AE-1 vs. OM4 – A Viable Alternative to Usual Recommendations – By Michael Allan-Wood

It’s no secret that film has had a significant revival throughout the chaos that was, and still is, COVID-19. Isolation, forced or otherwise, has caused many to take to new hobbies or rekindle long standing ones. Primarily ones that are solitary, like photography.

This is a fantastic boon for those of us already in the hobby, but with global film shortages and an increasing demand for gear (read: film and gear is getting more expensive), what options are available for those of us starting out?

Google trends showing the increasing interest in 35mm photography since 2018. Get an up-to-date graph here

The Usual Suspect

The Canon AE-1 was a landslide product introduced in 1976, during a time of fierce competition between major Japanese camera manufacturers. The AE-1 marked the first time a microcontroller was embedded into a film camera. This was a triumph, as it gave the general public their first shutter priority camera. A combination of affordability, ease of use, and a massive marketing campaign allowed Canon to sell over 5 million examples during the total product life of the AE-1 and its derivatives. Of course Nikon – the market leader – and Olympus swiftly introduced similar products like the Nikon FE and Olympus OM-10; attempting to stifle the flow of AE-1s, but the damage was done.

Canon AE-1 with 50mm f1.8 attached.  A special Montreal 1976 Olympics lens cap adorns the front of the lens.

Canon AE-1 with 50mm f1.8 attached. Charles Lanteigne. Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0

Flash forward to 2022. The AE-1 is now a ‘vintage’, mass produced, consumer camera that has become ‘the thing to have;’ to be seen with or to use. This makes no sense, as the increased attention has artificially inflated the price of a mass-produced, mediocre product (insert your Rolex joke here). All things considered, this should be an accessible product given the quantities produced.

Canon AE-1 advertisement. “So advanced – it’s simple.” Late 1970s. Copyright Canon Inc.

The 2020+ problem

The AE-1 has mass appeal, reinforced by word of mouth (parents, relatives, friends) or by my fellow experts on Youtube, Reddit, or what have you. This has caused the camera to go through a sort of hyperinflation, which far exceeds the actual value which it deserves.

So, what of the other manufacturers? Nikon makes a fantastic camera but their prices have also skyrocketed, making things like the FE, FA and FG harder to afford for the beginner. The Pentax K1000 is also a great performer, but it has also shot-up in price (and we have no idea). Looking further afield, we see the more often forgotten Olympus.

The Olympus OM-System

Olympus OM-4Ti with a Zuiko 50mm f/1.4 lens

Olympus OM-4Ti with a Zuiko 50mm f/1.4 lens and somewhat rare finger grip.

Olympus’ OM-System was introduced in the early 1970s with the OM-1, a professional system camera. The philosophy of this system has been recounted elsewhere, but its primary focus was compactness, ergonomics, and weight. This philosophy meant that Olympus delivered one of the smallest and lightest professional SLR packages, with left-field controls; the shutter control dial is on the lens bayonet and the aperture control is located at the end of the lens. Shock, horror!

Yet in the context of the OM-System, this makes sense. The camera bodies and lenses are incredibly small, and the controls are easily manipulated with a single hand while peering through the viewfinder. With the success of the OM-1 and later OM-2, consumer models followed shortly thereafter. The consumer models are denoted by double-digit numbers – OM-10, OM-20, and so forth.

Arizona mountain top.  Michael Allan-Wood.

Arizona. Michael Allan-Wood. OM4-Ti, Zuiko 35mm f/2, Portra 400.

In today’s market the OM-System is somewhat of an open secret among the film photography community. Here’s a robust, compact system, with excellent glass, and affordable prices. Great, but what’s the catch? Supply. Canon and Nikon pumped out millions of lenses and bodies and Olympus simply couldn’t match that; At the time of writing, there are 39,000 “Nikon Nikkor” lenses listed on eBay; 17000 ‘Canon FD’; and 2800 ‘Olympus OM Zuiko’ lenses listed.

Zuiko Lenses

Santa Monica Pier Roller Coaster.  Michael Allan-Wood.

Santa Monica Pier, Pacific Park Roller Coaster. Michael Allan-Wood. OM4-Ti, Zuiko 85mm f/2, Vision 3 500T + 85B filter.

Out of that smaller selection, we have an easily understood lens system with significant resolving power. The bread and butter lenses are the primes – all of them are great. The ‘pro-level’ lenses are slightly larger in size with increased contrast, and have a maximum aperture of f/2. That’s it. The kit lens was a prime 50mm f/1.8, which is a great lens and often comes attached to camera bodies.

But what about automation? That was the second biggest strength of the original Canon AE-1 (the first being cost), so how does that compare?.The OM-System’s automation is aperture priority with exposure compensation of -2 to +2. Pretty standard fare for the time. Some models also came with a Program mode, like Canon’s AE-1 Program.

The Getty Center.  Michael Allan-Wood.  OM4-Ti, Zuiko 85mm f/2, Vision 3 500T + 85B filter.

The Getty Center. Michael Allan-Wood. OM4-Ti, Zuiko 85mm f/2, Vision 3 500T + 85B filter.

Yet, that’s not what draws many to it; it’s the lightmeter. Olympus introduced off-the-film metering (OTF) with the OM-2, which was unheard of at the time. OTF metering allowed the camera to continue to monitor the light hitting the film during longer exposures and vary the exposure depending on the changes in light. This culminated in cameras equipped with OTF Spot Metering like the OM-2SP, OM-3(Ti), and the top-of-the-line OM-4Ti. This is your replacement AE-1.

Monterey.  Michael Allan-Wood.  OM4-Ti, Zuiko 35mm f/2, Portra 400.

Monterey. Michael Allan-Wood. OM4-Ti, Zuiko 35mm f/2, Portra 400.

The OM-4 was introduced in 1983 but was quickly succeeded by the OM-4Ti in 1986 (OM-4Ti’s were branded OM-4T in the USA); This included an upgrade to titanium top and bottom covers and revised circuitry. The original OM-4 ate batteries, but the OM-4Ti does not suffer the same fate. The camera’s biggest it-factor was the multi-spot meter; you can take up to 8 spot readings in your scene and the camera will average out the correct exposure. Naturally you can measure the same spot multiple times to create a bias towards a certain exposure.

Olympus OM-4 advertisement. “Norman Rockwell” Mid 1980s. Copyright Olympus Corporation.

Of course the automatic full-frame metering mode is acceptable, but if you do not use the spot-metering system, then I would consider other offerings within the OM-System.

The Breakdown

So, why should you buy an OM-4Ti over a Canon AE-1? Let’s break that down.

Tabular comparison of Canon AE-1 vs Olympus OM-4Ti

Prices as of August 2022

For the similar price of a consumer product AE-1, you could buy a professional OM-4Ti and a handful of lenses. The oldest AE-1s are 45 years old, whereas the oldest OM-4Tis are 35; production stopped in 2003. I recognise that this doesn’t account for the emotional factor of being seen with a trending item, but if you’re reading this, that’s likely a secondary consideration.

Unless you’re one of the lucky ones with a bequeathed AE-1, you should avoid these plastic cameras. In 2022 these cameras are over hyped and overpriced.

The OM-4Ti is a great performer and any camera within the OM-System provides a viable alternative to usual recommendations. I’ve owned an OM-4Ti for a decade, and in that time many cameras have come and gone. The OM-4Ti has remained through all of it.

You can see some of my photography on instagram: @wmaw

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