One of the highlights of the 29th Westlicht Camera Auction held at Westlicht Schauplatz für Fotografie in Vienna (Austria) on June 11th, 2016, was the Olympus OM-1 ´ NASA´, manufactured in 1980.
It is one of the five factory modified prototypes OM-1 cameras for the NASA, of which three were supplied to the Goddard Space Flight Center for the Space Shuttle Missions.
It is an all black camera featuring special, non-outgassing paints and high tech lubricants specified by the NASA, aside from lacking the leatherette, which comes separately, and belonged to Mr. Terry L. Walpole, former owner and Olympus sales manager in United States, as is certified by the letter of authenticity and provenance coming with the camera.
Olympus OM-1 ´ NASA ´ with its mirror in normal position.
As explained by Mr Terry L. Walpole, his until now camera is unused and doesn´t sport any focusing screen, because the Olympus OM-1 NASA was conceived to be used in the mirror lock-up mode.
Olympus OM-1 ´ NASA ´ in mirror lock-up position once the mirror lock-up lever (located above the self timer lever, slightly on its right as it is seen in the image) has been turned approximately 90º until it stops.
As revealed by Mr. Terry L. Walpole, the five factory modified prototypes manufactured by Olympus Optical CO., Ltd. were intended for being used in this mode when shooting.
In the same way as had happened with the MF Hasselblads EL during late sixties and seventies, the aim was to get as much depth of field and sharp areas as possible in an easy way for the astronauts while holding the camera in front of their chests, their elbows stuck to their bodies and using such manual focusing lenses as the very compact 7 elements in 7 groups Olympus G-Zuiko Auto-W 28 mm f/3.5 wideangle (featuring a weight of 180g, a maximum diameter of 59 mm and delivering remarkable sharpness and contrast together with a very good flare control) and the likewise very small 7 elements in 6 groups G. Zuiko Auto-W 35 mm f/2.8 (featuring a weight of 170 g and a diameter of 59 mm, as well as rendering good sharpness in the center and softness in the corners at the widest f/3.5 aperture, albeit it didn´t matter because the preferred diaphragm to shoot was f/5.6).
And in spite of being far from reaching the levels of definition, contrast and detail of the MF Hasselblads, the 24 x 36 mm format Olympus OM-1 ´NASA ´ boasted some important advantages: the much greater depth of field than the 2 1/ 4 x 2 1/4 (6 x 6 cm) medium format Hasselblad, a much smaller size (136 x 83 x 50 mm), a much lower weight (510 g), the reduction to the utmost of the shutter vibration getting pictures shooting handheld always in lock-up mode (with the astronauts being unable to see the image and frame during the photographic act, but using their front chest areas to aim the camera with the aforementioned attached wideangles, whose big depth of field enhanced even more the inherent large capabilities of the 24 x 36 mm format to get maximum depth of field and resolving power between f/4 and f/11, a lesser fatigue in the astronauts after long periods using the cameras, a higher number of shots per roll (36 exposures a 35 mm roll while 12 exposures a 6 x 6 cm 120 roll), etc.
Minimalist top panel of the Olympus OM-1 ´ NASA ´, identical to the one featured by the standard Olympus OM-1, with only the necessary dials and controls. From left to right we can see the rewind knob for camera back release, the rewind crank in resting position, the meter switch lever, the hot shoe socket, the ASA film speed dial with the very small button just on its right to activate it, the threaded shutter release button with socket for cable release, the film advance lever and the exposure counter window.
But, how did the story of this Olympus OM-1 ´ NASA ´ camera begin?
Which were the reasons that made the most prestigious aeronautic and space organization take the decision of using the OM-1 in both their ground photographic training and flights if they had previously used such top-notch cameras like the 24 x 36 mm format Zeiss Contarex during the second Gemini mission, the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 (6 x 6 cm) medium format Hasselblads 550C — during the Mercury missions in 1962 and 1963 and the Gemini spaceflights in 1965 and 1966 — and the Hasselblads EL with Carl Zeiss Planar 80 mm f/2.8 and the Hasselblad Electric Data camera with Carl Zeiss Biogon 60 mm f/3.5 with 70 mm perforated black and white Panatomic-X film and also perforated 70 mm Kodak Ektachrome SO-68, Kodak 2485 and Kodak Ektachrome SO-121 colour films during the Apollo XI mission in 1969 and some more throughout seventies?
Yoshihisa Maitani, the most influential photographic engineer ever along with Oskar Barnack. He began to design cameras in 1943, when he was 10 years old and built a hand-made box camera, and joined Olympus in 1956. © Olympus Optical Co., Ltd.
It all started seven years before, in 1973, when Yoshihisa Maitani, chief photographic engineer of the Olympus OM Series of Cameras and Lenses Project created the Olympus OM-1, with difference the smallest and lightest 35 mm format reflex camera in the world.
Maitani´s approach when tackling the design and construction of 24 x 36 mm format cameras is an utterly new one, a radical concept departing from the Nikon, Pentax, Canon and Exakta 35 mm reflex cameras which have held a sway over the photographic market since late fifties.
Yoshihisa Maitani, born in 1933, has been a tremendous enthusiast of screwmount Leicas since 1948 (he had got a Leica IIIf when he was fifteen years old and belonged to a school club of photography, inscribing four camera design patents the following year) and of M bayonet Leica rangefinder cameras since 1954.
He knows by heart every design of 35 mm RF cameras, shutters, cams of speed control, escapements for slow speeds, gear trains, ball bearing fittings, etc, devised by the mechanical Leica pundits Oskar Barnack, Ludwig Leitz, Willi Stein and Peter Loseries.
He loves the Leica rangefinders, particularly the screwmount ones like the Leica II (Model D), the Leica III, Leica IIIa and Leica IIIF Red Dial with their amazingly small size and exceedingly light weight, able to deliver great image quality with their also tiny lenses like the Leitz Elmar 50 mm f/3.5, as well as the M series RF Leica cameras like the M3, M2, etc, with their M lenses, many of which are optical benchmarks in their focal lengths, like the Summicron-M 50 mm f/2.
And being only 17 years old he has had the chance of using one of the approximately 1800 units of the very good 5 elements in 4 groups (with a cemented doublet at the rear and three separate elements at the front) Olympus Zuiko C. 4 cm f/2.8 lens for Leica LTM rangefinders with its 4 cm Olympus OIC finder that had been both manufactured by Olympus in the occupied Japan in 1950.
Top view of the Olympus OM-1 ´ NASA ´ . The black dial surrounding the lens mount is the ring for selecting shutter speeds with marks for B, 1 s, 1/2 s, 1/4 s, 1/8 s, 1/15 s, 1/30 s, 1/60 s, 1/125 s, 1/250 s, 1/500 s and 1/1000 s,
But the very brilliant Japanese photographic engineer, a technological and mechanical driving force in himself, grasps the limitations of Leica rangefinder cameras featuring RF coincidence viewing distance determination mechanism regarding microphotography, macrophotography and use of medium and long teleobjectives, so he has been working since 1967 in a revolutionary photographic system whose fundamental keynote is to strive after transferring the legendary Leica rangefinder traits of incredibly small size and stunning low weight to a unique reflex system: the Olympus OM series of cameras, lenses and accessories, which has meant to all intents and purposes a turning point in the scope of 24 x 36 mm format photographic cameras and lenses.
Maitani´s boundless resourcefulness has given birth in 1972 to the Olympus OM System, the most comprehensive reflex one for 35 mm format ever created, whose first camera and flagship is
© Olympus Corporation
the Olympus OM-1, introduced in 1973 featuring tiny measures of 136 x 83 x 50 mm and a weight of only 510 g, turning it into the smallest and lightest 24 x 36 mm format camera in the world, which is accompanied by nothing less than 30 lenses and 12 interchangeable focusing screens.
It´s an utterly mechanical professional camera, very robust, quiet and unobtrusive when you want to be unnoticed, able to endure the hardest use for decades, convenient to handle and extremely competent to flawlessly work under any photographic environment.
Besides, following instructions by Yoshihisa Maitani, Yoshisada Hayamizu (Chief Designer of Lenses of the Olympus Co., Ltd. Optical Department) has created a comprehensive array of amazingly small and light top-notch quality lenses rendering excellent sharpness and contrast, in collaboration with other prominent class members of the formidable Olympus optical team like Toshihiro Imai, Nobuo Yamashita, Toru Fujii, Hiroshi Takase, Yoshiaki Horikawa, Tadashi Kimura and Fumitaka Watanabe.
Meanwhile, the NASA has been painstakingly studying the camera for some years, and in 1980 it takes the decision of acquiring three Olympus OM-1 — two more will be made, one kept by Terry L. Walpole, Olympus sales manager in United States and another one whose whereabouts is unknown — to get pictures during the Space Shuttle missions (scheduled to be carried out from April 12, 1981, with the launching of Space Shuttle Columbia and the subsequent ones at the Goddart Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, 10.5 km in the northeast of Washington D.C ), both throughout the photographic tests and learning of techniques on ground and inside the aircraft in flight.
The NASA experts in photography grasp well not only the revolutionary traits of the Olympus OM-1 camera in terms of incredible compactness and light weight, but also its great sturdiness and extraordinary reliability in all kind of environments, photographic contexts and extreme temperatures.
They also fathom Yoshihisa Maitani´s tremendous knowledge on materials properties that has enabled him to significantly improve the reliability, durability and optomechanical performance of the camera through the use of breakthrough engineering techniques, a compartmentized assembly design, newfangled materials, modification of the setup of some mechanical areas and replacement of the traditional brass screws for lighter and stronger stainless steel ones, which greatly lower the weight and volume, along with a horizontal travelling shutter made of rubberized silk that has made possible the very low profile of the Olympus OM-1.
And in 1980 there´s available an extensive array of tiny and very light Zuiko lenses boasting built-in depth of preview button for the Olympus OM-1, among which highlight: the 11 elements in 9 groups and 250 g Zuiko 21 mm f/2 (superbly crafted and with a length of only 44 mm), the 7 elemets in 7 groups and 185 g Zuiko 21 mm f/3.5 (delivering high resolving power with outstanding contrast even at full aperture), the 10 elements in 8 groups and 280 g Zuiko 24 mm f/2 (one of the best lenses ever made in this focal length and luminosity), the 9 elements in 8 groups and 245 g I Zuiko Auto-W MC 28 mm f/2, the 7 elements in 6 groups and 230 g G-Zuiko Auto-S 50 mm f/1.4, the 5 elements in 4 groups and 200 g Zuiko Macro 50 mm f/2 (delivering top-drawer resolving power and very good bokeh), the 7 elements in 6 groups and 310 g G-Zuiko Auto-S 55 mm f/1.2, etc.
This way, Olympus Co., Ltd is asked by NASA to manufacture five Olympus OM-1 prototypes including some modifications:
a) The mechanical components of the camera will bear state-of-the-art lubricants specified by NASA, very carefully selected to avoid the risks of normal lubricants which could boil off in vacuum and condense on the optical elements.
b) The cameras will be covered in a high-tech non-outgassing special black paint.
c) The cameras will not feature the usual leatherette cover.
d) The cameras will be used by NASA astronauts in mirror lock-up mode, both on the ground tests and within the Space Shuttles during the missions
The last one, id est, the top priority of using the Olympus OM-1 specially made for NASA in mirror lock-up mode, reveals that the aim is to increase even more the already impressive smooth and low noise operation of the OM-1 shutter release button on being pressed.
As a matter of fact, Olympus had already introduced in the OM-1 since 1973 scads of innovative ideas to reduce the noise and shock brought about by the shutter button release on being pressed, including an air damper to absorb the vibration generated by the mirror movement.
But the NASA wanted to go beyond the awesome handheld shooting stability and silkiness of the horizontally travelled focal plane shutter operation of the Olympus OM-1, making the astronauts steadily shoot hand and wrist using the camera in mirror lock-up position, trying to guarantee to the utmost the obtention of sharp pictures, specially in the range of shutter speeds between 1/60 and 1/2 second, where the definition loss is much more frequent.
This wonderful exceedingly large, bright and crisp optical viewfinder designed by Yoshihisa Maitani for such a small camera like the Olympus OM-1 is the best VF ever made for a reflex camera (projecting a huge 30% bigger image than the rest of SLR models from other brands) and one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of photography, to such a degree that it has kept on being the reflex VF flagship since its creation in 1973 until now, and only the also extraordinary viewfinder of the reflex Leica R8 from 1996 and the Leica R9 from 2002 (much bigger and heavier cameras) designed by Manfred Meinzer approached it in terms of image quality and viewing convenience.
Notwithstanding, it wasn´t used in the Olympus OM-1 ´ NASA ´ , which was conceived to be operated in lock-up mode.
This was a bit odd handheld way of getting pictures, because the mirror lock-up mode is above all used with the camera on a tripod for reproduction work, macrophotography and photomicrography, flipping the mirror up before the shutter opens, which makes the vibrations extinguish before exposing the film.
But while the mirror is up in locked position, the photographer can´t see the subjects through the viewfinder, so he/she is bound to compose the photograph before activating the mirror lock-up and prevent the camera from moving, in addition to the fact that a cable release is often used.
But NASA knowledgeable professionals on photography knew the score and firmly relied in the startling performance of the Olympus OM-1 camera shooting handheld without trepidation at low speeds thanks to its pocket-size dimensions, very low weight, special strings of the cloth curtain shutter and a highly advanced air damper enduring the mirror movement shock, it all in synergy with scores of also tiny and very good performance lenses, to such an extent that professional photographers had attained durinng the previous years very good results shooting at 1/30 s and even 1/15 s without tripod getting sharp images.
Thereupon, the National American Aeronautic Administration decided that the Olympus OM-1 prototypes manufactured for the Space Shuttle Program should always be operated in the lock-up mode, trying to get sharp pictures even in low light environments, with the astronauts holding the cameras attached to wideangle lenses obtaining great depth of field at intermediate f stops (mostly the Zuikos 28 and 35 mm) at the height of their chests, their arms firmly stuck to their lateral ribs and pointing their bodies to aim the cameras in order to reduce any possible vibration to the utmost, even at shutter speeds between 1/15 s and 1/60 s, shooting at diaphragms f/4-f/11 depending on the luminous conditions, which would enable to get as much depth of field as possible and make sharp photographs with the best low sensitivity colour emulsions available at the moment: the Kodachrome 64 K-14 (rating it at ASA 80, underexposing a bit to get the best feasible colour saturation, as well as having some margin to recover details from the shadows, something easier to attain than with blown-out highlights), Ektachrome 64 and Ektachrome 200, as well as the best b & w emulsions like the Kodak Panatomic-X ASA 32 (rated at ASA 64) and Kodak Plus-X 125 ASA.
The astronauts were also recommended not to carry the cameras in direct sunlight, because it could damage the shutter curtains.
The exceedingly sturdy oversized bayonet lens mount of the Olympus OM-1 approaching the whole height of the camera enables the use of long telephoto and large diameter lenses, for the body flange is manufactured with 18,8 nickel chromium alloy making possible a long lasting durability.
And in 1980, there was available a very wide raft of top-notch OM Zuiko lenses for the Olympus OM-1 camera, most of them created by the Japanese optical wizard Yoshisada Hayamizu, chief designer of lenses at Olympus Co., Ltd, who has managed to attain the most difficult task for an optical designer: the vast slew of top-notch manual focusing Zuiko lenses boast an incredibly short length, tiny front diameter of the first optical element, very small overall dimensions and reduced weight (roughly a 35% less size and weight than the equivalent primes with identical f stops of other brands).
And what´s most important: many of them deliver excellent resolving power and contrast.
Therefore, Yoshihada Hayamizu has successfully achieved the assignment ordered to him by Yoshihisa Maitani: to generate exceedingly small and light lenses able to rival if not beat the cream of the crop of Nikon, Canon and Pentax lenses, but simultaneously matching the tiny size and weight of the Olympus OM-1.
This has been in my opinion the greatest opto-mechanical feat ever accomplished within the 24 x 36 mm format sphere of reflex cameras and lenses, approaching in their level of exceptional miniaturization to the ones featured by the screwmount Leicas, the smallest and lightest 35 mm format cameras with interchangeable lenses made hitherto.
Besides, in order to deal with the design and manufacture of the Olympus OM System of cameras, lenses and accessories, the engineering and optical minds at Olympus took also advantage of the immense previous know-how in the manufacture of microscopes
© Olympus Corporation
The first-rate Olympus Photomax (LB) Premier Universal Microscope from 1966 ( launched into market the same year in which Maitani started his Olympus OM System of Cameras, Lenses and Accessories) with an automatic winding 24 x 36 mm format camera on top which was used with the Olympus Plan Achromatic series of lenses (designed for clinical laboratory or examination applications, providing excellent field flatness of up to F.N.22 when using brightfield observation in a transmitted illumination system) that would also be used in the early period of the reference-class Olympus Vanox AH Universal Microscope from 1972 that later on used the PlanApo (Plan Apochromatic) Series lenses and the LB (Long Barrel) Series ones for biological use, rendering excellent resolution, improved contrast, outstanding film flatness, increased working distance, a 23% increase in visual field, and parfocal distance of an extremely low power objective.
that the Japanese firm had developed since 1920, when Takeshi Yamashita (who had founded the brand in 1919) created the first Olympus microscopes Homare, Asahi and Fuji, followed by world class models like the Seika GE from 1927 (equipped with an Abbe condenser and able to reach a magnification of 1400x, as well as featuring a rack and pinion mechanism to move the samples up and down), the Mizuho LCD from 1935 (which featured a magnification of 2000x, a highly acurate mechanical stage and an apochromatic lens that provided high resolution and reduced chromatic aberrations to negligible levels), the Homare UC (made between 1935 and 1959, with solid and monocular design which made it very appropriate for photography and image projection for microscope specimens), the DF Biological Microscope from 1957 (the first one boasting an external light source instead of using a mirror to observe the samples, aside from greatly easing the attachment of a photographic camera to the head, and making available three microscope head choices: monocular, binocular or trinocular, depending on the application or attached objective), and the Photomax (LB) Premier Universal Microscope from 1966 (one of the best in the world at the moment, with a fully automatic photographic device, a colour temperature adjustment function for colour photography and a built-in colour illumination system enabling that every type of specimen could be seen using special accessories of fluorescent, dark field and phase contrast microscopy, to such an extent that it was possible to get pictures for a number of aims by means of the fully automatic exposure control and an also wholly adjustable colour temperature correction.
Upward view of the Olympus OM-1 ´ NASA´ where we can see from left to right: the right strap lug, the rewind release lever, the mirror lock-up lever (half of it visible on the right of the rewind release lever — as it is seen in the image —, slightly under it), the big self-timer lever under both the rewind release lever and the mirror lock-up lever, the very large diameter and robust Olympus OM mount, the flash sync socket with a switch to select which flash mode to use (albeit the OM-1 ´ NASA ´ was intended to be used shooting handheld in mirror lock-up with available light) and the left strap lug.
View of the Olympus OM-1 ´ NASA ´ baseplate showing from left to right the battery chamber, the guide pin hole just above it, the motor drive socket cap, the tripod socket and the motor coupling terminal.
On top of it we can see the lower part of the self-timer and the exceedingly rugged oversized lens mount.
Looking back to 1980, it seems incredible the catalogue of mechanical and engineering deeds that had been achieved by Yoshihisa Maitani as a chief designer of cameras ( and his mechanical team made up by Kazuyuki Nemoto and Kunio Shimoyama) since seven years before, because he was able to create a significant market niche for the masterpiece Olympus OM-1 (of which the OM-1 ´ NASA ´ is a modified unit) since 1973, year of its introduction, until late eighties, thanks to a huge expansion of the system as a main goal and a virtually unbeatable price/quality ratio painstakingly studied on every single component by Yoshihisa Maitani who had as top priority to manufacture top-notch quality and simultaneously saleable cameras, lenses and accessories with a great price/performance ratio, because the contest with the Nikon F2 (introduced in 1971), Canon F1 (also introduced in 1971), F1 New (introduced in 1976) and Pentax LX (introduced in 1980) was fierce.
But this entirely metallic small wonder called Olympus OM-1 was along with the superb and likewise masterpiece wholly mechanical Nikon F2 (sold between 1971 and 2000) the best reflex 35 mm camera in the world during seventies and eighties, and as a matter of fact, they go on being for many experts, already in the digital age, the two reference-class reflex cameras within the realm of 24 x 36 mm format ever made, and in spite of its petite size and weight, it is a real workhorse capable of fulfill any professional photographic assignment (photojournalism, sports, landscapes, streeter, travel photography, weddings, etc), including astrophotography (a sphere where the Olympus OM-1 has been the yardstick since 1973), also excelling at microphotography and macrophotography, because the unique Olympus OM-System of cameras, lenses and accessories had both a photographic and scientific craving.
© Text and Pictures of the Olympus OM-1 ´ NASA ´ camera: José Manuel Serrano Esparza