Olympus is a brand that has always very firmly set its own course. They have a long history of unique cameras, especially when it comes to compact models. That history began in 1919, as a manufacturer of microscopes and thermometers. It is therefore not surprising that Olympus is today still the world market leader in the field of, for example, endoscopes.
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 mk2 is the current showpiece. With 60 RAW shots per second, perfect for action photography. The bright (f/2.8) 12-40 mm “kit lens” beats many fixed focal points on image quality.
The first Olympus cameras came on the market in 1936, but the real big breakthrough came with the introduction of the Olympus Pen in 1959. The Pen was a camera that would have a lot of successors, with its half-sized format and compact dimensions. The Pen was a viewfinder camera with a fixed lens and was made in various versions until 1980. Most models had a 28, 30 or 32 mm lens, but there have also been a motorized version and a wide version with a 25 mm lens for a short time.
The Pen also led to the development of the famous Pen F, a true half-sized single lens reflex camera with interchangeable lenses. Unique to the Pen F was that the camera did not seem to have a prism housing. The mirror of the Pen F did not fold upwards, but to the side. The viewfinder of Pen F was therefore not above the lens, but in the upper left corner of the camera. This makes the camera appear even smaller than it actually is. Another unique aspect of the Pen F was that the camera used a rotary slit shutter. In operation, this shutter is very similar to a central shutter, and if you wanted to flash with the Pen F, you could synchronize at all shutter speeds.
The Pen F was the brainchild of the famous Olympus chief designer: Yoshihisa Maitani. Maitani was a grandmaster in coming up with compact designs. After the Pen and the Pen F, he also designed the famous Olympus OM 35mm cameras in 1972. OM is not a random designation, but “Olympus Maitani.” The line consisted of a professional series, from the OM-1 through the OM-4, and a consumer line that consisted of the OM-10 through the OM-40. And in 1986, an autofocus model even came on the market, the OM-707. Production of the OM-3Ti and OM-4 models in particular continued into this century.
In addition to the OM cameras, Maitani was also the designer of the Olympus XA, a 35mm camera with an excellent 35mm lens that was even more compact than the Pen and that in some versions offered enthusiasts the option to manually focus and influence the exposure. The XA also meant the introduction of the “clamshell” body. The XA had a slider with which you opened the lens in and turned on the camera at the same time with one movement. This construction was later also used in the new analogue and digital Mju models with autofocus. In the United States these models would be called Stylus.
When the demand for analogue cameras dried up, Olympus did not immediately release a digital version of its 35mm OM cameras. However, the company did gain fame with digital compact cameras like the 2-megapixel C-2020 and C2500L, very good for that time. These cameras came on the market in 1999 and were even used with great success by some professional photographers. A year later, Olympus launched the E-10. This four-megapixel camera had a fixed zoom with a range of 35-140 mm, converted to 35 mm. Unusual about the E-10 were the particularly robust construction, the excellent ergonomics and the quality of the zoom lens. The range of the zoom could be further extended with adapters to both the wide and the telephoto side.
The E-10 was succeeded one year later by the 5-megapixel E-20. Both cameras can be seen as the direct precursor of the Olympus E-1. This camera appeared in 2003 and was the first digital camera from Olympus with interchangeable lenses as well as being the first Four Thirds camera from Olympus. The E-1 was of course slightly larger than the E-20, due to the larger sensor and interchangeable lenses, but showed many similarities in design to the earlier E-models.
What makes a brand unique?
Every brand has its own character. Sometimes, that leads to unique products, with a DNA characteristic of that brand. Because the scores of our tests are based on measurement results, non-measurable properties are underexposed in the final scores. That is why we are trying to describe the DNA of a few brands based on our practical experience.
The E-1 was the result of a collaboration between Olympus and Kodak. Kodak supplied the Four Thirds sensor, and the system was set up from the start as an open platform in which in principle every manufacturer could participate who subscribed to the basic rules of Four Thirds. The mount was a fixed element, so that lenses had to remain interchangeable between different manufacturers. Olympus steadily expanded the Four Thirds series in the following years.
In addition to the professional models, the E1 through E-5, Olympus also released cameras such as the E-410 and E-510 that were more consumer-focused. What was striking about the top models in particular was that they were particularly well sealed. The cameras could be used effortlessly in heavy rain showers or in the freezing cold and also kept out dust excellently. As a result, the Olympus cameras have become very popular with outdoor and action sports photographers who have to work in extreme conditions. Another unique feature of the E-1 was the Supersonic Wave filter. The sensor on the E-1 was able to vibrate at high frequency to shake off dust and dirt. That was a novelty in 2003, and one for which not everyone saw the usefulness at the time. Now you would not want to buy a camera that doesn’t have it.
Other innovations in the Four Thirds series in 2004 were the “Live View” viewfinder in the E300 series and the introduction of in-body image stabilization, or IBIS, in the E500 in 2005. Thanks to their smaller sensor, the Olympus models had slightly less good performance at high ISO values and more depth of field at the same apertures than competing brands with APS-C and full-frame sensors. Olympus took away some of those disadvantages with amazingly good and bright f/2 zooms. However innovative and beautifully built the Four Thirds cameras were, they were not much lighter and smaller than APS-C cameras. And the lenses were exceptionally good, but also heftily priced, and the bright zooms were also relatively big and heavy. The last Four Thirds camera, the E-5, came on the market in 2010, but Olympus had already taken a new course a year earlier with the Micro Four Thirds PEN E-P1.
The big breakthrough: Micro Four Thirds
With the PEN E-P1, the company drew its name from the famous Pen F, but at the same time, Olympus took a huge step towards a mirrorless future. In terms of design, the PEN E-P1 was indeed very similar to the Pen F, although the E-P1 did not have a viewfinder. What the E-P1 also had in common with the Pen F were the compact dimensions. The Pen F owed it to the half-sized image format and the clever construction. The PEN E-P1 was so small because there was no mirror in it anymore and the camera used a live view image at the back of the screen.
In 2012, the OM series also received a digital successor in the form of the OM-D E-M5. This camera was also the first true Micro Four Thirds successor to the Four Thirds cameras. The E-M5 had all the qualities of the Four Thirds cameras such as good weather resistance, solid construction, excellent image stabilization and an excellent viewfinder, but in a smaller housing. The OM-D E-M5 was exactly what Olympus had done with the famous OM cameras and what the intention was with the Four Thirds models: a compact system camera with high image quality.
The Micro Four Thirds system has grown enormously in recent years. Olympus now makes three different OM-D models and three PEN models as well as a large selection of lenses, including a number of beautifully bright ones. In addition, you can also use the lens range from Panasonic, Zeiss, Samyang and a number of other manufacturers. Blackmagic makes special compact video models especially for video, and there is even a Chinese manufacturer that markets budget models for Micro Four Thirds.
Innovation is strongly anchored in the Olympus DNA, and many of the innovations can be seen in the current products. We already mentioned the Supersonic Wave filter and the image stabilization. Olympus is a pioneer in the field of body image stabilization. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II in combination with the M. Zuiko 12-100 mm achieves 6.5 stops. According to Olympus engineers, that is just about the maximum possible. Even more stabilization is difficult to achieve, they believe, due to the rotation of the earth. The system not only works very well for handheld shooting at slow times, but also for making videos. Beautiful, stable video shots and even camera movement are possible thanks to the excellent IBIS from Olympus.
The weather resistance of a number of cameras and lenses is also unusual. The OM-D E-M5 and the OM-D E-M1 series are, just like the Ex models, so well-sealed that you can use them under almost all circumstances. There are films on YouTube of people who take their cameras in the shower or leave them outside in the freezing cold at night. Just dry or thaw and you can get back to work.
Of course, you need more than a well-sealed camera. You also need lenses that are just as weatherproof. And fortunately, Olympus delivers those too. Of course all the lenses from the Pro series are almost completely water- and dust-proof, but there are also a number of cheaper lenses that are equally weatherproof, such as the 60 mm f/2.8 Macro from the Premium series and the modest M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12-50 mm 1: 3.5-6.3 EZ.
However, Olympus is not only a brand for rugged outdoor sportsmen and world travelers looking for the extremes. With the elegant PEN F, Olympus also offers a beautiful lifestyle system camera with retro rangefinder styling and all the modern features that you can expect today. For example, the PEN F has the option to bracket your creative filters. If you want, you can save up to 37 different jpeg versions of every RAW recording, depending on which filters you have checked. You can thus quickly see which one works best for a specific subject.
Another unusual feature can be found on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. This camera can take 60 shots per second. With that speed, it can only record a few seconds, but it does record continuously and then saves a number of shots before and after you press the shutter button. That way, you always have the right moment. And the list of unique features should of course also include the option of shooting with the E-M5 and E-M1 in High-Res mode. In this mode, the camera takes multiple shots, whereby the sensor is shifted a fraction of a pixel each time via the image stabilization. These shots are then merged into a file with much higher resolution than the sensor has. It only works when you place the camera on a tripod and none of your subject moves. For landscape photographers and in the studio, this is a wonderful way to get a very high-quality image.
A unique building, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, through a unique lens: Olympus 12-100mm f/4 PRO @ 12mm
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II was announced at Photokina in 2016. With the ability to shoot 20 images per second in full resolution in RAW, or even 60 images per second in RAW for a short period, the E-M1 Mark II was the sensation of the show. The E-M1 Mark II, with its 20-megapixel sensor without anti-alias filter, is also – along with the PEN F – the Olympus camera with the highest resolution. The E-M1 Mark II signified a breakthrough in phase detection auto focus in mirrorless systems. No other mirrorless camera could follow a fast-moving subject at that time like the E-M1. The PEN F has the same sensor as the E-M1 Mark II but is in many respects a counterpart to the E-M1. Where the E-M1 exudes cool functionality, the PEN F is the elegant lifestyle camera that you take with you on a night out. Buy it in silver, put a nice brown leather half-case underneath and combine it with a number of fixed focal points from the Premium series in silver, and it looks like you are walking around with a real 1960s camera.
Olympus also has a lot to offer in terms of lenses. At the same time as the E-M1 Mark II, two new lenses were announced that are very different, but both equally unique. One is the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100 f/4 IS PRO. This compact travel zoom has a focal range of – converted to 35 mm – 24 to 200 mm. And it can also focus very close up. Such an all-in-one zoom is usually a guarantee for poor image quality, but that does not apply to this Olympus. The sharpness is high at all focal points and at every aperture in the entire image. And that, together with the fixed brightness of f/4, is very special.
Olympus offers a large number of bright f/1.2 lenses, with which you get a very small focusing plane and a beautiful bokeh. The above shot was made with the Olympus 25mm f/1.2 PRO.
The other lens was a bright fixed focal length, the M.Zuiko Digital ED 25 mm f/1.2 PRO. A lens with high brightness, with extraordinary sharpness even at full aperture and with a bokeh that is characterized by a beautiful, soft blur and equally soft bokeh balls. This lens has since been joined by a 17mm wide angle and a 45mm telephoto with the same brightness and characteristics. The 45 mm f/1.2 is one of the best choices in Micro Four Thirds for getting a beautiful bokeh.
However, you do not necessarily need a lens with an f/1.2 brightness. It is also possible with the Olympus M.Zuiko 75 mm f/1.8 ED. This is not only one of the sharpest lenses in the Olympus line but also one of the lenses with the most beautiful bokeh. It is a stop less bright than the f/1.2 PRO lenses, but the focal point is therefore a lot longer. The field of view corresponds to that of a 150 mm in 35 mm format. Another very special lens is the M.Zuiko 8mm f/1.8 Fisheye PRO. This is the brightest fisheye lens in the world. And just like the other PRO lenses, this lens is also resistant to extreme conditions. This fisheye is ideal for action sports photographers and underwater photography.