It’s easy to establish the age of an Olympus Ace; they only made them for one year. Odds are you didn’t even know it existed until now, but if obscurity, quality optics, and low price all appeal to you, you’ve come to the right place.

After Leica’s success with the 1954 launch of their M3 rangefinder, it seemed like every camera manufacturer in the East made a knock-off of it. You may not know, however, that Olympus made its own short-lived effort with the 1959 Olympus Ace and its follow-on, the Ace-E. The Ace was only built in 1959 and its successor, the Ace-E for another 16 or so months after that. The Ace-E was an “improved” model with a selenium light meter that was linked to the shutter speed and ASA speed dials. The Ace-E was also sold by Sears & Roebuck as the Tower 19. The version I review here is the simpler, more M3-like, Ace.

The Ace series of cameras were Olympus’ only attempt at a 35mm interchangeable lens rangefinder camera. It did a good job of emulating the major features of the M3 such as a large, bright, parallax corrected viewfinder with gold frame lines for each focal length lens, somewhat widely spaced rangefinder and viewfinder windows, single stroke film advance lever, and a very smooth, light effort shutter button. 

Film loading was made more convenient with a conventional hinged back cover instead of the bottom loading arrangement of the M3, but what made the Olympus Ace unique though, was its use of a leaf shutter vs the focal plane shutter of the M3. 

This restricted the depth by which the rear element of the lens could protrude into the body of the camera, however, and the Ace was limited by this quirk to an 80mm maximum focal length for its telephoto lens instead of the more common 135mm for other rangefinders. The camera’s Copal-SV shutter seems to have been a quality unit as the speeds still gave accurate exposures when I used a variety of them. 

The lenses themselves were of typical Zuiko high quality. The camera shipped with a 5-element in 4-groups single coated E.Zuiko 45mm lens with an f/2.8 maximum aperture. There was also a 35mm f/2.8 and an 80mm f/5.6, which are both relatively rare today. Even more rare was the 80mm f/4.0 that came out with the Ace-E. My lens had a few cleaning marks on the front element, but as is usually the case, they seemed to have no effect on the negatives.

My example came to me in very good condition needing only a light cleaning of the internal surfaces of the viewfinder/rangefinder elements and a single drop of light machine oil under the frame counter dial to help it reset all the way to “S” after unloading. At the time of writing, I have put three rolls of film through it and have found that the film advance mechanism sometimes fails to fully advance the film between shots, causing frames to overlap slightly (see above). 

As a result, I have learned to advance the film slowly and gently, and not place excess pressure on the back door — and thus the film pressure plate — while winding on. The most recent roll of film used had no overlaps. I can’t say if other Aces have this problem. A sample size of one doesn’t allow for drawing any conclusions. Your mileage may vary, as they say.

I have a Doomo model D light meter which fits the cold shoe perfectly and looks like it was meant to be there.  As others have found, this meter needs to be adjusted to taste but there are no provisions for tweaking it.  I have resorted to setting the ISO dial halfway between 50 and 100 when using 100-speed films.

For its most recent outing, I thawed out a roll of Kodak Pro Image 100. Apparently, this film stock was formulated for the Southeast Asia market where ambient temperatures and humidity can climb to levels that require greater thermal stability and higher storage temperatures. When word got out about the low cost and image quality of this film, Kodak packaged it for sale in North America and Europe as well. I find that it looks much like Kodak Ektar 100 with its fine grain and saturated colors, but costs around half as much. 

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I still prefer Ektar for my better cameras, but I am often quite satisfied with ProImage 100. I develop my film at home in Arista brand C-41 chems and scan the negatives using an Epson Perfection v550 with a strip of anti-newton ring glass fit into the negative carrier to hold the negatives flat. This film dries flat with very little curl though.

I took an hour in the middle of a hot July day to go the Collierville, Tennessee old town square. For the image of the coin-op horse ride above, I focused on the horse’s eye and shot at 1/125 and f/2.8 because it was shaded under a canopy. It’s my favorite shot from the roll. The colors are true to life, and the depth of field was just what I expected.  My mind drifted back to being a tiny-tot and asking Mom for a quarter. Good times.

The shot of the American flag mural shows how susceptible this lens is to loss of contrast when shooting without a lens hood.  I believe the high noonday sun grazing the front lens element caused this and I saw this effect in several frames.  I’ll find the correct Olympus accessory hood before I use this rig again.

I wanted to test the flash contacts in the shutter.  I entered the vintage sleeper railroad car, found the darkest room, and slipped a period-correct Heiland Tilt-a-Mite flash into the cold shoe.  The leaf shutter has a flash terminal that syncs at all shutter speeds up to its max of 1/500.  I pressed in a G.E. #5B flash bulb and consulted the handy built-in rotary calculator to determine shutter speed and aperture based on the guide number of 140 for the bulb and the approximate 8-foot distance to the far side of the room. 

I shot 1/125 and f16 to assure deep depth of field in case I had miscalculated the range.  I failed to notice the mirror on the wall and so missed the opportunity to use the tilt function of the flash, but the flash bulb did pop, and I got a reasonably good exposure regardless.

A few days later, I finished the roll in Saltillo, Mississippi. The mural of the diving cat was shot at high noon with the sun just barely behind me. Exposure was set at 1/125 and f/16.  Having the sun behind me this time prevented the loss of contrast I had noted earlier.  I added a little saturation in post and was quite happy with the result.

The last image was of my 1954 Chevy pickup truck on Main Street.  I don’t remember the exact shutter speed and aperture that the Doomo meter recommended, and maybe I failed to adjust settings accordingly anyway, but the scan was a little overexposed.  A couple of tweaks in the scanner software and I got what I think is a passable image.

I’ve reached the conclusion that these rangefinders can be a pleasant diversion now and then, but for me, camera design peaked in 1979 with the perfect Olympus OM-1n. You’ve probably heard of that camera.

Of course, if you haven’t, let me bend your ear about that one for a while. I’ll convert you to the Cult of Zuiko.

~ Robert

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