Olympus Mju II Review – a Skeptical Look at a Cult Favorite

Olympus Mju II Review – a Skeptical Look at a Cult Favorite

3000 1688 James Tocchio

A skeptic at heart, I’d been side-eying the Olympus Mju II for a long time. As prices for this tiny point-and-shoot camera from the 1990s continued to climb over the last few years, my incredulity only intensified. In a no longer private conversation with fellow CP writer Dustin, he affirmed my suspicion when he opined that the Mju II is nothing more than “plastic junk.” 

But I’m nothing, if not curious.

Last month I decided to give away a goodie package via the site’s Instagram page in conjunction with our podcast pals at Analog Talk. Fans and followers could enter their name into the figurative hat, and we’d pick a random winner to receive a CP tee shirt, a sticker pack, some film, and a Mju II. Knowing that my accountant would want to know how much money I’m giving away, I browsed around to see what sort of prices these Mjus were now commanding.

My disbelief reached Loch Nessian proportions.

At an average price of $225 (more for one that’s black, and much more for the rare and limited burgundy model) the Olympus Mju II is one of the priciest point-and-shoot cameras of its type and time. But should it be so expensive?

I decided to spend a few weeks with one to see if I could answer that question. 

First impressions are important. I’ve held Olympus Mju IIs and Stylus Epics (as they were called outside of Japan) more times than I can count, and I’ve sold plenty to customers through my store. In the hundred-or-more times I’ve picked one up, I’ve never been impressed.

But maybe “impressed” isn’t the best word. “Uninterested” may be closer to the mark. There’s just nothing, when holding this camera in the hands, to get excited about. It’s a plastic camera made in the 1990s. It’s light (in both weight and ostensible build quality), sounds hollow, and feels a bit flimsy. The film door seems poised to snap off, the sliding clamshell on/off switch and combination lens cap flexes with every actuation, and the battery door (apparently weather-sealed) never seems to seal quite perfectly. Not limited to this single example, these fit and finish quirks are present in every Olympus Mju II I’ve ever held.

Measured against its contemporary competition (plastic point-and-shoots of the ’90s), this is all perfectly normal. In fact, the Mju II is one of the better built point-and-shoots of its time. But that says less about the high quality of the Olympus and more about the low quality of much of its competition. 

The problem, really, is that it’s 2018. There’s no longer any reason to compare the Olympus Mju II to its contemporaries or cameras in its class. Its time has come and gone. Today, it’s much more useful to compare any given film camera we want to any other film camera, because they’re all essentially doing the same thing.

Why shoot film? Why shoot this particular film camera? Why shoot a Mju II when we can shoot a Nikonos V, or an Olympus XA, or a Minolta X700? That’s the real question today. And the sad truth about the Mju II’s build quality, is that it’s a cheap toy compared with film cameras that I truly love to use.

Harsh, I know. And it gets worse before it gets better. 

Part of the fascination with shooting film, and for me it’s a very substantial part, is that shooting film allows me to use cameras that are pinnacle mechanisms. I’m too young for the wistful eyes and the tired “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” but as it relates to 1990s point-and-shoots compared with, say, a compact rangefinder from the 1970s, well, they don’t make ‘em like they used to. 

There are no dials on the Mju II with which to adjust settings. There are no controls beyond paltry flash and self-timer adjustments (and in the case of my DLX version, a useless and frankly fraudulent panorama switch). There’s no aperture control or manual focus, there’s no shutter speed adjustment or ISO control for push/pull. The shutter release button is an acute ovoid of faux-chrome plastic, and every time I press it I can’t help but wish I was pressing the brilliant synthetic ruby shutter release of the Contax T or the soft-release of the Nikon SP (dare I say, real cameras). 

Metal dials, adjustment knobs that click with refined precision into deeply set mechanical detents, ball bearing shutters, a film advance lever or, barring that, at least a mechanical film advance that sounds delightfully mechanical (go listen to the salacious audio file included in my Contax G2 review). These are the things I like. These things are the reasons I shoot film cameras. The Mju II provides none of these things. 

But, wait. Before you Mju fans grab your pitchforks I’ll admit it – the Olympus Mju II does a lot of things really well. And a lot of the things it does well are admittedly much more important than those things that I just whined about, the user experience of a film camera in 2018. 

To start, it has a fantastic lens. Sharp and punchy, with a fast maximum aperture and Olympus’ superb multi-coated glass, it’s a real performer and the main reason for the camera’s cult-and-creeping-into-mainstream following. A prime lens with a focal length of 35mm ensures it will mostly work to frame any shooting situation, and the f/2.8 maximum aperture makes it passably proficient in low-light when shooting with the camera’s built-in flash switched off.

Images from the four elements in four groups lens are sharp from edge to edge, and vignetting is minimal. Chromatic aberration, distortion, ghosts and flares are all nearly entirely mitigated. These optical issues simply won’t factor, which is atypical in point-and-shoot film cameras.

When Yoshihisa Maitani designed the Olympus XA, he wanted to build a tiny camera capable of making images of the same high quality as those made with his full size SLR and Leica rangefinder lenses. He did it with that camera, and the Mju II is, in this way, a spiritual successor. It makes beautiful photos in the right light, and with virtually zero input from the photographer.

Next, the Mju II’s active multi-beam autofocus system is without a doubt one of the best ever fitted into a point-and-shoot film camera. Capable of focusing as close as 0.35 meters (just over one foot), it snaps to focus with a rapidity that’ll be quick enough for any shooter’s needs. A half-press of the shutter locks focus upon the single point in the middle of the frame, so those shooters familiar and comfortable with the focus-and-then-compose methodology will feel at ease with the Mju II.

The AF system can be fooled by reflective surfaces or when shooting through glass, and it’s not as full-featured as some focus systems found in Canon’s later point-and-shoots or even the truly amazing AF system found in the “gets-no-respect” Chinon 3001, but in my testing, the Mju II missed only two percent of AF attempts. That’s hard to beat.

Lastly, its metering system is fantastic, and this is of utmost importance in any point-and-shoot, but doubly important in a camera like the Mju II which totally lacks any and all exposure controls (this is a legitimate point-and-shoot – there’s not even an exposure compensation switch or backlight button). Even in extremely challenging light, the Mju II always seemed to get it right, or at least render things in a way that some artistry was retained even if an objectively proper exposure was not. In addition to the standard average metering mode, spot-metering can be turned on by pressing both the flash and self-timer buttons at the same time. This mode works equally well, especially when paired with the camera’s focus-and-recompose methodology mentioned earlier.

These major strengths of the Mju II are interesting individually, but not electrifying. No single part of the Mju II is special. Other point-and-shoot cameras like the Pentax UC-1 (another cult favorite) rival the Mju’s tiny size, but the lens is slower and the AF system not as fast or accurate. Minolta’s Rivas have aspherical lens elements and distortion-free zoom lenses that are far more versatile than the Mju’s prime 35mm, but it’s utterly massive. Nikon made plenty of point-and-shoots with extra-low dispersion glass, and these make sharper images than the Mju, but like the Minolta they’re incomparably large. Some Leica point-and-shoots offer aperture control and focus control, but cost three times as much and break just as often. 

None of these other mentioned cameras, and indeed no other point-and-shoot that easily springs to mind, offers everything the Mju II offers in quite an elegant go-anywhere package. It absolutely does have the best combination of fast glass, brilliant lens, quick AF, and a compact form factor. 

But just because it’s smaller than those other cameras doesn’t mean it’s an obvious winner. The Mju II doesn’t actually fit into my pant’s pocket without producing an unsightly bulge. The bulge it makes is just a bit less unsightly than the bulges made by those other, larger cameras. 

And I have to mention that the Mju II has a really irritating habit of resetting the flash mode whenever it’s powered off. So if you like to shoot without a flash, as I do, better get used to automatically pressing that button every time you turn on the machine. And if you like shooting with the sort of flash that the Mju II boasts, that confuses me. It’s direct, overpowered, and makes images look gross.

If it sounds like I’m dismissing the Olympus Mju II or being a contrarian, I’m not. I like the Mju II quite a bit, actually. It’s a great camera. Splash-proof and tiny, with a great lens, I can easily envision a person for whom the Mju II is the perfect camera. For a very specific photo geek, one who wants a really capable point-and-shoot to carry everywhere, everyday, and who doesn’t want to think about anything except pressing the shutter release button and hoping against hope that the aesthetic of film and their vision through a tiny viewfinder will magically combine to create a wonderful photo, the Mju II could be the perfect camera.

It’s just that, for me, there’s no reason to ever shoot one. It’s not compact enough to be an invisible partner. It’s not adjustable enough (or at all) to replace my larger cameras and their amazing lenses. It’s not fast enough to replace manual focusing and my preferred zone focus technique in fast-shooting situations, and its not inexpensive enough to say, “Sure, why not.”

But worst of all, it’s not interesting enough to keep me interested. 

If I’m walking out the door and I’m committed to shooting film, there are about fifty other cameras that are more interesting. And that, when it comes to my personal relationship with the Olympus Mju II, is that. 

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
23 comments
  • Thanks for your review. I have both the Stylus Epic and the Stylus Epic Zoom. No, they are not perfect cameras but they are great cameras for what they are. I think Olympus outshined all of its competitors in the fully automatic point and shoot category. The main flaw to me is the lack of any manual exposure control, including changing the ISO. They are also not as rugged as my all-mechanical Rollei 35s. Nonetheless, I have learned to live with their limitations and just enjoy them.

  • One of the best camera reviews I’ve ever read. Made me happy I sold my mju-ii and even happier I have a Nikonos V and and Olympus XA!

  • Tu revisión de la cámara es muy divertida… todas las desventajas que le encuentras son subjetividades que no todo el mundo valora o necesita y en cambio, sí que le reconoces las ventajas en todo lo que es objetivo y que por tanto la mayoría de usuarios busca y valora en una cámara que cabe en el bolsillo de la camisa.
    La única conclusión que se puede sacar es que a tí no te parece la mejor, así que no hay problema, el prestigio del modelo seguirá siendo intachable.

    Your review of the camera is very funny… all the disadvantages you find are subjectivities that not everyone values or needs and instead, you do recognize the advantages in everything that is objective and therefore most users look for and value in a camera that fits in the pocket of the shirt.
    The only conclusion that can be drawn is that you don’t think it’s the best, so there’s no problem, the prestige of the model will remain impeccable.

    (my apologies for the translation)

    Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator

  • You hit the nail on the head. It’s a nice little camera that can produce some great photos…but…so do a lot of other cameras. It’s just so. I get nothing from the act of using this camera…really…any point and shoot camera. They just aren’t that interesting. As someone that owned many P&S cameras back in the 90’s, I am completely baffled by their popularity. Especially the prices. But, to each their own. If that’s what you like to shoot, get on it.

    • Yes, and your comment reminds me – in case the article isn’t totally clear, I’m not discrediting this camera’s ability. It’s a really great point and shoot, but it’s just not my type of machine.

  • I think these were only called Stylus Epic in the US market, in Europe at least we had Mju’s. Turning off the flash every_ freaking_ time_ I turn the camera on is incredibly frustrating. The strong point of the camera in my opinion is the light meter which seems to get it spot on in every shot.

  • Great review. I have been wondering about the popularity of these small cameras also. Ones that a couple of years ago were probably dumped into the trash or $2 bins at your local thrift store are now fetching $200+ bucks. For that kind of money a mid-70’s SLR would be a better choice, except for the size. But I for one don’t find the size of most SLR’s to be a hindrance. If I want to go small, my OM-1 with a 50mm on it fits in the cargo pocket of my shorts. If you like this camera, then great! Go out and shoot, shoot all the film you can. Don’t let anyone else’s opinion get in the way of enjoying the process of making photos, no matter your choice of tool to get it done.

  • Every time I get out the 35RC people smile. When I hand it to them they are shocked by the solid feel. I don’t get the appeal of the plastic fantastic..

  • I’ve gone through a couple of these back in the day, both had issues with the shutter release, but they were my favorite ‘toss it in your pocket’ cameras. I don’t mind that it’s plastic, I got used to turning the flash off every time. It’s weather sealed, so i’ve used it in heavy rain without issues. One handed use is easy. My shots were always in focus when they were working properly, unless it was user error. Some of my favorite event/party/hanging with friends photos came from them.

    I’ve wanted to get another but the issue I have now is the current pricing. It’s a great little camera for what it is, but I wouldn’t pay anything close to what they’re going for now.

    note: you can change the iso by changing the dx code on the film canister with a sharpie and/or knife (to scrape off the markings if needed) I pushed many rolls this way.

  • I just don’t find these cameras enjoyable to use. And the prices are now nutty. This dood is asking $400 for one!
    https://losangeles.craigslist.org/lac/pho/d/olympus-stylus-epic-28-mju-ii/6697924073.html

    You can get all sorts of incredible cameras for less. I paid less than that for a mint Nikon F3P!

    • You and I are of the same mind, for sure. Can you imagine buying a point-and-shoot instead of a Leicaflex? The mind boggles.

  • Great review. The market is so strange at the moment, some things are ridiculously overpriced (this, and the Contax T2/3 spring to mind), yet I just picked up a Mint Olympus XA for £80 from a reputable dealer. To me there is no competition between something like the XA and the Mju II, yet Instagram influences the eBay market so much it has a knock on effect across the whole industry!

    • I think the XA is the camera that most obviously trounces the “premium compact point-and-shoot” in my thinking. It’s as small as a Mju II (or Contax T3), with a lens that’s just as good, but it allows full control of depth-of-field via its aperture control, and precise manual focus via its rangefinder (and if you want a point-and-shoot methodology, stick it to F8 and just shoot).

  • This was my primary camera in the late 90s & early 2000s. At that point in my life, I was sick of carrying around my comparatively heavy Canon AT-1. The electronics on the mju eventually fried, and I tossed it in the electronics recycling bin without a second thought. As you might guess, the AT-1 soldiers on, just as good a when I unboxed it in 1977.

  • Fixed focal lenght lens, AF, spot metering. I don’t think you will finde another compact with this characteristics. For sure not in the price range of the mju-II. So what other cameras are you talking about, offering the same?

    • No kidding. .. if the author wants to go out fiddling he should just lug around his Pentax K1000.

      • Stylus Epic 35mm f/2.8 is for those times when all you want to think about is film choice. .. Cold winter morning. Walking in the park with your lover. . Want a few WARM looking portraits shot with one hand.? .. EXTAR 100 and get back to holding hands. .. Btw, I have a ton of gear.. AND a girlfriend.

  • For several years in the late 90s-to-early-00s, this was my only camera, and it did well. I still find them at Goodwill for $5, and it’s still fun. One of the best camping/hiking cameras ever made (XA was never weatherproof). Would never pay $200 for one–heck, I wouldn’t pay $10; just be patient and you can find it.

  • Just bought a MjuII and i think is not for everyone but if you consider to buy a good 35mm lense for your slr it would cost you around 400. As Robert Frank said first the lense, second the film and third the camera. So i bought it because it has a good sharp lense and i dont want to be called a photographer every time someone see me with a camera. Mju feels like a toy and definitely you can put it on your pocket and for sure people would bearly notice You when using it. Get a fanny bag put some rolls and whenever you see something interesting you can shoot quickly.

  • Wonderful, clear review.
    I adore the results mine gives.
    When I wish more control in a tiny package, I use my Minox 35GL.
    Obviously the plastic does not both me 😉

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio