When I first wrote about using mirrorless cameras for journalism in 2014, the Sony Alpha series had just been launched a few months before in 2013. Panasonic was just hitting its stride with the GH series of cameras and Fuji had just really started kicking off its X-Series cameras. Things have certainly changed.
In 2014, mirrorless really meant Micro Four Thirds, the dominant mirrorless system at the time from Olympus and Panasonic. Though the sensor size was roughly half the size of a full-frame sensor, these small wonders punched well above their weight. DSLRs were dominant in journalism, but I made the case for Micro Four Thirds cameras as ideal journalism tools.
In what is perhaps a sign of the times, in 2014, of the 38 photos that won the World Press Photo contest, only two were Micro Four Thirds cameras, and both of them were Olympus models. In 2020, none of them were Micro Four Thirds format cameras, though many were APS-C or full frame mirrorless models.
I have prognosticated on the death of Micro Four Thirds a few times. That doesn’t mean I want it to die; I love my Olympus cameras. But the future hasn’t seemed quite as rosy for the system as it did in 2014.
But recent life events have forced me to shoot a lot more journalism with my Micro Four Thirds cameras and lenses, and with it, I’ve rediscovered what spurred me to write what I wrote seven years ago. Micro Four Thirds cameras are really pretty awesome for journalists, even if rumors are to be believed and the system is in the twilight of its existence.
Lightweight Cameras and Lenses
A back injury forced me to rethink some camera gear in the past, and I briefly returned to Micro Four Thirds during the healing process, but then as I got better, I slowly worked back up into full frame cameras, shooting with my Nikon D750 and then Canon EOS R more and more. While I love the image quality of both and there is no doubt about them being the superior tools from a pure image quality standpoint, when it came to journalism, being forced back into Micro Four Thirds was a revelation.
A part of that revelation had to do with what I was covering. With the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, the country was plunged into protests and civil unrest, with demonstrators marching across every small town in this country. That meant to document it involved a lot of walking, for a lot of hours. While there were some times I opted to go the 24-105mm one-lens route with an EOS R, I shied away from more than that for the number of footsteps and time involved. It’s a lot to carry full frame gear.
Then I dusted off the Micro Four Thirds system for the last few protests and it’s been a revelation. Aside from being able to carry myriad small lenses that give me more options and plenty of reach beyond a 24-105, I forgot how good the video quality was on the Panasonic models, even a mid-range one like the Lumix G85. And unlike DSLRs, focusing directly off the sensor means no fiddling with micro-adjustments and all of that nonsense.
Beyond all of this, the lightweight and small size of the cameras and in-built stabilization in most models make it easy to stick them on top of a monopod and hold it over a crowd to get easy scene-setting images such as this:
It’s a trick that I would hesitate to do with a heavy full frame camera and lens, at least my EOS R anyway.
Oh, and I could walk around all day with the gear without straining my back or drawing the same attention that all the journalists lugging a pair of D5s with telephoto lenses did. A win-win for Micro Four Thirds on this metric.
Awful Repair Process, Questionable Build Quality
In 2014, I had never had the “pleasure” of experiencing a repair process from Panasonic or Olympus. Unfortunately, in 2016, one of the dials of my GH3 broke (not an uncommon thing amongst my other fellow photographers who shoot Panasonic) and this tweet sums up how that went:
It’s enough to make me just throw out the camera next time, and it is certainly why I haven’t invested in any high-end Micro Four Thirds bodies since the GH3. Service from the big two (Canon and Nikon) is leagues better than this. With the recent sale of Olympus’ imaging division, I can’t imagine this situation getting any better when it comes to repairing Micro Four Thirds cameras.
The Final Word
At the start of covering the Black Lives Matter movement last year, I often ran into another photographer, Susan Kozody Silkowitz, who was pretty much the only person I ever saw committing acts of photojournalism with Micro Four Thirds cameras. It seemed a bit odd at first, but after walking many miles at many protests, the choice made much more sense, and it caused me to rethink what I shoot journalism with. It seems that my fellow writers are also in agreement.
Micro Four Thirds will never be able to compete with full-frame when it comes to ISO performance. Continuous autofocus will always be middling, at best, especially on Panasonic models, which doggedly refuse to employ phase detection autofocus. And Panasonic seems hell-bent on making the ugliest camera bodies out there, functional though they may be.
But conversely, Micro Four Thirds systems will always have an incredible selection of lenses because most brands can be adapted to the smaller sensors. Native lenses have always been pretty reasonably priced compared to the full frame counterparts. And focusing and image quality are good enough to get 95% of what journalists need to do.
Even now in 2021, Micro Four Thirds is worth a long look from photojournalists.