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Could Olympus’ new patented focusing tech end the DSLR vs. mirrorless debate?

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Yulia Zhukova
A patent made public Friday suggests Olympus is working on an autofocus system that could solve an issue that is keeping many photographers from swapping their DSLR for a mirrorless camera. According to the patent, restructuring the focusing system of the lens could put the focus speeds for a contrast detection system on par with those of a phase detection option.

Because mirrorless cameras don’t have that mirror, most rely on a contrast detection autofocus system, while DSLRs use a quicker phase detection method. While some mirrorless cameras such as the Sony A7II have managed to include phase detection autofocus, the technology, while faster, creates the need for larger, pricier lenses. While speeds have improved, autofocus is one of the sticking points for those who favor DSLRs in the mirrorless vs. DSLR debate.

Based on the patent, the potential Olympus lenses are unique in the way that they focus with fewer, simpler parts. Essentially, the lenses use the lightweight contrast detection system, but with the speed of a phase detection focus, merging the best features of both types. A single camera lens is actually made up of several lenses working together to shape the light and focus the subject. While lenses often include several pieces of glass used just to focus, the patent from Olympus uses a single focusing element.

Along with allowing the lenses to lose some weight, the system could help improve autofocus speeds. Current contrast detection lens parts have to move farther than those inside of a DSLR lens with phase detection. But, by creating a focusing unit that doesn’t require as much movement to focus, the lens could improve autofocus speeds.

The patent details six different prime lenses, all with a bright f/1.4 maximum aperture, covering the following focal lengths: 17mm, 28mm, 35mm, and 50mm. The patent also details two different 25mm lenses, both with the same aperture, but with one measuring about three inches and the other five. With lengths ranging from 2.75 inches to about five inches, the lenses are relatively compact, but not as short as some “pancake” lenses on the market.

While the focus of the patent is new focusing technology, some have interpreted the diagrams and descriptions as a set of full frame lenses. Sony is currently the only manufacturer with a full frame mirrorless system, so if Olympus is working on full frame lenses, they’ve either got a full frame camera body up their sleeves or they’re developing lenses to use on non-Olympus bodies.

Patented technology doesn’t always come to the market, but if the fast focus described comes through, the gap between mirrorless cameras and DSLRs could shrink even further.

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