What Next from Olympus Now?

2007 was a good year for the Olympus SLR system. The E-500, more successful on the market than any previous model, was replaced with the all-new E-410 and E-510, which, with (almost) all features just right, established Olympus as a solid (if not dominant) player in the sub-$1000 digital SLR field.

2007: from the E-410 to the E-3
(Image shot with the E-510 and the 50 mm F/2 Macro ZD lens)

These were not just two more models: they marked a full transition of Olympus from CCD sensors to NMOS ones — a very different technology, requiring a complete re-haul of the image-processing firmware.

A risky step, but more successful than I ever expected. And yes, from what I know these models are selling even better than the E-500 was.

Then we have seen, at long last, the introduction of the "professional" E-3. I have mixed feelings for this camera: on one hand it has impeccable build quality, a delightful viewfinder, and delivers outstanding images (in right hands, as always); on the other, many of us will not be happy with the external controls: not matching the E-1, not to mention the E-10/E-20. Without going into details (provided by everybody and his mother in many available reviews), I may only say that the camera does not have this just-perfect feeling as soon as you take it in your hands; this impressions gets only stronger when you start actually using it. Certainly, after gaining some familiarity with the E-3 you'll be using it just fine — but something is missing, at least from where I stand.

(For more on the E-3, see the Four Thirds section of this site: my First Look as well as a detailed Review and Reference.)

But what I am missing even more, is that the E-3 does not offer some features which would make it stand out from the crowd (which includes, notably, the Canon 40D and Nikon D300). The competition already has a dust removal system and Live View (if without tilting monitor), and we have learned to expect something like that from Olympus. Well, maybe with the new imaging engine firmly in place, this is what we will see in this coming year?

In 2008 the competition on the digital SLR market will remain fierce; actually, I expect it to intensify. This market consists of three major, overlapping, segments: entry-level, enthusiast, and upper level (professional, advanced amateur).

On the first level, the E-510 and E-410 are doing just fine. As the mass market demands a new model every year, Olympus will probably offer updated versions of these models, just to keep the "latest, greatest" image. I only hope they will not be re-designing everything from the ground up again; this may be the time to clip coupons off the R&D and all machining investment. Well, maybe a new version of the imager, some tweaks in the processing engine, some cosmetic improvements — but these cameras, or their improved versions, should take care of this segment for the next year.

Indeed, the E-520 and E-420 were relatively small, incremental updates to these models, aimed at the same market and not breaking any new barriers.

The top level offering, the E-3, will, I would expect, remain unchanged. The E-3 was just too much of an investment to replace with something else right away; besides, that's not where most of the money is. It may not bring many new converts to the camp (like the E-1 did), but it will certainly satisfy those who need a pro-level body to use with the Zuiko Digital glass.

Where I would expect some real new developments this year is the middle (enthusiast) segment of the market. What I believe this segment needs is a new, mid-line SLR model, filling the gap between the E-510 and E-3.

What may such a model need to make it an alternative to those two? Here is my personal list:

  • A solid, relatively compact body, perhaps 5-8% or so smaller than the E-3, which would result in a 15-25% reduction of volume and weight. The body below 625 g (700 g with battery) would be close to perfect; the extra 150 g over the E-510 leaves room for the better viewfinder and, perhaps, a bit robust body (no weatherproofing, though; something at the level of the E-300).
  • A pentaprism viewfinder with at least 95% (linear) coverage and 1.0× magnification. While this would not be a match for the E-3 (100%, 1.15×). it would help a lot. For me at least, a better viewfinder is worth an extra $200 added to the E-510 price, and it would be the most significant improvement over that model.
  • A tiltable monitor, to take full advantage of the Live View. It does not really need two degrees of freedom; one (like, say, in the E-10 or C-5050Z) would be enough; if two, however, then an in-line solution like in the E-330 might be preferable to the flip-out one used in the E-3.
  • Controls based on the E-510, with incremental improvements (exposure bracketing as one of drive modes, minor tweaks to the Control Panel, streamlining of the menu system).
  • Imaging engine "trickled down" from the E-3, where economically feasible; perhaps a resolution increase to 12 MP (if mostly to keep the specs-driven market happy).

All this would be already enough to put me in line for an upgrade from the E-510. The new camera would still, however, miss a major feature differentiating it from others on the market. While it is difficult to tell what that may be, here are some suggestions (as opposed to the wish list above):

  • Removable anti-aliasing filter (like in Sigma SD-14?), dramatically improving exposure in infrared shooting (a factor of 1000× or so), but also adding to the resolution (at the expense of color rendition, at least under some circumstances). This might, however, be in the science-fiction realm, as that filter is, I believe, also used as a part of the anti-dust system. Still, such a feature would make the new camera a must-have for some photographers.
  • A wireless interface for an external, hand-held exposure meter. Such a meter (including incident light capability) could then provide exposure and color accuracy/reproducibility way beyond any through-the-lens system. While this is a feature more fitting on a pro model, introducing it in a mid-line one could make sense, keeping the brand ahead of the competition.

I guess most of the Readers could add some items to both lists above; the first one, however, seems to be difficult to argue with. In any case, in order to make the mid-line offering attractive, Olympus has to keep the good things from their economy line, borrow some more from the E-3 (just not the not-so-good stuff, please!), and throw in something new, making the camera different. What will that be? We will see.

The new E-30 is just about to show in stores. My expectations about body weight and size were (almost) met; those regarding the viewing system — slightly exceeded. Three remaining items on my wish list also found their way into the new model. On the flip side, the E-30 does not offer any new, revolutionary feature like the two examples I came up with above. Well, the digital level is new: nice, but not quite a big thing.

The cameras are not everything. A major strength of the Olympus SLR system is the lenses. While other manufacturers were, originally at least, depending on film legacy glass for their digital SLRs, Olympus dif not have that advantage (or, perhaps, a handicap?), and in the five last years has developed an impressive lens line. Most importantly, the less-than-premium Zuiko Digital glass may show limited specs, but no visible corner-cutting in the image quality department (see, for example, the "new kit" lenses: 14-42 and 40-150 mm ZD). And, in case you've been living under a rock for the last few months, the new 12-60 mm ZD is as close to a perfect general-use zoom as I can imagine. If I had to live with just one lens for my SLR system, it would be this one.

Four Third lenses cover now the focal length range from 7 to 300 mm, which is equivalent to 14-600 mm in 35-mm film camera terms. Some of that range, however, is available only as a part of the "Top Pro" ZD line, with prices rather out of reach for most amateurs. A line-up of Olympus "standard" zooms
(Image shot with the E-3 and the 50 mm F/2 Macro ZD lens)

The recent release of the "budget" 70-300 mm ZD ($400) filled this gap from the long end; Olympus is also promising a wide zoom in this price category for 2008. If the new lens is, as some guess, an 8-16 mm, it will be an attractive option for those who cannot afford the 7-14 mm ZD (which, considering the specs and performance, is still a bargain at $1500!).

The 70-300 mm ZD turned out to be a surprisingly capable performer, especially for the price. The "budget" wide zoom ended up being a 9-18 mm, showing up at stores only last November. I still have to try it out; the price, however ($600 or more in the U.S.) turned out to be slightly more than I hoped for.

With that said, Olympus may decide to expand the ZD line with some attractive primes. This may be, to some extent, a duplication of the effort by Sigma and Panasonic/Leica, who already offer 25, 30, 100, and 150 mm, but, nevertheless, I've heard quite a few voices on that subject.

Then, what about a shift/tilt lens? I'm not sure if such a lens is possible at all with the inverted telephoto design which the Four Third system imposes for shorter focal lengths (the lens being much more forward than its focal length would indicate) — and it is she shorter lengths where such a lens makes sense. Unless I am overly pessimistic here, we may have to learn how to do without.

No new primes this year: perhaps too much effort for a very limited market. My impression is that people keep talking about prime lenses only to turn around and buy zooms. Oh, well.

Last but not least, the software. The current Olympus Master tries to cater to all groups of users: from beginners (download from camera, file management) to advanced ones (raw file processing). A program like this is doomed to failure: you just can't please 'em all. Maybe it is time to split the program into two, each geared to more specific tasks and aimed at a more specific audience?

Nine months from today we will be able to say which of these expectations, hopes, and predictions did materialize and which did not. Until then, let's play with the toys we already have...

One development I did not predict in this article was the introduction of the Micro Four Thirds standard (still, see my Quest piece from 2005). Depending on what happens in the next few months, this may lead to an entirely new class of cameras, or the format may end up as another dead branch in the evolutionary tree. It will be interesting to live and see.

This article was originally written for the March, 2008 edition of the Olympus Circle Quest newsletter; it has been re-posted here in December of that year. Actually, it may be more interesting now, when we know what actually happened — and what did not. For this purpose, the original text has been annotated with my comments from the end of 2008.

Back to my other Quest articles

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Posted 2008/12/29; touched up 2013/11/02 Copyright © 2008 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak