Prestige and the Duds – The Olympus mju-I nearly reviewed

Oh dear ! I had a lot of hope when I started out to test this camera but 3 dud ones later I’m not sure.  The mju-I (aka mju,  µ[mju] or ∞stylus) was the camera that launched the mju series and would lead to the much sought after mju II (aka Stylus Epic) -one of those  prestige fixed focal length compacts that change hands for lots of Dosh. Some feel the much cheaper mju-I is just as good but as we’ll see things didn’t work out for me…

Friars Vennel
An Olympus mju-1 on a good day with Kodak BW400CN. Processed and scanned by AG Photolab. Dumfries 2016

Launched in 1991,  the mju cameras were a return to form for Olympus. Best known for the modern classic mju-II but the various mju zoom models in the 3 series of cameras still command a cache. But all this began with the mju-1, fixed focal length AF compact with few options but designed by the legendary designer Maitani Yoshihisa whom gave us the original Olympus PEN, PEN F & OM SLRs. The mju was an evolution of another one of his legendary designs the XA which did for the 80’s what the mju’s did to the 90’s.

Devorgilla Reflected
Rare good long shot. Devorgilla Bridge, Dumfries. Olympus Mju1 with Lomography 400CN. C-41 processed and scanned by AG photo lab. Dec 2016

What he create was very compact AF camera that was a simple joy to use protected by a plastic clamshell case. The menu choices really only give you flash options or turn on the timer. But it is a gem of a camera to hold with a killer lens. Although  small & plastic the  curvey sliding clamshell body works well even with big hands like me. There are just 3 buttons on the standard version – shutter, flash setting and timer all of while are logically positioned. The winder is relatively quite and the lens retracts allowing closure on rewinding.

Mobile Childcare
An Olympus mju-1 on a good day with Kodak BW400CN. Processed and scanned by AG Photolab. Dumfries 2016

Olympus µ[mju] I specs

  • Lens: 35mm 1:4.5
    • 3 elements in 3 Groups
  • Focus: Active IR AF
    • Focus Range: 0.35m-∞
    • Focus steps: 100
  • Metering: Programmed
  • Shutter: 1/15-1/500
  • EV Range: 7.5-17 (100 ISO)
  • Film: DX 50-3200 ISO *
  • Battery: 1X CR123A 3V
  • Flash: 0.35-3.5m (100 ISO)

*In full steps

A databack version exists and a silver limited edition was also made. The 1992 µ[mju] panorama is the same camera but with a switch that moves a mechanical mask over the film frame allowing you to shoot in the Kodak Panorama format (a bit pointless nowadays as you can easily crop the image where you scan your shots or still DIY develop and print)

Leaf focus
Garden at Tullie House, Carlisle. Olympus Mju1 with Lomography 400CN. C-41 processed and scanned by AG photo lab. Dec 2016

It differs from it’s more prestigious sibling  slightly. The mju II  is water proof, has  upgraded AF,  a wider shutter speed range and a slightly faster 4 element lens. The shutter speed of the older mju I may actually be an advantage here as many compacts sacrifice their shutter speed rather than aperture in Low light, giving rise to shake in low light.

Bank to Black
An Olympus mju-1 on a good day with Kodak BW400CN. Processed and scanned by AG Photolab. Dumfries 2016

I shot my two mju-1s with the Ricoh FF-9s, I’ve already reviewed. On paper they should have wiped the floor (just look at the focusing steps 100 on the Olympus to just 6 on the Ricoh). But unlike the Olympuses (or is that Olympi) the Ricoh worked !

Sadly the curse of Olympus I suffered with the XA2 had returned. The first one had obvious issues as the flash didn’t fire. It’s images came back as just a tad soft at times but acceptable

Dye Works
One of the better shots with the first mju-I (with AVP200). Just very slightly soft. Carlisle 2016

The second one seemed better but it suffered from issues of focusing particularly at a distance (most close shots were good but occasional not – almost all distance shots were out of focus). I’m not alone with this issue and I’ve seen others with the reverse (poor close but fine at distance)

off focus
Out of focus shot with Olympus mju-I and Lomography 400CN. Carlisle December 2016

The third was a non firing databack version (still it came free with no 2…)

When it worked the images could be pretty crisp and SLR levels of sharpness were seen particularly in close to medium ranges. the camera was still good on the few distance shots and with the second faulty one I certainly couldn’t fault exposure. There was a minimal amount of radial distortion (pincushion) and the sharpness was pretty good across frame bar the far corners. This is a nice lens when working well for such a compact.

It’s sad as there was great promise. To paraphrase Stevie Nicks ‘When you were good, you were very, very good’ – but the reverse was true too. I still think if you get a good ‘un these bad boys will give the prestige class a run for their money. The problem for me is getting a good ‘un and I’m not able to say if it is better versus my 99p Pentax Espio AF Zoom which doesn’t just a zoom but a host o’ options to the party.

What I paid & What it sells at

  • £17.99-20.99 + P&P on eBay
  • £15-45 range + P&P on eBay (expect £20-30)

Why buy ?

  • Killer optics in close to medium
  • Pocketable
  • Very useable
  • A quarter of the price of mju II
  • Historic model

Why Not ?

  • Average distance performance
  • Reliability
  • Limited options

Alternatives

  • Pentax Espio AF Zoom – Its peanut but so good
  • Olympus mju II – more expensive and sought after sibling
  • Olympus XA – more reliable rangefinder compactness

Helpful links

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Prestige and the Duds – The Olympus mju-I nearly reviewed”

  1. Largely I agree Alan, but I think you’ve been a bit unlucky too.

    It took me a little while and three Mju-1s to really appreciate the camera and find its strengths. Now I have, it’s probably my favourite compact, along with its LT-1 sibling.

    Looking at my favourite pictures I’ve got, none are at distance. For me, one of the major strengths of that 35/3.5 lens is that it focuses down to 0.35m (don’t you love the symmetry of all those threes and fives?). Up close, and especially with black and white film, I think it excels and combined with its size and genuine pocketability and price is pretty much unrivalled.

    At distance it is a bit soft and vague, but for me this is actually a good thing. Because I like to shoot close most of the time (0.35m – 3.5m), the softness in the background just increases the apparent sharpness up close.

    Although you have no control over the aperture, when you’re close it seems to works like an SLR and choosing a larger aperture for a more shallow depth of field and more “pop” to the close objects in focus.

    Like these for example –

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/danjamesphotography/30847612726

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/danjamesphotography/29612570424

    If you only shoot at a distance and want large depth of field, the Mju-1 is going to be a big disappointment and there are plenty of better options.

    But for close up shooting (< 10m), very compact size, quickness of use and value for money, I think it's pretty much without peer, in my experience.

    Oh and I can't recall having any issues with the Auto Focus, I think you've been unlucky and maybe got an example that's taken a few heavy knocks that's misaligned something?

    1. I think you are right Dan- the only problem is the cost. Unfortunately although not quite as bonkers cost wise as their illustrious sibling £20+ a camera is hard to stomach if they are as unreliable as we’ve both found out.

      I’d agree with your comments about the superlative handling in the close range (when working). The distance is dinctly average IMHO but not a huge suprise given the close throw of the lens and the lack of a landscape setting

      1. We’ve seen in the past with Olympus that they’re masterful at designing and making cameras for a specific purpose/niche – the Pen series, the Trip 35, the XA series…

        I wonder if with the Mju-1 they gave it that close focus and lack of infinity setting deliberately – to encourage the user to get close where the lens is at its most effective and impressive?

        If you want to take detailed distance/landscape shots, you’re not likely to be using a tiny compact anyway, you’ll more likely be using an SLR, medium format or larger.

        That’s how I see it, and fortunately it really suits my style of photography and means the little Muj-1 can offer genuinely excellent quality photographs in a tiny pocketable package.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *