You would think that, with the earth shattering performance numbers presented by DXO, that the Nikon D800 would be monopolizing the photographic conversation across the web-o-sphere but that's clearly not the case. The camera of the season is the Olympus OMD. But, in a disconnect, the cameras most existing professionals will use from now until the near future will be traditional, full frame cameras. To be more precise, the overwhelming majority of existing professionals will buy and use the Canon 5Dmk3 and the Nikon D800 and it's because they have already bought into a commercial paradigm that is too scary for them to turn away from. And because they are not risk takers.
For the last decade the drumbeat of common knowledge has been to embrace two camera features: One is the lure of full frame that came from not being able to buy cost effective full frame cameras from Canon until 2007 and not being able to buy any full frame camera at all from Nikon until the introduction of the D3 in 2009. The other "must have" feature has always been massive resolution. The more the better. But crucially, for those with their noses pressed hardest to the paradigm, over 20 megapixels.
The reasons for this selection process are many but I suspect it goes back to the idea that being part of the pack is safer than wondering through the savanna alone. It also paid off in producing images that were high enough quality to pass the test for most clients, be they magazines, ad agencies or direct to businesses. But part of the appeal is what always makes the Bell Curve relevant = most purchasers are not early adopters, are not on the cutting edge and seek the tried and true solution, vetted by the more adventurous. If they bought a Canon 5Dmk2 a year or two ago they would be able to tell clients that they were shooting with "an industry standard."
A current selection from the big two buys them the same cover. So why all the noise about the Olympus? I think that people have, for years, understood that it was possible to reduce the size, weight and costs of camera systems with new technology. Nikon and Canon had lots of legacy lenses in the pipeline and a leadership position in large sensors so it didn't make sense for them to embrace new lens mounts and new camera sizing. Olympus tried to compete with their four thirds cameras but their dependence on a moving mirror technology meant that the cameras couldn't be reduced in size enough to make a difference when viewed next to their competitors.
By removing the mirror altogether Olympus could now make (in the micro four thirds space) a line of cameras based around a much smaller lens mount. That meant the cameras could be much smaller too. And the actual lenses.
The first few iterations were aimed in the right direction but issues abounded. Especially for professionals. The lack of a built in eye level finder meant sacrificing the hot shoe in exchange for viewfinder usability. The focusing was too slow. The response of the cameras was slow for professional work. And the sensor they were using in the EP1, EP2 and even in the EP3 didn't perform at the level of the their APS-C competitors.
The demand for a small camera was clearly there. At least for a huge number of non-professionals who didn't need big bodies to impress clients, giant lenses for sports magazine work, or the safety of the herd mentality. The ones who would embrace a great, small camera system were the same ones who restlessly rotated between Panasonic LX-5's, Canon G12's, Leica X1's and a series of small interchangeable lens cameras from Olympus, Panasonic, Sony and Samsung. They were all looking for the same thing: A cost effective package that, when used well, would create the same kind of results, on paper or on screen, they were getting from a Canon 7D or a Nikon D7000 but in a smaller package with much smaller lenses.
Last year was a turning point for the micro four thirds systems. Part of the momentum in their direction was created by the introduction of four new lenses that the segment desperately needed.
The Olympus 12mm 2.0 and 45mm 1.8 added critical focal lengths and lens speeds the market had been asking for. The 25mm 1.4 added the normal lens mastery (hello HCB) that had been missing and the announcement of the 70mm f1.8 by Olympus signalled that they were committed to making serious camera equipment again. Deep breath.
When the OM-D hit it became an instant hit (back-ordered everywhere) because of three critical features: A set of lenses people wanted, at one third the size of similar lenses for traditional digital cameras. Very fast and sure autofocus. And the image quality that the market had been demanding. The camera now achieves an image quality at parity with it's similarly priced competitors. And that is it's most compelling new feature. Parity.
The market wanted the size reduction. The market wanted the cool lenses. The market wanted fast and sure autofocusing. But they were not willing to give up perceived image quality of existing cameras in exchange for the benefits of the size and weight reduction. When Olympus removed IQ barriers all of the other features were unleashed to become market drivers.
While people can argue the relative merits of OVF versus EVF for as long as they have breath, the tipping point for the entire mirrorless catagory is the adaptation of high quality EVFs. It is so for Sony, Panasonic and Olympus. And, as the fastest growing category of serious cameras it will drive EVFs into the other segments of the market at a much greater speed. The EVF makes all the cameras all terrain photo tools. From high sun to no light.
The OMD is nicely designed and feels good in the hand. The finder works well but it is not this camera per se, that is moving the market, rather it is the confluence of technology, the desire to physically downsize systems and the desire to lower costs that make the camera an important mile stone.
Another aspect that is rarely mentioned is the relatively open standard of the lens mount. Something that is not currently lost on Canon users. I've read statements by quite a number who would like to get into the Nikon system in order to leverage their perception that the performance of the new D800 is a must have for their market niche. The barrier is the need to totally exchange all of their Canon lenses for Nikon lenses. They will lose money. And, sadly, when Canon comes out with their 54 megapixel, full frame camera in a year or two the same users will lose money switching back. If you limit your system choices to variants in the micro four thirds segment you can freely invest in bodies from different makers and still use the lenses you've selected. And, for the most part, they will be lenses optimized for the sensor size.
The reality as I see it is this: Most of the cameras on the market right now, that have recent sensors of 16 megapixels and more, will do a good job creating the files we need for most of our uses. In web advertising, most print, all newspaper, high res monitor display, etc. the 12 megapixel cameras dating back to the Nikon D2X are all perfectly capable. The newest cameras offer lower high ISO noise. Fees are flattening for most professional work. It could be because people's approach to photography is pretty much homogeneously aligned. (and that is not necessarily a dig at the capabilities of the photographers as so much work is driven by client desires, comprehensive layouts and expectations.) It could be because of market forces. But clients now understand, perhaps better than their suppliers, that tour de force photo tool inventory isn't nearly as important as it once was and, that by any measure even the less expensive tools are of such high quality today that, practically, they are interchangeable.
Once professional photographers catch up they will return to the time honored marketing tradition of selling their personal vision instead of their technical inventory. At that point they'll consider the same cameras that their hobbyist counterparts are embracing today. And for all the same reasons.
It's good to remember that in the age of the Nikon F2 and the Canon F1 that the most popular professional photographer tool was the Nikon FM or the Canon AE-1. Both were small, light and capable. Neither were originally aimed at professionals but were quickly adopted for many of the same reasons m4:3rds is in ascendency today: Smaller, lighter, easier to use, cheaper and just as good image quality.
The Olympus is selling like hot cakes not because it is so good (and it is a very good camera) but because it represents a tipping point into a sea change of camera buying by most serious amateur photographers. The fact that it has been anointed by no less than DPR is a testimony both to the camera and also to the prescience of the uber-marketers that the dam has indeed broken for a whole category and that the lines between camera types are being erased.
If you can't imagine them prying your hands off your "full sized" body or your eye from your optical viewfinder, and you can't imagine not hearing the clickty clack of your mirror banging around as you shoot photographs then you may be the newest iteration of all those people who, in the early part of this century, were still resisting any experimentation with digital imaging and predicting that it would be years at least, and maybe decades, before digital technology would be as good as film......
The OM-D is the lighting rod. It's the shot over the bow that says this (the sector) is both good enough and, in many ways, better. The real alternative? Big ass medium format. But that's a whole nother blog.
The traditional, big DSLR? Quickly becoming the Firebird Trans Am of an older generation. Wearing their Members Only jackets and revving up their engines... While the world drives by in a Prius. Or, are you still using your Motorola Brick cellphone instead of an iPhone?
Finally, everyone I know has asked if I have an OMD, if I have one on order, if I'm getting one from somewhere. And if not, when? The reality is that while I like the camera just fine and would love to own one I'm intrigued by rumors of a new Panasonic GH3. I'm still having fun with the Sony's and I'm in no rush. It's all fun.
Additional reading: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2012/01/its-new-year-im-playing-with-new-camera.html