Is m4/3 Still a Viable Choice?

Updates at bottom of article

After my two presentations at B&H last week, I had someone come up to me and ask a seemingly simple question: would I still invest in m4/3 gear?

Since I was one of the first pros that began a dalliance with mirrorless starting with the original m4/3 products back in 2009, that's a fair and useful question. Indeed, it was mostly because of m4/3 that I started this site in the first place: I could clearly see benefits to mirrorless cameras that would inevitably make them mainstream.

It seems I'm getting questions similar to the one my presentation attendee asked more and more, though. Some of it has to do with insecurity and paranoia. But some of it has to do with market reality. 

Here's the thing: smartphones will just keep nibbling upwards in terms of knocking off dedicated cameras. It should be clear to everyone that the iPhone back in 2007 kicked off a trend that pretty did the same thing to lower end digital cameras that instant cameras (e.g. Polaroid) and disposable cameras did to the lower end film camera offerings. 

At the lowest common denominator type of image—call it a snapshot if you want—there's little reason to own a dedicated camera. The smartphones (and tablets) can achieve a reasonable, basic image that is easily shared, and have been able to do that for some time. 

But those same smartphones keep moving upwards in capability and performance. First it was with megapixel count, then it was with additional features like image stabilization, next we got faster lenses and bigger sensors that worked better in low light, and eventually we got multiple cameras and some basic computational photography capabilities starting to show up and make those small sensors seem to perform more like larger ones. 

Thing is, all these things rolled into one continue to push the capabilities of smartphone cameras upward. We've got one black and white 20mp sensor coupled with color sensors in the Huawei P20 Pro. A true monochrome sensor has a higher native ISO—because it doesn't have color filters over the image sensor—producing better low light resolution and less noise. Couple that with computational photography techniques melding a second or even third sensor producing things like color information and/or depth information, and we get a boost in terms of image quality that nibbles off another layer of dedicated cameras in terms of viability.

At this point, I'd say we're getting smartphones near the level of image quality that the 2/3" compacts were able to produce, and I have little doubt we'll eventually see smartphones that can top a 20mp 1" sensor digital camera, all else equal. 

Thus the insecurity. 

m4/3 is one stop above that 1" sensor camera. Living with m4/3 is a bit like seeing the storm on the horizon headed your way, and wondering if someone is going to come improve your house somehow so that the storm never gets there (or at least so that you can weather the storm). 

Another problem is that both Olympus and Panasonic really want to go upscale. We now have US$2000+ m4/3 cameras, and lenses that easily break into the four-figure mark, too. So another level of insecurity is that you might be pouring lots of money into your m4/3 system only to see it overrun by the smart crowd. 

I don't think that likely. Not at the top end of m4/3. But would I be buying into the lower end of m4/3 these days like I did back starting in 2009 (e.g. the E-PL# type of camera)? No. The Fujifilm X-A5 has a bigger, better sensor, and some excellent small lenses at a very affordable price: I'd buy there for a compact-like camera. Or maybe a Canon EOS M or Sony A6xxx. 

It's the E-M1m2 and GH5/G9 type of m4/3 camera—coupled with some excellent lenses—that would keep an m4/3 photographer clearly away from what the slowly rising smartphone crowd will be able to attain in the foreseeable future. 

bythom thesqueeze

My "Squeeze" slide from a 2009 presentation to Japanese companies

Unfortunately, that presents another problem. With Sony putting the A7m3 at the US$2000 mark, m4/3 is finding itself in exactly the position I cautioned about back in 2010. What I call "the squeeze." At the bottom you have smartphones nibbling upwards, while at the top end you have the big camera makers nibbling downwards wanting to own the DSLR and mirrorless world that's left. That leaves very little territory for compacts and the nearby m4/3 to occupy and own outright. 

What's that territory? Bright to moderate light capability with small/light lenses. To me, something like the Pen-F with the f/1.8 primes is a clear example of a kit whose performance you couldn't get from smaller (smartphone, compacts, even 1" sensor) or size you won't get from larger (APS-C and full frame) cameras. There's a sweet spot in there that's relatively narrow. 

Panasonic, of course, has as escape valve: video. The GH5 and GH5s are highly competent 4K video cameras with features and performance that actually take them well into the pro video realm. The GH5s now directly meets the BBC and European broadcast standards out of the box. And in the pro video realm, a GH5s is a relatively inexpensive choice. 

And that was my basic answer to the person who asked the question: I don't have any problems continuing to put time and energy and money into m4/3 on the video side. Where I do start to have issues is how much time and energy and money I want to put into m4/3 on the still image side. 

Don't take this to mean that I'm saying that m4/3 is dead. No, it's not. But Olympus, for example, has shown no real ability to grow ILC volume—they're stuck at 500k units a year and have been for some time—and I believe that's mostly due to the squeeze problem. The Canon/Nikon/Sony trio is still likely to dominate the top end of the camera market, and they'll push down from above. The smartphones and maybe some related products—consider a simpler version of the Light—are absolutely going to keep pressing upwards. 

That's leaving very little room for 2/3", 1", and m4/3 sensor products, I think. At 2/3" the two products we have left are basically "tough" cameras that can go underwater, freeze, and be dropped, plus the superduperwuperzooms like the Coolpix P900. At 1" we're mostly headed for shirt pockets with things like the Sony RX100 and Panasonic PSZ200. 

m4/3 is still a viable alternative in the middle between those products and the inevitable downward push of full frame (coupled with its little brother APS-C). But more and more, I'm considering my m4/3 usage really more niche than mainstream. 

Update: As usual with articles that take a stance like this, I got both support and pushback. I'll address some of the pushback here:

1. m4/3 has a place with telephoto, which smartphones can't do, and with a size advantage that larger sensor cameras can't match. To a degree, that's true. The usual point of reference I'm given here is the Olympus 300mm f/4 (as compared to the Canikon 600mm f/4). True, a 300mm lens is smaller and lighter than a 600mm lens. But we're also giving up two stops of equivalence with m4/3, so we'd really be comparing to full frame 600mm f/8. This latter is important, because the ones that truly want long, fast lenses tend to be wildlife and sports shooters. Both want to keep their shutter speeds above 1/1000 most of the time. You can do that with m4/3 in Sunny 16 conditions, but as light dwindles (edge of day to night conditions), the m4/3 shooter starts to struggle with image noise. Heck, even the full frame shooter often struggles. Focus discrimination also becomes a problem for moving subjects with smaller sensors using on-sensor PD techniques. So, yes, I do believe that m4/3 has a place in long lens use in a small kit, but I've also found it to be a limitation in terms of when I can shoot reliably. Is that niche defensible? Well, take a D7500 and the Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF versus an E-M1m2 with the 300mm f/4: the D7500 kit is 1395g and 450mm f/5.6 equivalent, the E-M1m2 kit is 2049g and 600mm f/8 equivalent. Add the TC-14EIII to the Nikon kit and we're at 630mm f/8 equivalent and we're still very significantly lighter, with better focus performance, particularly in low light. So those that think the m4/3 telephoto advantage is a defensible niche are over-arguing their case. 

2. APS-C is also getting squeezed. No doubt. But that doesn't make things any easier for m4/3 ;~). APS-C is trying to move down in many ways (note the D7500 example above, or witness how small and light Canon pushed the EOS M5 down to). And as they try to move down, m4/3 is right in the way.

3. Lots of lens choice, and the lenses are smaller. True to a large degree, and this is what has kept m4/3 in the game in the first place. They were first in mirrorless to have a complete lens set, and they have often emphasized small size (witness the Olympus 9-18mm, or many of the f/1.7 and slower primes). This is one of the things that attracted me to m4/3 in the first place, particularly for long backcountry hiking. But the assumption of a lot of those pushing back on this article has been that we won't see full lens sets or lens minimization in the larger sensor formats. Both are wrong, as the growing Fujifilm lens set is starting to show. Even in full frame we're seeing some smaller items appear (the Sony 12-24mm f/4 is smaller than its competitive full frame wide angle zooms). This is another trend that will increase over time, as the demand for smaller/lighter continues to grow.

4. m4/3 will continue to innovate. No doubt. But m4/3 engineering resources are massively dwarfed by smartphone camera engineering resources at Apple, Google, and Samsung. Massively. I was stunned to learn how many deep R&D engineers Apple has on photography at the moment. And remember, Apple also designs state-of-the-art CPUs that rival Intel's, GPUs, Imaging ASICs, and yes, image sensors. In the past year Apple has sold 210m iPhones and Olympus 500k mirrorless cameras, and at a higher average price. Who do you think has the engineering, cashflow, and ROI advantage to keep pushing things like computational photography forward? Yeah, it's going to happen in smartphones first and faster. Again, the article is about the "squeeze," not the death of m4/3. The m4/3 partners have their work cut out for them to hold onto a niche, and no doubt they will do just that. But that niche is under severe pressure from all sides.

And, as usual, people are misquoting me. I didn't say m4/3 would die. I didn't say m4/3 would go away any time soon. I didn't say you can't take excellent photos with an m4/3 product. I'm only pointing out that m4/3 sits right in the crosshairs of competing forces. Given that both Olympus and Panasonic did not hold serve in mirrorless against just the Fujifilm/Sony incursions (both lost significant market share), that will be even tougher when Canon/Nikon are fully in the market and adding their weight to the push from above.

I'll also point out that the original intent of the article was to answer a reader question ("should I continue to invest in m4/3?"). I didn't actually answer that question ;~). I simply pointed out the market dynamics and let readers decide for themselves. That some of you feel that nothing of significance is changing and your answer is "yes, I'll continue to invest" is certainly what Olympus and Panasonic want to hear. But I've also heard from a number of you that say "no, I'm going to wait a bit and see how things play out." 

We have a lot of choice now in mirrorless, and it's only going to get better. Ultimately, the strongest choices will win out, and it won't always be for technical reasons. 

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