Olympus Trip 35: Every bit as good as its reputation

Olympus Trip 35 front
Not quite a rangefinder, the Olympus Trip 35 is a compact 35mm camera with auto-exposure and a selenium-cell light meter. The black model was only made for two years, early in the production run. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I didn’t just stumble on the Olympus Trip 35. I knew all about its excellent reputation as a sharp, simple camera with a good pedigree.

I’m fairly certain I first heard of the Trip 35 on the the Film Photography Podcast some years back, when the hosts were going through a bit of an obsession with the little powerhouse.

It’s the 1960s equivalent of a point and shoot — much more than a box camera, but almost as hands-off as can be. Set the ISO and the focus range, and fire away.

I mentioned the Trip 35 back in February, and discussed a little about production numbers and dates, etc. The important parts are: black ones were only made for a couple years and tend to command much higher prices, especially in good shape — but they’re the same as the silver ones underneath the enamel.

Description

Olympus Trip 35 lens controls
Most of the Olympus Trip 35’s controls are rings on the lens barrel, where you can set the film speed and adjust focus, and choose an aperture manually for use with a flashgun. You’ll most likely leave it in auto the majority of the time. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Trip 35 is a small camera, just a little larger than the later Olympus 35RC, and fairly lightweight. It still feels good, though, in line with many other cameras of its era. Though it has some plastic in it, it is primarily a metal camera with all that vintage solidity.

Being a product of an era when high standards of quality seemed to apply across the board, it’s a whole lot better than one might expect today based on the quality gulf between high-end and low-end, which started to broaden noticeably in the 1970s and is now rather abyssal. The lens is exceptionally sharp, the auto-exposure system is at the top of its class, and the viewfinder is bright and accurate.

The lens is a 40mm f/2.8 D.Zuiko — a four-element design that bests a lot of the Trip 35’s direct competitors’ three-element lenses. While it’s not as fast as some of the f/1.9 and f/1.7 lenses in the pack, the sharpness is tough to beat.

Olympus Trip 35 top cover
The top cover of the Olympus Trip 35 houses the hot shoe, shutter release, serial number and frame counter. Behind the shutter release, on the back of the top cover assembly, is the thumbwheel film advance. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The light meter uses a selenium photovoltaic cell, with a large light-gathering matrix surrounding the lens. The Trip 35 requires no batteries to operate, but if the meter dies, the camera will not function in auto mode.

The auto-exposure system features only two shutter speeds — 1/200 second and 1/40 second. In auto mode, it hunts through apertures at 1/200 in an attempt to make a proper exposure, and then slows down to 1/40 to continue the hunt if necessary. If a proper exposure isn’t possible at 1/40 second and f/2.8, a translucent red flag will pop up in the viewfinder. Otherwise, the exposure is made.

Looking through the viewfinder, you’ll notice a simple brightline frame with some parallax correction marks. It’s not huge, but it’s big enough, and it’s bright enough, too. Below the main viewfinder is a tiny prism that adds a view of the markings on the control rings on the lens barrel so you can see the aperture and focus.

Olympus Trip 35 viewfinder
A look through the viewfinder of the Olympus Trip 35 reveals brightline framing lines and a secondary window that displays the focus and aperture settings on the lens. (Daniel J. Schneider)

On the lens barrel you can set the film speed (from ASA 25 to 400) by turning the 43.5 millimeter filter ring, and also the aperture for flash mode. The aperture ring has an “A” for auto mode, and the rest of the fixed aperture settings are meant to pair with the subject distance to match a flashgun’s guide number. When a manual aperture is selected, the shutter is locked at 1/40 second. The shutter can be permanently modified to stay at 1/200, but this will limit the camera’s low-light abilities.

The third setting on the lens barrel is the expected one — focus. The Trip 35 uses zone focusing rather than a rangefinder. The four pictographs correspond to fairly standard distances: a little head and shoulders for 1 meter, two little heads and shoulders for 1.5 meters, two full-length people and a kid for 3 meters, and a mountain for infinity. In case you forget (or just prefer numbers to pictographs), the opposite side of the focus ring has distance markings. The pictograph is what gets shown in the viewfinder, though.

The shutter release button is threaded for a cable release. The rewind knob has a flip-out crank, and there is a frame counter on the right shoulder. The film advance is a thumbwheel on the back edge of the top cover behind the shutter release button.

Snow melt in alley
Snow melt fills an alley in Denver, reflecting buildings in the harsh late winter sun. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Be sure to push in the take-up spool release button on the bottom cover before rewinding, and rewind before opening the film door with the small silver latch tab on the bottom left corner of the camera.

There is a standard tripod mount on the bottom, and the top features a hot shoe (and there’s a PC sync socket on the front cover, below and to the right of the lens).

And that’s about it — there just isn’t a lot of technical detail to the Trip 35, but there is elegance in simplicity.

With that, let me tell you what I like about it.

Impression

I didn’t expect to like the Trip 35 so much at first. I mean, hearing it talked about and seeing so many articles, I expected it to be just another 1960s-70s rangefinder-wannabe. Don’t misconstrue that to mean I expected it to be bad — but I didn’t expect it to set itself apart.

Longmont Historical Society
Now the home of the St. Vrain Historical Society, the little church in downtown Longmont has been well restored. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I think I was wrong. It’s not the best camera I’ve ever used, by any means, but its euphony of size, fit and finish, function, and image quality is really pretty special.

I’m not shy about my troubles with zone- and scale-focus cameras. I have terrible luck with them, mostly because I don’t remember to focus them before I press the shutter. I don’t know that I wouldn’t have better luck if I used them (or, more likely, one of them) more of the time, but in the limited experience I have with them, I just don’t remember more than half the time.

The Trip 35, though, solves that problem for me by showing me the focus setting clearly and brightly in the viewfinder. For me, this clears the biggest roadblock in the way for me to get good images with this class of camera. And for me, at least, it was by far the biggest roadblock.

Okay, okay — the images I’m attaching here aren’t so great — but they’re meant to check the thing out: to see lens distortions and aberration, focus across the breadth of the frame, and so on. And a lot of them also are taken as opportunities for me to test out the feel of the camera.

St. Vrain Masonic Lodge
The gated entrance to the St. Vrain Masonic Lodge, with the sun glinting off the gold paint on the transom window, in Longmont, Colo. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The film counter on mine was stuck at first. In fact, it was stuck all through my testing. I didn’t figure out how to unstick it until I was writing this. I’m not sure how I managed to miss the solution — I just opened the film door with the shutter uncocked and operated the advance, and the counter reset to the “S” (for Start). Everything else worked right from the start.

I found my Trip 35 at an antique mall, and while I paid below market for it, I didn’t get a thrift-store price. I’m okay with that. I’d been expecting one to turn up in a thrift store after all the talk, but not having actually seen one in five years of trawling thrift stores for photographica, I decided to go for it. Once I had it my hands, it pretty much wasn’t going back in the cabinet.

As stated above, it’s the much-less-common black version of the Trip 35. It’s not perfect — it has a few scuffs and signs of use on the enamel. But the lens is crystal clear and everything works as it should.

Longmont church
“Old” St. Stephen’s Church, now home to the St. Vrain Historical Society, nestles between historic buildings in downtown Longmont, Colo. Longmont’s historical preservation efforts have been strong for more than 50 years. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I found the size exceptionally right. It’s almost as small as a camera could be and still feel like it fills my hands adequately. The arrangement of the controls is good — really good. The film advance is smooth and fast. The shutter release has just the right amount of tension.

The shutter is quiet, too. Not silent — or even quite as silent as some others — but it’s impressively quiet. I can see why it’s prized for street photography. No batteries required, easy to zone focus, and, in decent light, no fiddling with exposure. It truly becomes point and shoot.

The results are great, too. Sharp from edge to edge, no noticeable distortions, and minimal chromatic aberration. My color tests were with expired film, but the results struck me as good. Contrast on the black and white shots, taken with Ilford Delta 100, was excellent.

If I had a complaint, it would be that the Trip 35’s aperture ring is narrow enough to be difficult to operate with my big sausage fingers. But it’s not really designed to be used without a flash attached, which is something I just don’t do very often.

One minor issue I had — and it was all me — was missing a ton of pictures because I didn’t check that it was loaded. With or without film, the Trip 35 happily clicks away. I think, at one point, I took about 40 pictures and started to wonder why I wasn’t out of film. Turning the rewind knob a bit, I realized there wasn’t any film in the camera, so I loaded it and spend some time retracing my steps to re-take what I could.

The only realistic avenues for improvement with the Trip 35 would be to give it fully manual controls, or a coupled rangefinder. Those deficiencies prevent me from rating the Trip 35 a perfect five stars, but don’t take that to mean you shouldn’t try one out if you have the chance — it’s a really great little camera.

Here are the rest of the test shots I feel like displaying:

Longmont Speakeasy
Longmont, Colo.’s Speakeasy bar is tucked in a basement under one of the well-preserved buildings in the historic district. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Pikes Peak or Bust
Pikes Peak or Bust, a sculpture on display outside of Republic Plaza in downtown Denver designed to pay homage to the ’59ers and the Pikes Peak Gold Rush in Colorado. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Bench symmetry
Bench with (somewhat) symmetrical potted trees. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Denver parking garage
Looking into the entrance of an old parking garage in downtown Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Fire escape
Recent favorite test shot: A fire escape in an alley off Denver’s 16th Street Mall. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Parking garage sign
A vintage parking garage sign on an Art Deco-era building in downtown Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)
  • I have one of these too, and I like it a lot. My only quibble is that the shutter button and winding knob both feel like they belong on a disposable camera. But otherwise, this is a satisfying camera to use and it returns solid results. Like you, I’m not usually a fan of zone-focus cameras, and for the same reason. Like you, I find that the in-viewfinder focus display makes a lot of difference in whether I remember to focus!

    • I’m guessing you have a later model than mine — my shutter button is solid and feels nice, and the winder is heavy plastic, nicely molded. I understand that starting in the early 1970s, the shutter buttons moved to being plastic, and the mold quality on the winder knobs went down. I’ve seen more than one complaint about them feeling cheap after that change (in ’74 or ’75, I think?). Hard to go wrong with this thing, though. I’ve never had a roll form a zone focus camera without at least a handful of forgot-to-focus-and-man-does-it-look-bad frames before the Trip 35!

      • I think mine is an early one as it has the silver shutter button. I think later ones were black. But I dunno, maybe I’m being too hard on these features!

        • Oh yeah, the silver should be metal based on what I know. I wonder what would make yours feel cheap. Maybe our standards are just different! :P