WHAT'S THE FUTURE FOR THE E-SYSTEM?
A QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION WITH TERADA-SAN, OLYMPUS JAPAN.
On behalf of all the readers of this website who emailed me direct with their concerns about the future of 4/3rds following the announcement of the E-5 and associated statements about the system future, I was given the chance to pose a series of questions to the Japanese design team at PhotoKina.
This presented a unique opportunity to pass on the numerous questions I'd received from you as well as some of my own. I had to organize all the questions in a logical way and this meant some of your wording was changed, but I'm sure you will recognize your questions in this fascinating Q&A session.
Toshi Terada, the head of DSLR development agreed to answer the questions which were posed by Mark Thackara of Olympus UK on our behalf. Some of the questions could not be answered in Germany and Terada-San took them back to headquarters in Japan to complete the session.
Terada-San is a very busy man and, unfortunately, the Q&A session was not completed until 12th October 2010. Not withstanding, Terada-San's answers provide an illuminating insight into many of the thought processes within the DSLR development section and, I hope, will give readers some reassurance about the future of our E-System.
THE Q&A SESSION.
Q1. Have you any regrets about adopting the 4/3rds standard, particularly the 1/4 frame sensor, as in many peoples opinion, this has been the Achilles heel of the 4/3rds system.
A1. No, we are convinced 4/3rd is the best format to have balance of size & IQ. It is not only body size but also lens size. You can see the potential with the new 75-300 zoom for the PEN series. And also you can see the most benefit of the size from wide angle lens.
Q2. Is Olympus contractually tied to Panasonic for your sensors as part of a corporate deal? If not which companies has Olympus approached for sensor technology and why was it rejected?
A2. We cannot comment on individual business relationships. But we always look for all possibility to have better product.
Q3. Does Olympus have a free choice of Panasonic sensors or do you get what you are given?
A3. We will choose whatever we think is best for our products. We are free and have selected current sensors as the best ones for our products.
Q4. If 12MP is the 'rational' limit for 4/3rds (an Olympus statement) this also, logically, applies to m4/3rds? If true how will you compete with (rumoured) Panasonic upcoming 18MP multi-aspect sensor?
A4. We believe that the balance at the moment is right between resolution and other aspects such as noise. If you use E-5, You can find that the new Truepic V + engine delivers the best all round performance. Olympus has not mentioned about the limit of the pixel count for 4/3rds. We said pixel race was becoming less significant than before, and thought 12MP would be able to satisfy most of the customers. But we are not sticking to any specific MP.
Q5. Panasonic has made no similar statement. If m4/3rds sensor technology moves on to 16-18MP and produces good IQ then the arbitrary limit imposed on 4/3rds will have been erroneous. In retrospect this would be seen as disastrous for 4/3rds progress. Do you agree?
A5. No, as mentioned, we were free and we chose the 12MP sensor for the E-5 as we thought we could provide the best IQ by brushing up that sensor system. Fine tuning of the image processing devices takes long time. We could improve the optical filter, sensor circuit board layout, processing algorithm, parameter tuning and so on because we chose the 12MP sensor and could spend enough time for the tuning. With this long, basic and steady engineering improvement of the E-5 image processing system, your 4/3rds lens will show its surprising hidden power that we foresaw and incorporated since 2003.
PLEASE NOTE: Questions 4 & 5 were asked because of the statement last year by Olympus at PMA which reads: "Twelve megapixels is, I think, enough for covering most applications most customers need," said Akira Watanabe, manager of Olympus Imaging's SLR planning department, in an interview here at the Photo Marketing Association (PMA). "We have no intention to compete in the megapixel wars for E-System," (Olympus' line of SLR cameras), he said. "Instead, Olympus will focus on other characteristics such as dynamic range, color reproduction, and a better ISO range for low-light shooting," he said.
Q6. Is there any connection between Panasonic abandoning their 4/3rds camera/lenses business (L1/L10) and Olympus' recent announcements to abandon all but the EX range? Has the 4/3rds journey proved unprofitable for Olympus?
A6. Although there are no Four Thirds lenses currently under development, it does not mean that there will be no future lenses based on this technology.
Q7. Is it true that Olympus simply do not have the resources to develop/manufacture both 4/3rds and m4/3rds simultaneously?
A7. You can see our output of last one year, which is two m4/3rds bodies and one flagship 4/3rd body and several lenses. We are now just focusing on m4/3rds development.
Q8. Are you confident that m4/3rds will provide Olympus with a sustainable future? What happens if m4/3rds is simply a short-lived fad and 4/3rds is 90% dead and cannot/will not be revived?
A8. In some Asian countries including Japan, the market shares of mirrorless lens interchangeable system cameras are reaching nearly 40%. And many other countries are following the same trend. They will soon be the majority of the lens interchangeable cameras including DSLRs in these countries. We believe people in western countries will appreciate the benefits of the new system as well, though it may take a bit longer to convey our messages.
Q9. Will Olympus develop and manufacture a range of m4/3rds prime lenses? Is there a future for fast (f2 or brighter) primes within Olympus lens making capability?
A9. We can't comment on the concrete product plan. But we will develop a wide range of accessories for the PEN system to make it more attractive.
Q9a. Will Olympus produce a Pro-level, weather-proof m4/3rds body and lens(es) at some point?
A9a. Pretty much the same as above.
Q10. Will Olympus continue to develop 4/3rds lenses? Has the ZD100mm Macro been taken off the development list? Might there be any prime lens development?
A10. The macro lens has been dropped from FT's lens roadmap because we have not had concrete development schedule right now. We continue studying the development of it or another FT's lenses.
Q11. Will Olympus continue to manufacture any 4/3rds lenses? If so which ones - SG/HG/SHG - or will this be demand led?
A11. Yes, we will continue to produce the line-up.
Q12. How long will Olympus support 4/3rds bodies and lenses (excluding the E-5). In other words will my E-450 body be repaired in 2015?
A12. There are no set policies for absolute length of time to support but usually we aim for a 7 year time frame and often it goes on beyond that. This is not a special case.
Q13. Many Olympus DSLR users are not yet ready to accept EVF, or the tiny m4/3rds bodies. The E-5 is an expensive Pro-grade option. To give users some choice, can Olympus see the absolute need for a replacement for the E-30 or preferably the E-620?
A13. Having a large magnification optical finder with small body is a difficult to design. One of the benefit to have a EVF is to overcome this difficulty. And the performance will be improved to satisfy entry and middle class DSLR users.
Q14. Whoever laid out the 4/3rds system went to great lengths to provide an upgrade path for both bodies and lenses. Has this rationale been abandoned in m4/3rds system? If so why?
A14. No, our m4/3 system started last year and currently offers two models, the E-P2 and the E-PL1, but we would like to provide a richer upgrade path in the future by developing variety of cameras.
Q15. Many 4/3rds enthusiasts now feel Olympus has abandoned them. They feel that their previous DSLR choice is now denied within Olympus products. Does Olympus recognise this?
A15. We are convinced that the enthusiasts of E-System users will be satisfied with E-5, and we continue providing the product with which they will be also satisfied in future.
Q16. The new E-5 is priced at £1499. The E-3 was £1699 with the ZD12-60. Why is the E-5 so expensive? Would it not be better to reduce the E-5 price to encourage more sales and be seen as being competitive?
A16. The price reflects both the performance we believe the camera delivers and the cost of producing it.
To meet the professional level of robustness, we pay some costs on it.
Q17. Has Olympus stopped being competitive with other DSLR makers? The new Nikon D7000 is priced at £1099 and appears to out-specify the E-5.
A17. We are convinced E-5 is competitive for any other DSLR models from the robustness point of view. We think E-5 has much more robust body than D7000. The font cover of D7000 doesn't seem to be metal. And we are convinced dust & splash proof level of E-5 is much higher than that of any other DSLR's. We promoted this point in Japanese market with one year guarantee using E-3 under the rain. We have plan to do it again in Japan with E-5. We can say E-5 robustness is exactly matched with professional demand.
Q18. Is the E-5 solely aimed at placating existing E-System users worries about the future, rather than being a genuine market alternative to, say, the Nikon D7000?
A18. Yes, we will produce E-5 mainly for E-system users, step-up users to E-5 and switch users from E-3.
Q19. Olympus have indicated they will provide a suitable body on which HG/SHG lenses can be used into the future. Currently this is the top level E-5. Will this always be the case; that is whatever the camera may be - traditional DSLR or hybrid - will it always be the flagship camera enjoying the very best of the m4/3rds system technologies?
A19. We can not say concrete planned product. But we will continue supplying products for those current customers.
Q20. It worries investors in HG/SHG lenses that they will always be able to use their lenses (as above) and have them serviced. As lenses normally survive longer than bodies would it be reasonable to think that Olympus will service these lenses as long as there is a body on which they can be used?
A20. We will do our very best to do this of course. Don't forget that we have not stopped producing the lens. The life span of a lens is much longer than that of a body.
Q21. For all the statements from Olympus about 4/3rds format continuing, there is a general feeling that it is being left to wither on the vine. Will Olympus actively reassure the 4/3rds faithful this is not the case, and how?
A21. Just we can say we will do.
Q22. It is reasonable to assume that when EVF technology is good enough (such as Epsons new higher resolution EVF) the optical viewfinder will be replaced. Do you see this happening within 24 months?
A22. We think the movement comes bit by bit. Because it depends on not only resolution also speed, brightness, so on. We can't say when it will come, but we think most of current DSLR users can accept EVF finder in future because of the quality and the benefit.
Q23. When the EVF replaces the OVF in the 4/3rds camera(s) remaining, it's assumed Olympus will maintain the 4/3rds registration distance. Is this correct and what could be fitted into the space?
A23. We can't say concrete product plan.
Q24. Was there ever a design or prototype for some sort of modular camera that could accept both 4/3rds and m4/3rds lenses?
A24. We can't say concrete product plan.
Q25. Is Olympus currently pursuing an electronic shutter design for m4/3rds?
A25. We believe all camera manufactures look for any possibility to improve performance. We also do our best.
Q26. I have noticed that legacy OM lenses perform better on m4/3rds than 4/3rds bodies. Is this simply better metering or is it more to do with telecentricity and registration?
A26. We have not heard of this kind of comment from market yet.
Q27. Are you surprised at the huge interest in using old manual lenses on m4/3rds. Will Olympus consider reviving some older but specialised manual and prime lenses to appeal to this segment?
A27. Not surprised - We know those people support our camera industry. At the same time we will create new market segment also with same PEN system.
Q28. Where do you see both 4/3rds and m4/3rds in 5 years time? Where would you like to see them?
A28. We are convinced both systems will be existing as one beautiful system.
Q29. Historical: Did Olympus ever seriously consider any other size sensor than 4/3rds - i.e. cropped sensor or full frame (135 size)? Was the 4/3rds format purely driven by the (then) costs of sensors? It is generally held that the E-1 body is a great piece of design - why was it not subsequently used as the basis of an update of the Pro-level camera? Is it true that Sanyo designed and/or manufactured the E-1 body. If not who did? Was the E-1 body design licenced out to another design company?
A29. Before having the decision of 4/3rds size, we studied all possible size for DSLR sensors. But once we found this best solution, we don't see any other size.
E-1 was designed by ourselves. After many interviews from our professional users, we had decided to change the style of E-3. From this experience, we didn't change the style for E-5.
I am much obliged for your answers Terada-San. I will post the questions with your answers on the Olympus enthusiast's website www.biofos.com in due course.
After the confusion that followed the statements from various Olympus 'spokespersons' from America and Europe which seemed contradictory, I think the above answers from Terada-San are pretty clear and quite encouraging. Certainly, some of the ambiguity has now been cleared away. It seems there is a bright future for four-thirds, albeit as part of a system combined with m4/3rds, at some point in the future. We may even get an E-7 depending on the advancement of other technologies like EVF.
That said, it's plainly obvious that at some point in the future (it may be 2 years, it may be 5) the body that will comfortably accept 4/3rds lenses will be a hybrid and mirrorless. If this body can indeed comfortably handle the larger HG/SHG lens range and the new EVF matches existing OVF in terms of speed and clarity, then I for one will be happy. In this sense Olympus is looking to protect its 4/3rds user base.
A PLEA TO TERADA-SAN.
Along with many others who emailed me, I firmly believe there is a place for a second four-thirds body to sit inbetween the Pen and the E-5. With this in mind I also sent Terada-San this plea on behalf of 4/3rds users and enthusiasts the world over:
As you may recall I operate the popular Olympus enthusiasts website www.biofos.com. The series of questions posed to you by Mark Thackara at this years Photokina were a mixture of some of my own but mainly from readers of the website who (erroneously) think that I hold some sway with Olympus.
That said I feel it incumbent on me to pass on the tenor of many comments I have received since Olympus announced the cessation of all 4/3rds bodies except the E-5. There is a very strong feeling that this decision by Olympus has removed all choice of 'traditional' DSLR cameras from those users who do not, or cannot, aspire to a professional level camera such as the E-5. I have to add that, in my opinion based on my readership, this represents over 85% of existing Olympus DSLR users.
Of the many people who have taken the time to write to me, the overwhelming request is for a second traditional DSLR body based on an upgraded E-620. This would give all those users a choice inbetween the small, non-OVF Pen series and the large, heavy and expensive pro-level E-5. It would also give potential pro-level users of the E-5 a choice for a back-up body that can handle the larger 4/3rds lenses.
If an E-630 could be manufactured with the internals of the E-PL1 with its AA filter and its True-Pic engine plus the ability to capture video and have CF and SDHC memory cards I am positive this would satisfy many thousands of Olympus DSLR users worldwide.
I realise that many decisions about the future of 4/3rds have already been taken but I implore you, and Olympus Japan, to listen to the sincere voices of 4/3rds devotees everywhere and increase the choice of traditional 4/3rds DSLR cameras by one, to two. I am positive this will encourage many existing users to stay with Olympus and continue to invest in the wonderful range of 4/3rds HG and SHG lenses.
Olympus fans are understanding and can see the reasons for the company reigning back on 4/3rds. But there is enough room for an extended Pen series and both an advanced level 4/3rds body and a professional level 4/3rds body until the Pen series can deliver all the features and benefits currently delivered by those 4/3rds cameras. Here I refer to OVF, PDAF and body volume, weight, heft, design and optional grip, that enables the comfortable use of all HG/SHG lenses.
Please, please, please listen to your followers.
On behalf of many Olympus 4/3rds users worldwide.
Signed: John Foster.
To date I have not had (and do not expect) an answer. However, this does not preclude any four-thirds user who feels strongly about a replacement E-620, or simply a little more choice in the current line-up, from emailing Olympus Japan direct or discussing your future needs with your dealer. Personally I think there is just a slim chance Olympus will produce another consumer grade 4/3rds body.
Following discussion on various Internet forums I am happy to pass on readers concerns to Olympus.
TO SUPPORT THE PLEA TO TERADA-SAN: please email me here with your name, country and thoughts (if substantially different to the general thrust of the email above) and I will forward them to the appropriate person within Olympus.
IMPORTANT: This is now closed. I have kept the opportunity to support my plea to Terada-San open for two weeks. I have to close the window now as I need to forward the many emails of support received to Olympus Japan before the moment passes. My thanks to all those who supported this - let's hope Olympus is listening.
FEEDBACK FROM OLYMPUS JAPAN: To be honest I am not expecting any sort of response from Terada-San, nor did I ask for any. It seems to me that Terada-San is a very busy man but I'm convinced he will take the appeal seriously and read all your emails. Olympus would be foolish to ignore the initiative, but whether anything comes from it we'll have to wait and see. Thanks to all who emailed their support; we have done our bit!
There's no doubt that digital photography tastes are changing. Compact users are demanding better IQ than their current tiny sensors can deliver. Folks are not enamoured by mid to large size DSLR's. No-one wants to be lugging around heavy equipment. Fewer folks can afford the huge fast lenses of the traditional DSLR. They want small cameras with great IQ at reasonable prices; and what the market wants, it normally gets. Olympus (and a couple of others) is at the front of this new demand curve and we should celebrate this.
So there you have it. I see the way many of the statements coming from Olympus personnel in the last 2-3 weeks have been 'clarified' by headquarters, along with the above statements from Terada-San in the above Q&A session, as very positive. Four-thirds is not dead, it's undergoing a metamorphosis and may well come out of this pupal stage all the better.