It’s that time again. I always pick a camera or cameras of the year. Last year it was the amazing Nikon D7000. The criteria is always the same…

The camera must have been released in the calendar year. It must be commercially available is the USA (as in anyone can actually buy one at a camera store now) by Thanksgiving. It must have one or more of the following features:

1. Great bang for the buck
2. Some new or innovative feature
3. Some paradigm shifting function
4. Amazing image quality
5. That special something extra
6. It must have wide application

While I don’t test every new camera that comes out, I do test most of the major cameras or at least get my hands on them. My pick is mine alone. It doesn’t mean that your camera is a poor choice for you just because I like this one. It’s merely an exercise that I undergo in the hope that my audience will find something they enjoy as much as I do.

The selection this year was helped by a lack of major new camera body announcements out of Japan. The earthquake, tsunami, floods and nuclear accidents in Japan and the subsequent flooding in Thailand have made this a tough year for camera makers. So the pick this year will have an asterisk by it. But it’s still a great camera either way.

This year I am selecting a camera that surprises even me. Olympus PEN E-P3 12.3 MP Live MOS Micro Four Thirds Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera. You might expect me to pick the new flagship Canon DSLR. Sorry, even if it were available in stores at the time of this writing, it’s too specialized and too expensive to be my camera of the year.

The Olympus is an odd pick because it’s a micro 4/3 camera. I admit that when this format was first announced I was extremely skeptical. I even thought it might be a gimmick. It turns out I was wrong. The history of this format is a bit interesting. It started with 4/3 camera systems. The idea was that a group of manufacturers would get together and agree upon a “standard.” That way accessories, lenses, etc., could be interchanged between brands with no penalty. In other words, you could do something crazy like buy an Olympus lens for a Panasonic camera. Several manufacturers initially signed on but then dropped out. Nikon for instance – famous for not playing well with others, never participated.

In the original 4/3 scheme, only Olympus, Panasonic and Leica participated. In 2008, Olympus and Panasonic created MTF (Micro Four Thirds.) This smaller, and lighter system has no mirror box and relies on electronic view finders or LCD screens to show photographers the picture they are taking. Olympus, Panasonic, Cosina (Voigtlander), Carl Zeiss AG, Jos. Schneider Optische Werke GmbH, Komamura Corporation and Sigma Corporation have a commitment to the Micro Four Thirds system, but Panasonic and Olympus are the two big players.

In my case, I have owned several of these micro 4/3 cameras including those made by both Panasonic and Olympus. I have liked all of them. But when I bought the E-P3, the game changed. This camera is better than either of the previous two versions, and better than any of the Panasonic models. Its announcement came along with news of two new lenses that really caught my eye.

The first was the Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f/2.0 Lens. This lens solved a big problem for photographers like me. It’s ultra, super sharp, fast and light weight and provides very wide-angle lens coverage with professional results. The second lens announcement was for a fast portrait lens. The Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f/1.8 Lens (EFL of 90mm on a Micro 4/3 camera) is also ultra, super sharp, fast and light weight. It’s effective focal length of 90mm provides perfect portraiture coverage and at f/1.8 is fast enough to provide that creamy background look you get out of DSLRs with fast 50mm lenses.

Combining access to two fast primes with a small, light weight, upgradable camera system makes this combo a winner. Olympus took an already good camera in its PEN line and made it even better. They innovated by offering photographers a choice of two kit lenses – a zoom and the 17mm pancake lens. I love it that they gave photographers a choice rather than shoving one lens down everyone’s throat. While neither the zoom or the 17mm are my favorite lenses (there’s nothing wrong with them, but they aren’t as fast or as sharp as the 45 and the 12) the body is the star here. It’s been a long time since I so quickly adapted to a camera body.

The camera body itself shines in several ways. It’s autofocus is literally state-of-the art. I use this camera weekly and it never fails to focus unless I put it in a situation that any camera would have trouble with, such as extremely backlit conditions with no contrasting edges.

I also love the accessory shoe which allows me to use what I consider to be the best EVF ever made or switch to a mic port so I can shoot video with pro-audio control. The interface is intuitive. The buttons are easy to find. The rear screen is big and sharp and bright. The camera just feels right in my hand and most importantly, the image quality from this camera is tremendous. Even the video is great.

When picking the camera of the year, one of my most reliable and at the same time subjective tests is a simple one. Do I like the camera enough to use it and use it often. When I thought about that – and all the cameras I use regularly, it was the Olympus that got the nod. Even though I have access to much more expensive, and some would argue higher quality cameras, like The Leica M9 and the Canon 1D MK IV or the Nikon D3s, I find myself grabbing the Olympus more often than not. I like it that much.

The images I’ve made with it – particularly the portraits using the 45mm f/1.8 lens have shocked me. They are as good as anything I could make with a high-end DSLR. I even made some killer images with it at Bosque del Apache. It won’t do for flight shots or anything far away, but for what I call birdscapes – i.e., landscape shots that also feature birds, it’s just as competent as any other camera.

While Olympus as a company is going through some significant challenges right now, their cameras are first rate regardless. I also want to point out that I never participated in any of the Olympus-sponsored camera giveaways that you might have heard about from other bloggers. I bought the E-P3 at full retail, using my own money. I was invited to participate in the giveaways, but passed because I didn’t think it would look right. I understand people’s concerns about these things. Olympus is not now, and never has been a sponsor of Photofocus or any other property in which I am involved.

Congrats to Olympus. Your E-P3 is the Photofocus Camera Of The Year.

P.S. The Olympus has a lot of curb appeal. While working at the IndyCar race in Las Vegas last month, veteran photographers were coming up to me to ask about the E-P3 which I had around my neck. They all thought it was cool. None of them even noticed a brand new major camera brand prototype I was also sporting out in the open. I couldn’t have answered any questions for them about that camera and can’t do that here either, but I sure found it amusing that they were so blinded by the Olympus around my neck that they didn’t even notice I was carrying “the next big thing” too.

This post sponsored by the Digital SLR Store

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