Olympus Cameras – Then And Now Part 1

I don’t generally discuss my cameras, as I don’t believe that the camera one uses is that big a deal, but anyone that has read my posts and is interested in photography would have realised that my system is Olympus digital. I started using Olympus digital SLRs in 2004 after attending an expo where I watched a salesman at a camera stall put the very first Olympus digital SLR, an E-1, repeatedly under a indoor waterfall, wipe it off with a towel and take shots. I was intrigued by this waterproof marvel and ended up buying one. The rest, as they say, is history. Despite Olympus cameras often lagging the major brands in some aspects of technology, I just loved how the cameras performed, especially the wonderful colours, and have stayed with Olympus through all of its trials and tribulations. I still have that very first E-1, and it still works as well as the day that I bought it, even though it’s pretty much gone through the wars and looks rather tatty on the outside.

Olympus E-1 - The photograph makes it look much better than in real life.

Olympus E-1 – The photograph makes it look much better than in real life.

As digital cameras continued to developed, we soon had cameras with sensors that were much the same size as previous 35mm film and these began to take over the camera world. Olympus, on the other hand, had produced a sensor size from the outset that was 1/4 the area of a 35mm sensor, called Four Thirds (4/3), and was pretty much resigned to stay with that format. In the beginning this was seemingly a good move as larger sensors were exceedingly expensive and difficult to make; however, as with all technology, manufacturing processes improve and costs fall, so soon enough the major camera manufacturers were producing cameras with large sensors at reasonable cost. That said, with today’s technology, there really isn’t that much difference in performance and quality, in most cases, between sensors sizes when it comes to normal use, all are excellent. Of course there are exceptions and some situations will benefit from larger sensors and vice versa.

Digital Sensor Formats - (source: Unknown)

Digital Sensor Formats – (source: Unknown)

However, there’s one thing that I’ve always loved about Olympus and that’s the lenses. When it came to lenses at the start of the Olympus digital journey, almost no effort or expense was seemingly spared in producing some of the best lenses ever made, by any lens manufacturer (I’ll say that without any hesitation). But where Olympus excelled is in their zoom lenses and, at the time, I don’t think any other manufacturer was producing lenses that were of equal quality and especially made for digital sensors; that came later. Of course Olympus made some incredible fixed focus lenses at the time as well and these are still considered as benchmarks by even hardened owners of other brands. And there aren’t many lenses around that can claim they are outstanding when used fully open, most need to be stopped down regardless of maximum aperture. I ended up owning some of the top grade (Super High Grade as they were called) zoom lenses and still use them today, they are in fact all that I use.

Olympus 4/3 SHG Lenses - (L to R, bottom to top) 7-14mm f4, 14-35mm f2, 35-100mm f2 and 90-250mm f2.8

Olympus 4/3 SHG Lenses – (L to R, bottom to top) 7-14mm f4, 14-35mm f2, 35-100mm f2 and 90-250mm f2.8

But where Olympus failed, as far as perception went, was the physical size of the cameras compared to the sensor within. These camera bodies were often as physically large as cameras with much larger sensors, so many people didn’t see the point of them and, in many respects, that was a fairly valid perception. So Olympus realised that things had to change (maybe that was always the intent) and, to that end, developed the Micro Four Thirds system (m4/3), still using the original 4/3 sensor size. The m4/3 system finally gave the user a much smaller interchangeable lens camera, along with a much smaller and lighter series of lenses, though not all are tiny little lenses, for very good reasons (which many can’t comprehend). These cameras and lenses are very reminiscent of the original Olympus OM system that was much loved in its day. That said, I’ve stuck with the much larger and heavier 4/3 lenses, as I believe they still haven’t been surpassed in quality.

Olympus OM System - (source: Olympus)

Olympus OM System – (source: Olympus)

Since losing my Olympus E-5 in the Tarwin River West Branch at Mossvale Park, I decided to bite the bullet (with some reservations) and bought the Olympus E-M1 MkI m4/3 camera, which promised to work with my 4/3 lenses (the first m4/3 camera to effectively do so). Not only did the E-M1 MkI work with these older lenses, it brought new life to them, performing even better than on the flagship E-5. This new camera also invigorated my photography, something that had been languishing for some years since moving to rural Victoria and this blog has ostensibly been a result of the E-M1 MkI and it’s influence on my photography. No matter rain, hail or shine, I could go out anywhere, any time, and enjoy my photography with the new-found technology of a mirrorless camera with a superb viewfinder that showed me what was happening in real time. So for nearly four years I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the E-M1 MkI camera.

Olympus E-M1 MkI with 14-35mm f2 Lens

Olympus E-M1 MkI with 14-35mm f2 Lens

Then, after quite a long hiatus, in modern photographic terms, Olympus finally released a successor to the E-M1 MkI in Dec 2016, which was supposed to be a major leap in just about every way over the MkI. One notable aspect, given numerous reports, was that 4/3 lenses apparently performed even better with the MkII than with the Mk1 and that festered in my mind every time I thought about the MkII. So when I spotted a new MkII for a price that just couldn’t be ignored, I bit the bullet and bought it. Now I’m not going to do any sort of review of the E-M1 MkII or earlier cameras, as these have been done to death by numerous sources already, I’m just going to go through a few real world experiences with the MkII, from the point of view of someone that has been using the MkI (and just about every Olympus DSLR and a number of mirrorless bodies) since 2004, highlighting the good and the bad.

Olympus E-M1 MkII and 14-35mm f2 Lens

Olympus E-M1 MkII and 14-35mm f2 Lens

As a bit of a footnote to this introduction, I’d like to make a few observations about 4/3 and m4/3 camera development, before delving into the grist of this story. Despite the many limitations of the E-1 today, I still hold it in very high regard. No matter what camera followed, none of them came close to the amazing colours that the Kodak CCD sensor in the E-1 produced. You could almost compare the colours of the E-1 to those of the legendary Kodachrome film; rich, warm and saturated. Unfortunately, CCD sensors fell out of fashion for many reasons and the industry moved towards CMOS sensors. There are many aspects that differentiate CCD sensors from CMOS sensors but, from a practical point of view, these things don’t really matter as, nowadays, you get what you get.

Olympus E-1 - Despite only 5MP, the colours and quality are still one of the best (photographs from 12-13 years ago)

Olympus E-1 – Despite only 5MP, the colours and quality are still one of the best (photographs from 12-13 years ago)

Olympus E-1 - Despite only 5MP, the colours and quality are still one of the best (photographs from 12-13 years ago)

Olympus E-1 – Despite only 5MP, the colours and quality are still one of the best (photographs from 12-13 years ago)

Olympus E-1 - Despite only 5MP, the colours and quality are still one of the best (photographs from 12-13 years ago)

Olympus E-1 – Despite only 5MP, the colours and quality are still one of the best (photographs from 12-13 years ago)

In Part 2 I’ll delve into the nuts and bolts, from a user point of view, of the latest E-M1 MkII and see how it compares with what came before.

6 thoughts on “Olympus Cameras – Then And Now Part 1

  1. Shawn K.

    Thanks for doing this. I’ve read parts of the story you’re presumably about to unfold, but I like seeing it from a long term customer’s perspective.

    Reply
    1. Ray Post author

      I’m trying to keep this reasonably simple and maintain a practical perspective. Unfortunately, the story just keeps getting longer, so I have to break it into parts.

      Reply
  2. Ross

    Hi Ray. Good to see you went for a Mk II as well & look forward to reading your further thoughts on it.
    Cheers, Ross.

    Reply
    1. Ray Post author

      I saw it at a price that I could not refuse. I thought that it might be grey market, but it was genuine and recognised by Olympus.

      Reply
      1. Ross

        Yeah, I saw it too (in Adelaide), after I had bought mine in Sydney for an already pretty good price I could have saved a further 10% off, but I wanted to stay with a Sydney supplier in case anything went wrong (like DOA or whatever) although there were other suppliers that also dropped their price a little lower in the last two weeks of June. Also, Olympus ships from Sydney to Camera House Warehouse that these other businesses also buy from, so less travelling around the country. Anyhow, both my 12-60 & 50-200 SWD lenses (bought used) went sticky in the aperture blades, so last year I replaced the latter with the 40-150 Pro lens with MC14 (on special, of course) but I think I want the 12-60 lens repaired though & hope to take it in during next month.
        Cheers, Ross.

        Reply
        1. Ray Post author

          That’s why I just keep using my 4/3 lenses, I think constant use keeps everything in working order, even though it may lead to wear (a bit like my body). I’m not sure what I’ll do if any of them stop working, as repair might not even be an option.

          Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *