Olympus μ[mju:]-II camera review
Cult cameras, I hate cult cameras. There are some cameras that have developed huge reputations on the internet, everyone is talking about them, and their prices are ridiculous online. If I had to name a couple of cult cameras off the top of my head, it would be the Canonet GLiii, the Olympus μ[mju:]-II, the Holga and of course Leica’s. Never shot a Leica before but the rest of the cult cameras have found their way into my hands and to be honest, except for the Holga, they have always left me very disappointed. After searching for a long time, I finally found an Olympus μ[mju:]-II at a price I could stomach. This little cult-like camera has become incredibly expensive now, thanks to its cult-like following and finding a good copy at an acceptable price is extremely difficult.
The Olympus μ[mju:]-II is a tiny, all plastic 35mm compact camera, with a 35mm f2.8 autofocusing lens that is reputed to be very sharp. When my extremely beat up and expensive copy of the camera arrived, the size and weight really shocked me. This thing is tiny, really tiny. It is the smallest camera I own.
If you do any research about this camera, you will see that most fanboys claim that this is the best 35mm point and shoot camera, it has the best lens, it is the stealthiest camera you can buy, and so many people claim that you can buy this camera for under 10 dollars. Good luck finding this camera for so cheap. This camera has so many rumors and myths about it floating on the internet, so it is kinda hard to know what you are going to get when you order the camera.
The camera is basically a point and shoot camera from the ’80s, with 6 buttons in total, a tiny viewfinder, and a small LCD display. It is a minimalistic design and I like that about the camera. The front of the camera is basically just the lens and flash, protected with its clamshell design. This design is the main reason why so many of these cameras have survived to this day. It protects the lens really well. My unit is pretty beat up but the lens is in perfect condition. To switch the camera on, all you do is slide the clamshell cover open and the camera is ready to fire.
The back of the camera is about the most complicated thing in the whole unit. Around the middle of the camera, is a small LCD screen that will display the number of the shot you will take and the flash settings. To the right of the LCD are two buttons that set the date and under the LCD unit is the self-timer button and the flash setting button. On the right-hand side of the camera is a clear window to see what film you have loaded into the camera. A very basic setup that even your grandmother could figure out. A very basic for a camera from the 90s.
The shutter button is large, very large and easy to find when you have the camera up against your face. It is the only button on the top of the camera. The button feels ok to press, nothing like a mechanical shutter button on an SLR but it is not terrible either. It gets the job done and the camera feels responsive. You can easily do a half shutter button press when you need to. More about half shutter button presses later.
The bottom of the camera is pretty basic as well, just the tripod thread, which is plastic and the serial number of your camera. I dont trust plastic tripod threads but this camera is so light that I doubt it will cause much trouble. I would guess that the battery and the film probably weigh about the same as the camera.
The camera takes the CR123A battery which can be difficult to find. I had no luck trying to find one when I was shooting in the Philippines, so either keep a few spare batteries with you or use rechargeable batteries. But having said that, the Olympus μ[mju:]-II is extremely efficient with power, I got around 30 rolls of film with one battery and the flash was used a lot. So battery life is extremely good. I wish my Nikon F100 was as good as this. The battery door is plastic and feels sturdy enough but I would want to test it too much. The battery compartment door is supposed to be weather sealed as well.
The camera opens up very easily and loading film into the camera is as simple as they could make it. Just insert the film cartridge into the take-up slot on the right-hand side, drag the film lead over to the end and close the back. The best film loading experience that I have had with a camera before. The camera will set the ISO automatically by reading the DX coding on the film canister. What this means is that you cannot push or pull film with this camera unless you modify the DX coding on the film canister. It also means that when you load film into the camera, you have to make sure that the film canister or has a DX code or the camera will not load the film. I usually shoot with Ilford pan 100 or 400 which has the DX coding on it, but when I use some strange film types like Lucky100 or Shanghaifilm, this camera will not load the film and just flashes error to me.
The buttons on the camera all feel plastic and don’t have that tactile feel of an older film camera. They feel like the buttons on your TV remote controller. The shutter button is ok and you can feel the difference between a half press and a full press of the shutter button. It is a not great but it gets the job done.
The most important part of a camera is the lens and the Olympus μ[mju:]-II is rumored to have a fantastic, fast lens. A 35mm f2.8 lens which is composed of four elements in four groups, which is supposed to delivering images that are sharp from edge to edge(when the autofocusing works with you) and there should be very little to almost no vignetting. Well I can say that the rumors about this camera’s lens is absolutely true. It is beautiful and sharp from corner to corner, even when the photo looks like it was shot wide open(You can never be sure as you have no idea what the aperture setting was when shooting), but the image is fantastic. I have no idea about chromatic aberration though as I only shoot black and white film but I can tell you that there is very little distortion in your images and even when shooting into the sun, there is very little ghosting and flaring. This is extremely rare for such a small compact camera and even the modern compact digital cameras such as the Sony RX100 or the Canon G7x cannot match the lens on this camera. It is an absolutely beautiful lens.
I cannot say enough good things about this lens when it nails the auto-focus, your shots look fantastic. The auto-focus though is a completely different story. The camera uses an active multi-beam autofocus system which is not great, to be honest. Maybe for its time, it was a godsend, but I find the auto-focus to be a real hit or miss affair. When you compose your shoot, a half press of the shutter should lock focus for you, if you see a green light in the viewfinder, then you are ready to shoot as the camera is supposed to have focus. For shots about 1 meter away, it is fairly accurate. The camera is supposed to be able to focus up to 30cm and this is where the auto-focus is not so good. I would say that about 50% of all my photos in this range are out of focus. They show that they are in focus, but when you develop the film, it is almost always back focused on another subject.
The Olympus μ[mju:]-II is a point and shoot camera and by that very definition, it is exactly that. You turn the camera on by sliding open the protective shell and exposing the lens. This reminds me a lot of my old slider phones that I use to use. It even sounds very similar when sliding the camera open. When the camera is turned on, it resets all the settings and turns the flash on with the camera. This sucks as you will have to turn the flash off every single time you turn the camera on unless you are happy to shoot with flash all the time. Once the camera is on, the only thing you can do as the photographer is compose the shot and press the shutter button. The camera will handle the exposure with its exposure meter. You have no control of the aperture or shutter speeds. The camera will select those for you. Generally, I hate cameras that don’t give you control but the Olympus μ[mju:]-II has one of the best exposure meters that I have ever seen. It has always given me a usable negative. I have shot more than 50 rolls of film with this camera now and I have never had an exposure that was completely unusable. None of my other film cameras can compete with this. It is simply the best exposure system that I have seen on a film camera. But remember that I only shoot black and white film so film latitude for exposure problems must be taken into account as well. Would the exposures always be so good for color film or transparencies, to be honest, I have no idea.
The Olympus μ[mju:]-II does have a spot meter that you are suppose to be able to use, and it is activated but pressing both buttons under the LCD screen simultaneously. THE LCD Screen will display a spot metering symbol in the LCD if you did it correctly. Then by pointing the camera at a area that you want to expose for, push the shutter button down half way and it will read the exposure for that area and you can recompose and finish the shutter button press to capture the scene. I tried this a few times, but I am not sure if it was working on my camera, as I would take two shots, one with the spot meter and one with the normal meter and the images looked identical to me. But I like the normal meter and If i am shoot a subject and I am facing the sun, I either try to move the subject or I leave the flash on now and hope it can fill in some of the darker regions that I expect to be underexposed. I am not a big fan of flash photography and black and white film but this method does work with this camera.
The one thing to keep in mind about using the Olympus μ[mju:]-II is that you have no idea what the shutter speed is or the aperture, so you could be trying to focus on something really close and hoping to blur out the background, but the camera will not always help you. Sometimes it will shoot the lens wide open but not always. I find that it will tend to shoot the lens wide open when the flash is on, so I tend to use flash now with anything that is within a one-meter radius.
With the lens wide open, you can blur out some background, but it is still a f2.8 lens on a semi-wide angle lens, so you need to get the camera close to the subject if you want to get some bokeh in the shot. The bokeh on the lens is average. This is not the type of camera that you buy to shoot portraits. It can do the job if it needs to, but you will not get the bokeh of a 1.4 or faster lens and it is unfair to even expect that from a point and shoot camera. For me, this camera does a perfectly fine job of separating the subject from the background.
The viewfinder is tiny. Really really tiny. It is the smallest viewfinder I have ever used. And it is a rangefinder type of viewfinder so the viewfinder is off to the side of the camera so you do need to think of parallax errors when composing on something close. The viewfinder is almost completely bare, there is no display in it, just two lights and some composition lines to help you when focusing on something close to the camera. When trying to focus on a subject, if you see a solid green light, it means that the camera has a focus and you can fire off the shot. A green blinking light means that the camera is still trying to focus, and an orange light means that the camera does not have focus. There is no other information in the viewfinder and it is not exactly very accurate. I would guess that it only covers around 90% of the actual frame so be careful with your composition. I generally try and fill the frame as much as possible and leave no negative spaces in my compositions as I know there will be some negative space on the final image.
To give you an idea of how small the viewfinder is, if I had to compare the viewfinder to the Fujifilm Instax camera, the Instax camera has a bigger and easier to use viewfinder. This is one of the shortcomings of the Olympus μ[mju:]-II . I know the camera is tiny, but if they had managed to squeeze in a bigger, more accurate viewfinder, then this little camera would have been godlike.
The camera is nice and easy to use, you will get use to quickly opening it with one hand, and deactivating the flash, but because of its small size and tiny viewfinder, it is not the most comfortable camera to use for extended periods. This is usually my backup camera in my bag. The small size of the camera means I can squeeze it into almost any bag or pocket and it is usually very reliable. The body is weather sealed so that means it can take a splash of water or get a little wet in the rain but I would not try to push the boundaries with its weather sealing. It is still a plastic camera made in the 90s and it could fail very easily if you get it too wet. The camera is obviously durable, my unit looks like it has been through the wars, it is all scratched up and shows signs of heavy use or abuse by someone, yet the clam-like shell design has kept the camera safe over the years.
Comparing it to other cameras is not exactly easy to be honest, as the cost of the camera has to be considered now. The cult following the Olympus μ[mju:]-II has built up over the years has meant that the camera price has skyrocketed. I have seen some Olympus μ[mju:]-II on eBay for $400 which is absolutely insane. I would never pay that for a plastic point and shoot camera from the 90s.
I was extremely disappointed after buying the Olympus μ[mju:]-II, I thought it was overpriced and not worth the money, so I started off using it and did not enjoy my time with it because of how I felt, but after each roll of film that I developed, there would always be one or two photos that would catch my eye, and slowly this little camera won me over. It became my perfect B camera, it is always in my bag, and I enjoy it for what it is, a great point and shoot camera that will give me a usable negative when I shoot with it.
This camera must have been a great point and shoot camera when it came out. It is tiny, capable of creating amazing photos, but I am not so sure that it is deserving of its cult-like status it has right now. It is easy to use, but it is not well suited to street photography. It is way too noisy. The shutter is not loud but the film auto advance and film rewind is extremely noisy. You will make more noise with this camera than a Pentax 67. If you take someone’s photo with this camera, they may not hear the shutter but I can guarantee you that they will hear the camera advance the film to the next shot. The Olympus μ[mju:]-II is not for portraits, it is not consistent with focusing on subjects with in that one-meter range, and the quality of the bokeh is not great. It is not great for landscapes because the viewfinder is horrible and you cannot be precise with your composition, but I think this camera strengths make it the perfect B camera. A camera to be used to capture everyday life, not a work camera. I think if you look at this camera at what it was designed to do, and that is taking everyday photos, in multiple situations, by people who know very little about photography, then you can see that this is a special camera and it deserves all of it praises, but try to claim this a great camera outside the scope of a point and shoot camera, that is where things start to fall apart. If you can pick up this camera for cheap, say under 50 dollars, then it is a steal but anything over 50 is way to much money for this camera. I usually say that you get what you pay for, but in this case, you get much less than what you pay for.
- Small, light and compact
- Excellent light meter
- Suppose to be weather sealed. I wouldn’t trust this though.
- The lens is fast and sharp
- Fully automatic so you have no control over the exposure or the focus. You have to rely on the photo gods for that.
- DX coding only. You cannot push or pull film with this camera unless you modify the dx coding on the film canister.
- Buttons on the camera feel like they belong on a 1980s TV remote control.
- The viewfinder is tiny and provides almost no information to you when you are using the camera.
- The cost, these cameras are crazy expensive now