7.06.2012

What is the real secret behind the success of the new wave of mirrorless cameras? And the OMD in particular?


Everywhere I look, here in Austin and on the web, I see people snapping up micro four thirds cameras or writing about them and discussing them.  It started out quietly a couple of years ago with the Olympus EP1, EP2 and the Panasonic cameras and now, with the Olympus OMD it seems to be building at a feverish pace.

The OMD and the GH2 have gone a long way toward establishing the technical legitimacy of the format and its place in the modern pantheon of attractive cameras but what is it that really got the ball rolling, long before Olympus launched their 16 megapixel DSLR killer?  

I know that people like smaller and lighter cameras but various form factors have come and gone.  The G series from Canon was/is popular, but not like this.  It can't be the overall performance because while the chip in the new camera is great it's still not as good as the chips in a number of APS-C cameras and it's not about to challenge the overall technical prowess of the newer full 35mm frame cameras like the D800 or the Canon 5D mk3.  But the popularity was building quickly even before the OMD was announced.

I found an old Leica screwmount body (I think it's a 2f or 3f) sitting around the studio the other day and I moved it over to the case that holds the Pen stuff.  I pulled out a Pen EP3 body and put them side by side and gosh golly!!! The dimensions were too close for coincidence.  So here's my theory:  Just a Steve Jobs had a singular vision for Apple Products (the design of which turbo charges sales)  Oscar Barnack, the inventor of the Leica, had a singular vision for his first series of cameras.  His vision revolved around the idea that you could make a small camera that would be comfortable to carry and comfortable to shoot and you could, through careful technique, come close to the image quality that you would get with the larger film format cameras of the day.

Barnack's drive to make a small but potent camera came from necessity.  He was asthmatic and tired of trying to carry a large compendium bellows view camera and tripod with him on walks through the forests near his home.  Since he worked alone, unencumbered by committees and focus groups and the input from marketing hacks he hewed to his own vision and made a camera that fit his hand perfectly.  And by extension, the hands of millions of other users.  

Cameras got bigger when people (and committees and ad hacks) started demanding more attachments, more geegaws and more convenience items. More ways to sell you something new.  As we moved away from pure picture popping prowess we moved away from optimum haptics.  Optimum ergonomics.  Perfect designs for human use.  Yes, we got motor drives and we could use longer lenses and all that but the purity of the design slowly became more and more compromised and generations of photographers and consumers put up with it because they got silly stuff they never knew they needed  in return.


Once the camera companies hit their stride in the digital arena a curious thing happened.  When we hit a picture quality that was good enough for the masses lots of people started demanding less.  They/we were willing to give up a lot of stuff we'd been sold as part of the holy grail of photography.  A lot of people started to consider 12 megapixels good enough for most of the stuff they routinely used cameras for.  Once the camera hit this point Olympus realized that a new differentiator could be size. And design.  I suspect someone high up in their product development dept. had one of the old Leicas on the shelf and, having shot with probably every other conceivable camera in the market he came back to a nice, cherry Leica 111f and held it and decided it was absolutely perfect in conception and told/ordered his staff to shamelessly steal as much of the size and shape of the original Leicas as they could.  Not for nostalgia's sake but in deference to the genius of its original, human centric design.

In the next round of product development I think you'll see more concentration on rounding the corners of the bodies than in upgrading sensors.  When people looked at the new OMD in illustrations on the web or on the shelf many were put off by the apparent size or the design touches.  The selling of the camera has been a process of putting the camera into the hands of the customer and letting them feel the "just-right-ness" of the design.  What I hear from everyone is this, "I was on the fence till I held one in my hands...."

Another aspect of the OMD that makes me think that the Olympus powers that be ruthlessly and shamelessly have been copying from the original Leica rangefinder family is the noise that the shutter of the OMD makes when it goes off.  It's quiet, subdued and contains no piercing high frequency resonances.  If you shoot a screw mount Leica shutter and compare it you'll hear an uncanny similarity.  

Even the use of the VF-2 finder in the accessory shoes of the EP2's and EP3's harkens back to a day in cameras when you needed a separate finder to use any but the normal 50mm focal length with the cameras.  When you bought a wide angle or a telephoto lens for your screw mount Leica you also bought a separate viewfinder that sat in the accessory shoe and showed you your angle of view.  The Pen series, preceding the OMD, is a modern day adaptation of that concept.


Many otherwise rational adults are buying cameras now based on how they feel and sound.  But is that irrational?  There is always a mind/body/camera connection that artists take into consideration when they adapt and embrace certain tools with which to give birth to their singular vision.  They can't turn off the feelings of attraction or repulsion of their tools just because someone tells them some aspect of performance is better or worse.  Only disengaged or casual shooters can do that.  And it's different for everyone.  The feel of a camera in the hand is unique to each person.You generally know you've found the feel in one day.  

I'm sure some people think I'm making the connection between the old screwmount Leicas and the new Olympus (and other m4:3) cameras to damn Olympus for brazen design theft but nothing could be further from the truth.  What I really want to say is that Oscar Barnack had it just right, everybody fucked things up and now Olympus is reaching back to that original genius to give people what they really wanted all along:  A comfortable companion for mobile shooting.  An almost instinctual tool for capturing what you see.

I played with another OMD this week.  They are pretty darn amazing.  Not a breakthrough like the original fathers of all 35mm style cameras (Leica SM)  but a beautiful and very useful homage.

Hello Camera Designers:  No more "jellybean" cameras please.  Now that we can miniaturize nearly everything can we get some more cameras that feel just right?  Even if they don't have the biggest whatevers?

Now, if Olympus could only fix their menu.  Of course Leica shooters never had to worry about that...




44 comments:

Peter F. said...

A lot of this sounds right to me. The shutter on the OMD is very sweet. Though bracketing is so easy to get to on the GH2, the "clackity-clack-clackity-clack-clackity-clack" of the GH2 shutter when doing a 3-shot bracket sounds terrible IMO. The OMD, in addition to being faster fps and faster write-speed has the sound of a well-oiled machine. I love it.

Peter F.

Dogman said...

Totally agree on all points. I'm not really thrilled with the OMD but the E-Pens won me over almost immediately. The menus are a pain (I've read that the OMD menu is even worse) but they can be learned, set and generally ignored after that.

kirk tuck said...

I have to agree that, ergonomically, I like the EP3 better. But I sure wish the shutter sounded as sweet.

kirk tuck said...

The sound of a well oiled......Leica?

aplop said...

Great post as always Kirk. Just as a photograph is all about the feelings it evokes so too is a camera all about how it makes me feel when I use it. Much more so than the tech-sheet that comes with it. For me, photography, from start to finish has always been driven by emotions.

steve said...

I completely agree I love my screw mount Leica, but I love my Rolleiflex's even more :-)

On another note, I'm reading your LED lighting book. Have you got any tips for for controlling colour balance, for those of us who don't own a digital camera? I guess I could fix it with the colour head of my enlarger, but it would be nice to get it right in camera. Then again T-Max could be a great solution too ;-)

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Sounds like someone who is in love - at least with a shutter sound. So was I when I first heard it (on some Youtube video). "Snick..." - heavenly.

jrapdx said...

You are absolutely right about the screw-mount Leicas--in my lifetime I've owned several. The M-series were of course technologically better, but didn't have the same "feel" as the earlier ones. It hadn't occurred to me until you pointed it out, but indeed the similarity to the Oly Pens is uncanny.

I did get an OM-D body, for the better sensor and the rest of the goodies. All in all, I'd say the quietness of its shutter sound alone could be worth the price of admission. The clatter of the Pens was always a pain.

While the new camera doesn't feel quite as cozy as the Pens, the IBIS is unbeatable, and the image quality is sensational. Perhaps camera makers should be nervous, I think it's going to be a hard act to follow.

JRA

Bruce Rubenstein said...

I am of an age that my first love was for late 70's SLRs, and the OM-D is closer to that aesthetic than the black blob cameras.

16Mp with the good ยต4/3 primes and LR gives me files that are more than good enough than for any size print I would have made.

The menu's? Seriously? I have mine set up so I don't have to go into the menu's for setting: shooting mode, shutter speed, aperture, ISO or exposure compensation. OK, I go into the SCP to switch between focus on a eye, and don't focus on the eye.

Bruce Rubenstein said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
kirk tuck said...

Do you really want us to believe that you breezed through those "oh so logical" menus without blinking an eye or cracking the owner's manual? I don't buy it.

D said...

I think you are on to something, Kirk.

I had my disagreements with the EP-3 when I started using it after years of dSLRs (and film rangefinders/SLRs before) and found that although the menus were irritating/confusing and goofily designed to say the very least, and although there are many things I don't really like about it compared to dSLRs, for some reason I really shooting with it more than any other camera I have. (Unfortunately, I don't have a Leica to compare...)

Part of it is the tiltable EVF, part of it is that it just looks nice, but a huge part of it is that it is so darned easy to carry. I don't mean simply light-weight either. I mean it just seems to fit my hand perfectly. I carry it in one hand when doing street photography, and it almost like it is part of my hand. So I have learned to tolerate some of the less-appreciated characteristics of the camera, just for the pleasure of use.

Now about the EP3's shutter clank--errr, sound.....

Alexander Bardua said...

When seeing a pic of the original Pen for the first time, I knew taht this was the camera I would get myself for my upcoming 50th birthday. Knew it without having handled it.

When I got the chance to finger the OM-D in the shop, I was transferred back into the seventies to my first real camera, an Nikon FM. I want that thing!

Reviews and test charts are of absolutely no importance, since there is no bad camera out there anyway (only mediocre picture-takers like me). If it feels right, it is!

cidereye said...

Menus, you said it Kirk, the reason why I never got on at all with the EP2 - as good as it is.

I originally sold my Leica M8 to use m43 with a Panasonic GF1+20mm, couldn't get on with it - menus. Bought another M8. A year later again had the urge to try m43 again but this time held onto the M8 and bought an EP2, couldn't get on with it - menus. So I gave up (for now). Never really have to look into the highly basic men*U* of the Leica M8 and then only to change ISO from auto. Select shutter speed, aperture, focus. Bliss!

When they finally make an m43 camera like this watch people queue around the block of camera stores worldwide I wager.

paulamyes said...

Of course it is not the first time Olympus has plundered the design aesthetic of Leica. The original inspiration for The OM1 came from Solms. In fact it was originally called the M1 until Leica said "No".

http://www.olympus-global.com/en/corc/history/camera/om/

I just wish Olympus would give me a digital version of my OM4. I don't want all the crap that is in the OMD, I just want a simple high quality camera with that metering system. I have an EP-2 which I use a lot, but it is too complicated and too densely featured. The OMD is a good start, the viewfinder is excellent, the size is OK,but what I want is the OM4 metering and just AP, SP, M and P modes. No complicated menus, no art filters and scene modes, no video, just enough automation to wring the best out of the sensor. Can't be hard can it?

Pseeker said...

Take a look at Andreas Feininger's photograph " The Photo Journalist" to get an artistic look at a leica with an auxcilary viewfinder installed.

Andreas Manessinger said...

I used a Nikon D200 and it was not good enough. High ISO was lacking, speed of the interface was too low. When I got the D300, all was good. I still began to experiment with a Panasonic LX5, mostly due to Juha Haataja's influence, used it almost exclusively for nine months, and I loved it for its size and weight. No way to beat that.

Last December I bought a used E-P2. It's a remarkably beautiful camera, heavier but not too heavy, with some weaknesses. I really hate the position of the secondary "wheel" (actually a cylinder), because it is exactly where I would expect a thumb rest. At least with my hands it makes for awkward holding. It's high ISO quality was better than that of the LX5, about as good (or bad) as the D200, but with the bonus of moderately effective in-body stabilization. If it would only stabilize the viewfinder image!

Not much later first news of the OM-D broke, and initial reports indicated that it would fix all my complaints. Best stabilization ever, better than Nikon's stabilized lenses, also stabilizing the viewfinder, better high ISO than the D300, dynamic range at least as good, slightly better viewfinder (refresh frequency), weather sealed, and so on and so forth. I got it the first day it was available in Austria and I am absolutely in love with it. It can do everything that the D300 can do, with the possible exception of sports, but that's something I don't do, and the whole glory comes in a very small and light form factor. Add more lenses and it gets only more obvious.

The menus? I hate that it does not remember the last position. Otherwise it's OK. I really don't care about how confusing menus of a new camera are when I first use it. The important point is, whether they still get in your way after a few days. Besides, the menus of the OM-D are so similar to those of the E-P2, I immediately felt at home.

Yeah, that's it. The OM-D is a small light camera that perfectly works as a DSLR replacement. And it's a remarkable example of a camera that was hyped and that completely lives up to the hype in every respect. That's the appeal.

Frank Grygier said...

Great article as always. The OMD was made for me. I honestly do not get the complaints about the menus. The super control panel is very usable in my opinion. I feel inspired when I carry the OMD.

Juha Haataja said...

I have been following discussions about the Olympus OM-D E-M5 - I wish the camera makes could fix the naming of their cameras, by the way - and this posting put something right, pointing to the overall usability of a camera. This is a welcome trend against the creeping featurism which has been in force for quite some time. Though minimalism in the number of features hasn't been the strength of Olympus either, but at least they are getting the basic things right, or so it seems.

But despite this I'm putting my hope in the smaller cameras, with even smaller sensors, such as the Sony DSC-RX100 and Samsung EX2F. These cameras are moving forward also, and even though the look of the photographs from these cameras may differ from big-sensor cameras, the convenience of using them is a remarkable benefit.

On the other hand, I'm rather envious of the results which Andreas and others are getting with the OM-D, it is certainly a remarkable tool for a photographer.

Bruce Rubenstein said...

Navigating the menus is like playing Wolfenstein, but I had already been using an E-PL2 and was used to it. I did need the manual for finding some of the settings and to see what settings were available.

To me, the more important point is that having once configured the camera it's a straight forward camera and not a starship.

Claire said...

That's the reason I have a used e-PL2 on the way, to practice with ! It's gonna be tough coming from my perfectly configured GX-1 (just a prolongation of my eye/hand, really) but at 150€ with remaining warranty, it was a no brainer...

juliem said...

Thanks for revisiting the OM-D, Kirk. Over the past several years I've worked my way up from EP1 to EPL1 and EP2 to EP3 and loved them all - especially the EP3 with the 75mm f1.8. In recent months I've been obsessively reading the OMD reviews, yours and any others I could find, dithering back and forth with myself over how I could possibly justify adding another Oly m43 to my bulging collection. Well, today I read your piece and that did it! I scrolled down looking for the link to Amazon I new would be there, clicked on through and ordered with 1-click quick as could be, before I had a chance to rethink the whole thing. No more dithering. Hope you get a little piece of the action from Amazon as thanks for continuing to bring me a few enjoyable minutes each week as I peruse VSL to see what you've been up to...

David I said...

I have really enjoyed using the OMD. I find the battery grip option very useful in shooting portraits and because the camera uses a lot of juice. Get extra batteries via Amazon or some other website as Precision still hasn't gotten my extra Olympus batteries which I ordered when the camera came in.

The files aren't as good as my 5DMii, but the autofocus and in-camera stabilization work very well and the lenses are 1/2 price or less compared with Canon. And don't forget pre-chimping! Bottom line it will let you take very good photos in a variety of situations without requiring a sherpa.

kirk tuck said...

And it feels pretty good.

stefano60 said...

i am with you on that one; over the last few years i switched back and forth between rangefinders, m43 and dslr ... i have just sold all the dslr gear and i am getting an m8 again. i finally realized that all the technology in the world is no substitute to the simple pleasure that one gets when a camera just 'feels' right (it doesn't hurt that the image quality of the leica is second to none either!)

Wally Brooks said...

I wonder if we will see an EM-5 in Pink! I hate pink cameras. My wife hates pink cameras too.

Allan Ostling said...

After reading your article I went and retrieved my old screw thread Leica from the cupboard. It is a Leica III (1934), and it looks good now sitting next to my Olympus E-P2.

From the serial number 444155 yours is a Leica IIc (1948).

Bahi said...

Olympus does itself no favours when it comes to user interface. A big chunk of my job is to help photographers with technology but it took me months to realise—as someone new to Olympus digital cameras (I'm afraid the Canon/Nikon hegemony is firmly established here in London)—that the narrow, vertical strip of endless, tiny little shooting control icons that come up when you press 'OK' on my E-PL3 could be ditched entirely and replaced with the legendary Super Control Panel: big, clear icons that fill the screen and need no scrolling about. These icons tell you the current status of your camera instantly (ISO, face detection, image stabilisation status, file format, aspect ratio) and allow you to adjust all these things very quickly. Why isn't this the default? Anyone who enjoys the default solution (lab technicians? Video game addicts?) would be perfectly capable of enabling it.

A printed manual supplied with the camera might have helped. Today, the mighty Super Control Panel is in place and I've remapped the rear buttons and I feel like I'm using a different camera. The red movie button provides instant depth-of-field preview; the flash button (redundant in my line of work) takes me straight to ISO settings; the dedicated grid button switches between manual focus and auto-focus with manual override. Someone in Olympus's UI department (whose main job is probably to pick body colour combinations) needs big, big help.

David Goldenberg said...

The connection between the Barnack Leicas and the digital Pens is pretty direct. The orignal Pens and the OM1 were designed by Yoshihisa Maitani, who was a Leica user before he worked at Olympus and often mentioned the Leica as his inspiration.

There is lots of material by Maitani on the Olympus web page, including this article about the development of the Pen cameras:

http://www.olympus-global.com/en/corc/history/lecture/lecture1/index.html

kirk tuck said...

I would love to do a comic book that's a camera manual. A real, color on newsprint, stapled comic book. "BAM. Snick!!!! Kapow. Quick, camera man, how do we set the dial directions????? WATCH OUT!!!!!

Make it fun and graphic and wonderful. Go Camera Man!

Bahi said...

Comic as camera manual? Do it, Kirk. In a few years' time, I could hold down the control button on the Pen E-PL9 and whisper 'ISO 200, autofocus, image stabilisation off'. But I'd rather pull out my battered comic book and use it during a shoot; it's a visual thing.

Mark Davidson said...

I bought anEPL-1 for my daughter and I thoroughly enjoy the feel of the shutter. It does remind me of my old Leica M-4 in its crisp snick sound.
As for shape I immediately thought of the Leica X-1 and X-2 being almost identical in size and shape to the old I/II/III series bodies. I assume that the fixed lens with its leaf shutter is nearly silent and with the bonus of x-sync at all speeds. Of course $2K is a bit of a handicap for me.

cidereye said...

Most men (myself included) might actually read that sort of manual for once Kirk! :-)

Vladimir said...

I do not see how the original inspiration for the OM came from a Leica, unless you would like to clarify? The name was a pure coincidence, the M stands for Maitani, but because Leica complained and the Japanese are civilized people, they changed it to OM - Olympus Maitani.

Vladimir said...

Well, it sure does sound like you are damning Olympus for "brazen design theft", when you use words like "shamelessly steal" and "ruthlessly and shamelessly copying", doesn't it? :)
Maitani has been exploring smaller cameras since the 60s already, so the Digital Pens and the OM-D are hardly Olympus' first try at it. Granted, Maitani used a Leica himself and while I am certainly not trying to discard Barnack's ideas and influence, you do seem to be willing to throw away a lot of Olympus history and ideas.

kirk tuck said...

The Screw mount Leica was in the hands of legions of photographers decades before Maitani started designing cameras for Olympus. Use the word "homage" if your sensibilities are disturbed by hyperbole. Say whatever you will but Barnack was there first. And it full force.

Vladimir said...

The hyperbole wasn't very obvious, but fair enough, if you put it that way. My sensibilities have mostly to see with this Leica cult that I see all over the place, very well displayed by: "Say whatever you will but Barnack was there first." End of story for you, apparently, but it isn't the beginning nor the end. You cut all discussion out. It is a pity, because I do find your article interesting.
And Ibn Al-Haytham was there first. Or was he?

kirk tuck said...

Vladimir, I don't get what your displeasure is. The article I wrote pointed out the similarities of Olympus products designed from the 1960s onward with radically new products designed in the 1920s (and widely marketed) by Oscar Barnack and Leica. No current Leica "cultist" shoots much with screw mount Leica rangefinders anymore. I don't what the cult of Leica has to do with my comparison and historical fact.

I don't know what the relevance of bringing up an optical designer has to do with the ergonomic design of consumer products but I'll let you flesh that out on your own.

The idea that the Leica SM series is very much the progenitor of a new style, size and class of cameras, and that these cameras profoundly influenced the design of Olympus cameras is my only point.

I don't "cut all discussion out." You are free to add whatever you want to the discussion. I don't understand, since you were quite able to post your comment, what the hell that even meant.

If you want to understand why people enjoy shooting with Leicas you should go and pick one up. I think the current M9 is too big, and the shutter is too loud. Try one from before 1954.

Ron Zack said...

I own two Olympus E-3's, which had the most complex menu system of just about anything, but have almost completely mastered it. But the menu on the E-P2 scares me to death. I just use the "Auto" setting, and the super control menu when I need it, and that's that.

My GH1 menu is actually far more comprehensive than that of any other camera I own, and it doesn't scare me a bit--I even have fun with it. But the GH series is so nicely put together, you don't need to plumb the depths of the menus to get what you want.

Ron Zack said...

Buy yourself an original Olympus E-1. Kodak sensor, best ergonomics ever for a DSLR, and just a PSAM dial. It's built like a Russian tank, but handles as sweet as can be. The files are very, very nice as well. Yes, it's big....but it doesn't feel big.

Vladimir said...

Kirk, I think there is some misunderstanding here. I do see your point and it is very valid. As I said, it did "seem" to me that you came off strong with some words, but I did put a smile after it, i.e. it wasn't some awful accusation, and you did clarify that it was hyperbole. As to the second comment again, it did seem to me it cuts any discussion out. Saying that someone was there first kind of ends it, at least to my understanding. In any case, I'll try to clarify my position.
I think the tendency to make things smaller is a cyclic phenomenon, based mostly on technological achievements. Barnack went for it at some point where there was already a tendency by others to do that. He did an amazing job, no question, but once you find the right anthropometric data, it is obvious that others will use it. In any case, I don't see much of the Leica in the OM-D or even the Pen for that matter. But I might be completely wrong and you might be absolutely right :)

Len said...

It is well known that the inspiration for the OM-1 (aka M-1) was the Leica... The camera was the first to try and match the size in an SLR design... This reinforces Kirk's argument very well in my opinion.

Nico Raddatz said...

Beautifully said Kirk. We need more of human-centric designs. We need more small, unthreatening cameras. We need more of the original Barnack gestalt in camera design.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.