The Olympus OM-1 changed the way photographers viewed SLRs – small could also be serious (Photo by Jim Grey)

In honor of the 50-year anniversary of the Olympus OM-1, Kosmo Foto founder Stephen Dowling has written up a comprehensive tribute to the camera that redefined what an SLR camera could be by keeping the design simple and compact without sacrificing too much functionality.

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As we’ve covered before, the Olympus OM-1 wasn’t the original plan. Olympus designer Yoshihisa Maitani had originally conceptualized and eventually developed a prototype for a camera that we now know was called the Olympus OM-X. This camera was similar in style to Hasselblad cameras, but used 35mm film instead of the 120 rolls its medium format counterpart used.

Maitaini’s original concept was for a modular camera much like the 120-format Hasselblad (Image by Olympus Japan)

Unfortunately, that design proved too complicated to produce at scale, so it stopped at the prototype stage. Eventually, Maitani settled on making the OM-1, a camera he had envisioned as an incredibly compact 35mm camera from the get-go. So small, in fact, that he used the Nikon F as the measuring stick and told his engineers that he wanted the OM-1 to be 20-percent smaller in all dimensions and weigh just half of what the Nikon F did.

Although not easy, the Olympus team eventually pulled through with Maitani at the helm, delivering a camera that measured only marginally larger than his original concept. To achieve this, Maitani and his team used new technologies and materials to make the most of every component. While the camera was originally named the M-1, Leica took issue with that due to its own M1 camera, so it was eventually named the OM-1 to minimize confusion.

A 1970s advert which emphasises the OM-1’s quiet shutter (Image by Nesster/Flickr)

Eventually, the camera was revealed at the Photokina photographic fair in Cologne, West Germany, in May 1972. The first units started arriving at stores just under a year later in February 1973 and started what Dowling refers to as an ‘arms race’ amongst the other major camera manufacturers, paving the way for the likes of the Canon A-1 and others.

Dowling concludes the article saying the OM-1 is ‘a testament to Maitani’s skill at finding new directions in camera design.’ To read Dowlings full tribute, which includes extensive amounts of details and images not featured here, head on over to Kosmo Foto:

Olympus OM-1: The small, quiet revolution in SLR design

About Film Fridays: We've launched an analog forum and in a continuing effort to promote the fun of the medium, we'll be sharing film-related content on Fridays, including articles from our friends at 35mmc and KosmoFoto.