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Olympus Auto Eye

A clever camera in the shadow of better known models.

Olympus Auto Eye

Why is the Olympus Auto Eye a Landmark Camera?

1: The first Japanese camera fixed lens camera with shutter priority automatic exposure.

Probably the most notable cameras that Olympus produced during the late 50s and early 60s were the PEN series of half frame cameras. Stylish and of high-quality, they inspired many imitators.

At the same time Olympus were producing fixed lens 35mm rangefinder cameras, and a one-off interchangeable lens rangefinder camera, the Olympus Ace. The Ace arrived in 1959. The following year, a camera that shared much of that camera’s external design was introduced as the Olympus Auto Eye.

Somewhat forgotten about, this camera was Japan’s first fixed lens camera with shutter priority automatic exposure. Once again where Olympus blazed a trail, other manufacturers followed with cameras including some kind of automated exposure feature.

Olympus Auto Eye

The secret to the Auto Eye’s automatic exposure system was the selenium cell meter, protected by the the knobbly glass window on the front of the camera below the shutter release. The selenium cell meter was not a new innovation. Before the Second World War, Zeiss Ikon had uncoupled meters on their Contax III and Super Ikonta 533/16 cameras. Kodak produced the astonishing and beautiful Kodak Super Six-20 in 1938 with automatic exposure, but it was not a success. The coupling of meters started to gather pace in the late 50s. You can find out more in this article called Always the Sun.

Olympus Auto Eye top
Top of the Olympus Auto Eye

You set film sensitivity with an ASA film dial situated on the lens barrel. Immediately in front of this is the shutter speed selector dial with speeds ranging from 1 second to 1/500th of a second using a COPAL SV leaf shutter

Pre-VU for you

After selecting film speed and shutter speed you can look through the viewfinder and press down the “Pre-VU”  button, situated at the front of the camera just to the right hand side of the lens barrel. This activates the meter and provides the user with a mechanical readout of the selected aperture in a window at the bottom middle of the viewfinder.

Olympus Auto Eye rear
Rear of the Olympus Auto Eye

The viewfinder itself has a slight blue tint with a very bright yellow frame, and the aperture numbers are also very well illuminated. For under or over exposure, you can see red curly arrows. This is an unusual but ingenious system that allows you to preview exposure and to correct exposure errors before pressing the shutter.

Olympus Auto Eye Finder View
Viewfinder showing bright frame, rangefinder patch and aperture display

The rangefinder patch on my copy of this camera is excellent; very clear and easy to use. The top of the camera has a conventional layout with the film advance containing a handy film speed reminder that you set manually.

Olympus Auto Eye
Olympus Auto Eye with original lens cap

The shutter release button has a degree of resistance. I believe this is because it helps to move the mechanical aperture read out that you see in the viewfinder before releasing the shutter.

Olympus Auto Eye in half case
Olympus Auto Eye in case. Pre-VU button can be seen to the left of the lens.

Of typical 60s design, this camera is pleasant to look at and feels good in the hand. The meter on my camera is no longer accurate, which is a bit of a challenge for an automatic exposure camera.

Meter woes

Loaded with ISO 400 film and set at 1/500th of a second shutter speed in bright sunshine, I was expecting an aperture of around f/11 or f/16. Instead, I was getting an aperture of f/2.8. Part way through the film I set the ASA dial to 800 and then edged it onto the “-“ marker, effectively compensating in total by 2 stops. The meter then gave me a reading of closer to what I expected.

Olympus Auto Eye

Photographs taken with the Olympus Auto Eye

During a walk, the “Pre-VU” button which is attached by a screw thread fell off and I didn’t realise until I came to take the next photograph. Disappointed, my wife nevertheless encouraged us to retrace our steps and incredibly we found it glinting in the evening sunshine by the side of the country road we were walking along. Such a trivial thing made me smile.

I used Ilford HP5 developed at box speed in Hydrofen. Thankfully, the exposures came out okay, bearing in mind the inaccurate meter.

Further Reading:
The 6 Million P Man

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  1. I just found one in a street market in Geneva. Rangefinder is lazy to move and selenium seems dead. I’ll repair it when I am less busy (

    • Hi Jean-Philippe. You have yourself a mention for your service on the website! I have a couple of classic SLRs that need fixing before I can use and write about them.

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