Yoshihisa Maitani – The Man Who Made Olympus

Yoshihisa Maitani – The Man Who Made Olympus

2200 1237 James Tocchio

What makes a person successful? The admiration of one’s peers? The realization of one’s ambitions and designs? Decades of professional coups? If these are the measures of success, famed Olympus camera designer Yoshihisa Maitani measured up. And even if many of today’s camera geeks don’t recognize the man’s name, they’ll certainly know his work – the Olympus Pen, the M-1 (more popularly known as the OM-1), and the now-cult-classic XA, among many others.

His career spanned more than forty years (twenty of which were spent personally designing some of the best cameras in the world), and his vision, dedication to his ideals, and tireless work ethic forged a path not just for Olympus, but for the entire worldwide camera industry over this period. And though he retired in 1996 and passed away in 2009, his influence can still be seen in today’s digital cameras.

His work is amazing. His story is worth telling. Let’s do it.

In 1954, Maitani was a 21-year-old automotive engineering student at Waseda University and a passionate photographer who spent his days wandering Tokyo with a Leica IIIf. So enamored with cameras was he, that the young man created and patented his own camera design before he’d even left school. At this time, Olympus had been manufacturing cameras for just twenty years. The brand needed expertise and know-how to grow, and Olympus was actively hunting for talent in Japanese universities. When Eiichi Sakurai, the creator of the first Olympus camera, stumbled upon Maitani’s camera patent, he immediately insisted that the younger man work for Olympus. In a lecture, Maitani related the wrinkle in the story.

“In those days a student who refused to work for the first company to offer him a job was regarded as a disgrace to his university. I had received a job offer from an automobile manufacturer, but I pretended that I hadn’t and so went to work for Olympus instead.”

The young designer’s first assignment would find him designing nothing. Instead, he was sent to the Olympus factory for a period of “practical training” in which he was rotated to a different department every six months for two years. At the end of two years, he returned to the design department and was told, rather simply, to “Try designing something.” With this unusual degree of freedom, he set about designing a camera that would cost one quarter the price of the least expensive Olympus camera.

Even at this earliest stage of Maitani’s career, the ideals that defined his products were already foremost in his mind. He wasn’t satisfied to simply design a cheap camera. He wanted to design an inexpensive camera of incredible quality, quality to rival the Leica IIIf of his younger days. With his philosophy that “The lens is the soul of the camera”, he knew that the quality of the images made with his Leica began with its Tessar type lens. So he asked the lens designers at Olympus to make a lens as good as his Leica’s Tessar type, without any concern for cost. They did this, and the result was the D-Zuiko.

The problem was that he had effectively spent his entire development budget on creating the ideal lens. There was no money left for the camera.

Over time, he developed a number of prototypes for what would become the Olympus Pen, a sophisticated, half-frame viewfinder camera with an incredibly sharp fixed lens. When he finally brought the camera prototype to Sakurai, the senior man at Olympus immediately decided to manufacture it. Initially outsourcing production to another factory, production was eventually moved to Olympus’ own works when the Pen began to sell. And sell it did. Within a matter of months the company was moving more than 5,000 cameras per month, and production couldn’t keep up with demand. Maitani had his first hit, and the higher ups at Olympus gave him just one, simple task; “Make new cameras more quickly.”

Over the next handful of years, Maitani and the design team at Olympus would develop a series of Pen derivatives, some easier to use, some with special features. By the end of the Pen’s incredible run, the camera would sell more than 17 million units, an unprecedented number.

In 1963, following the success of the original viewfinder Pen, Maitani and the design team he now lead were tasked with developing a more advanced Pen. This new Pen was to be an SLR camera with interchangeable lenses and an entire suite of accessories, creating a true system camera to rival the large SLRs of other manufacturers. Incredible technical limitations and many preconceived notions of what makes a quality SLR had to be overcome. Maitani and his team set to work, and the resulting camera, the Pen F, was nothing short of a mechanical masterpiece.

Among the countless technological innovations involved in making one of the smallest SLR cameras in the world, was a new rotary shutter system made of titanium. This shutter, capable of speeds up to 1/500th of a second and of syncing with a flash at any shutter speed, took countless iterations to get right. The eventual final design required a technique learned from Olympus’ microscope manufacturing in which the center of the shutter was machined to incredibly thin tolerances while the edges remained thick. A specially strengthened spring made of Swedish steel was required to reach such rapid speeds, and intricate mechanical gears were specially machined to provide low-speed operation.

A world’s-first reflex mirror that flipped sideways, and a special prism for directing the light sideways from the lens to the viewfinder all required new ideas and resulted in new patents. Maitani and Olympus had created one of the most advanced and incredible mechanical cameras of all time. Less-than-exceptional sales pointed to the surprising fact that SLR shooters, who were typically more serious about photography, wanted a full-frame 35mm camera and not a half-frame camera. This lesson learned, Maitani’s next project began.

In 1967 Maitani and his team began work to create a full-frame 35mm SLR camera. Though internal forces within Olympus initially deigned to suggest that Olympus’ full-frame SLR could simply be a rebranded product from another manufacturer, Maitani disagreed. He fought for over a year to convince those in the sales and manufacturing departments that Olympus needed to not only build their own full-frame SLR, but to also build a type of SLR that no one had ever built before; a tiny SLR that sacrificed none of the durability or capability of the competition’s bulky and heavy professional SLRs. Finally, in December of 1967, Maitani received approval from Mr. Sakurai to move forward on his project. Now the hard work would begin.

Maitani instructed his team that he wanted to build an SLR to compete with those made by anyone else in both features and performance. He also demanded that this professional spec camera should be twenty percent smaller in both length and height, and fifty percent lighter than Nikon’s model. His unprecedented requests didn’t stop there. He also required that Olympus’ compact SLR should be capable of 100,000 shutter actuations in a time when the most expensive cameras were only capable of 10,000. Maitani was once again pushing the boundaries of what was possible in camera manufacturing.

Over the next four years the team would tirelessly work to shave millimeters off of their design. By repositioning critical functions, such as the shutter speed selector, they were able to utilize as-yet underutilized space within the traditional SLR chassis. Even as sectors of the design team begged Maitani for an extra three millimeters here, an extra millimeter there, he stayed firm in his demands. When called into a special meeting with the man Maitani called “the godfather of development” regarding the difficulties of miniaturization, Maitani argued for more than two hours that the dimensions must not be changed. In the end, the final production camera was just one millimeter larger than his original dimensions.

Unveiled at Photokina in 1972, the Olympus M-1 was named in honor of its chief designer (M for Maitani), and it was a true leap forward in SLR camera design. Suddenly Olympus was making a superbly specced camera that weighed half of what Nikon’s system camera weighed. It was a gorgeous machine with an incredible viewfinder, large controls, and a tiny footprint. It was a machine capable of anything any photographer could ask of it, as evidenced by the many OMs used in conflict zones throughout the world. Maitani and Olympus had made another masterpiece, and again changed the course of camera production in the 20th century. From then on, the race to build ever-smaller, ever-more-capable SLRs was on.

For more than twenty-five years the OM system would continue to evolve and grow, eventually offering models for every photographer, from professionals to amateurs. The OM2 introduced semi-automatic electronically-controlled aperture-priority shooting. The OM-3 refined the OM-1 and further perfected the all-mechanical pro camera. The OM-4 offered refined metering systems and continued the semi-auto legacy laid down by the OM-2. Titanium bodied versions of the OM-3 and OM-4 were lighter and stronger, and offered improved weather-resistance. The consumer oriented OM-10, OM-20, OM-30 and OM-40 were more affordable cameras that were easier to use for non-professionals.

All of these cameras benefitted from the incredibly small and effective OM system Zuiko lenses. These lenses were consistently high performers, harkening back to Maitani’s original belief in the importance of lens quality, and were in nearly every instance smaller and lighter than competing lenses of respective focal lengths from other manufacturers.

While the OM series kept Maitani quite busy, the whole time he was developing the Pen and OM cameras, he had another machine on his mind; a tiny, high quality camera that could be carried everywhere. To that point, such a camera didn’t exist. Even in his early days of practical training at the factory, Maitani lamented the fact that his Leica IIIf was too large to carry everywhere he went.

From a Maitani lecture, “When I was doing my factory training, I spent two years at our plant in Suwa. Suwa is a spa town, and there was a public spa next to my lodgings. In winter the place was so cold that towels would freeze solid, with the temperature reaching minus 23 degrees Celsius. Even with my window and sliding doors closed, the temperature in my room would also drop to minus 23, and a vase that my mother had sent me from Shikoku shattered when the water in it froze. Because it was so cold, the public spa was a popular playground for children. They would call in on their way home from school, and the water always became very dirty. So instead of taking a bath after work, I used to go in the morning before work.

“On one such morning the driver of a long-distance truck decided to take a bath while passing through the spa town. He parked his truck in front of the public spa and went in just as I was finishing my bath. As I left I could hear a strange crackling noise. Sparks from the engine had started a fire, and because it was a gasoline-fueled vehicle the flames spread quickly. The driver came running out stark naked, but it was already too late. There was no water, so we couldn’t fight the fire. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, but of course nobody takes their camera to the bath, so unfortunately I missed the opportunity.”

Maitani’s desire to have a camera with him wherever he went coupled with the industry trend toward smaller and lighter cameras to push the man to action. Busy with the production of the OM system’s many components, he instructed a design team of ten to come up with ideas for a compact 35mm camera that would recapture the success enjoyed by the compact Pen twenty years earlier. After a year of work, this team presented one hundred ideas to Maitani. He told them this was too many. They whittled it down to ten ideas, and he again told them it was too many. When they presented their three best ideas, he was thankful but disappointed. Their proposed cameras were too in-line with established wisdom and too similar to existing machines. Instead of competing on well-worn ground, he wanted to once again push the very possibility of what a compact camera could be. With this idea firmly in mind, he took the lead and designed a camera himself.

The result was a machine that many photographers call the man’s masterpiece. This new camera would be the ultimate embodiment of everything Maitani treasured; a high performance lens mounted in an impossibly tiny but incredibly advanced camera. After another period of intense design and prototyping, the camera was born; it was the Olympus XA.

Released in 1979, the XA was nothing short of a revelation, and though many of its design elements seem obvious today, at the time of its release it was like nothing anyone had seen before. With a sliding plastic lens cover that acted as an On/Off switch, a highly advanced light meter coupled to an aperture-priority auto-exposure system, and an incredibly precise and fast rangefinder focusing system, the XA was a game-changer. It was the smallest 35mm full frame rangefinder camera ever made, and easily fit Maitani’s design requirement that his newest camera should fit in a shirt pocket. More impressive, the camera’s six-elements in five-groups 35mm F/2.8 lens was simply unmatched in compact cameras, and even today, images from this lens are mind-blowing. And more than thirty-five years after the camera’s release, the Olympus XA is still treasured by photo geeks everywhere.

Maitani continued to be instrumental in design decisions within Olympus for many years after the XA’s debut. His influence can be seen in later cameras, like the famous Mju and Stylus ranges, which are in many ways the futuristic derivatives of his XA. And though the man retired in 1996, and passed away in 2009, his influence on Olympus and the camera industry at large can be easily traced today. Olympus’ modern digital Pen series draws inspiration from the man’s original camera, and their SLR micro four-thirds cameras are still called OMs.

But the real legacy of Maitani’s genius can be most readily felt in the cameras he designed himself. When we hold a Pen F, an OM-1, or an XA in the hands today, the true essence of what makes a camera a “Maitani camera” is blatantly obvious. They’re nearly incomprehensibly small, strong, and refined. They’re stunningly gorgeous. Most important of all, they’re capable of making world-class images. To put it as simply as possible (which is how Maitani would probably like it), a Maitani camera is a perfect camera.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of CP. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic cameras and the most advanced digital machines. In addition to his work on CP, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
16 comments
  • I own lots of classic cameras and my OM-2n is one of my favorites. It just feels so good in hand! Thanks for writing this great piece on Olympus and the brilliant Maitani.

  • Did Maitani oversee the design of Olympus 35xx rangefinder cameras also, e.g. the 35 RC and SP?—the former one of the smallest fully mechanical manual rangefinders and the latter the first and only fixed-lens rangefinder to incorporate two meters (spot and average). The RC especially seems to embody his design philosophy, although the SP also is a lovely small camera for the spec.

    • Great question, and one that I can’t honestly answer. I’ve looked into this but there’s no definitive answer as to whether or not Maitani had a hand in those cameras. There were even some Pen series cameras that Maitani had nothing to do with. As mentioned, the man was extremely busy, first as a designer working single-handedly on a camera, and later as a design lead directing a team to create over 200 lenses and accessories for the OM system. My hunch is that he would have had some contact with others in Olympus Optical Co., Ltd., and given his stature within the company it seems plausible that designs or prototypes may have passed through his hands. But again, I can’t say for sure and would never put unchecked information out there. If I come across some new info I will certainly update this comment.

  • A big part of the pleasure I derive from my OM1 comes from the simple act of holding it in my hand and looking at it from every angle; weighing it. It’s like the product of a jeweller and the pinnacle of micro-engineered mechanics.

  • Great article, James 🙂 As a fan of the OM system, I have no choice but to agree with the statements that you provided. With a cup of tea, paired with the presence of my trusty OM-1, I thoroughly enjoyed that evening lecture.

    It’s a shame that nowadays, the identities of people who are masterminds behind some of the most groundbreaking engineering achievements remain unknown. Hidden behind the curtain of marketing, having their spotlight moments stolen by company representatives, who wax poetic about the qualities of the final product. Shall we ever see another Maitani, Barnack?

    As always, good content. Thank you, CP!

    • It’s true. Today you see a lot more design by committee, focus testing, etc. The automotive industry is a perfect example of this. It could be argued that cars are becoming more and more unidentifiable as the generations progress. The product is focus tested and the results seemingly fed into a computer. All the hard edges and personal touches are being ground off by the process. The days of the Ferrari GTO and the Jaguar E Type, where a single designer’s vision is realized and produced, seem to be long gone.

      Cameras still look good though. I’d like to know who was the lead designer of the new Pen F. It’s gorgeous.

    • Jonathan Ive, Marc Newson are two modern design identities that spring to mind. Much revered for their exceptional products. Camera-wise, it’s arguable that there are no design innovations (at least ergonomically, not technically) in the modern day. Nikons look like Nikons from 20 years ago. Canons look, well, as mainly bland as they always have. Leica, Olympus; both trade on their past successes as acknowledged in this article.

      Pioneers like Maitani, Barnack et al go so much so right, that we’ve never bettered the usability of holding and using a camera. The fact that Fujifilm’s digital X series are so popular is in someway down to their retrospective design with physical dials and controls.

      This article is brilliant by the way! 🙂

  • Wonderful read! The XA is a great camera. I have not had an OM series camera, but am keen to pick up an om2n if I find one for a good price!

  • Great story and great read!! The OM20 was my very first camera almost 30 years ago, and my love for (analog) photography started with this beautiful and very reliable camera. My OM20 ist still working fine today and I added since then a OM2 to my collection. I’m still very impressed how small this SLR is, compared to some classic Nikon’s or Canon’s of the same period… And the Zuiko 50/1.8 is a beautiful lens which delivers fantastic results. If you never shot with an Olympus, you definitely have to get one! 🙂

  • really good article James, thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

  • Absolutely fantastic article – more like this please!

  • Great article, expanded my knowledge of the OM range’s history immensely. Being primarily an OM-1 shooter this article was right up my street!

  • William Sommerwerck February 17, 2018 at 7:05 pm

    Many years ago, when I had to travel overseas, I sold my Nikon equipment and replaced it with an OM-1 system. Everything fit in a tiny carrying case (which I still have).

    Whether the M-1 was named after Maitani is debatable. In a country of Leica fanatics, it’s not impossible that Olympus wanted to send a message to Leitz. Leitz was really perturbed by the model number, and Olympus was obliged to prefix an O.

    No question about it — Maitani was a true genius.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of CP. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic cameras and the most advanced digital machines. In addition to his work on CP, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio