Sunday, 21 June 2009

Is That a Mju in Your Pocket?

Although I'm not really a kit freak, nobody interested in photography can help but be aware that there's a buzz around Olympus at the moment, and their recently announced "micro four thirds" compact, the EP-1. The concept is quite exciting -- a large (DSLR sized) sensor inside a compact camera, designed to deliver top quality results in a pocket-sized package. It's a whole new market, and the first company to crack this one will probably make its shareholders very happy. However, the EP-1 looks like it's aimed at a rather different part of the marketplace from where I do my shopping (too expensive, for a start) and I'm happy to wait for the other companies to make their move. Hey, I'm over here, Panasonic!

I'm predisposed to like Olympus, however. My first SLR was an OM-1N, followed by an OM-10, then a Mju (Stylus in USA) and a Mju II compact (two of the best cameras I've ever used) and finally an incomparable C5050 digital. I still have all these cameras, because I enjoyed using them so much (not a kit freak, eh?). Now, although I have never forgiven them for dropping the OM series to concentrate on mass-market compacts, I do like the Olympus gestalt with its emphasis on innovation and design, and I admire the company's willingness to go out on a limb, again and again taking risks that no other camera manufacturer would dare.

So, all this recent hoo-hah about an as yet unavailable camera got me to thinking about cameras, specifically Olympus cameras, that I had desired but never acquired. And all the bloviating about whether or not a viewfinder is needed in the EP-1 reminded me how, about five years ago, I admired a row of jewel-like, curvily-asymmetrical digital cameras glimmering in the window of my local camera shop, each in one of six different metallic colours. Six colours! Clearly a "gendered" product, designed to slip into an elegant handbag, but weatherproof, metal, tiny, easy to operate, and very desirable... But, my wallet is ruled by a puritan heart (though one which does enjoy flirting with temptation) and, at the time, the absence of an optical viewfinder seemed even more outrageous than a choice of six colours, so it was "no sale" for the Olympus Mju mini Digital. But, in retrospect, the lack of a viewfinder is yet another Olympus design innovation that has now has become the norm.

My desire was reawakened. Next stop, E-bay. A quick search, a bid and a short wait, and a used, pleasingly-battered red mini-Mju was mine for £25. Clearly, at 4 megapixels, the largest native print size it will produce is a "mere" 20cm x 15 cm, and I'm also stuck with JPG files, and rudimentary (but adequate) controls over exposure, etc. I suppose if I'm unlucky the camera may give up the ghost before long, but Olympus have always delivered a quality product and, at that price, the thing is practically disposable anyway.

But I'm seeing possibilities here: I have a tiny but robust, splash-proof camera that fits forgettably into a jeans pocket. Obviously, there's no point in duplicating the sort of things my existing cameras can do much better, but the Mju will do things neither my Canon 35oD DSLR nor my Panasonic LX3 will do. For a start, it can be in a pocket in some quite unusual situations, and (with all its bells and whistles and flash turned off) extremely unobtrusive. Above all, it is capable of some extreme close-ups with its "Super Macro" mode. I'm not sure where this might go yet (graffitti in the lavatories of the world's great establishments of learning?) but this could be photography as fun, and that's something I'm all about.

N.B. On the subject of desired but unacquired Olympus cameras, whatever happened to all the C8080s? I hardly ever see one for sale, even on Ebay. Did they all self-destruct, or have they become treasured companions, to be pried from a cold, dead hand?

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