Sunday, 5 October 2008

On Olympus strategy and conspiracy - and the final question

In previous posts, we have written about the initial thoughts on the introduction of the Micro Four-Thirds format and the peculiarities of the strategy Olympus seems to follow. Back in mid September, also we could only speculate on ideas that the interview for example made clear.
  1. We did not know about the segmentation strategy, but now we know it: regardless of Panasonic, Olympus aims mFT products at the "lower" class, coming "up" from compacts or buying mFT instead of them.
  2. We did not know about chances of using FT lenses on mFT bodies. We still do not know for sure, but it seems that all of them will work, only perhaps slowly. (I'm personally wondering how slow the 12-60mm will be...)
  3. We did not know if the Olympus mFT offering will sport a viewfinder. Saying that the current mockup is a "mid-tier" mFT camera and even this might include a viewfinder, it is almost sure that the "top" tier cam will have one. So we shall have a Leica-killer after all? Hmm, it might be the case.

Besides other bits, we learned what we have already known to some extent: Olympus is very vague on timing and it reserves the right to choose a sensor manufacturer other then Panasonic (Remember the nice low-level performance of Fuji compact chips? Yumm!).

AND finally we heard that while FT is all about compact tele lenses (thanks, Jonas), mFT is all about compact wide-angle lenses. dpreview however could not manage to go into a very important detail of this matter. FT to many is equivalent to not compact, but high quality wide-angle lenses. The 7-14mm is still unmatched except by the Nikkor 14-24mm in many respects, including edge to edge sharpness. This, we were told, is achieved by telecentric lens design (I mean in the case of the Olympus. In the Nikkor, on 35mm full frame? Ehh...). Although telecentricity has nothing to do with flange back distance, ie. it is achievable with mFT, history suggestests otherwise.

Leica M lenses, to name the most prominent example, can achieve high image quality because they use small flange-back distance to get closer to the focal plane and project light at steep angles onto the film. This is the very reason Leica had to employ a shifted microlens design in the M8, which can never be optimal, onle for a single focal length (and limits focal lengths from above). The Leica experience suggests that using the smaller distance this way is not a terribly good idea (but even then, many photographers without MF gear claim that they use the M8 if they want to achieve the ultimate image quality - confusing, to say the least!). If mFT goes this way, it will be about not only compact, but also lesser quality wide angle lenses.

But what do we really know about telecentricity? Not much, and that is coming from Olympus marketing. Do not get me wrong - they bought me with this too. But have you ever compared the rear lens element of the 35-100mm and the 7-14mm, for example? While the former is so big that the sensor fits right "into" it, including IS movements, the latter is distinctly smaller than the sensor. Conclusion number 1: telecentricity is already sacrifised there, in that fabulous lens! Conclusion number 2: telecentricity is not important? Or is it important only to a certain extent? Well, I do not know - this is a secret yet to be explored. But Olympus going the Leica way or not introducing microlens shifting at all will be an indication of either telecentricity or top image quality not being as important as it was designing FT. The former will bug FT users who were believers of telecentricity being important. Such a move would indicate that the relatively bulky wide angle lenses they have to put up with are in fact unnecessary. The latter will not, but buyers of mFT have to be aware that the images will lack corner-border sharpness and overall definition compared to FT images. I am no saying this is always a terrible thing - Nikon users sometimes say (think about the 70-200mm Nikkor, for example): this is no problem as long as you are shooting people.

Given the marketing strategy of Olympus, this might be a good argument after all!