May 31, 2013
I confess; I’m a recent convert to the micro four-thirds (m4/3) system. I received the Olympus OM-D EM-5 as a Christmas present, and I’ve built a serious collection of lenses since then. My appreciation of the benefits of the m4/3 platform continues to grow. Originally, I was going to write one post about why I think the m4/3 system is the future of the camera industry, but I realized that a single article would be too long in a blog format. Consequently, this is the first installment of a series about the importance of the m4/3 system to the camera industry.
How did I end up with an OM-D after shooting Nikon DSLRs and film SLRs for years? In short, Nikon forced me into it. I have a 7-year old Nikon D200 — an APS-C DSLR (Nikon refers to the APS-C format as DX). I skipped the Nikon D300 and have been waiting for a D400 for a couple of years now. Unlike many, I don’t really want a full-frame DSLR. I like to shoot wildlife and the 1.5 DX crop factor is a plus for me. Also, I have several good DX lenses that wouldn’t be terribly useful on a full frame camera. I’d have to buy expensive replacements for my 12-24 and 17-55 lenses. Finally, I like to hike and travel. The D200 with several high-quality lenses is heavy and big. Full frame would move me in the wrong direction. I wanted something smaller and lighter–at least no larger than DX. With Nikon’s ambivalence to the DX format demonstrated by the lack of a D400, I started looking around. If I was going to change platforms and invest in new lenses, I was open to all comers.
Enter the OM-D. It’s small, capable and full featured. I use it for almost everything now (birds in flight is a notable exception). The image quality (IQ) is great and the high ISO performance is better than my old D200. I’m not arguing that the IQ is better than a full-frame camera. I’m arguing that it is adequate for most purposes. If you are willing to pay any price and bear any burden to achieve the ultimate IQ, stop reading. I’m never going to convince you that m43 is in your future.
The New Generation of Camera Users
I’m also not arguing that the change to smaller formats will happen overnight. We have been through the acceptance process of new platforms before. Think of the move to 35-mm formats by photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson. Before HCB’s generation, “serious” photographers used large view cameras. Some might still argue that serious photographers use large and medium format cameras, but sales of those systems won’t sustain a mainstream industry.
A key factor that will drive the success of smaller formats like m4/3 is the experiences of the Millennial generation. Millennials have little or no experience with film. I experienced this firsthand a few years ago when I tried to explain film to my then 12 year old daughter. We were in a beautiful photography gallery in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The landscape photographer used a large view camera and made huge prints that were on display and beautifully lit. He also had the original 8×10 transparencies on a light table for customers to view. I realized that my daughter had never seen slide film, so I tried to explain the process to her. It went something like this: “You mean you can’t see the picture until you put the film in the chemicals? How do you know you got it right? How do you get it on your computer?” In retrospect, the conversation was natural, but I found it quite amazing at the time.
The Millennial progression to serious photography is likely follow a path up from cell phone cameras. If you are over 40, your progression probably started with a hand-me-down 35-mm SLR. Millennials have no holdover affinity for the 35-mm format. They will be looking for smaller form factors and mirrorless cameras are probably all they have ever known.
I’m not the first to argue that mirrorless cameras are the wave of the future. For example, Kirk Tuck has a post that argues that mirrorless is the future and optical viewfinders will disappear in a few years. I agree, but I think this is only half the story. Mirrorless is a cornerstone technology, but there is more to it than that.
I saw a recent post by a photographer stating that he bought a Sony NEX camera until Canon or Nikon made a full-frame mirrorless model. I shake my head when I read something like this. Moving to mirrorless primarily shrinks the camera body. It does little for the lenses, and probably nothing for the lenses by legacy makers like Canon and Nikon. A full-frame mirrorless camera will have little appeal for the mass market.
Yes, the m4/3 cameras are smaller because of the mirrorless system, but the real advantage comes from the smaller sensor size. The lenses and accessories are smaller (and less expensive). The picture at left shows a comparison between some typical f/2.8 zooms in both systems.
The real advantage of the m4/3 comes when you combine the mirrorless system with the smaller sensor size. Either alone is not sufficient. The first 4/3 cameras produced by Olympus had mirrors and small sensors. While the system had its fans, it never achieved widespread success. The lenses were extremely high quality, but not much smaller than traditional lenses from Canon and Nikon. Everything about the m4/3 system is smaller–cameras, lenses, and accessories. Some might argue that APS-C mirrorless cameras like the Fuji X-Pro series will hit the sweet spot for most consumers. While the X-Pro looks like a nice camera, the lens line-up is limited at this point. As lenses are added to the system, it will become more apparent that the APS-C sensor requires lenses that rival traditional DSLR lenses in size and weight. In the end, m4/3 is the sweet spot for size and quality tradeoffs that will satisfy a large part of the market.
After shooting with my OM-D for about six months, I have become accustomed to its size. When I use my D200 now, it seems huge. When I go to meetups and see people with full frame cameras and lenses, I can’t imagine lugging that equipment around all day. Micro Four Thirds cameras are already good enough for most purposes, and they will get dramatically better in the near future. The grass is perfectly green on my side of the m4/3 fence.
Next in this series: Switching Costs
Amazon links for m 4/3 Equipment mentioned in this article: