Inheriting History: The Olympus OM-D is Born

4/11/2012 9:45:56 AM

Among vintage camera lovers, the Olympus OM series is a classic. Made from the 1970s to the 1990s, the OM series of film cameras were such fine performers that used models are still sought after today. With the new digital OM-D series. Olympus hopes to continue the OM tradition of fine performance and design in the E-M5, a Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera with many firsts: It’s the world’s first dust and splash-proof mirrorless system camera, as well as the first with five-axis image stabilization; it is also Olympus’ first MFT camera with an electronic viewfinder.

Rebuilding a Legacy

In 1937, Olympus introduced the M1, later called the OM-1. The OM-1, smaller and lighter than any contemporary 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, was a significant milestone in the history of cameras, and the series destined to produce some of the finest cameras of its generation. Olympus produced a variety of OM cameras over the years; those with single-digit model numbers were the professional cameras, those with two-digit and more model numbers were consumer cameras. The last consumer model was made in the 1992, the last professional OM, the OM-4T (also known as the OM-4Ti), was discontinued in 2002.

Description: Rebuilding a Legacy

The OM heritage is reborn

Time, it seemed, had left the OM series behind; but now, ten years later, Olympus has revived the OM lineage with a new OM-D camera, the E-M5. The ‘D’ in OM-D stands for Digital, and the model’s unusual starting number seems to be Olympus’s way of saying that the OM-D series isn’t an entirely new line; rather it is a continuation of the OMD heritage paused a decade ago.

Like the PEN Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras Olympus has released since 2009, the E-M5 pays homage to its OM namesake with its retrospective body design. And like the PEN MFT cameras, the E-M5 is a mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera; a digital camera without the mirror box found in traditional SLR cameras, producing a smaller camera with a comparatively large sensor and the ability to swap lenses.

But whereas the PEN series emphasized the convenience and simplicity offered by the PEN series of the film age, the OM-D inherits the mantle of SLR performance from the OM series. In development for a year, the E-M5, has been designed for serious photographers used to shooting with a viewfinder, while also being a sturdy and weather-proof camera. This is Olympus’ first MFT camera with a electronic viewfinder, and the first ever dust and splash-proof mirrorless system camera in the world.

Description: The OM heritage is reborn

Challengers to the Throne

The OM-D E-M5 could not come at a more opportune time for Olympus. Ever since the first mirrorless system camera was launched in 2008, this new breed of camera has been slowly eating into the overall interchangeable lens camera market share. In Japan, DSLR camera sales have been steadily declining, while mirrorless system camera sales have been rising.

Among mirrorless systems, the Micro Four Thirds standard emerged as the best-selling standard in 2011 with Olympus’ total sales in the lead. Competition in the mirrorless system market is intensifying; to date there are already eight mirrorless systems, each headed by its own manufacturer, and that number might increase in a significant way if Canon ever creates a mirrorless system.

The E-M5 is aiming for the high-end range of the market; both in terms of performance and price, but its direct competitors are no slouches. The X-Pro 1, a mirrorless system digital rangefinder from Fujifilm, is launching with three prime lenses and a larger, APS-C sized sensor inside (equal in size to entry to mid-level DSLR cameras).

The Sony NEX-7, another high performance mirrorless system camera, also sports an electronic viewfinder, a compact design, highly versatile physical controls and a APS-C sized sensor. Panasonic’s GH2, while a class-leader in HD video-shooting, is already more than a year old and due for an upgrade.

Description: Challengers to the Throne

The Heir to the Legacy

Still, the E-M5 camera brings a few advantages to go table. As the oldest and most established mirrorless system camera standard with the most comprehensive selection of native lenses, the Micro Four Thirds standard is also the only one with two camera manufacturers backing it with the largest number of third-party lens-makers.

The E-M5 itself comes with impressive new technology, like a weather-proof exterior sealing a magnesium alloy interior, a brand new 16MP sendor and five-axis image stabilization mechanism. And perhaps, the best key to the E-M5’s future comes from its past; with its striking vintage look and fine family history, the E-M5 might just be the heir to the line Olympus was looking for.

Description: The Heir to the Legacy


The growth of mirrorless

Panasonic released the first mirrorless system camera, the G1, in October, 2008. A year later, mirrorless system cameras made up 11.1% of total interchangeable-lens camera sales in Japan. Since then, mirrorless system camera growth has been steadily growing.

BCN is a company which gathers the daily sales data from retailers all over Japan. Among the top 20 best-selling interchangeable-lens of 2011 in Japan, 12 were DSLR cameras while eight were mirrorless system cameras. Compare this to BCN 2009’s report, where all but four of the top 20 cameras were DSLRs (and those four were the only mirrorless cameras you could buy at the time).

We know that in general mirrorless camera uptake has been slower in the Western countries. CIPA (Camera & Imaging Products Assocation) reports that sales for mirrorless system cameras from July to December 2011 grew in Proportion when compared to overall sales of interchangeable lens cameras. Mirrorless system cameras’ popularity peaked in Japan, taking 42 to 50 percent of the overall interchangeable lens camera market. Asia was second, growing from 22 to 30 per cent. America grew from only 13 to 22 per cent. And Europe from 17 to 21 per cent.

While the quick rise of mirrorless system cameras in Japan won’t necessarily translate across to other countries, it’s a plausible indicator of where the digital camera market is heading. As the segment in the middle, mirrorless system cameras are squeezing DSLR and compact camera sales, while compact cameras themselves are facing the squeeze from the other end from smartphone cameras (Sony has come out and said that compact camera sales were down 20% in 2011 across the industry).

DSLR cameras aren’t dying out, even as they’re losing market share. The best-selling DSLRs in BCN’s top 20 ranking are entry-level consumer models so we still have users choosing them over mirrorless system cameras.

Still, if the previous three years were any indication, 2012 will see further growth of mirrorless system cameras, taking market share from DSLRs. CIPA predicts that shipment of interchangeable lens cameras will grow by 18.8 per cent in 2012, and they expect that growth will continue in markets outside Japan.

Nearly every major camera company has theirhands in the market, Nikon with their 1 series, Panasonic and Olympus with Micro Four Thirds, Sony with NEX, Samsung with NX and Fujifilm with their X-series. The only major manufacturer not in the game in Canon, if they release their own mirrorless system camera in 2012 the market could shift in a significant way.

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