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May 9, 2014 - Dave Hecei
The world of digital SLR (DSLR) cameras was pretty much a Nikon and Canon world. Sure, there were other companies like Sony, Pentax, Fuji, and Olympus, but their popularity amongst serious shooters made them more of a minor player. For a while, these other camera makers were still in the game with decent point and shoot models, but no real major push in the DSLR market. Boy, have things changed.
This first thing that I should explain is that you don't just buy a DSLR camera and stop there. An interchangeable lens camera is just the hub of a whole system. There are lenses, flashes, cables, battery grips, close-up attachments, and all other sorts of accessories that make up a whole system. The more extensive the system, the more versatile the camera will be.
Back in the film age where I (and the dinosaurs lived) started shooting, Nikon and Canon were popular, but others were up there too. Pentax, Olympus, Minolta, Yashica/Contax, and Leica were all popular SLR makers that I consider 'systems'. To this day I still love certain film camera models - like the Olympus OM-1n, the Nikon FE2, the Contax RTS II, and even though it is not an SLR it does have interchangeable lenses, the Leica M-4P, in black of course.
The switch to autofocus, and eventually to digital, hit these other camera makers hard, some harder than others. Of course the economic downturn probably didn’t help much either. Contax, which I shot with for many years, had some fantastic 35mm cameras but really had a hard time transitioning to autofocus and never even really made it into the digital age. This was too bad since they had the rights to Carl Zeiss optics and had some really nice cameras – the RTS line and the G-series.
Minolta was the first to make an SLR model with what we now know as auto-focusing (the Maxxum 7000). They tried to get into digital but in the end got out of the camera business all together by selling the division to Sony. When Sony started taking over Minolta/Konica’s DSLR market, they pretty much just put the Sony name on old Minolta cameras. Sony has some of the most sophisticated ILC models out there. The NEX series was a huge success, plus they were great cameras using the APS-C sized sensor. The current models – a6000 and a7 – are serious cameras for serious photographers.
The first SLR I every used was a Pentax (Spotmatic 1000). Pentax went on to do some great cameras over the years – the K1000, MX, and LX. While they did make it through the autofocus era, they never really made an impact with their DSLR models. That is until Ricoh took over in late 2011. The Pentax K5 II, released mid-2013, had very high-end features. The two features that I loved were the more traditional SLR handling and the excellent weather seals. Pentax recently released a newer model, the K3, with the same handling plus a 24MP sensor without an anti-aliasing filter.
Olympus, as far as I can tell, is the same company and has been around for almost 100 years. Their first innovative camera was the well-regarded Pen half-frame 35mm. The Pen-F was a true SLR compact camera. Then in the early 70s, Olympus created a super-compact 35mm SLR – the OM-1. When the switch to digital came, Olympus was able to stay in business making excellent point and shoot models. They made some nice DSLRs, but they have really become the premier ILC maker. (ILC stands for Interchangeable Lens Compacts). They got together with Panasonic to create the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system. A new lens mount and smaller sensor format, compared to APS-C. Looking at the first Olympus Micro Four Thirds model you can’t help but compare it to the Pen-F. The latest model from Olympus, the OM-D E-M1 has the look of the old OM-series, but uses the MFT system. While still a MFT camera, the OM-D E-M1 is a pro-level system camera.
Later on, I will go into more depth on some of these new models. If you are looking to get seriously into photography and don't know which DSLR to choose, keep these other guys on your checklist. While some are considered mirrorless instead of true SLR, the handling is the same. They might even be better.
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