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[I]Olympus has found a new source of sensor for the OM-D E-M5[/I]

As I revealed on the forum earlier in this week after a tip-off from a highly trusted contact in the camera industry based in Japan, I am completely convinced that the Olympus OM-D E-M5 sensor is not made by Panasonic, so marking an end to the exclusive use of Panasonic sensors in Olympus Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds cameras since Olympus' last Kodak sensor camera, the E-400 in 2006. To emphasise how much I trust this source, until I heard from him I was totally convinced that the E-M5 sensor was related closely to the Panasonic sensors used in the Lumix GX1 and G3 camera models.

Of course I can't prove anything so you will either believe me or not. Sooner or later there should be firm proof once we get testers like the guys at DxOMark to work their magic and we can compare back to back results between the E-M5 and the GX1 and G3. To my mind, wit [URL="http://fourthirds-user.com/2012/02/image_samples_from_a_preproduction_olympus_omd_em5.php"]the E-M5 sample images I have published[/URL] the extreme high ISO performance of the sample E-M5 camera I used last week was better than with the GX1 or G3, although I did not have the chance to compare these directly with the E-M5. As many of you have seen, I was able to do a simple low light [URL="http://fourthirds-user.com/2012/02/high_iso_comparison_between_the_olympus_pen_ep3_and_omd_em5.php"]back to back comparison with an Olympus Pen E-P3[/URL] and the results easily confirmed that the high ISO performance of the E-M5 is a big step up from the current range of Pens. Both cameras share the same TruePic VI image processor so the differences must primarily be down to the sensor.

There has been a huge debate concerning where Olympus sources its sensors from, but does it actually matter - as long as Olympus is able to source the best sensor available? I actually think Olympus' relationship with Panasonic has been crucial since 2006 when the Olympus E-330 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 Four Thirds DSLRs were introduced with the first Panasonic made LiveMOS sensor. Incidentally, LiveMOS is an Olympus trademark. That first 7.5MP LiveMOS sensor was already a big improvement over the Kodak 8MP E-500 sensor, but it's true to say that Sony (and by implication, Nikon) and Canon have managed to maintain an unassailable sensor technology lead.

I first saw the 12MP LiveMOS sensor that is still used in the latest Pens and Panasonic's Lumix GF3, in a prototype Lumix G1 when I visited Panasonic's Fukushima and Yamagata factories in the early summer of 2008, several months before this original Micro Four Thirds camera was launched at Photokina. So I was surprised and disappointed that Olympus was still using basically the same sensor, then 3-years old, in the new Pens launched last summer. Panasonic had already moved to a 16MP sensor in the G3 (and a different 16MP sensor in the GH2) which, despite the more packed pixels, exhibited improved dynamic range and high ISO noise characteristics. Why had Olympus not opted for this new 16MP LiveMOS sensor? It's more than likely that cost was a consideration. I certainly don't believe that Olympus was somehow barred from using the 16MP sensor by Panasonic. The Panasonic semiconductor division that makes sensors is independent of the Lumix camera business and would be just as keen, and free, to sell sensors to anybody else, like Olympus, regardless of the camera division's wishes.

Olympus has always endured an Achilles Heel in sensors for the E-System and, to an extent with the Micro Four Thirds as well. Excellent image quality, thanks to Olympus deep understanding of digital image processing and superb Zuiko optics has meant that its Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds cameras have never been wanting for image quality. But it's fair to say that Olympus photographers have had to work harder to get the best results where high ISOs are required, especially compared to the best of the rest. I don't expect the E-M5 to be a Nikon D4 beater, but I'm optimistic that high ISO noise will no longer be a bugbear for the E-M5.

So who does make the E-M5's LiveMOS sensor? I don't know - and I don't honestly care that much. What does matter is that Olympus now appears to be able to source a very good sensor from an independent manufacturer and this can only be excellent news for Olympus. I think it's great news for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds in general as the sensor has always been the weakest component of all. If the E-M5 sensor proves to be significantly better than the sensors used in the Lumix GX1 and G3 that will give Panasonic more incentive to improve their sensors, and so on.

It's not a revolution for Olympus to source a new sensor supplier. Nikon doesn't publicly admit that its sensors, although 'designed' by them are actually made by Sony, but we all know that is the case for its DSLR range and has been for a long time. But for the new Nikon 1 compact system camera Nikon almost went out of its way to let us know that sensor used in these cameras was not made by Sony. Pentax used to rely on Samsung sensors for its DSLRs and that allegiance has switched to Sony.

In the end as long as Olympus is free to find and use the best available sensor, I'll be the first to applaud!