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

September 24, 2013

In my last post, I talked about the fact that the Micro Four-Thirds (MFT) format is making great strides in several areas. The Olympus E-M1 looks like it will close the gap with DSLRs in autofocus performance and the Panasonic GH-3 already has industry leading video performance. Nevertheless there are a few holes in the system that need to be filled if the MFT movement is going to take hold. A lack of high quality telephoto lenses was discussed last week. Today I’ll identify two more points that I think are critical for success of the MFT system.

2) Flash Performance

A caveat about this section…  Although I have a mix of Panasonic and Olympus lenses, I only have one MFT body, the OM-D E-M5. This topic is primarily for the Olympus users. Panasonic bodies may exhibit similar weaknesses, but I don’t have first-hand experience with the Panasonic MFT bodies to know if that’s the case. Nevertheless, some comments will be applicable for both manufacturers.

My experience with the Olympus flash system has been one of love and hate. I have two FL-600R flash units. They have reasonable power output and the wireless IR communication system works pretty well. In theory, the system has everything I need. In practice, the results are unpredictable. The dirty little secret about the E-M5 is the flash metering. It is highly inconsistent. So much so, that I’m hesitant to use my E-M5 for event photography requiring flash. The metering is very sensitive to reflective surfaces in the frame and the metering can change dramatically with a small change in framing. There is a lengthy discussion of this issue at DP Review here. I also think that Steve Huff stumbled across this issue in his review, although he didn’t explore the causes fully.

The flash metering performance hasn’t been explored by the typical camera review sites. Most sites don’t test this parameter for new camera bodies in depth. I suspect that if the E-M1 has the same flash metering issues as the E-M5 this will become a hot issue as more people use the camera in a wider variety of settings. At first I thought I could adjust for the metering issues by adding about +1.3 – +1.7 flash compensation, but the results are unpredictable, so this only works for some situations. I use manual flash settings most of the time with my E-M5. Manual operation overcomes the inconsistency with the TTL system, but using manual flash settings for event situations is extremely difficult. In those situations, the subject distance varies greatly and setting a manual exposure is time consuming.

A second more universal issue with the MFT format is the lack of third party flash accessories for the system. For example, Pocket Wizards and other flash triggers are not always made for the system. In order to find flash triggers I had to do a fair amount of trial and error testing with various systems (You can read my flash trigger review here). Since the market share is not large enough yet in MFT for the third party suppliers to support these systems, Olympus and Panasonic need to fill the gap with some of these items. A good place to start would be radio-controlled flashes rather than the IR systems currently offered. They might also provide financial incentives for some of the third party providers to support the MFT format. If MFT is going to be a full-featured camera system, the primary manufacturers will need to work with aftermarket providers to ensure support. Canon and Nikon seem to ignore these providers. MFT has an opportunity to build relationships that could be mutually beneficial.

3) Consistent Signals to the Market

This last area is one that I think Olympus and Panasonic have done pretty well. Consumers need to know that the manufacturers are committed to the system for the long term. Consumers will only make the decision to invest in the MFT system if they are reasonably certain that the technology will not be orphaned. Panasonic and Olympus have delivered consistent updates to the camera bodies and both companies have been pretty transparent with their plans for future lenses. In contrast, Nikon has quietly abandoned its commitment to the high-end DX format with a failure to deliver a D400, as well as lackluster investment in DX-specific lenses. The lack of communication on this issue has led to frustration for Nikon loyalists that don’t want to upgrade to full frame systems. In a similar situation, Olympus has consistently promised an upgrade path for its legacy four-thirds lenses. Although it has taken a while, the company appears to have delivered on those promises with the E-M1. This hybrid solution may not satisfy all users, but it does seem to offer a reasonable accommodation for the four-thirds lens owners. Everyone knows that the life of a camera body is relatively short in today’s fast moving technology landscape, but MFT users want to know that their investments in lenses and accessories will be supported for years to come with up-to-date camera bodies.

Conclusion

Readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of the Micro Four-Thirds system. The promises of the technology are great and every new release closes the performance gap with large DSLR systems. Although there are some holes in the MFT offerings, the MFT format currently provides the most well-rounded system in the smaller-sensor mirrorless space.

The promise of the E-M1 has made me so comfortable with the future of MFT that I’ve started to sell some of my Nikon glass. If the E-M1 proves to be as good in practice as it appears on paper, the rest of my Nikon collection may be on the block soon.