review

The Olympus OM40 / OM-PC Casual Review: Tall, Dark and Ugly

It was 1985, 13 years since the OM line of cameras sprung from the fertile soil of Yoshihisa Maitani’s mind. The serious, single-digit OMs (the OM1, 2, 3, 4 and their variants) had been joined by lighter-duty double-digit models (the OM10, 20, and 30). The doubles were lighter, cheaper and less robust than the singles, but they were generally fine. And they looked fine: just slightly parred down, more approachable versions of the singles, which derived in orderly fashion from the attractive OM-1.

Then the OM40 happened (AKA the OM-PC in the States, and for whatever reason, the OM-40 all over the Internet). Presumably someone at Olympus looked at the Canon T70 or some other plastic-age wonder, threw up in their mouth a little, and then muttered to themselves, “Well, I guess this is what we’re doing now.” So they took the sleek metal beauty of an OM camera and wrapped it in a thick coat of rubber that wordlessly shrieks “THE NINETEEN EIGHTIES ARE HERE TO RUIN THINGS.”

 Behold the Neanderthal mien of the OM40: heavy shoulders, protuberant brow. I know it’s not fashionable to bash Neaderthals now that we know about the prehistoric hanky-panky we got up to, but on the other hand, I’m probably 2% Neanderthal so I think I have the right.

Behold the Neanderthal mien of the OM40: heavy shoulders, protuberant brow. I know it’s not fashionable to bash Neaderthals now that we know about the prehistoric hanky-panky we got up to, but on the other hand, I’m probably 2% Neanderthal so I think I have the right.

On the front right of the camera, the rubber rises up to form a fingergrip, admitted useful but lumpen and mostly smooth so as to best show off your skin oils. It probably looked better in a line drawing. On the left of the camera, the rubber is smooth as the wax cheek of a figure in one of those medieval torture museums, the better to attract all manner of smear and scratch. Around the back on the film door, there’s a gentle rise of thumb-rest on the right patterned with small squares and more of that same, corpse-like slick of black rubber.

It’s not just the rubber. The OM40 hunches its shoulders as if ashamed. Nearly all SLRs have a shape dictated by the path of the film and the presence of the prism used to bounce light into the photographer’s eye: a “prism hump” flanked by two roughly symmetrical planes bearing the most important controls. But the OM40 permanently cowers after its beating with the ugly stick, the prism hump sunk down between its uneven shoulders – the right-most control dial, which sets ISO and exposure compensation, sits nearly level with the top of the prism hump. On the left side of the mount, just below the hump, a small knob protrudes like a bolt from the neck of Frankenstein’s monster. It’s offset on the other side of the mount by a large red self-timer light.

The rubber does not generally age well, developing a white exudate as it slowly reverts to its component petroleum parts. You can kind of clean it off with some patience, and at least it doesn’t feel too sticky, but yuck.

 From above, the OM40 is less objectionable. The same is true of many things, which probably underlies the human urge to fly. Yes, these are my eBay pics. Don’t worry, I’m being honest in the description.

From above, the OM40 is less objectionable. The same is true of many things, which probably underlies the human urge to fly. Yes, these are my eBay pics. Don’t worry, I’m being honest in the description.

Beauty is strange. Science says that all things being equal, we perceive beautiful people as smarter, nicer, and generally superior to less-beautiful people. This feels in line with the way the world seems to work, but at odds with the way I experience other people. I tend to be suspicious of exceedingly beautiful people, dubious that their accomplishments are truly their own. I struggle to grant them full human agency (with the exception of my exceeding beautiful wife and children, who confront me with the violent fact of their agency every day).

Beauty in objects, particularly functional objects, is simpler and harder to fault. Why a beautiful camera? Well, why the hell not?

Anyway, my OM40 turned out to have a fault beyond its appearance: a slippery film transport that resulted in overlapping frames. So, no samples with this review except this one:

 Ru-roh, Raggy. After the first frame, things went bad quickly.

Ru-roh, Raggy. After the first frame, things went bad quickly.

But it seems that mine is a one-off, and apart from internet mutterings about the electronics failing, which honestly could come down to one guy on a forum with a chip on his shoulder ten years ago, people don’t complain much about the OM40, or indeed, talk about it much at all (these guys excepted). My one practical gripe about it is that its height makes it hard to palm. I like to carry a small SLR or rangefinder in one hand (with a wrist strap for backup), with the top snugged into my palm and fingers curling around underneath, the lens facing in towards my leg. Although it’s generally small, the OM40’s strange tallness makes this grip uncomfortable.

Apart from that, in use, it’s usually fine and occasionally better. The viewfinder is larger, with more coverage, than many cameras in its class. The tactility of its electronic controls is acceptable. Wind-on is a little janky, with a distinctly two-stage feel as the stroke advances the film and then cocks the shutter, but maybe that’s partly down to my syphilitic sample. I like the shutter speed ring around the lens mount, an OM hallmark that seems like it should have been widely copied but wasn’t. There’s a rudimentary form of evaluative metering that’s supposed to be quite good, but with negative film, who really cares? Maybe this is one to try your fresh Ektachrome with – you can buy an OM40 body for less than a roll of that sweet transparency stuff.

Scanning Film Doesn’t Have to Hurt: The Pacific Image PrimeFilm 7250 Pro3 / Reflecta RPS 7200 / Magical Wondermachine Casual Review

Shooting film is fun. Developing film is kind of fun. But scanning film with consumer equipment is not fun. At all. It’s fiddly, it’s boring, and it’s a massive time suck. I used to laugh when I’d hear people say they shot film to “get away from the computer.” With a digital camera, the only time you have to spend in front of a computer is when you’re looking at your pictures. With the vast majority of dedicated film scanners (like the OpticFilm 7200 I started with), you’re fiddling tediously with the film holder every few minutes, for hours. In front of a computer.

 Shot on film, scanned with close to no effort. Come closer, and I will whisper my secrets to you. Fujufilm Superia 400.

Shot on film, scanned with close to no effort. Come closer, and I will whisper my secrets to you. Fujufilm Superia 400.

Now, some people swear by flatbed scanners, especially the Epsons, but that still involves film carriers and several passes to do a whole roll. Plus, I don’t have a permanent place to set up a scanner – I pack it away between uses, so size is a factor.

My dream, and here I admit to a notable lack of ambition if not vision, was something that would just suck a whole uncut roll of 35mm through at a go. Something like a Pakon 135, but a lot cheaper and more recently in production. I’d come across the Pacific Image / Reflecta models in my research, but remained unconvinced. People complain bitterly about them in the few user reviews that are available. They aren’t hideously expensive, buy they’re too expensive to take a flyer on.

Then, one fine day, Amazon suggested I buy a Pacific Image PrimeFilm 7250Pro3 (or Pro 3, or Pro3 – nice job, marketing -- alias Reflecta RPS 7200 in the old world), not for the $400 or so I remember it selling for, but for a mere $170 (as I write this a few months later, it remains on Amazon US at that price; if you're reading this in the distant future, perhaps as part of a university course about the most influential digital publications of the early millennium, or even just a few months from now, it'll probably be gone) . By then, I’d been suffering with the OpticFilm breadbox for long enough. I took a chance. And I do not regret it. If that’s all you want to know, you can stop reading now. Peace be with you.

 Behold, two machines. They work together, despite having almost nothing in common. America, can’t you do the same?

Behold, two machines. They work together, despite having almost nothing in common. America, can’t you do the same?

 

What is Pacific Image? The company is Taiwanese, with an American beachhead in Torrance, California. Unlike Epson, Canon, and (in the time before) Nikon, it is not an imaging powerhouse or a household name. There’s something charmingly amateurish about its English-language website, which lives at “scanace.com.” The website, as well as the product packaging and documentation, suggest there’s not a big budget for marketing or visual design. The English translations are passable.

But Pacific Image is the only company making a consumer product that can scan a whole roll of 35mm film at a go. Which is amazing, when you think about it. Or not. Perhaps the problem with film scanner production is akin to the problem with film production itself. It’s not that there’s not enough demand to sell film profitably. Consider Ilford, happily cranking along all these years, with only black and white emulsions. Consider Astrum (Svema). The resuscitation of Film Ferrania. The problem isn’t that film can’t be made profitably – it’s that it can’t be made profitably at the scale that Kodak, Fujifilm and the various former big players used to do it. When Fuji kills an emulsion, it’s not because nobody wanted it – it’s because not enough people wanted it to make running an enormous production line economically feasible. That “not enough” might still be a lot of people, and someone who’s set up to for lower-capacity production can meet that demand profitably.

 Straight analog to digital conversion. There aren’t many options to mess with in the included software. No film profiles, for example. Kodak UltraMax 400.

Straight analog to digital conversion. There aren’t many options to mess with in the included software. No film profiles, for example. Kodak UltraMax 400.

 Thirty seconds of curves work improves the color. Is this cheating? When people begin to get brain implants and don’t disclose that in job interviews, will that be cheating? It’s a trick question, of course: by then there will be no jobs.

Thirty seconds of curves work improves the color. Is this cheating? When people begin to get brain implants and don’t disclose that in job interviews, will that be cheating? It’s a trick question, of course: by then there will be no jobs.

Similarly, maybe Epson can’t afford to pour the R & D into a dedicated 35mm film scanner that would sell quite a few units in the absolute, yet nothing at all relative to the volumes at which multinational conglomerates operate. But making a good scanner is frickin’ hard, which keeps Joe-Blow Kickstarter from just whipping one up for a couple thousand backers. So that leaves us with Pacific Imaging, which, like Ilford, somehow ended up in the goldilocks spot to meet current demand.  

So, I bought a scanner from Goldilocks. She has a pentagram inked on the back of her left hand these days, you know. Her sinister hand. All grown up. How time flies. The PrimeFilm 7250Pro3 is not perfect, but it’s not as bad as the user reviews would have you believe. I think I know why.

Firstly, many people’s woes are tied to the included CyberViewX software. The name and the UI design harken back to the days when PCs were commonplace but a camera was assumed to require film. The program is not that old, but looking at the dates of the reviews and the number of revisions the software has undergone, it seems that Pacific Image has straightened it out quite a bit since the scanner was introduced. And apart from being plug ugly, there’s not much to complain about. If you’re familiar with the basic concepts of film scanning, you can almost use it without reading the instructions. And if you have any experience with scanning software, you know that’s not a trivial achievement.

 I ended up cropping this to fit Instagram. You, dear reader, get to the experience the original. Feel special. All that dead space on the top and bottom is intentional. Not because I didn't want to get too close. Superia 400.

I ended up cropping this to fit Instagram. You, dear reader, get to the experience the original. Feel special. All that dead space on the top and bottom is intentional. Not because I didn't want to get too close. Superia 400.

And that leads to the second reason people bitch and moan, which is that you can’t unpack a film scanner and expect it to work like a toaster. A typical user review goes something like this: “I bought this to scan a suitcase of negatives I found in my uncle’s basement, and it didn’t work right.” Under the best of circumstances, these things are complicated. Pacific Imaging is selling specialized, niche products to ordinary people who are used to Apple products. They get pissed off if they can’t just turn it on and have it do what it says on the tin. But our world is not their world. And this is not, as I mentioned above, an Epson or Apple or Nikon product. This is from a small Taiwanese company you’d never heard of until you spotted this weird scanner on Amazon.

If you are one of us, and not one of them, and if you’re already suffering with a scanner that requires attention for every frame, you’ll find the 7250Pro3 a soothing balm on your fevered brow. You feed in the uncut film strip, line up the first frame, and away it goes. I set it at 3,600 dpi, half of what it’s rated for, which seems to be about the scanner’s true resolution limit (irrationally exuberant resolution specs are not unique to Pacific Imaging, I should note). It’ll do a roll of 36 exposures in two or three hours, I think. I’m usually asleep while it’s beavering away, and I haven’t really timed it. This is a casual review, remember.  

 I routinely lift my face to heaven and thank the stars for having been born in the era of great television. Also, in this brief sliver of time between the advent of antibiotics and their exhaustion, the end of nuclear brinkmanship and its resumption, the discovery of carbon fuel's apparent blank check and the revelation of its horrific true cost. I exercise prospective nostalgia as a form of prayer. Agfa Vista Plus 200.

I routinely lift my face to heaven and thank the stars for having been born in the era of great television. Also, in this brief sliver of time between the advent of antibiotics and their exhaustion, the end of nuclear brinkmanship and its resumption, the discovery of carbon fuel's apparent blank check and the revelation of its horrific true cost. I exercise prospective nostalgia as a form of prayer. Agfa Vista Plus 200.

Are the scans perfect out of the gate? No. But the same can be said of my OpticFilm's output, and honestly, with my casual approach to home processing, my negs are not perfect to begin with. Luckily, I have years of experience in the digital darkroom, so correcting the images is a snap. If you don’t know how to process a digital image, scanning from film is likely to be problematic.

The ICE dust removable works a treat: I don’t even bother to dust my color negs before running them through. ICE doesn’t work with black and white, which actually discourages me from shooting it. Once you’ve experienced the infrared joy of automatic dust removal, the spot healing tool feels like washing dishes by hand, or raising your own children instead of dumping them off on the help. The little villains.

Ease of use aside, the scanner isn’t perfect. But who is? I’ve woken in the morning to find it frozen halfway through a roll, or that it misaligned the frames. I don’t care. It’s takes a couple of minutes to initiate a new run, and then I can get on with my life, away from my computer.

And what about quality? The short answer is: plenty good for me. If you really care, read this guy’s review. He seems to know what he’s talking about, and you’ll note that his tone is quite positive once he gets the vitriol about CyberView out of his system.

 I like the Dutch. They have wrought their share of pain, but they did it early, and got out while the getting was good, and now we have largely forgotten. They mostly spent their money on the right things and now we can enjoy their beautiful houses these centuries later. Superia 400.

I like the Dutch. They have wrought their share of pain, but they did it early, and got out while the getting was good, and now we have largely forgotten. They mostly spent their money on the right things and now we can enjoy their beautiful houses these centuries later. Superia 400.

The one thing about a 35mm film scanner is that it only scans 35mm film (this one also does mounted slides, btw, but only one-by-one). You 120 shooters, you microfilm super-spies, you closeted 110 lovers, you sheet film dinosaurs, you daguerreotype mercury huffers, you’re out of luck. Go flatbed, or go home.

One tip: the manual says to scan emulsion side up. This results in the images being reversed, so I assumed it was an error. But no: I once scanned the same strip from both sides, and scanning with the emulsion up resulted in slightly sharper images. But then I discovered that doing it the right way often causes the scanner to choke a few frames into the roll. So doing it the wrong way is actually the right way, especially for Superia 400.

The Yashica Electro 35 GSN: Don’t Get Too Excited

The Yashica Electro 35 series of rangefinder cameras were produced in great numbers in the 1970s. The internet hive mind, filled with whatever ideas percolate through the collective consciousness of people interested in running film through old cameras, has judged them and largely found them good – “poor man’s Leica” is a term that you find, and this is meant positively. The GSN variant purportedly features corrosion-resistant gold-plated interconnects and commands a slight premium because gold is obviously better than not-gold.

  Behold, the Yashica Electro 35 GSN. This is a camera review, not a beauty contest, so I’ll say no more here.

Behold, the Yashica Electro 35 GSN. This is a camera review, not a beauty contest, so I’ll say no more here.

Enter me. I'd been sniffing around the Leica mystique for a while, like a hungry coyote that doesn't quite trust a morsel of possibly poisoned meat. I wanted to muck around with a rangefinder (for the usual slew of wooly, misguided notions). I wasn't sure enough about the whole thing that I wanted to go all-in on a Leica, though. And so I picked up an Electro 35 GSN for less than the cost of a Leica lens cap.

Here's the short version of this review. Yes, the Yashica Electro 35 is a poor man's Leica, but not in any optimistic, egalitarian sense. More in the sense that the poor man doesn't have access to the expensive material things that the rich man does, so he makes do with something cheaper and gets on with his life. Like a Leica, the Electro is a 35mm rangefinder camera. If you want to take good pictures, you can certainly do it with the Electro, just as you could with a Leica or a thousand other cameras. And if you don't know what you're doing, the Electro will work better for you than a Leica of similar vintage because it automatically sets the shutter speed for you.

  The Electro 35 can make a properly exposed, in-focus photograph. Sorry about the low-res scan.

The Electro 35 can make a properly exposed, in-focus photograph. Sorry about the low-res scan.

If you want a basic understanding of what using a rangefinder to focus a full-sized 35mm camera is like (I did), well, the Electro kind of delivers. You can indeed align a fuzzy yellow patch with the main image in the viewfinder to focus. The viewfinder on my mine was decidedly low-contrast, and I suspect this will be the case for most Electros: they aren't expensive enough to make servicing economically likely, and the viewfinder housing is hardly hermetically sealed so you're going to be looking through thirty-plus years of gently deposited gunge. Just think, there's particulate from leaded gasoline in there, maybe even some residue from atmospheric nuke testing. 

  Even with a gummy viewfinder, accurate focus is possible.

Even with a gummy viewfinder, accurate focus is possible.

So yes, it takes pictures. But if you're after the gladdening solidity of a metal camera, the tactile experience of exquisitely precise mechanical controls, the whiff of a past that you suspect, in heart if not mind, is somehow better than our present, the Electro is likely to disappoint.

“Fie on you!” exclaims a happy Electro owner somewhere. “This wonderful camera is indeed made of metal!” To which I agree, yes, it is. Like a can of lighter fluid, which is what the camera feels like in your hand. It's heavy (a mostly full can), but it's even bigger than the weight suggests, giving it a hollow, chintzy feel in comparison to the better metal-age offerings. The back of mine moved when you pressed on it, which seemed to be by design. That's what light seals are for, right?

The aperture ring had a soggy, mushy feel. Maybe this was just my sample, but I'm dubious, since the camera seemed to be in good shape in general. It did give some tactile feedback at a stop, but not much: rather than click into position, it kind of slumped.

The focus ring is narrow and close to the body, with two stubby tab-like things for grip. Turn that ring and you'll encounter my biggest gripe about the Electro's ergonomics: your left hand, on the ring, will run into your right hand, gripping the camera body. Why, you may wonder, is that happening, especially if you have effete little 21st-century-man-fingers like I do? A puzzled look at the camera reveals that it’s because the Electro's lens is skewed towards the right side of the body. Maybe people of the era had a different way of holding a camera, since lost to the sands of time.

And then there's the shutter button. I should say, shutter pole: you could fly a flag off that thing. The Electro's shutter release has enough travel to earn frequent flier miles. Forget about shutter lag: you need to plan enough time to drive that button all the way into the camera body before the shutter even knows something is up.

This design decision is tied to the way the camera's meter works. Now, if you've chosen a reasonable aperture for your scene you can probably just mash the button and get a properly exposed shot. But if you take your time and ease it in there, you might notice some lights in the viewfinder. Somewhere near the beginning of the press, you might see a red light if the meter decides you need something faster than the 1/500th sec minimal exposure time -- you can stop down until the light goes off. Then there's a lull as the button continues on its merry way until you get down around the bottom third of its trip, where a yellow underspeed warning lights if you're into shake-induced blur territory (the camera can still make a properly exposed shot if you insist, but you'd better have steady hands).

 Note the Electro’s proud shutter release and the red and yellow over and under-speed warning lights, also visible in the viewfinder.

Note the Electro’s proud shutter release and the red and yellow over and under-speed warning lights, also visible in the viewfinder.

So, with the lights, no news is good news. But the setup can be annoying -- you'll hopefully have an idea if one or the other condition applies, but knowing for sure means exploring along the button's travel to find the right zone. Is this a common approach to metering in cameras of this epoch? I don’t know, honestly, but in the modern era it feels pretty kludgy.

When you finally work that button all the way down, you hear a dry snap. That's the leaf shutter doing its thing. It doesn't sound nice to me, but I suppose that's even more subjective than the rest of the stuff here, so don't worry about it. On the up side, it's definitely quiet, even by contemporary mirrorless standards.

You've taken a picture! Time to wind on and rearm the shutter. The lever that does this lacks the smooth, ludicrously refined feel of a rich man's Leica. But I guess it's good enough for poor people, or in any case, all they're going to get from Yashica.

Conclusion

The Electro is fine, OK? It has its charms. With every other camera maker undermining the retro-osity of rangefinders with new models that look old, the Electro still manages to look retro. Maybe not classy, Leica M3 retro, but the tinsel-and-glitter retro of the decade that birthed it. I guess it was cool enough for Spiderman 4, in which, I learned from some Spanish guy's eBay ad, the Electro apparently features. I’d be more impressed if it was in the first one.

Despite its glam looks, the Electro's shutter makes it relatively discreet to shoot.

And the Electro makes fine pictures. You can't take that away from it. That hulking (by rangefinder standards) 45mm lens works as well as any other normal double-gauss design, which is to say very well indeed, and the auto exposure beats sunny 16 most of the time.

But the Yashica, despite being metal, is not Metal. It does not rock. It's not particularly fun to shoot, or comfortable, or beautiful. If the Yashica Electro asked me to write it a recommendation, I'd wince inside, then feel like a bit of jerk when I sat down and really pondered my problems with it, but still would have trouble putting a good spin on it. There are just things that are so much better out there.

If you're still curious about the Electro 35 after reading this, the cost of entry is low (usually under $50), and you can always sell it on for about what you paid. I suspect that this kind of recycling, as much as their abundant production run, helps explain why there are so many on eBay. That’s where mine went: catch and release.