Once Upon a Time in Olympus-Land
A Family of Some of the World's Finest
Digital Zoom Lens Finally Has a New Home
A History Lesson
The Four Third format is now ten years old. The last Four Thirds (FT) camera to enter the market was Olympus' then flagship, the E5, launched in 2010. But two years prior, in 2008, the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) format was introduced, sounding the death knell for the Four Thirds format, its progenitor. The difference between the two formats comes down to one thing – flange distance. This translates into viewfinders, lens mount and focusing. And therein lies a tale.
Four Thirds was conceived by Olympus as a new Pro format, at least as it was marketed initially. If your photo industry memory stretches back to the early 2000's you'll recall that Olympus poured a huge amount of money and effort into promoting Four Thirds toward Pros. These were the early years of the digital revolution and Olympus saw an opportunity to carve out a new niche for themselves. The Four Thirds sensor was smaller than full frame, of course, but not that much smaller than APS-C, which then was dominant in DSLRs, as it remains today.
As Olympus saw it, the win for Four Thirds was that lenses could be made quite a bit smaller for any given equivalent focal length aperture. And being one of the most respected makers of lenses in Japan at the time, with its legendary Zuiko lenses as used on OM film cameras, the company set out to build an unparalleled line of lenses, in three different quality levels... Standard, High Grade and Super High Grade.
A Matter of Perspective. Toronto, November, 2013
Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-60mm f/2.8-4 @ ISO 640
The High Grade and Super High Grade lenses were designed specifically for digital sensor use, not film, and they were intended to surpass everything else on the market, especially when it came to zooms. Olympus knew that Pros use zooms, knew that they were of necessity expensive if of top-tier quality, and that Pros were willing to pay for that quality.
But ultimately Four Thirds failed to gain traction among Pros. The reasons why are manifold, but by 2008 MFT was introduced and along with it new lenses from not just Olympus but also Panasonic and more recently several OEMs.
The only physical change made was to shorten the flange distance – the space between the rear of the lens and the sensor plane. This allowed for much smaller cameras because the mirror box and prism could be eliminated, and of course along with it the optical finder. Rear LCDs and electronic finders were to become the new normal.
But with the end of mirror reflex housings Phase Detection autofocus was also lost, and the Contrast Detection AF used in mirrorless systems was not up to the task of guiding lenses designed for the earlier Four Thirds system.
Enter the OM-D E-M1
Until late 2013 it looked as if Four Thirds' days were numbered. Olympus kept promising that they would not abandon their Four Thirds base, but never actually delivered a proper Four Thirds E5 successor. Four Thirds lenses could be used on MFT cameras using an inexpensive Olympus MMF-3 adaptor, but autofocus was terrible and only the most devout of Four Thirds lenses owners put up with it. (I used my FT Zuiko lenses with manual focus until the E-M1 came along).
But then in Q3 2013, the OM-D EM1 was announced. With this camera's introduction Olympus met a number of challenges and promises. This is the first MFT camera with on-chip Phase Detection. This means that all Four Thirds lenses now work when using the MMF-3 adaptor, and do so with similar speed and accuracy to the latest E5 FT camera.
Olympus Four Thirds Lenses – The Big Deal
Super High Grade
If keeping Four Thirds camera owners happy was the long and the short of it, then this article wouldn't exist. What makes the E-M1 camera announcement of significance is that now, in a contemporary, full-featured, weather sealed body, Olympus' High Grade and Super High Grade lenses are once again made current. The good news as well is that these fantastic lenses are all still available from major retailers, such as B&H.
It's hard to overstate how good these lenses are. Of these fourteen lenses all but three are zooms. The lenses are also relatively expensive. But more to the point only the very best lenses from a handful of camera makers can even come close to the image quality that these lenses offer. Just do a Google search on any of them. You'll find plenty of reviews on most, and you'll find as well that almost universally they are very highly regarded. Simply among the best zoom lenses out there.
The reason is, as we related above, that when the Four Thirds system was launched Olympus saw it as their main chance to become a major player in the Pro digital market. This strategy failed at the time because their camera bodies didn't offer any clear advantage over ASPS-C and Full Frame offerings. But by making the attempt Olympus ended up creating a line of zoom lenses that remains unsurpassed from a single manufacturer. A few L series and Gold ring lenses from Canon and Nikon may be comparable, but likely none are better.
Ironically, now that they have a world-class camera in the E-M1, and sensor size is no longer the issue that it was a decade ago, together with their Pro series lenses from a decade ago Olympus has a stealth combination that will appeal to any Pro and advanced amateur who knows that this combo exists.
Now, with the OM-D E-M1 camera there is a state-of-the-art camera that can use all of these fantastic lenses to full advantage. They deserve wider recognition.
On A Personal Note
I've written this before, but will again here. Cameras come and go in the digital era. They have a half-life of about 12-18 months. But lenses, and especially great lenses can be forever.
I have collected three Zuiko Digital Four Thirds lenses; the 7-14mm f/4, the 12-60mm f/2.8-4, and the 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5. Since getting my OM-D E-M1 in early October they have been happily put to use on a camera that can really take advantage of them, and they'll be coming with me to Mexico and Antarctica this winter. I expect that they'll see plenty of heavy use there.