Saturday, July 21, 2012

What I Want In My Next Camera

E-P2 vs. OM-4T
There are no end to blog posts about what the post writer wants to see in their favorite brand's next release. While I wouldn't call Olympus my favorite brand, I do use it to the exclusion of all else, so what Olympus releases is of more than passing interest to me. And it's interesting to be writing this right after the question I asked in my last post (Are We There Yet?). For the hard core photographer, even if they're not buying gear, even if they've sworn off buying any more gear before king and county, they never-the-less continue speculating about gear they might want to buy in the future. Just ask my sainted wife who has to constantly suffer through my long-winded camera equipment monologues...

I chose my camera the way many choose their elected officials, as the lesser of all evils. I'm not happy with any of today's cameras for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is affordability. To get the kind of minimal quality I have in my various Olympus bodies (both regular 4/3rds and Pens), I would have to spend a quite bit more than what I've spent so far, not just for the body, but for equivalent lenses and other equipment. Other issues include ergonomics (handling) and expected operation out in the field.

No matter how often I pick up another brand's camera, be it Canon, Nikon, Pentax, or Sony, I always find something odd about the placement of controls or the handling that puts me off. It's just me, but then buying a camera is all about me anyway, as I'm the one who has to pay for it and then live with it once it's in my possession. Olympus fits me as well as any camera can; Olympus "wins" because it's a matter of how all the little important bits that do fit me are greater than those that don't.

Having said all that, what I want in a future Olympus camera can fit into two broad fundamental requirements: ergonomics and image quality. Every other requirement is derived from those two.

Ergonomics
  • Minimize the menus. Don't just make them "better", strip them down and throw things out. The first thing that can go are the art filters. All art filters are good for is the occasional blog post or print article. Every user I know of will try them out when they first get the camera, then after the novelty has quickly worn away forget about them.
  • Give us more focusing aids. Olympus' facial recognition software is a surprisingly accurate and useful automatic focusing aid. Of the three Pen bodies I own the E-PL2 is by far the best at this, with the ability to recognize the face and the eyes. I have had far more "keepers" using the 45mm wide open with the E-PL2 than with either the E-P2 or the E-PL1. The E-P3, from what I've read, goes further and allows you to pick which eye to focus on. So keep that feature. The only focusing aid that's missing and sorely needed is focus peeking, a feature that's available on all Sony cameras, a feature that helps with manual focusing.
  • Add more external controls. The best example of powerful and minimal external controls was Olympus' own OM-1. Over the years those external controls grew slowly more complex until the OM-4 was released. Yet, in spite of the few extra controls added to the OM-4 over the OM-1 to handle automatic exposure, the camera hewed to its original OM design. If Olympus wants to really lift from the glory that was the OM series, then they should put controls on the next OM-D pretty much where they were on the OM-1 through 4. Put the shutter speed ring back on the body at the lens mount. Give us lenses with aperture rings. Put the ISO dial where the ASA selector used to be. Make the body the same size, giving the next Pen even more internal space and giving photographers a better body to grip. Finally, really make the pentaprism hump look the same. The biggest reason many look askance at the E-M5 hump is that it's tall and narrow, not wide and balanced like the OM-4 sitting in the photo above.
Image Quality
  • There's not much to say about IQ anymore. With the release of the E-M5, Olympus, with its new-found friend Sony, has produced a 4/3rds sensor that is pretty much all I really want. The only thing I would ask for is better pixels, not more pixels. That means better per-pixel sharpness and clarity (what the E-5 did with the older Panasonic 12MP sensor), a bit more dynamic range at the low ISOs (say 1EV more), and please give us back ISO 100. I really miss it.
And that's it. I could have asked for it to be environmentally sealed down to 30M in the water, with audacious high ISO reach up to 102K and shoot 20 frames/second continuously with continuous autofocus as well as delivering 4K video. You know, the kind of stuff the forum experts like to pontificate about. Except we don't really need and could never practically afford such crazy corner capabilities.

The E-M5 is a watershed camera both for Olympus and digital photography in general. It's got its quirks, but its capabilities overwhelm the quirks. Some on the edges will rant and rave about how those quirks diminish the camera and make it oh so inferior to the Usual Suspects. OK. So buy your cameras from the Usual Suspects and move on. But I suspect (no pun intended) that this will do for digital what Olympus did with film SLRs; force the industry to at least release cameras of equal size and quality. The film-era camera makers who rose to that challenge were Nikon with the FM2, Pentax with the MX, and Minolta with the XD-11, just to name three. Canon, notably, did not.

History unfortunately won't repeat itself for digital. Minolta is now Sony, and Sony's Nex series is struggling to produce lenses of the same size, quality and quantity as the µ4/3rds lens line. Sony's best answer to µ4/3rds is its SLT line, which is actually quite good, far better than the Nex line. If all I had to choose between was the Nex and the SLT, then I'd choose the SLT hands down, overwhelmingly because of its superior ergonomics. Nikon won't because they've already answered with their Nikon 1 "Angry Inch" mirrorless cameras. They released it overpriced and undersupported a year ago. The price is being heavily discounted, but it remains severely undersupported with credible native lenses. Pentax answered the mirrorless challenge with the over-priced, butt-ugly Pentax Q and K-01. And Canon? Canon has already answered the question partially with its G1-X, a fixed lens evolutionary extension of the G-series cameras that bizarrely contains a 4/3rds aspect sensor that is 1mm longer and wider than the Olympus/Panasonic µ4/3rds sensor, but with a poor lens and even poorer ergonomics that have led many to dismiss Canon's first attempt as an overpriced mess. Canon is rumored to be releasing a second response next Monday, which I will reserve comments on until the facts are finally available instead of unsubstantiated rumor. Canon has capability in spades to produce a plausible response to µ4/3rds, but Canon's latest releases, especially the 5DMk3, lead me to believe they'll stick to something cheap and conservative. For Canon we shall know by next Monday.

I'm now deeply invested in µ4/3rds, with three bodies and a small but powerful collection of excellent, fast prime lenses. I got to where I am right now because the price dropped through the floor on the E-PL1 and E-PL2. Low cost trumps quirks every time, especially when the E-PL1 was $150 and the E-PL2 was $250. I've been slowly shopping for my lenses, picking them up when they've gone on sale. It's taken awhile, but I'm in the very pleasant position of having some pretty incredible photographic tools at my beck and call for very low cost, relatively. What I have challenges my belief that I need something more, either from Olympus or another camera maker. But habits built up over a half century are very hard to break, so I sit on the sidelines thinking about what it would take me to open up my wallet again.

If the E-P3 drops down as low as the E-PL1 or E-PL2 then I'll certainly get one of those. The same holds true for the E-M5. And if Olympus releases a follow-on to the E-M5 that's all the E-M5 is and is A Little Bit Better, especially with some of the capabilities I outlined above, well...

I will live in the present. The future will be here soon enough.