Old and new

Rumors and even photos have been trickling out for days. Now Olympus has given word of its pro-grade, vintage-style $1,000 camera (without lens) carrying the not-so-catchy name OM-D E-M5. <p> Like Dodge reviving the Dart, camera-makers have been packing new tech into old-timey shells for years now. The Olympus, however, really stretches the difference between the outside and the inside. <p> Beyond appearances, nothing else is similar. In fact, despite the resemblance, the E-M5 is not remotely the same kind of camera as its forerunners, the original OM models dating back 40 years, which were SLRs. That is, they had a mirror that sits in front of the film (until you snap the shutter) allowing you to peer into a glass eyepiece and directly through the lens – like using an inverted periscope.

Flatter than an SLR

There are plenty of digital SLRs that follow the same model — with a mirror in front of the image sensor. But the E-M5 is a kind of camera that Olympus has been making for a few years that is made much thinner by removing the mirror. (Companies like Sony have cameras like this, too.) <p> Olympus uses the obscure, not-worth-explaining term "micro four thirds" to describe this tech. It lets you eyeball your shots by using the 3-inch touch screen on the back, as with point-and-shoots. Olympus also adds a bright, high-resolution electronic viewfinder where the traditional eyepiece would have been. That isn't new, either, but the images looked very bright and crisp when Olympus brought the camera by for a sneak peek a few days ago.

Lens variety

Despite all these differences, the E-M5 can use, with an adapter, the same old-time lenses the old OM cameras use. You'll have to focus by hand, though. There was no autofocus back then. With another adapter, it also works with lenses from Olympus's Digital SLRs, which do autofocus. And Olympus has 11 lenses built especially for its micro four thirds cameras.


<p> <center>credit: Olympus</center> For obscure technical reasons, removing the mirror also forces Olympus to abandon the super-fast focusing technology found in SLRs -- instead using the wait-wait-wait tech found in point-and-shoots. But Olympus has sped things up considerably, claiming in fact, to have the fastest focusing camera in the world. <p> Whether or not it really takes the title, the E-M5 is darn fast, as we saw when they brought it by our office. After quickly focusing a shot, it can take nine of them per second. Basically, you're pretty darn likely to get your shot.


The camera can take a lot of abuse in the process. While the old OMs were made of rather heavy aluminum, the E-M5 uses super-light, super-strong magnesium. Olympus describes it in postman-like terms as able to withstand sand, sun, rain, sleet or snow. (It's not for snorkeling, though.) If all that's true, it would be about as durable as the massive metal cameras that pros carry – such as the $2,500 (without a lens) Canon 5D Mark II. The E-M5 goes for $1,300 with a 4X (12-50 mm) zoom lens -- rather wide angle to pretty good telephoto.


For all the serious-sounding tech, the E-M5 also packs in toys, such as 11 art filters that apply effects. The newest, Key Line, turns a picture or video into an animation that very roughly resembles the effects in the 2006 Keanu-Reeves drug-haze film A Scanner Darkly.


The camera has impressive tech to keep the shots steady while it bounces around. Olympus calls it a 5-axis image stabilizer: It can sense five different kinds of jitters and move the sensor in a split second to compensate. Olympus claims that such a level of stabilization is a first. <p> Of course the ultimate test of a camera is the quality of the photos. We didn't get to take any, unfortunately. Olympus supplied us samples that look lovely, but they were obviously shooting under ideal conditions. The real tests come in bad light – like those rainy and snowy conditions that it's built to survive.

Olympus Puts Radical Camera Tech in Retro Shell