Tuesday, 08 October 2013 11:01

Why I think Micro Four-Thirds is the Future

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A few weeks ago I was in Paris. I love that place, and I'm not a big city guy. But Paris has got something special - it feels homely, accessible and doesn't overwhelm (not in the big-city-atmosphere way, at least). Paris is nonetheless large, and as many have stated previously, best seen on foot. The point here is that for almost ten days, I left the apartment in the morning, caught a tube (ahem, Metro), and spent the rest of the day out and about on foot.

For good reason, when travelling (and not only), one of my main rules is to carry as little equipment as possible. For Paris, as for many trips before it, it was one camera and one lens, plus a compact for casual events and evening drinks. I was fine with this setup photographically, but my back wasn't, after lugging around a D700 (1Kg) with a 24-120 F4 (700g). That's almost 2Kg on my shoulder (I use a sling-strap) most of the day for 10 days. By the end of it I didn't want to grab a camera again for a while. Granted I'm not getting any younger, but I am pretty sure anyone would experience this in pretty much the same way. Fact is, DSLRs are huge and heavy.

To be fair, I'm a big fan of 35mm sensors. I ditched DX when the D700 was released and have had no regrets at all. Image quality is superb, ISO sensitivity is impressive. Still, it's a 5 year old technology, and a great deal has happened since then. Back in 2008, FX was the only way to achieve the kind of image quality needed for fine art photography, particularly if shot under not-so-favourable conditions such as indoor handheld, requiring some pushing of the ISO sensitivity. The D700 did (and still does) an amazing job at it, and I have printed images up to 24"x32" without any qualms. The camera was so good that Nikon didn't replace it until last year - an unprecendented occurrance in the previously high-speed-development world of digital photography - and in reality, it wasn't even a replacement since the camera is still being produced.

While the photographic technology has advanced significantly in the past years, DSLR development has been negligible, really and truly. Megapixel count has been increased consistently, an arguable benefit in itself, but ISO sensitivities have remained quite stable, and apart from the introduction and development of DSLR video (clearly a big step for film-makers) nothing much has changed. What has happened mostly in the the past years is miniaturisation. Clearly manufacturers have realised that the ceiling has almost been reached in the development of DSLRs with current technology, and have rightly started looking in the other direction, taking the current technology and making it smaller - and as often happens with new technologies and directions, everyone did it differently (and incompatibly).

As also often happens, the big manufacturers took their sweet time to get onto the bandwagon, and messed it up completely. As a Nikon guy I waited for a while until they decided to create their mirrorless lineup, and when they did, started looking elsewhere. The fact is that there is one key point in this shrinking race - the balance between size and image quality. It also depends very much on who is being targeted, and how flexible to platform should be in terms of producing both entry level and professional grade cameras. Sony did an impressive job with fitting a huge sensor in a tiny body, and Samsung also opted for a larger sensor. The main issue with this approach is that larger sensors require larger (and more expensive) lenses, apart from being more expensive to produce in their own right. Sensor production cost is exponential to size, not linear. Nikon went the other way, opting for a very small sensor. Way too small in my view - too small to ever support a professional or art level standard. I can somewhat see their point - they wouldn't want to cannibalise on their other product lines, however I think that this is a very narrow and short-sighted point of view. Canon, on the other hand, just went nowhere but into a coma for a few years, then produced something that everyone hated. Geniuses.

Naturally, in the end it is the market that tends to dictate which formats will rule the world, and although it is still a little early to say for sure, my bet is on the two remaining ones: the Fuji X system and the Olympus/Panasonic Micro Four-Thirds. Fuji has developed a great system, and went about releasing it in the best possible way, launching the X100 fixed lens camera first, winning the hearts of everyone. Simple is beautiful (if you can afford it). They followed up with a system which had the same sensor but an interchangeable lens. The main drawbacks being a limited lens lineup (which will improve with time) and a poor AF, which unfortunately has not improved much yet. It's targeted towards the nostalgic street photographer, focusing on a rangefinder look and an array of mostly prime lenses. I am confident that this platform, given some more time and work, will become the standard for street photographers and landscape artists, and with the next generation soon to be released, this might happen soon. From the little I've seen, the image quality is exceptional, although RAW support is still dodgy, and I'm not a big fan of the colour rendition (although the latter is purely a personal view, besides being something that can be adapted).

My favourite of the bunch is however the Micro Four Thirds system. It has a number of advantages which make it a clear front runner in the contest. Firstly it is based on the four-thirds system of SLR cameras, so in many ways it is an adaptation of an existing system rather than something totally new. Granted, I never thought much of the old Four Thirds system - if you're building a tank, you don't load it with a handgun. But this platform was born for mirrorless. When the first PEN systems were released, true to my gadget-loving nature, I purchased one when I had to travel with very limited luggage. The great thing about it is that the entry level E-PL1 was a steal - practically as expensive as a high end compact. This was a very young technology, and it had its drawbacks. It didn't replace my SLR, but I knew that given a few years it would mature enough to compete. Even then, the image quality was superb - good enough for fine art printing, such as this photo taken in Rome, handheld at a very low shutter speed. Unsurprisingly, there were a few things I hated about it. For starters working without a viewfinder is a pain in the back (and the external one was almost as expensive as the camera). It makes holding the camera steady much more difficult, and the display is useless in strong sunlight. Secondly the autofocus was way too slow compared to the SLR and unusable in some street situations. Finally the controls were more like a compact than an SLR so changing anything was tedious. I knew however that these drawbacks would be addressed eventually as the technology matured. I think that a couple of years down the line, we might have finally gotten to that critical turning point.

The great thing about Micro Four-Thirds is that the sensor size is large enough to provide decent image quality (as long as they don't try to cramp more pixels onto the sensor, which I think they've realised, freezing the count at 16MPix since a couple of generations) which should be good enough for any professional, and probably for any artist too (to be seen!), and small enough to be able to produce a full range of cameras based on the same platform, from entry-level to pro, meaning photographers can start from the lower levels and end up with the top-of-the-line without having to worry about making their lens investments redundant. And on the subject of lenses, M43 has several advantages. Foremost, it has the widest range of lenses of any mirrorless system, especially since multiple producers are adhering to the platform. That on its own would be enough to sway many towards it rather than wait for others to catch up, and if played well, by the time they do, M43 will already be the dominant system. Secondly there is also a slew of older 4/3rd lenses which can be used on M43 with an adaptor, and with the latest OM-D EM-1, these can now also be used with phase detect AF, making the focusing much faster. On paper, I'm quite impressed, and that doesn't happen often.

If I'm right, DSLRs will become the new medium formats, increasingly relegated to studio environments and high end work. My guess is DX might survive for a while but will soon take the mirrorless route too. Nikon and Canon will hopefully finally realise that their best option is to convert their DX users into mirrorless DX users, making the cameras smaller, cheaper and able to use the many DX lenses available with an adaptor until new ones are created specifically for the mirrorless format. Oh, right - that's what Olympus just did with Four-Thirds! I'm betting that mirrorless cameras will rule the future. The technology is maturing fast, and will very soon catch up with SLR performance. Indeed I believe it's already nearly there. I've read of a myriad of pros switching to M43, and the main reason is size and weight. Of course there will be some compromise, but the gap is closing very fast, and I personally think that I can live with the compromises to save a kilogramme of weight on my next trip to Paris. Now, I just have to try it and see for myself.

Last modified on Wednesday, 09 October 2013 08:36

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