These days, all the camera headlines seem to be dominated by Canon, Nikon, and Sony, with the occasional mention of Fujifilm thrown in.
Olympus, with its Micro Four-Thirds system, rarely makes the news. And popular resources frequently neglect Olympus in their recommendations, suggesting “Big Three” bodies for photographers selecting a mirrorless system.
But what is this about? Why doesn’t Olympus, a camera company with a history stretching back to the early 1900s, get any attention?
Is this a mistake?
Or does Olympus no longer have a place in today’s camera market?
That’s the question that this article will answer. I’m going to explain the benefits and drawbacks of Olympus cameras compared to other manufacturers.
And then I’m going to give a verdict:
Whether Olympus is a manufacturer that still makes sense in today’s world…
…or whether Olympus’s time is up.
Let’s get started.
The cons of Olympus
No camera system is perfect, which means that there are going to be some photographers that won’t be satisfied with Olympus’s products.
Here are the key issues that consistently come up with Olympus cameras, issues that help explain why Olympus hasn’t been getting much interest of late:
1. The micro-four-thirds sensor
In many ways, the lack of interest in Olympus stems from one thing:
The Micro-Four-Thirds sensor.
Olympus only produces Micro-Four-Thirds mirrorless cameras. The company offers zero full-frame options and zero APS-C options.
Canon, Nikon, and Sony all produce full-frame mirrorless cameras. Even Fujifilm, which ignores full-frame, offers APS-C sensors that push smaller sensor technology to its limits.
Why is this such a big deal?
Larger sensors offer two key qualities over smaller sensors:
Better high-ISO capabilities.
And better dynamic range.
So if you’re someone who requires either of these features, you’re going to feel compelled to buy a full-frame option over a more limited MFT body. For instance, you’ll be hard-pressed to find landscape shooters who don’t use a full-frame body. Landscape photographers frequently deal with high dynamic range scenes and need to maximize low-light image quality, which is why a full-frame camera is the tool of choice.
A larger sensor doesn’t guarantee high resolution.
But it is closely correlated with it. All of the high-resolution camera models in the mirrorless market today are full-frame.
And when it comes to the megapixel race, Olympus hasn’t been doing so well. The company’s most professional bodies top out at about 20 MP, with some of their models only coming to 16 MP.
Here’s the thing about megapixel counts:
While they often don’t much affect the average photographer…
…they are real attention grabbers.
A big portion of camera headlines is dominated by the latest megapixel marvels, which means that Olympus, with its 16 and 20 MP sensors, just doesn’t get much coverage.
And resolution is talked about so frequently that the need for a high megapixel count is burned into the mind of almost every beginner photographer.
Don’t get me wrong:
Megapixels do matter.
But they only matter to some photographers – those that need to maximize detail, printing sizes, or cropping potential.
For others, more megapixels are just a comforting spec, but not a feature that’s truly necessary.
3. Crop factor
Here’s the final issue with Micro Four-Thirds cameras:
You get a huge, 2x crop factor.
And this makes basic wide-angle lenses (e.g., in the 20-30mm range) become standard focal lengths.
For landscape photographers, this is a huge issue. For sweeping scenic shots, you’re going to need a system that can offer true wide-angle coverage.
Though this 2x crop factor can be a benefit for photographers requiring a lot of reach, such as those who shoot sports or wildlife.
4. Electronic viewfinder quality
It’s a fact:
Olympus’s electronic viewfinders just aren’t that great.
Their best cameras offer a 2.36M-dot resolution, and it just doesn’t look that good compared to many Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Fujifilm options.
So for photographers coming from DSLRs and requiring a clear, sharp EVF experience, Olympus’s options don’t cut it.
The pros of Olympus
Though Olympus doesn’t get much attention, there are things that Olympus is doing better than pretty much every other camera manufacturer out there:
1. Camera and lens size
One thing that Olympus does really, really well:
Camera system compactness.
This is where the micro-four-thirds sensor really starts to pay dividends, keeping camera body size way down and keeping lens size equally small.
In fact, while cameras by Sony and Fujifilm, in particular, are often very compact, these systems will often come back to bite you when buying lenses. Mirrorless glass is often as big as DSLR glass, and this can be a problem. For one thing, bigger and heavier is just a pain to deal with, plus big lenses feel unbalanced when mounted on a compact camera.
So if you’re a travel photographer, you’ll love how easy it is to pack Olympus kit.
If you’re a street photographer, you’ll love how small and unobtrusive Olympus systems really are.
And if you’re a wildlife photographer who spends days hiking in the field, having a light, small body can be a real lifesaver.
2. Shooting speeds
If you take a close look at Olympus specifications, you’ll see that a number of their cameras offer shooting up to 60 frames per second.
And I’m talking still photography, not video.
Let me clarify:
You can shoot at 60 fps with no caveats, no cropped sensor, no drawbacks (though it is with the electronic sensor, rather than the mechanical one).
This is a huge benefit for anybody doing high-speed or action photography. Of course, you’re going to fill up your memory cards pretty quickly if you use the 60 fps option all the time, but this high-speed option is dead useful in certain situations where you just can’t miss the shot.
And by the way, you also have an option to shoot in Pro Capture mode, which ensures that the camera starts taking photos when you press the shutter button halfway. Then, when you finally press the shutter button down all the way, the last dozen or so images are saved to your memory card (along with any images taken after you fully hit the shutter button). This is fantastic for getting unanticipated shots, be it in sports or wildlife or event photography.
So if you’re the type that wishes for serious high-speed shooting capabilities, the Olympus cameras are definitely worth a look.
3. Image stabilization
Here’s the final key benefit of Olympus cameras:
They offer the best in-body image stabilization of any mirrorless camera system.
Some Olympus cameras offer seven or more stops of stabilization when including a stabilized lens, which allows for handholding down to 1s and longer (depending on the focal length and the steadiness of your hands).
If you’re the type of photographer who prefers to work without a tripod, this is the absolute best possible way to do it. You can capture gorgeous scenics using narrow apertures and not have to worry about camera shake.
Plus, even for the tripod-happy photographer, there are going to be times when carrying such support just isn’t feasible. But if you have an IBIS-equipped Olympus camera with you, you’ll be able to get a similar range of shots without a tripod.
So does Olympus still have a place in the 2020 camera market?
Though Olympus systems do come with a few drawbacks, they also include characteristics that no other camera manufacturer can match. Characteristics such as:
- Camera and lens compactness
- High-speed continuous shooting
- In-body stabilization
Are these benefits worth it for everyone?
No. If you’re a landscape photographer who plans to make huge, wall-sized prints, you’re going to want to pick a different system. If you’re a sports photographer who requires the best autofocus system that money can buy, Olympus probably isn’t your best bet either. And if you’re an event photographer who consistently shoots with four or five-digit ISOs, then I doubt that Olympus is for you.
But if you’re a photographer who prizes a compact system over everything else, someone who:
- Travels frequently
- Goes on long hiking trips
- Needs blazing-fast continuous shooting
- Needs an unobtrusive system for street photography
- Just hates being weighed down by heavy equipment
- Doesn’t like carrying a tripod
…then Olympus is going to be just what you need.
So before you buy a Sony, Canon, Nikon, or Fujifilm body, ask yourself:
Might Olympus be the better choice?
Maybe it’s not. You might do better with another system.
But it’s at least worth considering!
What are your thoughts on this? Do you have anything you could add? Please do so in the comments!