What We Need Next from Olympus and Panasonic – A System – Part 1

September 18, 2013

Now that the E-M1 and GX7 are official and have been warmly received by reviewers (if not actually available), what do we need next from Olympus and Panasonic? We need the MFT system to expand rapidly and capture new users into the MFT universe. New adopters will improve the economies of scale for the companies in the consortium and provide a wider range of accessories for users.

The Micro Four-Thirds manufacturers have produced some marvelous cameras over the past two years: the E-M5, GH3, GX7 among others. Technology is improving rapidly in so many areas (sensor, EVFs, processing, etc.) that the tradeoffs inherent in a smaller sensor camera are now minuscule for most users.

Although some may disagree, I sense that the tide is turning for smaller sensor mirrorless cameras. Their acceptance among pros is increasing (e.g. see the recent conversion of Trey Ratcliff), and more enthusiasts are embracing the advantages of smaller, lighter cameras. As I’ve mentioned previously in many posts, the switching costs of changing camera brands is prohibitive for most users. This means that if the technology has indeed reached a tipping point and consumers are willing to consider changing from Canon and Nikon, manufacturers have a rare opportunity to lock-in a new group of consumers for many years. Currently, photographers switching to smaller format cameras have a plethora of choice: Sony, FujiFilm, Micro Four-Thirds, and others. Some might say that Canon and Nikon have a natural advantage if they move into mirrorless in a big way. While brand loyalty may help, consumers moving to smaller sensor cameras will need new lenses and accessories to maximize the utility of the format, even if they stick with the Big 2. The playing field has been substantially leveled. What will make the difference for many users? A system.

Fortunately, the Micro Four-Thirds (MFT) format is one of the most mature small-sensor mirrorless systems. MFT has the largest number of lenses available, full featured flash capabilities, and many differentiated camera models. You want continuous autofocus? Got it (E-M1). You want great video? Got it (GH3). You want small form factor? Got it. Nevertheless, there are a few holes in the system that need to be addressed. Moreover, these holes need to be addressed quickly before a competitor fills them and locks in consumers with proprietary lens mounts like Canon and Nikon have done for years.

So what do we need in the MFT system?

1) High Quality Telephoto Zooms

Lenses above 150mm are the weakest link in the MFT system (and other mirrorless competitors as well). Olympus and Panasonic both make 300mm zooms (Oly 75-300, Panasonic 100-300), but these lenses are fairly slow (especially the Oly 75-300) and not regarded as optically outstanding. Until recently, this was not much of a hinderance for the system. Zooms with 150mm+ focal lengths are primarily used for areas that require continuous autofocus (sports, wildlife, etc.). Since none of the MFT cameras had particularly good continuous autofocus systems, this area was not a high priority. The E-M1 is about to change that.

Olympus announced a 40-150/f2.8 zoom with the E-M1 that sounds promising, but it won’t be available until late 2014.  Oly has vaguely promised a 150mm+ zoom in its lens roadmap, but there are no details available. Interestingly, the 40-150mm zoom has probably killed the market for the 150mm/f2.8 fixed focal length lens that Panasonic announced earlier in the year.

The MFT system needs high quality zooms that are 300mm and beyond. The manufacturers should focus on lenses in the f4-f/5.6 range, since these will keep the size, weight, and cost in proportion to the rest of the system. What I would like to see is a 100-400 f/4-5.6 lens comparable to the Nikon 80-400 or Canon 100-400 lenses. These lenses are large, but not overwhelming. If they can be done for full-frame cameras, they could be designed for the MFT system. A 100-400 f/4-5.6 MFT lens would be a bit smaller than the Canon/Nikon lenses. Cost would probably be in the $2000 range. That’s expensive, but it’s probably a necessary offering for MFT to be considered a full-featured system. Compare that cost to the recently released Nikon 800mm f/5.6. The MFT equivalent would be about 1/10 the cost and about 1/5 the weight!

Fortunately, we have the legacy Four-Thirds (FT) lenses that can bridge the gap for a while. The Oly 50-200 f/2.8-3.5 is probably the most useful telephoto for the MFT system. It’s size and cost are reasonable. Most people will not invest in the larger and more expensive FT lenses (90-250 and 300 f/2.8) for MFT cameras. They are too expensive and too large to make that kind of purchase for a dying format.

If Olympus and Panasonic are going to make large, fast fixed focal length telephoto lenses then we need dedicated teleconverters to go with the system as well. I don’t see a huge market for these long, fast lenses though. These lenses are for professional specialties and if you need a 400/f2.8 lens then Canon and Nikon are probably for you. Fast lenses at 300mm and above are a niche item for even Canon and Nikon and would certainly be a tiny portion of sales for the MFT system.

Both Olympus and Panasonic have promised higher quality telephoto zooms for the future. However, the E-M1 is likely to add urgency to this need for both companies. The MFT system could become the standard mirrorless camera for wildlife enthusiasts or even wildlife professionals traveling to areas where air travel or other concerns impose significant weight restrictions. For example, this Antarctica trip limits total weight for all luggage (checked and carry-on) to 44 lbs.

Additionally, I would love to see a third party lens manufacturer embrace the MFT system. Sigma has played around the edges, but it hasn’t demonstrated a significant commitment to the system. Other manufacturers have primarily released manual focus lenses. It seems like there is an opportunity for a new lens maker to enter the MFT ecosystem in a big way. Sigma has really upped its game in the last year with some terrific lenses for the Canon and Nikon system. I’m sure they could deliver great telephotos for MFT. If not Sigma, then another player like Tokina could also do great things. The MFT system is not like the proprietary Canon and Nikon systems that change technical specs and require backward engineering. Just join the consortium and make lenses that conform to the MFT standard. It’s a win for all.

2) Improved Flash Performance

This post is a lot longer than I originally planned, so I’ll save the other areas (flashes, etc.) for the next installment

Next: What We Need Next from Olympus and Panasonic – A System – Part 2

Amazon Links for Equipment Discussed

Olympus OM-D E-M1

Olympus OM-D E-M5

Panasonic GH3

Panasonic GX7

Olympus 50-200 f/2.8-3.5

Olympus 75-300 f/4.8-6.3

Panasonic 100-300 f/4-5.6

5 thoughts on “What We Need Next from Olympus and Panasonic – A System – Part 1

  1. Carl

    Thanks for the article – i really enjoyed reading it.

    I’m unconvinced that the tipping point for successful M43 sales has been reached. The sales figures don’t support the wish of success and the professional you mention, Trey Ratcliff, switched to an APS-C mirrorless system having checked out M43.

    Still, I’m hopeful too!.

    Telephoto lenses become a lot more practical under M43 compared with larger-sensor cameras:
    E.g.,
    M43 Olympus 75-300mm II lens : 425g (yes, this lens is slower but it’s also more likely to be carried!)
    43 Olympus 50-200mm lens : 1900g
    Nikon 80-400mm lens : 1570g

    and M43 wide-angle lenses can have better edge-to-edge sharpness too. So I’m in!

    Well… until Olympus or Panasonic have a refined C-AF system I’ll jump in at the E-PL5 level and await the more rounded systems.

    1. Michael Weeks Post author

      Thanks for your comments. I actually agree with you regarding MFT. My argument is that there seems to be a tipping point for smaller-sensor mirrorless cameras. I agree that it isn’t clear which format (if any) will become the dominant player. APS-C, MFT, and 1″ (Nikon CX) are all contenders. Nevertheless, my point is that I think MFT could establish a clear lead in the smaller-sensor mirrorless market if they can deliver a full system quickly. The switching costs I mention provide a clear advantage to the first mover in this space. Whether the MFT consortium captures that advantage remains to be seen.

  2. Carl

    Another thought on what we need next…

    Could a fix-lens M43 camera compete against Ricoh’s GR, Fuji’s X100S ? (or the likely Sony APS-C RX10)

    I don’t see there would be a size advantage unless the M43 model could squeeze in a telephoto lens (the GR and X100S are fixed focal lengths) . Olympus has 5-axis IBIS and Panasonic can deliver good ergonomics.

    What are your thoughts?

    1. Michael Weeks Post author

      Fixed lens cameras are nice niche products, but personally I don’t see a lot of advantages. For example, I find that my E-M5 with a 20mm/1.7 pancake lens has all the advantages of a fixed lens camera without the main drawback (i.e. a fixed lens). 🙂

      Nevertheless, some people seem to be attracted to them, so I’m sure the manufacturers will deliver.

      However, fixed lens cameras don’t necessarily bring people fully into the MFT ecosystem. Those users are more likely to defect when the next iteration becomes available. Fixed lens users are buying a camera, not a system.

  3. Pingback: What We Need Next from Olympus and Panasonic – A System – Part 2 | Chasing Light Photography Blog

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