The Olympus Air AO1 - who is it for?

I'm going to put together a video on the Olympus Air AO1, but I’m putting that back for a while since I’m still discovering all sorts of things I can do with it. And I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that it’s not what I thought it would be. I imagine I’m not alone in thinking that because of the attachment to a smartphone and the size and weight, that it might be perceived as some kind of shoot and run, ‘street photography,’ social media servicing type device with the benefit of a larger sensor and better lenses. But I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not that at all, but something quite different. The perception of it probaby concentrates on the smartphone element. But it doesn’t work like a smartphone in any way and in fact all the smartphone and the app. are doing is providing a way to access the camera.

So what do I think it is? And who do I think it’s for? 

Well, I think it works best (and in fact in certain circumstances works better than my OM-D EM-5 II) as a camera for creating high quality images with a high degree of control under circumstances where some time is available. To get the best from it, I’ve slowed down how I work and am taking some care over exposure, focus and composition. I think it is a superb camera for landscape and location work, plus it would work well as a studio camera and for architecture. Even though it offers less options that other Olympus and m4/3 cameras, there a few interesting options that give it a unique place in the camera marketplace. 

As you can see from the images above, I’ve been using it with some manual focus lenses. The one pictured above is my Voigtlander 58mm f/1.4. Now the Air won’t work with my Metabones 0.64x Nikon > m4/3 Speed Booster as that won’t fit the lens mount, it's too deep. However, with a ‘passive’ Nikon > m4/3 adapter it works very well indeed. For focusing the smartphone + app has a touch screen magnification button and I can choose between x2 and x3. This is much easier to use than on ‘real’ Olympus cameras. No focus peaking, but with the magnification and the large screen image on my iPod touch that isn’t necessary. It also has a superb function where I can move a green circle around the screen as a spot metering feature to get the exposure I want. I can also use the touchscreen to get the exact point of focus. Also as you can see on the images above I can also use it on a tripod as there is a self timer option, usefully with more subdivisions than normal. I.e. 2,4,6,8,10 seconds.

The end result of all this is that using my Voigtlander 58mm on the Air, I got some perfectly exposed (for what I wanted) and incredibly sharp images. And think of the possibilities of this. Using the Air instead of a ‘normal’ camera, walking around shooting travel or landscape pictures suddenly gets more ‘back friendly.’ And depending on what you choose to monitor the camera with, all of a sudden you have a much better indication of what the final image will look like. My iPod Touch has a much better screen than on my Olympus OM-D EM-5 II and of course it’s perfectly possible to use an iPad separated from the camera to have a huge image to monitor with and also create totally vibration free images. I would also mention that some of the raw files I’m producing from the air have some moire. Now you may think it strange that I actually get quite excited when I see that. Because it means that the likelihood is that there is probably no AA filter and also that there also isn’t a lot of applied noise reduction lurking away in the files. Selective moire removal is easy to achieve, so I don’t have a problem with that and certainly I’m very impressed by the sharpness of the Air files.

So, even though I bought the Air as an addition to the smartphone side of my camera collection, in fact I don’t think it belongs there at all. I think it’s much suited to the kind of work I would use my Leicas for. And it occurred to me that that the Air may well be what the Sigma DP Quattro cameras should be. The idea of a Foveon sensor in a smartphone controlled package the size of the Air, with interchangeable lenses would certainly get my credit card twitchy! And I suspect for lots of others as well. However, that fantasy camera doesn’t exist and the Olympus Air does. So consequently I’ve ordered an Olympus 45mm f1.8 to use as a pair with my Panasonic 15mm f1.7. Small, light, sharp lenses on a small light camera with a high quality sensor. What's not to like?

Here are some samples with 100% blowups to show what the Air / Voigtlander combination is capable of.

So, as happens so often, I think something will work in one way and it ends up working well in another. And finally I would suggest that if the Air is of interest to you, it may well help to think of it as a serious camera, rather than some kind of smartphone accessory. Certainly that's the mistake I made and I’m happy to say that my preconceptions have been proved to be misguided. Happy because I’m getting a lot more than I thought I was. And the Panasonic GX8 has, somewhat surprisingly, just got some serious competition for the Soundimageplus camera of the year. And who would have thought that?