As I’m sure you are aware dear reader, the Olympus Mju-ii has in recent years become the darling of hipsters everywhere. The second generation Mju has become a statement of coolness, an accessory to your outfit, a bauble to be seen holding rather than shooting. Fashion (I’m told) is a fickle business, and only the exact thing will do. Anyone who was ever dragged to Clarks’ shoe shop as a child, when all they wanted was Doc Martins will know this to be true.
The same holds true for cameras. In a world where all cameras should be equal, some (to paraphrase Orwell) are more equal than others. If you absolutely have to have a Mju-ii, then nothing else will do. Whether the Mju-ii deserves such hype is a subject that’s been done to death, so let’s try to not cover old ground if we can avoid it. I’d simply like to offer my personal experience of shooting one roll of film through this modern icon.
I came to the Mju 2 in a roundabout way, via it’s older sibling, the first generation Mju. A bargain find in a charity shop about ten years ago saw me walking away with a slightly battered ‘RPS Royal Centenary 1994’ edition Mju 1 which I use regularly and adore to this day. It’s a camera that’s been with me for a long time now, and is my go-to ‘point and squirt’ camera.
It’s churned out some amazing photos over the years and has been supremely reliable despite its reputation for mechanical delicacy. Though my camera collection has grown exponentially since then (GAS anyone?), it’s remained a firm favourite and looks set to be so for the foreseeable future. Something about that scrappy first-gen Mju just makes me happy. It feels right to me, and it does the job I need it to do. In short, the Mju 1 is a hard act to follow as far as I’m concerned.
Fast forward a few years from that charity shop find, and I’m heading in to my local town centre with the second generation Mju and a single roll of expired HP5+. Curiosity about the slightly faster lens of the Mk2 got the better of me I guess. Anyway… armed with the Mju 2, I’m on a street photography mission. My vague self-set brief to capture ‘life in a northern town’, whatever that means. I guess it didn’t mean all that much to me at the time, because that roll of HP5 was shot, stored, and ultimately forgotten about for years until the Covid 19 pandemic of 2020. Faced with weeks of lockdown in the house, every lost roll of film was rooted out, processed, and scanned – if only to stave off boredom. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
In action on the day, the Mju-ii worked well for me as a street shooter. It’s small enough to fit in to a pocket, and is ready to shoot as soon as the lens cover is retracted. That’s a simple one-handed job on the first generation Mju, but takes a little more care on the Mju-ii, whose sleek lines and tiny size make it keen to jump out of the hand.
Regardless, it’s easy enough to whip the Mju-ii out in an instant and shoot quickly. The inbuilt autofocus seems to react quickly too, and I didn’t manage to catch it out despite trying. One thing to mention here on both the Mju-i and Mju-ii is that turning the camera off reverts the flash back to ‘auto’ the next time it’s turned on; something to keep in mind if you’re trying to be discreet.
Speaking of which… I know some folks don’t like noisy, auto-winding cameras for street shooting, but both the Mju’s are really pretty quiet in this regard, and the noise is easily lost in the hustle and bustle of town life. In the real world, I just didn’t notice or worry about it.
Several years later then, and the negatives were finally developed. Even as I hung them to dry I knew I’d struck gold. Every frame on the roll looked strong. Scanning the negatives confirmed that, but it wasn’t the quality of the negatives, or the final results that pleased me so much as being transported back in time to that busy weekend market.
In the intervening years between shooting and developing, the once legendary and characterful market in my particular northern town has been demolished and rebuilt as a shiny, modern, and sterile box in which traders peddle their wares. Gone is the characterful building and gone are the characters who made it so special. Barely a trace of the places in these photographs exists today, so capturing these images of the market at the end of its glory days is more special retrospectively than it would have been at the time.
Perhaps there’s an argument that for all but essential work, letting a roll of negatives mature like a fine wine (or smelly cheese) can only make the final results sweeter.
My favourite shot from this roll is the image of ‘Sailor Sids’ sweet stall. Sids was a local institution for as long as I can remember, and seeing this image emerge from the darkness took me back to childhood bonbons and fizzy sherbet. I’m fairly sure Sid or his offspring are still there in the new market, but it’s somehow not the same.
None of that detracts from the shot though, and I think the little Mju 2 did a really great job of capturing the atmosphere of the place. It’s a timeless shot, and I particularly like the way that the expired film ages this shot and all the others on the roll. Capturing moments like this is (for me) what photography is all about.
So did I fall in love with the Mju-ii? Well… not really. It’s a good camera for sure, and packs a mean punch for its size despite the light leaks on my example. It’s a clever design that works well in lots of different situations, but it just didn’t feel especially right for me. Given the choice, I still prefer the first generation Mju.
The original incarnation is still the camera I pick up most often, and is still the camera that makes me happy most often. Truth be told, I couldn’t tell you objectively why that is, but when all’s said and done, does it really matter? If you own a Mju-ii and love it more than life itself, then we can still be friends. I’ll bring my clunky old Mk1 and I’ll see if I can win you over. Just don’t expect to see my photos for a good five years or so.