The OM1 — a photographic tool of the mountain walker
This story was first published in Citizen Journalism.
OLYMPUS OM1. Lightweight, compact, robust.
A FEW YEARS back my partner and I decided to catch the lake boat from Cynthia Bay to Echo Point hut on Tasmania’s Lake St Clair. Our plan was to walk back along the Overland Track where it follows the lake shore through the tall Nothofagus of the dark, temperate rainforest.
It was only a day walk but with the fungi, the trees, the tall tree ferns of the forest and the occasional views across the lake’s silvery-grey waters to the Traveller Range on the far side, I stopped frequently to retrieve my Canon SLR (Single Lens Reflex) from my pack, take photos, then pack the thing away again, only to repeat the process a little further along. I carried my camera and associated equipment in an old, padded Mountain Designs camera bag I bought years ago. This went into my day pack. It took a lot of space.
Old, sturdy and heavy
The start and stop walking took me back to the late 1970s when I had earlier followed this and other tracks through Tasmania’s mountains.
Then, sleeping bags were bulky. Tents were heavy. The packs themselves, thick canvas sacks attached to external steel frames, did nothing to lighten our load. Add up the weight of all this equipment then add your food, your small bushwalker’s stove and extra fuel, a change of clothes and your warm and wet weather gear and the last thing you wanted to carry was a bulky, heavy camera. But in the seventies that is all we had.
At the time I used a Canon FTB, a sturdy, metal-bodied SLR fitted with a standard lens of 50mm focal length. It was one of those cameras where you set the exposure manually by matching a needle visible in the viewfinder with a little circle. The camera wasn’t compact or light weight but it was tough and reliable, the kind of camera that bushwalkers favoured.
Before buying the Canon I carried a Minolta SLR of similar characteristics though without any built-in exposure metre at all. The Canon and the sturdy old Pentax Spotmatic with its stopped-down metering system that darkened the viewfinder image as you closed down the aperture were the types of cameras bushwalkers lugged through the mountains in those days. There was no indication that camera manufacturers would do anything to lighten their load and free-up space in their packs with smaller, lighter weight SLR cameras.
Until the Olympus OM1 came along.
The Olympus OM1 answered the bushwalkers’ needs for a robust, compact, lightweight camera with quality optics.
Intriguing and attractive
Brian was the first of my friends to buy one of these new cameras. He spoke about compactness and light weight, the characteristics which made the OM1 attractive to bushwalkers. When I handled his Olympus I could feel what he was talking about. Its compactness was self-evident but was even more apparent when compared side by side with my Canon FTB. Compact solidity and toughness was what I felt as I held the camera. The OM1 wasn’t heavy, yet it had heft. And it had those sharp Olympus lenses.
Soon others bushwalkers acquired them. Why? Primarily because of their lower weight and bulk but also because they were a metal-bodied systems camera with a range of interchangeable lenses. Olympus made something revolutionary and bushwalkers were willing customers. The Olympus OM1 became available around 1973 and countered the trend towards bulkier, heavier SLR cameras.
The OM1 was a mechanical camera. All the tiny button battery did was power the light meter. If the battery went flat you could still take photos by estimating exposure, an ability then part of the photographer’s skill set. Exposure was set manually by matching a needle with an exposure indicator on the left hand side of the viewfinder. A + and a — marked the degree of over or underexposure. It was a reliable method.
Walking and ruminating
OM1 with 35–135mm telephoto lens.
That day we did the day walk from Echo Point hut, I left the Canon 80–200mm lens behind as it adds quite a bit of weight and bulk to the pack. For the same reason I left my flash behind, too.
Your mind can wander when you bushwalk. You go into a sort of reverie or start to think about stuff that you don’t usually consider. So it was that while walking through the forest I speculated about acquiring something lighter than my digital Canon SLR. But what? There was nothing offering quality kit and quality images that was significantly lighter and smaller.
Until the Olympus OM5D came along.
Olympus to the rescue again
It was Olympus to the rescue of the weary mountain walker again, just as it had been all those years back. The then-new OM5D reprised the OM1 experience in digital form, a meal-bodied systems camera that was both compact and light weight compared to my digital Canon SLR. With its weather-sealed body and lenses it was what bushwalkers needed for the digital age, especially those trekking the moist, misty mountains of Tasmania.
My OM1 film camera with its standard 50mm, f1.8 and its compact 35–105mm f3.5–4.5 lenses now sits in my cupboard. Sometimes I lift it out to handle it, to feel its compact heft again, to peer through its viewfinder. Then I look over to my OM5D which is something of a retro, look-alike design, and I think that here are two kin, a brother and sister if you like, separated by something like 45 years and decades of technological development but still bearing a family resemblance.
Two cameras, two design revolutions by Olympus — or is it a design revolution reprised?
Whatever it is, for tired bushwalkers both of those cameras saved a lot of energy and a lot of space in their packs, mine included. The OM1 and the OM5D were an exercise in smallness-with-function, a design exercise that raised a little less sweat on the brow of the mountain walker.
After some years with the OM5D I migrated to an even-smaller camera, a Sony a6300 with a Zeiss zoom lens. Again, compactness and light weight with high optical quality were the criteria which sold me on the Sony as a bushwalking and general-use camera. It is even smaller and lighter than the Olympus cameras.
My partner, not a photographer, tells me I should sell my Olympus OM5D and OM1 kits. I can’t being myself to do that. I tell her I have to keep the OM5D as a stand-by camera, just in case my Sony fails. She remains unconvinced.
Citizen Journalism: a rough guide to telling your stories in word and image on facebook
More By Toad & Track
IF a consistent swell is coming in, don’t be surprised if you find The Station Boardstore closed. Proprietor JJ knows…
IT’s tick season
IT IS tick season in Australia. The time of year to watch out for these tiny, biting parasites.