand new.

        I have my OM-2n with him but won’t have it back for a few months. I’m excited to compare the two.

        Fresh roll locked and loaded.

        • Reply
          May 21, 2016 at 6:56 pm

          That’s fantastic. Enjoy that beautiful machine.

  • Reply
    April 27, 2016 at 8:10 am

    This is one lovely review man!
    I have no idea how I got addicted to this OM system. Its compact design is probably the reason why I like it so much. It looks beautiful too when compared to other bulkier SLRs. Regarding the film advance, I wonder what you mean by crunchy. Indeed the ones I have mostly feel smooth. I have around 8 at the moment. Of course, I understand that it might not be comparable to a Leica’s lever. I do think my M3 has a smoother advance motion, but I wouldn’t say my OMs are crunchy.
    Cheers man!

    • Reply
      April 27, 2016 at 11:18 am

      Thanks for the kind words, Wilfred! And there are worse things one could be addicted to. 😄👍

  • Reply
    April 29, 2016 at 9:57 am

    Dear James,
    One thing you did not mention in the review is that this camera needs a mercury battery that is not produced anymore. Using an SR44 instead will give meter misreads although on most film these will be (partially) masked by the films’ exposure latitude.
    To be able to get correct readings the meter must be adapted to SR44 batteries by a repair person (or use a Weinn cell; with all its quirks). This battery adjustment is mostly standardly done when the camera is brought for a CLA.

    I have this camera and I really love it!

    • Reply
      April 29, 2016 at 11:56 am

      Hey bud. Thanks for adding that here in the comments. I don’t tend to talk about that as much as some other sites because I’ve not found it to be an issue at all, especially with the massive latitudes afforded by film today. When I first got into shooting classic cameras the Wein cell, modified camera, battery problem was something that caused me to worry and fret, but in the end there was no reason to. I just use today’s available batteries and I never have exposure problems (except for when the problem is me).

      But I’m not disagreeing with you! You’re certainly correct! Thanks again!

    • Reply
      April 30, 2016 at 5:56 pm

      An alternative would be getting an MR-9 adapter which takes SR43 batteries and could produce a current of approximately 1.35v similar to the Mercury battery which has been discontinued. I have been using this combo on my M-1 and OM1 and they work great. Cheers!

  • Reply
    Merlin Marquardt
    April 29, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    Very nice review of a classic camera. I remember considering the Olympus OM-1 in 1972, but chose the Canon FTb instead. I have always thought it was an attractive choice.

  • Reply
    June 5, 2016 at 2:07 pm

    I recently bought an Olympus OM-1 for a song on ebay. All mechanical and solid as a rock. The part I love about it is that I can use the 50mm Zuiko lens I had previously purchased for another, digital, Olympus E-M10. Great writing, cheers !

    • Reply
      June 5, 2016 at 2:15 pm

      Congrats. You’ve got a real legend there. 🙂

  • Reply
    August 17, 2016 at 9:16 am

    Hello All. I have had an OM1 for a while and love it. Just now I have seen that the pressure plate at the back has finally fallen off. What will happen to my images without it?

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      August 17, 2016 at 12:33 pm

      Without the pressure plate installed the film will not be flat or the proper distance from the back element of the lens. You will likely have trouble getting accurate or at least consistent across the frame focus. It’s also possible that the film will be damaged.

      I am pretty sure that fitting the pressure plate back into place is just a matter of securing the tabs back in place.

      Hope this helps.

  • Reply
    Janne M. Korhonen
    October 7, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    Very nice review. I just got back to film photography by obtaining a Pentax MX – Asahi’s response to OM-1 – but OM-1 is the camera I love the most. I learned to shoot with it and even used it for some small-time photo journalism for a local newspaper around the turn of the millennium – preferred it over the EOS-3 they tried to hoist on me. Extremely pleasant to use, and ergonomically just a notch ahead of MX. (Shutter speed dial and LED exposure metering, I’m looking at you two guys.)

    The reason I used the OM-1 was very simple: dad owned couple OM-1s and OM-2s and a veritable truck load of lenses and accessories from his days as a semi-professional photographer, and kept them in perfect working condition, with regular professional maintenance, until about a decade ago. The film advance lever was very smooth to operate and I can’t honestly recall anything untoward when using it.

    I agonized a lot about whether to get the MX or hunt for a good condition OM-1, but got a great deal on a serviced MX. That’s a classic camera as well, and may have slightly better optics, but for me it doesn’t quite measure up to OM-1 level. It’s actually a bit funny to read these reviews and read about the OM-1 as I always thought dad hadn’t exactly been rolling in cash and therefore the cameras he’d bought in the 1970s must have been some second-rate jobs – but turns out, OM-1 was just about the best thing money could buy back when he bought it!

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      October 7, 2016 at 5:27 pm

      I love reading these kinds of comments. Thanks for sharing all that. The MX gets requested a lot by readers. I’ll need to give it a shot and see what the fuss is about.

  • Reply
    October 17, 2016 at 5:24 pm

    Nice review. I bought my OM1 in 1980 and the thing that swung me was the speed dial around the lens bayonet. I just found it so simple to use, you can shift focus, speed and aperture simultaneously with taking you hand from the lens. I always thought it was far superior to any camera with the speed dial up top. The meter in mine seemed to be as accurate as the Weston I carried, so I stopped carrying the Weston. I was shooting mainly slide film back then, so exposure had to be spot-on.
    I tried Nikons, Canons, Contax and Pentax but none of them felt right in my hands like the OM1. The OM2 came a year later and these two will accompany me to the end. Unless my kids steal them from my cold, dead hands!

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      October 17, 2016 at 5:40 pm

      I think the OM-1 and 2 might be ideal cameras, to be honest. For me, anyway, the size and functionality are second to none.

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