Of the compact 35mm film cameras I’ve tried in the last few years, many have given decent results, but only one has combined quality images with genuine pocketability, and close enough (for me) focus.
That camera is the Olympus Mju 1 (or µ[mju:]-1), aka the Stylus in some territories.
Well, I say only one camera. In truth, it’s not the last Jedi in this compact galaxy. No, Luke, there is another. Except it’s the same wolf. In different clothes.
Before my analogies become even more muddled, let’s introduce the Olympus LT-1.
On the functionality side, it’s essentially a Mju 1. Same cracking little 35mm f/3.5 lens with a close (auto)focus of around 0.35m.
Same compact size. (It’s a bugbear of mine to have had so many cameras that claim to be compact, but have the bulk of a small SLR. Very few have been truly pocketable, as in a trouser pocket, not the centre kangaroo style pocket of a very oversized hoodie. But back to the pros of the LT-1…)
Same ability to astonish when you get your scans back and wonder if you mixed them up with photographs shot with an SLR (especially when shooting colour film as black and white).
The main difference with the LT-1 is its shape and outer shell.
The Mju 1 is known for its curved, ergonomic shell, and the ease at which you can slide its clamshell cover open with a swift motion and be ready for shooting in an instant.
For me the original Mju perfected this, and where later Mju descendants tried to repeat the trick, they didn’t quite get it right.
The now ridiculously hyped Mju 2 (Stylus Epic) I found too small and too slippery, and if it wasn’t for the wrist strap I would have seen it meet a violent end against the pavement two or three times in just one roll of film. Way too pokey viewfinder too, but that’s another story.
I’ve had a couple of later zoom models in the Mju series and unfortunately the added bulk of the body required to house the zoom lens meant it was no longer pocketable.
Those curves, whilst near perfect on the original Mju, just made it even more uncomfortable when you did try to force it into your pocket, where a more typical smoothed brick shaped compact camera of the same depth would slide in and out with much greater ease.
The closest I’ve found was ironically another sibling in many ways to the Mju-1, the AF-1 Mini, pictured alongside its family above.
Same lens again, and a weatherproof body, but just slightly less pocketable than the Mju-1 – comfy in a coat, too tight for trousers. Oh and didn’t focus quite so close, more like 0.5m.
Back to the LT-1 and there’s (gasp!) no clamshell cover to slide open.
Instead we have a flip over leather flap that folds up over the lens, plus an on switch right next to the lens itself.
Initially I was sceptical and expected this to be slow and fiddly.
But Olympus cleverly designed the lens so even when the camera is on and the lens housing protrudes a couple of mm, the leather flap can still be over the lens without touching the glass.
Which means by keeping it switched on, on a photowalk it’s virtually as instantaneous as the Mju-1 – just flip the cover over with your thumb, point and shoot.
When the flap is closed, it reassuringly relocates itself in a second, thanks to the magnetic clasp. A clasp that is magnetic enough to stop it flapping open unwantedly, but not so strong that it can’t be flipped up quickly with your thumb tip when you’re ready to shoot.
Unlike the shiny smooth plastic of the Mju-1, the LT-1 has a fancy leather jacket. Sophistication indeed.
The shape is much more symmetric and rounded too, like a well washed pebble on the beach that you pick up and feels just right in your hands.
This curvy edged shape plus the extra grip of the leather surface make it handle at least as well as the Mju-1.
These kind of details – the tactile leather, the on/off switch round the lens perfectly placed to operate with your middle finger, how the lens housing protrudes when switched on so the flap can be closed without touching the glass, and the perfectly weighted strength of the magnetic clasp – are not happy accidents.
Especially given Olympus’s track record (not least of the Mju-1 itself and its father/grandfather/godfather, the original XA), we can safely assume these were features specifically designed to make the LT-1 a very easy, almost invisible camera to use, yet at the same time that leather providing a hint of luxury unusual in a compact, unless you want to pay many hundreds of pounds more.
In short, for those seeking a very capable, close focusing, genuinely compact film camera, it’s joy in a leather jacket.
So would I crown the LT-1 as my AF king compact?
Well I certainly wouldn’t be upset if I was told it was the only compact (indeed the only film camera) I could shoot from this point on.
Given its greater rarity, and the way those design features make me smile at Olympus’s intelligence and attention to detail each time I pick up, the LT-1 might just be my favourite compact, even trumping its older sibling the Mju-1.
Indeed my discovery of the Mju-1 , and then later the LT-1, feels very akin to being a teenage boy and finding a beautiful girl you spend a few months with and really start to think you might spend the rest of your life with her, gulp, only to discover she has an even cuter, quirkier and equally friendly younger sister.
In that irresistible leather jacket, of course.
As a confused adolescent male in that situation, which sister would you run away with?
What’s your favourite 35mm film compact? Please let us know in the comments below.
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