Sunday, July 28, 2013

Is m4/3 "Dead"?

Loyd Chambers wrote his feelings about the Micro Four Thirds System down in print this past week; let's just say that he doesn't seem to believe in damning with faint praise... While I agree with most of his observations, I don't agree with most of his conclusions either... or least the form of his conclusion, that m4/3 is an orphan system that is being overshadowed by mirrorless APS-C. There is some truth to that, but my take is that it is not for the reasons that he has given.

The Details

Just to go over some of Chamber's  ascertains.

Fixed lens cameras are optically superior and smaller than the typical m4/3 system. 

Yes, this is absolutely true, but strikes at the heart of the issue, that of relevancy. It's a relevant issue if you publish for a living, but impractical for the average camera buyer. It's not feasible to buy one dedicated camera for each focal length; the whole point of interchangeable lenses was to get away from this absurdity. Yes, you could have a Ricoh GR to cover the 28mm full frame field of view, a Fujifilm X100s to cover 35mm, and a Sigma DP3 Merril to cover 75mm.... but the number of people who would is exceedingly small.

Mirrorless APS-C cameras are just as small as m4/3, but with larger sensors.

This is a valid point for most people, but an incomplete one as well. If you go to and compare the Sony NEX-6 versus the Olympus PEN E-P5, you can indeed see that there is hardly a difference in size... except that the mount for the Sony is larger in diameter. Equipped with your typical compliment of lenses, the m4/3 camera is not going to be any smaller in terms of portability, but it is going to be less bulky in terms of handling. This may be a benefit or it may not. However, just because you have a smaller sensor, it does not mean that you have to shrink everything accordingly. The m4/3 mount, just like the original 4/3 mount, has a higher ratio of flange diameter to sensor width than a traditional DSLR, meaning that the lens design has more leeway. You can generally see this with the kit lenses between Olympus and Sony NEX; the m4/3 kit lenses are more consistent across the frame and have lower amounts of vignetting... and this is before electronic correction is applied by the in-camera JPEG engine.  This is not to say that mirrorless APS-C can't be excellent, because the Fuji X-system of lenses is clearly that (for the price, that is).

m4/3 is a false dichotomy because the smaller size comes at a tradeoff for depth of field control.

I think this is a weak argument. Yes, smaller sensor cameras will struggle to produce shallow depth of field and subject isolation, but that's clearly the tradeoff. You don't buy medium format expecting portability (unless you are on a trip to Amsterdam), and even though there are m4/3 lenses to claw back the depth of field control, it's a given that this isn't what the system is about.

m4/3 sensor quality lags

True in the past, but not since Sony bought ownership into Olympus. Their 16mp sensor that is seeing a lot of use in modern m4/3 cameras since the OM-D is clearly a Sony design, with high quantum efficiency and low read noise. See this page on for details. Though not exactly, this sensor behaves like the little brother of the D7000 and D800 sensors, but not quite as clean.

The Crux of the Matter

Admittedly, m4/3 is not making headway in North America, but that's for a number of reasons. Conceding that technically, the cameras have lagged until now (but lead in some areas like live view autofocusing), there are already enough reasons for the m4/3 companies to deal with:

  • Canon and Nikon have consistently maintained their grip on retail shelf space despite the increased competition. The amount of display space allocated at Best Buy doesn't come by accident; the companies have to jockey for it.
  • Poor distribution and follow up
  • Misjudging how serious Sony was about NEX
  • Slow to respond to the Fuji X-system
  • Panasonic hit hard by the great recession
  • Olympus shot itself in the foot with the accounting scandal of 2012
  • Both companies slow to move off of original 4/3, which failed to gain traction. Olympus in particular spent their advertising resources trying to convince consumers that their camera system was "digital" and the others were not... Four Thirds is now a historical place holder for m4/3, which finally realized much of the promise of the original system, but one wonders how much more traction they would have gotten if they had managed to launch the E-P1 and the GH1 sooner.
  • Historically slow to bring m4/3 prices down. When the first PEN came out, Olympus charged a premium for the novelty, and of course, Panasonic can at times outdo Sony at charging a premium for a well made product. No manufacturer wants to enter a market as bargain price alternative bcause margins are lower. However, mirrorless cameras are inherently cheaper to manufacture than DSLR's, except that m4/3 cameras were prices like entry level DSLR's. This is not a problem if demand is high, but when demand is weak you might as well exploit the cost advantage and try to fight Nikon and Canon from the bottom of their market instead of in the midst of it.
  • Forgetting how ruthless the mainline DSLR players are about preserving DSLR market share and mind share. When Canon came out with the G7 (the first G-series that looks like the "G" we know today), they priced it at roughly $550 USD. Nikon came out with the D40 priced just a bit higher at $599 and almost single handled killed the serious compact camera market. Nikon and Canon don't make much on sub-$600 USD cameras, but that's not the point...
  • Canon and Nikon have a glut of cameras in their distribution chains. Almost all of the companies have produced more than what demand has been. It's been slow to show up because they typically recognize the revenue when the cameras enter distribution, not when they reach the customer's hands. However, the continued availability of older models at the retail level indicates that this can't continue. What's worse, when Canon and Nikon have too much DSLR's in their distribution, that means that they will be willing to sell for a discount. That makes life hard for m4/3 when you could just as easily have an almost current DLSR for under $600.
However, buying a camera is not like buying a car; there is a reasonable expectation that you could get by with absolutely no servicing during the entirety of your ownership of the product. Not to be morbid, but if you buy a camera and the company goes under, that doesn't change anything about the camera provided it's working properly. So with that in mind, even in these economically troubling times, if it's a good camera, it's a good camera, and if it suits you best, then there's no reason why you shouldn't go for it if it suits your needs... m4/3 or not.

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