In 1991, Olympus released an unusual point-and-shoot film camera. They called it the Écru, a French word that, according to Google, means “raw” and according to my French friends means “off-white, not quite beige.” In the Écru’s more aspirational user manual, Olympus chose to define the word as “unprocessed.” Which is funny, since we could rightly say that the Écru is really just a more processed version of another Olympus camera.
This vaguely unenthused preamble hints at just what the Écru is all about, and knowledgeable photo geeks will know what’s to follow. Like the Olympus O-Product before it (which we reviewed here), the Olympus Écru is a simple point-and-shoot camera wrapped in an unusual skin by a celebrity designer, produced in limited numbers, and made to generate interest.
And it did generate interest. Also like the O-Product, the Écru’s 20,000 units sold out quickly and its monolithic, pale body was splashed across the covers and centerfolds of the best photo magazines of its day. Almost thirty years later we’re still intrigued by this curious little camera. Which makes sense – despite its parts-bin heritage, its clumsy user controls, and its high price, there’s still a lot to like about the Olympus Écru.
What is an Olympus Écru
The most obviously interesting element of the Olympus Écru is its external appearance. A product of Naoki Sakai and his famed Japanese design studio, Water Design, the Olympus Écru is certainly unique.
A striking assemblage of sharp edges and restrained curves, it looks less like a camera and more like a carved marble tombstone propped atop the grave of traditional camera design. Rest in peace.
The squarish face, the mirror-finish square lens cap, the flat beige plastic and symmetrical body – none of these elements recall the classic, metal cameras of the past, nor do they portend the sleek, ergonomic cameras that shooter’s in its day expected the future would bring. The Écru was neither old fashioned nor modern, professional-level or entry-level; it was neither pure form nor pure function. It was just weird. But I guess that’s what we should expect from a designer whose desk space was dominated by his toy dinosaur collection.
Under the surface, things are more recognizable. The Écru, like the earlier Olympus O-Product, is a highly stylized redesign of a pre-existing Olympus point-and-shoot camera. In the case of the O-Product, Water Design built an incredible body around the innards of the humble Olympus AF-10. With the Écru, Sakai and his team would use the bones of one of Olympus’ most successful point-and-shoot cameras, the original Olympus Mju (Infinity Stylus in some markets). A near complete transplant, the spec sheet of the Olympus Écru matches the Mju’s so closely as to be almost identical.
The Écru is an entirely automated compact 35mm film camera. It’s fitted with a 35mm prime lens composed of three elements, and with a maximum aperture of F/3.5. A shutter sits directly behind the lens and exposes film through automatically selected speeds between 1/15th of a second and 1/500th of a second. There are no manual controls of aperture or shutter speed.
Focus is handled automatically via an active infrared beam system, capable of close-focusing down to 0.35 meters (13.5 inches). It features a built-in flash (guide number 12) with multiple flash modes including automatic, fill-flash, red-eye reduction, and no flash. There’s a tripod mount on the bottom, strap lugs on the sides, an optical viewfinder with focus and flash ready lights, and a power switch on the front. It runs on two AAA batteries.
None of this is exactly Earth-shaking, or even segment-defining. It’s a decidedly pedestrian feature set. But sometimes less is more, and the long-lived reputation for quality enjoyed by the Mju should and does naturally transfer to the Écru, since they’re essentially the same camera. As far as image-making tools, they’re both good and capable (if technically limited) machines.
Shooting the Olympus Écru
If the Écru is an aesthetic dream, and I think it is, then it’s also an admitted ergonomic nightmare. It’s a camera at odds with its own nature. A point-and-shoot camera that’s horrible to hold – that’s rare.
The camera’s square shape and the positioning of the lens as a centrally-mounted circle with equidistant spans of plastic surrounding the glass means that there’s really no distinct handle. Where other point-and-shoot cameras leave ample room on the right hand side, promoting an obvious space to grip, there’s no such luxury here. Even though the back of the camera has a tiny, raised striation that hints at a thumbrest, it does little to solve the problem.
One-handed operation requires the user to twist their fingers into a horrific claw. A full day of shooting left me with deformed digits, mutated and grotesque like Johnny Tremain. (Is Johnny Tremain still a relevant reference? If not, give me a minute. I think I can come up with another character from young adult literature who also sported a disfigured hand.)
The only salve for this injury is to shoot two-handed, which isn’t a big deal, except when it is. For example, any time I’m out with my children (which is always) I’m holding a tiny child’s hand in mine. And anytime I’m out shooting in the city in the winter, the season which it currently is, I need to keep my extra hand in a pocket away from the biting cold. And then there are the times when I simply don’t feel like holding a point-and-shoot camera with two hands, because there’s no reason anyone should ever have to do that.
The back of the camera’s no treat either. Rest your thumb in even the vaguest vicinity of a natural position and one of two things will happen; poke your eyeball, or cover the viewfinder. There is no other result. Twist your thumb downward and you’ll be picking your nose. Cinch it up tight against the pathetic excuse for a thumbrest and we’re back to turning our poor hand into a gnarled monkey’s paw, minus the wishes.
To properly hold this camera it becomes necessary to hold it as one holds a cheeseburger, or suffer a hand more twisted and useless than that of Albus Dumbledore after he’d foolishly slid Tom Riddle’s Horcrux ring over his knuckles. And those two things are actually the same.
By the way, did you see that? I did it. A Harry Potter reference.
The minimal user controls aren’t too pleasant, either. There are three of them, and each is annoying.
The flash control is a sequential single button – press it to cycle through the flash modes. The problem is found in its physical form. It’s absolutely tiny, obscenely pointy, requires far too much pressure, and offers no feedback, no click. It’s the kind of button a sponge manufacturer might make.
Next is the self-timer button. In the spirit of terrible sequels, it repeats all of the faults of the flash mode button, and then fails harder. It does this by requiring that the photographer not only press it, again applying the amount of pressure one might apply were they attempting to plug a dam with a single finger, but it also requires the shooter to hold the button down while also pressing the shutter button. Then the self-timer activates, allowing us to scamper away and pose in front of the World’s Largest Protozoa roadside attraction.
Last, is the shutter release button. A typical half-click focuses and locks exposure, a further press releases the shutter. Simple, except the physical button is aggressively narrow. Any thinner and it might’ve been a pin. I’m not sure which intern Naoki Sakai appointed “Shutter Button Designer,” but I hope they were unpaid.
And I should probably complain about the On/Off switch. I hate it. I’ve never hated an On/Off switch so deeply, and that includes the one on my treadmill, which I hate quite a bit. But the Écru’s On/Off switch is a disgusting and shapeless vestigial tail protruding grotesquely from the front of the camera
Looking through the viewfinder yields a predictable view. There’s a central patch for focusing, and frame lines for close-up shooting. To the right of the frame there are two LEDs, one green, and one orange. The green illuminates steady when focus is achieved, the orange illuminates steady when flash is charged (and blinks when not).
The strap lugs are a propriety type shared by the O-Product, so we’ll need a special strap. And there’s a tripod mount on the bottom. But I called Olympus and they said that they have no evidence that anyone has ever fitted an Écru to a tripod.
The much-bandied lens cap, which Olympus seemed really proud of (the original packaging for this camera has a special place for the lens cap to be displayed) is as shiny as a mirror. And I suppose I understand being really excited about it, in the same way that a crow might be really excited about a discarded Hershey’s Kiss wrapper. A bit uncommon, glints in the sun, might look good in the nest. That sort of thing.
But practically speaking, it gets covered in filthy fingerprints, doesn’t attach as securely as a regular lens cap, and is just another accessory to lose in the course of actual use. The Mju, by comparison, has a brilliant sliding clamshell lens cover, and the O-Product has an amazing metal hatch that flips away into the camera body on powering. I think I prefer either of those.
And aside from all of that, the rest is pretty predictable. The Écru is a point-and-shoot camera. Point it at things and shoot, and rely on the capable auto-exposure, capable auto-focus, and automatic film transport to do their thing. They’ll do it all well, and you’ll get good photos.
The lens is sharp in most cases, shows interesting vignetting in low-light and when shot wide open. There’s no controlling any of this, of course, so the only way we can really influence our final shot is by selecting the right film for our intent. Slower speed film should force the camera to shoot wider, faster film will theoretically give sharper frames due to a more narrow aperture. With non-DX coded film, the camera defaults to a setting of ISO 100.
Olympus’ typically excellent lens coatings do a fairly decent job of coaxing punch out of the typical point-and-shoot lens. Flares and ghosts happen, especially when shooting into direct sunlight. Bokeh is non-existent. What else can I say? It’s a point-and-shoot lens that makes point-and-shooty images.
The flash does a decent job at not overpowering subjects, though like most point-and-shoot cameras, care should be taken when shooting up close. Fill flash works well in harsh lighting to kill shadows on near subjects, and red-eye reduction does exactly what it’s supposed to do.
The autofocus system, as mentioned, works well. In seventy-two shots, maybe six showed out of focus subjects. And of these six, all were moving targets – dogs, birds, kids. It’s a good AF system. Good enough, anyway.
The takeaway, regarding image quality and performance, is pretty simple. If you like the images from the Olympus Mju (or any number of point-and-shoots from the 1980s and ’90s), you’ll likely enjoy the imaging aesthetic of the Écru.
You just may not enjoy the act of shooting one. I (mostly) don’t.
[All photos in the samples gallery were made with Kodak T Max 100 – some were shot by a three-year-old]
The Olympus Écru in 2019
Is there a reason to own an Olympus Écru today? It’s hard to think of a practical one. The Écru is a collector’s camera. I could almost argue that it’s a good camera for photographers looking for a capable and user-friendly film point-and-shoot because it takes nice pictures with virtually no effort, but there are plenty of cameras that more effectively and comfortably fill the same role, and for less money.
Take the Mju, the camera on which the Écru is based, for one easy example. Compared to the Écru, the Mju is an improvement in nearly every way. It’s the same basic camera with a better shutter release button (flat and comfortable as opposed to thin and pointy), a better dimensional profile (the Écru’s not fitting into a pocket), and a built-in lens cap. You can shoot a Mju comfortably with one hand, and fit it with a wrist strap if you like. It’s black and discreet, where the Écru is exactly the opposite. Add these arguments to the fact that the Mju, even in today’s inflated point-and-shoot economy, costs less than the collector-premium price-hiked Écru, and it becomes even harder to recommend it as a shooter.
But for the Olympus collector or the camera collector, there’s a strong argument for owning an Olympus Écru, especially one that’s complete with box and papers. It’s a unique camera with an interesting pedigree, a design unlike anything else to be found on the collector’s shelf, and if that weren’t enough, it makes pretty great pictures too. For camera nerds who really love design (maybe even more than they like taking pictures) the Écru is a must-own.