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Interview - 3 : Hong Kong Interview - 1976

based on an interview from a Hong Kong photography magazine in 1976

On 30 September 1976, Mr. Yoshihisa Maitani, the designer of the world-renowned compact 35mm SLRs OM-1 and OM-2, visited Hong Kong. He was on his way to Japan after attending the Photokina held in Cologne. The agent of Olympus cameras in Hong Kong, Kingstone Development Company, welcomed Mr. Maitani with a dinner. He was also invited to give a presentation on OM System to camera dealers. Through the arrangement of Kingstone, our magazine is honoured to have an interview with Mr. Maitani. The interview started at 3:00pm at the meeting room of Kingstone…

Interviewer:: I would like to thank Mr. Maitani for attending this interview and Kingstone for making the arrangements. First of all, would Mr. Maitani please tell us briefly the history of Olympus Optical Company Limited?

Maitani: Olympus Optical Co. Ltd. was established in 1919. At the beginning, it mainly manufactured microscopes. Starting from 1936, it involved in camera production. A year later, it became a listed company. The cameras produced at that time were 6x6 cameras; it was not until 1948 that 35mm Leica-alike cameras were made. In 1959, I started designing cameras for Olympus. At the same year, Pen half frame camera was introduced. In 1972, OM System was also released. In addition, our company also manufactured 8mm movie cameras, microcassette tape recorders and laser measuring devices. Camera production amounted to half of our company's total production volume. This is the brief history of Olympus.

I: How many factories and workers are involved in the production of cameras?

M: Some components are made by other companies for Olympus. However, OM cameras are manufactured entirely by the factories of Olympus. If all of them are included, there are about 13 factories involved in the production of cameras.

I: It seems enormous. How many workers are involved in the production of OM cameras alone?

M: There are three main factories, with four other factories for production of components. The number of workers is about 3000.

I: Are the lenses produced by Olympus itself?

M: Yes, they are. As a matter of fact, the whole OM cameras are manufactured by Olympus. Except for the exposure meter light sensors, everything is produced by us.

I: What are the motives and reasons for designing such a small OM camera?

M: Well, in the past, the half frame Pen cameras were well received by users. Moreover, the cameras of other manufacturers are too bulky and they are not as convenient as smaller cameras; so, in my mind, I wish for a compact camera for the photographers. Besides being compact, the camera can also be suited for different photographic purposes and capable of taking excellent photographs. Hence, I get the idea of designing the OM camera.

I: Have you thought of the success that the camera has today when you first designed it?

M: The OM System has already been produced for four years. With the support of users, its production has been increasing every year.

I: Among camera users, the term "OM" seems to be more popular than "Olympus". (laughter) Everyone calls it "OM" camera, but not "Olympus" camera. What is the meaning of "OM"?

M: (laughing merrily) The cameras at the early stage were not called "OM". They were called "M". The reasons are that, first of all, my surname in English starts with the letter "M". Secondly, "M" seems to be a symbol of high quality in camera industry, for example, the Leica M series cameras. Moreover, the pronunciation of "M" is the same everywhere in the world, unlike some letters that are pronounced differently; for example, A is pronounced as "AR", "O" is pronounced as "OR", etc. Later, the name was changed into "OM", because "M" has already been used in Leica cameras. On the other hand, "O" represents Olympus.


I: Up to now, only few of the Zuiko lenses are multicoated, whereas almost all the lenses of other manufacturers, such as Nikon, are multicoated. Will this make the OM System less competitive? Since users will lose confidence in the lenses.

M: Let me answer this question in 2 ways. Although the technique of multicoating has already been used widely, its application in photographic lenses has occurred in recent years only. At first, multicoating was applied in lenses for microscopes. It is because these lenses demand a high light collecting power. They are also often subjected to bright light. In high magnifications, even small defects will ruin the performance of the microscopes. As a result, even though multicoating is a complex and expensive technique, it was employed in microscopes at an early stage. On the other hand, for photographic lenses, it is very rare that intense light sources will be photographed in normal conditions. Their demand for light collecting power is not so high. It is somewhat of a waste if multicoating is used. In wide angle and fisheye lenses, because of their wide angle of view, strong light sources, like the sun or studio lights, will very often be taken in the picture. In these situations, multicoating is therefore needed. Consequently, the first Zuiko lenses that are multicoated are the wide angle and fisheye lenses.

From another point of view, as multicoating is not needed normally, it will increase the production cost and the price that users will pay. Therefore, at present, not all Zuiko lenses are multicoated. To give customers a choice, both multicoated and non-multicoated lenses are available.

Kingstone: It is reported in foreign magazines that 95% photographers do not need multicoated lenses, and the difference between photographs taken by multicoated and non-multicoated lenses is so small that only an expert can detect it. While multicoating is of little use to photography, it is valuable to the manufacturers as they can increase the price.

I: Many users abandon the OM System because the Zuiko lenses are not multicoated. Is it a marketing disadvantage? Have you considered applying multicoating to new Zuiko lenses?

M: This will put the OM System at a disadvantage when competing with other manufacturers. We have already planned to enhance our promotional activities; as to applying multicoating to all Zuiko lenses, it is also under consideration. However, it is my own opinion that in most situations, multicoated lenses are not required, but they should be used if there is a real need for them.


I: As far as we know, in changing a system into a new format, it is more difficult to change the lenses than the camera bodies. Mr. Maitani, did you start manufacturing the OM System after the entire system was designed, or are the camera bodies, lenses and other accessories designed one after another?

M: I started the production after the whole system, including camera bodies and lenses, etc, was completely designed. Only one or two lenses and some minor accessories are designed after the production has officially begun.

I: After the discontinuation of the Pen cameras, there is a full frame SLR called FTL prior to the OM cameras. Do the lenses for the OM cameras still use the design of the FTL lenses?

M: Actually, the FTL is not a design of Olympus. It is bought from another company to fill the production vacuum between the Pen and OM cameras. The OM camera was released in 1972 after five years of design, research and improvement. All the lenses are of the latest design. They are completely different from the FTL lenses and also the Pen lenses.

K: Mr. Maitani has designed an ultra thin 50mm F2 standard lens recently. When the lens is focused at infinity, its thickness is only a bit over one inch. (Mr. Maitani takes out those ultra thin lenses from the camera bag.)

However, he is still testing and improving the lens. He disclosed that it is the best OM standard lens.

I: (after watching the ultra thin lens) We find them really small. When will they be rolled out? Please tell us the date in advance.

K: I believe production will begin at least one year later.

I: We know that the OM System has won many awards. Would you please tell us some special ones?

M: (laughing) My goal of designing the OM System is to provide a high quality easy-to- use camera to all photography enthusiasts, so that they can fully enjoy photography. Although the OM System has really won many awards, the happiest thing is that my original goal is achieved.


I: In actual use, there is a lot of flare in the viewfinder of OM-1. What is the reason for this? Is this a design flaw?

M: I also know this problem. Actually, this is not a design flaw. It is due to some intrinsic reasons. The focusing screen of OM-1 is interchangeable, and the way of changing the screen is rather special. A pair of tweezers is used to remove the screen from the front of the camera. This is different from the traditional method. Because the way of changing the focusing screen is different, a different manufacturing method is used. The traditional focusing screen is made from a plastic fiber sheet by mechanical pressing. The OM focusing screen is made by injecting plastic into a mould. As a result, the OM focusing screen is not as precise as the screen made by pressing.

Moreover, in other cameras, before the focusing screen reaches the pentaprism, there is a condensing lens at the top of the focusing surface. This condensing lens is absent in the OM focusing screen. Consequently, when users view through the camera, they will notice flare. But the flare only appears in the viewfinder, the photographs will certainly not be affected.

I: Why is the hotshoe not fixed permanently on the camera body? Is it used to reduce the height of the camera?

M: This question needs to be answered from the perspective of the original design objective. Besides compactness, my goal of designing the OM System also demands a high degree of mobility. (Editor's note: mobility that Mr. Maitani refers to should mean versatility and adaptability.) This means the camera should be suitable for all kinds of photographers. For example, some photographers use the OM camera for microscopic photography only. The hotshoe is totally useless to them. Photographers that use large flash unit also do not need the hotshoe. Motor drive is another example. How many people will use it? I believe only a very small proportion of photographers uses it. For this reason, I try my best to design every non-essential device to be detachable from the main camera body. Users will not have to pay for something that they do not need. They can buy the necessary device when there is a demand for it.

K: In other words, he hopes to design an all-purpose camera, not a single-purpose camera. Users can make the necessary combinations according to their needs.

I: I have an experience when using an OM-2 bought from Japan. The catch of the camera back actually broke off. Why did this happen?

M: The camera back catch of OM-2 from the initial production was made of aluminium. As aluminium itself cannot be soldered firmly, the catch breaks off easily from the camera back. The catch of OM-2 is made of iron now. It can be soldered firmly on the camera back. The same thing will never happen again.

I: I find the meter switch of OM camera very inconvenient. It is likely to forget to turn it off and waste electric power. Are you aware of this?

M: You are right. I have also considered this. However, I still have not found a better way.

I: Some cameras use the film advance lever as the meter switch (editor's note: e.g. Nikkormat). Some cameras have the switch located at the right front of the camera body (editor's note: e.g. Minolta MX). Have you considered these designs?

M: Yes, I have. But they are not good enough. If the film advance lever acts as the meter switch, the lever can hurt the eyes easily when you pull it away. This is particularly annoying to people who use their left eyes. As a matter of fact, this kind of switch is a patent of Olympus. Switch at the front of the camera body is also not convenient. It is not comfortable to use the switch when you hold the camera vertically.


I: Mr. Maitani also likes to take photographs very much. Would you please tell us which lenses that you like most?

M: My favourite lenses are 24mm F2 and 75-150mm zoom.

I: There are only two speeds of one and five frame-per-second (fps) in the OM motor drive. Why not add the speeds of two fps, three fps, etc?

M: At the beginning of the development, the OM motor drive had the speeds of one, two, three and five fps. A survey shows that most professional photographers think that two and three fps are not too useful. They will also make the price higher and the size bigger. For these reasons, these 2 speeds are deleted.

I: I always feel that the motor drive handle is slippery. Why not add a layer of leatherette to make the grip firmer?

M: There is a layer of leatherette in my original design. Somehow, it disappeared during production. Since it is of no consequence, I let it be. (laughter)

I: The reflective pattern on the OM-2 shutter curtain acts as a reflective surface for the exposure meter. Will it malfunction after a long period of use and cause exposure errors?

M: It will not. The power of nature, like oxidization, water vapour, will not disable it. I have pasted a sheet of this reflective curtain on the door of the design centre. It shows no sign of problem after enduring 3 years of sunshine and rain. Please don't worry about this.

I: Why not use metal shutter curtain?

M: There are 2 reasons for not using metal shutter curtain. First, the noise and vibration of metal shutter curtain are higher. Second, metal shutter curtain cannot withstand the high speed operation of motor drive, it wears more easily.

I: Well, I am very grateful that Mr. Maitani attended today's interview. We learned a lot of things in the interview. By the way, Mr. Maitani, would you please tell us when OM-3 will be introduced?

M: I don't know either. When do you want it? (laughter)

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Last updated on 28 May, 2003
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