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Olympus brings OM series into the 21st century (hands-on)

Olympus' new OM-D series revives the now-vintage look of its film cameras, but this digital incarnation is packed with some very modern technology.

Now playing: Watch this: Olympus OM-D E-M5

Much as it did when launching the PEN series of Micro Four Thirds cameras, Olympus trots out another beloved film brand and updates it for the digital age. This time out, though, Olympus frames enthusiasts squarely in the scene.

The Olympus OM3, design ancestor of the OM-D series. Olympus America

When Olympus revived the venerable PEN brand with the PEN E-P1 in 2009, I suspect its product planners were a bit taken aback by how well it was received by prosumer photographers and slightly dismayed by its failure to become a blockbuster among the coveted point-and-shoot crowd.

This time around, Olympus' reincarnation of its OM film line targets those enthusiasts who've proven to be either Olympus loyalists or fans of the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) interchangeable-lens standard. And while I'm not fond of the nomenclature--the first model is the overhyphenated OM-D E-M5--Olympus certainly deserves points for style.

It has a modest-size body, but it's built along the same lines as the E-5 dSLR: a bit tanklike, with a magnesium alloy chassis that's dust- and weather-sealed. While the PEN series eschews built-in electronic viewfinders (EVF), the OM-D takes advantages of that design's distinctive pyramid-shaped housing for the optical viewfinder's prism. Here it houses the EVF, along with a hot shoe and a connector for the bundled compact flash unit (the same connector used by the PEN models for the external microphone and other accessories). The viewfinder itself doesn't match that of the Sony Alpha NEX-7--it's smaller and because of the MFT 2x crop factor has a lower effective magnification--but it's similar to the optional viewfinder for the PEN models and is still pretty nice.

Olympus has also taken the opportunity to introduce a new Four Thirds sensor, increased to 16.1 megapixels from 12.3MP. This sensor has a faster readout, which, combined with the same tested-fast autofocus system and TruePic VI imaging engine from the latest generation of PENs, promises very good performance. And the company claims it has improved video performance, much of which is sensor-dependent, fixing the aliasing, moiré, and rolling-shutter problems endemic in those models.

However, sensor-shift image-stabilization systems generally seem to produce some video artifacts, so it'll be interesting to see how this stands up in that respect. The company did add another axis of IS to compensate for the rocking motion you make while you walk while shooting, a feature that has become fairly common in camcorders but not so much in cameras.

One neat original feature is the ability to display and adjust the highlight and shadow areas of the tone curve in the viewfinder; this could either be very cool or very useless.

Plus Olympus has updated its set of Art Filters, adding a edge-outline filter, more options for a couple of the existing ones, and a ghosting effect for movies.

Here's the interesting lineup of mirrorless models in the $1,000-plus segment (plus the E-P3 for comparison):

  Fujifilm X-Pro 1 Olympus E-P3 Olympus OM-D E-M5 Sony Alpha NEX-7
Sensor (effective resolution) 16.3-megapixel X-Trans CMOS
12.3-megapixel Live MOS
16.1-megapixel Live MOS
24.3-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS
23.6mm x 15.6mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.5x 2.0x 2.0x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 6400/25,600 (expanded) ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 200 - ISO 25,600 ISO 100 - ISO 16,000
Continuous shooting 6fps
approx 15
unlimited (LN) JPEG/17 raw
17 JPEG/11 raw
unlimited 10 JPEG/6 raw
(10fps with fixed exposure)
magnification/ effective magnification
90 percent coverage/
1.44-million dots variable
Optional EVF
1.44-million dots
100% coverage
2.4-million dots
100% coverage
Autofocus 49-area
Contrast AF
35-area contrast AF 35-area contrast AF 25-area contrast AF
Shutter speed 30-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 60 min; 1/180 x-sync 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes; 1/4,000 FP sync 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 8 minutes; 1/250 sec x-sync (flash dependent) 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync
Metering 256 zones 324 area 324 area 1,200 zones
Flash No Yes Included add-on Yes
Image stabilization Optical Sensor shift Sensor shift Optical
Video 1080/24p H.264 1080/60i AVCHD @ 20, 17Mbps; 720/60p @ 13Mbps 1080/60i QuickTime MOV @ 20, 17Mbps AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1440x1080/30p @ 12Mbps
Audio Stereo Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input
LCD size 3-inch fixed
1,230,000 dots
3-inch fixed OLED
614,000 dots
3-inch tilting touch screen OLED
614,000 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 300 shots 330 shots n/a 350 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.5 x 3.2 x 1.7 4.8 x 2.7 x 1.4 4.8 x 3.5 x 1.7 4.8 x 2.8 x 1.7
Body operating weight (ounces) 15.9 13.0 15 (est) 12 (est)
Mfr. price $1,699.95 (body only) n/a $999.99 (body only) $1,199.99 (body only)
n/a $899.99 (with 14-42mm lens) $1,299.99 (with 12-50mm lens) $1,349.00 (with 18-55mm lens)
n/a $899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens) $1,099.99 (with 14-42mm lens) n/a
Ship date February 2012 August 2011 April 2012 November 2011

Based on previous experience, I think the E-M5 will probably deliver on performance, but it will have to prove itself on image quality. Even if it does master the video-artifact issue, it only supports 1080/60i--and interlaced never looks as good as progressive. The NEX-7 and X-Pro 1 look like potentially strong competitors, although the E-M5 might stack up well once you take price into account. It looks cool, but that only takes you so far in pixel-peeping territory.

Olympus also took the opportunity to announce two MFT prime lenses that will be coming later this year, a 75mm f1.8 with a design similar to the lovely 12mm f2 and a 60mm f2.8 macro that can focus as close as 7.5 inches. Accessories for the camera include a cleverly designed two-part battery grip and a standard-size FL-600R flash unit with a video LED.