Month: July 2011

Olympus 35 SP

Olympus 35 SP

This is another great find, but this time I paid $10 for it instead of my customary five dollars. “Why so expensive?” you might be thinking. Because it is a very special Olympus rangefinder, possibly the best fixed lens 35mm rangefinder camera that was ever made. This one dates from between 1969 and 1974.

The Olympus 35 SP  has two unique features, raising it head and shoulders above the common herd – switchable light metering that provides a spot meter facility as well as three more common center-weighted averaging method, and a seven element G Zuiko 42 mm f1.7 lens with unit focusing. This combination – of an exquisitely sharp and contrasty distortion-free prime lens combined with very precise metering – has made it a very sought-after little camera. I say little, but it has grown a fair bit beyond the 35 RC’s svelte form. It is perhaps a quarter-inch longer than the mighty Canon QL17 GIII recently featured here, but it has a better lens making the slightly bigger size well worth putting up with. Here it is:

Left to right, here’s the relative sizes of the SP – DC – RC:

The 35 RC on the right is absolutely tiny. The comparative sizes displayed  in this image makes the 35 SP appear as a behemoth, but trust me, its not. It’s still small in comparison with a Leica M. Talking of Leicas, the spot meter on the 35 SP appeared in 1969, years ahead of the spot meter in the Leica M5, which doesn’t have a center-weighted alternative mode. Score 1 to the SP. The purists will cry, but the G-Zuiko is every bit as good as glass of the same era from Wetzlar. The G designates seven elements, as it is the seventh letter… The camera that came after the 35 SP, the again lusted-after 35 RD (yes, I want one too) was a great camera, but it only was given an F Zuiko – yes, a 6 element lens. The SP has a 7th correcting element, making this one absolutely outstanding and just about unique. (The middle camera above – the 35 DC – is the same size as the RC version.)

The viewfinder is pure Olympus rangefinder. However, instead of displaying aperture and/or shutter speeds, the viewfinder top line shows – exposure values. Arcane in this digital day, but to anyone who grew up with an exposure meter this is pure gold. All you do is set the EV reading from the viewfinder onto the scale on the lens barrel. The pairing of exposure against shutter speed is fast and accurate – open the lens one stop, reduce the exposure by half – the same EV results. My first SLR, my dad’s Zeiss Icon Contaflex Super had the same system, and it worked very, very well.

Footnote – The background to these images is the cover of the vinyl version of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”. I thought it appropriate as it is from the same era as the 35 SP. It’s a classic, too.

They’re both worth more than ten bucks. I love them.

Postscript – See a later blog entry – 25 August 2011 –  about the rehabilitation of this beautiful camera, covering many, many issues – wobbly lens, light seals, rangefinder alignment, removing the top, light meter, and batteries.  If you have one of these cameras in less than perfect condition, don’t despair – either consider getting it fixed, doing it yourself (but be very careful), or contact me and I might take it off your hands.

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Summicron twins


I have been too busy these past couple of weeks to do any meaningful image making. Instead, here is an image for the first day of the new financial year – A pair of beautiful rangefinders, each fitted with the incredible Summicron 50mm f2 so-called “standard” lens, both showing the iris at f16.

The screw mount collapsible chrome unit on the Barnack IIIf body is the very first version (mine was made in 1953, long before I was born, and the black version on the M6 is the last (current) version of this lens, perhaps the best rendering and most perfect lens on the planet today.

These words from”The Tao of Leica” are far better describing the science of the Summicron than I am able to put together in my tired state tonight:

The Summicron lens was introduced in 1953, slightly ahead of the Leica M camera, that came in 1954. The Summicron design started in 1943 and was derived from the Summitar. In those days, the available optical glasses restricted the designer in his wishes for ever better image quality. They had to use different methods to crate improved imagery. One of the ‘tricks’ is to split a lens element in two separate elements. Then the incoming rays can be bend more smoothly when traveling through the glass. The Summitar design has two lenses in the front group, consisting of cemented elements. The first one was split into separate lenses (distance of the air lens was 0.78mm), but the glass (BK7) had a too low index of refraction. In 1947 there is a new design where the front element has a higher index. (SK2). In 1949 the final design was derived with a smaller distance between the front elements (0.28mm) and glass of higher index (1.69100). made by Chance Brothers in England. This glass (SBC) had a thorium oxide in its formula and was slightly radio active. In 1954 the Glass lab of Leitz and Schott created a new glass with the same properties and without the thorium oxide: this is the well known LaK9.

Optically the current Summicron can still claim to be the world’s best 50mm lens. This is not the same as saying that the Summicron 50mm is the best lens in the world. it is a very versatile lens, that performs very well in close up and infinity settings and at intermediate distances and at every aperture. You can use it without reservation at f2 and 70cm and can expect excellent quality. The current Summicron offers performance that exceeds the capabilities of most users.”

The fist version was designed by (I think) Max Berek, and the 4th version (“blackie”) was designed by Dr Walter Mandler. If Im’m wrong about this, please let me know.

Here’s some more information about the original Summicron:

“In 1953, Leitz, of West Germany, makers of the Leica camera, introduced the 7-element 50mm Summicron, which went on to become one of the most famous of all camera lenses. It’s not often remembered now, but Leitz was probably responding to Japanese competition: many Korean War combat photographers, led by David Douglas Duncan, had discovered the screwmount lenses made by a resurgent Japanese company called Nippon Kogaku, and it had become all the rage among them to use the impressively sharp Nippon Kogaku lenses on their Leica camera bodies. We know Nippon Kogaku today, of course, by its later name: Nikon.

The 7-element SOOIC, with narrow air spaces in both of the front two groups and then-state-of-the-art high-refractive-index lanthanum crown glass, was impressively difficult to manufacture and even more impressive in performance, bettering the Summars and Elmars it supplanted by no small margin. It went on to become the first “normal” lens for the M3, a new model that combined a huge viewfinder with the rangefinder patch in the same window and used a proprietary bayonet mount. Modern Photography magazine called the 50mm Summicron the sharpest lens it had ever tested, and the Summicron was the lens that Henri Cartier-Bresson was to use on various cameras for the rest of his life. Although he also carried a 35mm and a 90mm, and experimented occasionally with other lenses, the overwhelming majority of his pictures were taken with the collapsible 7-element Summicron.”

For all of the M6’s beauty, I am drawn to the simple elegance of the 1954 Leica. Why? Primarily because it’s smaller: