|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.|
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.