|Taken with Canon 5DmkII with 100mm f2.8 Macro lens|
Launched in 1983 to follow up to the successful OM-2 (The OM-3 was actually released in 1984) the OM-4 had an innovative light metering system based on up to 8 multi-spots. The shutter speed of the electronic shutter reached up to 1/2000 of a second and it had drip proof and highly durable construction. There was also an LCD bar graph in the viewfinder for showing exposure. The camera was clearly targeted at high end users in need of (for the time) advanced features.
In 1986 the chrome version (the one I own) of the OM-4 was released and called the OM-4t (OM-4ti in Europe). It sported a super tough titanium body and fixed some issues with poor battery life in the OM-4. This improved weather sealing even more and a high speed sync option was added allowing on-camera flash to stay on for the duration of the shutter actuation eliminating the black bar you'd see otherwise. The camera was released in all black in 1990 and discontinued in 2002.
For Olympus this camera was the end of their relationship with professional photographers until the release of the E-1 digital SLR in 2003 which of course began it's foray into the four thirds digital system. Unfortunately for Olympus the E-Series never really caught on with the pro user in large quantities even with successive high quality cameras in the E-3 (2007) and E-5 (2010).
The E-system always boasted the highest quality lenses in the industry that were designed from the ground up for the exact 4:3 digital sensor. This alleviated problems with corner sharpness and chromatic aberrations that other film legacy makers were having as unlike Pentax, Canon and Nikon, Olympus basically threw out the bathtub with the bathwater when it switched from film to digital.
But none-the-less the benefits of the smaller sensor and front to back digital design didn't translate into high quality small camera bodies. The cameras made by Olympus (as well as Panasonic and Leica) were the same size as those by their competitors and to make matters worse the small sensor struggled with noise control leaving them a step behind competitors in that one ever-growing important area.
The debate is raging still as to whether Olympus will continue with the E-Series DSLR and I doubt even Olympus has committed one way or the other on the issue. But enter a new twist in the story with a camera that alters the narrative completely. In 2010 Olympus introduced a new line of cameras called the PEN series with the E-P1.
This new line of interchangeable lens camera brought angst to four thirds users as they saw it as a shot across the bow of their beloved DSLR cameras. Especially for professional or advanced amateur users, the E-P1 was cool and fun, but it wasn't meant for them. Where was the weather sealing, fast focusing and pro quality lens lineup? This is when the few remaining users of the E-Series started jumping ship en-masse even as Olympus tried to quiet their worries with the E5. The whole thing was starting to feel a lot like Olympus' move from the OM to E series of cameras.
Successive versions of the E-P1 have been huge improvements (the E-P2, E-PL1, E-P3) and moved the system more and more toward the advanced camera enthusiast. The lenses released (no four thirds lenses have been released in several years) grew better and started to have that Olympus quality that people were used too. Panasonic as a partner in the new micro-four thirds system was also creating high quality cameras (particularly the GH1 and GH2 that appealed to video enthusiasts) and lenses (some in partnership with Leica).
But until 2012 no professional camera had been introduced to the system. And if you ask Olympus there still hasn't been a professional camera released, but I beg to differ. In an obvious nod to the retro-look of the OM series of cameras, they announced the OM-D E-M5 to much fan fare and internet buzz earlier this year. With weather sealing and a built-in high quality viewfinder, the camera boasted an appearance of seriousness that had been lacking from the brand since the E5 DSLR.
While it is small and there are certainly users out there that will refuse to believe that small cameras should be taken seriously (despite Leica doing it for years) the E-M5 has very robust professional features including a 16.1 megapixel sensor, 3 inch OLED monitor, high resolution viewfinder, RAW+JPEG file formats, ISO 200-25,600, flash sync up to 1/250 of a second (and a new radio controlled wireless flash to match) 1920x1080 HD video capture and a new first in the world 5-axis image stabilization feature that compensates for shaking and rolling in all directions. With an autofocus system that actually out-performs a Nikon D3 and 9 frames per second shooting (if you don't require continuous autofocus) the camera has really shown up dressed in 'Pro' clothing even if Olympus says it isn't.
The truth is that we don't know where the O-MD series is going and if the E-Series of true pro cameras is really dead with the E-5. What we do know is that despite all the floundering of the Olympus company itself with all of their financial scandals, they appear to be able to continue making quality products as if they have blinders on to the happenings around them.
And this whole round-about blog entry leads me back to the OM-4t and why I love it and think you might too. As you can tell with my meanderings in this post the tools do matter to me. I love them. I don't believe (I'm adamant actually) that they create the art or define the artist, but are the tools we use do help us as we pursue our craft. They can either be a hinderance or can be so intuitive and friendly and inviting that they seem to get out of the way and hold our hand as we move to where we are going. Our cameras shouldn't get in the way of our photographs. And this is why an OM4t is perfect.
Simplicity is king and with buttons and dials in logical places the old film cameras had it just right. You popped in your film, adjusted the aperture on a ring around the lens (where your hand was anyway) and dialled in a shutter speed either on a top dial or right there behind the aperture ring (as it is on the OM cameras). The viewfinders were bright and simple and all you had to do was wind and click. After one or two rolls with a camera you felt right at home. No menu diving, no LCD peeking.
Size was another thing that we had right and got wrong as we moved 'forward.' DSLR's like the Canon 1DmkIV and Nikon D3 got huge. If you didn't have that pro body with the built in battery grip you were just an amateur. Thousands of photographers (including me) ran out and bought accessory battery grips for their regular DSLR's as much to look important as to build in functionality with extra battery life and additional buttons.
The OM4t is small and falls in your hands like it was supposed to be there. You can carry it all day without tiring and the matching prime lenses are about half the size of their new digital brethren. Carrying an OM4t around your neck doesn't create pain and ache and holding it to your eye doesn't induce arm shake from weight.
The body of this camera is strong. So strong you get the feeling that you could use it as a blunt force weapon if need be. Heck it seems like you could use it as a hammer in a pinch.
Leaving the camera in manual mode you can dial your aperture right on the lens with your left hand while the shutter speed hides just behind it against the camera body. Flip it to auto and you are in aperture priority mode with probably the most advanced metering system of it's time. You can use the spot metering buttons on the top by the shutter button which has three buttons (Spot, Hi light and Shadow) but I rarely do. Exposure compensation lives on the left beside the film winder and ISO dial. It has a timer (which I never use) and a flash sync port (again I don't use it) but I have put a pocket wizard on this camera on more than one occasion with no problem.
The images I've gotten from the camera are brilliantly sharp thanks to the three primes I own (50mm f1.8, 24mm f2.8 and 135mm f2.8) and never have I felt that the camera as a tool has gotten in my way when making images. Yes I'd wish for a faster sync speed (it's 1/60th of a second) but it's something I've learned to live with.
Lots of other manufacturers were making similar cameras back in the OM days. Canon, Nikon, Minolta and Pentax each had similar looking and feeling cameras, so no matter your brand of choice (hey we all have our loyalties) there was a camera for you that was built like a well crafted tool before we went big and plastic with later model film and newer digital SLR's.
For me personally it's about having a camera that I enjoy using. When I'm happy I create better art. It's true. I enjoy the experience more. Painters have their favourite brushes, race car drivers their favourite tires, and photographers their favourite lenses and cameras. My point is that you should enjoy the experience like I do. Find a tool that speaks to how you like to operate and use that.
As a final note on this long and windy post, I just want to say that the OM4t is a big part of the inspiration for why I'm on the pre-order list for an E-M5. I love film as a hobby and enjoy using it, but lets be honest. It's not the most reliable and accessible format any longer. I'll keep using it until they stop making it, but having an OM4t body with all the convenience and whiz bang features of a modern digital camera is really appealing. The new OM-D cameras might not be for you, but they will be, I think, appealing to a lot of people. As I sit in excitement waiting for my version to arrive (in silver thank-you) I can't help but wonder if this is the secret sauce camera that Olympus needed to bring them back to relevance. It couldn't be better timing.