In Defense of dSLRs (Kind of)

The release of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is being touted by bloggers, tumblers, tweeters, and word pressers as A VERY BIG DEAL. The online hyperbole store is actually running low on stock of Gushing Praises (available in limited quantities), Prophetic Proclamations (due next week) and Bold Predictions (now taking pre-orders) while Humble Opinions and Reality Checks are being deeply discounted due to slow sales. Last week’s flavor of the month - the Fuji X Pro 1 - is struggling to catch a ray of the klieg lights, and even poor Leica has to resort to parlor tricks to remind people that they had a red dot long before Target did. I’ve actually held one of these Olympus talisman’s in my hands, and with Pinterest as my witness, I thought I heard a choir of angels singing softly and sweetly upon my left shoulder while a unicorn danced a jig on my right shoulder. I would have taken a picture - if only the OM-D E-M5 had a flip-twist screen.

The Panasonic GH2 walked down this road before, offering near-dSLR performance in a near Pentax MX-sized package. Too bad that camera got sidetracked by being really good at video; it even shipped with a kit lens that had the letters HD on them. Those letters don’t mean anything to stills shooters and are actually seen as pollutants in some circles. It didn’t help that the Micro Four-Thirds lacked the bagful of serious, fast primes that mark a mature system. Added together, they killed the GH2’s street cred among “serious” Domke-wielding photogs.

The OMDEM5 (I’m tired of remembering where the hyphens go so I’m going to smash them all together) is different than the GH2 though. Where the GH2 had the feel of a budget dSLR, the OMDEM5 is an alluring object d’photo. The new guy is digital Viagra. “Buy me,” it appears to say from the top of it’s prism-esque viewfinder, “and I will make you young and virile again!” The fact that Panlympus have released a trio of new fast primes since the launch of the GH2 (the 12mm F2, 25mm F1.4, and 45mm F1.8) and have just announced a Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8 zoom just adds to the OMDEM5’s aura as THE NEXT BIG SMALL THING.

Relax people. It’s just a camera. By most accounts it’s a pretty good one, one of the best from Olysonic. But simply put, dSLRs with their increasingly anachronistic flapping mirrors (“Moving parts? How quaint!”) are still very good tools. And the OMDEM5 is not the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. Do you know what it’s got over dSLRs? Size. And buzz. That’s it. Dollar for dollar you’ll get more value with a dSLR. Think about it - the OMDEM5 body goes for $999. There’s also a grip that improves handling - in fact makes it more dSLR-like. That’s another $299. So we’re in the low thousand dollar range. You know what that will buy you in dSLR-vania? That’s Canon T3i/60D territory, Nikon D5100/D7000 territory, and Pentax K-r/K-5 territory. Those are some seriously good cameras. The lower model of each brand will match or beat the OMDEM5 in IQ while costing less. The upper model of each brand will have features the OMDEM5 lacks (i.e., better video, better flash, better AF.C, better ergonomics) while being pretty price competitive. Sure the OMDEM5 will have some things in its favor - IS and weather-proofing in particular, but Canon and Nikon in particular will pummel Olympus on lens selection alone, and have upgrade paths (T3i to 60D to 7D to 5DIII etc… and D5100 to D7000 to D300 to D800 and beyond!) that Olympus can only dream about. And Pentax, with the K-5 and the upcoming K30, matches the Olympus in weather sealing and in-body image stabilization, while having (arguably) better handling and (probably) better IQ.

What’s the point of this rant? One, the OMDEM5 is not the second coming of anything. It’s a smaller camera. Period. I guess that’s a big deal after a decade or so of bigger is better thinking. But really, to all of those folks that bought 7Ds and D300s with big zooms to take to Disneyland to take pictures to post on Facebook, those sore backs are self-inflicted wounds. Two, the hyperbole surrounding this camera - and other new cameras - is out of control. The Olympus will not make people better photographers. Nor will the Fuji. Or the D800/5DIII for that matter. If you took ho-hum pictures with the dSLR that you are selling to get the OMDEM5, then guess what - you’ll take ho-hum pictures with the new camera too. The new gear may make people better technicians, but that’s a very different thing than being better photographers. 

We (myself included) all get caught up in the hype around new cameras. Marketing is the fast food of information - tastes great, less filling. I just thought I’d add my $.02 (non-refundable). Have a good day - I hope you take some good pictures.


  1. Absolutely, on all counts. As good as it is, and its very good - the best that Olympus has ever delivered, its still a niche offering.

    But it definitely fills my "niche", I needed a very high quality travel rig, and in that regard it's perfect.

    It's better than any consumer level DSLR out there, for sure. But high end Prosumer DSLR's?

    Not yet.

    Still too much noise @ high ISO, but in the right hands it can be stunning.

  2. You'll still suck, just at a higher resolution than your old point & shoot ;-)

    I like the camera and I want one, but I am a fickle female and plans may change. Everyone was waiting for me to show up with a D4 a few weeks back - I turned around and bought a Pana m4/3 modified for full spectrum shooting. That has put off purchase of the OMDEM5 for awhile. Most important, I have my full spectrum in hand and am out shooting while others are playing the waiting game. Good article.

  3. Nicely written and nicely thought out. I agree with most of what you've said but I think we'll have to wait a year or two to see if the volcanic (magic) dust cools the DSLR planet enough to cause big camera extinction.

  4. @ Libby, full spectrum M43? Do tell....Is there a link upon where we can glance the results?

    @ Kirk, thank you sir for the kind words. We are watching a b-school case study in the making - new technology enables smaller competitors to innovate and experiment while the market leaders iterate upon past formulas. Ultimately, I think we'll lose the mirror, and probably the curtain shutter too. Canon and Nikon will move too; it's not if, but when.

    The big question in my mind is whether Canon or Nikon will time their leap properly. It's kind of like the prisoner's dilemma - too early and the one not leaping will eat the other's lunch. Too late and they will have missed the last lifeboat.

    My prediction is that ten years hence one will get it wrong and have joined Kodak and Polaroid and Contax and Minolta and countless others on scrapheap of history.