Is This the End of Micro Four Thirds?

Is This the End of Micro Four Thirds?

Olympus recently announced the sale of their camera division, bringing an end to the storied company's history, at least in the iteration that we know. Does that mean the end of micro four thirds along with it?

Do you remember much about computers in 2008? Back then, Sony Vaios were some of the coolest laptops and desktops out there. They were absolutely beautiful and often innovative, though admittedly expensive. Still, though, they were experimental, they pushed boundaries, and they made many geeks (myself included) often drool over them. In fact, if you are not familiar with the old Vaio line, you should check out this photo essay, as you might be surprised by just how neat those computers were. 

Unfortunately, a product being innovative and desirable does not always translate to sales. In 2014, Sony sold the Vaio line to Japan Industrial Partners (the same company that is set to acquire Olympus' camera division), and six years later, only one model remains, the SX14. It is a shame — not that JIP had any obligation to continue the Vaio line's past history. In fact, that would probably be a bad idea, given that they acquired the line due to its lack of success in the first place. 

Micro Four Thirds

Back in 2008, when the micro four thirds system was released by Olympus and Panasonic, the camera world was a different place. You could generally draw a straight line from point and shoot through to digital medium format, one without many gaps and with a roughly direct correspondence between price and sensor size: small sensors, micro four thirds, APS-C, full frame, medium format. However, something else was on the horizon that would drastically alter the camera industry and break that chain of continuous correspondence.

Just the year before, the first iPhone had been released, and the seeds of the smartphone camera revolution were planted. Digital camera sales would peak over the next couple of years before beginning a precipitous drop over the next decade, dropping almost 90% by the end of the decade. That left the industry in a very different place. The main victim of the smartphone revolution was the point and shoot, which was replaced by the smartphone, as most casual consumers simply wanted a device for capturing memories, and the convenience, simplicity, and connectivity of smartphones outweighed whatever image quality gains could be had by moving up to a point and shoot, and indeed, today, many smartphones meet or even exceed lower-level point and shoots. 

This left the world of dedicated cameras for enthusiasts and professionals, who have different needs and desires than the casual consumer. This separated the various sensor sizes into different purposes and groups: medium format for upper-end studio photographers, full frame as the standard for most professionals and dedicated enthusiasts, APS-C as an alternative for professionals and a popular choice for enthusiasts, and micro four thirds for a wide range of enthusiasts and a few professionals, especially a portion of video shooters. 

In recent years, APS-C has been making huge strides, spurred on by Fuji's highly popular and respected X Series of cameras. APS-C's role in the industry has expanded in both directions: as quality lens offerings have expanded, sensor performance has improved notably, and bodies have gained professional features, more and more photographers have embraced the format's size and cost as a fantastic alternative to full frame. On the other end, budget offerings have continued to expand and have often encroached on the price territory of micro four thirds. The other draw was that there was often some degree of cross-compatibility with a company's full frame mount, giving users an upgrade route if they so desired. 

Panasonic

In the meantime, Panasonic has pushed into the full frame mirrorless market and joined the L-Mount Alliance with Leica and Sigma. And they wasted no time getting serious about it with the S1 and S1R. And the great video capabilities of those cameras left a question lingering: what was Panasonic planning to do with their micro four thirds cameras, which are mostly known for their usage in videography? And then came the S1H, which now offers 6K raw video, making it one of the leading consumer-level video-oriented cameras. Its arrival only underscored that aforementioned question all the more. Maintaining two lens mounts simultaneously is not a cheap proposition, and in an industry continually feeling the pressure of shrinking demand, they might decide it is more prudent for them to focus their attention on a single mount, and given their recent entrance into L-Mount Alliance and fast development of their full frame system, the likely winner of such a head-to-head matchup would be full frame.

Olympus

What does Japan Industrial Partners plan to do with Olympus? They may have a strong transition services agreement in place with Olympus if they intend to continue business as usual. In a statement on the events, Olympus said:

JIP is a strong investment fund with a track record of success and has maximized the growth of many brands. JIP will use the innovative technologies and solid brand position of Olympus within the market, while also improving the profit structure of Olympus’s imaging business.

Of course, that could mean a wide range of things. "Improving the profit structure" can mean drastically shrinking development and offerings, or it could mean revamping the lineup, or it could mean selling off the company's assets and intellectual property. It remains to be seen. However, after the imaging division reported losses of almost $100 million during the fiscal year ending in March of this year, it's clear that it is going to take drastic action of some sort to right the ship. 

Conclusion

It certainly seems that the micro four thirds system is at a bit of a crossroads, with one company in the system focusing on the development and deployment of their own full frame system in tandem with two other companies and the other being sold, all against the backdrop of an industry moving increasingly toward a niche status for enthusiasts and professionals. If nothing else, I certainly hope that we will see Olympus' innovation make it into other cameras in the future if the company and micro four thirds don't survive. 

Where do you see micro four thirds going? 

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73 Comments

Matt Williams's picture

I think the one thing that will keep m4/3 alive is video. It's not just Panasonic anymore - well, it is in the stills world. But Blackmagic, Z-CAM, and a number of others have long used the m4/3 mount and there are tons of cinema lenses manufacturers out there that make m4/3 cine lenses. And it definitely has benefits over larger sensors for video, namely more depth of field for a given exposure.

I agree. The mix of size, weight, and capability that the GH5 / GH5S provides is top notch. There's literally nothing else I'd rather bring into street journalism situations. But it's an equally capable filmmaking camera, and the fact that these bodies can be had for $1400-$2000 is absolutely ridiculous to me. 10 bit, 4:2:2, 4K, with VLOG-L and dual IS - there's literally nothing like it on the market. It's not perfect (The AF is kind of meh, it's only 20 MP, focus by wire native lenses) but it's more than sufficient for what I need it for. It's paid for itself many times over.

Also, people talk about the (very real) disadvantages of the sensor size, but they also forget that one of the HUGE advantages of the MFT sensor is the fact that you can adapt pretty much any lens to it. Canon, Nikon, Four Thirds, Canon FD, you name it, you can probably adapt it. The only thing you can't adapt is other mirrorless lenses, but given that there are literally hundreds of other lenses you can use, that's still a significant advantage.

If I want to break my back adapting my FF Canon glass because I want full time manual focus and mechanical focus rings, I can do that. If I need to cover everything from 24mm FFE to 300mm FFE, I can do that with two lenses that weigh less than three pounds. THAT'S NUTS.

Michael Krueger's picture

Unless Panasonic plans to introduce budget FF cameras as cheap as $500 I don't think they'll drop M4/3 any time soon. They would kill their sales if they only sold a premium line of L mount cameras. Wouldn't surprise me if they slowed development of premium camera bodies and lenses, but I don't expect them to leave the market entirely. Personally I have Panasonic M4/3 gear along with Nikon FX and DX, the value of how compact the M4/3 lenses are cannot be underestimated.

It's also an open standard that Kodak and Yi have dipped their toes into although unsuccessfully. Sony produces sensors. M4/3 has made it onto drones as well. We have no idea how long Olympus gear will remain available or if JIP will continue the line or eliminate it.

Kim Ginnerup's picture

I like my Olympus gear a lot. So it is kinda sad. I think that Olympus cameras have a very reach and unique feature set. I do not see any other brand that has the same. For kbnow i will keep shooting with my oly gear I may buy the mc-20.
When the day comes where the systems fails to work I will have to see what to do. They talk about that this is an opportunity for Panasonic. I am not sure that I agree. Maybe I will buy a Panasonic body to my oly lenses. But I like the oly feature set and I do not see Panasonic is even close to match that. So when the day comes I may go to an APS-C camera and it will not be Canon. i have never liked that brand.

LA M's picture

Done like dinner.

Why would anyone buy M4/3 at the current price levels when APSC and FF are same price or less?

Lens size and weight. It doesn't have to be more complicated than that. Also, there are types of photography where the DOF advantage of MFT is useful. I'm a MFT user and don't plan to switch. Low light is really the only significant advantage of FF as far as I'm concerned. If you are bananas for bokeh that might be another.

LA M's picture

Better dynamic range...greater DOF control, and the sizes of the top spec M4/3 lenses are not far off from what is offered on FF formats..and the prices are lower/or at par. Why buy a system that is now DOA?

And I was a heavy M4/3 user since 2012...and left it in 2017.

Matt Williams's picture

The issue and topic of the article is whether it actually is DOA.

I see Panasonic keeping it alive for a while, for a number of reasons. Their GH line alone probably sells boatloads. Video will keep m4/3 afloat - not just Panasonic, but other companies like Blackmagic and Z-CAM, among many more. M4/3 has distinct advantages for video in particular.

And "top spec" is a pretty loose and subjective term. I think what you really mean is "fast, f/1.2 type lenses." If you aren't trying to match the DOF of FF, there is nothing in APS-C or FF land that competes with the size, quality, and price of lenses like the Olympus 45/1.8, Panasonic 14/2.5, Panasonic 20/1.7, Olympus 60/2.8 Macro, Olympus 75-300, Panasonic 100-300, etc etc etc. Nowhere else can you get 600mm of reach with excellent IQ at or under $600 in a lens that's smaller than a kit telephoto zoom.

Joe Malone's picture

I agree, M4/3's lost the size and weight argument a long time ago, when other brands started to develop their mirrorless lines more. Pick up a Fuji XT30, with lenses, and compare it to an EM1 Mk2/MK3 with equivalent lenses, the Fuji is lighter and in my opinion gives better image quality. I own an XT30, and owned an EM1Mk2. Also, if size and weight is your USP, and it was, why release a brick like the EM1X?

Teemu Paukamainen's picture

Why not compare it to E-M5III instead of the bigger, bulkier E-M1III? They're almost the same camera specswise. People ALWAYS pick the biggest m4/3 bodies to compare against the smallest models from competitors. Same goes for lenses. Always comparing the PRO lens lineup while there are lots of quality, small lenses offered as well.

Joe Malone's picture

Makes no difference, there's no size and weight advantage, and better IQ from the XT30. Also, I could pick up a new EM1 2 and an XT30 for about the same price. I still own an EM5 MK1, the XT30 is smaller and lighter.

You’re right, 425 vs 574 vs 383g respectively ..and 2012 vs 2016 vs 2019 respectively.

Teemu Paukamainen's picture

How's the weathersealing on XT30? Or the fps? Or other features? Please don't compare an enthusiast/semi-pro model to a beginner's one thinking they're 1:1. :D There's more to cameras than the sensor size.

Can you give a proper replacement for my 75mm F1.8 without gaining size and weight?

Joe Malone's picture

Why, do you just carry the lens, with no camera? It's a spurious argument unless also taking into account the weight of the camera. Can you give me an Olympus camera replacement for the Fuji XT30 without gaining size and weight?

You tell there is no size and weight advantage. I ask for a replacement of my favorite lens. You can't name 1. The E-M10 Mark II is a nice replacement for your X-T30. Combined with the 75mm it will be great and with IBIS.

Sure hope for fuji users that the X-T40 coming next year does have IBIS.

Joe Malone's picture

No, I can actually, the XF50 is a nice portrait lens, but only 200g, that would save you about 130g. The EM10 MKII is not a "nice replacement"... Its got a 16MP sensor versus a 26MP sensor, there's no contest when it comes to IQ. You carry on cherry picking.

Yes, just like you with a 75mm equivalent lens VS a 150mm equivalent lens. Lol. There is indeed no contest in iq between these 2 lenses. The 75mm is way better.

Joe Malone's picture

I do enjoy you over emotional brand fanatics.

SPEE DING's picture

How much does it weigh to add a decent handgrip, IBIS, and weather sealing to your XT30? I suppose the XH1 is the result lol

Joe Malone's picture

Weather sealing, so you are comparing the EM1 MK2, to the XT30 then, funnily enough, you complained when I did that! Make you mind up. FYI, I don't use IBIS, I'm a landscape photographer, and neither would I ever use a grip, I have tiny tiny hands. I shoot with an A7R3, I only use the XT3 and XT30 for travel.

SPEE DING's picture

I never complained, try again. I wouldn’t consider XT30 or A7R3 due to lack of weather sealing among other factors. XT3 is okay...glad they finally updated it with mediocre IBIS and a fully articulating screen.

Joe Malone's picture

I'm sure the majority of XT3 owners will be thrilled to have some minor validation from am Olympus fan. Will you tell us what camera you actually shoot with, and perhaps point us towards your amazing Portfolio so we can appreciate why you're so emotional about your camera brand? Because I don't have your fanaticism about camera brands, I can take a more balanced view and concede that Olympus made great cameras, they have the best weather sealing on some high end cameras, the best IBIS in the business, and I actually even like their menu system, but perhaps that's because I've used them for years. However, newsflash... none of this was enough, their last three camera's were parts bin insults to their customer base and their IBIS and weather sealing wasn't enough for them to make a profit. No one should ever get emotionally attached to camera brands the way you obviously have; it's just a camera.

SPEE DING's picture

I think you mean “cameras” and that answer is Canon, Sony, Hasselblad, Leica, Pentax, Olympus and Panasonic. I don’t have a brand, I have tools to accomplish the job. Your fictionally applied fanboism only erodes your position. I’m not sure anyone is attached to a brand, but given your trumpeting, perhaps you’ve proven me wrong. Cameras like the EM1X are rather cheap when I consider Fuji wants $10,000 for an integrated grip mirrorless camera 🤣

Joe Malone's picture

No portfolio then to impress us on how you got the job done? Anyone who describes an an EM1X as cheap, has clearly wandered off into fantasy land, which is a comment that can generally be applied to your last post.

SPEE DING's picture

Personal insults? Sorry Joe, you’re better than that (I hope). The EM1X costs less than any other integrated grip camera on the market. I bought two for less than I paid for the 1DXII. Fantastically capable and reliable.

Joe Malone's picture

Ah, you were the one who bought it. Yes, I'd be over emotional too, given the circumstances.

SPEE DING's picture

Try reading - I purchased two. Little need for the 1DXII now. Maybe I’ll donate it. The EM1X’s are excellent. I’m guessing you’ve never shot with one. Too bad, I would be interested in your feedback.

What better dynamic range? Better tech sure (a lot of firsts) but overall APS-C is the true good enough. 4/3 was always odd to me. Maybe we haven't seen the full potential as of yet, but then again how much longer would we have to wait to truly see this and for what price especially comparison?

Because it meets my needs.

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