Olympus OM: the Leica SLR that could have been?

Discussion in '35mm Cameras and Accessories' started by OlyMan, Dec 11, 2017.

  1. OlyMan

    OlyMan Member

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    It's no great secret that Olympus' chief designer Yoshihisa Maitani was a huge fan of Leica rangefinders; the Leica design-cues in the OM-1 are there for all to see, including the overall dimensions and the front-mounted rewind-release. When Olympus unveiled the 'Olympus M-1' at Fotokina in '72, it seems very clear to me that they were deliberately pinging a proverbial elastic band at the back of Leica's head to attract their attention. Attract it they did, with Leica threatening to sue Olympus if they didn't rebrand the camera as something other than 'M-1'. As a result the OM-1 was born, following a short production of 'M'-branded cameras and matching ancillaries that now fetch collectors' prices. The rest is history.

    Leica's existing SLR at the time was the Leicaflex SL, which was four years old, big, heavy, and clunky. It seemed about as much in tune with the design philosophy of a Leica 'M' rangefinder as a garbage truck is in tune with the design philosophy of a Ferrari. Just about everyone at Leica must have seen the Olympus M-1 and thought, "That's basically what our SLR should look like. How did we f--k it up quite so much?" (in German).

    However, let's imagine a scenario where instead of pinging an elastic band at the head of the mighty German giant saying "this is how you should have done it", Olympus had actually approached Leica at the design stage and said 'how about a deal?'. The partnership could have been either that Leica licensed the design rights and intellectual property rights for the M-series SLRs from Olympus to produce Leica M SLRs in-house, or they paid Olympus to manufacture the cameras as Leicas under licence at Olympus' factory, and ether way both companies shared the profits.

    Irrespective of how the deal could have panned out, Olympus surely would have benefitted from the cash it would bring. They were not established big players in the full-frame SLR market: up to that point they had only dabbled half-heartedly by launching the Olympus FTL in '71, which no in-house designer has ever publicly admitted responsibility for, including Maitani. And prior to that their most serious efforts with interchangeable lens SLRs had all been half frame.

    If Olympus had secretly been hoping to attract the interest/investment from Leica, probably their only big mistake was previewing the completed and fully-branded M-1 at such a public event as Fotokina. I'm sure there were far more discrete ways they could have privately approached Leica to establish likely interest, flaunting their miniature masterpiece as the SLR embodiment of everything that made the M-series great, less its awkward film-loading system, its daft placement of the ASA dial, and of course its rangefinder (which fair credit to Leica was excellent).
     
    Last edited: Dec 11, 2017
  2. miha

    miha Member

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    Why would leica want to design their SLR line of cameras with the design philosophy of a Leica M?
     
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    OlyMan

    OlyMan Member

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    I guess if you're asking that question, then the whole theoretical scenario I've outlined is going to seem irrational to you. Which is fair enough.
     
  4. Ricardo Miranda

    Ricardo Miranda Member

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    And why would Olympus want to approach Leica for a partnership when they were competitors?
    That doesn't make any sense regarding the market as it was at that time.

    You are seeing things from a very 2017 perspective.
    BTW, when Leica felt the need of a partnership they went to Minolta.
     
  5. Paul Howell

    Paul Howell Subscriber

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    The Leicaflex SL was indeed heavy and big, it a pro level camera, made to withstand heavy pro use. I know the Air Force beta tested the OM as did the LA times. it did hold up as well as Nikon or Canon. A nice camera but it wasn't until the OM4 that Olympus reached pro level build quality. In terms of partnership, Leica paired with Minolta, and post SL were largely Minolta bodies built to Leica standards. Leica fans will correct me, but the R8 or 9 was the first R model 100% Leica.
     
  6. Chuckwade87

    Chuckwade87 Subscriber

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    I was under the impression that the Leicaflex and subsequently the SL and SL2 were 100% Leica, then from R3 until R8 it was a under partnership with Minolta.

    I'll take my garbage truck, thank you
     
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    OlyMan

    OlyMan Member

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    It's just a scenario, that is all. As you said, Leica did eventually partner to build SLRs, but with Minolta.
    Olympus also partnered with Minolta by licensing their Off The Film metering system from them for the OM2, before Minolta actually used it in a camera (I think).
     
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    OlyMan

    OlyMan Member

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    It wasn't really intended as an insult. More that the M-series rangefinders and Leicaflex SLRs were clearly built from totally different philosophies. Just like a garbage truck and a Ferrari which are both adequate at the completely different job they do, but likely neither one of them has ever driven down the same stretch of road.

    Still, it's good to provoke debate about what might have been, no?
     
  9. Theo Sulphate

    Theo Sulphate Subscriber

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    I wouldn't call the SL "clunky" by any means, although it is larger and heavier than the OM's.

    I prefer to call them "Teutonic".

    IMAG8559-1.jpg
    IMAG6673-1.jpg
     
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    OlyMan

    OlyMan Member

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    The intended comparison, when I described it as a large and clunky, was with the company's own M-series rangefinders. I won't deny it has its own charm.

    Excellent collection there, btw.
     
  11. Paul Howell

    Paul Howell Subscriber

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    I did not make my very clear, the all mechanical SL and SL2 were indeed all Leica, the next generation electronic bodies were based on Minolta designs, then the R8 (?) including the electronics were all Leica. On the other side of the house Minolta used Leica lens designs for some late model MF and early AF lens.
     
  12. Chuckwade87

    Chuckwade87 Subscriber

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    I wasn't offended by any means.

    On the contrary even the rich and affluent have to have their trash taken out and picked up by someone.

    The M series, was following the evolution of the original Barnack design, the SLR as far as Leica, was a new idea/philosopy for them, and like most new things it takes a few models to really hammer out the kinks.
     
  13. E. von Hoegh

    E. von Hoegh Member

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    When the OM1 was introduced in '72, Leitz and Minolta were developing the Leitz-Minolta CL, which was introduced the next year, 1973.
     
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  15. E. von Hoegh

    E. von Hoegh Member

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    "Teutonic" is right.
    However, the Contax II is Teutonic squared, imo.
     
  16. 4season

    4season Member

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    If anything, Olympus was the (much) bigger player, while Leica was in danger of becoming irrelevant. OM, XA, Stylus: Those were all very successful product lines.

    Meanwhile, Leitz/Minolta CL was a success, but M wasn't doing so good. R3 and R4 were more in synch with the marketplace, but they didn't have a great reputation for reliability.
     
  17. mshchem

    mshchem Member

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    I have huge hands. I was a Nikon F2 kid. OM stuff was so jewel like. I started with a Pentax SP-500, F2 was just a bit bigger. I had an XA great little camera, the electric shutter release got weird at the end.

    Leica could have done what Nikon did, put a mirrorbox into their rangefinder That would have been a neat dual between Nikon and Leica.

    Now so many used cameras so cheap you can have one of each :smile:
    Mike
     
  18. Chuckwade87

    Chuckwade87 Subscriber

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    I still don' t know why people didn't like the M5, I think it came down to price, thus the CL success. The R4 was Leica's best selling model.

    The XA and Stylus were pocket cameras, not exactly Leica's target audience.

    I'd like to meet the person in the 70's who said 'I'm gonna buy an Olympus 35 RC, instead of the irrelevant Leica M5.'
     
  19. Chan Tran

    Chan Tran Member

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    I used to like the Olympus back in the days but I didn't own any of them. Ever since I own an OM2n about 15 years ago I don't like them any more.
    I like the Leica but I never own one so I don't know what I would think about them when I do own Leica.
     
  20. Jon Buffington

    Jon Buffington Subscriber

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    I don't get it about the m5 and still don't. The m5 is the best "shooters" camera of all the M's. The design is just perfection!
    I was out shooting with my m5 and CL yesterday as I have been shooting canon SLR's (ae-1 and a1) for the past few months. The m5 just feels right in the hand, the controls nicely laid out. The little overhanging shutter speed dial with readout in the viewfinder is so intuitive, leading to fluid movement...I better stop now before I ramble to long :smile: I also own the XA, XA4, stylus and stylus epic. I really like the XA4 with a close second on the XA but for different reasons (as pocketable travel cameras) over a rangefinder. I prefer an SLR when I am out shooting landscapes from a tripod.
     
  21. Les Sarile

    Les Sarile Member

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    Leica and practically everyone else too as they all shortened some production cycles and reintroduced smaller versions to match what Yoshihisa Maitani had released.
     
  22. Ko.Fe.

    Ko.Fe. Subscriber

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    Every time Leica is mentioned someone from SLR world, it is getting weird.
    Zenit was made from Zorki in 1952, Nikon F came years later.
     
  23. Theo Sulphate

    Theo Sulphate Subscriber

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    The M5 fits my hands better than any other rangefinder - I'm still looking to buy a nice black one with a working meter.
     
  24. ic-racer

    ic-racer Member

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    My brother and I saw the OM1 in Popular Photography and admired the small size. Neither one of us liked the 'bug clunky' Nikon that was so popular. He got one for Christmas 1973. It was pre-MD. He still has it, I wish I could get it from him.

    He did not take it to College with him, so, my Senior year of High School, I 'borrowed' it from his room and used it on the Yearbook staff. I fibbed a little and told my friends at school it was mine.
     
  25. AgX

    AgX Member

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    Leitz managment in 1971 decided to investigate on a possible cooperation with a japanese manufacturer, Minolta.

    Such actually came into being the same year and proceeded for more than 25 years.
     
  26. blockend

    blockend Member

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    The OM-1 was the first camera I bought with my own money. It was a lovely little camera whose shortcomings can be seen in the picture, namely, the lenses are too big for the body. Now I know OM lenses were a bit smaller and lighter than most of the competition, but they still have to focus beyond the mirror box. To see what can be done without that compromise, look what Olympus did with the XA and Mju series. There's a reason why manual focus pancake SLR lenses attract a premium today. As indeed do XA's and Mju's.

    Leica SLRs always looked like the company didn't believe in the idea. Beautifully constructed, and lovely lenses, but you can practically hear the Wetzlar boffins thinking why on earth do you want one of these when you can have an M3? They were always a Johnny-come-lately to the SLR concept, whereas they virtually created the interchangeable lens rangefinder camera. After a couple of models they farmed the branding to people who knew SLRs, which set a precedent for the company's subsequent adventures in camera design.

    The reason I bought an OM-1 is it was the cheapest camera with professional pretensions, selling around the price of other company's entry level cameras. Whether the OM's met popular ideas of a pro camera is hard to say. The lens range certainly did, and some professionals replaced their older cameras with Olympus. To me the lightness reflected some compromises that were hard to avoid, though the OM made up for it in other ways like the huge viewfinder, and owner replaceable screens.

    The OM's contribution to photographic history is it made other manufacturers take note, setting the template for Canon's A-series, Nikon's FM/FE and most SLRs until the muscle camera was reinvented with the EOS1 and Nikon F4/5. The brick is now the standard model for full frame DSLRs, with Olympus retaining the OM format with their MFT mirrorless models.
     
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