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Camera review: me and my Olympus 35 SP by Matt Parry

The Olympus 35 SP holds a SPecial and somewhat privileged status in my pretty modest camera collection. For around seven months it has been almost the only 35mm camera I have used (the main exception is the point and shoot, Nikon L35AF). The 35 SP really has an immense amount going for it and it more than pulls its weight in the world of rangefinders, let alone fixed lens rangefinders.

It’s an overused phrase but the SP really is a hell of a lot of bang for your buck. So, before I get stuck in, here’s what’s covered in this review:

 

 

The Olympus 35 SP – my story

I came to own an Olympus 35 SP after trying a couple of Yashica fixed lens rangefinders. I had been perusing eBay and had found a cheap Yashica Minister II and a Yashica Electro GS. The former was fine and fun enough but once i shot a roll and fixed the rangefinder alignment. I put it back on eBay and got my money back. The Electro GS was, in many ways, a better purchase, its lens in particular was a lot better, however the clunkiness, cheap feeling, size and lack of manual controls wound me up. I still have it but just never use it. It’s soon to be checked and sold or given away.

Olympus 35 SP

Olympus 35 SP

Olympus 35 SP

Olympus 35 SP

Olympus 35 SP

Olympus 35 SP

Early one Saturday morning, back on eBay (I know!), I came across a 35 SP for £50 on a Buy It Now or Make An Offer auction that had been listed only 20 minutes earlier.

Having read about this camera whilst looking into two rangefinders to replace my Yashica 35 GS (the Canonet QL17 and Minolta CLE), I knew it was highly regarded. The 35 SP appealed to me because it seemed to have the stylings of the CLE (A sort of ugly-beautiful; a right-angle-brickish-rectangular beauty) and the functionality/price range of the Canonet. £50 was already a great price and there was no chance I was missing out whilst waiting for a reply on an offer, so I paid the full £50 and haven’t looked back.

Upon receiving and trying out the camera I quickly realised the impressive nature of this humble rangefinder. My copy is in very good condition, fully working, but with a minor ding in the left hand side. Now, I will admit I lucked out, that’s a good deal, but an SP in such condition is still usually still under £100.

A hell of a deal for what you get.

Olympus 35 SP

Olympus 35 SP

Olympus 35 SP

Olympus 35 SP

Olympus 35 SP

Olympus 35 SP

The Olympus 35 SP is my Leica-killer (gasp!)

No, I’m not saying that it is ‘better’ than any Leica M out there. In all likelihood, it isn’t. What I mean is a completely subjective point, (and I don’t mean that in a modest ‘my-humble-opinion’ kind of way). I just really enjoy using it.

It just sits in my hand and does what I want it to do, despite its idiosyncrasies. Why then do I call it a Leica-killer? Well, it is, so far, the only rangefinder (or camera in general) I have owned or used that has quashed my desire for an M3 (or a Minolta CLE). In a way I really doubt it is even on a par in many ways. In fact, I couldn’t even compare the two as I have (intentionally and tactically) avoided trying any Leica M.

The point is, I simply don’t need to try or get one right now (also my wallet screameth ‘No!’). The SP currently does very nearly everything I would want from a rangefinder, and it does it all with minimal fuss. I tend to judge a camera based on how little I notice using it, how intuitive it feels when out shooting.

 

 

The Olympus 35 SP  and the Olympus 35 rangefinder family

The SP is one iteration of five variations on a theme made by Olympus (the ED, RC, DC, RD and SP). It is creme de la creme of a seriously impressive set of fixed lens rangefinders.

Manufactured by Olympus in the 1960s and 70s under the guise ‘Olympus 35 XX’, they all have a similar 70s aesthetic (that aforementioned rectangular beauty). The SP is by far the most technically and optically proficient of the set.

I have only shot the RC and the SP but they are both superb for quite different reasons with the SP Olympus managed a equipoise of function, quality and price. A well-equipped, beast of a fixed lens rangefinder, there’s a lot to write home about, and little to bemoan.

Olympus 35 SP - Front Angle

Olympus 35 SP – Front Angle

If you are unacquainted with fixed lens rangefinders, it means that no matter how much you jam that 50mm Summicron on, whatever way you twist and push, it just won’t work. You’ll be left with a pile of dented metal and broken glass drenched in tears. That lens is stuck on there. Someone has been at that thing with a Kragle. It’s fixed.

In the end, if you want a variety of lenses, obviously it isn’t the camera for you

It does, nevertheless, give you some choice when it comes to metering.  A dual metering system is one real stand out feature of the SP. Apparently it is the only (or one of very few) rangefinders to have this. It boasts a 20 degree centre weighted meter and 6 degree spot meter which change at the touch-and-hold of a button.

Both have been consistently very reliable in a range of lighting conditions with the Weincell battery (more about this later). To change from centre weighted to spot meter you push/release a small red button positioned just to the left of the winder.

The positioning and functionality of the spot meter is perfect. It is just where it needs to be and gives you a quick meter reading of the shadows/highlights or whatever you need. I have found myself using the spot meter a lot, especially with backlighting but also just for Zone System related antics.

 

 

The Olympus 35 SP – form factor

Size wise, it is not a small rangefinder and next to the RC it feels like a Behemoth. Nevertheless it is smaller than the Yashica GS. More so, whereas the Yashica feels just that bit too big, the Olympus 35 SP really sits nicely in the hand and is of decent size and weight.

Speaking of which, the body itself feels very solid, all metal, weighty and high quality. It measures 129 x 76 x 61mm (WxHxD).

Left to right: Yashica GS, Olympus 35 SP, Olympus 35 RC

Left to right: Yashica GS, Olympus 35 SP, Olympus 35 RC

 

Top

The body has the minimal necessary stuff on it. The top plate has a film rewind knob, hot shoe, serial number, frame counter (which resets automatically when the back is opened), shutter release button and film advance lever.

Olympus 35 SP - Top

Olympus 35 SP – Top

 

Rear / left side

The rear  of the camera has only the viewfinder, spot meter button and battery check button. The bottom left hand side has a very small lever to pull to open the back and a neat little grooved dial to set ISO. The ISO selector ranges from 25-800 (DIN is also there if that floats your boat). The dial moves a simple aperture on the rightmost window on the front of the camera (see the next section).

Olympus 35 SP - Rear

Olympus 35 SP – Rear

 

Front side

The front of the SP is pretty busy in a tidy and organised sort of way. It has several windows for light meters and the rangefinder along the top (middle to right), a PC sync flash port and obviously, the lens.

The flash sync is available for all shutter speeds.

Olympus 35 SP - Front

Olympus 35 SP – Front

 

Bottom plate

The bottom plate has battery compartment, standard tripod mount and rewind button (this can be used to enable double exposures).

Olympus 35 SP - Bottom

Olympus 35 SP – Bottom

 

 

The Olympus 35 SP – the lens, AKA they call me Mr Glass

Fortunately, despite the inability to change or choose lenses, the lens you’ll find stuck on the SP is pretty near faultless. Aside from the spot meter, it is the other stand out feature to the camera. The lens is a Zuiko 42mm f/1.7.  ‘Zuiko’ straight away hints at the quality and the 42mm focal length, so people claim, is the focal length most similar to the human eye.

That Zuiko glass produces some very sharp images. It is pretty sharp wide open but you do notice a difference between, say f/1.7 and about f/2.8 when it really starts to shine. You also get minor vignetting at f/1.7 too but I only really notice this if I’m shooting something with very bright corners and even then, it is not that bad.

The lens has a five-bladed aperture meaning when it flares at about f/3.5 onwards you can get very obvious pentagonal flaring.

Olympus 35 SP - Pentagonal flare

Olympus 35 SP – Pentagonal flare

As mentioned above, 42mm is supposedly the focal length most like human sight. I don’t really know if that’s right.  More importantly, I doubt if it is actually that important unless that is the very specific requirement you have. What I do know is it is an intuitive focal length falling midway between the two most popular ‘standard’ lengths, 50mm and 35mm.

Those versed in either will not be too far out of their comfort zone. I previously shot mainly with 50mm (or 80mm in MF) lenses and 42mm gives me noticeably more in my field without changing how I frame shots too drastically.

Olympus 35 SP

Olympus 35 SP

It stops me having to take that extra step back I found myself taking with a 50mm, when subjects are just that tiniest bit too close. People may well say that the difference of 8mm is not possibly noticeable but for me, it works and I am now much more comfortable with it than the 50mm I used to use.

Obviously focal length is a personal thing though, if you don’t like it, just get another lens – oh wait.

 

 

The Olympus 35 SP – the lens continued, AKA Lord of The Rings

Almost every functional aspect of the camera is found right there on the lens. If you think about it, though not conventional, it just makes sense.

Your hand is always there and everything you need is ‘at your fingertips’. Aperture, shutter speed, self-timer and (of course) focus are all on there. Working outward from the body you have focus, self-timer, aperture, then shutter speed.

Olympus 35 SP - Lens rings

Olympus 35 SP – Lens rings

The focus ring has distance scale but no zone focus or depth of field information. The focus throw is a neat 45 degrees with a sticky-out bit to hold. This makes it very fast to focus with a bit of practice. I found myself initially turning too far but once used to, it is very efficient for fast focussing.

Between the focus and aperture ring (to the left in the picture below), is the flicky doohickey for self-timer which times for about 9 seconds.

The aperture ring runs from f/1.7 to f/16 (f22 when the camera is in auto mode apparently, I don’t know why). Speaking of which, Auto mode, marked “A” on the barrel, sits just to the left of f/16. Further to the left are the preset flash settings.

The shutter speed ring is next. Speeds run from A(uto) mode all the way on the right to 1/500s and then down in single-stop increments to 1s and finally bulb. There is also a small cutout on the shutter speed dial, which shows an EV number (more on that later).

Olympus 35 SP - Lens

Olympus 35 SP – Lens

The shutter speed and aperture rings are of different sizes, feel and colour, making it very unlikely you’ll pick the wrong one in a hurry when you’re adjusting aperture/speeds with the camera to your eye.

The filter thread is a very convenient 49mm. This makes it easy and cheap to find filters. I picked up a set of yellow, orange and red for around £15 including delivery – lots of camera/manufacturers seemed to make this their standard size, e.g. my Pentax MX also has 49mm filter thread.

Olympus 35 SP

Olympus 35 SP

It’s worth noting that the shutter speed and aperture rings turn in opposite directions. It sounds strange I know, and this caught me out a little for a while. The direction for increasing the exposure on one decreases the exposure on the other. The useful thing about this is if you grip both simultaneously and turn them, they will lock to keep your exposure the same.

So, if your meter reading has suggested f/8 and 1/125s, gripping and turning both will move you to f/5.6 and 1/250s or f/4 and 1/500 in one direction, or to f/11 and 1/60s or f/16 and 1/30s in the other. Once you’re used to this it can be pretty useful.

 

 

The Olympus 35 SP – viewfinder

Olympus 35 SP - Viewfinder

Olympus 35 SP – Viewfinder

The viewfinder is decent, bright and easy to use. The rangefinder patch in the centre is relatively small but it represents the area for spot metering, so serves a dual purpose.

The viewfinder’s frame lines have extra markings for parallax correction (see the extra markings on the inside of the top left and right of the framelines above).

Finally, the bar along the top shows EV (Exposure Value) numbers, which correspond to numbers EV shown in the cutout on the lens’ shutter speed dial.

 

 

The Olympus 35 SP – making an exposure

Olympus 35 SP - FP4 Party 2016 print from ILFORD Photo

Olympus 35 SP – FP4 Party 2016 print from ILFORD Photo

The SP has a somewhat bohemian way to meter and select exposure. If you want to use the built-in meter, you have to look through the viewfinder and note the EV value from the meter scale.

Next, you must look at the lens and set the aperture and shutter speed by selecting the same value from the little cutout on the shutter speed dial.

In reality, this is a much quicker and somewhat more intuitive process than it seems on paper (screen?).

Unlike other cameras in the Olympus 35 XX series, the 35 SP dies not rely on the meter to function, and manual exposure combinations can be selected if your meter is broken, or battery missing/dead.

If you do have a battery installed, you need to be aware that the only way to turn off the meter is to keep the camera in a dark place, or use Olympus’ ever-ready case (more on that later).

 

 

The Olympus 35 SP – the not-so-good

(AKA well oh man she’s got issues and I’m gonna pay)

Olympus 35 SP

Olympus 35 SP

Sad as it is to say, the Olympus 35 SP is far from flawless.

Though noticeable, the issues I’ll explain have not hindered my use of the camera. They have however made me wonder why Olympus didn’t have the foresight to avoid such issues. They created an outstanding camera with some glaringly obvious issues.

 

The battery

First, the battery. The camera was originally meant to be powered by a 1.35 volt mercury cell. Today this presents the user with an issue, although a fairly common one with cameras of the era. Banned (and rightly so) for environmental reasons, mercury cells require some sort of work around. I guess this first issue is not really a fault of the manufacturer or design.

What about a solution? Well, there are several options:

  1. A CLA and adjustment of the meter for new cheap alkaline 1.5v batteries.
  2. An adapter for the same such batteries which changes the voltage to 1.35.
  3. A Wein Cell – a modern version of the PX 625 1.35 v – which has the advantage of a consistent and steady voltage with a very quick drop off towards the end of its life. This is more akin to the original mercury cell than newer alkaline versions, the latter of which have a steady decrease in voltage over time which can cause issues for light meters. It’s worth saying that These Weincell are not cheap, they come in at £5 a pop. That said, this is my chosen work around.

 

The Meter positioning

The meters are both positioned on the top right hand corner of the camera as you look at the front of it. Two problems are apparent and it seems Olympus just didn’t foresee these or just didn’t figure it was an issue:

No through-the-lens-metering and so any filters you put on your lens will have to be manually adjusted for.

No biggie. Not really a problem for me, as I can live with these manual adjustments.

The real problem here is that the meter is always on. Always on. So this means that by just sitting on the shelf, your expensive Weincell mercury-replacement battery will be gradually and constantly draining.

This just really annoys me but of course there are solutions:

  1. Remove the battery (every time?! Probably not going to happen. I know I will forget to either take it out or put it back in on one vitally important occasion).
  2. A dark cupboard (my current solution, not great for longer term storage though, and how can I marvel at its beauty?)
  3. The ever-ready case. This just gets in the way making it quite clumpy to carry but also somewhat protected from bumps. Annoyingly, the half case doesn’t stand on its own because of the tripod mount attachment/ case attachment lock.

 

This is an annoying problem that feels like it could have been tackled easily with something simple like an off switch (in fact, the RC has an off switch on the aperture ring even though the lens cap actually covers the meter, so in effect the RC has two ways of turning off the meter, why not on the SP!?).

[EMULSIVE: I had the (n)ever ready case for my SP and it was great from the point of view of extending the battery life but a total pain to use. Another option you can try is to make a “door” to cover the light meter using black paper and tape. It’s not horrendously ugly and much easier to use.]

 

Viewfinder meter readout

The in-the-viewfinder meter readout is in EV values, rather than in aperture and shutter speed. So if you want to check these you have to take it away from your eye to check. This is actually never a problem for me but could well be for some.

I often shoot the camera in its manual and use the spot meter function as though it were a separate meter. Hold it up to the eye, take a reading, hold down adjust aperture and shutter speed then ready to shoot. Otherwise, if feeling lazy I shoot full auto and use the centre weighted meter and spot when needed. Not so much need for knowledge of settings in lazy-mode.

 

Shutter sound

The only problem I actually have with the camera is the shutter sound. The shutter is loud compared to many other rangefinders I have tried. The shutter release is fairly heavy and clumsy feeling and there is a light noticeable shutter vibration.

It’s quieter than my Pentax MX but that is loud, and has a mirror to flap about too.

 

 

 

Conclusion

All in all, the Olympus 35 SP is a very impressive camera.

So good in many ways, yet strangely flawed in others, my theory that it’s shortfalls were planned by Olympus, worried that if they solved them, they really would have created a faultless rangefinder. A kind of self-sabotage to guarantee the long-term sales of future cameras.

Without these issues, the SP would have been a sort of Olympic and eternal Rennie Deflatine of cameras, destroying GAS left, right and centre.

In all seriousness, I really do like this camera.

~ Matt Parry

 

Olympus 35 SP technical specifications

Camera nameOlympus 35 SP
(SP for "SPotmeter"
Camera typeFixed lens rangefinder
Format35mm (135)
ManufacturerOlympus Corporation
Manufacture dates1969-1972
Black and silver finish versions available. Later updated with the 35 SPn (updated trim and battery-check light).
Lens mountFixed lens: Zuiko 42mm f/1.7. Close focus of 2.8ft
RangefinderCoupled
31mm base length
22mm effective base length
Parallax compensation
ViewfinderSingle x0.70 magnification
Meter value display
Parallax markings
ShutterSEIKO-FLA mechanical leaf shutter
5-blade aperture
1 sec - 1/500 sec manual shutter speeds
1/15 sec - 1/250 sec auto shutter speeds
B mode (manual)
X-Sync port
MeteringCdS meter (5.5-17 EV)
Requires PX-625 mercury cell, or Weincell 625 replacement. Compatible with #675 hearing aid battery with adapter
Coupled to ISO selector dial
Match needle indicator
ISO 25 - 800
Default center weighted average, 6 degree spot meter activated via button
FlashX-Sync up to 1/500 second
Hot shoe
PC socket
Wind / RewindLever advance
Counter resets after black is opened
Folding crank rewind
LoadingSwing open back load - single locking mechanism
FinishChrome and black (rare)
Dimensions
(appx)
140 x 81 x 31mm (WxHxD, no case)

 

 

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11 Comments

  1. Very informative article – and fantastic pictures as well – thank you.
    I’ve been wanting an SP since I was bitterly disappointed in my experience shooting with a Trip.
    A compact fixed lens RF would slot nicely into my camera collection and I’ve been looking at SP’s for a while now.

    Reply
  2. My SP has no battery check button. Is your an SPn the later slightly modified version?

    Reply
  3. No sense, IMO, in worrying about the meter being on. Zinc/air batteries like the Wein Cell will start degrading anyway the second you remove the seal, and IME much faster than the puny amount of charge required for the meter can discharge them.

    BTW, with my cameras and meter that still use these old mercury 1.35V batteries I found another solution on some forum years ago. I use hearing-aid batteries. They employ the same tech as the Wein Cell (so zinc/air etc.), and even if often you will find them only rated 1.45V I have yet to see any error in metering even with my Lumasix (and I don’t know why, but in Italy I can usually find even the 1.35V version. Maybe hearing aids work on a different voltage here?).

    You will just have to shim them in place with a bit of cardboard. The best thing about them? The price is around 15$ for 60 (yes, sixty) batteries…

    Reply
  4. I’ve given up on getting the voltage right in cameras like this. I shoot print film 99% of the time; the inherent exposure latitude is enough to make up for any sins alkaline batteries commit.

    Reply
  5. Another thing to like about the Olympus rangefinders is the flashmatic system which really works well with older manual flashes. As far as the battery, I use a silver oxide hearing aid battery with an o-ring around it for a spacer. They are pretty cheap and are the right voltage. I put a piece of black electrical tape over the sensor window to shut it off between uses. All in all the SP is a great camera, but I, too, tend to use the RC more often – most likely just because of the small size.

    Reply
  6. This era of cameras look the best. ❤️

    Reply
  7. I really, really wanted the 35SP to be great. The viewfinder is big and beautiful, it has manual and automatic controls, the spot meter, and the fast lens. It even fits better in my large hands. Everything was better than my fantastic little 35RC…on paper.

    But in real world usage, I consistently get better shots out of the 35RC.

    Reply
    • Interesting. I had both the SP and DC and found the SP to be significantly better for my style of photography.

      Different use cases and results, no doubt. That’s the wonderful thing about all these lovely film camera choices!

      Reply
    • EMULSIVE – film.photography Very true. I’ve had cameras that didn’t mesh with my style that other people absolutely love (Contax T2 comes to mind.)

      Reply
    • Hi, your SP is a bit of enigmatic me! I thought only the later SPn came with a battery check and they are quite rare. I have a mint SP and I agree, it puts a smile on your face!

      Reply

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