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Saturday, September 19

Olympus OM1 v Pentax MX

It's been claimed that Steve McQueen once said he wished he'd been as cool as the MX*.

Reader Michael Stevens asked in a comment to this post how I thought the OM1 stacked up against the Pentax MX, probably it's most directly comparable rival at the time. Rather than leave a short reply and since I'm always looking for something to write about, I thought I'd turn it into a post. Please note, though, that this isn't a review in the normal sense: it's my impressions of one camera versus another. If you want all the details about specification, etc, there's plenty of information out there.

The OM1 and MX were launched onto the photography market in the early to mid-1970s within just two years of each other. Olympus broke the mould of the large and heavy 35mm SLR with their svelte and stylish camera and then Pentax outdid them by producing a camera that was even smaller.

Both were billed as full pro machines boasting an expansive line-up of lenses, accessories and five frames per second motor drives. However, it's OM designer Yoshihisa Maitani who is remembered: he showed how it was possible to trim about a third off the size and weight of the typical SLR of the period. Pentax were quick learners and went on to produce several models all smaller than the OM1 and all down market from the MX.

It's probably wise to quickly compare the two cameras within the context of their systems and the auto-exposure siblings that quickly followed for each marque since many photographers of the day liked to carry two bodies for colour and black and white and one was often an auto.

I don't think there's much doubt that Olympus had the more comprehensive line-up of lenses and accessories, not surprising since it was designed as a complete system right from the outset.

Nothing fancy left of the prism.
The OM2 that was released in 1975 three years after the OM1 was also ground-breaking (not least for its TTL flash metering and two-minute long auto exposure) in a way that the auto-only Pentax ME, launched in 1976 at the same time as the MX, wasn't. So a better system and a better auto camera and full marks to Olympus. But who had the better lenses?

There are Zuikoholics and Pentaxians who will argue this all day long so lets call it an honourable draw.

The OM1 and MX share more similarities than differences and it doesn't take long to list their attributes since, by today's standards, they are incredibly simple. Both are manual exposure, manual focus machines with shutter speeds from 1-1000/th of a second, self-timers and cater for film speeds from 25-1600 ASA (ISO). Each can be fitted with the aforementioned full-blown motor drives or two-frames-per-second winders (2.5 fps from the OM winder).

Pentax had the superior metering system employing gallium arsenide phosphide photo diodes (GPD) which were much faster to respond and lacked the "memory" of the OM1's CDS cells. Neither has removable prism finders, something that would have caused an unacceptable increase in size and weight.

Both viewfinders are excellent and among the best to be found in any SLR but while the OM1's is brighter, the MX finder, albeit slightly bigger, has a somewhat "grainier" appearance.

An advantage of the MX is that it uses two readily available SR44 silver oxide batteries whereas the OM1 used 1.35v mercury batteries which were phased out for environmental reasons. There are workarounds for the OM1 if you do a Google search, including having the camera adapted by a repairer to take a modern battery. Thankfully, the batteries only power the meters - all other functions are independent of the juice.

The MX makes use of flashing photo diodes in the viewfinder, a "traffic light" system with a green light indicating "go" and amber and red lights either side showing how far off the camera's chosen exposure you are. It also has shutter speed and aperture info in the viewfinder. The OM1 has the old-fashioned match-needle system which many photographers still maintain has never been bettered as an indicator of exposure. Each approach works equally well but I prefer the match needle affair.

Of the two, the Olympus was unquestionably the sexier, an image helped in no small measure by the likes of David Bailey, Lord Lichfield and Don McCullin who all advertised the brand. Pentax had nobody of a similar standing, at least as far as I can remember.

In terms of build I think the OM1 shades it. Neither was as substantial as the previous generation of SLRs but the metal used for the MX top plate was a thinner stamping than for the Olympus. You'll sometimes see MXs with tiny dents in the top plate as they can deform more easily.

First, there was Olympus.

Then came Pentax.

The OM Shutter speeds are around the lens mount, a very convenient place once you're used to it. Those of the MX are in the conventional place atop the right hand of the top plate, a position occupied by the OM's film speed dial. All these knobs and switches feel well made and long lived but the Pentax has a slightly "clunkier" feel to it, perhaps not as refined as the OM1's. It's a marginal difference at best, though, and not worth worrying about.

So far, this post probably sounds as if I'm leaning towards the OM1 but it's not as easy as that. As I've said before, I have a strong emotional attachment to the OM1 as it was the camera I bought with my very first pay cheque. The OM1 is a better fit for my hands being just that little bigger but pop the winder on the MX and it's transformed altogether into just about the perfect size and shape for me. And the MX is just soooo cool! (Please leave excited teenager mode now - Ed)

Reliability and repairability for both are excellent. The OM1 can suffer from disintegrating prism foam which turns to goo and can leave marks permanently visible in the viewfinder if it's allowed to go too far but it's easily cleaned off if you catch it early enough. The GPD meter cells on the MX can give up the ghost over time or become a bit erratic but the OM's CDS cells can pack in as well through age. A while back I spoke to two camera mechanics about the cameras to see if they favoured one over the other but they only had good things to say about them both. Being mechanical, they'll be fixable as long as spare parts or donor bodies are available.

MX shutter speed dial in the normal place.

The OM1's are around the lens mount.

It's amazing to think that a three lens outfit based around one of these bodies might well be lighter and almost as compact as a similar Leica M rangefinder outfit. From the 1950s until the early 1970s, some photographers chose the Leica M for its light weight and small size - particularly the lenses - but the OM1 and Pentax MX effectively nullified that advantage.

So which would I choose? I honestly can't say. One day it's the MX and the next I would reach for the OM1. It's like being asked to choose between your children. They're both such perfect photographic tools (the cameras, not my children) that we should just celebrate the fact that two great companies had the foresight to bring them into being. One thing I do know: we'll not see their like again.

* I just made that up.


Paul Blanchard said...

Never got used to the odd place for the OM shutter speeds which reminded me of the earlier leaf shutter efforts from others and brought back bad memories! The MX is a gem with or without winder.

John Carter said...

A few years later Pentax came out with (in the USA) the P3n. It was a light but tough camera. Maybe a little bigger than a MX. It has a split prism, can be used in shutter, aperture, manual, or full automatic, which I really like. I have two of them one I've had for more than twenty years (maybe close to 30) before I changed the original battery or batteries (I change batteries so seldom I can't remember if it has one or two). I probably isn't as robust as the MX or the OM1, but with my use I still have film in one of them at all times. Also, taking my two on vacation I have two lenses and B&W and Color. One drawback is no DX override.

Jean-Fran├žois Bonnin said...

Due to the (natural) death my P30n, I recently purchased a (very cheap) PMX; It had to be serviced (not cheap, c. 100 £).
The PMX ergonomics are definitely better than the P30n. I can tell why : I'm very instinctive about ergonomics, the only test being feeling comfortable at first handling, or not.
But the PMX is far, very far below the 2 loves of my (Pentax) life : the Spotmatic (I owned 2 of them and still have one) and the Pentax LX (a dream I never could afford at the time).
As for Olympus OM cameras, a friend of mine let me use her OM1 for a couple of days : a pity I already have a Pentax at the time; the feeling was very great. And the optics are supreme.
Already tried an Olymus Pen F ? Also one of my sentimental regrets....

Michael Stevens said...

Very interesting thanks Bruce, and broadly in-line with my suspicions: there's not much in it. I'll try and keep them coming!

Anonymous said...

Lovely little post, thank you. I have both an MX and an OM1 I have the opportunity to play with. so far been enjoying the OM1 and havn't had much inclination to shoot the MX. something grabs me with the OM system.

O.G.Vision said...

Back in the mid to late 70s, I was looking for an SLR to jump start my newly found hobby of photography. I narrowed it down to these two and the Nikon FM. After much debate, deliberation and sleepless nights, I decided to go with the Nikon FM. I never regretted it since and it just performed marvelously for decades. A couple of things that helped me decide were the 1/125 flash sync and the dedicated multi-exposure (I was interested in special effects also). It did cost more than the other two so it delayed my purchase (living on a high school allowance at the time). A friend of mine had the OM-1 and we always had friendly debates on which one is better. So we agreed to disagree.

As of today in 2017 and after thousands of rolls, my FM is now proudly displayed (with the MD-12 and 50 1.4 lens attached) in my book case. Although it hasn't been used for more than 15 years, I pick it up every now and then, cock and fire the shutter just to keep it going. It still feels and operates the same as the day I bought it.

My friend with the OM-1 tells me that his camera now has a sticky advance lever with a slow return and that the focusing ring on his Zuiko 50 1.4 has fallen off.

Bruce Robbins said...

Good story, OG! You made a wise choice. Sadly, I'm beginning to feel like your friend...

O.G.Vision said...

Are you having similar problems as my friend with his camera?

Bruce Robbins said...

My OM2 has a slipping film advance mechanism and my OM1's meter is acting up. I fear this is just the start. Your Nikon can take a lot more punishment, I think.

O.G.Vision said...

Wow, are you going to get the bodies repaired?

With my Nikon FM (and FE2 which I bought later), I feel that I can install batteries, load a roll of film and start shooting right now, even though they have been stagnant for more than a decade. The batteries are readily available at a drugstore, hardware or department store.

I have heard from other OM-1 users that you must be careful when mounting the camera to a tripod. Because the shutter mechanism is just above the baseplate, over-tightening the camera to the tripod head could cause the shutter to jam. Not sure if you have heard of this.

Anonymous said...

I went on a CND rally to London in 1981 and took my Nikkormat FT with 50 and 135 Nikkors. On the return journey a guy in the coach asked to look at my 'mat and let me examine his OM1. I noticed immediately the light weight compared to my 'mat which body only is 785 grams. I also noticed the shutter speed ring around the lens on both bodies and the OM1 guy explained how you set focus, then aperture, the shutter with just one hand, something I had not thought about before. During the mid 80s I was photographing a run-down part of Sheffield and a young black lad tried to snatch my 'may! I hit him in the face with it and he ran off howling!//

Tony Cearns said...

This takes me back. My first camera (after the Box Brownie) was an OM1. As a mountaineer and long distance walker in the 1970s and 1980s, the OM1 was always with me. Lots of expedition work with it. I still have it and am thinking of getting it cleaned and lubricated. My old OM lenses now have fungus, so I will need to buy new 2nd hand lenses (always a risk). Thanks for the post.

Richard Hale said...

I really, really wanted to love the OM1 when I owned one. Loved the size, feel, build quality, big bright and simple viewfinder. Loved the OM lenses Just could not get on with the shutter speed dial. So for me the MX was my favourite mechanical camera for a number of years..... until I discovered Fujica's ST range. both the 801n and 605n are really great to use, and the Canon FT QL - a completely different beast! Still I rate the MX so much I own 2 to this day.

Bruce Robbins said...

Hi Richard,
If you cradle the OM1 from the underside in your left hand the shutter speed dial is logically placed for your thumb and forefinger. Not everyone holds a camera that way, though.

Jim Flack said...

I’ve used an Olympus OM-1 since the early ‘70s and found the shutter speed control on the lens mount to be brilliant! Selecting the exposure for a shot is so intuitive. First select a “typical” shutter speed such as 1/60 and use the match needle light meter to adjust the f-stop. Then look at the combination of your settings. You can easily see the settings on the lens and if you need a faster shutter speed by a stop or two, you can easily see what adjustment you need to the f-stop to keep the same exposure. If you need to adjust the f-stop to control depth of field, you can easily see what adjustment you need to the shutter speed. Both dials around the lens move in the same direction to maintain the same exposure. Moving the shutter speed up two stops means that the f-stop must be opened by two stops to compensate. That simply means moving the shutter speed ring and the f-stop ring two clicks in the same direction. It is so intuitive that you can adjust both with one hand while looking through the viewfinder.