Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Oh Lordie, Olympus. You Make Things So Difficult.

It's been awhile, but the release of the first big update to the Micro 4/3 world is the kind of thing to bring someone out of hiding.

I'll get right down to it; as has been the case with Olympus in the past couple of years, the new camera, the E-M1, is good. They've finally unlocked the 4/3 lens collection. Granted, they've done it in a positively ungainly way, but hey, that's just fine. Moreover, the camera is loaded with pro-level features for a decent price. $1,400 is a lot to pay for a small, crop sensor, but when it comes in the body of the E-M1, it's at least fair.

That said, the lens with which you can get the camera is a disaster. It once again smacks of Olympus not wanting to compete with its 4/3 lenses (in this case the 14-35mm f2.0 that sells for over $2,000) and they are shooting themselves in the foot with it. It is better-priced than Panasonic's comical 12-35mm and 35-100mm lenses, which are wildly overpriced and (or so I've heard) did not sell as well as Panasonic had hoped.

The Oly lens, a $1,000 12-40mm lens, only goes down to f/2.8. For $1,000, in the era before the Sigma 18-35mm, I would have said fair enough. Not anymore. Sigma brought its A-game and other companies are having to play catch-up.

Fair dinkum, the Olympus is splash-proof while the Sigma is not. But neither lens is stabilized, so the comparison is very good since that is what really causes the price of a lens to jump. Also, the Sigma lens isn't quite as wide or long as the Oly. But none of those elements explain the lower price and nearly two-stop advantage to the Sigma. It is a lens in another league. It, and also the Metabones Speed Booster, changed the game.

Olympus may respond by saying that its (really quite good) 5-Axis stabilization adds a couple of stops to any lens on it. That's true. In certain circumstances. You know how often IS of any type is useless? Pretty damned often! Do you know how much bokeh is added with IS? Zero! How much you want to bet that this lens is also corrected in software and its optical distortion is some eye-gouging number like six-percent? I'll bet you a dollar.

Olympus may then respond by saying that the Sigma is noticeably larger and quite a bit heavier. That is true. How many pros will care when nearly two stops of speed are on the line? Almost none. And even if we accept Oly's argument, then they should price the lens cheaper. Smaller lenses are easier to design, require less crystal, and require fewer exotic optical elements like aspherical lenses that look like some kind of sombrero. Oh, what's that Olympus? You're not going to lower the price to reflect this? Then shut the fuck up.

And while we're on this subject, let's address the Zuiko lens with which Olympus was trying to not compete: the 14-35mm f/2.0. It is a lens that Oly sells for twenty-three-hundred-freaking-dollars. This lens is utterly destroyed by the Sigma. The Sigma is one-third the cost, sharper, faster, and slightly wider. It's shorter, though, but few people use these types of lenses on the long end. Still, point for Oly.

So this is a sitation where Olympus is trying to avoid competing with a lens of theirs that is already completely obviated by other lenses on the market. They are also dropping a lens into the 4/3 marketplace where Panasonic has likely already sold this type of lens to everyone who would want it in the form of their 12-35mm.

The new E-M1 is pre-selling like soon-to-be-released hotcakes. This is not necessarily a good sign for Olympus. A huge amount of market pressure is being let off in the form of long-neglected E-5 owners. The sensor in the E-5 sucked back in 2010 and it really sucks now. These people have been waiting for this replacement camera for years and they will cause a huge explosion of sales at the outset. I will go on the record and predict that E-M1 sales will drop off a cliff after the initial month of sales.

You might be saying "well, that's a rather safe prediction." And indeed, many tech products, even those considered a success, follow that trajectory. But the E-M5 didn't. Neither did the RX100. Nor the D800. And even though those were utter home-runs, the E-M1 should have a continued trickle of sales over the next many months. It should never drop below older, equally-priced products, which is exactly what every other Olympus and Panasonic camera has done over the past three years.

This is yet another situation like the E-M5 and the Panny GH3. It is good, but not great -- Whelming as opposed to exciting -- Just as many things wrong as right. In this competitive market, Olympus can't do that, and I'm sure as hell not waiting around for them to get it right. The game has changed and I have changed right along with it.

I'm holding on to my 4/3 gear, but I'm not using it anymore. That doesn't mean that 4/3 cameras aren't still great for certain applications. If you want a small size and want some decent lenses for a good price, Micro 4/3 offers a lot of great products. Indeed, its lower-range lenses are the best on the market. But the instant they try to play in the high-end game, they fall to pieces. For those with deeper pockets or higher ambitions, Micro 4/3 remains a non-starter. That pisses me off, because it doesn't need to be.

As I'm sure you could figure out from my effusive praise, I bought the Sigma 18-35mm and have it on a Canon 50D. The camera isn't as good as the Oly, not by a long shot, but the lens makes it better, and I feel good knowing that I bought a lens that forces the dominant companies to re-think their strategies. Buying the cheaper lens also helps me save for a Sony RX1, because, damn... I want that camera.

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