Here is a brief history of Olympus cameras. It is not comprehensive, and you will not see all models listed here. I highlight those models that, in my humble opinion, marked a defining moment in Olympus camera history. As well, I add my own personal anecdotes.
1919. Olympus starts out as Takachiho Seisakusho, intent on producing Japan’s first microscope, a feat which it accomplishes in just one year.
1921. The brand name Olympus starts to be used extensively .
1936. Semi-Olympus I. Olympus develops the Zuiko lens, but does not have much success selling the lens alone. Japanese camera maker Proud suggests Olympus attaches the Zuiko lens to the body of its existing Semi-Proud camera. The resulting camera, the Semi-Olympus I, is a medium format film (16 4.5×6cm exposures on 120 roll film) vertical folding camera fitted with Olympus’ newly-developed 75mm F4.5 Zuiko lens.
1939. The Olympus Six I is Olympus’ first 6×6 (hence the name “Six”) 120 film horizontal folding camera. It is dual-format, allowing the photographer to take a 6×6cm or 4.5×6cm picture. A folding optical finder on top has two engraved hairlines on the front glass to indicate the smaller 4.5×6cm field of view.
Even at this early stage, Olympus chooses to develop its own camera design instead of simply copying the existing German models, unlike what most other Japanese companies of the time are doing.
1948. The Olympus 35 I is the first compact 35mm film camera sold in the Japanese market. It is compact, light and supports rapid shooting (as in the speed with which users can wind the film, cock the shutter and push the shutter release button to take a picture). It features a 40mm F3.5 Zuiko lens and a Seiko shutter mechanism.
1952-1953. Olympus Flex (Flex I, Flex B II). The twin-lens reflex (TLR) reaches the zenith of its popularity, becoming the preferred camera type of photographers. The Rolleiflex is the gold standard to beat, and the Olympus Flex (later renamed Flex B II) with its two sharp 75mm F2.8 lenses competes head-to-head with it.
1955-1957. The Olympus Wide is a compact 35mm film camera designed specifically for wide-angle photography, which is previously only possible when using expensive cameras with interchangeable lenses. It is basically the Olympus 35V (a later improved version of the 35 I) fitted with a 35mm F3.5 wide-angle lens. To facilitate framing, the camera features a natural-light bright-frame finder. It quickly becomes hugely popular and helps pioneer the subsequent wide-angle camera boom. In 1956, the Olympus Wide E adds a Photoelectric Cell Light Meter. In 1957, the Olympus Wide S adds a rangefinder and a new brighter 35mm F2.0 lens. None has AE (Auto Exposure).
1957. The Olympus 35-S II is a rangefinder camera that features a 42mm lens with an even brighter F1.8 lens. There is no light meter and no AE (Auto Exposure).
1958. The Olympus Auto is Olympus’ first rangefinder with AE (shutter-priority auto exposure). It has a 42mm F1.8 lens and a built-in Selenium light meter (here shown with its flap closed).
1959. Olympus Pen. In a laudable effort to produce an affordable camera, Olympus decides to miniaturize everything, including how much of a 35mm film would constitute one frame. It halves the picture size from 24x36mm to 24x18mm, hence the half-frame monicker. (A 36-frame roll of 35mm film would provide 72 images.) This is probably the first miniaturization spark at Olympus, designing a more compact camera but still equipped with a superb 28mm (35mm equiv.) F3.5 D-Zuiko lens. Professional photographers love the superb photographic performance and excellent portability combination, and some start to use the Pen as a secondary camera.
Interesting trivia: The Olympus Pen comes from the bright mind of Maitani Yoshihisa who will go on to make a name for himself as a designer par excellence, long before Jony Ive becomes legendary at Apple in the 1990s. Olympus’ rise parallels that of Maitani’s success with iconic camera designs.
1961. Olympus Pen EE. The “EE” stands for the “Electric Eye” of the built-in Selenium light meter round the 28mm (35mm equiv.) F3.5 lens. There is only one shutter speed (1/60 sec.) and the camera automatically adjusts the aperture for correct exposure.
1963. Olympus Pen F. A masterpiece with a distinctive straight-line design by Maitani. The Pen F is a half-frame 35mm film SLR (single-lens reflex) camera that shakes the 35mm SLR world. It is the first camera to use a rotary titanium shutter that allows electronic flash synchronization at all shutter speeds. It is simultaneously released with a system of 20 interchangeable lenses, marking it as a full-blown professional SLR camera system. It does not have a built-in meter but an accessory light meter can be clamped onto the shutter speed dial at the front.
Interesting trivia: Notice that the Pen F does not have the tell-tale SLR prism bump on top, pioneering the beautiful flat top design, all thanks to the use of a porro-prism instead of the standard pentaprism used in other SLR cameras. The “F” logo is distinctive in its Gothic font.
(Not to be confused with the 2016 Micro Four Thirds mirrorless PEN-F.)
1966. The Olympus Pen FT adds a built-in CDS light meter. Olympus also releases its first 42mm (60mm equiv.) F1.2 H.Zuiko Auto-S lens. (Pictured is the 40mm F1.4 G.Zuiko lens.)
1968. Olympus innovates the Travel (hence, “Trip”) Category with the Olympus TRIP 35, a full-frame version of the half-frame Pen EE. Olympus back then already starts to read its customers’ mind by providing a fully-automatic compact camera with a fixed 40mm F2.8 lens, only two shutter speeds: 1/40 sec. and 1/200 sec., and a simplified icon-based pre-set focus selection. The Trip 35 is simple to use, reliable and takes superb pictures, all at a very affordable price for the general consumers shopping for a point-and-shoot camera to take on holiday trips. The Trip 35 is an instant success (earning the title of “cult classic”) and over the next 20 years, Olympus sells more than 10 million Trip cameras in its various iterations.
Like on the 1961 Pen EE, what looks like “compound eyes” around the lens is actually the Selenium light meter.
1971. Next, Olympus innovates the “Premium Compact” category with the fully automatic Olympus 35DC, a compact 35mm film camera based on the manual Olympus 35RD. The “DC” stands for “Deluxe Compact.” It features a 40mm F1.7 lens, a CDS light sensor (the little square window on the left of the lens), a rangefinder, the world’s first automatic flash system, and a Back Light Compensation (BLC) function (and button). It automatically selects the best combination of shutter speed and aperture for the scene based on the reading from the CDS light sensor, and a press of the BLC button narrows the metering to the rangefinder patch (equivalent to spot metering). It quickly becomes a very popular model.
Personal anecdote: I find the 35DC (and 35RD before it) one of the most beautifully-designed camera with clean lines.
1972. Olympus OM-1. The legend is born. It is early 1970. Leica is widely recognized as producing the best 35mm rangefinder cameras; Nikon and Canon are battling it out to claim SLR supremacy; and Minolta, Yashica, Contax, Pentax, Rollei and other camera manufacturers are serious contenders right behind the top two. It is in this hugely competitive market that a small SLR is introduced. The introduction of the Olympus OM-1 takes the world by storm and turns the world of 35mm cameras upside down: Never before has anyone expected that it is possible to design such a compact full-frame 35mm SLR (about 35% smaller and lighter than the average SLR) with superb performance and that also delivers uncompromising image quality. It is released with an extensive system of lenses and accessories that rival those of Nikon and Canon. The OM-1 is quickly proven in the field by professional photographers as a reliable and tough camera. Overnight, there is a new contender — and it creates a new space all its own. The other camera manufacturers scramble to come up with their own smaller models.
Interesting trivia: This masterpiece of camera design is initially released as the M-1, where the “M” apparently stands for Maitani, the last name of the chief designer, Maitani Yoshihisa, yes, the very same person who designed the Olympus Pen. Which other camera manufacturer has many M models? Leica, of course, and it objected forcefully, so the name is changed to OM (Olympus Maitani). With the release of the OM-1, Maitani’s design brillance and fame is recognized worldwide.
Personal anecdote: The tiny prism on top of the camera is deceiving at best. My first peek through the optical viewfinder of an OM-1 is a revelation to me, as to probably everyone else who tries the OM-1: The large .92X magnification means that the view is the biggest and brightest of all the existing SLR at the time.
1975. Olympus OM-2. Flushed with the overnight success of the mechanical and fully manual OM-1, Olympus improves it with the electronic and automatic exposure OM-2, which has the world’s first TTL (Through The Lens) direct metering system. The OM-2 features an AE (Automatic Exposure) system which, by measuring light reflected off the surface of the film, allows exposure control during shooting as well as automatic TTL strobe adjustment (using a specially designed strobe). It’s shooting mode is aperture-priority, but you can still go full manual with the flick of a switch. Those who hesitated to get an OM-1 because the latter is manual only now welcomes the fully automatic OM-2. Outwardly, there is not much to differentiate the OM-2 from the OM-1, except for a discreet engraving on the front plate.
Up to now, Olympus has only met success upon success with its cameras. It has innovated various new and popular categories, pioneered half-frame, and successfully penetrated a cut-throat SLR camera market with the legendary OM-1.
The future sees Olympus camera design taking a new direction with more “organic” forms, and Olympus veers into sometimes delightful and sometimes weird camera designs. Some designs are lauded for their originality (where form follows function) and others are head-scratchers (design for the sake of design, with no obvious advantages and lots of disadvantages). Nonetheless, from now on, Olympus will march to the beat of its own drummer with innovative designs that oftentimes are markedly different from those of the entire camera industry.
It is this persistence to be unique that allows Olympus to fearlessly invent the Four Thirds system, which will eventually lead to the Micro Four Thirds system — and to the revolutionary (evolutionary?) mirrorless technology, the basis of all modern interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs) today.
1979. The Olympus XA has a clam-shell design with a built-in barrier-type lens cover that eliminates the need for a case to protect its 35mm F2.8 lens. The sliding barrier also doubles as the power switch. The XA features a rangefinder and aperture-preferred AE, plus an externally mounted strobe flash unit designed to harmonize with the XA body. The XA is Olympus’ first full-featured camera in which plastic materials are used for the body and other key parts.
Interesting trivia: The XA is another superb design from Maitani.
1983. The Olympus AFL (“Picasso”) is one of the first cameras to be powered by a (non-replaceable) high capacity lithium battery which reduces the strobe flash recharge time to about a mere 1.5 sec. (The nickname “Picasso” derives from the Japanese word “pika,” meaning “flash.”)
1986. The Olympus AFL-S adds DX-Decoding (the camera automatically senses the type of film inserted, as in ISO and number of frames), a replaceable 6V lithium battery, and the availability of a telephoto attachment.
Personal anecdote: Notice the vertical red stripe on the Olympus ALF-S, a design element that we first see on the 1981 Nikon F3 based on the design of Italian car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. If you remove the Olympus mark on the body and lens, people might well think it’s a Nikon camera, so entrenched has the vertical red line become synonymous with Nikon cameras.
1986. The Olympus OM-4Ti is the first 35mm focal plane camera in the world to support flash synchronization at all shutter speeds. It is really the new Olympus F280 Full Synchro flash that makes this possible by pulsing its light continuously over 40 milliseconds, long enough to illuminate the horizontally travelling focal-plane shutter slit as it crosses the entire focal plane.
1990. The Olympus iS-1 (or L-1 / iS-1000 / L-1000) features a 35-135mm F4.5-5.6 4x optical zoom lens and a (at that time) weird L-shaped body. (Today, with digital technology, this L-shape does not look weird, but back then, the 35mm film needs to have a spool on each side of the lens, and the L-shape does not permit that.) The Olympus engineers are up to the challenge, however, undaunted by such a simple problem, and simply wounds the film as it advances into a box located in the rear lid.
Olympus calls the iS-1 an Integrated lens SLR 35mm film camera or a ZLR (Zoom Lens Reflex), i.e., a SLR camera (SLR because it has a mirror and you view through the lens) with a fixed lens. Technically, a SLR camera accepts interchangeable lenses, so Olympus is really trying to define a new category here. We call these cameras “bridge” cameras for they bridge the gap between the P&S and the SLR, and this category will be known as the Zoom Category (and later, Super Zoom Category).
1991. Olympus Infinity Stylus (μ [mju]). Creative juices flowing, Olympus elevates its clam-shell design to another level with the new Stylus. It is fully automatic and features autofocus, motorized film transport, and a built-in flash. Ergonomic design takes a front seat, winning it numerous prestigious design awards, and the Stylus becomes a best-seller with over 5 million units sold.
Note: The Stylus line will eventually step from the 35mm film era into the digital era with the 2003 Olympus Stylus 300.
1996. Olympus enters the digital era with the Olympus D-300L (CAMEDIA C-800L). The D-300L features a 0.8 MP image sensor, 6 MB internal storage (30 images, no memory card), a 36mm (equiv.) F2.8 lens, and it becomes a major hit product.
1997. The Olympus D-600L (CAMEDIA C-1400L) is a fixed-lens digital single-lens reflex camera with a 36–110 mm F2.8–3.9 3.1x optical zoom lens. It features a 1.41-megapixel on a 2/3″ (Type 1/2.3, 8.8 x 6.6 mm) primary color progressive CCD, a 1.8-in. LCD display, a small optical viewfinder and an affordable price tag.
The D-600L can be thought of as the digital version of the iS film series. Olympus calls it an Integrated lens digital SLR or ZLR (Zoom Lens Reflex) camera. Everyone else calls it a “bridge” camera. These affordable Olympus bridge cameras are very popular.
1999. Olympus takes a step back and two steps forward with the Olympus CAMEDIA C-2000 ZOOM, a compact digital camera with 2.0 MP resolution, a fast F2.0 35-105mm (equiv.) 3x optical zoom, built-in flash, and auto ISO. It is however not a SLR, but has an optical viewfinder and a 1.8-inch LCD display.
2000. Olympus has so far been targeting its digital cameras to the enthusiast photographers. With the Olympus E-10, it starts eyeing the professional photographers. The E-10 features 4MP resolution, a fixed F2.0 35-140mm 4x optical zoom lens, auto focus, PASM modes, a 1.8″ Tilt LCD, a TTL viewfinder, and a pop-up flash.
2001. The birth of the compact Ultra Zoom cameras. The Olympus C-700 Ultra Zoom features 2MP resolution and a F2.8 38 – 380 mm (equiv.) 10x optical zoom lens (no image stabilization) in a compact body.
2003. Olympus Stylus 300 (μ-10, μ-300 DIGITAL). The Stylus line finally becomes digital. The Stylus 300 features 3.2 MP resolution, a F3.1 35-105mm (equiv.) 3.2x optical zoom lens, a 1.5-in. 134,000 pixels LCD display, a sliding lens barrier, and it is weatherproof.
2006. OLYMPUS EVOLT E-330. Live View comes to the DSLR for the first time. While compact digital point-and-shoot cameras feature full-time Live View display, a DSLR has the mirror blocking the light from hitting the CCD image sensor. A DSLR can therefore only use the display for image review after the shot. The E-330 is the first DSLR to feature full-time Live View on its 2.5-in. Tilt LCD monitor thanks to the use of a porro mirror that reflects the light up to a small secondary CCD image sensor in the optical viewfinder chamber to provide full-time Live View on the LCD monitor.
2006. Olympus Stylus 720SW (μ720SW). It won’t be called “TOUGH” until six years later, but the Stylus 720SW features a shock-resistant (the “S”) and waterproof (the “W”) body, enabling it to be used in all weather and environmental conditions where water, moisture and dust can be a problem. It is not only tough, but also stylish and sleek, making it a favorite fashion piece.
Personal anecdote: Don’t you just love the three screws on the front of the camera? They make the camera look tough, while still being stylish. Olympus loans me a Stylus 720SW for review when it comes out and I promptly take it with me to Disneyland on my family summer vacation. It is great fun to have a compact, light, pocketable and almost indestructible camera for the trip. I love the 37-111mm (equiv.) 4x optical zoom lens, allowing me to take travel landscapes at the wide-angle end plus portraits at the tele end. I shoot on the beach without fearing that the sand might get into the camera, in the water as other swimmers gasped as I duck the camera into the sea, at night to catch the beautiful Disney fireworks, drop it on the monorail and the resounding thud draws nods of sympathy from concerned passengers — but the 720SW keeps shooting without fail. If you don’t have one of the Olympus TOUGH cameras, get one! Best worry-free camera to take on a vacation.
2009. Olympus PEN E-P1. Olympus’ first mirrorless camera comes 10 months after Panasonic introduces its Lumix DMC-G1. OLYMPUS decides to reprise the legendary 1959 PEN brand and design of its half-frame cameras. This time, the PEN E-P1 is a Micro Four Thirds System mirrorless camera using a Four Thirds high-speed Live MOS sensor. Though it is a good camera, everyone recognizes the E-P1 is not Olympus’ flagship PEN camera and wonders if and when Olympus will release a PEN F model.
Olympus continues to update its compact Stylus point-and-shoot cameras, E series DSLRs, PEN mirrorless cameras, and introduces the TOUGH series, the SP Super Zoom series, and other cheaper point-and-shoot models. Looks like Olympus is not quite convinced itself about the mirrorless technology it pioneers with Panasonic which has been releasing one “mirrorless DSLR” after another, while Olympus stays with compact mirrorless cameras. But this is about to change…
Interesting trivia: At that time, the term “mirrorless” has not been formalized yet by the industry and various monickers float around: Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens, Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera, Compact System Camera, Digital Single Lens Mirrorless (Panasonic), etc., and though “mirrorless DSLR” is technically an oxymoron, it comes closest to describing a DSLR that has had its mirror removed. Read more about it here.
2012. Olympus OM-D E-M5. At last, Olympus releases its first mirrorless DSLR, the OM-D E-M5, reprising the legendary 1972 OM brand. It features the world’s first 5-axis IBIS (In-Body Image Stabilization) system and robust weatherproofing. But everyone recognizes the E-M5 is not Olympus’ flagship OM-D camera.
2013. Olympus releases its flagship Micro Four Thirds mirrorless DSLR, the Olympus OM-D E-M1. It features 5-axis IBIS, excellent weatherproofing and shock resistance, and the durability to operate in frigid temperatures as low as -10°C (14°F).
2016. Finally, the OLYMPUS PEN-F is released.
Personal anecdote: Does the 2016 PEN F design do justice to the 1963 Pen F wth its distinctive straight-line design? In my opinion, there are just way too many knobs and dials that mar the clean look of the original design. It is still quite a handsome camera in its own right.
2019. Olympus OM-D E-M1X. Bowing to pressures from professional photographers that the E-M1 cannot quite compete with the flagship DSLRs of the time, Olympus releases the OM-D E-M1X with an integrated vertical grip, the world’s best image stabilization performance of approximately 7.5 shutter speed steps of compensation, 60 fps high-speed sequential RAW shooting, and Pro Capture which records up to 35 frames before the shutter button is pressed.
Personal anecdote: I am pretty disappointed with the OM-D E-M1X’s size and weight: Though not quite as big and heavy as its DSLR competitors, it is still a big and heavy camera, which goes against the grain of the mirrorless philosophy of making more compact and lighter cameras. Unless a super telephoto lens is attached, there is not much size and weight advantage over a full-frame camera/lens combo. In this case, why would I not prefer a full-frame camera to a MFT camera?
On September 30, 2020, Olympus Corporation announces that, following operating losses for 3 consecutive fiscal years, it is transferring its Imaging Business to Japan Industrial Partners Inc. (“JIP”), a specialist shop in restructuring companies in trouble. The new imaging company is called OM Digital Solutions Corporation (OMDSC). The cameras it sells is called the OM System.
2022. OM System Olympus OM-1. The last Olympus-branded camera and the first OM System mirrorless camera. Is it an OM System camera or an Olympus camera? It is an OM System camera, but Olympus allows it to use the “Olympus” name one last time to honor the original 1972 OM-1. Notice that not even Olympus uses the OM-1 name when it comes out with the 2013 OM-D E-M1. But since it has sold the rights of the OM brand to OMDSC, the latter now has the right to use it as it sees fit. The 2022 Olympus OM-1 is the best Olympus mirrorless to date, though OM System’s first flagship Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera faces stiff competition from all the big names who have now all jumped with both feet into the mirrorless arena.
Interesting trivia: A Micro Four Thirds (MFT) mirrorless camera uses a Four Thirds image sensor (17.4 x 13.1mm) that is quite a bit smaller than a full-frame sensor (36 x 24mm), so technically MFT cameras should be smaller and lighter than full-frame cameras — one of the major reasons why photographers choose MFT cameras over full-frame cameras. When a MFT mirrorless is about the same size or even larger than a full-frame mirrorless, the question becomes, Why should I buy a MFT mirrorless when there is no size and weight advantage over a full-frame mirrorless?
Well, there is: in the super telephoto lenses. Here’s the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm (600mm equiv.) F4.0 IS PRO $2,999.99 compared to the Sony FE 600mm F4 GM OSS $12,998. The size and the price say it all. So, there is a future for MFT mirrorless cameras using super telephoto lenses. But OM System needs to also take full advantage of their smaller (but as good) image sensor to design smaller and lighter mirrorless cameras when not using super telephoto lenses. OMDSC assures us that it will continue the OM Series…
>> And now to the present: Olympus Mirrorless Buyer’s Guide
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