Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Yoshihisa Maitani and the cult of Olympus

Yoshihisa Maitani (Credit: Olympus)

Yoshihisa Maitani (1933-2009) joined Olympus Optical Co., Ltd. (now Olympus Corporation) in 1956, as a camera designer.
He was the designer and developer of the most significant models from Olympus:
The Pen in 1959, the Pen F in 1963, the OM-1 in 1973 and de XA in 1979.
All these models were huge sales successes and, in time, became cult cameras.
The reason for this, along with magnificent design, was the technological breakthrough that every one of these cameras stood for.

My uncompromising philosophy as a developer was to create cameras that didn't previously exist anywhere.
Yoshihisa Maitani, November 26, 2005, at a seminar presented at the JCII Camera Museum.(Credit: Olympus)

All these cameras, or their derivatives, won the Good Design Award
  • Pen F  1966
  • Pen FT 1967
  • OM-1 1973
  • OM-2 1976
  • Pen EF 1981
  • XA2 + A11 1981 Grand Prize winner
  • OM-30 1983
  • XA3 Quartzdate and XA4 Quartzdate 1985
In my collection I have representatives of the most influential of these cult cameras: 

The Pen F
Olympus Pen F
Olympus Pen F F. Zuiko Auto-S 38mm 1:1.8 by RaúlM.

Olympus Pen F ~1963
F. Zuiko Auto-S 1:1.8, f=38mm
Olympus Zuiko Zoom 100-200, 1:5, preset
Rotating shutter 1- 1/500 and B, flash synch at all speeds.
Half format SLR, using a quite complex optic arrangement, to avoid the traditional bulge on the top plate.
This is a half format camera, one gets twice the number of exposures, per roll of 135 film, in 18x24mm.
Holding the camera horizontally the exposures have portrait orientation.

The great challenge, when designing this camera, was finding the correct material to build the rotary shutter.
Steel was too heavy and the highest shutter speed, allowed by its weight, was 1/15". Not adequate to a SLR camera.
Aluminium was too weak and didn't stand the rotary force.
At the time NASA was using titanium. After some efforts they found a company in Japan that produced it, but didn't sell them a small piece, to build a prototype, so they had to buy a complete roll. Fortunately it worked and they were able to use the rest of the roll in actual production.

With the camera in production Olympus was unable to sell it in the U.S.A., because of Kodak's refusal to endorse the format, allegedly due to the cost of the mounts. Without Kodak's support American market was closed to the model and format.
Agfa and Fuji adopted it and made it a huge success in Europe and Japan.

The OM-1
Olympus OM-1 G.Zuiko Auto-S 1.4/50
Olympus OM-1 MD G.Zuiko Auto-S 50mm 1:1.4 by RaúlM.

Olympus OM-1 MD ~1977
Olympus OM-System G.Zuiko Auto-S 1.4/50
MD stands for motor drive, this is the later model, motor drive ready.

This model was revolutionary at it's time due to it's size and weight, not only of the camera, but all the components of the system. 
A complete set, if compared with the equivalent Nikon SLR set, would weight half on the shoulder of the photographer. It was a great plus for a photo reporter.
Let me remind you that the flagship camera from Nikon at the time was the Nikon F.

 The XA
Olympus XA
Olympus XA F-Zuico 35mm 1:2.8 by RaúlM.

Olympus XA ~1979
F-Zuico 35mm 1:2.8 lens
AE Aperture priority program
Coupled rangefinder
The XA was the first full-featured camera in which plastic materials were used for the body and other key parts.
Its capeless and caseless design, possible due to the use of the sliding front door, was, in the words of it's designer, intended to attract both men and women. 

Yoshihisa Maitani died at 76, still connected to Olympus as an adviser.

In future articles I'll come back to these models in greater depth.
This article is a tribute to Yoshihisa Maitani, one of the most influential camera designers of the second half of the XX century.

Stay tuned (o; 


  1. Thank you for a very informative article. I never knew there was one mastermind behind these three cameras. Funny thing is that I have the XA and I've been shopping for the OM-1 and Pen models ;-) I LOVE his designs!

  2. I thank you Kathy.
    Yes, Maitani was the genius behind these magnificent achievements from Olympus.
    Have you found The OM-1 and Pen already? (o;

  3. I like most of Maitani's creation and have some pleasure of owing some of them. Great site you have here and thanks for sharing!

  4. @wickedwarhol:
    I thank you for your comment.