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INTERVIEW 1 : The Developement of OM System

Based on an interview with Yoshihisa Maitani and Kunio Shimoyama by Kouichi Akagi, Asahi Camera magazine, December 1999.
M: Yoshihisa Maitani S: Kunio Shimoyama

A consistent concept

From OM-1 to OM-4Ti, Olympus OM series SLRs are developed on a consistent concept. No other makers have such a strong individuality and fascination. Because of this special occasion to meet Maitani, the interviewer brought along his treasured M-1, and not OM-1.

M: Thank you very much. I cannot make objection toward customers.

S: Customer is God (laughing)!

The beginning...

M: There were complex circumstances behind it. It was not simple (smiling). It began for the US market. In 1967, our main merchandise was the half frame cameras. But in the US, slide film was the mainstream. Half frame doubled the cost of mounting film. In some case, 36 exposures mounted on 35mm slide mounts were returned after development. [Two exposures are mounted on a single slide mount.]

Japanese film processing shops adopted the half frame format at once. But it was not in the US. For this reason, sales department requested the development of full frame 35mm SLR camera.

Small and lightweight - Maitani's ideal camera

M: But executives ordered the development of the same camera as the other maker's best seller.

Opposition from the management

M: I did not say "No way!" for answer, but " I never develop [the same camera]." It makes no sense to make the same camera. [What I want is] To say in my own word " To Create Value". That is to create a camera with new value which customers want. At that time SLR had 3 defects: big, heavy and mirror shock. And they were not overcome.

Final victory

M: Small and lightweight cannot be expressed in specifications. We had some conferences but specifications were never discussed. I wrote exact copy of the functional values of a camera from another maker on a blackboard for persuasion (smiling). At last, I could persuade the executives in the last conference in 1967, they said, " Do what you want."

Recalling the period in a recent interview, Maitani said, "About the only thing we had going for us was that we had a dream. The problems we faced seemed almost insurmountable at times. After all, the object was not just to make an SLR that was smaller, lighter and quieter than the competition; we also had to develop a complete range of lenses for it. But when were able to show people a prototype of the camera, they began to believe in our dream, too. But it wasn't easy. Before creating something that would satisfy the consumer public, we first had to come up with something that would make people in the company sit up and take notice." Pausing briefly for a sip of tea, he added with a wry smile, "In a way, that was the toughest part of the assignment."

from A Well-Earned Place in History, The Olympus Pursuit, April 2002

The magnificent OM System

M: The basic concept is "From the Cosmos to Bacteria". To develop a huge system is the first priority. The second is, as what I said before, to overcome the 3 defects of SLRs.

Not an easy task

S: Yes, I nearly gave up many times. I somehow achieved Maitani's demand, however he was not satisfied. The length of mirror and radius of lens mount were decided before the dimensions of the camera body. I did not know how to do it (laughing). Nevertheless functions were never compromised.

The conflict of lens quality and miniaturization

S: It is a major premise. To make sure our lenses are not worse than the others, we investigated the best lenses of other makers.

M: It is one of the difficulties. But problem solving is the power of engineering.

The location of shutter speed dial

M: You know the moving of a nation's capital. This is the moving of function. I wanted to move the shutter mechanism for down sizing. I found a space beneath the mirror box. That was why the shutter speed dial was moved. In the end, this is more useful.

OM-2 is the same size as OM-1!

M: As I said before, OM System is a very huge plan. OM-1 is the popular line of the system. OM System has also a higher line with automatic function.

TTL direct light measuring

S: Basically, it is for automatic flash system.

M: It is for "Bacteria" of "From the Cosmos to Bacteria". Insect photographer Kon Sasaki is a good friend of mine. One day, he showed me a data chart for shooting and said, "If I don't have this data chart, I can never shoot." I thought, " I will make it automatic!"

No slow flash synchronization in OM-2n and OM-4Ti

S: It is very difficult to satisfy all customers. Professional photographers are skillful enough to use this function. But for ordinary amateurs, they may take blurred pictures because of slow shutter speeds.

M: Such function is useful for photographers who need it, but it also has a side effect. It is useful for photographers who have a certain purpose. But for users who don't understand, it is inconvenient.

Why Multi Spot Metering

M: That is a very difficult question (smiling)! Direct light measuring is a center-weighted average system. It is enough for general use. But we have received many kinds of subtle requests for light metering, highlight, shadow and so on. If I remember correctly, Nikon solves this by using Multi-Pattern light metering. …. We have considered a system like that.

Multi Spot vs. Multi Pattern

M: We examined what is ideal. Basically, I think more than 80% users are satisfied with center-weighted light measuring. But 10 or 20% users want more (smiling). Multi-Pattern metering is one of the solutions. But I doubt it is a good answer.

S: It is very difficult to develop an automatic exposure system that can satisfy all kind of users. Every photographer has his own field of shooting. We cannot cover all these by one metering system. Information [on Multi-Spot Metering] is provided, but how to use it is up to the photographer. We think it is one of the good solutions.

The idea of Full Synchro Flash

M: We think of it from Pen F. It can full sync flash by a rotary focal plane shutter. …. Technology for flash was not well developed at that time. It was impossible to control the amount of flash.

Vertical travel shutter curtain?

M: We surely examined about vertical travel shutter curtain. We have reasons to abandon it. One is noise. And the other is the height of camera. Vertical travel curtain makes the camera taller.

The long flash duration of Full Synchro flash makes it difficult to stop motion

S: It certainly cannot. It is the same as taking picture in sunlight.

M: Nothing is perfect. Different users have different demands. It is impossible to satisfy all of them. On the whole, the OM cameras have many functions that are useful to different users.

An advanced Pen F

S: Your request can be realized by building a direct light measuring system into Pen F. However, it is a half-frame camera.

M: If we continue to produce Pen F, it will be an advanced camera.

Function vs. operation

M: You ask about functions only. Why don’t you ask about operation (smiling)? How to memorize exposure value? How to cancel exposure value? … I lay down a principle of development. For example, "miniaturize the camera size but never the size of its button for easy handling". But a principle involves difficulties. It was told "it is impossible" by co-workers or it increases the cost of development.

Great effort is spent on the development of OM System

M: Cameras undergo 100 000 times durability test and easy operation is achieved. But such points do not appear on the specifications and are not evaluated.

Like a Leica camera, OM-3Ti doesn’t have a self-timer

M: Some praises it very much, other dislikes it very much.

Photo school

M: I shoot about 10 rolls of film each month.

S: Olympus Development Division still has a photography school. New employees are required to enter. Many graduates from the department of engineering have no experience in photography. They purchase their own cameras. As a result, they can understand the demand of users.

M: They enlarge monochrome prints themselves for graduation. Creating a photograph all by oneself is a wonderful experience. I am the first the principal of the school.

Can OM-4Ti be improved?

M: The OM System still keeps its concept now. I think it is hard to keep but it works well.


M: It is not the 5. It is more advanced…including everything from OM-1 to now. It is completed in my mind. People find fault with one little thing, with only one function. I want to suggest the camera from another point of view. It is a great dream but it is still not realized.

Kunio Shimoyama:
Born in 1936, joined Olympus in 1958
1973 - Chief of Second Section of Development Division Head Office
1985 - General Manager of VS Development Section of VS Planning Division
1986 - General Manager of Main Development Section of Planning Division
1994 - Member of Board of Directors
1999 - Advisor of Olympus

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Last updated on 22 October, 2004

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