The Olympus Air AO1 - Refreshingly NON retro - Review and Opinion.

Some of you might have been surprised to see this previous article my Olympus m.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 fitted to an Olympus Air AO1. But it works great. Below are some images taken earlier this year that combination.

Now I'm always banging on about how the retro thing is past it's best and Sooooo... old-fashioned (Sorry!!) but that criticism can't be levelled at the Olympus Air A01. Is it a camera? is it a smartphone accessory? Well, it's both. Well actually it's a a camera you control from a smartphone and it's the Air that takes and saves the image. And it's the same 16MP sensor in all those fine Olympus cameras like the OM-D II and E-M1, so amazingly good image quality then. And at last, it's possible to use a large, high quality view screen with a m4/3 camera (assuming your phone or tablet has one). 

Now I've got some posts on the Air via THIS LINK and it's a versatile little thing. For me made all the more attractive by it's pared down menu. Much easier and more fun to use than my OM-D II for example, I'm very impressed with it. I pair it with an Apple iPod touch, which is even smaller and lighter and the wi-fi network they create seems very reliable and robust (which makes a change!) It takes a few seconds to set up and once that's achieved the AF is positive and relatively quick. I also like the square and circle in the frame on my phone screen which I can move around to adjust the focus point and exposure value respectively. Simple, visual, accurate and VERY useful. 

Here's what it can with video, using a Panasonic 100-300mm zoom.

So who is it for? I've asked that question before and I'm still no nearer to a definitive answer. However, it seems to me that photographers with a smartphone are more likely to think it useful rather than smartphone owners who take pictures. Because it is a genuinely great little camera. A m4/3 camera, no less. Bigger than the 1'' sensor, which Panasonic flag up as the advantage of their CM1 phone. Sure it's more fiddly to use and in time we may well see a smartphone with a bigger sensor and a small zoom lens, but currently this is about as small as it's possible to go to keep that smartphone type 'feel.' Though to be honest, it doesn't really feel like that to me. However it does achieve the anonymity that smartphones have and when I use it, it attracts no attention.

I think it's a great idea, but then I'm often attracted by 'oddball' cameras, so whether it takes off who can say. Certainly, Olympus do it no favours by only releasing it in certain countries. As documented in the above links, I bought mine from the US and then had some difficulty in downloading the app. There seems to be no information that it's ever going to officially be available for sale here in the UK. Which is strange, since the US (where it has been released) doesn't seem that taken with the whole mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L concept. Sony have had a couple of goes at this, but I think the Olympus Air, with the possibility of using some of smaller examples of the m4/3 lens range stands more chance of selling than the e-mount restricted Sony. 

And I have to say that one of the reasons I like it so much is that it is very modern. It isn't like anything thats been around before, apart from the Sony's. And it works in a completely different way to a 'conventional' camera. With the ability to quickly move smaller sized versions of the cameras files to the controlling phone and then email or social media them, it is almost as simple as using just a phone and the fact that the two are usually slotted together makes this less of a pain than using a separate stand alone camera plus a phone to post to facebook etc.. Because even though that is actually what it is, two separate devices, in practice it doesn't feel like that. 

However one of it's great virtues is that you can split the controlling phone and use the combination to get some odd angles or even shoot backwards or sideways. It also has benefits obviously, for remote shooting. Hopefully, since Olympus have declared it open for app. developers we might get some interesting options, however, I haven't seen anything other than the original Olympus app. so maybe there's not a lot of enthusiasm to develop anything for this unless it starts to sell in greater quantities.

So whether or not the Air is a success, or whether it passes into history as an interesting experiment is still open to question. Currently it's my back up m4/3 camera for my Panasonic GX8 and something that I take out from time to time to play around with. Now whether or not Olympus will ever release a 4K 20MP versions who knows, but I bet a lot of videographers would like that. Imagine it controlled with the iPad Pro, with it's 12.9-inch, 2732x2048 resolution display. That would offer fantastic quality monitoring in a VERY portable package. Plus the ability to fit any number of 3rd. party lenses and place the Air at the heart of a video production rig, could make it a very attractive proposition. And the following is an example of what the Olympus Air AO1 offers for that. 

I decided to shoot some stills and video using the Olympus with a couple of 3rd. party adapted lenses. Now unfortunately, it's not possible to use my Metabones 0.64x speed booster, as the mount to lens distance just isn't deep enough. And to make any future model useful in this regard that would have to be addressed. So, at the moment this is going to be restricted to a passive adapter and lenses using the 2x crop factor, which results in more telephoto type lens captured footage. The footage below was shot with a Voigtlander 58mm f/1.4 and Samyang 85mm f/1.4.


 

CONS

  • Can't change battery
  • Access to SD card difficult
  • Only available in a few countries
  • No 4K video
  • Problems with battery life of phone or tablet
  • it's a bit slow - AF etc.
  • No IBIS - though how that could be implemented who knows
  • The holder for a smartphone doesn't cover all models
  • Vertical shooting difficult. The Air is set up for horizontal shooting
  • Can't use Metabones Speed booster

So what do we have from all this?

PROS

  • Light
  • Small
  • Cheap
  • Simple
  • Access to m4/3 lens range
  • Can use adapted lenses
  • Decent wi-fi connection and operating software
  • Remote operation via phone or tablet possible
  • Remote operation possible from some distance as well - I used it at 100'
  • Well-made

 


THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSION

As I've stated often before, I like the Air. It's easy to shoot with, it takes great pictures and it's fun to use. It's also a modern take on the camera and provides some kind of halfway house between smartphones and mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L cameras. If you like the 'smartphone aesthetic' in terms of cameras then it will give you better image quality than any camera phone on the market. But then of course, it isn't a phone. All that phone does is control the thing.

If you are heavily into photography that requires remote control, then this is VERY useful. And it is quite impressive how far away it works. I put the camera at one end of my house upstairs and went to the other end of the house downstairs with my smartphone and it still fired the shutter, though at that distance, just under 100 feet, there was a distinct delay. But for uses like wildlife / hide photography and video and for various social and commercial applications such as weddings and industrial photography and video it could work very well, unless you really do want the 'decisive moment.' Plus I guess there are some interesting surveillance options available for private detectives as well!!!

But all through this articles, my other articles on it and the video on YouTube, I constantly question who would buy it? And to be honest you really have to have a reason to use it. It isn't as convenient as either a smartphone or a stand alone camera and you are dependant on two pieces of gear functioning properly and having enough battery life to do what you want. It isn't instant either. There is some delay even when the camera and smartphone are right next to each other. But there are lots of uses when it would be just the thing. If I was still shooting video for weddings, I would have a few of these (they are cheap) and monitor the footage on phones or tablets. And in many situations like that, where you want to take photographs or shoot video and stay out of the way, then it would be very useful. Again, as stated before unless you want to get stills that are instant. And for that 4K with the ability to grab decent size stills from the footage would be very welcome.

There are in fact many commercial jobs, weddings, shows, educational events that I have shot in the past where I would really have liked to use the Air. The ability to see what I'm shooting from a distance would have been very beneficial. But all of this has to be tempered with the fact that it is pretty much an 'amateur' 'enthusiast' tool. Personally I think it would be more useful if there was a bigger version with better battery life, a more modular design and therefore something that could be used professionally. Now that would take it away from what it is currently, a 'smartphone add-on' and it would become a different product entirely. But that is maybe it's future.

Having seen a recent survey that indicated Smartphone owners have the image quality of their cameras at a pretty low priority (24th. or something like that in terms of what makes them choose a particular model) I can't see that iPhone and Galaxy users will be rushing out to buy one. m4/3 owners might see it as a cheap fun backup camera, assuming they own a smartphone and there are some others who see it's particular virtues as an advantage to what they shoot. But I suspect that Olympus (nor Sony with their version) see it as a long term money spinner. Which of course makes me wonder why it was released. And of course not released for most of the world. 

Interesting? - Yes, Fun? - Certainly, Useful? - under certain circumstances, Set to become the 'next big thing?' - I suspect not. It certainly offers up some very different possibilities for pictures and video, but if you are considering one, then I would suggest that you are very sure that you want one and it will work for you. Plus of course if you are planning to import one, then do make sure you can get your hands on the app. since the Air is pretty useless without it.