Evolution may be driven by the simple imperative for survival, but it’s often a messy and chaotic process, full of off-shoots that lead nowhere and adaptations that fail. As a species, compact cameras are being pushed to evolve as smartphones threaten their survival. The Olympus Air is one such adaptation—a camera designed to leverage a smartphone’s connectivity, huge display and ease-of-use to deliver better-than-smartphone quality images.
The Air 01 features a Micro Four Thirds lens mount and 16-megapixel Live MOS sensor. There’s no rear display or viewfinder. Instead, you pair the Air to your mobile device using both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and control everything through the free OA Central app, which is available for both iOS and Android devices.
The camera can record both RAW and JPEG images to microSD cards with full manual control over exposure available through the app. There’s also a selection of art filters that can be previewed live on your display. You can record 1920x1080p30 videos with a maximum bit rate of 24Mbps. Everything is saved to a microSD card, though you do have the option to transfer stills to your mobile device as well. You can also quickly share files from the Air to friends, family and social networks using the app.
The barrel-shaped Air is essentially the circumference of a Micro Four Thirds (MFT) lens mount with a little back-end bulk to accommodate an image sensor and other electronics. Even with a 14-42mm f/3.5 lens attached, it’s super compact and portable. There are few exterior controls beyond a small power button and a large shutter button—all of the work of adjusting settings is done through the intuitive OA Central app.
The Air can physically attach to your smartphone using a plastic spring-loaded clamp. The hold is secure but not iron-clad and we were sure never to let either component dangle without a supporting hand. It was most comfortable to situate the Air off center on our iPhone 5s. However, with the Air attached to your phone, you won’t have as much room to frame difficult shots as the camera doesn’t sit at a neat right angle to your device. Tilt it too much and you’ll lose sight of your mobile display.
That’s still a better situation than shooting with the Air completely detached, which we found difficult. There’s a level gauge to help center the camera on both the vertical and horizontal axes, but holding the Air in one hand we found it nearly impossible to keep the camera level horizontally and difficult to properly frame a scene. Even after days shooting with the Air, we just couldn’t get comfortable with the experience.
However, the Air does have a tripod socket. Given its diminutive dimensions, it could be ideal to mount as a secondary camera in place of a GoPro or action cam—provided you’re not putting it in harm’s way. For all its compactness, the Air isn’t weatherproof. However, when we screwed in our quick release plate and placed the Air on our tripod we found that the lens’ zoom ring rubbed against the tripod. It wasn’t enough friction to actually stop the camera from zooming, but definitely enough to make us leery about zooming again. We don’t know if this will impact other tripods or other lens combinations, but we suspect it might.
With its larger sensor and Olympus image processing under the hood, the Air’s solid image quality wasn’t surprising. It outperformed any smartphone we’ve ever shot with, even if that is not necessarily high praise. We enjoyed consistent color reproduction and fairly good performance up to ISO 800, but then noticed a small color shift in red while shooting JPEGs at ISO 1250 and above.
Video recorded with the Air also showed accurate colors and fairly consistent exposure. The Air’s HD video has more dynamic range and more sharpness than our iPhone 5s. It would occasionally hunt for focus in low light and lower contrast situations but nothing egregious. That said, full HD at 30p isn’t necessarily a marquee spec these days, especially now that several smartphones record in 4K. Plus, you have very little control over exposure while shooting video. You can change the white balance setting but can’t manually focus the lens or change shutter speed and aperture during recording. With the iPhone 5s and above shooting high-frame-rate video and with apps like Filmic Pro able to unlock manual control over exposure settings, the Air is actually less capable as a video camera than many leading smartphones. Go figure.
We’ve had plenty of experience with finicky camera-to-mobile connections but the Air was fairly consistent, pairing quickly to our iPhone almost every time we powered it on. There were times though when the connection dropped on us and the app froze, or couldn’t pair at all despite multiple attempts. Considering that this connection is required for an optimal experience, even occasional drops were cause for frustration and missed shots. Plus, the startup and pairing process takes several seconds. This isn’t a camera you can quickly whip out to capture a fleeting moment.
The Air has a purely electronic shutter and is capable of a brisk 10 fps continuous mode when focus is fixed in the first frame. You’ll get to 23 JPEG frames before buffering kicks in and slows things down. You can focus manually or use your smart device’s display for touch focusing, which was very responsive.
Images do transfer quickly to your phone, but live view during video tends to lag a bit. It’s a similar story in playback—image browsing is unsurprisingly faster than video, which often buffered. Battery life comes in at a meager 320 shots per CIPA standards. The battery is built-in and is rechargeable via USB, so the Air will be out of commission once the battery dies.
It’s difficult to believe that the Air is the future of the compact camera, let alone smartphone photography. Yes, it takes a better picture than a smartphone and yes, it works with a wide array of quality lenses. But it does so at the cost of convenience and portability, two factors that have arguably given smartphones the leg up among casual snap shooters.
But the Air holds promise outside of Olympus’s intended audience. Its compact form factor and image quality make it very attractive for mounting as a secondary camera during a shoot or using as a POV camera where you would otherwise use a GoPro—provided the Air is not being put in harm’s way. Products like Blackmagic Design’s Micro Cinema Camera and the Kickstarter-funded E1 camera have proven that there’s an appetite for small form factor, MFT mount cameras. Olympus merely needs to retool the app and controls a bit to enable manual exposure settings during video, add a flat profile, weather seal the body and improve the tripod mount and it has a very attractive alternative to an action cam.
PROS: Small, lightweight design ideal for POV or mounted use; good image quality for the price; excellent app.
CONS: Awkward to shoot with; meager battery life; tripod mounting interferes with zoom; limited control over video exposure.
Related: Camera Review: Fujifilm X-T10