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Micro Four Thirds: Withering on the Vine

Micro Four Thirds, Olympus E-M5, Ricoh GR, Sony RX1, Sigma DP Merrill, APS-C

MicroFourThirds

This is one of several editorial articles, please see also the overview page for links to subsequent pieces.

In The Future of Image Quality is Fixed-Lens Cameras a few days ago I questioned whether the Micro Four Thirds (M4/3) format would survive: there are no reasons that it ought to survive, at least not at present. Well, video perhaps, though even that is dubious.

The image quality of M4/3 is at a very good level, perfectly suitable for many purposes. And it will get even better as sensors improve, but that is not the issue.

The APS-C sensor size is 65% larger in area yet M4/3 cameras are as large or larger than compact APS-C cameras.

The Ricoh GR and Nikon Coolpix A and Canon EOS-M and Sony NEX are examples of small APS-C cameras, the Sony RX1 is slightly larger but has a full-frame sensor. Then there is the wonderful Sony RX100 and its form factor is already almost too small.

At some point a camera is small enough and just right in size and weight (Ricoh GR), and smaller still is not better but worse for handling reasons. In short, APS-C already allows “small enough without being too small”. With lenses built into the camera, most of the lens camps out inside the camera itself. Everything else has to be big enough for decent handling and controls anyway.

So what is the point of ceding the 60% sensor size advantage of APS-C? The APS-C sensor format is in far wider use and so we will see superior sensor technology in APS-C that is also 60% larger in area (area = quality, all other things being equal). And the breadth and depth of the APS-C compact camera market is far greater already, yet costs are ramping down.

APS-C is similarly priced for bodies and lenses (at this point, APS-C is even cheaper in some cases); the costs change very little other than the sensor itself, so buying into a M4/3 system means the same or higher price, due to non-mainstream status.

The big boys are doing APS-C, relegating M4/3 to also-ran. This doesn’t work for long in a brutally competitive marketplace. It is no accident that Zeiss introduced the Touit lenses for Sony NEX and Fujifilm X but not for Micro Four Thirds.

Sensor sizes
Sensor sizes

Micro Four Thirds: the missing glass and cameras

  • The M4/3 sensor size makes possible elegantly small compact cameras with high image quality but these do not exist.
  • The M4/3 sensor size makes possible ƒ/1.0 lenses with high quality, but these do not exist except as oddball specialty lenses made mainly for video.
  • The M4/3 sensor size allows ƒ/2 lenses that are all but perfect wide open. These do not exist.
  • M4/3 lenses are not any less expensive than APS-C!

Ouch.

Anyone willing to pay for superlative lenses will pause long and hard before spending that money for a small format camera. And the way things are going, full-frame compacts look increasingly viable and attractive (the Sony RX1 being the first trial balloon).

Excepting the hideous menu system and some badly placed buttons, I like the Olympus E-M5 and the new PEN. But it would be crazy to equate its image quality to what I can get out of the Ricoh GR, as my recent field experience makes eminently clear. And the GR is smaller and much lighter than the E-M5. Fixed lens Ricoh GR vs juggling interchangeable lenses and a bulky and heavier body (E-M5). Not a hard decision at all: out I go with the Ricoh GR.

Elaborating, these are some of the things that make the M4/3 space lackluster in appeal:

  • Sensor quality lags. I’ll take the far smaller Sony RX100 sensor any day over the aging E-M5 sensor (the Olympus + Sony tie-up might address this shortcoming).
  • No fixed-lens M4/3 cameras akin to the Sony RX100 or Ricoh GR with a superlative lens and similar or slightly smaller form factor. It just does not exist.
  • Slow lenses: in M4/3, an ƒ/1.0 lens is required to match the depth of field blur found at ƒ/1.4 on APS-C or ƒ/2 on full frame. Where are the ƒ/1.0 lenses from Olympus or Panasonic? They don’t exist.
  • Lens quality: Olympus and Panasonic deliver lenses that range from mediocre to quite good. But not one truly excellent M4/3 lens exists. Not one, and I mean that: some get pretty close but with various annoying compromises. (Olympus SHG lenses qualify, but they are huge and heavy and require an adapter for M4/3, and thus rather pointless, one might as well use a full-frame DSLR).

I just don’t see this equation changing much but there is still time if Olympus and Panasonic get their stuff together. M4/3 might morph into primarily a video format, as Panasonic seems to be focusing on, and the Olympus E-M5 is also strongest in its video function due to its 5-axis stabilization.

Michael M writes

I agree with you about the future failing of the M43 format, but *right now*, at present, as a whole system, nothing beats it. I have spent quite a bit of time with Sony, Fuji, Panasonic, Canon, Leica and Olympus when replacing my aging 5DM2, and no system I've used tops the OM-D as an overall great TOOL. Great lenses, great sensors, great software, Image Stabilization, lens selection, compact body, and fast auto-focus mean nothing when you have only one or two of the options. It is precisely because M43 (specifically the OM-D) has ALL of these options integrated into a single body that makes it so great. Sure, the sensor could be larger and the lenses could be faster....but the sensor is more than good enough for the most people; combined with a wide selection of very good TINY lenses, in-body image stabilization, blazing fast auto-focus, and working RAW interpolation with (dare I say "Industry Standard") Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom, all wrapped in a single body... Name *one* camera system, ANY system other than the Olympus OM-D, that has all of this.... I admit, I had to buy the Gariz Leather grip to compensate for the body being too small and uncomfortable to hold, and I still wish for a better grip, but it's easily the best I've used on this body.

Sony has a great sensor, but their cameras absolutely SUCK as a tool: convoluted software interface, poor controls layout, and the body itself is too small. Until only a month ago, they lacked even a *mentionable* selection of decent primes even after two years of promises; sure they have Zeiss -- two whole lenses (three if you count the ridiculously huge 24mm). But larger sensors mean larger lenses (unless you're Leica). Sony either has no clue what it is doing or is to inept to do it - there's potential, but *potential* does not equate the here and now. The RX1 could have been something of perfection, but $3000 for a camera with a shitty flash and completely lacking a built-in viewfinder? That's unforgivable. Fuji can't seem to get its act together with RAW image interpolation, has very poor video, lacks IBIS, and has terrible auto-focus. I LOVE the X-E1 in my hand, and I love how the JPEGs look on its LCD screen, but the fun stops there. Ricoh has a great sensor/lens, but most people want the option of having interchangeable lenses, so it's a hobbyist camera. Sigma Merrill is nothing but a meditation on the art of pain. And don't even get me started on Leica...

Now take a look at the OM-D with the 12mm, 45mm, and 75mm; add the Voigtlander 25/0.95 and Zeiss 50/2 M-mount with adapter. I can fit all of this plus my iPad, water bottle, toothbrush, and sunglasses in a Domke shoulder bag and hop on the train to the Alps straight away. I am willing to jump ship and switch systems again, but the next system has to up the ante, not force me to make yet another series of compromises.

DIGLLOYD: The E-M5 is a fine camera. Let’s get that over that. My review covers its many fine points and many other aspects, good and bad. (as for “convoluted software interface”, I’m not sure I can think of a worse menu system than the kitchen sink insanity found in the E-M5).

What can exist and is likely to exist and where the R&D and momentum are, and which sensor size is “small enough and light enough” is a fair question. What happened 'yesterday' is not the question here, nor is a debate about yesterday’s camera. What about an E-M5 style body with an APS-C sensor? Then how does M4/3 get perceived?

The issue here seems to be “combination of features”. For any camera for some user for some activities. Best tool for the job, whatever that job is. I don’t judge the utility of a camera by a checklist for “has all of this”. I shoot the camera and assess whether it can fill a need: image quality, usability, carrying comfort, grip, and so on. I don’t expect one camera system to do everything. But I do like a camera to do a few things exceptionally well.

The “hobbyist” Ricoh GR fills such a hole in my bag for outdoor activities: very high image quality, huge convenience, fill-flash, fast AF, long night shots etc. The E-M5 cannot fill that same need and the E-M5 image quality is a solid notch lower. No other camera today brings high quality with portability and usability so well as the Ricoh GR. With an EVF, the Ricoh GR would be just about perfect. Does it matter that it only has a 28mm fixed lens? No, because that’s perfect for many things I do. Would I want to carry a much larger body that I can’t pocket so that I can swap 2 or 3 or 4 lenses with shades and caps I don’t really want to carry? Maybe under some circumstances, but not in general.

If the Ricoh GR had 21mm and 45mm and 75mm focal lengths (or similar), this would be beautiful: kit of 3 to cover most everything? And no larger and probably lighter than an E-M5 with three lenses. Less is often more in the field— the Leica M range has existed successfully with the 18mm to 135mm range (really 21mm to 90mm as usable range) for many years. Why is that? Because that range is most of what is needed by most photographers most of the time.

But returning to the theme: APS-C has many existence proofs of a wide range of needs being satisfied already (often marginally considered to be sure), the sensor size is “just right” for this emerging cornucopia, and M4/3 has failed to deliver anything close in variety. I hope that changes, but where is the evidence and where are the deep R&D pockets?

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