FD Shooting with the legends: The Olympus [mju:]-II

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I suppose it’s possible to call this camera the epitome of film point and shoots; it was, after all, quite possibly the Volkswagen Beetle of its generation. Made in huge numbers (3.8 million for this model alone, 10 million of all Mju variants), not especially expensive, but by all accounts incredibly reliable and delivering consistently excellent results. I certainly remember lusting after one while growing up, but through some strange turn of events landed up buying a rather useless Fuji 1010ix APS camera instead, which I still regret to this day. Thanks to some blind luck and the quick actions of a friend, I managed to eventually get my hands on one – new in box, for not much more than a brick of film.

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This camera’s single claim to fame is its outstanding lens: a 35/2.8 equivalent, with four elements in four groups and focusing down to 35cm, with autofocus of course. It has active, multi-beam AF with focus lock (supposedly) and DX coding; there’s also a built in flash and self timer. It’s waterproof/ splash proof. And…that’s about it, really. So far as I’ve been able to tell, you can’t even lock focus by half pressing and recomposing; you have to just compose, shoot, and hope the multi-point AF picks up whatever’s closest (and that whatever’s closest is what you intended to shoot in the first place).

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Design-wise, it’s a smooth, plasticky-feeling pebble with a flush sliding cover to both protect the lens and all other optical windows as well as cycle power. It fits in your hand quite well, and is remarkably compact, measuring just 105x59x35mm – take that, Sony RX1. It’s positively tiny; opening it up reveals that it really isn’t much larger than is required to cram a roll of film, the frame width and a takeup spool in there. Like all film compacts, there’s an optical finder; it’s actually quite useless too, as it shows a very small amount of the actual frame, which has a single central mark for AF, two small parallax correction marks for near focus, and a couple of LEDs for focus lock and flash ready.

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Apparently, the focus locks with a half-press once the green LED is displayed, though I’ve never been able to make it work on my camera – the focusing noises only seem to happen on the full press. There’s also a spot metering mode which is rather cryptically explained in the manual – it appears to only lock exposure on the full press, which doesn’t really make sense (surely you’d want your subject to be in focus and properly exposed?). This is the only way to control exposure with this camera; there are no exposure compensation buttons/ toggles/ dials/ switches etc. In fact, the whole thing really only has four buttons including the shutter and rewind override.

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Aside from that, there’s only one other thing you need to know about this camera: the flash automatically charges with the camera being powered on, so you must remember to turn it off every time you open the slider unless you want it to go off. This gets very annoying very quickly, and is the bane of a stealthy street photographer – forget it once, and you’re instantly Bruce Gilden whether you want to be or not.

The camera’s biggest redemption has to be its lens. It’s bright, contrasty, and incredibly sharp; we never really know what aperture the camera has picked or what it’s focused on, but so long as what you wanted to shoot was in focus, the lens really delivers the goods – I can only imagine how good this would be repackaged and remounted as perhaps an M-mount lens, or with an APS-C sensor behind it. (Olympus, are you listening?) Despite having only a three-bladed diaphragm, it actually delivers surprisingly smooth bokeh providing there aren’t any point highlights in the frame.

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Many photographers have called this the ultimate point and shoot – I disagree for several reasons, mainly owing to the fact that the output has very little to do with the photographer (other than composition, which is affected by exposure anyway) and more to do with the camera. It’s democratizing, to say the least. Personally, I preferred the Ricoh GR1v – its controls just made much more sense, and actually offered quite a handy degree of, well, control. It’s a camera that certainly requires very little thinking to use, and delivers consistent results – mostly in the good category rather than excellent since you have absolutely no idea where it’s focused or what it’s metered. Truth be told, I didn’t like it at all; there were many aspects of its operation that were seriously annoying, like forgetting flash settings AF having a mind of its own; in the end I almost never carried it and had to force myself to finish the roll for the review. I actually think it’s too bad that Olympus didn’t develop this concept further – a few sensible control tweaks and a metal shell, and it could have been something quite special indeed. Instead, for serious photographers on this much of a size budget, you’re better off looking at the XA instead – it was the predecessor to the Mju, designed by the legendary Yoshihisa Maitani (who also designed the Pen and Mju II) and packs a rangefinder, aperture priority, and exposure compensation. MT

The best place to find vintage gear is on the secondary market in Japan – send an email to Bellamy Hunt of Japan Camera Hunter; he can source to spec and budget. I get a good chunk of my stuff from him and can’t recommend him highly enough. Send him an email and tell him Ming sent you!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Max Silver says:

    Canadian photographer Michael Ernest Sweet uses this camera a lot in his work. I love his work and I think a lot of that is due to his use of film and this simple little camera. It really gives the photos a great feel. I want one!!

  2. Mark Roy says:

    What do you mean when you say it has a 35 2.8 “equivalent” lens? Do you mean it has a 35 2.8 lens?

  3. I really really like this camera for its metering, sharpness and handling. Once I took it to a concert with HP5 pushed to iso1600 inside, holding the Mju II above my head, just pointing the camera into the right direction: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pixclusiv/sets/72157632186670981/ (all the b/w images). This one is a keeper!

  4. My fav point n shoot was the Yashica T-AFD. It had the Contax-Tessar T* lens, 35mm f3.5 or so and this rocking slider cover over the shutter button / self-timer. The lens was awesome and it had a data back! Used that all through high school and University, until film became hard to get.

    I lusted after the Yashica T4, which had a beautiful design, and this glass top prism viewfinder thing where you could hold it low and look down into the top finder and see the image. I believe it had a 35mm f3.5 lens as well, weatherproof and some “active” AF system which focused more like a DSLR in many discrete steps when you half pressed the shutter, presumably to reduce shutter lag (?) not sure about that one.

    • We had one of those as our family camera for the longest time. I of course didn’t appreciate it, since it significantly predated my interest in photography…

      • gearoasis says:

        Well, you have come so far. Your work is the best on the web in my opinion, your writing also sublime. So much appreciate you share your photography adventures and knowledge. Just bravo and I appreciate being able to read your website. Thanks very much.

  5. Glad to see this camera still gets some notice. I wrote my thoughts about it a few years ago, here: http://www.thelostcompass.net/index.php?x=olympus-epic. It’s still a good way to try your hand at shooting film if you’ve never done so.

  6. Frans Moquette says:

    I used to have one, although I don’t remember if it was a II. Bought it when I began to dislike lugging the SLR around every time. I liked the design and it’s simplicity. Sometimes less is more. Made a lot of great pictures with it. I ended up using it more than my SLR. Compact, light weight and simplicity can be liberating. Gave it away to my mother when I went digital. She used it a lot also, until the lens got stuck. It was a shame that the camera was economically unrepairable.
    Funny thing is, life seems to repeat itself. I went from a simple digital camera (an Apple Quick Take 200 I won) to a Coolpix 995. Then the bug bit me and I bougt a Nikon D70, then some lenses, a flash, a D300, some big heavy lenses, a big tripod and what not. Then started disliking lugging all that heavy gear around (again). Bought a Canon IXUS 860 IS (hacked it with CHDK to make it shoot RAW) and started using that more and more, despite it’s limitations. My current favorite cam is a Nikon Coolpix P7700. It is a bit slow writing RAW files, but otherwise it is a joy to use. Handles like a small DSLR but weighs only a tiny fraction of one. And it makes great pictures. Most of the time the IQ is just as good as from the D300. I only grab the D300 now when I must have shallow DOF or need to shoot in really low light.
    Oeps, I think drifted a bit off-topic. Sorry about that.

    • I think it’s technology catching up: we didn’t even have this option until digital hit sufficiency quite recently. I took a serious look at the P7700 because of the lens; still wondering if it’s worth picking one up – perhaps on closeout…

      • Frans Moquette says:

        The lens is very good I think. 28-200 equivalent f/2-4 and sharp. Checked a box for me. That and, like I said before, that the camera handles like a small DSLR. One you can hold in one hand (with a great ‘feel’ too), and the added bonus of a fully articulated LCD. Also it supports the Nikon remote flash system.
        Things that might frustrate you are the menu’s (but there are enough customizable buttons and dials so that you can mostly avoid going into them) and the speed, or rather lack thereof, when shooting RAW. The camera will actually display the message ‘Please wait for the camera to finish recording’ long enough that you can read it all. And that with a SanDisk Extreme Pro 95 MB/s card!
        Something else you have to get used to is the way the autofocus works. There are 4 settings: normal AF, close-up, macro close-up and infinity. If you set that wrong for the distance of you subject the camera will not focus. How close close-up is depends on the chosen focal length. In situations where your subject is sometimes close up, sometimes a bit farther away, this can slow you down.
        So, before you pick one up, I would recommend you try out the RAW write speed (with a fast card) and the focus system. If those frustrate you the P7700 is not for you.

        • That’s a good range, with decent max aperture. What I thought odd was that the three(!) control dials often duplicated each other and you didn’t have the option to change their assignment; a rather surprising oversight given the positioning of the camera in Nikon’s lineup.

          • Frans Moquette says:

            I find that dial assignment is not really an issue in *shooting* mode. Nikon might have given the option to assign a different function to the main- and sub-command dial in combination with the fn1 button, but otherwise the dials do what you expect, especially when you are used to a Nikon DSLR.
            Now *playback* mode is a different story. The dials don’t behave consistently. In normal display mode they select the next or previous photo. When you zoom in, which you must initiate with the zoom lever, you can then zoom in or out with 3 different controls (the zoom lever, the main- and the sub-command dial), but zoomed in there is not a single control that allows you to select the next or previous photo at the chosen zoom setting. Even my simple Canon IXUS can do that! Nikon could fix this with a firmware upgrade, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for it.

            • You hit the nail on the head: it’s the playback mode behaviour that drives me nuts!

              • Frans Moquette says:

                On the positive side, a camera is mostly used for *taking* pictures. The Olympus mju, or any film camera for that matter, never had a playback mode. ;-)

                • And perhaps that’s one of the reasons I like film so much: aside from focusing you entirely on shooting, you know the people carrying them care about the pictures more than the gear :)

  7. Wonderful compact camera! I have a XA which I use for snap shots and good thing is you take the full control! I have a stuip question, do you develope the film by yourself / your studio?

  8. Mitch C. says:

    Have a similar point & shoot camera from the 90s. Yashica T4. A lot of plastic, but with a sweet little zeiss 35mm f3.5 tessar. Nice sharp lens.

  9. Ah, the 90s nostalgia… the shirt-pocket fitting soapbox design with smooth lines, silvery finish and sliding cover. Come to think of it, haven’t seen that in new cameras in ages. I recall that the basic model was pretty cheap in the 90s and thus was popular with both the casual snapshooter (compacts seemed to be the thing back then) and serious photographers wanting a carry-anywhere camera.

    Myself, I never used a Mju-II as I got an XA for loan for several years. The XA is a decidedly older style camera: only A mode, manual focusing with a rangefinder, film winding was manual and film speed was also manually set. It was as small as it could be, a bit too small in fact, from an ergonomics standpoint. It did produce good pictures though. I remember the lens being sharp when stopped down, but sharp was a bit different before the digital era. I would guess that the Mju-II would have a sharper lens, since molded aspherics started to make an impact in the 90s and the XA preceded that. Nevertheless, the XA was fun but definitely quirky; the shutter release is a horrible electronic switch, the viewfinder is small and hasn’t aged well, the aperture and film speed controls are fiddly and it’s fairly easy to include a finger in a shot. But it was tiny, lived years on one battery and the pictures were good.

    • The lens on the Mju is really quite excellent wide open; that said, some sort of manual control would be nice. Sounds like the XA wasn’t all that well designed either; perhaps what we both need is a Minox 35GT…

      • Oskar O. says:

        One correction: the aperture adjustment wasn’t that bad, the film speed was, but it kinda makes sense.

        I think it was well designed given the parameters: it was very small and inexpensive. Inexpensive contributed to the shutter release button and limited viewfinder (though in fairness it was a real viewfinder, not the sort of keyhol digital prosumer compacts tended to have). Small contributed to the fiddly controls and being a bit small to hold. It’s not a bad camera by any means, it’s actually a good camera, but with certain compromises inherent in its goals.

    • Thanks Oskar. That’s really helpful.

    • I think I’ll stick with my mju-ii.

    • Mmm, the shutter release really is awful.

  10. Hi Ming. I love my mju-ii. I do wish I was able to put it into Aperture Priority mode though. I see the Olympus XA that you mentioned has aperture priority and also a 35mm 2.8 lens. Is it the same exact lens that is in the mju-ii? If so, then I’d agree it might be the better option.

    • No idea, I’m afraid. Perhaps those more knowledgeable than me might be able to comment?

    • The XA is cited in several places as being 6 elements in 5 groups; the MJU-II, 4 elements in 4 groups. Make of that what you will… The former is certainly savagely sharp, though. I got a cheap one last year and was quite shocked when the first pictures came back from the lab…

  11. If you want to buy cheap but retain control, why not buy something like a Konica C35? I bought a clone of this (a Chinon 35EE). You manually focus the 38mm f2.8 lens with the built in rangefinder, and the camera chooses both the aperture and the shutter speed. However, it indicates both of these in the viewfinder and you can lock exposure by half pressing the shutter button, so you have adequate control over exposure. The lens is sharp too (a 4 element Tessar derivative). I paid £7 for mine. Here is an example photograph I took – http://www.flickr.com/photos/in2classics/8382965439/ (my first film – http://www.flickr.com/photos/in2classics/sets/72157632530634586/). Surely this is a better buy?

    • At £7, if you put slide film in it, the film costs more than the camera! Hard to do better than that…

      • I agree. [though my cheapest ever camera was, by chance, an Olympus Mju ll Zoom 80. I bid the starting price of 1 penny. Nobody else bid! (my maximum bid price was also 1p, I only bid because of the starting price). The camera works perfectly, but I still prefer my others as I'm not a fan of automation]

  12. Iskabibble says:

    Interesting camera but I have my sites on a Fuji Klasse S. Have you ever seen one of those? Check them (there’s a W version too) when you are in Japan in the fall. The Klasse is the finest film camera still in production. Too bad Fuji is too dumb to sell them world wide. Why are they even in the film business anymore???

    • Didn’t they also do one with a very wide and very fast lens? 24/1.8 or something if I remember correctly?

      • Iskabibble says:

        The early version of the Fuji Natura had a very fast lens. That tiny camera was made for shooting in low light. Fujifilm had an ISO1600 color film called Natura made for that camera and that matched up with the f/1.9 lens made shooting in very low light possible. The Natura moved onto having a zoom lens with a smaller aperture, thus making the original rather rare I think. As a street photographer, I am much more interested in Fuji’s Klasse cameras.

        • That would certainly open up (no pun intended) some interesting shooting possibilities, especially given it was the film era. Wonder if the lens was any good.

          I’m not too familiar with the Klasse series – what makes them particularly interesting as street cameras?

          • Iskabibble says:

            First, Fujifilm rarely makes a bad lens. Seriously, their capabilities are extremely high.

            The Klasse cameras were well noted for…..you guessed, super sharp lenses! Looking through flickr photos made with Klasse cameras shows pretty much tack sharp images, very very good for 35mm film. I have not shot a Klasse camera, but I’ve held one while in Japan and they are extremely well built out of metal. I kick myself for not buying one, as they are only available in Japan. Stupid move Fujifilm, stupid move.

    • Hi Iskabibble,

      Sorry to disturb your discussion, but I read somewhere in this website that you mentioned of having owned a Fuji GA645. I’m very interested with that camera. What’s your thought on it? Or should I try a Mamiya 6/7? Thanks

  13. Carlo Santin says:

    Ming, the camera does have focus lock. You have to go into spot metering mode to enable it, it doesn’t work in any other shooting mode. Turn on the camera, turn off the flash and hold both the grey buttons simultaneously to get into spot metering mode. This mode gives you focus lock so you can focus and recompose. It works, I use it all the time. There will be instances where spot metering isn’t desirable so that’s something to consider. I have quite the opposite experience from you I suppose. I love this camera. I just leave the camera on, shell open, when I walk around with it so I don’t have to worry about turning off the flash. I usually just leave it in spot mode too. It is very fun and easy to use. The lens is incredible. I don’t mind that this camera takes away all my control, sometimes that’s a good thing, and I can have fun just shooting without thinking. The metering has never let me down even in spot mode. It focuses quickly enough, at least for my purposes. I’ve gone on trips with only this camera and I’ve never been disappointed with the results, except the time I forgot to enable spot metering and tried to focus and recompose…half my roll was out of focus. I won’t be making that mistake again. I find the camera to be charming, awkwardness and all. It is so small and light that I don’t even know I have it with me sometimes, I have to check my pocket to make sure the camera is there, and out on the street nobody pays any attention to me when I use the camera. Kodak Ektar 100 looks especially nice with this lens. It wouldn’t be my only camera, but it is often the only camera I take with me.

    • Ah! Thanks for the tip. I will try it with the spot meter mode. Didn’t see that in the manual.

      • Its not in the manual because its not true. You can still focus lock in normal metering mode. The stylis focused on the nearest object lying over the focus area as opposed to a single spot when spot metering. Just make sure that you place your object under the focussing area.

        • I tried that, but it would never lock on the foreground under the cross, only whatever was under it after repositioning. Hmmm…

          • The green light should stay on confirming focus lock. Remember the lens will not extend during focus lock; only upon full depression of the shutter button.Perhaps yours is defective. Try it without film, try focus lock on near and infinity objects and recompose to see if it works (the lens will extend to different lengths depending on near of infinity focus)

    • I share your experience and love this camera as well. I’ve shot with one exclusively for almost 2 years.

      At first, the small viewfinder and lack of manual controls put me off, but in time I grew to embrace those constraints and work within them. I always have one in my pocket and carry two more bodies in my bag so I can run 3 types of film at once. The default on flash is annoying, but like Carlo said, just leave the shell open and it will stay off. Or just press the right button twice on the back when you open the shell. It becomes second nature.

      • If I had three of them, I’d be tempted to permanently disconnect the flash in at least one…

        • I’ve long thought about that…but would likely end up breaking the camera. If any of your readers know how to easily do this — I’d be interested in knowing more!

          • It’s probably just a matter of disconnecting the flash capacitor. Taking it apart and getting it back together again is going to be the tough bit…

            • DANGER – ELECTROCUTION: Playing with high voltage flash capacitors if you don’t know what you’re doing is potentially lethal, as they store enough energy to stop your heart! The capacitor has to be fully discharged (shorted) to be safe.

              • Yes, thanks for the caution. I made the mistake of attempting to repair an SB800 once and got a very nasty jolt. Can’t imagine a small flash would be as bad, but no, not safe.

  14. Larry C. says:

    Ming,
    I am fairly new to your site, and enjoy your photographs, reviews, and writing. While I no longer have one, I wonder if you have ever had a chance to handle the Olympus XA?

    Regards,

    Larry C.

  15. Adriano says:

    Thank you for this memories ! I used to use the first model mju : it has allowed me to achieve good results with … lightness!

    http://www.olympus-global.com/en/corc/history/camera/popup/m_mju.html

  16. You’ve nailed all the points in the review – I was given this and a couple of rolls of film to use as a ‘fun’ camera last yr when I visited Vietnam and it really is a bit of a gamble what happens when you press the shutter, but the success rate was pretty ok. Exposure wasn’t always as I wanted (I found it under exposed a bit), but it was incredibly sharp.

    Personally I prefer 28mm to 35mm – but I also had an X100 at the time so was adjusted a bit to the slightly more compressed view. Focal length preference probably plays as much of a role in what you want. Given people always go on about how ‘natural’ 50mm is, I’m surprised we haven’t seen a prime camera with this focal length….

    • I think the lens is deserving of it’s legendary status, but not the camera itself. Too random. I too prefer 28mm to 35mm; especially when the finder is vague enough that the frame lines are just a serving suggestion!

      There was the Leica CM with 40mm, but as far as I know, no 50mm compact. Not so suitable for general purpose, or difficult to sell to the masses, perhaps. There’s also the challenge of viewfinder parallax…

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      If you want a (35 mm roll) film compact with a 50mm lens…
      Look for collapsible cameras from the 1950:s.
      Zeiss Ikon (Ikonta), Voigtländer (Vito), Kodak (Retina)
      made several – some with rangefinders – all pocketable.
      The sharp Zeiss Tessar (or Schneider Kreuznach) 1:3.5/50 were popular lenses, both with the same 3 element 4 lens design – same as the Leitz Elmar.
      My best was a Voigtländer with a sharp 1:2/50 lens.

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      I’ve always wondered whether lens design limits lay behind the so called naturalness of the 50 mm lens (for 35 mm film)…

      Personally, if I want to take in all of a fairly detailed scene at once, I prefer to view it from a distance of about twice it’s diagonal or a bit more.
      That gives 80-100 mm for the lens.
      And I find that I get an overview without roving with my eyes at about the same maximum viewing angle as a 28 mm lens.
      ( Which compares to Ming’s choice of travel-lenses for his Oly.)

      Leitz (Leica) and Contax were forerunners, Leitz with the Elmar 50 mm f:3.5 with 4 lenses in 3 elements.
      (A similar 3 lens design is a bit soft, e.g Zeiss Novar, and so is the 4 lens design with f:2.8.)
      (And the lens was small enough to be collapsible.)
      Other makes used the same design and viewing angle – though I don’t know who was first.

      I believe this simple design implies this viewing angle of the lens.
      Maybe photographers got so used to this viewing angle that it seemed (and was called) natural?

      And when Leica added lenses, 90 mm and 135 mm were “natural” steps to avoid too large gaps between lenses (or perhaps because 135 mm was close to the practical limit of the Leica F series rangefinder).

      And many photographers found 90 mm to give a “natural” viewing angle.

      If I remember rightly 28 mm and 21 mm came quite a bit later, and then for SLRs.

  17. AY Chew says:

    Somebody is selling the new Mju II for RM270, including battery, remote control and a roll of film, is it a steal? Didn’t expect the result to be THIS GOOD but maybe it’s in your hand maybe…

  18. Ming have you ever shot with the Fuji X Pro 1? I purchased one recently and the 35 1.4 and have been amazed at the IQ from just Jpeg’s

    • Initially I really wanted to like this system – the focal lengths were great, the EVF/OVF thing would be perfect for precision work and documentary. Then I tested it for half a day, and I hated the experience enough not to want any more. It’s slow, not intuitive, not ergonomic (for my hands) and file handling even with the latest version of ACR doesn’t do the sensor justice. Alternative converters slow down my workflow considerably.

  19. I have 3. They all focus lock!

    • I wonder if there’s something wrong with mine…does your lens focus when you half press? Mine lights up in the finder on half press but the lens doesn’t move until fully depressed.

  20. untilmake says:

    Hi, Ming. Thanks for posting on film cameras.
    I have never seen a waterproof mju-II. Is yours waterproof? Mine is only weather-proof.

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