Is the Olympus dSLR strategy becoming more clear and hybrid Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds cameras the future high end Olympus cameras?

Written by Gary on December 21st, 2012 has just posted information suggesting the next new Four Thirds camera, presumably, the successor of the aging semi-pro Olympus E-5 dSLR, will be a hybrid camera – the fruit of a secret project named “Kasei” which commenced in 2009.

This hybrid camera is said to be able to use both Four Thirds lenses and Micro Four Thirds lenses with full AF capability, and will be released late 2013.

This is not really a surprise as it is the logical evolution of the Four Thirds system and as long as core Four Thirds functionality is not lost, it makes more sense than just creating a Four Thirds lens only dSLR.

The big question is how will they achieve this, and there are a variety of possible paths including:

  • an E-M5 style camera but with a new sensor with phase detect AF for the Four Thirds lenses and the next generation of electronic viewfinder which Olympus has been teasing us with.
  • an E-M5 style camera but with a phase detect AF equipped Four Thirds to Micro Four Thirds lens adapter in the same way that Sony NEX system can use the Sony Alpha lenses
  • a modular camera with optical viewfinder and mirror for use with Four Thirds lenses, and a EVF module for use with Micro Four Thirds lenses
  • a camera with hybrid optical and electronic viewfinder, plus mirror which is locked up during EVF use with Micro Four Thirds lenses or for movies and Live View mode with Four Thirds lenses
  • a camera with hybrid optical and electronic viewfinder with a translucent fixed mirror similar to the mirror in the Sony SLT cameras

The most likely solution is a high end Micro Four Thirds camera with the next generation EVF and a new Four Thirds adapter which allows fast AF with Four Thirds lenses.

Why do we need such a camera?

Whilst the Four Thirds consortium were probably correct in choosing the 2x crop sensor as it gave the best compromise of camera and lens size, cost, edge-to-edge image quality while still giving reasonable ability to blur the background and have access to reasonable high ISO performance and ability to print large prints to 30″x40″ size, they struggled to compete with the sheer market force of Canon and Nikon in the dSLR marketplace while their lenses were still quite big and heavy.

This left sales of the Four Thirds dSLR dwindling and becoming uneconomical with little possibility for revitalising sales in that segment alone particularly with competitive pressures of the falling prices of full frame dSLR which increasingly make the cropped sensor dSLRs less attractive other than for entry level buyers who can’t afford full frame dSLRs.

Then Panasonic and Olympus radically changed the camera world by introducing the Micro Four Thirds mirrorless system.

Micro Four Thirds has evolved to become the most versatile mirrorless camera system with the most extensive range of dedicated lenses and camera bodies, and importantly with the Olympus E-M5, E-PL5 and Panasonic GH-3, the system now has very high image quality and the fastest autofocus systems of any camera system ever made, while the Olympus E-M5 has the best image stabiliser system of any camera ever made.

But as good as these new Micro Four Thirds cameras are, they still have a couple of significant flaws:

  • the contrast detect AF does not autofocus well if at all on fast moving subjects and subject tracking is poor
  • options for telephoto lens choices or wide aperture zoom lens choice with fast AF are very limited

There is also a small army of dedicated Olympus Four Thirds fans out there who would love to be able to use their superb lenses on a camera with a sensor as good as in the Olympus E-M5 but with fast phase detect AF.

Unlike Canon and Nikon who never really valued their cropped sensor dSLRs sufficiently to create very high quality lenses designed for them, Olympus started from scratch and designed wonderful, telecentric lenses for the Four Thirds cameras, but now all we need is a modern camera with the image quality of the E-M5 to make the most of them.

Furthermore, Olympus and Panasonic have been making some very nice Micro Four Thirds lenses such as the superb Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens and the Olympus 60mm f/2.8 macro lens which the Four Thirds users would love to be able to use but at this point cannot unless they buy a Micro Four Thirds camera.

There is a risk though that the Olympus E-5 dSLR may be the last optical viewfinder dSLR Olympus make and if this is the case, there may be some gnashing of teeth amongst the Olympus users, although the promised next generation electronic viewfinders may be good enough to placate even the die hard optical fans.

For these reasons, a hybrid Micro Four Thirds / Four Thirds high end camera with weatherproofing and fast AF for all lenses and high image quality makes a lot of sense and would value add to both systems and build on the amazing momentum that Micro Four Thirds has going for it while at the same time addressing its 2 main flaws.

I for one cannot wait to be able to use my Olympus ZD 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 again with fast AF speed and get the same image quality or better than I get on my Olympus E-M5.

Meanwhile‘s top 5 video/stills cameras for 2012 – the top 3 are all Micro Four Third mount cameras:

  1. Blackmagic Cinema Camera
  2. Panasonic GH-3
  3. Olympus E-M5 – better for stills, but the ONLY camera with image stabilisation in movie mode for legacy manual focus lenses – great for those needing to shoot without a video rig
  4. Canon 5D Mark III
  5. Sony RX100

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