As enthralling as photography can be, long days, months, and years spent shooting can wear you out. In the worst case, it can lead to a photographic malaise that can dismantle even the most well-built minds from the inside out. It can render the best shooters incapable of even the simple task of pressing a shutter button. It’s shooter’s block, our equivalent to writer’s block, and it hit me hard over the summer.
I jumped out of bed one morning full of energy, ready to take on the world with my trusty Nikon F and Leica M2. But instead of plunging into a world filled with beauty, intrigue, and possibility, I found my surroundings cold, ugly, and indifferent. The images I tried to form seemed trite and overplayed, and I soon lost confidence in my ability to make a decent picture. Even the storied reputations of my F and M2 failed to inspire me. Every time I peered through their viewfinders I saw nothing but dust in the pentaprism and emptiness between the framelines.
Sufficiently depressed, I decided to stay home and put my cameras on the shelf. And it was while I was lying face down on a pillow listening to the opening lines of Chicago’s “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” that I realized I did, in fact, need a little time away. But I didn’t need a full-on vacation from the hobby itself – no, that would be too drastic. I just needed a change from the manual cameras that sat on my shelf. I needed an easier camera, and I had a feeling one camera in particular could fit the bill – the Olympus Trip 35.
The Olympus Trip 35 is a camera I’d heard a lot about but had never tried myself. Its reputation for ease of use and high quality seemed the perfect cure for my shooter’s block. And if the Trip 35 was the prescription, the Pasadena Camera Show was the pharmacy. There I found a beautiful Trip 35 for an absurdly low price, bought it, and quickly threw it in my bag.
One would think the Olympus Trip 35 would seem out of place next to legendary cameras like the aforementioned Nikon and Leica, but it actually fits right in. This camera, although not as capable as the other two, holds an equally lofty place in photographic history. Just as the F and the M defined the SLR and rangefinder genres respectively, the Trip 35 defined the point-and-shoot game. More impressive still, the Trip 35 actually outsold the Nikon F and the Leica M2 by millions. Take that, fanboys.
Olympus achieved these massive numbers by appealing to the casual shooter rather than pro photographers, specifically focusing on the new generation of moneyed vacationers. Racing from landmark to landmark and airport to airport, these sightseers simply lacked the time and interest needed to learn the boring particulars of photography required to operate a camera. Instead, they required a camera that was simple to use, but sophisticated enough to beautifully capture their memories.
Good design marries aesthetics to functionality, and the the camera gods couldn’t have picked a better company to bring the Trip 35 to life. Olympus’ design house, fresh off the ingenious half-frame Pen F, struck gold again with the Trip. The design is classic Olympus; clean-cut lines and an impossibly small form factor, the Trip wastes no time and gets straight to the point. It’s as well designed as any machine of its day, more impactful when we recall that the Trip came of age in an era where cameras were still fully mechanical, save for the occasional battery powered light meter. Automation seemed a distant (and expensive) fantasy, so when Olympus created a genuine auto-exposure camera out of primitive nuts and bolts, the world took notice. This was in no uncertain terms an engineering miracle.
The Trip 35 accomplishes this sorcery by determining the amount of light that enters a Selenium photo cell surrounding the lens, and choosing a correct aperture based on this reading. The camera then chooses a shutter speed of either a 1/200th or 1/40th of a second and we get a perfect exposure. When the camera’s incapable of making an acceptable exposure, a little red flag shows up in the viewfinder and the shutter locks out. The magic of this system is that it takes all exposure-related worry out of our minds. We don’t have to agonize about aperture, shutter speed, or even battery life, a godsend for vacationers and anxious photo geeks.
But before we experience it, it’s quite easy to question the Trip 35’s simplicity. After all, how accurate could a camera this old and primitive be? And could the lens be good enough for our 21st century eyes? As I drove home from the camera show, my new Trip in the passenger seat next to me, these questions rolled through my mind. I really needed this camera to be decent, if I was to pull out of my photographic death spiral.
Just then, I received a text message from my sister. Can you pick up some pork buns in chinatown? thx. With this, I had my mission; buy some pork buns, shoot the Trip, and see if this ancient camera could walk the walk.
The first thing I noticed was its build quality. Comprised of metal and plastic, the Trip 35 is solid, but never heavy; lightweight, but never flimsy. The only disappointing aspect of the camera’s feel is its film advance wheel. A dinky plastic affair reminiscent of disposable cameras, this lackluster cog is forgivable when we remember that the Trip was built to be a consumer-level camera.
Peering through the viewfinder showed bright frame-lines with tick marks both for up-close shots and for landscape shots. These are helpful in view of the Trip’s lack of automatic parallax correction. Having used fancy Leica, Nikon, and Contax rangefinders renowned for brightness and clarity, the Trip’s viewfinder beats most of them. Its relative simplicity is a nice change from the cluttered and overly complex viewfinders of other machines. The Trip 35 also features a small window in the bottom right of the VF (affectionately dubbed the “Judas Window” by Trip 35 disciples) which shows both the chosen aperture and exposure setting on the camera.
So far, so good. But how was I to determine focus? I quickly realized that the Trip’s a scale-focus camera, which is not ideal for accuracy. But before I started feeling like Olympus left me all alone and helpless, I realized that they were kind enough to provide some handy distance-measuring tools. Settings along the lens barrel show a picture of one person for portraits, two people for pictures of two people, three people for group pictures, and a mountain symbol for everything in the distance, including mountains. I stopped hyperventilating, and realized that, for a point-and-shoot camera, this is more than enough. And for all you nitpickers, Olympus also included precise distance measurements in both meters and feet on the underside of the lens. Phew.
Once shooting the Trip started to shine, and I was easily able to focus on exactly what matters most in photography – composition. From the first frame I found myself joyfully snapping away at whatever tickled my fancy, even though I didn’t know what aperture values and shutter speeds the Trip 35 was choosing. Frankly, I didn’t give a damn. All that mattered to me was finding different angles, new ways to play with light, and how to capture Chinatown’s unique charm. It felt like with each and every frame, the Trip was dissolving my shooter’s block more and more, and I wanted to just keep shooting.
So the little Olympus and I danced through Chinatown’s colorful landscape, happily snapping away. In no uncertain terms, it was the most fun I’d ever had with a camera. Even though the heat of the afternoon beat on my shoulders and the sweat sizzled on my brow, the Trip 35 and I ran through the city without a care in the world. The streets led us to the door of a steamy Chinese restaurant, then a pile of steaming pork buns, then back to the equally steamy interior of my car. I didn’t care how long the journey took or how much fluid I lost in that heatwave. It seemed like I sweated out my shooter’s block, and I eagerly raced home to deliver the buns, and develop the film.
But something was nagging me about the camera the entire way home; the focus issue. Had I gotten the focus correct for every shot? How was I to trust those markings? How could I possibly live without a focusing aid? Anxiety began to rear its head again and I had to stop myself from speeding over to a one-hour photo lab to assuage my fears. I gripped the steering wheel tight and told myself to trust the Trip. Besides, I still had a job to do. These pork buns weren’t going to deliver themselves.
After delivering and munching on said pork buns with my contented sibling, I decided to get the roll developed and scanned. My fears were partially founded. Some of the shots, especially photos of close subjects or darker scenes, came back fuzzy due to a combination of my poor distance estimation and the nature of the Trip’s exposure and focus systems. While the Trip automatically helps achieve sharp focus by selecting a smaller aperture for greater depth-of-field, this is only possible in bright light. As things get dark, the ability to shoot at a smaller aperture quickly disappears. In these situations it can be really difficult to nail correct focus. One minor consequence of this is that shooters with an affinity for portraiture and those sweet bokeh balls will probably be disappointed by this camera.
But expecting creamy bokeh and close range performance from the Trip 35 (or most point-and-shoots for that matter) is like expecting a ‘93 Honda Civic to outpace a Tesla Model S. It just won’t happen, and trying will lead to frustration. But just like that Honda, if you regard the Trip 35 as a reliable machine good for an occasional joyride, it will never disappoint. The Trip 35 is capable of a great many things, but we must be careful to recognize and respect its own limits.
When we get the focus right, the Trip’s fantastic 40mm F/2.8 Zuiko lens delivers in spades. The lens is a front-focusing Tessar type lens, which means that it’s very simple and very sharp, and it retains this sharpness edge to edge without chromatic aberration, spherical aberration, or any kind of distortion due to its simple optical formula and Olympus’s masterful execution. The lens’ quality even overcame the limitations of expired film, and ended up giving me some great results.
For whom is this camera best suited? First and foremost, the Trip 35 might just be the perfect camera for the casual photophile. Olympus built this camera to document the daily adventures of the everyman, and the Trip does this beautifully. And for experienced shooters, the Trip 35 can be a great way to break free of shooter’s block, or inject our shooting with something fun and carefree. It emphasizes the art of composition rather than the cold calculations of exposure, but even more importantly, it reminds us to relax, have a pork bun, and not take ourselves too seriously.