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Olympus and Leica Leap Into the Digital SLR Market



The battleground for the digital SLR camera market got a little wider recently as two more camera manufacturers joined the fray after announcing they will release new digital imaging systems aimed at the professional photographer.

In a heavily promoted press event in New York City on June 24th, Olympus America said it would be introducing what it calls "the world's first 100% all-digital interchangeable lens SLR system." The focal point of the new system is the E-1, a 5-megapixel SLR digital camera that will be available in October for $2,199.

The most innovative aspect of the new camera system though may not be the camera at all but rather the E-1's new Digital Specific Lenses. The interchangeable lenses, manufactured by Zuiko, are based on Olympus' much ballyhooed "Four Thirds" standard for digital SLR cameras. (Olympus' previous two higher-end digitals, the E-10 and the E-20n, featured permanently attached zoom lenses.)

"We believe that this new digital SLR system that has been designed from the ground up will dramatically change how professional photographers are able to perform their work and create art," said Mark Gumz, president and chief operating officer of Olympus America at a sweltering press conference at the Bryant Park Grill in Manhattan.

The Four Thirds System is an attempt to create an open standard for digital cameras and interchangeable lenses that use a 4/3 image sensor. While Kodak and Fuji have also reportedly signed on to the new system, Olympus is the first company to bring a camera to market using Four Thirds. The system, first announced at photokina 2002 and previewed at PMA 2003, would ostensibly create a common standard for image sensor sizes and lens mounts. According to Olympus, Four Thirds helps "achieve an optimal balance between image quality, camera size and system expandability."

A day after the Olympus event, Leica Camera AG announced during an online press conference webcast live from Germany that it will release a digital back for its R8 and R9 cameras by the end of 2004. The 10-megapixel back, known as the Leica Digital-Modul-R, would transform the R8 and R9 into "the world's first genuinely hybrid 35mm camera system that can be used in an analog or a digital mode, as necessitated by the task at hand," said Stefan Daniel, Leica's manager of the System's Business Unit.

"With Leica Digital-Modul-R we are empowering the photographer to make his own choice of analog or digital photography, whichever is best suited for the photographic task at hand," said Hanns-Peter Cohn, Leica's CEO. "And all this without the need for changing camera systems."

The new Modul, priced at 4,500 Euros (about $5,150), is being developed with Danish firm Imacon A/S and the Kodak Image Sensor Solutions division which is developing the 10-megapixel CCD sensor specifically for the back.

When asked during the web conference why Leica was announcing the Modul so far in advance of its release, Daniel said: "We wanted to give a clear signal to our Leica R owners that we're developing this, because many of them have been asking us, 'What are you doing in the digital field?'"

Compared to the reported 90,000 E-1's Olympus hopes to ship by the end of the fiscal year in March 2004, the Leica back is a drop in the bucket.

In touting the new E-1 system, Gumz of Olympus noted that the camera was "designed to meet the needs of the most demanding pros." In fact, according to John Knaur, Olympus' senior marketing manager, the camera was actually "developedwith extensive input from professional photographers at every step."

One of the pros who had a say in the development of the E-1 was New York-based photographer Douglas Dubler who was on hand at the press party where he was staging an informal fashion shoot using the new camera.

"This is a camera that wasn't made by engineers, it was made by professional photographers," Dubler told PTN. "Those lenses are amazing. They're sharper, faster and they focus closer than anything the rest of the market has to offer."

Dubler noted that he had "lots of input" during development of the camera and it shows in the end product. "I think this is a revolutionary product," he said. "The (Four Thirds) chip and the color management in the camera are really exceptional. The color gradations are really smooth which goes really well with the work I do."

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