Olympus 35RC rangefinder: A pint-sized powerhouse

Olympus 35RC and Fuji Acros
The Olympus 35RC and a roll of 35mm Fujifilm Neopan Acros 100 film. The Olympus is a tempest in a teacup with its superb lens and full manual controls. (Daniel J. Schneider)

It’s not often you can say this about a compact camera, but the Olympus 35RC packs incredible features and quality into its diminutive package.

I found this tiny camera at a thrift store, like so many others. I actually remember finding it in a bin with a bunch of plasticky point-and-shoots and several rolls of old Plus-X and Tri-X film. It came to me with a leatherette case and narrow webbing shoulder-strap, all for something like $4.

The Olympus 35RC appears to be selling at an incredible rate on eBay presently, and for some wild prices. Don’t let the sellers fool you with the keyword-spammy ‘rare’ in the listing titles — it’s clearly not. You definitely can get one in good shape for less than $50, but you probably shouldn’t pay much more than $30.

Another view of the Olympus 35RC
The tiny Olympus 35RC from a slightly different angle. The compact rangefinder has impressive features for it’s size. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The 35RC has some close cousins, too, like the 35EC, which seem well worth grabbing if you see a deal on one. The rangefinder wars of the 60s and 70s (meaning that’s when the cameras come from — the back and forth over which is best being more recent) leave us with constant comparisons for everything to the Canonet QL17 and whatever else, but none has the size advantage of the 35RC.

Mine came with a bit of schmutz in a few places and an almost imperceptible dent in the top cover. There’s some paint chipped off the lip that overlaps the end of the film door on the left side of the body. The leatherette covering appears to have been re-glued in a few places, and is peeling just a tiny bit at the end of the film door.

But half of that stuff cleaned right up and the other half doesn’t affect a thing.

Features and Specs

The 35RC is really small. Really. Small.

I know I keep saying it, but I can’t get over it. It’s just amazing how much Olympus was able to cram into a package this size. It fits easily in a jacket pocket, and at a svelte 14.5 ounces it’s easy to carry around for hours, with or without a strap. It’s smaller than a lot of my lenses.

Loading the film is pretty simple and self-explanatory, though the rewind knob doesn’t lift at all — the bottom of the camera is notched just like on the Olympus 35SP. There’s a frame counter on the top of the camera’s right shoulder that resets automatically and is clear and reliable.

Stock Show parade longhorns
Longhorns lead the 2015 National Western Stock Show Kickoff Parade through downtown Denver on Jan. 8, 2015. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The 42mm f/2.8 Zuiko (roughly translates to “auspicious optics” according to Camerapedia) lens is exceptionally sharp. The “E.” indicates a 5-element design, giving the 35RC a one-up on most any other cameras in its class.

Olympus 35RC controls
A top-down view of the primary controls on the Olympus 35RC rangefinder. Almost everything is convenient and easy. (Daniel J. Schneider)

42mm is just about the perfect normal lens, and f/2.8 is fast enough to cope with many lower-light situations. The lens has virtually no vignetting and stays sharp all across the frame with very little distortion of any kind. The aperture can be manually selected down to f/22.

Select the film speed using the ring near the center of the lens assembly — turn it to display the film speed in the window below the word “Zuiko” — you have options from ASA 25 up to ASA 800.

On the side of the focus ring is a guide number selector for flash use with the meter. You can mount the flash in the hot shoe on top of the camera or plug it into the PC socket on the left side of the top cover.

Olympus 35RC viewfinder
A look through the bright viewfinder of the Olympus 35RC. Unobtrusive parallax correction lines and bright, clear scales and rangefinder. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Okay, the shutter only has six speeds aside from bulb mode — from 1/500 sec. down to 1/15 sec. But that’s pretty much all the useful ones, right? It’s more than the Yashica-A I wrote about a week ago.

Select the shutter speed using the knob on top of the camera. The knob has no stop at either end of the scale, so it turns all the way around in either direction — super convenient. In the viewfinder, the selected shutter speed is displayed in the top of the frame, and you can see the needle move past the end of the scale and then snap back to the other end as the knob goes around.

The viewfinder is surprisingly big and bright, with a clear brightline display featuring parallax correction lines. The bottom of the brightline frame displays the aperture — the selected aperture if in manual mode, or the aperture the meter has selected if in auto-exposure mode.

Olympus 35RC front view
A front view of the Olympus 35RC. The knurled ring near the center of the lens assembly selects the film speed; the selection appears in the small window to the right. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The bright spot isn’t terribly large, and it’s not the brightest I’ve ever seen. It is plenty bright enough to use, though. The focus ring doesn’t turn terribly far, but it doesn’t really need to. Focus is almost guaranteed unless you’re shooting wide open.

The Olympus 35RC suffers one actual deficiency — it’s designed to use a PX625 1.35-volt mercury battery. I solved this for testing using an adapter purchased from eBay that steps down the voltage from a silver-oxide 386 battery, but it’s still a minor inconvenience.

With the battery installed, you can set the aperture ring to “A,” pick a shutter speed and fire away. Or you can pick your aperture and shutter speed both — full manual mode! Heads up: the meter doesn’t do anything in manual mode.

Diamond Cabaret window
The back door of the Diamond Cabaret strip club on Colfax Avenue in downtown Denver. The same rag has been plugging the hole in the window for at least 10 years. (Daniel J. Schneider)

When shooting with auto-exposure enabled, depress the shutter release about half way to see the aperture the meter indicates. Press the release the rest of the way to fire.

The 35RC has exposure lock capability, too — meter on one scene and simply hold the shutter release half down while you recompose and then fire. The shutter simply won’t fire if the camera’s CdS sensor detects too much or too little light and can’t make an exposure.

You can overcome the useless meter in manual mode by setting the aperture ring to “A” and checking the aperture the meter selects, adjusting the shutter speed until the meter agrees with your desired aperture setting. Then set the aperture manually and press the release. It’s not convenient, sure, but it can work in a pinch.

Regardless which mode you choose, you can press down the lever on the front right of the top cover to put a 9-10 second delay on the shutter after the release is pressed. Add a tripod and you’re all set for old-school selfies.

Westernaires on Tremont
The Westernaires ride down Tremont Place in downtown Denver with the National Western Stock Show Kickoff Parade on Jan. 8, 2015. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The film advance is a flat steel lever that lays almost flush with the back of the camera and extends out from a slot under the edge of the top cover. It’s easy to operate in a quick, fluid motion of one thumb, and contributes to the slim package and its good handling.

When your roll is completed, push in the film advance release on the bottom of the camera, rewind using the knob on the top left of the camera, and pull the tab lock on the bottom left camera to open the film door. Don’t forget to reload!

If you want more technical information, try Ken Rockwell’s detailed write-up. Andrew Yue’s review is chock full of 35RC tips and tricks.

Denver Diner during rebuilding
The Denver Diner, at the corner of Speer Boulevard and Colfax Avenue, is fenced off for remodeling after a fire destroyed the kitchen in October 2014. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The 35RC Experience

The single biggest issue I encountered using the Olympus 35RC was getting the battery cover threaded back in after changing the battery. Getting it started without cross-threading took some fiddling, but eventually I did get it back on. The cover, by the way, appears to have been manufactured with a vent hole in it so it’s ready for a Wein Cell zinc-air battery without modification.

My Olympus 35RC came in fantastic shape, with everything working, but if yours needs a hand you can probably figure out how to fix it with Rick Oleson’s fabulous diagrams.

Hyatt Place/Hyatt House Hotel
The nearly-complete 21-story Hyatt Place/Hyatt House Hotel is the tallest building to be constructed in the southwestern quadrant of downtown Denver in years. (Daniel J. Schneider)

In terms of just shooting, the controls are just very, very conveniently laid out. With the relatively short throw of the film advance lever it can be operated very quickly and lets you snap frames in rapid succession if you want. Auto-exposure just makes it easier, as does the infinite-scroll shutter speed knob at the ready.

Focusing is easy, even with the bright spot being a little small. Occasionally you have to adjust the angle of you eye looking into the viewfinder to get a good look and set your focus, but it’s not hard at all. The lens doesn’t rotate terribly far, which makes focusing fast.

The auto exposure is pretty good, too. The frames here from the 2015 National Western Stock Show Kickoff Parade were all shot with auto exposure using Ilford FP4+ film.

The color shots were taken in manual mode using Kodak Gold 200 that expired in the mid-1990s. You can see the color shifted a bit but I’m pretty pleased with the effect.

Manual mode has its quirks, though — the aperture ring is very narrow and right up against the front of the camera body. The result is that my fat fingers can’t turn the aperture knob without messing up the focus. I don’t know if it would be any easier with smaller fingers — it’s pretty darn narrow.

I’m sitting here looking for flaws with this camera because I want to be honest about it, but it’s really tough. The focus ring does feel a little plasticky, and there are moments it’s almost too small for my big hands.

But really I’m not complaining about any of these idiosyncrasies — just pointing them out in case you decide to try the Olympus 35RC for yourself. I would in no way hesitate to recommend one, though. It’s a fantastic piece of kit.

Pumpkin Patch 1953 F100
A 1953 Ford F100 pickup truck at The Pearl Street Pumpkin Patch & Urban Garden in Denver. You can see the grain and color shift from the expired Kodak film, and I brought the exposure up a tiny bit, too. (Daniel J. Schneider)
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Olympus 35RC camera
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