Olympus

If I had the money, I’d seriously consider an Olympus kit. Oh, I know you’re thinking “This guy’s off his rocker. One day he says Canon, the next day Olympus, what’s next?” Rationally thinking through and making a decision is a very different beast from emotionally wanting something. I want a Nikon D200, but I have to pay tuition.

But I’m talking about Olympus right now.

Olympus has always been in the forefront of the DSLR technology curve. Always a niche player, they decided up-front to eschew the full-frame (35mm) lineage of film cameras and design the 4/3rds format for their new digital SLR line. An “open” format (open is such a loose term) supported by a consortium of Fuji, Sigma, Kodak, Sanyo and Olympus, four-thirds was designed specifically for DSLR sensors. Olympus, nominally the head of the consortium, made Sony’s classic mistake: excessive control. Always a niche player, Olympus’ iron-clad grip hobbled the system from the start. And it’s too bad, since four-thirds had a lot going for it. It was designed to direct light optimally on DSLR sensors, promised interchangeable lenses and bodies from various manufacturers, raised the possibility of lighter bodies and lenses. In short – it looked ideal.

There’s more than four-thirds however. Olympus was the first manufacturer to include an in-camera sensor dust cleaner. DSLR sensors attract dust during lens changes, and cleaning it involved pec-pads, Eclipse, brushes or very expensive trips to the service centers. Olympus solved the problem – and if forums are to be trusted – almost perfectly on the first try. Commendable!

Then there’s the design of the E300. You could almost hear the collective gasp from the community when they saw the body. “What – the viewfinder’s on the side?” “What – there’s no prism hump?” “It looks so…unusual…so unlike a film SLR!” Truth is, most of the DSLR bodies we see nowadays (Nikon D70, Nikon D2x, Canon 20D, Canon IDSMkII etc.) are essentially film bodies with digital sensors. I believe the manufacturers took this approach for various reasons:

  • Easy migration for users.
  • Reduced development cost.
  • Reduced production cost.

Knowing companies, the last two were probably the biggest factors in play. I, for one, am glad that Olympus is thinking outside the box. And if you don’t believe me, walk into a camera store and try out the E-300 and the E-1. They’re exceptionally well-built for their price ranges.

We hear a lot about the quality of Nikon’s Pro lens lineup and the beauty of Canon’s L glass. Olympus has its Zuiko Digital line, and they’re no slouches in the quality department. What with Olympus releasing a whole suite of f/2.0’s at PMA 2005, it’s obvious that they’re going for the pros. But that’s not what truly sets the Zuikos apart – no – it’s the ‘digital’ moniker appended to Zuiko. What does it mean? Is it simply a way for Olympus to indicate a reduced sensor size (ala the EF-S and DX lineup)? Nope. Much more. The lens knows itself.

“He’s blown it – there’s too much work and he cracked.”

Imagine a lens system that knew about their optical designs and imaging information. That could communicate with the camera body and save that information as part of the photograph. That have firmware (yes, you read that right) so that these properties could be tweaked over time. Now, using this information and imaging software (currently on a PC/Mac and maybe in-camera in the future), the distortions caused by the lenses could be corrected for. Wild and wacky? No – those Olympus engineers thought it up and made it happen. Now that’s a true digital system.

In some ways, Olympus is a technophile’s dream. And I can be quite the technophile.

Real life is however, far more unforgiving. The Kodak sensors used in the E series are outperformed by the ones in the Canon and Nikon lineups. The range of lenses you have available are far smaller and much pricier. Very few camera stores stock a wide range of E Sytem components, so you’re an extremely marginalized group. The E-1, though it has beautiful and unprecedented (I’m gushing) weather sealing and build-quality for its price-range is 5MP only and is far outgunned by the 20D, the reigning contender in that price bracket. There are no IS/VR (image stabilized) lenses. There’s a much smaller range of third-party accessories. I could think up more negatives…but…

Truth is, I would like to see both Nikon and Olympus make serious dents into Canon’s market share. I think that would bring about a much more vibrant marketplace and reduce the increased marginalization that appears to be occuring. I really do think the E-System has a lot going for it and I’m gaga over the Nikon ergonomics (yes – it does feel better to me and yes – I have tried the Canon). But both companies have to execute. Faster. Better lineup. Better sensors. Reduced noise – match the Canons. The moment either one manages to meet the Canon noise characteristics at high ISOs, a major plus for Canon systems is negated.

Chances of that happening: Slim.

Too bad.

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