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Maitani - designer and photographer

Mr. Yoshihisa Maitani is the founder and chief camera designer of OM-1.

Maitani is also an amateur photographer and takes photographs regularly. He prefers single lens reflex cameras (SLRs) and carries two camera bodies and 6 or 7 lenses for outdoor photography. And this is hard for him.

The OM-1 design team
(from left to right) Yoshihisa Maitani, Kunio Shimoyama, Kazuyuki Nemoto, Toshihiro Imai
Photo from Nippon Camera - July 1994


From the cosmos to bacteria

Maximum system expansion is a top priority in the development of OM-1. The aim is to develop a camera which can cover all subjects from astronomical photography to microscopic photography.

Maitani has a strong wish to eliminate the three defects of SLRs: excessive weight, bulk, shutter noise and shock. He prefers the size of Leica IIIf , the quiet shutter of Leica M3, and a whisper-quiet mirror movement.

His target is half the weight and size of conventional SLRs. Some engineers pay attention to the figures of weight and dimensions. Maitani believes it is what the photographers actually "feel" when holding the camera is more important.

The development of OM-1 was proposed in January 1967. At that time, Japan was in a mild recession and camera was not selling well in the domestic market. Olympus desired a 35mm SLR that could sell well in the overseas market.

Competition was severe and the market desired new remarkable features. The management of Olympus did not necessarily accept "compactness" as a new product feature. Maitani said: "Compactness was not evaluated as a product value at that time." Compact products became popular only some years after the appearance of OM-1.

The project was approved one year later. Maitani asked for 5 years to prepare the OM System which consisted of about 250 units. These included tens of lenses, motor drives and flash units. OM-1 was released in Japan on 20 July 1972.

When Maitani was first asked to develop a 35mm SLR, he was not enthusiastic about it. To Maitani, photography is the starting point for everything he designs, his sole concern is that the camera can take good photographs. As 35mm SLRs were already on the shelves for everyone to buy, he didn't feel that he had to design one.


Small wonder

OM-1 was 35% smaller and lighter than existing 35mm SLRs when it first appeared. Although it was not intended to copy the Leica, the size and volume of OM-1 are very similar to a Leica M series camera. Smaller and lighter is not the result of miniaturization. It is achieved through more rational design and the adoption of more sophisticated materials and engineering techniques.

The purpose of making OM-1 smaller is to make it more responsive and easier to use. Maitani did not make the camera smaller just for the sake of small size. In fact, he could make it even smaller. However, this would make the camera difficult to use.

The concept of ergonomics was employed in the design of the body. The body size was determined by analyzing the data obtained by measuring the size of thousands of human hands world-wide.

Although the size of the body is smaller, other components of the camera , such as shutter speed ring and film rewind knob, are more conveniently positioned and larger than those in other cameras.


Shrinking the camera

By 1967, the design of a SLR was considered to be perfect. It was deemed impossible to make a SLR smaller.

Nevertheless, in order to to tackle the problem, Maitani decided to go back to the basic. Putting aside the general concept of a camera construction, Maitani studied every function of a SLR from a new view point and re-designed every structural element.

For example, the shutter speed ring is located on the lens mount.

In a conventional SLR, the shutter winding drum is placed near the film winding lever axis, and the shutter speed dial is placed on it.

In an attempt to reduce the camera size, the design team tried to make the shutter drum thinner. But the thinner drum is not reliable enough.

There is a tiny space beneath the mirror box that is not utilized in a conventional SLR. In the OM-1, the high speed shutter control section (which is normally located on the side of the viewfinder) is put under the mirror box together with the low speed shutter control section. As a result, the shutter speed ring is placed on the lens mount.

By slightly altering the layout of other mechanical sections, and without any reduction in the size of the components, it is possible to achieve a considerable gain in compactness.


The search for a thing string

Normally, wide (about 4mm) ribbons are attached to the shutter curtains to pull them across the film plane. By replacing these ribbons with thin strings, it is possible to sink the pentaprism of the viewfinder section deep into the camera body. As a result, the height of the camera is reduced.

However, it is very difficult to find the suitable string. It needs to be tough and resistant to change in temperature and humidity.

Many kinds of string were tested and found unsuitable. These included cotton, nylon, gut, silk thread for sawing machine, fishing net, strings used in violin and Japanese classical instruments like Biwa and Shamisen. The Japanese traditional method of strengthening string with persimmon juice was tried and proved to be unsuccessful.

When Maitani was in the hospital after a car accident. He thought that the tough surgical thread may worth a trial. It turned out that surgical thread that is strengthened with fluorine, and stretched with a heating processes is indeed suitable!

Camera magazines severely criticized the lack of a shutter lock button. Maitani believes that the shutter lock may cause a photographer to miss an unexpected opportunity to take a photograph.


Uncompromised toughness

Although OM-1 is smaller and lighter, durability and toughness are not compromised. In fact, OM-1 is the first generally available camera able to withstand the stresses of five-frame-per-second motor drive operation. The target for the shutter durability is set to 100 000 times, which is more than 3 times than that of other Japanese SLRs at that time.

The precision feel and fine handling characteristics of the camera body, is another achievement of the OM-1 design. For example, special attention is paid to the smooth film winding. Copper, rather than the conventionally used brass, is used for the winding mechanism. Although the strength of the winding mechanism is increased, winding feeling is not so smooth. To make it as smooth as the brass mechanism, the design team applies a oil-less design with solid lubrication oil rather than the usually used grease. Because the ordinary grease is not durable enough and has a narrow temperature allowance.


Keep quiet

To reduce the noise and shock of the mirror and shutter, the cause of them are analyzed and reduced or eliminated one by one.

In the shutter mechanism, a leading trailing brake system which is similar to the automobile's brake is used.

To reduce mirror shock, a damper is used. It is difficult to decide a proper damper system. After many "trial and error", and testing of all possible damper systems such as oil- damper, powder- damper and air- damper. A special high precision air-damper is used.

Maitani hit upon using a air-damper when he was cleaning a house. He heard the "swoosh" noise caused by a sliding door fell down to the floor. The noise was caused by air.

Mirror shock can be further reduced if the speed of the mirror movement or the weight of the mirror is reduced. But it is impossible to reduce the speed of the mirror movement. Because the shutter time lag should maintain at about 40 ms. As a result, a mirror more than 30% thinner than the conventional is used. A strong and lightweight frame is used to support the fragile mirror.

Other measures include the use of four ball-bearings trains, lightweight curtain drums for the shutter and over 20 strategically placed shock absorbers.

air damper


Sharper vision

The OM-1 has a viewfinder larger and brighter than previous finders.

In order to reduce the height of the camera, the condenser lens of the finder mechanism is eliminated. To maintain the brightness of the viewfinder, a pentaprism with a curve at the bottom is used. The reflection side of the pentaprism is coated with silver. Silver has a better reflection performance than the conventionally used aluminum. Capability of the focusing screen is also improved.

To prevent vignetting when using large aperture lenses, microscopes and telescopes, the diameter of the lens mount is larger than usual. The mirror is oversized. The mount is made of made of 18.8 nickel chromium alloy for toughness and durability.

To reduce flare and ghost in the finder, the mirror box is made as big as possible, special treatment is applied to the walls to prevent internal reflection.

A wide selection of focusing screens , quickly and easily changed through the lens mount, provides the best viewing and easiest focusing for different photographic situations.


From M-1 to OM-1

OM-1 was initially launched as M-1. Many people believe that "M" is used because it is pronounced in the same way in different countries. However, it is the initial of Maitani.

When M-1 was introduced at the Photokina in September 1972, people from Leitz came to the Olympus booth and protested the use of the letter M. Since 1954, Leitz has been using the letter M for its rangefinder camera series.

Although a one-letter name cannot be registered as a trademark. To avoid possible trademark infringement, it was decided to add the letter O, which stands for Olympus. The decision was made within an hour.

Unassembled M-1 tops were trashed, but about 5 000 camera bodies with M-1 covers had been produced and went into the market.


I: By the way, Mr.Kawazoe entered Olympus at the time of OM-1 development?

K: When I entered Olympus, the name was still M-1. It was being developed.

I: Olympus had a big SLR named FTL before OM-1.

K: It was only a stopgap for international market. Our Sales Department claimed.

I: Olympus carried the compactly designed cameras from the Pen to the OM SLR.

S: Absolutely! Compactness is beautiful.

I: However, the Olympus Six and the Olympus Flex were big.

S: Hmm. There was no way to make the Olympus Six smaller. (laughs)

M: Perhaps, Mr. Sakuraiís idea of compactness is based on his experiences as a practical photographer. Also, I might be a photographer if I didn't enter Olympus. As for a photographer, compactness is an advantage.

I: Mr.Kawazoe, did you find something new in the development of OM-1?

K: After I finished a six-month in-house training, Mr. Maitani asked me "Why don't you participate in the SLR project?" And he showed me an experimental brass top cover. I thought it was really small and the concept represented Olympusí individual characteristics. And I thought it would be the Olympusí first SLR. At that time, I didnít know our first SLR was the FTL. (laughs)

However I was pressed after I knew the inside mechanism was really complex (laughs), I was deeply impressed.

I: At that time, some cameras had electronic devices?

K: At that time, some other manufacturersí SLRs had automatic exposure function. But we didnít develop electronic devices for the M-1. We started to develop electronic devices for SLRs after the M-1, for example auto exposure, flash synchronization...

I: What part did you concern with?

K: Mainly, I designed the viewfinder part. The focusing screen and its interchangeable system, and so on.

I: At first, you started to design from the lens mount part. Did you have any troubles?

K: I was troubled with the interchangeable focusing screen mechanism. Spring was practical to fix the frame that caught the focusing screen. But the mirror box was really small and tight. There was no space to swing the frame. A spring clasp was a little big to put into the mirror box. Finally, after repeating trial and error, I developed the resistive metal composition for the clasp to make the most of small space.

I: The screen is provided with a tweezers.

K: We attached the tweezers on the assumption that to take out the focusing screen without getting finger-marks on it, but everybody used their fingers.

I: Many types of focusing screens were provided. You had the plan from the early stage of development to link with other part of the system? For example microscope, astronomical telescope.

K: Before I participated in the project, the M-System already had the idea.

S: The expansion of M-System was one of Maitaniís remarkable achievements during his career in Olympus. He developed the magnificent camera system all at once.

I: Ditto. Mr. Maitani showed me a lens and asked me to guess its focal distance. I couldnít make it sure but it seemed to be a 50mm lens. I answered "50mm?" He proudly answered "No. This is 100mm". It was an unforgettable conversation.

S: We presented the system "From the Cosmos to Bacteria" from an optical companyÖ

M: We tried to miniaturize anything we can with all the power and know-how because we are comprehensively developing any kinds of optical instruments.

The Best 35mm Camera Ever
OM-1 Test Report
OM-1 Catalog

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Last updated on 26 December, 2008
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