In two previous posts (“The Case Against Full Frame” and “The Case Against APS-C”) I opined on why the leading professional and amateur sensor sizes are doomed to the scrapheap of history. Where does that leave the upstart Micro Four-Thirds?
By all accounts, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is a watershed mark in the development of Micro Four-Thirds. Early adopters to the platform have held up the tiny retro camera as a talisman, vindication for their choosing the format. It is now exiting puberty (Micro Four-Thirds, not their owners) and now has the most extensive collection of mirrorless bodies and lenses in the market.
The “Pros” of the system grow daily; new bodies, new lenses, and new accessories bring new users into the fold. You can now go from a jacket pocket–Olympus E-PM2 with the funky body cap lens (15mm f/8) to a camera backpack filling DSLR pretender–Panasonic GH3 with the 12-35mm and 35-100mm f/2.8 lenses–all within the system. There are some holes (i.e., tilt-shift lenses for architecture) but it’s pretty safe to say that the needs of many photographers can be met with Micro Four-Thirds.
And the “Cons” are shrinking every day. Image Quality has taken a leap forward with the Sony sensor that Olympus is now using (Disclosure: I stopped using my Panasonic GF2/GH2 as a regular stills shooter in 2011 because I found the RAW files to be brittle in post. I’ve played with the OM-D but not extensively enough to form a considered opinion. I do hear that the OM-D E-M5 is much improved in this regard). Low light performance has improved as well, aided no doubt by the very good fast primes available (Voightlander Nokton 25mm f/0.95, the new Olympus 17mm f/1.8, Panasonic 20 mm f/1.7, Panasonic/Leica 25mm f/1.4, Olympus 45mm f/1.8, et. al.) and very good Image Stabilization on Olympus bodies and select Panasonic lenses.
The last bugbear for the platform is Continuous Auto Focus. As much as single shot AF has improved, Continuous AF for sports, action, and rambunctious children and pets is still behind DSLRs. Blame the technology here–on-sensor Contrast Detect AF is just not as good as the old-as-Methuselah and still improving Phase Detect AF used on DSLRs. Will Contrast Detect AF ever be as good as Phase Detect AF? I’d say yes. Contrast Detect AF is still relatively new technology and getting it to work at all is what programmers like to call a “non-trivial task”. Yes Canon EOS-M, I’m looking at you. But every major camera maker is working on it, so I’d say that it’s just a matter of time before this algorithmic challenge is conquered. Heck, they’ve figured out Face Detect pretty well and can now distinguish one person from another and the near eye from the far eye in a portrait; CDAF will get there.
So with all of this progress, what’s the case against Micro Four-Thirds? It’s too big.
“What the f-stop!?” I can hear you saying. Hear me out. There are two fundamental patterns that I believe will define the future of Micro Four-Thirds. First, while DSLRs seem to be on the same diet plan as SUVs and pickup trucks, growing bigger with every iteration as they are stuffed with more cupholders, expectations of camera size are being driven from the bottom end. The typical bottom end camera is, on average, zero inches high by zero inches wide by zero inches deep. And they weigh zero ounces since they are built into every smart phone. People want small. They’ve been suffering DSLRs for quite some time now, hauling around their kit zooms in the free bag that came with the camera. They don’t say it, but they’d ditch that free bag the first chance that they get. Which brings me to my second point...
Second, the size of a system must be judged with zooms not primes. While primes can be nice and small, they’re used mostly by people that read about cameras on the Internet, and that’s not really the general public. Personally, I love primes. Or more precisely, I put up with the inconvenience of primes because of their unique size/quality combination. But go to your local tourist trap and you’ll likely see ninety-nine zooms for every prime. 5x zooms are popular, but 10x zooms are even more coveted, IQ and speed be damned.
Now think about Micro Four-Thirds in relation to these two points. Yes, even with a 5x zoom they are considerably smaller than a comparable DSLR. But many will still need their own cheap bag. And 10x zooms make the cheap bag a necessity, dangling uncomfortably over the shoulder alongside the host of other gadgetry that many consider necessary for a modern, fulfilled life. As small as Micro Four-Thirds can get with a 10x zoom, it’s not small enough for the unwashed masses stepping up from smart phones.
What they want (and yes, I know that I’m pretending to speak for a lot of people that I’ve never met, but isn’t that what blogs are about?) is everything; small enough to fit in a pocket or toss into a bag that they are already using, a convenient 10x zoom, image quality good enough for the occasional 8”x10”, and fast enough to capture little Johnny as he runs across the dim family room. Micro Four-Thirds is achingly close, but not quite there. It will continue to find it’s niche among those who value its combination of traits, but world domination is not likely. Alas.
(Read more: “The Case Against Full Frame”, “The Case Against APS-C” and "The Case Against 1" Sensors")