Plugged In: Sony, Olympus tie-in bodes well for consumers

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photokina 2012 saw not only an unexpected proliferation of full-frame, prolevel digital cameras, but also the maturation of high-quality but affordable compact-system cameras made by Sony, Olympus and Fujifilm.

From a long-term perspective, the biggest news is the major investment and stock tie-in between Sony and Olympus. This has major implications for serious photographers. Olympus gains access to Sony’s best digital sensors, and they are superb. They’re noticeably better than the Panasonic sensors to which Olympus was previously bound, to its detriment. Sony gains access to Olympus’ legendary lens design and manufacturing skills. That corrects the existing weakness in Sony’s NEX compact-system camera lines. Both companies get what they’ve needed to thrust ahead of the competition, in this case, Panasonic, the archrival of both Sony and Olympus.

Such arrangements are not uncommon among Japanese companies, whose culture tends toward a greater degree of cooperation among rivals. For an investment of about $650 million, Sony also gains access to Olympus’ phenomenal 70 percent share in the world market for exceptionally profitable endoscopic surgical equipment. Olympus regains credibility and financial stability after last year’s corporate accounting scandal. Given the favorable long-term outlook for both Sony and Olympus compact-system cameras, it makes sense to start with the most recent models from these manufacturers.

But first, let’s take a look at several significant trends driving the CSC market. CSC camera systems are slowly but surely encroaching into the mainstream — up to 50 percent in the early adopter Japanese market, as an example. I expect that newly affordable full-frame cameras and excellent compact-system cameras will put a real squeeze on traditional digital SLR cameras over the next three to five years.

Vendors are finally paying much-needed attention to the optics in front of those fancy electronic bodies. A camera’s only as good as its lens. Good technique and post-processing programs can compensate to a fair degree for a marginal digital sensor, but all of the technique and software in the world cannot turn a crummy lens into a sharp one.

Traditional camera makers, like Olympus, Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Fujifilm, have always understood the paramount importance of marketing a wide range of excellent lenses. That’s a realization that’s occurred only more recently to traditional electronics companies like Sony, Panasonic and Samsung. As a result, many new CSC lenses now under development were announced at Photokina 2012 for shipment in 2013 and 2014, particularly for the Sony NEX series and the Fujifilm X series. My sense is that Sony and Fujifilm first tested how well their top-end CSC systems sold before announcing and spending a lot on lens development.

Another trend is the move toward offering a full product line of generally similar entry-level, midrange and upper-end CSC models using the same interchangeable lenses. Olympus and Sony now clearly lead in this regard. A third trend is the introduction of professional-grade CSC cameras, led by Fujifilm’s X-Pro1, Sony’s NEX-7 and Olympus’ OM-D. The final trend is the incorporation of traditional eye-level viewfinders and high-end technology into affordable midrange models.

Sony’s announcements at Photokina 2012 strongly mirrored these overall trends. Aside from a modest upgrade to its first CSC, the NEX-5R, Sony announced an upper-midrange CSC, the NEX-6, which is basically a somewhat simpler NEX-7, complete with an eye-level electronic viewfinder and a new, highly compact, 16- to 50-mm kit zoom lens that makes a good first impression. The NEX-6 uses Sony’s highly regarded 16-megapixel APS-C sensor, rather than the NEX-7’s somewhat controversial 24-megapixel sensor.

Olympus’ 16-megapixel OM-D is generally considered to have the best image quality of any CSC camera, due to its excellent lenses, new 16-megapixel Sony sensor and Olympus’ excellent image-processing chip. These technologies are now incorporated into Olympus’ entry-level systems, the small E-PM2, essentially a large-sensor point-and-shoot camera, and the E-PL5, Olympus’ low-intermediate camera. Now, both lower-end Olympus cameras have the same image quality, though not the same features and construction, as its flagship OM-D.

The E-PL5 is a particularly interesting camera, reverting to the E-PL2’s better ergonomics and retro styling while gaining a movable screen that includes touch-operation and touch-focusing, an unexpectedly useful technology. The E-PL5 also accepts any of several optional interchangeable grips, so it’s easy to customize its fit to your hand. This may be the best entry-level camera for a potentially serious student or photographer. I find it quite appealing.

Two inexpensive yet seriously cool Micro Four-Thirds lenses became available. Olympus announced a nearly flat body cap that includes a manually closed protective cover, behind which is a fixed, medium-wide-angle lens that’s actually useful optically. An E-PM2 with that lens/body cap would fit in a large pocket. I’ve seen these sold for under $60. Another oddly useful Micro Four-Thirds optical device is the Wanderlust Cameras Pinhole lens cap, a true old-fashioned pinhole lens for $40. Although I would not spend a great deal of money for either lens, they’re very small and cool, an inexpensive entry into special-effect photography.

Oddly, Olympus did not announce an upgrade to its upper-level E-P3 system introduced “way back” in June 2011. The E-P3 uses an obsolescent 12-megapixel Panasonic sensor. As a result, the E-P3’s image quality is anomalously lower than more recent entry-level Olympus cameras costing less. I expect that Olympus is busy redesigning the E-P3’s successor to look more like the Sony NEX-6 by including an eye-level viewfinder in addition to the rear LCD panel. Personally, I would not buy a new E-P3 at this time. (In case you’re curious about the jump from E-PL3 to E-PL5, the number four is considered bad luck in Japan.)

Fujifilm is the third serious player in the upper-end, compact-system camera market. When Fujifilm jumped into the CSC market last year, it created a brief period of “shock and awe” with its high-end, retro-styled cameras that obviously took square aim at Leica’s hyperexpensive status symbols. Although Fujifilm’s comparably well-made cameras were much less expensive than Leicas, they were still too expensive for most of us.

Earlier this year, Fujifilm marketed a professional model, the X-Pro1, built around an innovative sensor and a hybrid optical viewfinder. The X-Pro1 is an excellent camera but rather large, heavy and, at $1,700 for the body-only, too expensive for a mainstream, compact-system camera. Most of the extra bulk and cost resulted from the complex hybrid optical and digital viewfinder. Most X-Pro1 users, though, ultimately chose the fully electronic viewfinder option that Fujifilm also built into the X-Pro1, rendering that expensive and bulky hybrid optical viewfinder not only superfluous but a real marketing drag.

Fujifilm sensibly introduced a lower-cost, smaller model, the X-E1, that lacks the hybrid optical viewfinder. The X-E1 makes excellent sense. Its image quality is identical to the X-Pro1 in a smaller, more affordable body that uses the same sensor and lenses. Rounding out the system, Fujifilm also announced plans to market several compatible zoom and prime lenses over the next two years. I expect these lenses to be quite good, given Fujifilm’s legacy of high-quality lens-making. I don’t really expect an entry-level X-system camera from Fujifilm. The company has made its reputation in the high-end market and isn’t likely to stray into the same low-margin, entry-level market space as Sony’s NEX-3 and Olympus’s E-PM2 Mini.

Panasonic, another traditional force in the compact-system camera market, has been oddly quiet so far this year. It’s announced modest upgrades to its existing dSLR-styled Micro Four-Thirds CSC product lines, the G5 midlevel camera aimed at a general audience, and the larger, significantly more expensive GH3, the digital camera of choice for professional videographers. Both Panasonic CSC systems take very good still images and video files but the new Olympus E-PM2 and E-PL5 provide better still photo quality for less money. I expect that Panasonic is busy both working on improving its sensor technology as well as designing an upper-level camera similar to Sony’s NEX-6.

That leaves the rest. Canon’s new EOS-M and Nikon’s mildly upgraded J2 CSC cameras simply don’t measure up to the quality and versatility of the recent affordable offerings from Sony and Olympus. In Japan, both vendors describe their CSC products as “purse” cameras. I rather suspect that there’s truth to the speculation that the Big Two of the digital SLR market are treading water while trying to retain their traditional dSLR market share. Leica’s X2 does include a newer but unproven 16-megapixel Belgian sensor but it’s mostly a brightly colored cosmetic makeover. Pentax did not upgrade its K-01 and now terms it a specialized one-off camera for a market that prefers hip external design.

Photokina 2012 was also surprising in another market segment. Vendors introduced many upgraded premium compact cameras using fixed lenses. These rather expensive cameras have been viewed as digital road kill for the past 18 months or so, seen as pressed from below by cellphone cameras and from above by entry-level, large-sensor cameras like the Sony RX100 and Olympus E-PM2. We’ll take a look at upgraded premium compact cameras next week as we continue our journey down the current photographic food chain.

  • vPhoto show: Several local photographers, including Bill Heath, Sue Biggs, Rick Cupp and myself, are exhibiting at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center this month. The opening reception is from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, with refreshments. I hope to see you there.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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2 Comments

Filed under photography, Plugged in

2 responses to “Plugged In: Sony, Olympus tie-in bodes well for consumers

  1. Gerald Ward

    “(In case you’re curious about the jump from E-PL3 to E-PL5, the number four is considered bad luck in Japan.)” Which must explain the jump from OM-1 to OM-2 to OM-3 to the OM-4… wait a second. Was that their bad luck camera? Don’t write stupid things please. Otherwise a great article. really, one of the best I’ve read recently.

    P.s. There is another explanation for skipping 4.

  2. Gerald Ward

    The lens cap lens list for $49 on the Olympus web site.

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