In the early 1990s, I wrote a major feature for the now-defunct American Camera & Darkroom magazine about Canon EOS. The article was called "The EOS Revolution" and is now collected in my book Lenses and the Light-Tight Box. Canon cooperated extensively with the writing of the article, by sending me a huge trunk filled with virtually every piece of equipment that existed in the EOS system at the time, and setting up a number of interviews with Canon people around the U.S. The article was published to acclaim, and was reprinted by Canon for some time as a free handout (something I never charged them for, I might add, fearing it might create a conflict of interest).
Not long thereafter, Canon introduced three coupled tilt-shift lenses for the EOS system, a 24mm, a 45mm, and a 90mm. I didn't really know at the time what a 90mm tilt-shift was useful for (tabletop product photography, mainly.) Since I knew a number of Canon employees by that time, I called one of them and asked what I thought was the obvious question: Why those focal lengths—and why three tilt-shifts?
I was told that Canon expected to lose money at least on the 90mm, and that probably all three lenses would never earn back their development cost.
What? So why make them at all?
Because, I was told, the availability of the three tilt-shifts would serve as an enticement for pros thinking of switching systems from Canon's main competitor. The company would never make any money on those specific products, but it would make money from all the other products those "switchers" would buy after they switched.
Oh. Sounded reasonable.
Just a couple of weeks after that, I was chatting with a professional studio photographer, and he mentioned that he had just bought all three Canon tilt-shift lenses, even though he had never shot Canon before. Oh, and he'd also bought two EOS-1 bodies. And was thinking about switching whole-hog.
Chalk one up to Canon's market savvy.
That wasn't all, either. In the years that followed, I naturally paid particular attention whenever I found people who had either switched systems because of the tilt-shifts, or simply bought the tilt-shifts and a body or two to use in specialized situations where they were needed. Once, I ran into an even more fascinating phenomenon: a photographer who had switched to Canon because of the tilt-shift lenses, but who hadn't actually bought any of the tilt-shift lenses!
What was that about? "I just like to know they're there," he told me, "so I can buy them if I want to."
It's not that unreasonable. Haven't you ever bought into a system because you coveted something really cool that you couldn't actually afford? Bought a lesser model because of your admiration for a greater one? Planned future purchases that you never, in fact, made?
Cut to now
Cut to now. I have to be very careful here, because if I go into my standard "If only Oly made a compact 20mm ƒ/2" refrain again, I'll have some readers setting themselves aflame. But the fact is, Olympus doesn't make a single compact normal-wide lens. As I said in the comments yesterday, I was happiest as an amateur/artist photographer when I "wore" my camera around like a clothing accessory. (I think it was David Vestal who said he put his camera on in the morning and took it off at night before bed, just like his shirt. You can see one of the cameras I used to "wear" all day on the cover of that book. And you probably can't see the company name on the camera, but it's pertinent.) And it's just not comfortable doing that with great big zooms, although I don't mind big and/or heavy lenses at all when I'm doing a job or any other kind of "dedicated" shooting.
This lens—and don't laugh, it's pretty good—is the closest thing Olympus makes to what I need. Would I buy a $1700 high-tech body and put a cheap kit lens on it? Well, maybe I would. Maybe I'd buy a Canon 40D and put this lens on it, too. Seriously, I would. I've never cared about appearances. I will say wish I didn't have to buy a new DSLR soon, but my old one is acting like Nietzsche at the sanitarium.
In feeble attempts to quiet my incessant whining, people say, "but what about the Leica/Panasonic 25mm ƒ/1.4?" First of all, there's no "wide" in that normal, and secondly, it misses the important "compact" adjective by a country mile. That lens is heavier than all but one of the big zooms I'd want it to replace! Not that it's not a very nice lens, in all probability. I imagine it is.
Other feeble attempts to get me to shut up include suggesting OM lenses. As in, manual-focus lenses with manual stopdown. Really? You're going to buy a $1700 high-tech body and use an old, uncoupled lens with an adapter? Well, okay, go nuts. You know what I always say—whatever's fun is fun.
I suppose it's no more crazy than using a kit lens on a top-end camera body.
All I can say is that if Olympus had one nice, smallish moderate-wide prime I'd feel a lot better about getting into the system. I've been saying that since the E-1 came out. I still mean it.
I know a fair percentage of you don't care about all this. That's cool. If you do like only zooms, then you're really in luck with the E-3. Can you possibly do any better than the 35–100mm [70–200mm-e] ƒ/2 and the upcoming 14–35mm [28-70mm-e] ƒ/2 pairing? I'll tell you one thing, when the new camera with its better sensor comes out, we're all going to find out a lot more about how fine Olympus's Zuiko Digital lenses really are. Optically, they're like the little mouse conking the big bad cat on the head with a mallet.
Oly just has to master the fine art of the come-hither system accessory, that's all—the honey-trap products, the loss-leader enticements into the system. Canon had that trick down at least by the early '90s. And for good reason. It works.