Olympus Moves Upscale and Down Number

Olympus today announced the long-ago leaked OM-D E-M1 camera and 12-40mm f/2.8 lens

e-m1-front.jpg

Right up front we have a big hurdle to jump: the list price of the body alone is US$1400. The new lens, a fast 24-80mm equivalent, is US$1000, though if you buy it with the camera body you get a US$200 discount on the combo. To put this in perspective, a Nikon D7100 is currently US$1150, the recently introduced Canon 7D US$1500. So the E-M1 is living in the tough prosumer DSLR territory right out of the gate. 

To get to the E-M1, Olympus did basically two things compared to the E-M5: 

  • Added the E-P5 changes, including the better EVF (optional on the E-P5). We also get WiFi, a better tilt touchscreen LCD, the faster 1/8000 top shutter speed (and faster flash sync), improvements to the focus and image processing, and more.
  • Added a permanent and sizable grip, rethought and repositioned the twin command dials, added new direct buttons and controls, added PC sync, and changed virtually all the lines and curves.

Overall, the immediate impression is much more DSLR-like than the E-M5, much less "plain jane" than the E-M5, and much more targeted towards a serious user who wants every control at their fingertips. There's a slight gain in size (mostly due to the hand grip) and a gain in weight over the E-M5, but neither of these things put the E-M1 into full DSLR sizes and weights. My initial response was that the E-M1 felt better in the hand than the base E-M5 (disclosure: I use part of the optional grip on my E-M5 partly because I believe the base E-M5 is a little too small and awkward in hand position). 

The E-M5 has been an excellent performer, so the question that most of you are asking is this: is the E-M1 really better? I can't fully answer that in terms of image quality, as I haven't shot with it in the ways I need to in order to form a supported opinion, so I'll leave that aspect for later when I perform my complete review. What I can talk about are the things that are immediately obvious in even short-term use of the camera:

  • EVFYes, the 2.36m dot electronic viewfinder is better. The E-M1 uses the same basic viewfinder as the E-P5's optional VF-4, and it's clearly a step up from the E-M5's EVF. The image is clearer and updates faster. We're getting far closer to "optimal" EVFs now, and the E-M1's EVF is about as good as the current state-of-the-art built into recent cameras. 
  • Focus — The surprise here is that the phase detect sensors on the image sensor are mostly used when you use 4/3 lenses on the camera. While some are wondering why that is, most likely it has to do with the lens motors being used in 4/3 lenses versus m4/3. The 4/3 lenses were optimized for fast focus jumps using phase detect, the m4/3 lenses have been optimized for fast small corrections driven by contrast detection. Thus, single servo focus isn't improved (though it didn't need to be). Continuous servo is better, though we need testing to determine how much. What happens is this: with 4/3 lenses the camera always uses the phase detect sensors (except for video, where focus must be manual). With m4/3 lenses the contrast detection system is the primary focus provider, with phase detect only providing a helping hand (probably mostly directional information) to the contrast-based system.
  • Features/Controls — Olympus pretty much threw the kitchen sink into the E-M1. It has pretty much every feature that Olympus has offered previously, including working well with 4/3 lenses, plus there's been some serious attention to controls, both in position and in configurability. Olympus has now improved their lens correction capabilities to include chromatic aberration correction and even tuning of the sharpening based upon lens. Even small annoyances, such as having a separate door and access to the SD slot on the side of the camera are highly welcome. On the negative side, configuring an E-M1 is going to be just as difficult to figure out as previous m4/3 models from Olympus: we've got more options and pretty much the same complex menu system and terminology. 
  • Accessories — With the built-in hand grip, the E-M1 obviously can't use the E-M5's two-part grip. No worries, we've got a new HLD-7 accessory grip that provides additional power and a vertical set of controls. Fortunately, the E-M1 uses the same batteries as the E-M5 and many of the Pens, so you won't be springing for an entirely new set of odds and ends by picking up the new camera.

Overall, Olympus seems to have engineered another winner in their m4/3 lineup. And I should note: Olympus only has an m4/3 lineup now. 4/3 is officially discontinued, with no new cameras or lenses coming. This decision apparently came with the E-M1's ability to perform well using 4/3 lenses. Frankly, this was something that needed to happen sooner rather than later. The old 4/3 bodies—as I wrote many times from day one of their appearance—tended to be DSLR sized but not at DSLR levels of performance. While the lenses were great, the cameras that used them tended to significantly lag what was available from the DSLR makers in image quality.

But I keep coming back to the prices of these new m4/3 offerings. No camera lives in a vacuum, and these days, we've got plenty of products competing in the above US$1000 class that are, well, exceptional. Olympus seems to be trying to get to a place where they want to charge the same amount of money for a camera that makes a simple tradeoff: smaller size and weight (especially when considered as a system) with slightly lower image quality due to the smaller sensor. (Here comes the hate mail ;~)

With Olympus now using the same Sony sensor technologies that are propagating in other APS-sensored cameras, the sensor size issue is a real one. In theory, a NEX and an OM-D are using the basically the same sensor tech these days. Thus, I expect to see about a two-thirds to three-quarter of a stop difference in raw data at base ISO, all else equal. And that's the interesting problem that Olympus has been trying to engineer its way around. It seems clear that Olympus is using slightly different high ISO strategies (e.g. Gain adjustment) than some others are, but there's nothing stopping others from doing the same thing with an APS sensor. 

Against NEX, the OM-D cameras have no physical size advantage (though lenses do), but an image quality disadvantage. Against APS/DX DSLRs, the OM-D cameras have a tangible size advantage, but both an image quality and other performance disadvantage (though one that's narrowed considerably since m4/3 first appeared). Worse still, some full frame cameras are slowly coming down in price, and now live just above where the E-M1 wants to sell (e.g. US$2000 versus US$1400). If this trend continues—m4/3 prices headed up, full frame headed down—the size versus image quality tradeoff will become seriously obvious.

I've long held that physical size is a relevant factor I'd pay more for to have less, all else equal. I'm not sure why the camera makers don't understand this. The SLR crowd that popularized DSLRs is getting older, the airlines let us carry less weight, and smaller size makes it easier to be more discrete when taking photos. There's strong demand for "smaller" and "lighter" that's not really being served by the DSLR makers at the moment (the Canon SL1 notwithstanding; but it's an entry camera). 

So personally, I'm looking forward to shooting with the E-M1. I'm hoping that it continue to push forward my already positive m4/3 and specifically E-M5 experience in useful ways. I suspect I'm becoming more and more an m4/3 and Nikon FX (full frame) shooter, with Nikon DX getting the short stick. I shoot FX when quality and performance matters, I shoot m4/3 when size and weight matters. One thing that has held me up from shooting even more with m4/3 is the lack of long, fast telephoto with good focus performance. The joke at my recent Botswana photo workshop was that you could always tell when the E-M5 shooter was in your vehicle, because you heard CLICK, CLICK, buzz, buzz, beep, CLICK. (If that was too obscure for you, the first two clicks were the Nikon DSLR shooters, the rest was the E-M5 shooter trying to get focus before his shot was made.) Not to knock what was possible with the 90-250mm f/2.8 lens on the E-M5: I've seen plenty of pictures taken with that combo at the workshop, and they're very good. The issue is getting the system to CLICK when you want it to, not when it's ready.

We have much more to talk about with the OM-D models, but since I was just mentioning lenses, this is a good point to take a look at the new lens: the 12-40mm f/2.8 on paper appears to be a real winner. The Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 is a very good lens, as is the 35-100mm f/2.8. It appears that Olympus is upping the game slightly, eventually producing a 12-40mm and 40-150mm f/2.8 set that gives an m4/3 user 24-300mm at f/2.8. That's one way to try to grab back the sensor size disadvantage. NEX, for example, has no answer to this at the moment. The recently announced 16-70mm E-mount lens is an f/4 lens, and is the only high-quality zoom that comes close to what Olympus and Panasonic are now offering. So for the time being, Olympus wins back that smaller sensor "quality" loss with the lens, while still keeping the smaller size advantage. I believe this is critical to Olympus' holding a place at the serious shooter table. 

But the 12-40mm f/2.8 isn't cheap: it's US$1000. At least there's no "lens hood tax" this time: Olympus supplies the lens hood with the lens for a change. It also has dust and drip proof design and many other very strong features (see 12-40mm f/2.8 database page). 

So where are we with Olympus m4/3? That's actually a good question. The E-M1, despite being four less than the E-M5, clearly is a higher-specified camera, and with the exception of video capabilities, probably the best m4/3 camera available. Both OM-D's will live in the lineup for the time being, so we've got the dissonance of the higher model number being outclassed by the lower. We can probably expect an E-M5 update at some point, though, and that's intriguing. If Olympus can leapfrog the E-M1 with a solid E-M5 update in 2014, the OM-D lineup is going to be well on its way towards establishing a permanent place in the minds of serious photographers. 

I can't help but end with another observation: E-P5, E-M1, 17mm, 75mm, 12-40mm, 40-150mm. Much of Olympus' recent product announcements have all been high end. For several years prior the basic scenario in m4/3 mirrorless went like this: introduce slightly updated consumer models at DSLR prices, unload them at fire sale prices after a year on the market without a lot of takers. While I don't expect Olympus to leave the lower end of mirrorless, I'm not seeing them put a great deal of extra effort into it as they are at the high end. Sony's recent NEX A3000 really puts a point on the low end, too: a point of US$400, to be exact. It's difficult to make a profit at that price point without tremendous volume, and I think Olympus is starting to realize that they're not set up to be a volume shop. 

I don't mind higher priced products like the E-M1 and 12-40mm, just as long as they deliver. Initial impressions are that they do, so I'm hoping that this is just the start of Olympus getting their m4/3 lineup more rationalized and fully fleshed out.   


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