What camera would it take to save the E system?

21 Feb

Following the announcement by Olympus that they want to continue their commitment to their DSLR line, the E system, there has been a flutter of predictions of what sort of camera Olympus should aim to release. Some of these requests have been considerably out of whack with reality.

In my opinion, the one thing Olympus must do is to safeguard the advantage that the crop factor of the Four Thirds system gives. To me, there are two major routes of failure: Either undercommitting on the megapixel count, or coming up with an uncompetitive price point.

Whether the next model from Olympus be a successor to the E-5 or E-30, it’s clear that its yardstick will be the Pentax K-5 II or K-30. Olympus’ s strongest applications lie in wildlife and underwater photography. Pentax’ bodies both offer weatherproofness, and have a high enough frame rate for most current applications. Comparing with the E-5, we see that the latter, where discounted, is still priced well over the K-5 II, and at over twice the price of a K-30. The E-5 offers weatherproofing, five frames per second continuous drive, but only a 12 megapixel sensor, where both Pentax bodies offer 16 megapixels. Assuming, for comparative purposes, that both bodies are used with infinitely sharp lenses, for the same distance from the subject and same real (not equivalent) focal length lens, the two systems are currently at parity with respect to effective resolution. That means the K system has a realistic advantage because it can fit more scene into the frame without sacrificing resolution, at a higher frame rate, and better detail preservation at higher sensitivities (twilight shooting), as well as higher maximum sensitivity. Pentax’ continuous drive is also insignificantly faster, and the quality of its K-series weatherproofing has been cited as a reason for Pentax cameras being used by the US military in Afghanistan.

However, not all is glum. Olympus has a highly lauded 16 megapixel Live MOS sensor in the OM-D E-M5, whose next iteration should be expected to close the gap to Sony’s current Exmor generation. That would be a good time to also release an updated SLR model. This new model should therefore offer a 16 megapixel sensor, at least 5 fps continuous drive and 1080p movie recording (so the old mirror assembly could be reused, with video recording upgraded to what exists in the OM-D), and a pentaprism, to match the K-30. The price point cannot exceed that of the K-5 II, but that should be no problem given how much of the technology can simply be recycled from the OM-D line, reducing R&D expenditure. On the plus side, 11 cross-type autofocus points would seem competitive vs. the K-5 (9 cross type, 2 linear) – perhaps one does not go to 35, as the OM-D has done, unless this is easy to do and can be raised as a selling point without hurting the price. A similar argument applies to the OM-D’s five axis stabilisation – if it can be done easily while transferring the sensor assembly from the OM-D, do it, otherwise reboot the DSLR line first and then make improvements in the next model.

As usual, there should be a battery grip and other accessories – perhaps the old ones can be made to fit, since the smaller body of the E-30 already accommodated at least the grip of the E-5. I think the main request, if the E-5 rather than E-30 body is used as a starting point (I slightly favour the E-30, personally), will be to reduce the weight by about 150g – this is where the K-5 would be, over which the E-30 has almost a 100g advantage.

A last word of Opinion Nation: To have a long-term viable E system, you will need to offer an entry level model as well as something professional. Therefore making an E-5 based pro model to demonstrate commitment to the system, followed by an E-30 based entry level to attract new users to your proven system, would be the route I would choose.

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