The Olympus Infinity (Mju) line is one of the most-hyped families of cameras in analog photography. Google the name and nearly every resultant post will gush about the entire range, with tall tales of a twenty-dollar thrift store camera with a lens that puts SLRs and Leica glass to shame. Tiny camera, coffee-and-a-bagel price, and the best lens ever? Sounds like a no-brainer, right?
Unfortunately, this story ain’t quite what it seems. It’s 2017, and the bloated reputation of the Olympus Infinity Stylus range has changed things in a big way. What was once the photophile’s best kept secret is now on everybody’s top-five. As a result, prices for these cameras over the past few years have skyrocketed into SLR territory, and have largely stayed there. In truth, the twenty-dollar Stylus and Stylus Epic (Mju and Mju 2) are among the hardest cameras to find. I should know; it took me five years. And even then I didn’t get the one I wanted.
Instead of the crown jewel of the line, the Olympus Infinity Stylus Epic (Mju II), I got its older sibling, the original, slower Infinity Stylus (Mju), though for a lower-than-legend sum of ten bucks. I was slightly disappointed, but after five years of searching through flea market bins, thrift store shelves, and garage sale tables, I was happy to settle.
At first glance, it’s not hard to see why this camera and its siblings became the darlings of point-and-shoot camera culture. For one, it’s simple – no more than three buttons populate its top. Its front face features naught but Olympus’ signature sliding door, which pulls double-duty as a lens cover and an on-off switch, a feature pioneered by the Olympus XA, a camera that shares the Mju’s legendary reputation. That’s about it for complications. And just like the XA series, it’s incredibly small. The camera is as long as an iPhone 5 and as thick as an average wallet, making it one of the most pocketable 35mm cameras ever made. This portability is incredibly important to its appeal; it’s a camera that begs to be shot anywhere and everywhere.
It also happens to be an attractive camera; think Jackie-Kennedy-black-dress attractive. It’s sleek, with lines that flow and curve around the entirety of its form. With a distinct rounding of angles, its design brief is straight from the ‘90s, but this Olympus manages to avoid the ho-hum camera design typical of the decade. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine this shell housing the guts of a high-end digital point-and-shoot today, a camera I’m sure would be an instant hit (hope you’re reading this, Olympus).
Feature-wise the Olympus Infinity Stylus is sparse, but capable, with a couple of annoyances thrown in for good measure. It uses a single point auto-focus system capable of focusing as close as 0.35 meters, or 1.1 feet, which is about the standard for any ‘90s point-and-shoot. Locking the AF point and exposure are both possible by pointing at your subject and depressing the shutter halfway, a convenient feature for those of us who like the “focus, reframe, shoot” method. The camera’s automatic exposure system works great, even with a less-than-extensive range of shutter speeds (1/15-1/500th of a second). The rest of the spec-sheet is rounded out with DX automatic film speed reading ISO 50-3200, a self-timer with a 12 second delay, automatic wind/rewind, and a manual rewind button on the front face of the camera for those days when you can’t wait to finish a roll to see your photos.
The camera’s built-in flash is unsurprisingly simple yet surprisingly capable. While not the most powerful unit, it does deliver some of the most even and visually pleasing artificial light made from a point-and-shoot in this category. The camera also features a fill flash mode along with a red-eye reduction mode, the latter serving to date the camera more accurately than its design. I personally don’t find much of a use for direct fill-flash on a compact camera unless I’m going for that all-too-familiar family snapshot look, but it’s a nice feature for those who want it.
Operating the camera in the field is as simple as it gets, just lock focus, compose, and shoot. Easy enough, right? Unfortunately, this simplicity combined with the camera’s compactness does present a couple of problems. The AF must be locked before fully depressing the shutter, and the lens must extend fully for every shot, making for a noticeable lag between pressing the shutter and snapping the picture. For landscapes and portraits of friends and family this is a non-issue, but for candid shots on the street and quick-fire shooting, this shutter lag can mean the difference between a great shot and a wasted frame. The Olympus is small, but not as quick and nimble as I expected, again surprising after so much written about its prowess on the street.
There’s also another annoying caveat to its operation; all of the camera’s functions automatically reset once the sliding door closes over that lens. Now this doesn’t sound like a big deal, right? But then, the flash resets to the ON position every time the camera’s switched off. For portraits of the family on vacation this is a welcome feature, but for candid stealth shots this is a big problem. If you don’t pay attention and remember to make a habit of turning off the flash, you could easily end up with some very angry strangers on the street. That this is a fact of life with the Mju is interesting, again, in light of its widespread proselytization by many point-and-shoot street shooters.
The Olympus most definitely sacrifices speed and the ability to really capture the decisive moment to gain good looks and compact form factor. It’s a hefty compromise, and one that may turn demanding shooters off from the camera. But if we accommodate the camera just a little bit and relax our shooting style, we’ll discover the most incredible aspect of the Mju. I’m talking about the little Olympus lens housed just underneath that sliding door.
Olympus has a habit of of packing incredible lenses into small bodies. The Trip 35 and XA series are prime examples of this philosophy, and Olympus decided to keep the tradition alive in its Infinity Stylus line. Although the lens found on this camera is a slower lens (f/3.5 compared to the Trip 35, XA, and Stylus Epic’s f/2.8 lenses) with a simpler triplet lens formulation, it can pack a serious amount of sharpness into its tiny form. When stopped down in broad daylight, this beautifully simple lens delivers incredibly sharp photos, and wide open it offers a pleasing, artful detail rendition and lowered contrast that recall the Cooke Triplet/Triotar lenses of old. Combine this with consumer grade expired film and generous flash and we can very easily recreate that Instagram-worthy, hip photo blog aesthetic. That’s not to say this is a lomo lens – when combined with modern film such as Kodak Portra or Ilford HP5+, we can achieve some seriously gallery-worthy pictures.
The lens, however, does have its limitations. The slower speed of f/3.5 combined with a shutter limited to 1/15th of a second makes this camera a little challenging in low-light when we’re avoiding flash photography. This is a shame, especially considering how pretty the lens tends to render wide-open. There also tends to be quite a bit of light falloff and a general lack of sharpness in the corners regardless of aperture, which may serve to irk lovers of sharp-across-the-frame landscape shots.
So, is the Stylus the perfect point-and-shoot? It certainly delivers when used for casual shooting, such as when making snapshots of friends and family, vacation shots, and general purpose memory-making. It offers incredible image quality and ease-of-use for a low price (if you’re lucky), perfect for the casual shooter just looking to have fun, and maybe make a few impressive images along the way.
That said, in my time with the Stylus I just couldn’t help but feel the shadow of expectation hanging over the little Olympus. It’s a good camera, but does it live up to the hype?
I’m not convinced. It’s more sluggish than I expected, has a trigger-happy flash, and its available-light capabilities are hamstrung by its slower lens. And to top it all off, unless you get lucky on a thrift-shop deal, it’s way more expensive than most other consumer point-and-shoots. Over time it’s gained a reputation for being one of the best cameras for street photography and candids, but ironically these are some of its weakest areas of operation. Sure, the lens can make really pretty images and it’s one of the smallest and best-looking cameras around, but with a price that implies it can be a photographer’s primary tool it’s just a bit lackluster for that.
But perhaps I expected too much of the Olympus Infinity Stylus. Perhaps I’ve unfairly grafted a narrative onto this camera and its siblings based on a narrative derived from bloggers and Instagramers looking to sell a product or lifestyle. And perhaps I shouldn’t hype it up, give it superpowers, and make it out to be a camera that it’s not. As soon as I do that and disregard the hype, the pure fun of this incredible little camera comes to the front. When used for its intended purpose, as a lovable sidekick for making occasionally fantastic shots, it’s a perfect camera. And if it takes me another five years to find a low-priced Epic, this original Stylus will do just fine.