Where to now for Olympus, Micro Four Thirds and Four Thirds cameras and lenses?

Written by Gary on July 30th, 2012

It certainly has been a roller-coaster 18 months at Olympus.

In 2011, it looked like it may have been all over for them as an independent camera manufacturer with all the now well documented financial upheavals which have apparently been a blight of the profit sheets for some 20 years.

Their innovative Four Thirds camera system was looking like there was zero future.

Their quite successful PEN series of Micro Four Thirds cameras still didn’t have the functionality and image quality to attract enthusiasts like myself who wanted a high end camera with a built-in viewfinder.

Their innovative waterproof, shock-proof, everything proof TOUGH cameras were losing their attractiveness due to better performing competition products which nudged in on this market, while the need for such cameras were diminishing given that most had a camera phone now.

Then all of a sudden, out of no where, they introduce, arguably, one of the best cameras ever made for the non-professional photographer, the brilliant Olympus OM-D E-M5 Micro Four Thirds camera

The E-M5  has lived up to the hype because,  for the first time in a mirrorless compact system camera, it combined almost everything most people need and want:

  • fantastic image quality even at ISO 1600 with incredibly wide dynamic range for a small sensor
  • sufficiently narrow depth of field for most purposes when using the wide aperture prime lenses
  • the fastest autofocus in any camera ever made (not to mention that it can be programmed to AF on a subject’s eye)
  • the best image stabilisation system in any camera ever made
  • a nice built-in EVF
  • weatherproofing
  • a fast flash x-sync of 1/250th second
  • great build quality
  • nice tiltable touch screen activation of fast AF and shutter release which is great for street photographers, nature photographers, astrophotographers as well as taking low level shots of your grandchild on the floor
  • 9fps burst rate (without AF or IS), 4fps with AF and IS
  • extremely customisable buttons and control wheels to allow versatility for many niche uses
  • unique optional 2 staged battery holder grip to transform the ergonomics for use of larger lenses
  • ability to use almost any lens ever made and have them image stabilised in still mode
  • image stabilised magnified view of highly accurate manual focus when you need it
  • a large number of dedicated autofocus lenses available including some very nice compact wide aperture prime lenses which really make the small sensor sing and along with the IS creates unique opportunities such as hand held half a second exposures without a tripod when using the 12mm lens, or hand held infrared photography without having to modify the camera.
  • sufficiently high quality movies for most of our needs
  • innovative new functions such as Live BULB mode

For the first time that I can recall, Olympus Australia at least, has gone all out to promote a great Olympus product, for too long the enthusiast camera world marketing has been dominated by the 2 big players – Canon and Nikon that it would seem Olympus didn’t really exist in this market.

Along with Panasonic, I think the Micro Four Thirds system will continue to dominate the mirrorless world as it gives the perfect combination of lens size and image quality for most people’s needs whilst still allowing shallow depth of field imagery when you want it, while being close to the perfect size for high end movie production.

Nikon has gone the small ladies camera route with its Nikon 1 system but with very limited ability to get narrow depth of field and limited lens range as yet, which will seriously forever limit it’s attraction to the enthusiast photographer and will perhaps struggle to compete with the likes of the Sony RX-100 fixed lens wide aperture zoom 2.7x crop shirt-pocketable compact cameras.

Canon has joined the plethora of APS-C mirrorless cameras and will be stuck with no built-in image stabilisation and larger, heavier lenses, and stragely, they do not seem to have developed super fast AF yet according to current reports of the EOS-M camera.

This leaves a brilliant opportunity for Olympus and Panasonic to really make great strides in their dominance of the compact system camera market and to bring life back into their Four Thirds system which makes a nice complimentary camera system in the interim for those wanting fast AF tracking for fast moving subjects, and this would help placate many patient long-suffering Four Thirds users frustrated by the lack of direction in recent years.

So what would I do if I was running Olympus?

  1. immediately update ALL of their PEN and current Four Thirds cameras (the E-5) with the E-M5 technology – few people want to buy older technology, particularly if it means poorer image quality
  2. update the E-M5 firmware to address the minor niggles:
    1. allow IS to work in movie mode when using legacy lenses
    2. improve the movie mode codec to further improve image quality and add 24p/25p video
    3. add a lower shutter speed limit for autoISO
    4. when LCD is inactive and EVF auto-switching is disabled, or the EVF is active, pressing PLAY should display the photo in the EVF NOT on the LCD screen!
  3. develop a solution to allow fast AF on mirrorless with the wonderful range of Four Thirds lenses – although introducing a E-5 mark II with E-M5 technology would delay the need for this
  4. re-vamp their macro flash system – there are no adapters for the flashes to allow fitting on any of the M43 lenses and they will only fit on a couple of ZD lenses – this is quite a ridiculous scenario that is easily fixed via adapters in the short term until they create a more compact system for mirrorless cameras with remote TTL capabilities
  5. work on a radio wireless TTL flash system
  6. add a few extra features to firmware such as automatic HDR mode, panoramic sweep, manual focus peaking
  7. continue development of high quality compact lenses (preferably with weatherproofing) such as a 20mm f/1.8 pancake with MSC AF and nice bokeh (to address the deficiencies of one of the best loved lenses – the very sharp Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake), and a 150mm f/2.8 weatherproofed macro
  8. add a high end model with the best HD video possible, shutter speeds to 1/8000th second, silent global electronic shutter option,  and higher burst rates (eg. 40fps in 4mp of higher to allow scientific applications), perhaps a hybrid optical EVF
  9. work with a 3rd party vendor to develop weatherproofed, AF and aperture control lens adapters to allow full control of Canon EF and Nikon G lenses – now that would make it VERY interesting!

Who would have predicted such a turn around in fortunes for Olympus – it is exciting times, now all they have to do is make the most of the opportunities.



4 Comments so far ↓

  1. PeteC says:

    Hi Gary, I’m in Perth. I do read this blog from time to time and this is my first comment, but lack of comments does not mean I’m not seeing you.

    Agree with all the above. I used to have a 40D but I’m a Pentax K-5 man now.

    However, I’ve recently dipped my toe in the 4/3rds pond for 1st time with bargain E-PL2 and 14-150mm. Would LOVE an OM-D E-M5 to go with my old OM lenses for one thing, but too expensive yet.

    But question: why Micro 4/3rds? What is so much better about u4/3rds over 4/3rds? Body size? Lenses are about same size aren’t they? I can put 14-150mm 4/3 lens on u4/3 body, but not vice versa, is that not so?

    Meanwhile, I am putting my Zeiss Contax G lenses on the E-PL2 body via adapter. At last! I can use these old film lenses on a digital body, and stabilised too. Great stuff. MF only of course, but I don’t care. Cheers.

    • admin says:

      Hi Pete, good question.

      It depends what you type of lens you are wanting to shoot with.

      If you want to be using a wide aperture telephoto zoom or other large lens by necessity then there is probably not much to be gained by going to M43 other than the benefits of mirrorless – EVF, easier magnified MF, no need for mirror lock up to reduce camera shake, quieter shutter, faster burst rate.

      BUT for most other lens types, the lenses can be made substantially smaller for m43 as the shorter distance to the sensor allows the optical engineers far more flexibility on how the design lenses, and especially with wide angle lenses they do not have to resort to expensive, complicated retrofocus designs – just compare the Olympus ZD 7-14mm (fantastic lens which I own) with the Panasonic m43 version, or the Oly 9-18mm in each version, or the Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 in each version, not to mention the extremely compact 14-42mm Panasonic lens.

      The other issue is that there are great new compact and superbly fast AF lenses coming out for m43 which never were made in 43 mount – the 12mm f/2.0, 45mm f/1.8 and 75mm f/1.8.

      If Four Thirds had been more popular in the competition against Canon and Nikon, Olympus may have continued to make these nice prime lenses for Four Thirds, but I think the horse has bolted on that front, so users will need to resort to M43 for their new compact lens needs.

      Rumours are suggesting a further 6 lenses for m43 will be announced this year – m43 is where the hype and money is – and for good reason – but that is where all the R&D money will be going to.

      Also, you can adapt more types of lenses onto m43 than on 43 – eg. Canon EOS, Canon FD, Leica, and for someone like me who has a few pro Canon lenses, and the new Kipon adapter will allow aperture control and MF assist on M43, plus you get the fantastic benefits of the E-M5’s IS, quiet shutter, no mirror slap, 9fps burst, and you can see M43 has some unique benefits not available on Four Thirds.

      That said, I hope Olympus keep making Four Thirds dSLRs as one does need a bigger camera to use those bigger lenses, and of course a dSLR is the only camera that will have fast AF on the Four Thirds lenses for the near future.

      BUT if Olympus made a Four Thirds version of the 75mm f/1.8 lens at a similar size and with super fast AF and brilliant optics as they have done with the M43 version – all else being equal, I would choose the Four Thirds version so I can use it on both camera types.


  2. PeteC says:

    OK, that’s fair enough, but an electronic v/f is not a plus for me, quite the opposite. Lack of mirror is good, but Sony A55/Pellicle mirror makes more sense to me. I’ve ALWAYS thought that! Just boost sensor gain to compensate for 1/2 stop light loss in fixed mirror. Too late for Olympus, though.

    Also, 10 years ago I was asking, “Why do we need a mechanical shutter?” Never got an answer for that one. (Electronics is my field: just gate the sensor electronically) Something about temperature and noise apparently. Academic now.

    Anyway, back to topic: I feel comfortable starting with 4/3 as I can use any 4/3 lens on any 4/3 or M4/3 body (with adapter, yes?)

    Crumbs, after 45 years of film cameras and lenses, carrying weight and size is not high on my list of priorities. Optical quality is. And IBIS.

  3. admin says:

    The reason we haven’t got a fully electronic shutter yet is that current sensors cannot dump all the data from each photosite at the same time, and this leads to artefacts for moving subjects as there is a timing difference between one edge of the sensor and the other.

    It is expected this will be resolved in the next year or so, although some cameras have implemented it, but with the artefacts still present.

    You can use any 4/3 lens on m43 camera via the adapter, but unless the lens is CDAF compatible, AF will take 1-2 secs for a stationary subject and never AF on a moving subject, and totally forget about C-AF or AF tracking.