A Weekend with the Olympus Air A01

11Share

The usual cameras that come through the B&H offices are what you would expect: DSLRs, long zoom point-and-shoots, mirrorless, etc... But every once in a while a company will come by with something completely different. The Olympus Air A01 is one of these cameras and, luckily, after spending a weekend with it I found there was a lot to enjoy about its unique lens-style design, once you get past the initial setup and controls, that is.

Lens-style cameras are fairly new developments in the industry, and are designed to appeal to a general population that is migrating to their smartphones instead of purchasing dedicated cameras. Their appeal comes not just from how the quality compares to the camera on your phone, but in how they work directly with your phone to capture images using a companion app. But, it is worth mentioning that the 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds image sensor it manages to pack into the compact body and the fact that it can utilize any lens in the MFT system give the Air A01 a leap in image quality that leaves my iPhone 5s in a pile of pixel dust.

So, first things first. I downloaded the Olympus OA.Central app from the App Store and attempted to pair the two devices. This was honestly the most confusing part for me, as the device requires you to use both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Luckily, the app starts up with a walk-through to help you. Frankly, I was stumped trying to figure out how to set it up until I downloaded the app and had access to the step-by-step guide. One thing to note is that you won't be able to connect while your phone or smart device is connected to another Wi-Fi network. This manages to work against the sharing capabilities of this type of device, since not being connected to my Wi-Fi network means that I have to disconnect or turn off my camera, make sure I’m connected to my network, and then go through the images for upload. Now that I was finished with setup, for the most part, I was ready to step out the door. And this time it would be my go-to camera during the Fourth of July weekend.

Perhaps the least thought about, but most important part of this system, is the smartphone mount. I was very impressed, as Olympus's version is superb. It can be set to one of two sizes, large and small, and has a very secure, yet gentle clamp that gives you confidence when shooting without worrying about it damaging your phone. After attaching the Air to your phone, the system really does feel like you are holding something like a camera. One nice, though sometimes annoying, part of the design is the fact that it holds the phone at about a 45 degree angle, meaning that shooting from the waist or up high is easy, though it does so at the expense of your usual eye-level shooting experience.

Moving on to the actual camera, it has very few controls: a large shutter button, a small power button, and a Bluetooth switch. Simplicity is the key here, and with such a small body there isn't really much room for anything else. The large size and position of the shutter release is well thought out. There are few positions where hitting that button won't feel comfortable. Also, having the ability to swap lenses is nice, but I found that after I put on the 17mm f/1.8 lens, which is equivalent to 34mm, I didn't want to carry around other lenses during my outings. I do prefer the 35mm field of view, so that was definitely an influence on my decision, but part of the appeal of the smartphone is the size—carrying around extra lenses doesn’t really seem to make sense to me. I feel that most users will tend to agree and choose a lens for their specific adventure instead of dragging extra lenses with them. Once you add more to your kit, a full-size stand-alone camera makes more and more sense.

Once I was all set up, integration with the smartphone app was impressive. It was fast and responsive; taps on the screen were met with quick focusing that was also incredibly accurate. This was really satisfying, and I found that focusing is definitely where the Air shines over its smartphone rivals. Photos of my kitten were no longer relegated to when she was sleeping. When I was walking about the city, spontaneous shots were worth taking, instead of the blurry mess you usually end up with when pursuing fast-moving subjects.


   
 

This leads to what the real benefit is of buying a stand-alone camera today: image quality. The 16-megapixel CMOS sensor offers two huge advantages compared to my phone—it has twice the resolution and a significantly larger sensor size. This means that not only will I get a boost in detail; the quality of the pixels will be greater, too, with less noise at higher sensitivities. Also, raw file formats cannot be understated. A blown sky usually can have some information recovered using basic sliders in your raw conversion software, such as Adobe Camera Raw, which I used.

Sensitivities were excellent, compared to a smartphone at least, with ISOs usable up to at least 3200, though I’m sure for your standard Facebook post higher ISOs will be no issue. These were shots that would just not come out when I shot with my iPhone 5s. I generally just don’t even bother taking the phone out once it gets too dark. Editing a JPEG from any camera is also very limiting. If you get the white balance wrong, which unfortunately I must admit the Air did struggle with in low light, adjusting a JPEG can result in unnatural color shifts that look worse than just being way off in one direction. I was very happy with what I could do with the raw files from the Air.

If I spent more time posting photos on social media, I could easily see myself picking up a connected camera like this one, specifically for the huge jump in quality. Also, since it is a larger sensor, shallow depth of field is much easier to achieve, especially when using large-aperture lenses. On the other hand, as I am used to shooting with full-frame mirrorless cameras and DSLRs, while the jump from a smartphone is notable, the Micro Four Thirds sensor still lacks when compared to the much larger sensors found in these cameras. This sensor did benefit from the additional control presented by the smartphone connectivity and app.



 

The OA.Central app offers more features and control than most people will probably need, which is good, as everyone should be able to find something that works for them. I personally stuck to the standard Mode Dial setting, since I simply wanted to use it as a regular camera, adjusting settings as necessary. The Art Filter mode is useful, giving users many more options for the final “look” of their image, but I couldn’t help but feel that if I were going to use filters I would rely on the numerous apps that I already use. The same applies to the Genius mode, which automatically creates six newly filtered versions of your original image. Photo Story is a dynamic way to lay out a bunch of your photos into one image, and Color Creator offers a great deal of control if you want to dial-in a specific look. And finally, the Clips mode is handy for working with a series of videos, but I did not have much time to delve into that feature for this review.

While I maneuvered the settings, one very cool thing I discovered was the ability to set up the Air for stand-alone shooting. I could dial in the mode and even the ISO to maintain control over that, or just leave it in Auto. This mode I found to be the most fun. It doesn't look like a camera, feels good in one hand with a large shutter-release button, and is quick to record your images. It is also dead quiet, with a 1/1600-second silent shutter. Walking around New York, I was able to take photos discreetly of anything that caught my eye as I passed. And if I really wanted, I could pop it into continuous shooting mode and shoot at an insanely fast 10 fps, thanks to the TruePic VII processor.



 

One issue I did notice occurred in stand-alone mode—the camera has difficulty, sometimes, in deciding what to focus on, choosing the background over obvious subject matter numerous times. Also, the round form factor can make it difficult to frame shots with a level horizon intuitively, though this improved with practice. I ended up just shooting more frames to make sure there would be at least one keeper.

Along with this, when Bluetooth is turned on, you will be able to remotely turn on and access the camera from your smartphone. I did this constantly. After shooting, when I boarded the train home, I dropped the Air in my pocket, pulled out my phone, and starting browsing through my camera roll. I saved a couple to my phone for future upload and some quick edits later on, using some of my favorite apps.



 

While I focused mainly on photo features during my short time with the Air, I should mention its video capabilities. It is capable of full HD 1920 x 1080p video recording at 30 fps with a H.264 compression. This renders great-quality video without taking up too much space. This, along with stand-alone and raw shooting, requires the use of a microSD card in the camera to save the file. This is a minor factor, and is important, since it will provide a high-quality backup when shooting to your phone.

The internal battery is both an asset and a liability, though, with a rating of 320 shots on a single charge. You can’t just swap it out if you run low on juice during the day, and it only charges via a micro-USB port hidden under both the smartphone clip and a back cap. Also, using the app and your phone's Bluetooth and Wi-Fi will drain your phone’s battery much faster; meaning a whole day of shooting and texting is unlikely without some backup juice. And, it will look odd to people who see you shooting, so expect some weird looks or questions (one person I talked to thought it was a speaker). But, if you don't mind these small shortcomings, the Olympus Air A01 can take your smartphone photography to places it could not go on its own.



 

To be completely honest, I wasn’t expecting much from this tiny device. But, once I got over my initial apprehension and really leveraged some of the major assets of the Air, I grew to like it. Granted, as I still feel infinitely more comfortable with a "real" camera, even if it is just a point-and-shoot, it would be hard to convince me that some sort of phone/camera hybrid will be my best option. But, for those looking for cutting-edge devices, or who really want to add some better images to their thriving social media accounts, they will find much to love about the Olympus Air A01. The pairing with the app is superb and really makes it completely worth trying if you are looking to improve your smartphone’s capabilities, especially since many will find their smartphone’s interface to be much more intuitive than the menu systems on many entry-level cameras.

11 Comments

This is a great review.  Can you tell me how you got the camera to work in silent mode?  Right now, mine beeps on focus lock and shutter release, and for the life of me I can't find the setting to adjust that in the app.

Found it!  Not in the camera menu, but in the "camera settings" menu, under general.

Glad you found it! The silent nature of the camera is one of the biggest selling points in my opinion.

Nice info. A few better photos to provide context, and views of the camera seperate from the phone to give the reader an idea of what the device looks like. I came away feeling lik ei dont understand how it all fits...I could not tell from your 2 photos, nor the photos on the product page,how it is attached to the phone, or how you would "..shoot uncoupled.." as the product page descibes. 

Thanks.

A compelling tool, but without a removable battery its usefulness is severely limited. I wouldn't trust taking it out for the day as my only camera, so I'll pass for now. If Olympus changes the design to allow for this, it will be added to my bag. One important feature you didn't mention in your article is the open architecture concept. Hopefully this will spawn all sorts of interesting accessories.

You can buy a huge power back, one that'll keep both the Air and the iPhone alive all day and all night, for $15-20.

how much does it cost?

It looks like an intersting device but it's not unique: Sony has had a similar thing out for a few years.  The latest iteration has their 1" sensor, which is surprisingly good. This system does seem to take the concept a step further.

Going to a large sensor defeats the purpose of a compact easy to carry devise. The larger the sensor, the larger and heavier the lens!

The 4/3 sensor is a reasonable compromise. The Panasonic 20 mm F1.7  pancake lens is small and weigh just a little over 3 oz. I think that would be a great combination.

Close

Close

Close