Should Olympus Go Full Frame? No!

Olympus 12-40 f/2.8

Olympus 12-40 f/2.8

September 13, 2013

The crowds are lining up for the newly announced E-M1. Immediately after the announcement the camera vaulted to the Number 1 Best Seller ranking in compact system cameras on Amazon, and Amazon issued a high demand warning indicating the company may have difficulty meeting demand when the camera becomes available in October. Early reviews of the new 12-40 f/2.8 lens are also very promising.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m excited about the new camera. The E-M5 is so good that it would take significant improvements for me to feel the need for the E-M1. In that regard, I think Olympus has hit it out of the park. The main limitation for me of the E-M5 is it’s continuous autofocusing ability. According to reports emerging over the last few days, the C-AF on the E-M1 is very good. It won’t beat a state-of-the-art DSLR from Nikon or Canon, but it seems like it will be adequate for my purposes.

So now that Olympus has delivered another outstanding mirrorless camera, what next? The talk of the mirrorless world is that Sony will launch a full-frame mirrorless camera in the near future.  This has led some to speculate that Olympus needs to develop a full-frame mirrorless camera. I hope that Olympus is not that foolish. Olympus needs to double-down on the micro four-thirds format and fill out the holes in the system as quickly as possible. As I’ve argued before (Part 1, Part 2), the size, weight, and, yes, DOF advantages of the smaller sensor make the M43 ecosystem a powerful force in the industry. Investing scarce resources in full-frame development efforts would be a mistake for two reasons.

First, Olympus has little to add to the market with a full-frame mirrorless camera. Who would buy it? The switching costs for photographers are prohibitive. Nikon and Canon already hold over 70% market share in the DSLR industry. The target market is highly invested in glass and other accessories from Nikon and Canon. For example, if I wanted a full-frame camera right now, I’d just buy it. I already have most of the glass I would need to fill out the system (Nikon 17-35, 70-200, 200-400, 300 f/4, and several primes). Why would I invest in a completely new system just to get a mirrorless camera that may be marginally smaller, but doesn’t have quite the autofocus performance of a DSLR? It just doesn’t make sense. Sony may have the deep corporate resources necessary to play the long game and create an upgrade path for APS-C NEX users, but I don’t see Olympus or Panasonic having that luxury.

Second, moving to full-frame cameras negates the advantages of the the M43 system. As I’ve mentioned before, while waiting for the illusory Nikon D400, I considered a full-frame camera. I rejected it because I was tired of carrying the load of large DSLR cameras. The performance of M43 is excellent and I gladly accept the tradeoffs inherent in the smaller sensors. Given what I read and what I hear from my readers, most people that have moved to the M43 system are happy with the tradeoffs. Most M43 users are not sitting around waiting for a full-frame mirrorless camera. The E-M1 seems like it will give us almost everything we want in a camera. There are some improvements we’d love to see, but a larger sensor is not one of them.

Next: What We Need Next from Olympus