Sunday, 14 July 2013

The background behind the Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras


When you are more used to other brands (read Nikon or Canon) and decide to pick a camera from Olympus it can be initially confusing as to what model does what. It gets worse if you look at the older models (which are still on sale but production has ceased). Here're my insights.

Before the Beginning

Before the beginning of the Micro Four Thirds Standard, there was the Four Thirds Standard for DSLRs. Although this was grandly called a Standard, only a few brands sat at the Committee table. Olympus was the lead, Panasonic, co-leader. Sigma promised third party lenses, Kodak made a sensor or two (the E-1, E-500 had a Kodak CCD sensor), Panasonic made NMOS sensors and in collaboration with Leica, made some Lumix/Leica (affectionately called Panaleica). I think Samyang made manual focus lenses as well.

Olympus was keen on embracing Live View and competent Auto Focus in Live View. For that, they innovated the E-330 that offered two Auto Focus mechanisms - Live View A and Live View B.

The whole idea of Four Thirds with that infamously small sensor was that the lenses could be designed smaller, the body could be smaller and the sensor technology would advance to the stage that the difference between APS-C size vs Four Thirds size would not be significant to cause pain to the camera owner. The lens mount was brand new, all the lenses would be focus-by-wire instead of clunky mechanical coupling (since Olympus did not have a legacy of autofocus lenses) and this would offer brand differentiation and advantages over the other brands - at that time, Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Minolta.

Sadly, the idea was ahead of its time.  Financial year after financial year, there were losses - it's hard to take on the near duopoly of the big two. Although Olympus made a 3 tier model structure - Pro level, Enthusiast level and Entry level, all three levels failed to make inroads in the market. Technical handicaps were immature sensor technology, zoom lenses that refused to shrink and were not able to compete on price because of lower volume sales, bodies that lacked the AF finesse of the competition.

So the Micro Four Thirds Standard was born

Olympus finally decided to give up the Four Thirds DSLR line (including lenses) and embarked on niche market, knowing that it would eventually grow. This is Micro Four Thirds. It does not have a mirror box and the body shrinks considerably.

When they built and sold the Four Thirds DSLR lenses, they could not foresee the motor and mechanical performance needed to work fast with the Micro Four Thirds adoption of Contrast Detect Auto Focus (DSLRs use Phase Detect Auto Focus). For that reason, they had to build and sell all new lenses again. And amateur home movies had not become popular - newbies want movies that are Auto Focus, Auto Exposure, no sounds from lens motors during zoom and focus, no jumping of the image during zooming in the movie.

Note that with an electronically coupled Olympus or Panasonic lens adapter, Four Thirds DSLR lenses will drive and shoot on Micro Four Thirds bodies, but AF will be slow. And with the plethora of third party adapters, legacy manual everything film lenses can be fit onto Olympus cameras - exposure control can be set to Manual with metering or Aperture Priority.

Olympus decided not to tackle the Pro segment of the market because that is a high cost, low volume market requiring high performance, bright, fast AF lenses and high performance, robust, fast AF bodies. They knew their first Micro Four Thirds models would not have fast enough AF and they still produced the E-5, their last Four Thirds DSLR which was the best Pro level body they could make.

Panasonic decided that they would build all three tiers - Entry level, Enthusiast level and Professional level Micro Four Thirds bodies. Panasonic did not have a Pro level DSLR to keep alive nor did they have a sizeable DSLR owner base.

The Olympus model tiering

There have been several generations of Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras. Olympus uses the phrase Olympus PEN to invoke nostalgia driven sentiment (they produced a legendary innovative half frame film camera called the Olympus PEN F) and styling clues.

There are three levels of PEN. The three levels are differentiated thus:
  1. The top PEN - the E-P model. This has enough buttons and dials, should exude some luxury feel in the hand and be the most styled cosmetically. It is not aimed at the Pro level of photographers.
  2. The middle PEN - the E-PL model. This body does not have the strong style emphasis. The body does not have to be especially thin. There will be less dials or buttons to distinguish it from the E-P model.
  3. The entry level PEN - the E-PM model. This body has markedly fewer buttons and dials - in fact, just one dial. It is assumed that price would be the major imperative with this model and owners would not normally be that keen to change camera settings between shots.
In the OM-D. Olympus decided that the technology had matured enough to aim for Enthusiast / Pro level market. This series has these features that the PEN range are not designed to have:
  1. Built in eye level Electronic Viewfinder
  2. Optional battery grips to allow longer sessions without needing to swap batteries, better ergonomics with larger lenses,  sometimes incorporating second shutter release button for portrait orientation shooting

Launch Dates and Reviews

Generation 1 E-620 DSLR
March 2009
June 2009
Feb 2010

Generation 2 E-5 DSLR
Sept 2010
Nov 2010
Jan 2011

Generation 3
July 2011
July 2011
July 2011
Generation 5
May 2013
Sept 2012
Sept 2012
Current PEN

Sept 2014

Current OM-D
Oct 2013
Feb 2012
March 2014

Note: Dates generally from DP Review

Generation 1 - had sloooow AF. The sensor is a Panasonic sourced sensor.

Generation 2 - Quite improved AF. Accessory Port introduced.

Generation 3 - Very fast AF. Touch Screen for AF and control.

Current Generation PEN and E-M5 - First generation with Sony sourced sensor.  Very fast AF. Considerably better dynamic range, low noise high ISO performance. Fast stills frame rate.

New  Generation EM-1 - Phase Detect Elements on Image Sensor - Dual Fast AF system. AF that can handle legacy Four Thirds DSLR lenses comfortably.

Navigate to my Index of Articles on Olympus cameras

No comments: