Olympus Fans Rejoice !!! The OM-D is real. And it might be awesome.

It'll be here in April and it's just what everyone said they wanted in 
an Olympus mirrorless camera.  Really.

The Olympus faithful (myself included) have waiting a long time for this one to hit the market and it looks like we'll get the m4:3rds machine we wanted from Olympus afterall.  I loved the EP2 and the EP3 but in each introduction I shook my head at the lack of insight into professional and advanced amateur usage patterns on the part of Olympus.  I've been very, very clear that no pro in his/her right mind would buy a camera that didn't have an EVF.  And the VF-2 EVF attachment is a good tool.  But dammit, if you wanted to use the EVF on the EP2 and the EP3 you used up the hot shoe and the only two way terminal on the camera.  Wanna use the VF-2?  Then you can't use a hot shoe mounted flash.  Wanna use a outboard microphone to do good sound with your video?  Not is you need to use the VF-2.  It drove me nuts.  

We were also starting to chafe under the constraints of the 12 megapixel sensor.  And if I had a quarter for every time I heard the Olympus fans decry the lack of weather sealing on the Pens I'd be driving a Bentley.  

The ultimate wish list looked something like this:
1.  Built in, high quality, fast refresh EVF
2.  16 Megapixel Sensor (preferably one that could be used in various aspect ratios without cutting into the pixel count.  Like the one in the Panasonic GH2 (which is very, very good....).

(2/9 edit:  I asked, point blank if the sensor was usable in different aspect ratios without cropping.  The official Olympus source said, "yes."  However, no one is infallible and many, many on the web are of the opinion that my question was misunderstood or incorrectly answered.  If you're only criteria for buying or pre-ordering the camera is the sensor particulars you owe it to yourself to check this before buying.  I'll try to get further information from Olympus about this.  You've been cautioned!)

3.  Weatherproof and dust proof.
4.  Super fast AF.  Like, fastest in the world, fast.
5.  Fun to handle for small and large hands.
6.  Bigger battery capacity than the Pens.

So, the wraps are off as of 9:01 EST February 7, 2012 and now it's time to unwrap the little metaphorical jewelry box and see what we actually got.  Will there be crying and weeping and ritual tearing of clothes or will there be joy among the steadfast?
Weather proof.  Whether proof. 

I'd say raucous celebration is in order  because, by the look of the specifications, we got everything we asked for.  (Note:  I haven't handled the camera yet.  I did get a complete walk through from the tech folks at Olympus USA.  I will test a full production version in the near future.)

If you want the executive brief  it goes something like this.  Back in the 1970's Olympus introduced a line of very compact and very elegantly designed 35mm  cameras.  People were ready for a new size of camera that didn't weigh a ton and handle like a brick.  The OM-1 and OM-2 cameras were wildly successful.  And many of the lenses supplied for those cameras became legends because of their optical performance.  Now Olympus is doing the same with digital.  This is a direct backlash at all the bloated "professional" bodies and systems on the market.  A small but powerful game changer.  

When packaged with a new generation of high performance prime lenses it is a system that offers a good and creative alternative to a market crowded with "me too" APS-C DSLR camera variants.  The mirrorless systems are useful, easy to handle and fully capable of giving professional results.  The market is shifting.  

According to Olympus the EVF is the same spec as the VF2 and that's good news for me because I think the VF-2 is one of the best EVF's I've used.  And this one is built in.  Right there in the pentaprism hump, just like the photogods always intended.  And that leaves the hotshoe free for all the wonderful gadgets we've got stuffed into our bags.  That includes remote triggers for flashes, bigger flashes for PR events, the stereo microphone adapter (which allows me to use a Rode StereoMic right there in the hot shoe for video work.  Yippee!).  Finally, happily.  I'll be able to use this camera with my studio flash equipment and still have unfettered access to the eye level finder.

Camera with slave flash attached.

The folks at Olympus don't make it a habit to divulge the provenance of the sensors they use.  I guess it's supposed to be a trade secret.  So I asked a few probing questions.  As you can see from the specs the sensor is 16 megapixels.  I wanted to know if, similar to the Panasonic sensor in the GH2, you could use other aspect ratios such as 16:9 and 3:2 without losing resolution.  The answer I got was "yes."  All but the 1:1 aspect ratio.  If this is true (and I have no reason not to believe it) this will make me happy.  (See my "caveat emptor" above.)

I'd take a chrome version if they gave me one.  If I pay for it then it has to be black. YMMV.

The AF is supposed to be the fastest in the world. For now. While I wasn't blown away by the speed of the EP2 AF I found it to be workable and very accurate.  Indeed, the accuracy of the AF is a great selling point for all of the mirrorless cameras using CD-AF (contrast detection autofocus).  The EP3 was a huge step forward and works well for me in all but the darkest and lowest contrast situations.  In normal light it's right there with its Canon and Nikon peers.  If the OM-D is even faster then they've done some wild engineering.    Along with fast AF there's something we haven't tasted yet in m4:3rds and that's fast frame rates.  The OM-D will do 9 fps at full res.  The only catch is that you lock focus with frame one.  There's no continuous AF with your blistering frame rate.  If you want C-AF you'll need to drop down to 4.1 fps and turn off IS.  With all the stuff implemented you'll still get a respectable 3 fps.  All of this is based on using their MSC lenses.

With the 12-50 you've got a 24-100 equivalent and the who set up is spit proof.

My cameras have always had weatherproof capabilities, including all my Pens.  It costs a dollar.  It's called Ziploc(tm) Plastic Bags.  When it's wet outside you put the bag over your camera.  It's impervious to moisture....  But for everyone who needs the real thing this camera is the real deal.  They sent along an image showing all of the gasket points in red but I'd rather look at the exterior body stuff.   So, the OM-D is dustproof and splashproof and generally weatherproof.  But as with the pro cameras from every manufacturer, all the camera body weatherproofing in the world isn't going to help completely unless the lens and lens mounts are also weatherproof.  The newly announced 12-50m zoom fits the bill and there are several other lenses that are coming soon that will boast full weatherproofing.  The one many people with no doubt lust after will be the 60mm 2.8 macro.  A quick note:  According to my Olympus source that lens will also have a control on the barrel that will control the rendering of out of focus areas as well as full macro capability.  Sounds like an all purpose portrait lens to me.

I know most of you aren't really interested in video but I am so I'm just going to take a moment and talk a few specs for the other video ready people out there.  From all indications this will be a great little movie camera.  The sensor is just the right size and the throughput is there.  The specs indicate full HD (1920 by 1080) at 60 fps.  You also have the choice of .MOV and .AVI.  Whatever your editing set up one of those choices should work for you.  The camera will go for 29 minutes if you have enough memory stuffed in.  Why else do I think the camera is ready for good video?  Well, you've got the EVF for full sun.  You've got a movable, ample LCD panel on the back with lots of real estate and you've got the ability to connect external microphones.  With the m4:3 lens mount and zillions of great manual focus and specialty lenses to choose from you should be able to get pretty much exactly what you need.

Add a battery grip and you'll also have long run times.

Ah......yes....there's a battery grip.  You'll be able to cram two batteries into the mix for twice as much service time between recharges and yes, the batteries for the OM-D are different from the Pen batteries.  They are bigger than the BLS-x batteries but not as big as the BLM-x batteries used in the bigger E series 4:3 cameras.  The grip also gives people with bigger hands a lot more real estate to hold on to.  And it duplicates some function controls from the body.  But it does make the camera bigger.  Not sure where I stand on accessory grips but we'll just have to play with one and see.

The movable screen on the back makes the camera thicker than an EP3.  Take off the screen (don't!!!!) and it's just about the same size.

It's hard to tell from the images  here because there's no scale for comparison but I've seen images of the camera next to the E-5 and the E-620 and it's much, much smaller than either of those cameras.  It looks to be about 1/3 the cubic volume of an E-5.  

Thank you for the built in EVF.  This makes it a "real" camera.
The offset to the right leaves room for an auto eye sensor.  Bring the camera up to your eye and it automatically switches to from LCD to EVF.

No Flash in the guts.

 Olympus giveth and Olympus taketh away.  There is NO built in flash.  That will make some people happy and some people sad.  But it's pretty hard to get everything else you wantrd in a small and lightweight camera without compromising a feature or two.  I'm guessing the camera will ship with the little pixie flash you see in the hot shoe above.  I have one like this that arrived in the studio bundled with the little Pen EPM and it works as well as any built in ever did and gives you the option to bounce it off the ceiling.

While you're crying in your beer over the lack of yet another weak built-in flash let's switch gears and look at two other things that sparked me right up.  One is a brand new implementation of image stabilization.  In the first systems to hit the market the gyros and computer chips would detect motion in two directions:  Up and down, and side to side.  The latest implementation from Olympus detects and remediates motion and shake from five axis.  That even includes rotational tremor.  Coupling this with much faster processing basically means that it should be the market leader for IS for the moment at least. And BIG PLUS !!!!! Now you can see the effect of the image stabilization in the finder or on the LCD while you are shooting.  That was the one remaining advantage of in-lens image stabilization.  It was nice to be able to see the effect you were getting.  Now you get that and you maintain the ability to bring IS to every lens you put on the front of the camera.  AF or not.  Got a Nikon lens from 1962?  If you can get it on the right adapter you've just turned it into an image stabilized "optic."

The screen.  OLED, of course.

 So, where are we?  We've got a small, stylish camera.  Built like an alloy brick.  With a full 16 megapixel sensor (just like we demanded).  Maybe the sensor will even do the "no-cost-cropping-to-your-favorite- aspect-ratio" trick.  If you really love the camera and you've mounted a weatherproof lens to it you can take it into the shower with you.  Or out in the rain.  It's built on a metal alloy body shell.  The hi-res EVF is built in.  The ports are available for all of our toys.  What else could there be?

Well.  There's a new 3D file format and a couple of new art filters.  And there are some actually cool filters for video production.  But really, isn't this every single thing we asked for in a new camera?  I'd say it is. But the proof will be in the shooting.  The camera is very scarce right now but it's slated to ship in April.  I pushed hard to get a test copy before the intro but I got the polite, parental, "we'll see what we can do."  If the camera just does what the spec sheet says I think most of us will be pretty happy.

Got remote control if you want it...

 A note or two about the new flash.  It works with a small Olympus remote if you want to use it off the camera.  It will also be controllable by the built in flash in the EP3.  If you are into run and gun movie making the flash also has a built in, LED video light. Only powerful enough to focus with and brighten a nearby subject's eyes.  The OM-D syncs at a respectable 1/250th of a second and with a small controller flash or unit will control all the previous "R" series Olympus flashes. I personally will continue my practice of sticking a Flash Waves radio trigger in the shoe and using whatever flash I want, in manual mode.  Or a convenient LED panel.

For the vampires among us let's sink out teeth into a few specs.  The technical guys at Olympus were very excited about the low light capabilities of the camera sensor and file output.  We didn't go into detail in our fact finding interview but the camera is capable of being set to ISO's of up to 25,000.  I'm an ISO cynic and I'm going to say that I'll be happy if 3200 is pretty clean.  Time will tell.  But I think more and more of us are becoming aware of the role of computer processing in the production of "clean" files and the OM-D is using a new iteration of processors.  They'd have to be to get the frames per second rates they've achieved in still mode and the frame rates in HD video that they're touting.  I have high hopes that the high ISO performance is great.  Not because I'll really make much use of it but I know any perceived shortcomings in ISO will be a source of endless and emotional discussion across the web.

I like Olympus bodies but lenses are what they are really all about.

Olympus did some really right stuff in 2011.  And I think they're getting ready to build on their success.  The launch of the 12mm and the 45mm lenses was invigorating; both for the company and for their "installed customer base." (Us.)  Now, in concert with lenses from Panasonic, we're on the cusp of having a full system of pro caliber optics.  The rumors you've heard about the 75 mm 1.8 and the 60 Macro are true.  They'll be along, if all goes according to plan, some time in the fourth quarter of this year.  And by all measures these lenses should be stunning.  I own a Pen 70mm f2 lens from the late 1960's or early 1970's and I can tell you that it's really good.  Just imagine what fifty years of research and development can buy us.  Add a few more well thought out primes and some longer lenses and you're in the sweet spot of a system that can do just about anything.  And that includes shooting professionally. With this camera the system has come of age.  I've got my fingers crossed that it's as good in the hand as it is on paper.  Amazing how far m4:3 has come in such a short amount of time. 

Now.  On another subject that's somewhat related:  What's going on with the original "e" series of 4:3 cameras and lenses?  I asked that question directly.  The answer I got is that they are not throwing in the towel. They have, "product under development."  There you go, Frank.

The new lens mount adapter will bring weatherproof performance to the 4:3 lenses.  And, with new firmward updates I would expect the AF performance to get better and better.

The grip is a mixed blessing.  You'll get more to hold on to.  More to grip when shooting verticals.  More battery power.  But the camera gets bigger and starts to look.....bigger.

At this point I think Olympus can take a deep breath, accept a few pats on the back,  and then get to work rolling out these improvements all down the line.  I can hardly wait for an EPL-5 with the same sensor and the same IS.  Hello Canon and Nikon !  Are you guys paying attention?

Getting back to work. The part I hate.

Canon 5D mk2.  20mm f2.8

I love sitting here writing blogs.  I get to talk about anything I want and I get to "discuss" with those who disagree.  I love walking around the city on a brisk day, the wind pushing against my ski jacket and making me squint a bit. The feel of a familiar camera in my hands.  I love having a leisurely lunch with Belinda, or one of my friends.  I love the reticent thrill of jumping into the water in the outdoor pool at 7 in the morning while a bold north wind tickles my bare skin.  I love those dark mornings when temperatures in the 30's bring a frothy cloud of steam just above the surface of the pool.  And I love the warm glow of the water with the pool lights lit and the sky still purple and deep blue.  I love the bite of a good cup of coffee and the richness of an afternoon cappuccino.  I love checks that come in the mail.  On time.  And I love curling up on the couch with my dog and a good book.

But there's one aspect of being a photographer that I hate more than anything.  It's the marketing. Plain and simple.  In a one person business there's nothing worse than having to continually sell yourself.  In fact, all the things I listed above are just ways I procrastinate about dealing with the big elephant in the room.  The fear of actually trying to engage new clients.  Think about how lucky the marketing people are at companies with products.  They have something real and substantial to sell.  It may not be the best product in the world but a good salesperson will find a convincing combination of selling propositions that makes even a mediocre product sellable, at a price point.

On the other hand, a freelance photographer is selling himself.  He can point to previous work and a track record but the product he'll produce for the future client hasn't been created yet.  And the future client will have to take a leap of faith that his choice of photographer will be able to pull off making just the right image in just the right time frame.  At some level we're in the business of making (and hopefully keeping) promises.  And that's a tough sell.

We can point to a track record but imaging is a moving target and just because you could do sharp and perfect yesterday doesn't mean it's relevant to the distressed and retro aesthetic today.  I could talk about decades of experience but that's a two edged sword as it instantly puts me into an age group that's anathema in today's markets.  I could trot out my books and talk about my industry expertise but that muddies the waters.  Then, instead of being someone's "go to" photographer, I send the mixed message that my business is about writing and publishing and marketing that product.  The bottom line is that I have to show the work I've done and I have to present myself in a way that makes people want to work with me.

And that's scary.  Have you ever tried picking up the phone and telling a stranger just how great you are while at the same time trying to convey that you're just one of the guys and you'd love to work with his team and have a jolly time talking about an assignment over a cold beer?  It's tricky.  Really.

So I've done my New Year's procrastination.  I've worked on the mailing list.  I've had my designer design some 5.5 by 8.5 inch four color over four color postcards, with an image that's proven to be popular.  I've sent out some e-mail blasts with links to some custom galleries.  But now it's time to do the real work.  The heavy lifting of my business.  It's time to strap on my most congenial personality and start making the cold calls.

Reality?  No one makes it in this business without venturing into the real physical world and shaking hands with the people who control the assignments and write the checks.  You have to meet them.  You have to show them your stuff.  You have to show them that you'll be good to work with.  None of the other stuff really has the horsepower to close the deals and push people to commit.

So, I've loaded up the iPad with various portfolios that I can conjure up at the drop of a hat.  I've had my designer create a nice "leave behind" piece.  Now it's time to stop writing this blog.  Drop into my comfortable chair.  Strap on the earphones and microphone attachment to my phone and start dialing.
Notes in front of me on my screen.  Deep breath.  One more sip of coffee and then.....it's game on.