I get up early and pack the last few things. A change of clothes goes in the dry bag, a hard shell jacket in the backpack and film goes in the camera. After a short subway ride I’m at the docks. We pick out our vessels for the day from storage and get them in the water. Heading out we won’t be back until dusk.
On paper the Olympus μ[mju:]-II is pretty close to the ultimate pocket camera. In practice it’s not far from it.
Still it’s not a camera I’ve particularly enjoyed over the year that I’ve had it. A few things about its operation and about my time with it really underscores some of my preferences as of late.
But before going in to my personal opinions, a bit of background is probably in order.
The mju:II (aka Stylus Epic) was launched by Olympus in 1997 as an upgrade over the original mju: from 1991. The cameras can be seen as spiritual successors to the earlier Olympus XA.
The mju cameras carries some of the key concepts of its predecessor forward – pocketability, ease of use and high optical quality – but further refines them. The newer cameras are more streamlined, both in a physical and operational sense.
The capsule form factor remains, though the shape is even sleeker, and a fast 35mm lens is again built in. Like the XA the mju: cameras are clearly designed as pocket cameras from the ground up.
You can see plenty of family ties between the mju: cameras and the earlier XA.
Technological advances allowed the mju: cameras to become far more automated and even easier to use than the XA. Gone is the optical rangefinder of the progenitor, replaced by an infrared-based autofocus system. Likewise every aspect of exposure is handled automatically – film speed is identified by DX coding and based on that the aperture, shutter speed and use of flash is all decided by the camera itself, leaving very little room for user error.
Film advance and rewind is now motorized and the camera figures out when it’s at the end of the roll on its own. There’s also an onboard flash that means it’s always available without carrying any extras.
The black area above the lens elegantly hides the viewfinder, lightmeter and autofocus sensors, remote control reciever and selftimer indicator light.
The mju:II also improves on the first iteration in a few ways. It has a brighter, four element, lens at f/2.8 instead of a three element f/3.5 (that also seems to have better performance). The II also includes reasonably robust looking environmental sealing which means it should stand up well to poor weather, though I definitely wouldn’t expect it to survive full submersion.
In the years since it launched it has gained something of a cult status. Still it remains reasonably priced on the used market and ticks a lot of boxes for way less money than a lot of the alternatives out there.
Fortunately the camera doesn’t just look good on paper, but a lot of that promise also carries over into practice.
The build quality is decidedly 90’s era consumer electronics but still feels quite sturdy and well put together. The clamshell slides open and closed smoothly with reassuring clicks at the endpoints. The camera was available in a few different colors, I've got one with the yellowish silver "champagne" finish.
The control set-up is very bare-bones. Aside from the shutter button there are only two buttons to control the camera. One to toggle flash modes and the other one to set self timer. Pressing both of them together activates a spot meter and focus mode that can be useful in high contrast situations. The shutter button has subtle travel and a distinct feel to the half-press. The control buttons on the rear are really squishy and indistinct though. Probably one of the ill effects of the weather sealing.
The viewfinder is bright and clear. There’s no information in the finder except for a crosshair indicating autofocus point and correction marks for framing at closer distances. There are also two lights next to the finder that you can see pretty easily with your eye to the finder, giving you a bit more information. One light is green and the other one orange, telling you when the camera has acquired focus and whether or not the flash will fire respectively. There’s also an LCD display on the back, showing the current frame, battery level and flash or timer modes.
Loading is extremely easy. Drop the canister in, pull the leader across to the opposite side of the camera and then close the door. The camera winds on to the first frame automatically. As with quite a few compact cameras the film canister is loaded at the right hand side of the camera and fed to the left which leads to the negatives being upside down from what’s more commonly the case.
Despite its small size the camera can churn out quite impressive looking images with very little know-how or involvement required from the person using it. You don’t need to do much more than to slide open the clamshell door, point the camera at something nice looking and press the shutter button to shoot.
This results in a particular shooting experience, something I’ll circle back to, but first a few words on how it performs.
I was very impressed with how the camera handled this scene – watching the band Pink Milk perform. Both exposure and focus is spot on. Having shot a lot of concerts in the past I know how tricky these sort of situations can be.
The camera really is a pretty admirable performer, in particular considering the size and price of the thing.
The lens is impressive for the most part and a clear step up from the XA. Stopped down it’s better than it has any right to be and capable of putting out images that are even hard to tell apart from those coming from some of the better lenses I’ve shot.
At wider apertures the outer zones lack contrast and some field curvature can be observed across the frame. The overall impression holds up reasonably well, especially at closer distances, but fails to impress in the same way it does stopped down.
Still color is generally pleasant with good separation between tones. There’s also very little issue with flare. Even the bokeh is quite appealing despite the diaphragm having only three blades.
The output looks pretty good already at wider apertures. The edges and corners lacks contrast however, and can come across as smeary, especially at a distance.
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As the lens stops down performance improves and under many circumstances the output can be quite exceptional.
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In theory the autofocus should be a step up in ease of use from the rangefinder of the XA. In practice I’ve found the it a little hit and miss.
Focus acquisition is generally quick and accurate. You’ll have a hard time shooting it under the most demanding circumstances, but even in somewhat fast moving and tricky situations it’s performed well for me. At times it’s surprised and even impressed me.
However it has occasionally missed focus by a huge amounts in situations seemingly more straightforward than when focus has been accurate. These focus mishaps have popped up often enough to feel frustrating. A potential reason for it could be that some sort of reflective material such as glass has been in quite a few of the misfocused frames. On the other hand I’ve had good hits in similar situations too, so I’m not sure that’s the full explanation.
Obviously I can’t totally rule out that this has been a problem with my copy specifically, but even the manual brings up the autofocus struggling in certain situations. I’ve also seen some references to this issue elsewhere so it’s still likely that it’s something you’ll have to live with shooting this camera.
The lens focuses at a half press of the shutter button but as the autofocus system is independent from the lens nothing moves around until you fully depress the shutter. This can feel a little odd at first and you’re left wondering if the camera actually did anything, but indeed it does. I’m guessing that it works this way to conserve battery life but I’m not totally sold on the behavior. The downside is that it introduces a slight amount of lag between pressing the shutter and actually capturing the image. Generally it’s not enough to be troublesome, but it can make capturing fleeting moments a little harder.
Autofocus can be hit and miss. Despite similar circumstances the camera failed miserably in one of these two frames. Instances like this have cropped up way too often for my liking during my time with the camera.
The auto exposure on the other hand is very consistent. In my use negatives have come out of the camera looking spot on even in some pretty challenging conditions. I do like a little bit of overexposure with the consumer films I generally shoot in compacts though. Unfortunately that’s something only possible to achieve by fooling the camera through using a different DX code on the film canister, leaving you tied to that override for the entire roll.
Compared to an all manual camera the mju:II makes a bit of a racket. It’s pretty common for a point and shoot though. Pressing the shutter immediately causes a whirring sound as the lens extends to focus, then a faint click is heard from the shutter, followed by a more extended buzz as the lens resets and the next frame is wound on. Once you finish a roll the motorized rewind goes on for quite a while and can certainly be conspicuous in quite environs.
The automation packed into the mju:II makes it a very hands-off experience to shoot. It’s an impressive achievement in clarity of function and the way it handles in use makes a lot of sense. It gets out of your way more than some far more expensive and on paper more competent cameras do.
In many ways it feels like a 1990’s version of the smartphone camera – you can just point & shoot it and get good results for the most part. But it still allows for a few sensible overrides for the things that have the biggest and most easily understood impact on the resulting images.
When used like this the camera’s at its most appealing. Having it tag along when you’re not out to shoot specifically, but want the option to make images if an interesting situation pops up, it’s hard to fault the camera. The experience can feel fluid and relaxed, haphazard even, occasionally leading to pleasant surprises.
However if you start to treat it as anything else than a pure P&S, or expect other things from it, the experience becomes incredibly frustrating instead.
For instance the camera is incredibly flash happy – electing to fire off the flash in all but the strongest of light. It’s possible to override the flash automation and force the camera to choose slower speeds and wider apertures instead, which works fine. However whenever you close the cameras clamshell cover the setting is forgotten.
This makes sense for people simply using the camera as a P&S – it makes sure exposure is good enough regardless of conditions and without you having to remember changing any settings.
But for someone hoping for more control it becomes frustrating instead. If you (like me) usually don’t want the flash to trigger you then have to remember to go through a little dance of pressing a small button twice every time you switch on the camera. Something that quickly becomes tedious and can even feel patronizing.
Flash can definitely be useful at times and having one integrated looks helpful. Still with the bare-bones control set-up it can be a bit fiddly to switch off if you don’t want it to fire, especially considering you need to do it practically every time you switch the camera on.
The same thing carries over for the exposure automation. It’s pleasant that the camera is so consistent about getting the right amount of light through the lens. But if you start becoming picky it can fall short.
As the lens shines most when it’s stopped down it would be nice to take advantage of that when the light allows. But the automation is set up to instead favor faster shutter speeds over smaller apertures. So even in pretty bright light you can often end up with images shot at very large aperture settings.
Once again that probably makes sense for a P&S as it freezes motion more effectively, but for someone wanting to get the best possible image quality out of the camera it can be vexing. Especially since there’s no way to influence or even know what decision the camera lands on when shooting a scene.
So at the end of the day the mju:II forces you to be very binary about using it. It doesn’t adapt to you in the way many contemporary cameras do, instead requiring you to adjust to the restrictions it poses. Treat it like a P&S and be happy with it, expect anything else and be frustrated by it.
Personally I’ve had my ups and downs with the camera. I’ve no problems adjusting to restrictions and often feel happier adapting to the tools I use rather than using something with endless configurability. But as the restrictions have carried over into significant variability of the resulting images I’ve still ended up a bit irritated with it.
Because while I’ve made images I really love with the camera it’s also failed woefully at times, with no error on my part. And while the very nature of photography means you miss a lot of images, I’ve a much harder time getting over it when it’s due to a problem with the gear I’m shooting rather than a mistake of mine.
That’s not to say I’ve not enjoyed the camera. It’s been in my bag or jacket most anywhere I’ve gone, letting me capture unexpected and unforseen situations at moments notice. And for this it’s been an almost perfect fit. I’ve also made images I’m super happy with in situations where I would’ve been hesitant to even bring any of my “proper” cameras – for instance out to sea, at concerts or bars. The stripped down shooting experience has also felt freeing at times, even if it doesn’t fully resonate with me, and embracing a bit of serendipity has been fun too.
However I’ve found the inconsistency of output very frustrating. Especially as it’s been wholly out of my hands. And for this reason I’ve a hard time fully trusting and really bonding with the camera.
There are some situations where the mju:II feels like a just about perfect fit. Being out to sea is one example and where I’ve enjoyed the camera the most. The simple handling and high level of automation is great when you have other things to keep track of too.
Regardless of my feelings towards it I’ve stopped using the camera for good for one simple reason.
My mju:II suddenly stopped working a few days ago. I’ve no idea what happened to it as I’ve not had any mishaps with it. But it simply won’t turn on anymore. I’ve enquired about having it fixed but so far it sounds like it’d cost way more than I spent getting the camera.
And to me this really highlights why I feel simple, mechanical film cameras are so attractive. Even disregarding the more involved and often more enjoyable shooting experience of a less automated camera there’s something appealing with the idea of a camera working for decades or even centuries with just some slight adjustments from time to time.
Anything electronic feels much more finite in its lifespan.
Obviously a lot of things in our modern society work on this cadence – becoming more and more sophisticated but with shorter and shorter lifespans. And expecting things to last upwards of – or even beyond – two decades is maybe not reasonable in this context. Still to me film cameras have the potential to feel like a respite from this.
Add to this the rapidly rising prices of highly automated film compacts and I’m not sure they’re for me anymore. I’m really reluctant to buy another mju: camera, let alone something higher end, when my time with the mju:II so clearly demonstrated the risk attached with a camera like this.
Quite a bit has happened in the world of pocket cameras in the past few years, and while it’s certainly beyond the scope of this article to cover the changes in depth I feel it’d be remiss to not at least mention.
If I’d written this a while back I’d probably just have brought up a few other nice compact film cameras here and be done with it. But I’m not sure that these type of cameras make as easy a recommendation as they did when the cost like a cup of coffee or two.
Between the rising prices of film cameras, film & development, the rapidly improving smartphone cameras and very refined digital compacts choosing a camera like the mju:II makes less practical sense than they used to.
Being pragmatic about what a perfect pocket camera actually entails it’s hard to make a case for using anything else than your smartphone. It offers good enough image quality these days (even for prints), is smaller still and it’s probably already in your pocket wherever you go.
So shooting a film compact then instead comes down to enjoying the process of it. And if enjoyment is the biggest driver then a true P&S such as the mju:II might not be the ideal choice as it isn’t really a homerun in this regard (in my opinion at least). I’m simply not convinced the appeal is big enough to give a wholehearted recommendation, but I’m also not sure what else is.
Premium compacts like the Contax T-series, the Nikon 35Ti and Ricoh GR cameras all offer better control schemes and more consistent performance. But with the prices of these cameras starting to become pretty crazy and my mju:II so suddenly giving up the ghost I personally feel reluctant to risk it with any of these cameras. The sensation that just a tiny bit of bad luck could make them abruptly end up as several hundred euros worth of paperweights isn’t too compelling.
The Olympus XA might be a better choice as it’s still pretty cheap and a lot of fun to shoot. It remains one of my favorite compacts, though the performance is certainly a step back and feels even harder to accept after getting used to the pleasant output of the mju:II.
So then it might make sense to instead look at a digital compact. Something like the Sony RX100 series of cameras is about as fun to shoot as the mju:II (i.e. not super enjoyable, but good enough) and allows very consistent and high quality results. Sure it’s a bigger initial investment and the deprecation is a lot higher, but it’s probably not too much more than you’d be spending on film and development. It might not be more fun, but at least it’s a very practical choice.
Personally though I’ve found sort of a replacement to the mju:II in the unlikely form of a Leica II. It’s an incredibly primitive camera, far less capable and slower to shoot than the mju:II and bigger too. But it fits in my commuter bag equally well as the little Olympus while being a lot more engaging and incredibly fun to shoot. So between that and my phone I’m not sure I feel the need for a straight up replacement to the mju:II*, even though it’ll leave a bit of a gap in my set-up.
* That’s not to say there aren’t a few compacts I’d still consider and would like a go with in due time. I’ve had my eye on the Rollei 35 for a while for instance.
As evident by my back and forth I’m not sure there’s a straightforward bottom line to how good the Olympus mju:II actually is.
In the end it comes down to what you want in a pocket camera. Depending on your wants and needs and how pragmatic you are the mju:II might end up a pretty poor choice.
But if you enjoy the process of shooting film and find adapting to its barebones shooting experience appealing it’s hard to fault. At least as long as you’re willing to put up with some occasional misfocused shots.
It’s very light and compact, reasonably cheap and very easy to shoot. It performs quite well most of the time and frequently the output is way better than the modest nature of the camera would suggest.
This balance of performance, compactness and reasonable price certainly makes it a pleasant experience a lot of the time. There are certainly some other options out there to consider, but as long as you’re fine with its limitations the mju:II makes a great pocket camera. I can certainly see why some people consider it the perfect pocket camera – there are times where I’ve seen it as such. And who knows, maybe you will too…?
All photos in this post were taken using the Olympus mju:II with Fuji Superia 400, developed by Team Framkallning and scanned using the Plustek 8200i. Images of the camera itself were made with a Sony A7 or Fuji X100T. Exif-data is intact. Open any image in a new window for a closer look.