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Throwback Thursday: The Olympus Stylus Epic and my love for clamshell cameras

Bring back the clamshell!

Throwback Thursday: The Olympus Stylus Epic and my love for clamshell cameras 1
From left to right: The Olympus Stylus Epic, The Olympus [mju :] II, The Olympus XA. The first two are the same camera (different names for different markets), the latter started my love for clamshell cameras.

My love affair with the clamshell camera design started with the Olympus XA and ultimately lead me to the Olympus Stylus Epic, also know as the Olympus [mju:] II in the Japanese market (pronounced mew two, like the Pokémon). It’s a funky plastic 90’s style camera that to the untrained eye, looks a little like a piece of junk.

Both the Olympus XA, released in 1979, and the Stylus Epic, released in 1997, feature excellent fixed 35mm F2.8 lenses and Olympus’ brilliant clamshell design. The XA is an aperture priority-only rangefinder, while the Stylus Epic is a fully automatic camera with a three spot autofocus system and built-in flash.

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Open/On Closed/Off

Due to its ease-of-use, small size and sharp lens, the Stylus Epic is my go anywhere camera (the XA I use mainly for street photography and travel). I’ve long searched for the perfect camera to slide in my back pocket every time I leave the house and this soap-shaped oddball is the one for me. It’s not as cool looking as a Ricoh R1 (which I also shoot with occasionally), but I’ve found it to be much more reliable.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a huge camera nerd and a big supporter of shooting analog. Film photography offers a nice balance to my daily concentration on digital photography for DPReview (my analog site is PopularAmerican.club). It also helps me to slow down and practice decisiveness. Of course the Stylus Epic, being a fully automatic camera, isn’t exactly encouraging me to work on fundamentals, but it does free me up to be more in the moment and act on instinct.

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While these cameras are mostly fully automatic, they feature outstanding metering.

The major selling points of the Olympus Stylus Epic are as follows: it is a full-frame, 35mm camera with an excellent (and reasonably fast) lens in my favorite focal length, it weighs a mere 5.1 oz and is no larger than a Sony RX100 series camera (which weighs nearly double). It’s also weather-sealed and built extremely tough, despite its plastic appearance. Lastly, it’s strange curved design makes it easy to slide in and out of a pocket.

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The Olympus Stylus Epic is about the same size as a Sony RX100-series camera and about half the weight.

But hands down my favorite feature of the Epic is its clamshell. There’s no on/off switch – simply slide it open and it’s ready to shoot. It’s essentially a lens cap that doubles as a power switch, and it’s brilliant.

“It’s essentially a lens cap that doubles as a power switch, and it’s brilliant.”

Of course, Olympus didn’t abandon the clamshell design when its moved to digital around the turn of the century. There were plenty of tiny sensor compacts that featured clamshells. But at some point, they were no more. I haven’t pinpointed when the last one was released (if you know, shout it out in the comments,) but it seems by around 2007, the clamshell had been phased out entirely.

But why? Perhaps aesthetically, the design was too dated-looking. Or perhaps due to the decline in sales of compacts, Olympus moved in a different direction. Whatever the reason, I implore you, Olympus, bring back the clamshell!

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There are, of course, several excellent large sensor fixed lens digital compacts on the market, though only the Ricoh GR and Nikon A can really be considered pocketable (the Fujifilm X70 is just slightly too big IMHO.)

These cameras are cool, but my biggest beef with them is their design, or rather the weak point of their design. Most of them extend their lens when turned on, a design execution made to keep the overall package compact. But what happens when the camera is accidentally turned on in your bag or pocket and the lens attempts to extend with nowhere to go? The point is, these cameras are great, but ultimately I find them to be a bit fragile, an undesirable quality for a take-anywhere camera. Furthermore, none of the pocketable ones are weather-sealed and only the Leica Q and Sony RX1R offer a full-frame sensor to match that of my Stylus Epic. Both are also large (un-pocketable) and expensive.

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So how then does the Stylus Epic retain its incredibly small size, despite its full-frame ‘sensor?’  By utilizing a curved film plane, of course! This not only helps keep things shrunken, but the curvature of the film plane matches that of the lens. This is also a major reason that the Epic is so darn sharp.

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Available settings include: flash on, flash off, red eye reduction, slow synchro (night scene flash), slow synchro plus red eye and spot mode (which requires pressing both back buttons simultaneously to engage). I mostly keep it on the default setting. Unfortunately the only mode the camera retains after being turned off and back on is red eye reduction. I’ve read a lot of complaints that the Epic doesn’t recall the “flash off” setting once turned off, which I tend to agree is very annoying.

We’ve been following along with Sony’s development of a curved sensor for a while now, and reading back through our coverage got me thinking: could this new sensor technology make it possible to create a digital reincarnation of my beloved Stylus Epic? Totally. Do I think Olympus should make it happen? Oh, hell yes.

Camera companies are obviously very comfortable tapping into classic design styles; take the Olympus PEN-F and pretty much every recent Fujifilm X-camera, for instance. But up until now, these throwback designs have all come from cameras released in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. I think its about time we had some throwback designs from the 80’s and 90’s and a reincarnation of the Epic seems like the perfect place to start!

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To be fair, the Olympus Stylus Epic does extend the lens barrel, but not until the shutter has been fully pressed. This leads to a very slight shutter delay, but it is hardly noticeable.

I’m not asking for a full-framer, but even a 1″-type sensor, fixed lens compact with a fast 35mm-equivalent lens would do it for me. Just don’t forget to make sure it’s pocketable, has a good flash, is weather sealed and built like a tank (no extending the lens when turned on). So Olympus, if you’re reading this, please consider a reboot of my dear Stylus Epic. Just don’t forget the clamshell!

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Curvy beauty.

Is there a classic film camera you’d like to see a a digital reincarnation of? Let us know in the comments!


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