Olympus 35SP 35mm rangefinder photos and review

Barn and tree, Weld County
A different angle on an enigmatic, collapsing barn on Highway 14 in Weld County, Colo. In the spring and summer of 2013, I stopped to photograph this barn half a dozen times, and learned recently that it was razed late in the year. (Daniel J. Schneider)

A short review and a few examples shots from this stellar little powerhouse with a tack-sharp 42mm lens and one of the brightest rangefinders I’ve ever used.

I found this little gem at a thrift store in a decaying vinyl camera bag with a couple rolls of drug store film that expired in the 80s. I’d read a lot about the Trip 35 on the I Shoot Film Flickr group, and heard them mentioned on the Film Photography Podcast. I’d never seen one in the wild, though, and thought this would make as good an introduction to Olympus rangefinders as anything.

16th Street Mall crosswalk
A truly dapper gentleman in the crosswalk at the corner of Cleveland Street on the 16th Street Mall in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

First impressions

The Olympus 35SP is heavier than any other rangefinders I own at almost 1.5 lbs. But it’s one of the most solidly built, too. There isn’t a wiggle to be found and everything on the camera functions smoothly and purposefully.

The controls are arranged very logically — not just because things like the advance level are in the place you’d expect them, but because they are really just right. The focus lever on the lens makes adjusting with just one finger quick and easy, too.

The film back is released by a tab near the bottom of the camera rather than pulling up the winder, which I kind of like because the winder is quite solid, and easy to wind quickly. Since the winder doesn’t pull up at all, the camera’s bottom plate actually has a notch that you’ll be glad for when trying to get a film cartridge in or out. The notch is blocked by a tab on the back cover when closed.

Collapsed barn on Highway 14
A collapsed barn and a stalwart tree off of Highway 14 in Weld County, Colorado. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Lens

The 42mm f/1.7 lens is tack-sharp and a really excellent focal length. It’s a bit closer to fitting the actual definition of a ‘normal’ lens than the standard 50mm, but also pleasantly closer to the street-photography-favorite 35mm lens. At f/1.7, it’s possible to get great isolation and creamy bokeh shooting wide open, and do a lot with not much light. In person, the lens has a golden-brown coating that’s fairly unique and even got me asked a couple questions.

The G Zuiko lens’s seven elements give it the amazing sharpness, and distortion and chromatic aberration are virtually nil. As you can see in the photo below, on cheap, 400ISO drugstore film that expired almost 30 years ago, even the grain doesn’t obscure the sharpness and lack of distortion.

Another one
Yep, another one. By now you’re probably used to the fact that I make this shot or one like it with nearly every camera I find. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Yes, it’s another photo of Denver’s City and County Building from atop the Denver Post building in downtown Denver. It’s no accident that a take a couple shots of it with nearly every camera I try. If it helps, it does feel a little repetitive to me sometimes, too.

Light meter

The auto-exposure mode seem to work pretty well, although I didn’t test it extensively. There’s no way to see if you’re in auto or manual mode without looking at the lens, which is a slight negative, but I think it’s one you’d get used to pretty quickly.

The 35SP has one of the only dual-mode light meters of its day with both a center-weighted normal metering mode and a narrow 6-degree spot-meter mode available at the touch of a button. If light is entering the meter, it is on, so no worrying about turning it on or off. Sadly, this means a lot of mercury-replacement air cells (not that they last very long, anyway) or adapting a 1.4V silver-oxide battery.

The Olympus 35SP rangefinder camera
Four views of the 35mm rangefinder Olympus 35SP. The lens is big and beautiful, with a distinct yellowish sheen to it, and the rangefinder is exceptionally bright and sharp. A touch heavy, but a great value for its incredible sharpness and ease of use. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Viewfinder

The rangefinder itself is one of the brightest I’ve ever seen. The bright patch is smaller than on my Konica Auto S2, but it’s also clearer. Incidentally, the bright patch also indicates the approximate size of the area seen by the spot metering mode.

The finder includes a very readable meter display using the EV system which makes calculating exposures in your head a breeze once you get used to it. The aperture and shutter speed rings are knurled in such a way that they can be moved evenly together so you can change from shooting wide to narrow, or from fast to slow shutter speeds, without changing the EV relationship. The finder also has really clear brightlines for parallax correction

Interestingly, the film speed setting is on the left side of the camera’s top plate assembly. Turns out this is because it actually controls a small aperture in the light-meter assembly rather than being otherwise mechanically coupled.

Sheraton Hotel Denver
The I.M. Pei-designed Zeckendorf Plaza Hilton, now the Denver Downtown Sheraton, provides a wide variety of patterns for interesting viewing from most any angle. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Final thoughts

Really small thing I noticed: The strap attachment points are in a place where the camera seems to balance more consistently than most of the my other rangefinders from that era, which makes it comfortable to carry even accounting for the greater weight.

Misc: The timer on mine works smoothly and releases after about 8 seconds, and the camera has a flash shoe on top. The frame counter has a big, bright orange indicator arrow which leaves no question as to whether you’re on the even frame numbers or in between them (on an odd-numbered frame). The shutter release is big, comfortable, solid, and even has a half-depress state that locks in the exposure if you’re using the auto-exposure, like many cameras decades newer. It is threaded for a standard cable release.

There is simply nothing about this camera that doesn’t scream quality. It’s solid, smooth, shiny, comfortable, easy … all in the right places and proportions. It just has the feel of excellence you’ve felt in Leica, Hasselblad, Contax and their ilk.

No wonder some have called it one of the best rangefinders ever made.

Photos of the camera itself taken with my iPhone 5 using the latest ProCamera app. Montage assembled in Photoshop.

Additional note: I’ve decided to sell this camera. Hit me up on Twitter if you’re interested. I have a small soft case, the manual, and will throw in a vintage camera strap if you want one. UPDATE: The Olympus 35SP has been sold and will be on its way to a new home in the Lone Star state tomorrow. I look forward to seeing what’s next for it!

Review Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Olympus 35SP 35mm rangefinder camera
Author Rating
5
  • ludwigvan66 .

    Aagghhh….you sold it? I’d shit myself if I found a 35SP in a thrift store.

    Nice photos, BTW.

    • Yeah, I’m surprised it went so fast. I’ve seen one other and didn’t buy it since I’d already had the one. If I see another at a fair price, I’ll snag it and post something. I’ve been thinking about keeping my eyes open for more cameras to resell; I like seeing them go to good homes.