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Micro Four Thirds vs APS-C: Summary

None of this is a commentary on the merit of any particular decision for or against a camera system for an individual, which must always reflect individual goals. Broad trends are difficult to divine, and this discussion is my attempt to look at market forces, product offerings, and what I have concluded in using a huge variety of new cameras in the past couple of years.

In summary of:

Prior ruminations:

First I would like to see Micro Four Thirds (M4/3) move boldly ahead with new sensors and new cameras that are truly innovative, along with impeccable lenses. But little has changed in a year, and from what I see, market forces suggest it will not happen: the industry as a whole is under severe pressure amid slumping sales. That is a real danger to also-ran formats; M4/3 has struggled for years and not gained traction.

I do hope to see an Olympus E-M5 follow-on with a state of the art Sony sensor this fall, but the depth and breadth of APS-C offerings is going to be make it very hard for M4/3 to remain compelling. Something 'magical' in M4/3 needs to happen, because the M4/3 market has to grow in order for the format to avoid becoming irrelevant.

Summarizing the past few blog posts, here is the way I see the current state of Micro Four Thirds (M4/3) and APS-C marketplace realities:

  • I like a lot about the Olympus E-M5 and I expect improved models to come along this fall. My views on the E-M5 remain very positive in general (menus and buttons excepted), and can be read in my extensive review. But APS-C cameras have become a juggernaut of interesting designs hitting a sweet spot in so many ways (cost, size, R&D backing, etc), and I expect Sony and Ricoh and Fujifilm and Sigma and Nikon and Canon and others to up their game. How can Olympus and Panasonic weather that with M4/3? Essentially nothing interesting has happened for a year now in M4/3. Perhaps this fall?
  • APS-C camp: Sony, Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm, Ricoh/Pentax, Sigma, Leica, Samsung, Zeiss. M4/3 camp: Olympus and Panasonic. On R&D dollar terms alone, what does that mean? Why is there no new M4/3 player since the beginning?
  • M4/3 offers very good and “good enough” quality and it will get better, but it has an inherent quality handicap versus the 65% larger APS-C sensor. Yet APS-C not only nips at its heels, but goes smaller and lighter already. Momentum is lacking in M4/3 and in this market, R&D costs become an increasing issue. Were it not for the Olympus-Sony tie-up, it would likely be game over (sensor technology)—sensor design is critical and Sony sensors are superb.
  • M4/3 has an aspect ration of 4:3 versus 3:2, which might be unappealing for some (or vice versa).
  • M4/3 has not delivered in multiple ways; for one example, compact cameras with the feature set of the Ricoh GR or Sony RX100 genre, yet this area is ripe for a really good M4/3 camera. Such a camera should be around 200 grams, slightly smaller than the Ricoh GR and with an equally good grip and leaf shutter lens, and offer perfect imaging quality at f/2 on a state of the art sensor. Nothing comes even close to that; it’s a huge hole in the format offerings. But that is detail: mainly it is an indicator of an “also ran” format unable to generate a breadth of product offerings.
  • M4/3 lenses are relatively small, but only because they cheat on lens speed: they have not delivered on lens speed for the format nor do they deliver the near-perfect quality that ought to be possible by compromising the lens speed (in format relative terms). And they are not cheaper.
  • In reality, it is possible to build an APS-C kit as small and light as M4/3 if one does not insist on interchangeable lenses. This trend will extend itself more and more, and also to full-frame. When one considers the redundancy and battery/accessory sharing of fixed lens compacts (versus dual M4/3 bodies), the advantage actually accrues to APS-C: I would not go on an expensive trip with a single camera body anyway.
  • Interchangeable lenses sound great, but the reality is that two or three focal lengths cover 90% of the shooting situations for most shooters. Less is more = better pictures in general (speaking for myself). Anyone who really needs more probably needs dual camera systems. Exceptions are possible, but generally dubious.
  • When it comes to specialty situations, this is not an argument for M4/3. It is an argument for a primary approach supplemented by the best tool for the specialty job.

I wish to see M4/3 grow in its depth and breadth of offerings. But there are a lot of technical and market hurdles for it to clear.

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