Olympus Mju II Review – a Skeptical Look at a Cult Favorite

A skeptic at heart, I’d been side-eying the Olympus Mju II for a long time. As prices for this tiny point-and-shoot camera from the 1990s continued to climb over the last few years, my incredulity only intensified. In a no longer private conversation with fellow CP writer Dustin, he affirmed my suspicion when he opined that the Mju II is nothing more than “plastic junk.”

But I’m nothing, if not curious.

Last month I decided to give away a goodie package via the site’s Instagram page in conjunction with our podcast pals at Analog Talk. Fans and followers could enter their name into the figurative hat, and we’d pick a random winner to receive a CP tee shirt, a sticker pack, some film, and a Mju II. Knowing that my accountant would want to know how much money I’m giving away, I browsed around to see what sort of prices these Mjus were now commanding.

My disbelief reached Loch Nessian proportions.

At an average price of $250 (more for one that’s black, and much more for the rare and limited glittering burgundy model) the Olympus Mju II is one of the priciest point-and-shoot cameras of its type and time. But should it be so expensive?

I decided to spend a few weeks with one to see if I could answer that question.

First impressions are important. I’ve held Olympus Mju IIs and Stylus Epics (as they were called outside of Japan) more times than I can count, and I’ve sold plenty to customers through my store. In the hundred-or-more times I’ve picked one up, I’ve never been impressed.

But maybe “impressed” isn’t the best word. “Uninterested” may be closer to the mark. There’s just nothing, when holding this camera in the hands, to get excited about. It’s a plastic camera made in the 1990s. It’s light (in both weight and ostensible build quality), sounds hollow, and feels a bit flimsy. The film door seems poised to snap off, the sliding clamshell on/off switch and combination lens cap flexes with every actuation, and the battery door (apparently weather-sealed) never seems to seal quite perfectly. Not limited to this single example, these fit and finish quirks are present in every Olympus Mju II I’ve ever held.

Measured against its contemporary competition (plastic point-and-shoots of the ’90s), this is all perfectly normal. In fact, the Mju II is one of the better built point-and-shoots of its time. But that says less about the high quality of the Olympus and more about the low quality of much of its competition.

The problem, really, is that it’s 2018. There’s no longer any reason to compare the Olympus Mju II to its contemporaries or cameras in its class. Its time has come and gone. Today, it’s much more useful to compare any given film camera we want to any other film camera, because they’re all essentially doing the same thing.

Why shoot film? Why shoot this particular film camera? Why shoot a Mju II when we can shoot a Nikonos V, or an Olympus XA, or a Minolta X700? That’s the real question today. And the sad truth about the Mju II’s build quality, is that it’s a cheap toy compared with film cameras that I truly love to use.

Harsh, I know. And it gets worse before it gets better.

Part of the fascination with shooting film, and for me it’s a very substantial part, is that shooting film allows me to use cameras that are pinnacle mechanisms. I’m too young for the wistful eyes and the tired “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” but as it relates to 1990s point-and-shoots compared with, say, a compact rangefinder from the 1970s, well, they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

There are no dials on the Mju II with which to adjust settings. There are no controls beyond paltry flash and self-timer adjustments (and in the case of my DLX version, a useless and frankly fraudulent panorama switch). There’s no aperture control or manual focus, there’s no shutter speed adjustment or ISO control for push/pull. The shutter release button is an acute ovoid of faux-chrome plastic, and every time I press it I can’t help but wish I was pressing the brilliant synthetic ruby shutter release of the Contax T or the soft-release of the Nikon SP (dare I say, real cameras).

Metal dials, adjustment knobs that click with refined precision into deeply set mechanical detents, ball bearing shutters, a film advance lever or, barring that, at least a mechanical film advance that sounds delightfully mechanical (go listen to the salacious audio file included in my Contax G2 review). These are the things I like. These things are the reasons I shoot film cameras. The Mju II provides none of these things.

But, wait. Before you Mju fans grab your pitchforks I’ll admit it – the Olympus Mju II does a lot of things really well. And a lot of the things it does well are admittedly much more important than those things that I just whined about, the user experience of a film camera in 2018.

To start, it has a fantastic lens. Sharp and punchy, with a fast maximum aperture and Olympus’ superb multi-coated glass, it’s a real performer and the main reason for the camera’s cult-and-creeping-into-mainstream following. A prime lens with a focal length of 35mm ensures it will mostly work to frame any shooting situation, and the f/2.8 maximum aperture makes it passably proficient in low-light when shooting with the camera’s built-in flash switched off.

Images from the four elements in four groups lens are sharp from edge to edge, and vignetting is minimal. Chromatic aberration, distortion, ghosts and flares are all nearly entirely mitigated. These optical issues simply won’t factor, which is atypical in point-and-shoot film cameras.

When Yoshihisa Maitani designed the Olympus XA, he wanted to build a tiny camera capable of making images of the same high quality as those made with his full size SLR and Leica rangefinder lenses. He did it with that camera, and the Mju II is, in this way, a spiritual successor. It makes beautiful photos in the right light, and with virtually zero input from the photographer.

Next, the Mju II’s active multi-beam autofocus system is without a doubt one of the best ever fitted into a point-and-shoot film camera. Capable of focusing as close as 0.35 meters (just over one foot), it snaps to focus with a rapidity that’ll be quick enough for any shooter’s needs. A half-press of the shutter locks focus upon the single point in the middle of the frame, so those shooters familiar and comfortable with the focus-and-then-compose methodology will feel at ease with the Mju II.

The AF system can be fooled by reflective surfaces or when shooting through glass, and it’s not as full-featured as some focus systems found in Canon’s later point-and-shoots or even the truly amazing AF system found in the “gets-no-respect” Chinon 3001, but in my testing, the Mju II missed only two percent of AF attempts. That’s hard to beat.

Lastly, its metering system is fantastic, and this is of utmost importance in any point-and-shoot, but doubly important in a camera like the Mju II which totally lacks any and all exposure controls (this is a legitimate point-and-shoot – there’s not even an exposure compensation switch or backlight button). Even in extremely challenging light, the Mju II always seemed to get it right, or at least render things in a way that some artistry was retained even if an objectively proper exposure was not. In addition to the standard average metering mode, spot-metering can be turned on by pressing both the flash and self-timer buttons at the same time. This mode works equally well, especially when paired with the camera’s focus-and-recompose methodology mentioned earlier.

These major strengths of the Mju II are interesting individually, but not electrifying. No single part of the Mju II is special. Other point-and-shoot cameras like the Pentax UC-1 (another cult favorite) rival the Mju’s tiny size, but the lens is slower and the AF system not as fast or accurate. Minolta’s Rivas have aspherical lens elements and distortion-free zoom lenses that are far more versatile than the Mju’s prime 35mm, but it’s utterly massive. Nikon made plenty of point-and-shoots with extra-low dispersion glass, and these make sharper images than the Mju, but like the Minolta they’re incomparably large. Some Leica point-and-shoots offer aperture control and focus control, but cost three times as much and break just as often.

None of these other mentioned cameras, and indeed no other point-and-shoot that easily springs to mind, offers everything the Mju II offers in quite an elegant go-anywhere package. It absolutely does have the best combination of fast glass, brilliant lens, quick AF, and a compact form factor.

But just because it’s smaller than those other cameras doesn’t mean it’s an obvious winner. The Mju II doesn’t actually fit into my pant’s pocket without producing an unsightly bulge. The bulge it makes is just a bit less unsightly than the bulges made by those other, larger cameras.

And I have to mention that the Mju II has a really irritating habit of resetting the flash mode whenever it’s powered off. So if you like to shoot without a flash, as I do, better get used to automatically pressing that button every time you turn on the machine. And if you like shooting with the sort of flash that the Mju II boasts, that confuses me. It’s direct, overpowered, and makes images look gross.

If it sounds like I’m dismissing the Olympus Mju II or being a contrarian, I’m not. I like the Mju II quite a bit, actually. It’s a great camera. Splash-proof and tiny, with a great lens, I can easily envision a person for whom the Mju II is the perfect camera. For a very specific photo geek, one who wants a really capable point-and-shoot to carry everywhere, everyday, and who doesn’t want to think about anything except pressing the shutter release button and hoping against hope that the aesthetic of film and their vision through a tiny viewfinder will magically combine to create a wonderful photo, the Mju II could be the perfect camera.

It’s just that, for me, there’s no reason to ever shoot one. It’s not compact enough to be an invisible partner. It’s not adjustable enough (or at all) to replace my larger cameras and their amazing lenses. It’s not fast enough to replace manual focusing and my preferred zone focus technique in fast-shooting situations, and its not inexpensive enough to say, “Sure, why not.”

But worst of all, it’s not interesting enough to keep me interested.

If I’m walking out the door and I’m committed to shooting film, there are about fifty other cameras that are more interesting. And that, when it comes to my personal relationship with the Olympus Mju II, is that.

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