Stylus and Stylus Epic

Two pocket classics by Olympus

I wrote this page after being asked, not once, for a recommendation for a simple, pocketable camera, capable of delivering quality results.

It was originally posted in 1998, but still remains of more than only historical value. The Stylus Epic stayed in production until 2003, and both models can be bought (cheaply!) on the used-camera market.


The "old" Stylus: a classic and a bargain!

Back in 1991, while still using my SLR for taking pictures on slide film, I bought a backup camera: the original Olympus Infinity Stylus (called Mju in Europe). It was inexpensive, compact and handy to carry along with (or instead of) my SLR system for shooting family pictures and mementos on negative film.

As it soon turned out, the unassuming Stylus was a respectable camera by its own and I used it much more than I thought I would.

Its f/3.5 lens was of surprisingly good quality: most of my 8x10 or 11x14 prints (close to the standard European 18x24 or 30x40 cm formats) were almost as good as these shot with SLR lenses.

It also had a precise autofocusing down to 35 cm (rare among pocket cameras), quite accurate two-zone exposure metering and a neat clamshell design.

True, the construction was all-plastic, but you wouldn't expect anything else from a camera in this price range (I paid $130); a metal-bodied model would cost you three to eight times more.

Four years later I've lost that camera and immediately replaced it with the same model. This one had a bad luck: in 1997 it stopped working after I spilled beer on it (please don't ask me how). Yeah, splashproof it certainly wasn't.

As I was already addicted to having a small pocket camera on me most of the time, it was time to see my friendly photo dealer again. This time I decided to get a newer model: the Stylus Epic (in Europe called Mju-2). And, boy, am I delighted!

Note of 2003: The original Stylus is no longer being manufactured (more than ten years, not too shabby!), but you can buy a clean, working one second-hand for $20-$30 - an incredible bargain, as it still will deliver pictures better than most P&S cameras! By the way, the camera splashed with beer was repaired in Poland at the expense of $3 or so, and still serves the current owner just fine.

And in Spring of 2003, Popular Photography ran a story on the Stylus Epic, with conclusions coinciding with mine. Well, with the inroads digital cameras are making lately, this may be the last great small camera we will see...

Stylus Epic: how to improve on a good thing

It is risky to try to improve upon a classic, but it took me just a few months with the new camera to conclude that the good people of Olympus succeeded in every aspect.

The new Epic (in Europe: Mju-2) is also quite inexpensive: you can get one for $90 or so (as of 2002), even in the "deluxe" version: gold, with date imprint (for which I paid $160 back in '96).

Really, I consider date imprinting a next-to-useless gadget (although it may be handy on the first frame of each film) but the gold metallic look is hard to resist.

The first thing you notice is that the new model is even smaller than the previous one (watch your fingers: it is very easy to put them in front of the lens or the flash). It is also quite pretty, especially the gold version.

The wedged shape makes the camera look even smaller than it really is. The clamshell cover closes, hiding the lens, flash and viewfinder.

The back contains all controls: date imprint mode and clock setting (right), and, most importantly, flash mode and self-timer buttons (bottom).

The bottom buttons scroll through the displayed symbols — self-explanatory; to switch into spot metering mode (or back), both have to be pressed at the same time.

More important, however, are improvements in the specs, all very welcome (and yes, the Epic is splashproof!).

  • First of all, the lens is now a 35 mm f/2.8 (which means that the film gets 56% more light at full aperture); its construction has also been changed from three to four elements. This should make it even better; I wasn't able to see a significant difference in my enlargements, but the tests and reviews I've read are raving about the lens, comparing it to lenses sold for SLRs.
  • Second, the Epic has a much wider range of shutter speeds: from 4 to 1/1000 of a second; unmatched by any other point-and-shoot camera.
  • The two-zone exposure metering (providing extra exposure and/or a burst of the flash for backlighted subjects) has been complemented with a spot-metering mode; I'm using it rarely, but when I need it, I really do.
  • Last but not least, the Epic's autoexposure can now be switched to the "night flash" mode, using long shutter times to expose the background, while the foreground is still illuminated mostly by the flash. (Warning: the exposure times can be very long in this mode; try to hold the camera very steady or even use a tripod!)

This is the cross-section of the Stylus Epic lens (with the film plane at the right). We can see that this is not a simple anastigmat, like in most non-zoom point-and=-shoot cameras, and the last element is aspherical (I'm not sure: glass or molded plastic).

In any case, this lens beats any compact zoom hands down, and when stepped down (in good light) it delivers most pleasing results!

Why not a zoom?

This is the first question I hear from the people who have a look at the Epic. The guys who invented the term "zoom lens" did a great marketing job: I don't think zooms would sell so well in point-and-shoot cameras if they were just called "variable focal length" lenses or so.

Many pocket cameras have zooms. Olympus has zoom look-alikes of both Stylus cameras, old and new. They are not much more expensive. Still, I'm not recommending them, and, putting the cost factor aside, this is why.

  • Zoom lenses, especially compact ones, have a significantly lower image quality than lenses with fixed focal length. To make a zoom lens pocketable the designers have to make heavy compromises. The quality may be OK for 4x6 (10x15 cm) prints, but not much more.
  • Zoom lenses have much smaller apertures (in other words they require faster film and/or longer shutter speeds, which makes the pictures more prone to camera shake.) For example, the 35-70 version of the Stylus has the aperture of 4.5 at the shorter end and 6.9 at the long one, which translates in the required shutter speed being 2.6 times or 6.1 times longer. Especially in the later case this translates into a significant percentage of unsharp pictures when used under less than bright light conditions.
  • Longer focal lengths are more sensitive to inaccuracies in focusing. Although the autofocus system in both models is good, when the distance to the main subject is not the same as the distance to the object on which the camera focused, the picture will be not quite as sharp when the longer focal length (narrower angle) is in use.
  • Zoom versions of cameras in the same family are somewhat larger and heavier.

The only real advantage of zoom lenses is that the longer focal lengths give more pleasing effects when shooting close-up portraits (say, closer than from the waist up). But then, if you are into portraits, you will be much better off with an SLR equipped with a 100 mm or so lens. Remember, we are talking about casual (yet quality) photography here!

Specifications at a glance
Camera Stylus Stylus Epic  
Lens 35 mm f/3.5
3-element
35 mm f/2.8
4-element
[1]
Minimum aperture f/16 f/11 [2]
Shutter speeds 1/15 - 1/500s 4 - 1/1000s [3]
Autofocus
No. of steps
Min. distance
Infinity lock
Active spot
100
35 cm (14")
No
Active three-spot
400
35 cm (14")
No
[4,5]
[6]
 
[7]
Exposure metering 2-zone
 
2-zone
Central spot
[8]
[9]
Flash range
(ISO 100 film)
35 cm - 3.3 m (14"-11') 35 cm - 4 m (14"-13') [10]
Flash modes
Auto, off, on, red eye Auto, off, on, red eye,
night portrait
 
[11]
Size 117 x 64 x 38 mm
4 5/8 x 2 1/2 x 1 1/2 "
111 x 60 x 38 mm
4 3/8 x 2 3/8 x 1 1/2 "
 
Weight 184 g (6 1/2 oz.) 145 g (5 1/8 oz.)  
Splashproof No Yes [12]
Accessories None Infrared remote ($15) [13]
Street price
(US, 1999)
$90 (black, data back)
 
$100 (black)
$130 (gold, data back)
 

What does all this really mean?

Camera manufactures like to treat us like idiots: they will be stressing that a camera is cool (whatever that means), while skimping on technical data and, even more so, on explaining what that data means. Well, obviously this approach is good for sales.

If you are buying (or using) a camera, knowing what the specs mean may be quite helpful in making better decisions (or taking better pictures). Here are explanations to the table above, applicable to any camera, not just to the Olympus models.

If you consider yourself technically not-too-adept, skip the finer print, but still go through all the points. One day these things will come useful.

  1. For most indoors pictures on ISO 400 film, an f/4 lens is often considered adequate (smaller values correspond to brighter lenses, better for this purpose).

    The amount of light passing through the lens is inversely proportional to the square of its maximum f-stop. This means, that to compare an f/2.8 (brighter) lens with one of f/3.5 (dimmer), we should calculate (3.5/2.8)2 what results in a factor of 1.56.

  2. This is the smallest aperture (i.e., largest f-stop) to which the lens may close under bright light conditions. The larger the number, the greater depth of field, also less chance of overexposure when using a high-speed film.

    Greater depth of field, although usually preferred in snapshot applications, is not always desirable. For example, shooting portraits you may prefer to have the background out of focus. Unfortunately, point-and-shoot cameras do not offer any control over aperture, thus none over the depth of field - you need an SLR to use this feature creatively.

  3. For most users and for this focal length the slowest handholdable shutter speed is 1/15 s or so. Still, slower speeds provided by the Epic may be handy with a tripod (I bought a pocket one for $5) or using some other form of support. Who said we can't take night pictures with a pocket camera?
  4. Active autofocus uses an infrared light beam sent from the camera. It works well in dim light, but is limited to 10 or 15 feet (3-5 m) distance. For a 35 mm lens this is OK (anything above that may be considered infinity), but for a longer one, a passive autofocus is preferable.
  5. A multi-spot system measures the distance to a number of points (here: three) in the picture and then uses some logic to choose the "right" focus (i.e., a reasonable compromise); usually just the closest one.

    Imagine taking a picture of two people at 6 ft. from the camera, with the single beam pointing just between their heads and setting the focus to infinity - in such cases you should aim the central autofocus area at the subject, lock the focus by depressing slightly the release button, recompose and shoot. Both models allow you to do this.

  6. Most of active systems set the focus in discrete steps (as opposed to continuous setting). The most primitive cameras (not necessarily the cheapest!) may have as few as five steps only; good ones will have a couple of hundred (or a continuous focus);

    For decent results, a 35 mm f/3.5 lens needs at least 20 steps or so between 1 m (3 ft.) and infinity, and additionally more than twice that number to cover the area between 0.3 m (1 ft.) and 1 m. If the full aperture is not used (as when shooting in bright conditions and/or with a higher-speed film) these numbers can be somewhat reduced. Longer focal lengths (see about zooms above) also need significantly more steps.

  7. The infinity lock, missing on both models, allows you to override the autofocus, setting the distance to infinity. This is useful when taking pictures through glass surfaces (an active system will rather focus on the glass itself, not on your subject).

    As much as I would like to have this feature included, if you hold you camera right next to the glass (for example, when shooting through an airplane window), the autofocus will work just fine.

  8. In a two-zone metering one sensor measures the light in a narrow central spot, another one - in a wider area. Based on the difference between the readings, both cameras will adjust the exposure for backlighting and use the flash to fill in the shadows in the backlighted subject.

    The light-metering range of the Stylus Epic also goes down by three f-stops (i.e., eight times slower shutter speed) as compared to that of the Infinity Stylus, which makes it useful in indoor, available-light picture-taking.

  9. Setting the Epic to the spot mode (by pressing both of the larger buttons at the back) makes it to measure the light in the center spot only. It also switches focusing to a single-beam mode, which makes perfect sense. (Most snapshooters will not use this feature, but demanding ones will find it handy!)

    In such cases you should lock the exposure and focus by partially depressing the release button, recompose and shoot.

  10. The maximum flash range varies with the square root of the film ISO speed. This means that for an ISO 400 film the range doubles (e.g., to 8 m for the Epic).

    For smaller distances both cameras will reduce the power of the flash, to avoid overexposed pictures. This is something most point-and-shoot models don't do.
    (Well, even my $700 digital Sony Mavica is too stupid to make this adjustment and this makes flash shooting a nightmare!)

  11. In the night portrait mode the Epic will use slower shutter speed to add extra exposure to the dark background (while the brightness of the foreground, usually a person, will be mostly determined by the flash). This provides for very nice street shots of people at night, as long as you remember to steady the camera.
  12. The Epic will survive an occasional splash of water (or beer), but not a real submersion. If you expose it to sea water, give it a quick rinse under a faucet and gently dry with a paper towel.
  13. The optional infrared RC-100 remote (a tiny, cheap-looking plastic gadget) can be used to release the shutter from up to 10 feet or so - just press the self-timer button at the camera back. It requires some careful aiming, sometimes a little finicky.
    (Ritz Camera charged me $40 for one in Fall '97; a rip-off, considering that you can buy one in mail order for less than $15.)

Recommendations

The Stylus Epic and the original Stylus are rare cases of cameras which I would recommend both to a casual snapshooter and to a serious amateur looking for a backup for an SLR (or just for a camera to carry along all time). Most of the advantage is in the lens, but other specs are also quite good, and the prices are hard to resist: imagine three or four rolls of film with processing.

The Yashica T4 Super (also known as T5 in Europe) is a worthy competitor to these cameras: a good 35 mm, f/3.5 lens, shutter from 1 to 1/700 s, and a funky waist-level viewfinder in addition to the regular one.

The Olympus models, however, are easier to find, and have, from my viewpoint at least, more desirable combination of features, especially the Epic.

References

  • A Stylus Epic (Mju II) page at the photo.net site contains a detailed review by Patrick Hudepohl, operating instructions, and a number of readers' opinions (2000-2006).
  • A user report by D. Colluci, with a number of representative image samples. And check the other articles at that site, too, if you are interested in camera history!
  • As of 2006, Olympus America has some information on the Stylus Epic in their Archived Products section. They also offer a photocopied manual for $10.
  • See also Buying a Point & Shoot Camera — a guide for the perplexed by Philip Greenspun at photo.net, again. You will also find there a page on how to use your P/S.

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Posted 1998/02/02; last updated 2006/03/12 Copyright © 1998-2006 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak