The Olympus AZ-1 Zoom is a compact zoom from the late 80s. It’s not very pretty or particularly compact and it doesn’t enjoy cult status. The zoom range is not very impressive and the max aperture not particularly fast. The one vaguely interesting detail is that it was Olympus’ first compact camera with a built-in zoom lens.
So why am I bothering to write a review about this remarkably unremarkable camera? Simple, despite its many shortcomings I have found it great to use and it has produced some great results. They also can be easily found for less than £10!
I found this camera at the bottom of a box of cameras at my parents’ house when I was clearing through some of my old stuff. I think I picked it up at a church Bazaar about 15 years earlier, but never used it and completely forgot about it. With a renewed interest in film photography and particularly also expanding into the world of compact cameras (I blame 35mmc), I was suddenly very excited about trying it out. I have since bought, tried, and in some cases re-sold a number of compacts, including a few “cult classic” such as the Olypmus Mju I, Olympus XA, Canon Sureshot A1, and Rollei 35. Still, I often find myself reaching for the Olympus AZ-1 ZOOM.
The Olympus AZ-1 is a fully automatic, point & shoot compact. It has a 35-75mm f3.5-6.7 zoom lens that, at least on my copy, extends at the speed of a sloth on Ambien (and makes a noise to match). The lens will accommodate 35.5mm filters. The on/off switch allows you to choose between single exposure and continuous shots (for those times you really need to capture the action at 1.5 fps). The LCD displays the frame count and battery status.
It has a flash, with a dedicated switch, that lets you choose between Auto, off, fill and slow sync.
There’s also a self-timer, a backlight compensation and double exposure button. And don’t forget the dedicated Macro switch which automatically extends the lens to its longest focal length and will then allow you to focus as close as 60(!)cm. For a compact camera, that’s quite a rich set of features which all have dedicated buttons – no menus.
The bad bits
Let’s be honest, for a compact camera, the Olympus AZ-1 is pretty big and heavy. Design wise, it’s built like a brick (literally) and that is also reflected in its ergonomics. Luckily my hands are quite big so I can just about hold it with one hand, though not confidently and I’m sure others might struggle.
As mentioned, the zoom on the Olympus AZ-1 is very slow and noisy when it extends, the fastest aperture is mediocre at best, and the closest focus distance is pretty bad.
The autofocus is ok as long as you make sure that your subject is right in the middle of the finder – you can half press the shutter to lock the focus and then reframe if wanted. A little green light will let you know that AF has been locked or will blink to tell you that the subject is too close (sometimes).
The batteries for these cost nearly as much (or more) than the Olympus AZ-1 is worth and do not last that long if you use the flash and/or forget to turn the camera off after use (it does not seem to turn off automatically at all).
The good bits
What the Olympus AZ-1 does really well in my opinion, is go quickly from being switched off, to taking a picture at its default widest focal length (35mm). This I pretty much all I use it for now.
The flash is also a big plus in my books. It’s pretty mighty and will probably permanently blind anyone in close vicinity, but importantly it is controlled with a dedicated switch that stays where you want it to. No auto flash every time you switch on the camera like some over compacts (looking at you here Mju). Also the 4 modes are quite advanced for a compact, allowing even a slow flash function.
The backlight compensation is nice to have, as there is no way of manually compensating for exposure by e.g. manually setting the ISO, though I have found the Olympus AZ-1 deals with backlight subjects quite well on its own.
The double exposure button is also not a particularly common feature on compacts in my experience and nice to have if you’re into that kind of stuff. I think it would be a good option for people who want to try out double exposures. Much easier than e.g. holding the rewind button while advancing the film in the way you have to do on many manual SLRs.
And despite my earlier ridicule of the Macro mode, it have found it can be quite fun to use, as long as you have a piece of string to measure the 60cms.
The Olympus AZ-1 also leaves the film leader out after rewinding the film – a nice touch which makes it easier to change rolls half way through or if you develop/bulk load your own film. I don’t know why other compacts don’t do this.
Most importantly, I like really like the results it produces. The lens is sharp and produces nice, contrast images. The camera handles exposure well and autofocus is generally pretty good.
Despite its looks, size and weight I find this to be a very capable compact with a pretty broad range of functions that can all be selected manually with dedicated buttons.
Maybe I just like an underdog, but the Olympus AZ-1 seems like it deserves more attention that it gets.
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