Complete and utter Olympus failure on the other side of the world

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It sucks not to have a working camera. It sucks even more if you are trying to earn money with your camera. More still if you suddenly find yourself without a camera while traveling in a remote area far from home.

Yup. My recently repaired Olympus OMD Em-1 died (completely and utterly) while traveling in New Zealand.

And, in case you are wondering, New Zealand doesn’t have a lot of camera shops. Nor are cameras cheap down there.

The back story

You may remember that my $1000 less-than-two-year-old Olympus OMD EM-1 was in for repairs in September because the back dial wasn’t engaging anymore. (I was quickly losing the ability to adjust key settings.)

Three weeks and $240 later, I took it out to New York for a week. It worked ok – the rear dial worked, but then I realized the front dial was also not engaging all the time either. And there seemed to be a new issue, where it almost felt like there was a little power blip every once in a while.

But it was hard to tell if there was really something else going on or if I was just imagining it because I was paranoid about something else going wrong. (Friends with the same camera recently had various problems with their OMD EM-1s too.) Based on the previous repair, I knew the dial would take a while to stop functioning.  So I kept using it and eventually got most of the 89 separate settings on the camera back the way I want them.

I figured I should be good for year at least.

I was confident enough that I bought another expensive lens for it.

I’m tired of spending money on equipment

What I didn’t buy – and should have – was a replacement camera.

Not that I didn’t think about it.

I came really close to purchasing the new model of my current camera, the OMD EM-1 mark II. This camera has rave reviews online. (Of course, so did the piece of crap EM-1.) I even did some research to see if I could find references to problems with it, but came up empty handed. So maybe it really is a better camera. Maybe.

If nothing else, it is really expensive. And, honestly, the ONLY reason I wanted one was because I didn’t trust the Olympus camera I already had!

That seemed like a dumb reason to buy a camera that sells for twice what I paid for my full-frame Nikon.

The Nikon D610 should have been my backup, but. . .

I thought about bringing my Nikon to New Zealand as a backup.

I used the Nikon out west while the Olympus was in for repairs, so had re-familiarized myself with it. I even had it cleaned. (The Nikon 610 is the dirtiest camera I’ve ever owned. It sucks dust onto the sensor and holds it there. The guy that cleaned it for me out west confirmed that this is true even before I asked, which was actually nice to hear, since the guys at National Camera tell me I’m imagining it.) I was even happy with MOST of the pictures I took with it.

Yellowstone National Park - Cindy Carlsson

But the D610 and its lenses are big and heavy compared to the Olympus. It takes a lot of space just to haul all that gear around.

And it’s a camera I’ve never loved. (I started with a D600, which I did love – until it started spurting oil all over and was replaced by the 610.) The 610 is supposed to be all but the same camera as the 600, but somehow I never seemed to get as good results with it. And now I’ve gotten used to having a histogram visible while I’m shooting, which makes it hard to go back to checking it on the back of the DSLR after taking a shot. It’s hard to give that up, even for the 610’s big beautiful sensor.

I haven’t kept up with my lenses either. The stabilization burned out in my favorite go-to lens (purchased used) years ago and National Camera didn’t think it was worth fixing, so I haven’t. And I’ve never owned a good long lens because they are so heavy and expensive. (And the cheap long lens I use with the Olympus is small, light, and produces great images, so I didn’t need a Nikon one anymore.) The trip out west convinced me I’d need to fix and/or buy some lenses if I was going to take the Nikon to New Zealand as my primary camera. So that option also involved chipping out some serious cash.

My husband’s camera could be a backup, but. . .

Over the years I’ve tried to convince my spouse to give up his cheap Nikon for one of my cameras, particularly my D50, which is a slightly better camera than his, but with a lot more control.

He hasn’t been interested. He knows and likes the camera he has.

For this trip, I tried to convince him that we could bring my Nikon ultra-wide angle lens (a lens I love) to use on his camera. That would give me enough of a system I could get by at least for a while if something happened to my Olympus. (His long lens isn’t great, but it’s ok.) He would have done it if I had really pushed it, but he’s happy with the lens he has and didn’t want to mess around with another one.

Sudden death

In the end, I decided to just bring the Olympus.

After all, it had JUST been repaired and it wasn’t like I was going to be on safari in Africa. New Zealand would have camera shops if I needed something.

And things started off well.

The front dial was still a little loose, but not horribly so, and the other, unidentifiable weirdness disappeared. I actually quit worrying about the camera failing and focused on getting my settings back where I wanted them so I could just enjoy shooting again.

Gannet Beach Adventures at Cape Kidnappers - Cindy Carlsson

(Gannet Beach Adventures uses vintage Minneapolis Moline tractors to haul tourists down the beach to the gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers.)

Halfway through our trip (in a fairly remote part of New Zealand), I was shooting a meadow with some prehistoric-looking birds in it.

New Zealand - Cindy Carlsson

(Ok, there were cows too, but it was the birds that most interested me.)

New Zealand - Cindy Carlsson

Suddenly the viewfinder started flashing white. It felt like the whole camera was shorting out.

I immediately turned it off in hopes of limiting the damage from whatever was happening.

When I turned it back on, it was still doing it, so I turned it off again and waited longer.

And then when I turned it on again, it was dead.

Totally dead.

As in no response at all.

My first reaction was worry that it had damaged my card, thereby wrecking an early morning shoot in that I was particularly happy with. (I later determined that it had not damaged the card, but, of course, those shots weren’t as good as I had hoped anyway.)

rain forest at Fox Glacier - Cindy Carlsson

That was followed by the realization that that this was clearly a catastrophic failure (no temporary fix was going to get it working again) and we were at least a day’s drive (in the wrong direction) from a town of any size.


It’s too much money, but what other option is there?

At this point we still have several trip highlights ahead of us. Two of those, cruises on Doubtful and Milford Sounds, were fast approaching. Besides those reservations, we had most of the rest of the lodging for the trip booked. It wasn’t like I could just head up to Auckland to do some camera shopping.

What to do?

Of course, I actually have a smart phone these days. (That’s a new thing for me.) And it has a camera, so that was one option.  But it isn’t a great camera, so it wasn’t much of an option.

I could steal my husband’s camera, but that would leave him without one. And his camera has a pretty limited range of settings. Nor does it have either a very wide or very long lens. (Remember, he didn’t bring my wide angle). We could get by with it for a day or two, but we were on an expensive trip far from home. We both should have cameras.

I contacted Olympus Australia. They were super helpful and offered to set up a repair appointment as soon as I could get to Christchurch. Unfortunately, Christchurch was at least a day’s drive in the wrong direction.

I looked online, but the best I could do was have something delivered to my hotel the day after our Doubtful and Milford cruises. And it wouldn’t be cheap.

Figuring there had to be a way to find a replacement, any replacement that was compatible with my lenses, I started checking camera stores on the south end of the island. There wasn’t anything in Wanaka, but there was a full-service camera store in Queenstown. We’d be passing through there in a couple of days (luckily on Saturday, since most stores close on Sunday in NZ). I sent them a note, but figured we’d stop in and check even if I didn’t hear from them.

If that didn’t pan out, I was out of luck for the rest of the trip. Even if I could get my camera repaired in Christchurch, that would be almost the end of our time in New Zealand.

An expensive replacement

To be compatible with my lenses, I needed any one of a number of Olympus 4/3rds cameras.

The camera shop in Queensland had one Olympus 4/3ds camera. (I mean one camera, not one type of camera.)

Of course they wanted a fortune for it, even though it isn’t nearly as good a camera as the dead one I already had.

But what were my options? The OMD EM10 II is smaller than my EM 1, but my lenses would work (I double-checked in the store) and it has most of the same features. It’s smaller than my EM-1, making it a good street photography camera; so I might actually use it again someday.

I didn’t even bargain (we were on kind of a tight schedule) and paid more than we should have even for New Zealand – and a LOT more than we would have in the USA. And I’ll still need to upgrade to a better (more expensive) camera at some point.

But it gave me suitable (if smaller) pictures for the rest of the trip, including in Doubtful and Milford sounds.

Doubtful Sound New Zealand - Cindy Carlsson

(Doubtful Sound)

Milford Sound New Zealand - Cindy Carlsson

(Milford Sound)

Besides taking my lenses, it also has most of the same programming I like, including a composite mode that makes it easy to shoot star trails.

Star trails on the Banks Peninsula - Cindy Carlsson

And I know that I can get by with it if needed, so it will travel with me as a back-up for the next time my EM-1 dies.

The Olympus OMD EM-1 goes in for “normal repairs”

Back home I filled out the online form, packed up the dead OMD EM-1, and shipped it off to Olympus via express mail.

Three weeks and another $200 later it came back with a “normal repair” of the shutter, along with a tightened on/off switch. They were supposed to tighten the front knob too, but apparently they redid the back knob again instead. Sigh.

A complete meltdown of the electrical system is a “normal repair” for Olympus?

Back to normal for now

I’ve been using the repaired OMD EM-1 again. However, the new EM-10 is also traveling with me. It’s tucked into the bottom of my bag. Just in case.

I’m still trying to get all the settings on the OMD EM-1 back where I want them, but at least the camera seems to be working.

For now, anyway.

Clearly this camera is going to cost me a few hundred bucks every year or two just to keep it working. I’d almost be ok with that if there was some warning before a catastrophic failure hit . . .  and if I still loved the camera.

But love requires trust, and I don’t trust Olympus anymore.

I still love the images I get out of the EM-1 – the software, lenses, even that tiny sensor are all pretty amazing. But I don’t have any love at all for the package it comes in or for Olympus as a company. The camera body is a poorly designed piece of crap and Olympus doesn’t care.

The sad thing is that I’m probably going to spend a small fortune (money I do not have) on another Olympus (the newer version of my OMD EM 1) in order to keep using those wonderful lenses. I already spent a fortune switching from Nikon to Olympus. I just can’t do that again to go to Sony. Especially since Sony was what I wanted in the first place, before I let other people convince me that the Olympus OMD EM-1 would be a much better choice . . . .

So, if you are looking for a mirrorless camera, avoid Olympus. Any Olympus camera.

Even if the cameras weren’t so poorly made, Olympus doesn’t back their products or care about their customers, and no one should do business with a company like that.