my olympus cameras are like mary poppins

May 9, 2015

Hail to the KingI have owned and used cameras since 1963. My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic 104 film camera I got as a Christmas gift that year. It needed 126 film cartridges and special square flash cubes that would flip around 90° after each exposure; four flashes/cube. Back in those days the Instamatic was cheap and the film and flash cubes were relatively cheap. What was expensive was the processing, the developing and printing. That tended to put the brakes on any photography I wanted to do as a kid, as it was my parents who bought all those supplies and paid for all that processing. But I got my dad to pay for it most of the time, as he’d picked up a Yashica J5 35mm SLR. Along with the Yashica he’d also picked up the photo bug himself and managed to pass it along to me. As for his J5, he kept the J5 camera for a long time, even after he bought his first Olympus OM-1 in 1973. As far as I know he may have it still.

As I progressed through high school I wanted a “real” camera like my dad’s, so when I became a junior he found a used Yashica Electro 35 GSN, a 35mm fixed lens rangefinder camera. That camera fully ignited my interest in photography. Three years later, as a college sophomore, I bought my first SLR, a Minolta SRT-MC II from J.C. Penney’s. Soon after I picked up the Minolta XE-7 and again, with my dad’s help, a Mamiya c330 Pro f, my one and only medium format camera. For some number of years after that I tried to make it as a working photographer, but a lack of business acumen combined with bad luck in the Atlanta commercial photography market eventually drove me back to engineering. In the end I sold nearly everything from that period to help get out of debt, got a job as a security guard, went back to college and finished my electrical engineering degree, and then got an engineering job that helped pay the bills and pay for my newer replacement photography gear.

What has attracted me to nearly all my 35mm SLR cameras were their relatively compact body sizes. It didn’t matter if the brand was Minolta, Yashica, Nikon, or Olympus, those makers always produced nice compact jewel-like bodies. But when the SLR went digital, the bodies got fat. More precisely they got deep because the sensor and electronics took the same spot where film used to go. And in the process of getting deeper, the whole body grew proportionately. Here’s an example of what happened with Nikon:

On the left is Nikon’s Df introduced back in November 2013, and the Nikon FM3a film camera on the right, introduced in 2001. The FM3a was the final iteration of the FM film series. You will note that the outline of the FM3a is on the Df’s top deck. The lens mount between the two cameras is still the same. The mirror box is still the same size. But everything about the Df is just bigger. Even the 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor on the Df is bigger than the 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor on the FM3a. Same focal length, but the newer lens is bigger and a half stop slower. I guess that’s progress for you.

As I said I’ve owned at least one camera, and usually more than one, for over 50 years. That’s a half century of handling cameras, first film, then digital. I couldn’t afford to own every brand and model, but I’ve managed to handle enough to have some idea as to the scope of change that’s swept the industry since 1963.

I’ve reached a point in my life where I would much rather stick with μ4:3rds  cameras, primarily those from Olympus. There’s nothing wrong with any other brand or model. It’s a personal decision borne of 50+ years of handling various cameras. And size has a lot to do with my decision. The sensor might be smaller than 35mm film, but the body size of the OM-D series is pretty much in line with the older OM film cameras. And I’ve noticed that the μ4:3rds sensor performance now exceeds the capability of 35mm film. I don’t have the Mamiya anymore, but the article link to the Mamiya has the writer of that post compare the Mamiya’s output with a Sigma DP2 Merrill APS-C digital camera. At pixel level peeping (or at the same sizes used to examine Mamiya negatives/prints) the DP2 walks all over the Mamiya. Similarly the combination of μ4:3rds sensor and OM-D small body pretty much matches the OM film body sizes, starting with 1972’s OM-1. And the output of the μ4:3rds sensor walks all over any of my 35mm prints and negatives taken with the OM film cameras from that era. Digital has trumped film, at all sensor sizes, and has for some number of years now, at least since 2009.

Here’s a family portrait of my small camera collection circa February 2013. When I say small, I don’t mean is in the number of total items, but in size of the cameras themselves.

The CollectionYou’ll note the Olympus E-P2 on the far left, my first μ4:3rds camera that anchored my collection, and one I still have. The most current at the time this portrait was made is the OM-D E-M5 in front of the E-P2. I still have that one too. The other μ4:3rds cameras in the collection include an E-PL2 in the middle back and an E-PL1 on the right back. I got those when they went on sale for around $200 and $140 respectively, body only. I’ve since given the E-PL2 to my youngest and the E-PL1 is used in a diving case by my wife when she goes snorking.

Which leaves the Sony NEX 5N as the odd man out.

NEX-5N with Sigma 30mm and 19mmOnce again, I picked up the APS-C sensor Sony with its 18-55mm kit lens when it was on fire sale, along with the two Sigma lenses, the 19mm and 30mm f/2.8. I picked up those Sigma prime lenses because they’d dropped down to $99 each. Those lenses give an effective field of view of 28.5mm and 45mm if you were using a camera with a 35mm sized sensor. The Sony is special in that it has one of the best Sony digital sensors ever to grace a digital camera.

It’s the same sensor that was in a number of Nikon APS-C cameras, especially the D7000. It may be only 16MP, but its sensor can outperform every μ4:3rds sensor produced by Panasonic, Olympus, and yes, even other Sony sensors in μ4:3rds. The sensor in the E-M5 is a Sony sensor and a later version to the Sony sensor in the 5N. There’s something magical about the 5N sensor and I’ll turn to it when I want to create something interesting and different than what I can with the Olympus cameras. It helps to scratch that “I sure wish I had a different camera” itch when the itch strikes from time to time.

Why not go with the Sony system? Because, unlike the μ4:3rds system, it’s still incomplete and inconsistent. With Olympus and Panasonic I have a complete system in μ4:3rds, especially lenses. For handling and when auto focusing is important, I much prefer the E-M5 (and E-M10) cameras. The images I get out of those bodies, also 16MP, are more than good enough for my needs. That’s why I call my E-M5 and E-M10 my Mary Poppins cameras, because they’re practically (as in the most practical and affordable digital system) perfect in every way.

As for the future, if I can believe some of the E-M5 II reviews about the RAW files (without the 40MP high resolution mode), the E-M5 II may finally have caught up with, and possibly surpassed, the NEX 5N sensor-wise. But that’s still OK. If I break down and get a Mk II, it’ll be as always, towards the end of sales life, when the price drops (like it did for the E-M5 and E-M10) and then maybe I’ll snag a copy. I can truly afford to wait because right now everything in my kit is way better than my skills could ever hope to use.

One response to my olympus cameras are like mary poppins


    My first mirrorless was a NEX 5, which as a first generation was too early. There were many little things that bugged me about it but ultimately it was the color I didn’t like and the reason I moved to Olympus.