Olympus OM-1
5 frames with...

5 Frames with an Olympus OM-1 taken back in the 80s – By Nik Stanbridge

January 22, 2021

The Olympus OM-1 was my first real camera, I bought it as-new in 1981, when I was a student, for £95. That was a lot of money in those days, and my bank account didn’t recover for many years (in today’s money, that’s £350). That it was fully manual was all-important. My photography was going to be all down to me – forcing myself up the learning curve of understanding the relationship between aperture and shutter speed.

Growing up in the 70s, I was captivated by the monochrome documentary photography in the Sunday newspaper supplements. Horrified and educated too. With only three TV channels and no media other than print, newspapers were the only way you saw stuff and learned what was going on in the world – and the glossy supplements were full of high-quality reportage photography. It’s where you saw work by people like Don McCullin. Work that I wanted to emulate, albeit in London, and not a war zone.

I took the OM-1 everywhere and documented the lives of my student/social cohort. As I digitise that archive, I realise now that I took a fairly cavalier attitude to exposure and focusing when shooting people (they moved around a lot).

I loved the fact that the shutter speed dial was around the lens. And how small it and solid the camera was. For many years I only had the Zuiko 50/1.8, which in itself was great – I never had to think about which lens to use: even more simplicity.

I used a lot of bulk-loaded Ilford film. While I knew that not all films were the same, I did have the attitude that “film is cheap” and that taking (lots of) photographs was the main thing. Again, I now realise that that bulk Ilford film was not brilliant (overly contrasty). I don’t know what it was as it’s not indicated on the film. Most of my work in those days was on Tri-X or AgfaPan 100 though.

I did all my film developing at home, having been taught how to do it by a babysitter when I was 12. In the early 80s I used to use the darkroom at the Photographer’s Gallery until I got my own darkroom going, which, when living in rented accommodation, was quite a challenge. An interesting thing I’ve realised as I digitise my archive is just how few of my negs were printed back then. It was an expensive business, printing. Most of the images you see here were never printed so have been rediscovered this year. If only I’d known what was lurking on all those contact sheets.

Sadly the camera is sort of no more. I think the light meter has lost all its sensitivity as adding fresh batteries with the relevant adapter is a bit of a dead loss in terms of exposure metering. The metering needle moves from rest a bit but only when the aperture is wide open and the shutter speed is cranked up to long exposure times. I had such high hopes of using it again as I dived headlong back into film photography a couple of years ago. I ended up having to replace it with an FM2, which I love.

Tube train, London (1984). Ilford FP4. London seemed a lot less busy 35 years ago and you would often be on the tube on your own.

Alex, Battersea (1983)

Alex, Battersea, London (1983). Kodak Tri-X. I went to a lot of photography exhibitions in those days (still do) and visiting them took my friends and I on expeditions all over London.

Man in fog, South Woodford, London (1983), Ilford bulk film of unknown type/origin.
I lived in a shared house at the time and this bridge was over a motorway and it was part of the walk down to the tube station. Who can resist taking photographs in fog?

Rope, London docklands (1984). Ilford FP4. The docklands area of London 35 years ago was still just that, docklands (albeit very run-down and semi-abandoned). The gentrification hadn’t started so it was a fascinating place to go.

My student flat, London (1984). Kodak Tri-X. This isn’t exactly a still-life, it’s just a picture of my side table taken from my chair in front of the TV. Lots of photog library books. That Sony Walkman added significantly to my negative bank balance too.

All the images have been digitised with a Sony A7r and Nikkor 55/2.8 Macro with extension tube for 1:1 reproduction. As an aside, this is a process I’m loving as I revisit 40 years’ worth of 35mm negs.

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  • Reply
    Julian Higgs
    January 22, 2021 at 4:39 pm

    Nice article. I have the almost exact same combo as your black paint OM-1n and 50 f1.4 but mine is no an ‘n’ version. If you do want to try and bring it back to full working order consider sending it to Luton Camera Repairs in Guildford Street Luton, they may be able to bring it back to life fully. Cheers for now. Julian

    • Reply
      Nik Stanbridge
      January 22, 2021 at 5:34 pm

      Thanks Julian. I might just do that!

      • Reply
        Michael J
        January 22, 2021 at 8:47 pm

        I was just about to say that there must be an OM-wrangler not too far away who could make it purr. Great stories and pictures, and a reminder of long days of self-education expending shoe-leather and cheap film. Thanks for sharing!

      • Reply
        January 22, 2021 at 11:59 pm

        The OM1 is mechanical, doesn’t need the light meter to work. I use a light meter app on my phone with mine. Works fine.

  • Reply
    January 22, 2021 at 5:37 pm

    Nik – I love the tube train shot! Reminds me of the sort of thing I was doing back in the 80s – I was a photography student in London back then and enjoyed wandering about with my camera just photographing anything and everything that caught my fancy – even asking people to pose on occasion (I don’t think I could get away with something like that today – probably end up in hospital). It seemed that time was endless in those days – I used a multitude of cameras including Nikon, Spotmatics, Olympus, Canon, Hasselblad and Sinar, etc, – I’ve recently started the mammoth task of scanning many of those older negatives and some of them, I must admit, are not that bad and do capture an era that is now long gone- perhaps I might do what you’ve done and post them on the site.

    • Reply
      Nik Stanbridge
      January 22, 2021 at 5:40 pm

      Thanks for the comments Chris. We’ve been on the same journey it seems. I too found being a photographer in those time as being a carefree and much simpler process.

  • Reply
    thorsten wulff
    January 22, 2021 at 6:09 pm

    Brings back lots of memories, Nik. I like your desk… and had that Walkman, too ;))

  • Reply
    gabriel dumont
    January 22, 2021 at 8:41 pm

    People spend thousands on various film cameras with no light meter at all and you ditch your favourite camera because the light meter quit working? Lol

  • Reply
    Alex Vye
    January 23, 2021 at 1:59 am

    Man in fog is walking like a man having a bad day. Great article 🙂

    • Reply
      Nik Stanbridge
      January 23, 2021 at 11:17 am

      Thanks Alex. Yes, perhaps rueing his decision to only be in shirtsleeves…

  • Reply
    January 23, 2021 at 12:04 pm

    Nik, I may be slightly older than you but a lot of what you say resonates with me,
    I have an OM-1n which was my second SLR camera ever and started me on the OM road with several lenses and an OM2n eventually. A beautiful system even today.
    The OM1n is essentially the same but with a “flash ready” LED, improvements to the winder, modified springs to hold the film cartridge and other improvements to the internal mechanics.
    I second the recommendation to send it to Luton Cameras as they have helped me in the past and are Olympus specialists

    • Reply
      Nik Stanbridge
      January 23, 2021 at 4:57 pm

      Thanks Dave. I’m going to be in touch with the guys in Luton very shortly.

  • Reply
    Johnny Martyr
    January 23, 2021 at 4:55 pm

    Awesome shots with an awesome camera/lens! The FM2n relegates mine to a shelf most of the time also but if you get it working again, OM bodies compliment Leica bodies nicely. 😉

    • Reply
      Nik Stanbridge
      January 23, 2021 at 5:01 pm

      Thanks Johnny! There’s an overwhelming consensus that I have to get the OM back on the road. I’ll have to go begging to my youngest daughter though as I gave her the 50/1.4 Zuiko (to go with the OM-10 I bought her a few years ago).

  • Reply
    Pablo García Esparza
    January 24, 2021 at 9:55 am

    My OM-1 is also broken, but the camera works great, I use it with an external meter and I love it!
    Great article, and great pictures!

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