Holding and shooting the Olympus O-Product, I get the feeling its designer didn’t give a damn about what other camera companies were creating. A little research confirms my intuition. In a 1989 interview in Popular Photography magazine, O-Product designer Naoki Sakai reflected. “Japanese companies say they think about the consumer. They’re liars. They only think about their competitors. […] I think about people.”
If this doesn’t tell of the man’s independent streak (he’s besmirching the brand that hired him, after all), some of his other endeavors might.
At age nineteen, he dropped out of school to sell t-shirts printed with Japanese tattoo designs and made $300,000 per month for two-and-a-half years. His Tokyo-based studio was said to employ seventeen young women and one 78-year-old man (a questionable arrangement that should rightly raise the eyebrows of even the most innocent-minded among us). At the time of the mentioned interview in Pop Photo, his work desk was dedicated not to drawings and schematics, but to displaying his toy dinosaur collection.
Suddenly the O-Product doesn’t seem so wild. But it is. Or rather, it was. Today its visual impact is less startling, but when it debuted in 1988, this luxurious, eccentric, and (gasp!) metallic point-and-shoot camera was a drastic departure from the compact 35mm film cameras being produced by anyone, anywhere.
At once old-fashioned and prophetic, the O-Product’s aesthetic was ahead of its time. A gorgeous mix of brushed and blasted aluminum and sharp, unapologetic geometry, the camera predicted a retro-modern aesthetic that other large industries wouldn’t fully embrace for nearly twenty years (think of Mini and their Cooper which debuted in 2001, the relaunched VW Beetle, more recent retro-inspired motorcycles from Ducati, Triumph and Honda, and heritage products from seemingly every lifestyle brand under the sun).
Chamfered bezels add to the angularity of its metal body. Exposed screw heads lend an industrial touch to the otherwise refined form. The only switch present on the body is a lever made of two metal cylinders. The entire camera is a melding of blocks and circles and squares; a love letter to simple shapes. It’s heavy and dense and cold to the touch, a stark contrast against the plastic, bubbly, and highly breakable point-and-shoots of its day.
Bold text is stamped into the metal of its film door (as well as a serial number indicating each camera’s place among the limited edition of 20,000). Open that door and we see an introduction of sorts, “a new concept in product design,” among other high-minded proclamations of the camera’s predicted seminal status.
And while this fanfare was obviously lauded by the very people who created it, it’s also well-deserved. The camera is simply gorgeous.
But under this tantalizing skin, things are far less inspired. The O-Product’s guts, brain, eyes, and heart are transplanted from the decidedly pedestrian Olympus Infinity Junior (known in Japan as the AF-10). This predictably-black, plastic point-and-shoot has all the standard features of the mass-made, consumer-level cameras of its era – automatic focus, automatic exposure, automatic film advance and rewind, an automatic built-in flash, a self-timer.
Not bad, for a point-and-shoot from 1988. But the Infinity Junior also brings the failings of its middle-class pedigree in ways that betray the O-Product’s external sophistication. This is most obvious when we open the back. Inside, the O-Product is almost entirely plastic.
Performance, too, falls short of what we’d expect from such an outwardly brilliant camera. Its shutter is only capable of speeds from 1/45th of a second to 1/400th of a second. The 35mm lens employs a glacially slow maximum aperture of f/3.5, and this aperture stops down to a minimum of just f/9. The film speed is set by DX-coding sensors in the film compartment, but it’s only capable of setting four speeds (ISO 50, 100, 400, 800). Size limitations mean the O loses the Infinity Junior’s built-in flash (the O-Product’s flash is a stylish external attachment that evokes a more elegant version of something we’d expect to see hanging off the side of a 1950s Kodak). This flash is disappointingly made of plastic.
The prettiest products are sometimes the worst to use, and the opposite is often true of ugly products. But less-than-impressive guts and all, the O-Product manages to avoid the worst of these pitfalls with deftness. The chunky, square body is thick enough to hold comfortably, and the viewfinder is large and bright, relatively speaking (this is still a point-and-shoot, expect simple frame lines and minor optical distortion). The front-mounted shutter release is large and its definitive two-click release is well-implemented. The lens cover switch, reminiscent of a bank-vault latch or something in a submarine, is decidedly mechanical and slides into and out of place with spring-loaded certainty and a delightful, metallic shwink. There’s no manual control of anything, just a simple button for activating the self-timer, a frame counter atop the body, and a couple of strap lugs for attaching the proprietary strap.
Images made are relatively sharp for a late-eighties point-and-shoot, but perhaps a bit over-saturated and excessively punchy (though this can be said of most of the compacts of its time). Light falloff is pretty heavy when shooting a slow-speed film, as this will force that sluggish aperture to stay wide open. The autofocus system works well, missing focus in just a few frames per roll in normal shooting. Action shots and reflective surfaces can pose a focus challenge.
As a photo-making tool, the O-Product is adequate and nothing more. By all measures but one (style) it was and is a basic and unremarkable camera. It provides the advanced photographer nothing to sink his or her teeth into, and offers nothing to set it apart from the hundreds of other technically identical (or better) point-and-shoot cameras of the 1980s and ‘90s.
Even when it was new, this logical conclusion was impossible to ignore, especially when comparing the Infinity Junior’s 1987 MSRP of $115 United States dollars against the O-Product’s original price of $500. With these harsh numbers staring at us, it becomes painfully clear the outlandish premium Olympus demanded for a little bit of aluminum pressed into an interesting shape.
But logic be damned, the camera moved. Of the 20,000 O-Products manufactured, Olympus sold every single one (the Japan-market allotment of 16,000 units sold out before the first camera ever left the factory). And it’s perhaps this incredible incongruity between performance and cost and the camera’s sales success that speaks loudest of the O-Product’s incredible design and its lasting legacy.
Thirty years later, used Olympus O-Products are still in demand, selling for ten times the cost of the camera from which it’s derived. That kind of relevance is something that’s enjoyed by only the most beautiful objects, the most interesting products, the most unique creations. And the O-Product is undeniably all of that.