Come with me on a loosely-historically-accurate trip, dear readers. The year was 1969. Yoshihisa Maitani’s maverick team of designers and engineers were up to their old tricks of changing the camera game forever. In April, Olympus released their newest creation, the Olympus 35 SP. Coming down from the Summer of Love in ’67 and heading straight for Woodstock in August, the little Olympus was groovy, baby; it even had fluorescent painted guide numbers and focus distance so you could read your flash settings under the black light of said psychedelic venues.
1969 wasn’t all about peace and love though; there were big things happening in the world (and on the moon). Neil and Buzz took the first steps on the lunar surface (Hasselblads in tow), Burt Reynolds was no doubt swooning over the newly-released Trans Am, The Beatles broke teeny boppers’ hearts the world over with their last public performance, both the Boeing 747 and Concorde jets made their first flights, and somewhere in the Sierras a sixty-seven-year-old Ansel Adams had an aching back…
What? Stay with me here, folks. The veritable O.G. of landscape photography was getting a little long in the tooth to be going on his vertical adventures up steep switchbacks with a full 8 x 10 kit in tow. By 1943 he’d gone mobile, capturing grand vistas from atop the rooftop perch of his woody station wagon. But suppose he felt game for a little altitude? What camera would afford him the use of his famous Zone System in a compact and back-saving weight? May I present Ansel Adams’ point and shoot, the Olympus 35 SP.
The 35 SP was preceded by the lesser-known 35 LE (auto only) and 35 LC (manual only) released in 1965 and 1967, respectively. Produced from 1969 to ’72 the 35 SP is without question the crown jewel of the lineup. It retailed for an original price of 24,800 yen ($229.67) or 88,367 yen ($818.37) adjusted for inflation. It was followed by the 35 SPn in 1972 which added a battery check light and some cosmetic changes and finally the 35 UC in 1973 which had even more cosmetic changes. All of these cameras share the same fantastic lens: the G. Zuiko 42mm f/1.7, which consists of 7 elements in 5 groups in a double-Gauss design. It has virtually no distortion and is sharp at all apertures, even the very useable f/1.7 maximum speed.
The cameras that followed like the Olympus RC and Olympus RD, although much smaller in size, did not come close to the 35 SP in terms of lens quality or features.
So what makes the 35 SP so great? Opening the manual, Olympus congratulates us on owning “the finest rangefinder 35mm camera available today” and promises if we read the instruction manual thoroughly and carefully, our efforts “will be amply rewarded.” Marketing hype aside, the 35 SP was (and remains even fifty years later) the only 35mm rangefinder with the combination of spot-metering, center-weighted metering, and spot metering in automatic exposure mode.
My copy was recently overhauled, and using it is pure haptic bliss. Focus is achieved with a lever on the side of the lens that moves with perfect fluidity through its short throw allowing focus from a near 0.85 meters (2.8 feet) through infinity. The 0.7 magnification viewfinder is bright and contrasty with a well-defined rectangular rangefinder patch in the center. This patch also serves as a representation for the spot meter reading area. At the top of the viewfinder, the meter needle swings along an E.V. scale from 3-17. In automatic mode, the meter needle moves continuously in response to changing light unless the exposure is locked by half-pressing the shutter button.
Shutter and aperture are selected via a trapped-needle mechanism similar to the venerable Olympus Trip 35. All this results in a long, but smooth range of motion for the shutter button as the meter needle is trapped by a plate, which then actuates a cam that determines how much the aperture opens. The automatic mode favors stopping down the lens in bright light and open apertures in low light. The minimum manual aperture is f/16, but the camera will stop down to f/22 in automatic mode if the meter reads E.V. 17 or higher. There is a distinct “shoulder” at the bottom of the shutter pull that lets one know precisely when the shutter will fire. The Seiko leaf shutter is certainly quieter than an SLR. The film advance is another tactile pleasure: it extends 30 degrees away from the back in its stand-off position and then whips through it’s short 120 degree throw to ready the next frame.
Cosmetically, the 35 SP is a very handsome camera. Its satin chrome finish, black leatherette, and minimalist design exemplifies the timeless look modern manufacturers still try to emulate today. The viewfinder window is framed a-la-M3 and the large front element of the lens, with its purple and brown hued coating, hints at the technical abilities that lie beneath. The top plate is a wonderfully simple affair with the film rewind crank, hot shoe, shutter release, and advance lever. The frame counter is easy to read and accented by a flash of orange from the familiar Olympus indicator arrow. The back of the camera contains only the eyepiece and spot meter button which conveniently falls below the right thumb. Finally in a welcome departure from Leica bottom loaders, the film back swings open and is actuated by a recessed tab on the bottom left corner of the camera.
Unfortunately, no camera is perfect including this child of the ’60s. The single greatest annoyance I experienced with this camera is the location of the strap lugs. The camera designers chose to place them at the top of the leatherette presumably to keep the chrome top cover uncluttered, but this results in a top-heavy center of gravity. The camera constantly tips backward, digging its top plate into my body. Because 95% of my shooting includes my dog on a leash, a wrist strap is not an option for me. I’m sure Ansel would have wanted his hands free when scaling granite monoliths too.
Another design flaw is the lack of a power switch. Consequently, the meter is always on. The CDs cell consumes more power with increasing light so the camera must be stored in its case or a bag when not in use. I was fortunate to find an original case for cheap, but they regularly sell for $50 or more on popular auction sites.
Another feature missing is a depth of field scale on the lens making this a less than ideal choice for street shooters. Although the focus throw is very short and focus is quick and easy, nothing is faster than zone focusing.
While the inclusion of a spot meter is perhaps this camera’s greatest asset, I do wish its view were a bit narrower. The area encompassed by the rangefinder patch represents a field of view of six degrees. Dedicated spot meters have a one-degree spot, which allow the user to more accurately meter a specific part of a scene. Another criticism of the meter is that the CDs cell is in a window lateral to the viewfinder instead of through the lens or within the filter ring. This means that if using filters, one must adjust the ISO to account for the filter factor.
[Sample images shot on Kodak TMAX 400 and Portra 400. TMAX shot at EI 400 and developed in XTOL 1+1. Portra also shot at EI 400. Scanned on a Pakon scanner with the exception of the included darkroom prints.]
The big elephant in the room for cameras of this vintage is the battery issue: they were originally designed for the now banned PX625 mercury cell that seemed to last forever and emitted a steady 1.35 volts until it died. This creates problems for us today particularly when our aim is precision metering when practicing the Zone System. I recommend staying away from alkaline batteries as their voltage gradually and continually decline throughout their life. Silver Oxide cells maintain a much steadier 1.55 volts, but the resulting meter error is not linear; it increases with increasing light intensity. Wein Cells are zinc/air batteries that put out a correct 1.35 volts and are a good option, but tend to die more quickly than other battery types.
The cheapest option is to use 1.4 volt hearing aid batteries which are zinc/air and put out a steady voltage which is supposedly closer to 1.35 than 1.4, but they require a spacer of some type due to their smaller size. The MR-9 adaptor steps down the voltage of modern batteries to 1.35 volts and when combined with the steady output of silver oxide cells is perhaps the best, albeit most expensive option. As mentioned previously, my 35 SP had been overhauled and the meter tuned for modern batteries. When using standard silver oxide cells, the camera’s meter matches my Pentax Digital Spotmeter with surprising accuracy.
Zone System Metering
At this point, you may be wondering why I’m seemingly obsessed with spot meters or why my fictionalized version of Ansel Adams would have chosen the 35 SP as his compact companion. Simply put, spot meters open up the vast universe that is Zone System Metering.
And before your eyes simultaneously roll and glaze over, I promise the Zone System can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be. A working knowledge of this metering method can help you do something as simple as have your winter shots turn out with white snow instead of gray all the way to knowing how to tweak your processing to reign in or increase contrast. If you are interested in learning how to master this metering technique, check out my multi-part series surrounding the Zone System here.
We are incredibly fortunate to be living in what I consider to be the modern golden age of film photography. Whereas the casual photophile of yesteryear would have to shell out all his or her pennies to acquire a single camera, we are the beneficiaries of the magic of depreciation. The film geek of today is blessed with an enormous selection of professional level gear at rock bottom prices. We can buy multiple cameras to try with the confidence that we will not lose money on them when it comes time to sell.
This is a blessing and a curse. I firmly believe that each photographer must try many different types of cameras in order to arrive at the features best suited to their personal style and technique. This is the reason the question, “what is the best camera” is impossible to answer for another person. The downside is that a lot of us, myself included, have likely found ourselves focusing more on the gear itself than the actual taking of photographs. When we find ourselves in this predicament, it’s important to take stock of what we actually need or gain pleasure from using and let the other stuff go to someone else. Who knows, we might even turn a profit!
Throughout my own journey, I have discovered I am much more partial to SLRs for my own style of shooting. I like to be able to see my composition exactly including the depth of field. I also like to be able to see the actual field of view of my lens whether normal, wide, or telephoto.
I have never considered myself a rangefinder guy, but not for a lack of trying. I’ve owned three different Leica M bodies and sold them all. In addition to the reasons above, I’m a left-eye shooter so the whole focus with both eyes open and watch what is entering the frame thing never worked for me. I honestly never saw an advantage over a basic mechanical SLR for how I like to shoot.
But the 35 SP has changed my opinion of rangefinders. The lens performs incredibly well with edge-to-edge sharpness and no distortion. I find 42mm to be a very comfortable and useful focal length for normal shooting. I love that I can shoot fast in automatic mode or take my time in manual. The fact that the spot meter works in automatic mode is a game-changer and allows lightning fast metering for the highlights or shadows. The camera accomplishes all of this in a compact and lightweight package, and it looks great doing it.
While I still am prone to the binge and purge method of camera collecting, I think I’ll hang on to this one at least for a while. My Nikon’s still serve as everyday shooters and medium format is my choice for portraits and methodical landscapes, but the 35 SP fills a different niche. It’s an ideal choice for hiking or traveling when a balance of weight and performance is key.
The next time I’m in Yosemite, I’ll take it up the Mist Trail past Vernal and Nevada falls in a symbolic pilgrimage to old Ansel. I’ll stand on the Diving Board and look down at the valley floor some four thousand feet below my boots. I’ll slap on a red filter and shoot the Monolith like I’m sure thousands have in the interim between Ansel’s shutter squeeze and my own. Back on the ground, I’ll admire the real thing in the Ansel Adams Gallery and admire the little 35 SP, glad that it was much lighter than a glass plate camera. I bet my back will still hurt though.
Want an Olympus 35 SP for yourself?