The Olympus Air A01 Review

Olympus Air A01 with Panasonic 14mm f2.5 lens

Olympus Air A01 with Panasonic 14mm f2.5 lens

There is no reason why the Olympus Air can’t make the same high quality photographs as any Olympus micro 4/3 camera. It uses the same sensor, image processor and lenses. What sets this camera apart, however, is its form factor. The size and shape of the camera changes the way you use it, which makes all the difference.

Universally, everyone who sees the camera is intrigued — photographers as well as the regular non-photographers. Many think it looks cute, cool or innovative. It’s the kind of device that attracts attention at gatherings and that’s where I think this camera is the most fun.

While the lens like cylindrical Olympus Air might look totally unique, it’s not. Sony created something like his a couple of years ago, the QX series, which they’ve updated again last year. Olympus has some advantages over the Sony design, which allows for both interchangeable lenses and a more compact size. I also prefer how, on the Air, smartphones are attached at an angle which works well for waist level shooting.

The Model Shoot - Austin, Texas

I have to admit, when I first received this demo unit from Olympus, I just stuffed it into my camera bag, almost like an accessory. I didn’t shoot with it extensively like the other more conventional Olympus cameras I got to test. It was mostly as a conversation piece to show fellow photographers and I shot it casually, mainly to demo its interesting form factor. But a funny thing happened when I looked at the results.

My casual free form shooting at odd angles produced images that looked different from my usual. Its playful nature encouraged me to experiment with the built-in filters, which I never used on my other Olympus cameras. In short, the Air liberated me from serious photography.

Form Factor

You can shoot the Air as designed, connected to a smartphone. That produces a somewhat more standard device, albeit one with a giant high quality LCD display. But I prefer an alternate, more freeform approach where I shoot with the Air held in one hand, and my phone in the other. The camera uses wireless bluetooth and WiFi so the Air and the phone do not physically need to be attached. With the two parts separated, I shoot differently. I’m less apt to shoot from waist level, rather the camera is used outstretched at the tip of my freely moving arm. The change in perspective can make for some interesting photos.

As you can see the camera is quite small. Smaller actually than the 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens. While you can attach any micro 4/3 lens, for hand-held use, I would suggest the small pancake lenses. Olympus sells the Air with the motorized pancake 14-42 EZ lens, which should work well. I used my small Panasonic 14mm f2.5 prime, which works great. My photos show the Air connected to my iPhone 5s, which is a small phone by today’s standards. Connected to the latest phones, the Air would look even smaller.

The Air has a tripod mount but I would hesitate attaching really large or heavy lenses. Conversely, an Air attached to the 40-150 f2.8 Pro lens could be interesting. This large lens has its own tripod connection and the Air could be an inexpensive remote camera controlled via WiFi.

Gladys in Red - Austin, Texas

Differences

With its compact size, there are bound to be differences from the standard Olympus 4/3 cameras. Some are minor like using a micro SD card instead of the standard SD variety. Unfortunately, the Air omits the in-camera image stabilization and the exceptionally good sonic wave filter that knocks the dust off the sensor.

The batteries are also built into the camera and can not be changed. The non-interchangeble batteries are a drag but probably acceptable for the target audience. If necessary, use a USB powered battery pack to recharge the Air while outside or just plug into any USB power adapter. The bigger issue is, unless Olympus comes up with a battery upgrade program, the camera will no longer work once the battery dies.

Guitar Closeup - Austin, Texas
Jamming at the Party - Austin, Texas

Olympus is criticized by some for having a complex menu system but on the Air, it’s entirely better. A well designed application simplifies the controls with separate but integrated applications that give P S A M controls as well as access to Art Filters. Most major features are supported, including RAW files but I did not see a way to take multiple bracketed exposures which I use for creating HDRs. A minor point, I’m sure, for most. Update: There is a separate 3rd party application for creating HDRs, see below under “Open Source”.

Setting up the Connection

The Air uses both a Bluetooth and WiFi connection. The wireless setup was easy, I just followed the on-screen guide on the Olympus smartphone app. On iPhones, download the OA.Central application from the Apple App Store. By the way, this is not the same app used for wireless connectivity on the other Olympus micro 4/3 cameras. Just search on the App Store for Olympus Air, which should be the easiest way.

Mailbox with Character - Austin, Texas
Rusted Facade - Austin, Texas

Once the app is downloaded and the initial configuration is completed, connecting to the Air is easy. The biggest thing to remember is, if your phone is already connected to a WiFi network, go into the Settings app and under Wi-Fi select the Air’s WiFi connection. Look for a network that starts with AIR-A01. At home, where I’m automatically connected to my WiFi hotspot, the process is cumbersome. It’s a series of steps I need to go through to get the camera working. Happily, when outside, with no recognizable WiFi networks around, connecting to the Air is a lot easier. I just start the OA.Central app on my iPhone, and it wakes up the AIR and auto connects to it. It’s a lot easier, through the process can take over 10 seconds.

Performance

The camera is not as fast as other standalone Olympus cameras. This is due to the fact that the smartphone is used as a “viewfinder” and there is a wireless connection between it and the camera. Panning around with the setup, you get a live update that keeps up very well. Focusing appears as fast as any Olympus camera. There’s a several second lag after taking a picture until you can take the next one. Under normal circumstances, the speed is adequate for most non-action photography. However, inexplicably, the camera becomes laggy at times. Screen updates may become jumpy and shooting speeds get slower. This usually clears up momentarily but is frustrating none the less.

Longhorn, Driskill Hotel - Austin, Texas
Bar, Driskill Hotel - Austin, Texas

All this means is that the Olympus Air is not the camera to use when you want to capture the “Decisive Moment”. Sports and fast action photography are not recommended. It should be adequate for taking casual snaps of friends at social gatherings. The unpredictable lag will make it less ideal for more serious social documentation. The Air will also work well as a small travel camera for documentation.

In the P S A M mode, which allows the most control of traditional camera settings, you can shoot up to 10 frames per second. I suppose if you were to lock focus or prefocus, you can shoot quite quickly and, if lucky, you may be able to time action sequences. The problem is, the WiFi lag which can crop up unexpectedly.

It is also possible to shoot the camera without a smartphone. There’s a shutter button on the camera which can be used both when connected to the smartphone or not connected. Of course, without the connected phone, there is no way to accurately frame your shot or be sure if the camera focused on your intended target.

Battery Life

I get about 300 shots per charge, which seems adequate for this kind of device. I shoot a lot slower with the Air than with my regular cameras, partially because it’s a casual social camera but also because the camera has a slower interface. You can easily extend the battery life by connecting the camera to an external USB battery charger, which is an advantage over the other Olympus cameras. You can also shoot the Air while connected to an external battery.

WiFi Range

I mentioned earlier that the Air can be used as a remote camera controlled via WiFi. I tested the WiFi range and got mixed results. In my house and in my yard, I got line of site WiFi control at 25 to 35 feet. The connection becomes slower and more laggy as I increase distance but the connection was reliable. Around corners the distance drops considerably to 10 feet plus, though amazingly I was once able to make a connection up the stairwell from the second floor. Line of site through glass, the range also dropped considerably. I had the Air on the patio and I was able to connect from inside the house but from only about 10 feet away.

A train to downtown - Austin, Texas
Fire truck, Congress Avenue - Austin, Texas

I got entirely different results once when I tested the Air’s range in a noisy and crowded bar. The connection became unreliable at less than 10 feet out. I’m wondering if the camera is susceptible to interference from other WiFi devices. I imagine in a crowded bar, there’s a lot of electronic chatter in addition to the normal people based chatter. So the bottom line is that your mileage will vary. There’s probably a lot of factors that affect WiFi range and my quick tests are far from scientific.

Image Quality

The image quality is fantastic and is one of the strengths of the camera. Using the same sensor and image processor as any modern micro 4/3 camera, the Air will best any smartphone or point and shoot camera or even premium compacts such as the Sony RX100 series. If you are happy with the Olympus 4/3 image quality, this camera will not disappoint.

Trophy Room Window, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

When combined with Art Filter effects, ISO 6400 looks fine. With the kit lens, you should be able to get decent images into the evening. There is no flash so it won’t work well for snapshots in the dark. I shot all of these photos with a Panasonic 14mm f2.5 lens, which is slightly brighter than the kit zoom. I was still able to get nice travel and people snapshots into the night. You can hover over the photographs with a mouse to see the camera settings.

Social Media

This connected camera is perfect for social media. The OA.Central app allows you to browse through the photos on the Air and selectively transfer them to your phone. With the Air’s filters, you already get that “Intagrammy” look without additional post processing. I shot all of these pictures with the Pin Hole and Diorama effects and are straight out of the camera — I did no additional post processing. I think it’s a fantastic camera for Instagram. It’s not as quick as shooting directly on the iPhone, however, you get superior quality and shallower depth of field.

Sunday Football, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Smart Car, Alone - Austin, Texas

The OA.Central app also integrates with Amazon’s Cloud Drive which works as a cloud based storage platform. As an Amazon Prime member, I get unlimited photo storage free which makes this combination with the Air, interesting. After experimenting, I discovered a useful though limited photo backup system. First, the images are saved on Amazon’s cloud at 2048×1536 pixels (3.1MP), which is considerably lower than the 4608 x 3456 (15.9MP) full resolution of the Air.

The decreased resolution was probably an app “feature” to get images up into the cloud at reasonable speeds — it’s not a limitation of the Amazon cloud. Second, it took a two step process to get the images to Amazon. I needed to transfer the images from the Air to the iPhone first, then transfer from the iPhone to Amazon. When I’m shooting with the Air, WiFi is set to the camera, so I needed to switch my WiFi connection to my home network before the phone could connect and send photos to Amazon. I also found preferences to do a full resolution upload to Amazon from the iPhone but the OA.Central only uploads at 3.1MP from the Air to the iPhone. It’s a nice low-res cloud based backup feature but not something that will eliminate the need for manual backups for manual downloading of full resolution pictures.

Open Source

Olympus has Open Sourced the Air’s hardware and software. Here is an interesting article on Imaging Resource that describes some Open Source hacks done with the Air. While I haven’t added any special hardware to the camera, I’ve played with third-party software.

HDR for Air

A free iPhone app that allows you to take multiple exposures for computer based HDR post processing, which is the way I create my HDRs. It also has a time laps option to take multiple HDR brackets over different intervals. I was pleased to find this application in the Apple App Store since the default OA.Central app didn’t have a HDR bracket option.

Air Recipe

A free iPhone and AppleWatch application. Allows you to shoot the Olympus Air from the Apple Watch. It’s a fun application but I prefer shooting the Air from the phone. A new version allows for shooting HDR brackets and has other “Recipes” for shooting waterfalls and the moon. While I downloaded this originally for the shoot from Apple Watch feature, the preset Recipes maybe useful for novice photographers.

The Guitarist, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Comparisons

Sony Alpha QX1

The closest competitor is the Sony’s QX1 which the interchangeable lens version of Sony’s QX line. Sony’s first two QX cameras had non-detachable zoom lenses with smaller sensors. The QX1 is similar to the Air but uses Sony’s E-Mount lenses and has a larger APS-C processor. I have not used this camera so I can’t give you a first hand account. I would expect the image quality to be superior given the larger sensor however, the camera and corresponding lenses will be a lot larger, which somewhat defeats the purpose of this kind of device. The list price is also $100 higher.

Other Olympus Micro 4/3 Cameras

While the Air’s form factor is very different, fundamentally, you are using a micro 4/3 camera and borrowing the LCD from your smartphone. The image quality and filter effects are the same. With the newer Olympus cameras, you can use WiFi to transfer images to your smartphone, so the social media/Instagram features are not unique to the Air. While you get a smaller package with the Air, the conventional Olympus cameras have the speed advantage with more dedicated and traditional camera controls.

Casual Smoker, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Fun with Pizza, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

My Likes

1. Unique and interesting form factor
2. A fun camera to bring to parties and to get attention
3. A less intimidating casual camera
4. Easy user interface
5. Compact and easily fits in a small bag or a large pocket
6. A large smartphone screen makes an excellent LCD viewfinder
7. High image quality, the same as any other Olympus micro 4/3 camera
8. 10 frames per second
9. Great lens selection
10. High quality construction
11. Open Source allows for 3rd party hardware and software

My Dislikes

1. Not as responsive as a standard micro 4/3 camera
2. Gets laggy at times, unpredictably
3. Takes over 10 seconds to connect and may require manual network setting changes
3. No in-body image stabilization
4. No sonic wave dust reduction system
5. The cylindrical shape makes it harder fit in a tight pocket
6. Battery not replaceable

Conclusion

The Air is the kind of device that got more interesting as I used it. It allowed me to shoot in a different style and, as a low-key casual device, my photographs tended to become more casual. I see this as a good thing since I have enough “serious” cameras. Any device that gets me to capture the world differently is a plus in my book. There’s a part of me that thinks and hopes that the Air would magically make me more creative.

The reality is that old habits die-hard. Sure the Air is fun and casual but it’s not what I pick up when I need to get the shot. My all in one, conventional Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II is that camera. It’s super fast and the dedicated controls ensure that I will capture that decisive moment. And the neat filter effects on the Air? I can get all that on my OM-D too and I can transfer the images to my smartphone too, if I wished.

Three on 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Waiting to be carded, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

But the OM-D is not a camera for everyone. It does a lot more but it’s more complicated and perhaps more intimidating. There is something fun about the Air that will appeal to the less serious photographer. That is who this camera is intended — I realize I’m not the target market — I am an outlier. Yet, the Open Source hackability of the camera appeals the techno-gadget part of me. And at $300 for just the body, it’s enticing.

For $500, you get the Air the 14-42 EZ kit lens — I think Olympus priced the device fairly. You can get a more conventional micro 4/3 camera for equal or less money, but the question is, are you a conventional person or someone who desires something unique?

A big thank you to Charles from Olympus who allowed me to use the Air for an extended period. It took a while for me to realize all the unique possibilities of this camera. Perhaps it took that long for me to retrain my brain from the conventional to the unique.

Pizzaria, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
Alamo, 6th Street - Austin, Texas
The New Paramount Blade - Austin, Texas

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9 thoughts on “The Olympus Air A01 Review

  1. I agree with all you’ve written here; the Air is a great addition to an overall micro four thirds bag–I carry mine with my EM5 II in a very small bag–and it’s great for shots where I want to take my time or mount it to a tripod. I’m hoping the firmware upgrade I just downloaded improves the shooting speed and stability. It’s fun but not quite up to being among my choices for the only grab and go take along shooter I’d select for a day of exploring.

  2. Nice writeup. This quirky gadget seems to have given you a fresh view of things. Whether by way of different angles or in-camera filters, these images have a fun and different take from your usual work with conventional cameras.

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