A mighty lump of a camera: The new Olympus digital SLR might look like this mock-up-or it might not, says Olympus.

Ever since the mid-1930s, when Exakta decided to go it alone with its own bayonet lensmount, we have suffered the proliferation of many noncompatible 35mm camera lensmount systems. Nikon, Canon, Minolta, Leica, Olympus, Mamiya, Contax, Miranda, and Petri are only a few of past and present SLR makers who have made it impossible for consumers to join lens A with body B. There may be some truth in the accusation by photographers that this Tower of Babel in lensmounts has been encouraged by each company’s bean counters to make certain that once you decide on a camera and lens system, you are darn well going to have to stick with it. But many camera and lens designers insist that they have evolved their respective lensmounts to be more capable and convenient than those on other brands.

Digital SLRs with interchangeable lenses have compounded the problem. Because so many digital SLRs use smaller-than-24x36mm sensors, you must, in effect, multiply the marked focal length of the lens by a specific value to calculate the 35mm-equivalent focal length. For instance, a 28-105mm zoom becomes a 39.2-147mm zoom if the multiplier is 1.4, or 47.6-178.5mm if the multiplier is 1.7-all because we are basing digital SLRs on 35mm camera bodies and lenses which actually cover greater areas than needed for cameras with smaller sensors.

Because of this multiplication factor, ultra-wide-angle lenses are only available on digital SLR cameras using big (and expensive) full-sized 24x36mm sensors. With a sensor requiring a 1.5 multiplication factor, you need a super-big and expensive 14mm lens to reach the 35mm equivalent of 21mm.

Olympus is proposing we ditch the whole business and initiate an entirely new digital SLR system. Based on a 4/3-inch (diagonal) sensor size, and lenses covering just that size sensor, digital cameras would be smaller and lighter. But Olympus is going far further by proposing that the 4/3-size sensor be made a standard for future digital SLRs built by other companies, along with a common lensmount, back focus, and the same lens-to-camera-body electronic interface. Thus lenses and cameras made by all manufacturers would be readily interchangeable and all lens’ focal lengths would be as marked.

Further, Olympus is suggesting an industry-wide Universal Digital Interchangeable Lens System Forum to promote the acceptance of the “4/3 Standard” by other camera manufacturers. Olympus announced that Kodak has already climbed on board as a partner by agreeing to implement the system, and that Fuji has also agreed to participate.

Olympus points out a distinct optical advantage that the smaller-diameter lens system and smaller-diameter sensors would have optically over the larger-diameter 35mm lens system. Olympus explained that light rays striking a digital image sensor at angles of much less than 90 degrees may not be captured by CCDs with sensors having tiny micro lenses at the front, thus causing poor imaging performance. This particularly affects image corners when using wide angle at wide apertures. Other camera and lensmakers, however, say that this effect is less when 35mm system lenses are used with smaller-than-35mm sensors, and that some of the new full-frame 24x36mm sensors, notably the CMOS type, can virtually eliminate the problem.

Sigma’s 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 EXOS is the first image-stabilization lens by an independent lens manufacturer.

This isn’t the only optical battle shaping up among lens makers. Many lensmakers are now claiming their lenses are specially computed for use on digital cameras. A lot have digital-capable identification markings (Olympus has Di on such lenses, and Sigma’s are marked “DG”). Other manufacturers say that special digital-capable lenses aren’t needed at all. Film-capable lenses will do just fine, thank you.

But we haven’t yet finished with Olympus’s proposal for a digital camera standard. Other camera makers might readily accept using a common sensor size, back-focus distance, and lensmount. But they may have grave reservations about a standardized interface between camera bodies and lenses. Wouldn’t this mean that designers would be prevented from adding their own unique operating systems and software, thus differentiating one camera and lens system from another? Why buy one brand of camera or lens over another? It should be an interesting Forum if it ever gets off the ground.

But without other lensmakers adopting the new lensmount and electronics, Olympus might find itself with an insufficient variety of lenses for its SLRs. And it is doubtful if independent lensmakers would produce lenses for one unique camera maker’s lensmount. Would Olympus go ahead with plans for their interchangeable lens digital SLR based on the 4/3 system if no one else does?

What will Olympus’s camera look like? Top secret! In my October column I showed a drawing of what it might look like, floating amorphously, in a fortune teller’s crystal ball. Now we have something better than that. Well, maybe. Stating that it was just a mockup and probably bearing no resemblance to the real thing, Olympus unveiled what appeared to be a wooden block, not too cleverly disguised as a camera-and a big camera at that. It remained out of reach in an inviolable display case in the Olympus booth at Photokina.

What do you think about Olympus’s proposed 4/3 lens standard? And why designate it by an improper fraction? Discuss at > Forums > Respond to Pop Photo.

More lenses than we expected
Also on display at Photokina (turn to page 34 for our full show report) was a plethora of lenses. Why were so many new 35mm camera lenses introduced at Photokina? All the better to serve digital as well as 35mm SLRs. Not so, however, with the 90mm f/2 ASPH Leica APO Summicron R, which won’t fit on any digital camera we know of. Contax showed a newly designed 85mm f/1.4 Planar T and 400mm f/4 Carl Zeiss Tele-Apotessar T for the Contax N. Tamron had five new lenses: a 17-35mm f/2.8-4 AF Di, a 28-75mm f/2.8 XR Di Macro focusing to 13 inches (a hair less than 1:4), a 70-200mm f/2.8 Di with a unique Filter Effect Control that allows polarizing filters to be rotated easily without removing an attached lenshood, a 180mm f/3.5 SP AF Di, remarkably focusing to 1:1, and a 200-500mm f/5-6.3 SP AF Di also with Filter Effect Control, but as an accessory (the “Di” stands for “digital”). Tokina’s new lens is a 28-70mm f/2.8 AF AT-X PRO SV.

An indie stabilization lens!
Certainly the highlight of the Sigma lens collection was the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 EX OS. “OS” stands for Optical Stabilizer, Sigma being the only lensmaker, aside from Canon and Nikon, to offer this feature. Mode 1 handles camera shake in vertical and horizontal panning. Mode 2 detects vertical camera shake of the camera itself, such as when you are standing on a shaky support. Both 1.4X and 2X converters can be added to the lens. Sigma showed a 28-70mm f/2.8-4, a 300-800mm f/5.6 EX IF HSM, and a 120-300mm f/2.8 APO EX IF HSM lens.

Tamron’s 19-35mm f/3.5-4.5.

Elicar had 600-1200mm and 800-1600mm f/10-20 manual-focus lenses, the former close focusing to 1:3 and the latter to 1:4. Cosina showed a remarkable collection of lenses. For Nikon-mount rangefinders there was a 28mm f/3.5 Voigtländer SC-Skopar, a 50mm f/2.5 SC-Skopar, and an 85mm f/3.5 S-Apo-Lanthar. A chart indicated which ones would also be usable (within the depth of field) with Contax rangefinder cameras, and at what distances and apertures. A 35mm f/1.2 Aspherical Nokton for Voigtländer M mount made its appearance, as well as a 180mm f/4 APO-Lanthar SL lens, the latter focusing to 1:4 in a wide variety of SLR mounts.

There was activity, too, in medium format. Besides the new Fujinon lenses listed in our report on the Hasselblad H-1, Contax had a 45-90mm f/4.5 Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T for the Contax 645 and, stuck away in a corner of a show-case and missing from any press release, a 45mm f/3.5 Technoplan-T3 shift/tilt lens inscribed “Limited Edition for the Contax 645AF.” No Zeiss name on this one. Mamiya unveiled an amazingly wide 26mm f/4.5 lens for their 645 camera and an ultrawide 43mm f/4.5L lens for the RZ67.