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a history of the Micro Four Thirds camera system part I - overview

overview

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” said Jean-Baptise Alphonse Karr in 1849. Translated into English, it is, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” 164 years later, it remains just as relevant even if we’re talking about cameras. Even as the industry moved from dramatically film to digital, the quest for more compact designs with greater packaging efficiency remains unchanged. While this might not have been evident from the early days of the DSLR, the undercurrent was always there…so long as Olympus lurked in the conscience of the market leaders.

When Olympus re-entered the system camera market with their iteration of a new format, called FourThirds, the derision was hard to ignore. Wherever you went, from one camera store to the next, the criticisms were scathing. It was no different on the Internet with numerous websites writing the company’s chances off, claiming that it had ‘everything’ to do with the sensor. Conspiracy believers will tell you that clearly someone was orchestrating the ‘bigger is better’ mentality in the new digital era and doing it rather quite successfully. Pouncing on the emerging youthful generation weaned on digital imaging technology produced almost instant results as more people invested their belief in size being ‘everything.’ And hence we began to grow up accepting that sensors have to be as large as one can get in order to get acceptable image quality, which was all to the detriment of Olympus’ FourThirds efforts. But that wasn’t all. Size also played a role in moulding mindsets into believing that only intimidatingly large DSLR cameras are considered serious. Anything smaller just wouldn’t do no matter what the brochures say.

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Olympus OM-1 Image courtesy of Martin Taylor

However as Alphonse Karr would be wont to say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Having savoured the ‘impossible’ – when Olympus buckled the trend with their OM-1 in 1972 – the desire to repeat the feat soon grew once again and no change of medium from film to digital was ever going to stifle it.

The Dark Precursor Days

In all respects FourThirds was an important cornerstone. The thinking behind the smaller sensor format was important and despite criticisms, it was also well placed. While it didn’t quite wash with their DSLR platform, the fundamental principles showed much more clarity and purpose once the mirror box was done away with. With Olympus’ efforts with the E-System DSLRs, the mounting criticisms were simply too hard to ignore. Right at the point of the E-300, the company’s second model after the E-1, critics were slamming their efforts.

There was no denying that Olympus struggled to carve out its existence in the tough DSLR market. As Canon was running away with the market leadership and with Nikon in pursuit, Olympus was finding it very difficult to lift their game. From the innovative E-1 and E-300, the company went ‘backwards,’ by steering their designs back to the mainstream looking for broader mainstream market acceptance. Business went worse again when the supply of sensors switched from Kodak to Panasonic in order to introduce its industry-changing LiveView technology.

Panasonic’s venture into FourThirds was even bleaker. While Olympus persisted and produced fourteen DSLR models to date* with possibly one or two more coming out soon, the electronics giant gave up after only two tries, the DMC-L1 and the -L10. Leica, another early FourThirds participant, released only one model, the Digilux 3, which was based on Panasonic’s rangefinder-styled L1. Together, participation by Panasonic and Leica was conspicuously short-lived. In addition, their contribution to FourThirds’ lens library was poor.

* E-1, E-300, E-500, E-330, E-3, E-400, E-410, E-420, E-510, E-520, E-30, E-620, E-600, E-5

Nonetheless there were clear advantages with FourThirds except that they were not nearly as well promoted. Because of the format’s 2X crop factor, the lenses were nowhere as large. In other words a 50-200mm telephoto zoom lens looks ordinary in terms of size until we realise that it is competing against the much-larger 100-400mm lens instead. The impressive 150mm f2.0 telephoto marvel is no small lens but with an effective equivalent of 300mm, its handling advantage cannot be doubted. The company’s 14-54mm standard zoom lens may be physically similar to the APS-C based 18-55mm but at f2.8-3.5, it is substantially brighter and its optical performance is in a different league altogether.

A beleaguered Olympus had very little opportunity to fully develop FourThirds while it fended off scathing criticisms about its sensor performance. Given that the sensors came from Panasonic, that was a burden it had to carry all the way to the E-5, E-30 and the E-620, all of which are Olympus’ most recent DSLRs to date. Because the sensors were underwhelming in terms of dynamic range and high ISO noise performance, FourThirds would never really get off the ground no matter how hard the company tried.

Still the jewels in the crown remained their lenses. For so many of its loyal fans, admirers and followers, the Zuiko Digital lenses were the key reason not forgetting their best-in-class in-camera JPEG rendering engine. Both of these allowed Olympus to hang on with the skin of their teeth.

Revelations at the Photokina 2008

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Logos courtesy of Olympus Imaging Corporation (left) and Panasonic Corporation (right)

In 2008, the clearest warning was sounded at Photokina by Olympus who decided to join hands with Panasonic in launching the Micro FourThirds format. And at the centre of this new move was the oft-criticised FourThirds sensor. Mocked for its diminutiveness, when applied to the new mirrorless concept, the sensor was suddenly considered large! With a camera body that looked like it belonged to a digital family compact, the FourThirds sensor now played a stunning role in delivering image quality albeit in a package that was remarkably smaller than any DSLR footprint.

Although Olympus found it almost impossible to shrug off the perennial rounds of criticisms, curiosities were stirred in at least some quarters. For some, the day had finally come where pleasure and satisfaction could be gotten from a much smaller package without the limitations of a typical compact camera. On the other hand for those who felt cheated by Olympus for yet another format change, Micro FourThirds was never going to be the game changer that the company was hoping for. Still these were early days.

But the stirrings were there by now. Moved by daringness, people began to warm to the idea of going small while retaining the virtues of lens interchangeability and systemisation. The notion of abandoning large and heavy DSLR outfits was soon a distinct reality and not so impossible or ridiculous. Olympus’ mirrorless proposition was met by an industry that was by now divided. There were those who were happier for the status quo to remain – APS-C DSLRs were too difficult to unseat because they were the widely accepted comfort zone and nothing was going to change that. There were also others who saw this as a great opportunity to break away from the monolithic duo who dominated the market to such an extent that expecting change was impossible. These were makers who saw a different view of the future with mirrorless.

With the way forward paved by Olympus’ and Panasonic’s pioneering efforts, Sony, Samsung and Fujifilm joined in. Together all five became solid prime movers, taking to new frontiers and daring the market to change their mindset along with them. By 2010, the mirrorless market segment began to move beyond being a discrete blimp on the radar to something more tractable. Inch by inch, the market for interchangeable-lens system cameras ceded to mirrorless cameras as Olympus, Panasonic and Sony started to make their presence even more felt and often at the expense of the DSLR cameras.

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Olympus Pen E-P5 Image courtesy of Olympus Imaging Corporation

By the middle of 2011, Olympus had gained sufficient ground to lead mirrorless camera sales from the front. Critics may point to this as a phenomenon specific only to the Japanese domestic market, the indications are clear that this dominance will eventually spread to other geographic regions across Asia, Europe and North America. Right now, Olympus’ market traction in Japan as shown by BCN Rankings, continues to be a bellwether indicator with its best performance amongst the top twenty bestselling mirrorless cameras.

The Status Quo Caught Flatfooted

In light of the remarkable impact caused by the popularity of mirrorless cameras, two of Olympus’ deadliest traditional rivals were caught flatfooted – Canon and Nikon. While many competitors have jumped in and got into the act quickly (Sony in particular was very responsive), both were seen dragging their feet. It was obvious that they were hesitant, not knowing how to respond, knowing that it could impact their own highly profitable APS-C DSLR offerings.

Nikon was the better of the two. While they took a long time to get their act together, they revealed their 1 System, which went on to become very popular in Japan. However with their far smaller sensor, competing against Micro FourThirds, let alone APS-C, was going to be a bit of a stretch. Nonetheless Nikon has now committed to developing yet another system of lenses and accessories within their own offerings.

Unlike Micro FourThirds expansive line-up of supporting vendors, it appears that the Nikon 1 System would remain proprietary and isolated, at least for now. The Micro FourThirds platform has now spawned an increasingly larger circle of devices and options that include high-speed industrial imaging devices, professional cine cameras, high-resolution technical cameras not to mention also, manual and autofocusing lenses, turbo-boosted lens adaptors and active/passive mount converters, underwater housings and lens ports, video and still cameras and even monorails. In short, as Micro FourThirds continue to force the hand of the mirrorless community by being the default prevailing standard, Nikon’s 1 System is merely a bit player, surviving on an even smaller circle of following.

Canon appears to be even more precariously perched. If Nikon took almost forever to showcase their 1 System, Canon was conspicuously missing until the inevitable EOS M reluctantly broke cover. And it wasn’t an effort worth bragging. Even as Nikon commits to its 1 System, adding more lenses to improve its appeal, Canon’s lackadaisical attitude towards the EOS M is only matched by its lukewarm approach to the mirrorless idea and they stand to lose out significantly.

It is evident that Canon doesn’t see a way out of its conundrum. In either case, the company may lose out big. Should they decide to pour efforts into developing its EOS M platform and add more lenses and accessories, their APS-C DSLR offerings may take an unacceptable hit as they join the mirrorless movement. This involvement could easily result in sales cannibalisation, which in turn produces declining sales numbers that it probably cannot arrest. Canon could be looking at shedding more dollars than it could earn from its EOS M platform.

If Canon evolves its mirrorless offerings and expands its line-up, broadens its appeal and enriches the system, its prized two- and three-digit EOS DSLR models will be the most impacted. If they develop more advanced technologies and sharpen their EOS M performance with better image quality and autofocusing, maybe its vaunted EOS 7D could be within striking distance in time to come. All of these do not bode well for Canon and although it all seems an unimaginable reality, it shows how hard it is for the company to endorse the mirrorless format, which of course begs the question as to why they even decided to produce the EOS M in the first place.

At this moment in time, it appears that Canon could be buying time. While the EOS M is out, there has been minimal promotion of the camera or its two lenses. Meanwhile they are expending a great deal of effort in not only downsizing their APS-C DSLR models but in making sure the public knows it. Why now when they should have done this a long time ago? Simple answer – they’re desperately trying to respond against the popularity of the mirrorless cameras. But this only begs the next question – why not use their EOS M to compete? After all, the EOS M is a mirrorless camera. The answer can be found in the above paragraphs.

So if Canon is emphasising the new found ‘compactness’ of their DSLR cameras, why then should the public think of their EOS M? I sit a Trojan camera with nowhere to go? Or perhaps just a complete waste of effort? Is it a camera with no future or one that about to be orphaned by its own parent? Could the EOS M be a big mistake in the first place? Or is it a confirmation of a company deeply divided in where its future actually lies?

Japan’s current love affair with the mirrorless camera revolution isn’t good news for Canon at all. If this trend picks up in the remaining parts of the world – and everything tells us it will – Canon could find themselves with plenty of DSLR cameras in the parking lot with nowhere to go fast. This can lead to some interesting if not unthinkable consequences for the world’s biggest camera maker.

Bigger problems for Canon are what its deadly enemies are doing while they remain indecisive over mirrorless. Firstly the much-oppressed Olympus appears to be in a much better position with its Pen and OM-D cameras of late. Secondly of course, Nikon has gone on a flying start with its miniscule 1 System cameras. Then there are Panasonic and Sony. Of the two, Panasonic has generated a lot of positive news about its Lumix G-series cameras when it comes to their video capabilities. Astoundingly popular these days, they have been constantly stealing the limelight for their remarkable video qualities. Sony’s NEX system isn’t doing too badly at all as well, closing in on Panasonic in terms of mirrorless market popularity.

All of them are commanding excellent income streams from mirrorless sales and together, the impact on the DSLR market segment cannot be ignored anymore. And in this regard, Canon is nowhere to be seen. While mirrorless sales command a majority of system camera-related income for Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung, and Ricoh and to some extent, even Sony, the same cannot be said of Canon as their EOS M hardly registers a blimp even in Japan’s BCN rankings.

Disruptive Technology Drives Change

Having been the default form factor for interchangeable-lens system cameras since 1992, replacing DSLRs with mirrorless cameras as the market mainstay is not an overnight process. Neither will it take place without some very tough competition to overcome. Today DSLRs are still very formidable opposition that will require a few more years of battling it out in the sales area. So while the very concept of DSLR now appears dated or outmoded, old habits are diehard. However if medium-format roll film cameras could be forced to make way for the smaller-footprint, cheaper and more versatile 35mm SLR camera, there is no reason to believe that it won’t happen today with mirrorless displacing the DSLR design.

Disruptive technologies are exactly what they are. They are disruptive, unsettling the status quo and forcing change that transforms the market dynamic and revolutionising the user community, revitalising them with bigger and better promises. And in most every way, they will feel the improvements and see the worthwhile changes. All of these provide disruptive technologies with an unavoidable face of change – one that the status quo is often loathed to accept let alone change along with it.

We’ve seen the destructive potential of disruptive technologies in many other industries. While we’ve experienced the enormity of the change in the software industry (WordPerfect and WordStar come to mind but there are hundreds of other examples), the camera industry may, on face value, appear less so but there are just as many examples:

Exposure Modes
(1) From Manual only to semi-automatic as in Aperture- and/or Shutter-Priority; (2) Then from semi-auto to fully-auto Program; (3) Then from fully-auto Program to sub-Program ‘scene’ modes
Film Advance
(1) From manual film winding (with advance lever) to attached motorised winder with auto frame advance and auto load to first frame; (2) From manual film rewinding (with release lock button and folded crank lever) to attached motorised continuous drive unit with auto full-speed film rewind; (3) From attachable motorised winder (or motordrive) to built-in motorised auto loading, film advance and rewinding (with auto-stop)
Film Speed Selection
(1) From manual ASA/DIN film speed dial to in-camera DX coding
Electronic Flash
(1) From remote PC or X-socket connection to built-in hotshoe; (2) From external flash attached to hotshoe to built-in pop-up flash; (3) From manual flash-to-distance aperture setting to auto zone-type distance range aperture; (4) From thyristor-based zone range aperture auto to Through-The-Lens (TTL) Off-The-Film (OTF) auto; (5) From full red-eye effect with direct flash to pre-flash strobe for reduced red-eye effects; (6) From manual flash sync speed selection to auto flash sync electronic lock (when used with dedicated flash)
Lenses
(1) From prime/fixed focal length to variable focal length/zoom lenses; (2) From two- to one-touch zoom lenses; (3) From manual hand-operated lens focusing to motorised remote auto lens focusing and then to full in-camera autofocusing
Physical Footprint
(1) From medium-format roll-film to 35mm single-lens reflex cameras; (2) From large, clunky and heavy 35mm SLR cameras to compact-sized SLR cameras; (3) From all-metal to plastic-based camera bodies
Exposure Metering
(1) From balancing need with lollipop market (or + and – scale) to electronic indicators and then later, fully digital displays; (2) From centre-average metering to predictive auto-compensating metering pattern

Change is as unavoidable as life, death and taxes. There is not a moment when things really stand still. While the big picture still screams ‘DSLR,’ the end of the road isn’t very far away either. In other words there is every reason to expect that this will not last and that DSLRs will one day make way completely for the mirrorless cameras to take over. Right now DSLRs remain the mainstay but only because there is still some way for mirrorless to improve further.

The pace at which change will come will depend very much on how dramatic new improvements come to the new format. In 2009, mirrorless showed promise but there was still no comparison with APS-C DSLRs when it came to image quality or outright technical performance. In areas like autofocusing, mirrorless lagged behind at that time. Hardly three years later, the mirrorless proposition became unavoidable and difficult to ignore. Image quality not only rivals the larger DSLRs but in several cases, eclipses them, which is why mirrorless cameras from Olympus, Panasonic, Sony and Fujifilm manage to outflank their heavier, larger and chunkier competitors.

The differences in outright desirability will continue to move inexorably towards the smaller but increasingly capable mirrorless camera – to that, there is no doubt. What we’re now seeing frequently is that each and every new mirrorless camera is edging closer in every aspect of performance and quality.

We believe that today, the question of image quality (IQ) no longer begs any response – cameras like the GH5, E-M5, E-P5 and NEX-7 have tremendous traction in the market and testimonies by their owners lay proof that all but full-frame DSLRs no longer hold any worthwhile lead. The barrier has been convincingly breached and there’s no looking back anymore. Expectations are now high that mirrorless leaders will build on this to begin to surpass DSLR cameras in this regard.

As for technical performance, a small gap still exists but mirrorless leaders are again expected to close it very soon. Continuous-autofocusing (C-AF), very lowlight performance and exceedingly clean high-ISO files still elude but these are not unsurpassable. Once these solutions become standardised, mirrorless cameras will become so compelling that they are impossible to ignore for all but those with big and clumsy paws.

In every example that the world has seen, there are always those who may have been leaders in the past but they inevitably are victimised by their own inability to move with the times. As change comes, there will always be those who cling on to their dogmatic position, hoping to keep evolving when they should be climbing onboard and ride with the transformations.

The WordPerfect of the camera industry are plenty to witness over the decades. They lay ample proof to the fact that if a manufacturer does not respond proactively to the change the results can be devastating. Witness names of the past in the industry that were once prolific – during the latter days of the film era, Petri and Voigtländer are just two but there are obviously many others. The big shift from film to digital also claimed many big names including Yashica, Contax, Konica, Cosina, Chinon and Ricoh amongst others. Popular lens brands like Vivitar, Kiron, Makinon, Osawa, Soligor and Hanimex have long since disappeared as well.

As we move from DSLRs to mirrorless, the same devastation can take place again for those who refuse to accept the inevitable. The warning is clear.

Carving the Market Up

The irony of it all was that Olympus’ proclaimed efforts to downsize were derided by the know-it-all and scoffed by those who thought it nonsensical. That wasn’t all that long ago either. When it first happened during the film SLR days, the OM-1 came and conquered and the industry was never the same again – the ubiquitous 35mm film SLR camera moved from large and cumbersome to compact and lithe. Along the way, the cultural mindset changed and most people accepted the new and smaller form factor.

Because Olympus did not step into the DSLR realm immediately, the footprint reverted to obesity of the days before the OM-1. Cameras were once again large, imposing and inefficiently packaged. When the company decided to return in 2003 with a brand new format called FourThirds, market acceptance was cool essentially because the sensor size was even smaller than APS-C let alone full-frame. Fan boys were hoping for a ‘killer’ salvo for Olympus no doubt influenced by the ‘size is everything’ mindset perpetuated by Canon and Nikon but since FourThirds was touting anything but that philosophy, the disappointment was palpable.

The problem with FourThirds wasn’t the promise – it was how Olympus failed to deliver despite the 2X crop factor. While the lenses were definitely smaller, the cameras weren’t significantly so. By the time the E-3 and E-30 appeared, the condemnations were all too evident. Admittedly efforts exemplified by the E-400/410/420, E-510/520 and E-600/620 were good but by then, waning sales were a little too difficult to arrest. For Olympus, the decline was in place and reviving its fortunes was looking more like a tall order.

In the immediate aftermath of launching the new Micro FourThirds, there was a strong mix of excitement and scepticisms. Bitterness was levelled at Olympus by those who felt they were betrayed by yet another ‘pull out’ – these were the people who still believed the company should not be forgiven for the Pen-to-OM and then the OM-to-E-System migration. And naturally they see FourThirds-to-Micro FourThirds as more of the same. And so here lies Olympus’ predicament – if they make a move away from FourThirds, they’d be damned and if they stay with FourThirds, they’d still be damned.

However companies like Olympus had come to terms with the pointlessness in competing in the DSLR market, which by then was already sewn up by Canon and Nikon. The die was cast and they called the shots from the top. They wrote and still write the rules. Given all of that even Sony’s big push into the DSLR market was also proving futile. As for a small outfit like Olympus, it now seemed improbable that they could challenge for anything but minor concessions. In other words there was no chance of making any formidable challenge in an immovable market – hence a brand new format made better sense since it offered the best chance to move away and create a profitable niche. Olympus’ ability to recover would help it level the market, create a brand new territory and possibly, call the shots. With this opportunity, the two big names could find themselves competing on a level ground for the first time.

Although it took a few years, that strategy worked stunningly. Since 2009, Micro FourThirds has progressed quite successfully and along each step, Olympus – as well as Panasonic – advanced the platform, releasing one generation after another of new cameras, lenses and accessories. In the process, Micro FourThirds now hold a relatively unassailable position amongst all mirrorless systems currently in the market, carving a nice little niche for the two companies.

Today, the biggest winners in the mirrorless market segment are Olympus (Pen/OM-D), Panasonic (Lumix) and Sony (NEX) followed by Nikon (1), Fujifilm (X) and at the tail end, Pentax (Q) and Ricoh (GR). A long way behind is Canon (EOS). The irony here is that the more the mirrorless numbers keep chipping away at the DSLR market, the more determined Canon is in downsizing their APS-C DSLR cameras. As we see each new consumer-grade EOS becoming smaller, one is reminded how this strategy is supposed to work in light of their mirrorless EOS-M camera.

The Millennium’s New Shiny

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Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 Image courtesy of Panasonic Corporation

If we’re witnessing Olympus finally pushing all the right buttons, they’re not alone – Panasonic also appears to be on the roll. Both have put their FourThirds failure behind them and moved forward to a new but successful venture, one that is now paying off very handsomely. Although Micro FourThirds is a joint effort, many are aware that both companies bring different strengths into the partnership to make it such a success.

Olympus’ contribution is its trademark ingenuity, visionary talents and wealth of undeniable experience not to mention its traditional camera building craft, legendary lens quality, exposure management and class-leading colour rendition. It is entirely possible that the fundamental basis and principles behind Micro FourThirds itself could have come from Olympus. In fact there are many behind-the-scenes stories about how Micro FourThirds came about and when but these will have to wait for another time. Of course the company’s decision to move with the mirrorless idea had essentially stemmed from its inability to find traction with the FourThirds DSLR concept but in time, some have come to realise that the real FourThirds could actually be in fact what Micro FourThirds is really about!

Like Olympus, Panasonic had lessons learned from its doomed FourThirds experiment – they may be different in nature but the lessons were nonetheless invaluable. One was its association with Leica – while the venture doesn’t appear to be as successful as intended, the lesson proved that with or without Leica, Panasonic could not create a strong enough presence in the DSLR market. This lesson underlined its traditional roots in the video camera market in which the company was traditionally a far stronger player. In the DSLR market, Panasonic was time and again, a mere bit player with a small cameo role. Unlike Sony whose joint partnership with Zeiss appears at least on the surface to be more successful, Leica’s presence didn’t do as much for Panasonic.

This could explain why Panasonic’s strategy with Micro FourThirds is completely different. The emphasis of the Lumix G-series now appears more video-centric. We see this as a strong attempt to establish their credentials in a focus area that is divergent from Olympus’ more traditional still camera segment. While there is no doubt that the Lumix DMC-GH3 is a very capable digital still camera, its claim to fame is amongst video users. The GH3 has established a cult following that is the envy of other mirrorless camera makers and has today become a yardstick amongst keen video enthusiasts including seasoned amateurs and pro users. Of course by creating a strategy around its video strengths, Panasonic has landed itself right smack into Sony territory. To some extent, it is also an area in which Canon likes to see itself in.

So while Panasonic has chosen to march to a different beat, Olympus remains faithful to its traditional masse of loyal still camera users but that is also where its biggest problems lie. At the centre of its sharpest criticisms in recent years is the issue of compatibility. While FourThirds lenses are completely usable with its mirrorless cameras, promise of performance has not been forthcoming. Many of these DSLR lenses are remarkably good, which is why many insist on the company making them work with the same speed and efficiency on the new Pen and OM-D cameras. However no acceptable solution has arrived to date and until it does, Olympus’ Micro FourThirds will always remain on a limb.

To understand this troubling nature is to look at part of Olympus’ history of switching platforms after trying to sell the idea to consumers. The company did this when they produced the sensational 35mm half-frame Pen system complete with a comprehensive range of lenses and accessories only to abandon them with the introduction of the full 35mm OM System. Dropping the Pen system might not have hurt the company as much during the late Sixties but in the era of a far more connected and wired world, all of these came back to haunt the company.

And so when Olympus entered the DSLR fray with their E-System, its incompatibility with the traditional Zuiko lenses was marked out for scathing remarks. Despite providing an OM lens adaptor to retrofit the OM lenses to any E-System body, there was essentially not matching since the aperture ring doesn’t couple, there was no focus peaking and the depth of field preview button doesn’t do anything substantial. It was the simplest of adapting the lens to the camera via an adaptor that felt more like an afterthought.

Let’s also not forget Olympus’ ill-fated dabbling with the film-based AF-SLRs. While the company would be glad not to talk about this part of their history, the Internet is ever ready to help anyone to understand the hugely ineffective OM707AF (OM77) and also the hard-to-explain OM101PF (OM88), both of which were stunningly dismal and embarrassing failures. There is no doubt many industry-related reasons behind their failures but consumers don’t really care much about them. They merely see these as more examples of Olympus turning their backs on customers who have invested much in their belief of the company’s directions. Once these directions evaporate into thin air, they in turn create disillusionment.

But still the E-System was to some extent, grudgingly acceptable but it took years to convince OM aficionados to keep their loyalty and switch to the company’s digital offerings in the form of the FourThirds E System. Still ask any past owners of the company’s AF and PF lenses and they’ll explain why they feel Olympus betrayed and ignored them in their pursuit of sales and profits.

Having laboured over this for a few years, the 2008 announcement of Micro FourThirds made it easy for critics to remind the market that this was yet another example of Olympus abandoning its users. Therefore the inability of the Zuiko Digital lenses to work commensurately with the mirrorless bodies was a serious obstacle that the company must overcome before they can move on to better things.

As we come full circle with Olympus’ range of Pen and OM-D cameras, we can now see how their future hinges on the company’s ability to find a solution for their older FourThirds lenses. That these lenses must find a home in amongst its mirrorless future is undeniable. What is even more important is to note that when the platform arrives for these lenses to work flawlessly in a Pen or an OM-D, Olympus can seriously move forward and take on the rest of the world with gusto.

Ramping the Technology Curve

Even though Olympus is on a fine start with Micro FourThirds, it hasn’t been plain sailing and it won’t be for some time either. Trying to convince their DSLR owners to move up to the smaller mirrorless format has been a hard hill climb and one that is not without its foibles but all the same, it’s a challenge they can ill-afford to ignore. Loyalty is hard to come by these days especially when you’re competing against top-rung monoliths like Canon and Nikon. So when an issue concerning ownership and loyalty comes into question, it’s never advisable to dismiss it. Olympus would do well to continue focusing on bring out the best in Micro FourThirds in order to give their DSLR owners an easier step-up and the only way to do this is to ensure that their legendary FourThirds glass has a home with the Pen and OM-D cameras.

Unlike Panasonic who appeared to have changed its strategy by concentrating on video performance, Olympus’ focus is intently still photography. Even though video with the leading Pen and OM-D models remain very competitive, the company’s technologies are centred on delivering excellent still images. Their mastery could see them lead in the areas of colour imagery, optical qualities as well as outstanding sensors (in collaboration with Sony), autofocusing and image stabilisation. Unlike their DSLRs, Olympus this time has a serious opportunity to be a bigger thorn in Nikon’s and Canon’s flesh.

In the three years since the inception of Micro FourThirds, Olympus’ show of technology has been impressive. Notwithstanding the proven SSWF dust-reduction system from their DSLRs, their mirrorless cameras have demonstrated outstanding autofocusing capabilities that proved convincingly that phase-detection wasn’t necessarily superior. Starting with the Pen E-P3, the company’s F.A.S.T. design became the mainstay for the E-M5’s excellent autofocusing. With a bit more push in the same direction, the industry is expecting to see the same performance potential applied to continuous-autofocusing, still a weak area for mirrorless cameras.

Needless to say, Olympus came alive with their first OM-D camera, the E-M5, primarily because this was the first result of using a sensor that is the fruit of their collaboration with Sony. For the first time in many years, Olympus has a serious and up-to-date sensor to finally challenge for honours. With Panasonic, the company’s DSLRs after the E-400 and E-500 were plagued with poor upscale noise management. Not helped by Panasonic’s refusal to supply the latest sensor hardware, FourThirds DSLRs were going nowhere even though in every other aspect, they were actually competitive. The E-M5 – and then later, the E-P5 and E-PL5 – all proved that once better sensors were at hand, Micro FourThirds could rock all the way to the top and give every DSLR user reasons to migrate.

The evidence was there – that a 2X crop-factor sensor could deliver the goods. For years the market was told that any sensor smaller than APS-C was not competitive. Not exactly helped by also-ran sensors from Panasonic, FourThirds took the brunt. Sony’s involvement – in the form of the E-M5 – proved everyone wrong and the cult following swelled beyond Olympus’ wildest dreams. Today the best FourThirds sensors have remarkable dynamic range, outstandingly clean files at very high ISO levels, micro-colour stability, very recoverable RAW file integrity and excellent colour renditions. Given the company’s enviable reputation for best-in-class out-of-camera JPEG files, Micro FourThirds could only go up from here.

Another technology milestone for Olympus was how they turned a disadvantage into a very marketable edge when they confounded critics with the E-P3’s very fast autofocusing. In an industry where everyone is told that the best autofocusing comes from the DSLR-exclusive phase detection method, the E-P3’s capability was unheard of and virtually hard to believe. When Olympus repeated the feat with the E-M5 and then also with the E-P5 and E-PL5, the market sat up and took notice of the very fact that CDAF (contrast-detection AF) has finally come of age. Thanks to the company that so many today love to hate, the fastest autofocusing system does not necessarily reside in a DSLR camera anymore.

Yet another totally unexpected breakthrough was the E-M5’s in-camera five-axis image stabiliser, which was the first of its type in the market and with this, Olympus could now resolve vibrations in five different planes. This was at least three more than what the industry was offering at best and till today, the E-M5 remains the most comprehensive when it comes to image stabilisation. However the company bested this effort by making further improvements and then releasing it with the Pen E-P5.

Olympus’ innovations are best appreciated by still photographers. This makes sense because the company’s traditions and reputation all stem from their roots as a still camera and lens maker, a reputation that it continues to command no matter how one views its foray with FourThirds. On the other hand, their involvement in video is only just beginning and while there are plenty of Pen and OM-D models that are competent, it is Panasonic who has been grabbing all the headlines for the past three years. Together with Australia’s emerging outfit called Blackmagic, Micro FourThirds now has a very formidable presence in the amateur and pro videography community. And with plenty of lenses and accessories available, video has become a defining signature that has eclipsed both APS-C and full-frame formats.

Finally Turning the Corner

By 2013, some of us may be able to sense that Micro FourThirds has begun to turn the corner. From a technology standpoint, fortunes turned for a few important reasons and it is these (reasons) that the format will very likely be built on for continual success. They include the following:

  • The involvement of Sony and its sensors
  • The emergence of a new video standard
  • The arrival of real-world autofocusing
  • Widely embraced de facto mirrorless standard
  • Increasing acceptance by the pro community
  • Proven potential and the power of common sense

Without a doubt, choosing Sony’s rescue package over others was in hindsight, the most critical decision made. Apart from the much-needed cash injection, it was the electronic giant’s impressive sensors that ultimately saved Olympus. If you ever need to find the most significant turning point for the company, the Sony sensor-equipped E-M5 is the most evident. Almost overnight, the E-M5 did more than all the Pen models put together in restoring the company’s reputation and to thwart the competition. For once Olympus has a camera that could compete even against larger APS-C and full-frame DSLR competitors and remain competitive. In more than a few cases, the E-M5 pummels its more glamorous rivals.

Panasonic’s leadership in mirrorless-style video performance has definitely helped improve Micro FourThirds’ image and reputation. The Lumix GH-series models’ video capabilities have done far more in cementing the reputation and potential of mirrorless cameras than any other camera from Olympus or Sony. Even the launch of Panasonic’s purpose-driven AG-AF100 video camera was nowhere as evident as the decision of the German pair, Zeiss and Schneider-Kreuznach to join Micro FourThirds. This commitment is another way of saying to the industry that the format held remarkable potential that could now be exploited professionally.

Of course great sensors and wonderful video capabilities pale if autofocusing was not deliverable. When Olympus announced its F.A.S.T. (Frequency Acceleration Sensor) technology on July 22 2011 with the Pen E-P3, the full effect of its autofocusing performance was still not felt or appreciated. It was when the E-M5 came that everything became crystal clear – that the AF quality was real, was very competitive and definitely not hyped. When the Pen E-P5 proved that Olympus could actually improve upon this, the time had come when CDAF (contrast-detection) could finally hold its own. This fact alone did wonders for Micro FourThirds and the reputation of mirrorless cameras as a whole.

Olympus and Panasonic did enough to create sufficient traction to enhance Micro FourThirds’ position, which is no small feat since Sony, Fujifilm, Samsung and Nikon have made their presence felt here as well, not to mention Pentax and Ricoh. However alone, they probably wouldn’t have given the format wide acceptance. To do that, they needed other manufacturers to come in and endorse the standard. Makers like Sigma, Tokina, Tamron, Schneider, Zeiss, Komamura, Samyang, Blackmagic, Astro Design and so many others have all brought their weight into helping Micro FourThirds in becoming the industry’s de facto mirrorless standard. From thereon it was easy for the public to know where to direct their attention.

With DSLRs firmly establishing themselves as the consummate choice, swaying pro users is nowhere as easy as moving the consumer market. Marketing can only do so much. Pro users prefer hard numbers and facts. It doesn’t matter if their approach is or isn’t logical – the fact remains that pro users are extremely difficult to dissuade. In other words a hardcore Canon or Nikon user will have had enormous system investment in place and therefore one has to do far more than just talk about potential. On-paper capabilities are never going to be enough. Therefore for Micro FourThirds to have made major incisions into the pro market is a significant turning point and the Internet is filled with these stories across the world.

Lastly there is the issue of what ultimately makes sense to the average user. This is where one should be reminded that the force of change rests not with pro users but consumers who vote with their wallets. Each of these consumers may not invest as much as a pro photographer but as a mass, we’re talking about a multi-billion dollar industry that responds to the huge sales numbers that any popularity wave can rack up. Even if it’s not unanimous at the moment, the time will come when the average consumer will inevitably consider weight and size as key buying factors. There is nothing to leave to chance here – any basic comparison will convince the simplest of buyers because there’s no rocket science involved here. And when the rest of the market catches on with this fact, Micro FourThirds and the other popular mirrorless formats will catch fire.

The Key to It All Are Impressive Lenses

If anyone had gotten into the mirrorless act ahead of Olympus and Panasonic, they would have had a head start in releasing lenses. That would have given them the lead in terms of what many consumers would be looking into insofar as building a credible system around. Apart from various types of accessories, the most important would definitely be lenses, which is why because of the lead time, Micro FourThirds offers the best opportunities till today and unless a competing mirrorless outfit decides to seriously pull out the guns, Olympus and Panasonic will continue to enjoy leading the rest.

For the mirrorless format, any talk concerning lenses must deal with the issue of compatibility in which there are three types – Native, Cross-System and Legacy.

  • Native Compatibility refers to lenses that are specifically designed to work with the cameras without any need for mount adaptors. These are lenses that are fully dedicated and developed to work best with these cameras. For Micro FourThirds, these are the M.Zuiko Digital and Lumix-G lenses from Olympus and Panasonic respectively but they also include third-party lenses from Sigma, Tamron, Tokina and even Samyang and a few others.
  • Cross-System Compatibility refers to lenses that are meant for other camera systems and/or formats but were never specifically intended for use with the mirrorless camera bodies. In this particular case, this can be virtually any lenses that are developed for DSLR cameras from Olympus (FourThirds) or the APS-C and full-frame lenses designed for Nikon, Canon or even Sony. Unlike native lenses, these require the use of special lens mount adaptors, which may or may not provide full functionality.
  • Legacy Compatibility points to lenses that were designed for film cameras from the previous era. These are essentially manual-focusing lenses with mechanical aperture coupling and diaphragm control linkages. They feature a mechanical focusing ring as well. There are plenty of such lenses available in the secondhand open market and many of them still work beautifully although they require the use of dedicated lens mount adaptors. There are new lenses available that were originally designed for film cameras but the unique thing about these is that they have been adapted to support the use of Micro FourThirds cameras. Examples can be found from Voigtländer as well as Noktor and a few others.

Being early starters, Micro FourThirds leads in all three lens types amongst all the available mirrorless formats. Having built up a wide range of choices featuring AF or MF in the guise of primes, zooms and/or macros in the form of either conventional or special-purpose lenses, there is hardly a chance of anyone who cannot find one that matches his needs.

While wide lens support is common to DSLR systems offered by Canon, Nikon, Sony and even Pentax, it is not so widespread with the different mirrorless formats. Other than Micro FourThirds, some form of broad based lens support is available for Sony’s NEX and Fuji’s X systems. Even so, both pale by comparison and the key to all these is in the availability of the many different types of lens mount adaptors.

Migrations Seal the Fate

By the time cameras like the Pen E-P3 and the Lumix GH2 hit the market, the APS-C DSLR segment had begun to feel real threat. While it might be a little melodramatic to suggest that the market segment was badly hit, sales of mirrorless cameras were certainly on the rise by now, improving beyond anything we’ve seen so far. In a little more than two years, the momentum had caught the imagination of the camera consumer world and at some point, it was evident that with all these sales going to mirrorless cameras, surely some other existent market segment would have taken the brunt of it all. And it couldn’t have been anything else but the APS-C DSLR market and to some lesser extent, the premium compact zoom market as well.

While these were about new camera sales, what had also become clearer by then was that a growing number of these sales came from owners of existing DSLR cameras who were either trading in or selling out their Canon and Nikon outfits and replacing them with mirrorless cameras. We were seeing many of such sales not just through normal camera stores but across the Internet space. A fair number of these ‘converts’ offered written testimonies that could be gleaned on the web; testimonies that offered reasons why they moved from DSLRs to mirrorless cameras.

It was these testimonies that we believe are driving change till today. With the Internet’s ability to make the world a smaller place, these testimonies made it so much easier for people to understand why some could see what others failed to and that was the compelling decision to migrate to mirrorless cameras. The initial reasons for the migration were essentially centring on weight and size factors. These were most apparent during the early era of mirrorless cameras.

Back then, performance was still lacking and those who bought into these cameras did so on the back of its advantageous physical attributes. This was particularly the case with Micro FourThirds and perhaps less so with the APS-C type mirrorless cameras from Sony. Once Micro FourThirds began to improve on its image quality, autofocusing and other technical issues, people were beginning to offer many reasons other than just size and weight. And in the end, any of these many reasons were more than enough justification for many others to hop on the bandwagon.

Converts who were before active DSLR users and now adherents of the new-world Micro FourThirds found inspiration in having equipment that was easier to be discreet with and many of them discovered that because of their low noise, compactness and light weight, they could venture into newer forms of photography that were once unavailable to them. Similarly too, those who once found reason to give up photography because DSLR cameras were just too large and heavy were now rediscovering their passion with mirrorless cameras. For them, Micro FourThirds couldn’t have come any sooner.

All these migrations also proved one thing – people don’t seem to talk about “size” being an issue anymore. It wasn’t too long ago that critics panned FourThirds, saying that sensors needed to be larger in order to deliver image quality. By comparing it with APS-C, Olympus’ most strident detractors dismissed FourThirds and said its future was doomed. It would be interesting to hear back from these same critics now that FourThirds sensors are at the centre of the new Olympus Pens and OM-D models including Panasonic’s range of Lumix cameras. With Olympus having embraced Sony sensors, image quality has become so impressive that many APS-C DSLRs simply can’t compete despite their larger-size sensors.

Once the migration proved irreversible, Nikon joined the act with their unique mirrorless format, which uses a sensor that is far smaller than even FourThirds. Interestingly, criticisms were muted especially since the FourThirds format was once held in such contempt and now seen as being ‘far larger’ by comparison. The same can be said of Pentax’s Q format. Not long after Nikon, Canon followed with their EOS M, featuring the use of the APS-C size sensor. Even more interestingly, image quality from the EOS M could not hold a wick to Olympus’ latest generation E-M5, E-P5 or the consumer-based E-PL5 let alone the very basic E-PM2.

The Future is here and it is Mirrorless

There is no turning back now. Four years after humble beginnings in 2009, the landscape has changed quite dramatically. There is no doubt that DSLR cameras still rule but there are far more mirrorless cameras making their way into homes, studios and workplaces than there were at any time in the past. And this can only be made possible because more people are convinced and hence buy into them than there are manufacturers doing the hard sell.

Innovation, no matter how useful, only works if it catches fire with the consumer public. Once consumers understand and know how best to work it to their advantage and hence embrace it, then the prospect of commercial success becomes good. However sometimes innovation takes time for someone to appreciate and in that sense, mirrorless cameras fall into this category. This is a story of how patience in embracing a new idea eventually brought in the sales. It didn’t happen overnight but once better technologies fell into place and brought much-needed improvements, Micro FourThirds and mirrorless in general took off and never turned back.

Today, mirrorless camera ownership consists of those who upgraded from and replaced their compact cameras, those who use them alongside their existing DSLR cameras, those who have completely replaced their DSLR kits and those who are first-time camera owners looking for a starting point in their new hobby. And here are the interesting points arising from all of these:

  • Those who upgraded from and replaced their compact cameras are owners who wanted better image quality but wish to retain a similar size footprint and weight. Because there are choices now, they prefer not to face the weight and size penalties that DSLR cameras pose. For them the transition to superior image quality is now far smoother and does not make too much demand.
  • Those who use mirrorless cameras alongside their existing DSLRs are looking at one for leisure where they can better express themselves and another for the sheer grunt work of business. In this case it’s almost a guarantee that the DSLR cameras retained here use the full-frame format and therefore offer added resolution capabilities that mirrorless cameras are yet to match let alone exceed. At the same time, there are clients who may prefer to stick to the use of DSLRs no matter how good mirrorless cameras are.
  • Those who have completely replaced their DSLR kits can be a combination of hobbyists, enthusiasts and actual working photographers. Quite likely these are users who tend to photograph outdoors, are involved in photojournalism or street photography or do plenty of nature photography including landscapes, flora and fauna. These are people who would have found the carrying load too difficult to continue bearing as well.
  • Those who are first-time camera owners are likely to find mirrorless cameras easier to accept again because of their compactness and weight. But this will only happen if they have been exposed to mirrorless cameras by the store salesperson. In many cases, the stereotypical view is that first-time buyers who are looking to start their hobby in photography are far more inclined to veer in the direction of the DSLR. This is because media exposure, traditional social acceptance and perceived norms shape the way many of us think.

If we trust on-paper numbers, then we will only believe that mirrorless cameras are popular only in a small demographic of which Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea are most prominent. Of these the greatest success stories are coming from Japan where BCN Ranking shows that mirrorless camera sales are neck-to-neck with DSLR cameras. On several occasions in recent times, DSLR sales have been pipped while total mirrorless camera sales have actually exceeded 50% of the system camera market segment.

Consumer markets outside these demographics apparently are slow to accept the mirrorless cameras. Online Amazon.com numbers apparently reflect this trend across Europe and also North America. Therefore it seems that mirrorless cameras are essentially popular mainly in consumer-driven Asian countries but we find this very hard to understand or believe. Despite the hard numbers, it doesn’t feel that way on the Internet where there have been a significant rise of blogs and websites that include the following:

  • Personal shrines of the end user’s experience with his mirrorless camera(s)
  • Information on any camera that is mirrorless by nature
  • News and information on a specific format mirrorless camera
  • Personalised user experiences centring on change from DSLR to mirrorless cameras

Of these, the biggest share of enthusiasm is shared between Olympus and Panasonic, which in principle means that Micro FourThirds is the big winner. This is not to say that the other mirrorless formats are insignificant; it merely means that of all the formats available, Micro FourThirds is considerably more popular than Sony’s NEX or Fujifilm’s X System. While you’ll find many fan sites for Sony and Fujifilm mirrorless cameras, those for Olympus and Panasonic are even more. Of the two, you’ll also discover that fan sites on Olympus Pen and/or OM-D cameras tend to be more on still photography although it’s fair to say that video performance and capabilities are nonetheless competitive. Panasonic fan sites are almost unanimously loud on video with many of them focusing solidly on using Lumix cameras (eg GH2, GH3) for low-budget movie production use.

As both market titans own pretty much the whole DSLR segment (meaning both APS-C and FF)*, the sales impact of mirrorless camera will be even more significantly felt than it already is in 2012-13. According to Wikipedia, Canon earns four times more profit from its DSLR business than its digital compact cameras. At the same time, Nikon’s income from sales of its DSLR cameras and lenses outstrips its other businesses including compact cameras and accessories, medical products (eg microscopes), binoculars, eyewear, scanners and so on. What all these mean is that the potential loss of the APS-C DSLR market can be considerably crippling to both companies and with mirrorless cameras approaching striking distance, the time is nearing for this popular segment to come under heavy pressure. Already now, sales have been affected by encroaching mirrorless camera influence in many markets around the world.

* Canon’s market share as recorded during the late 2000’s was 41% in 2007, rising to 44.5% three years later. Together with Nikon, both companies commanded 81% share of the 2007 numbers, dropping to 74.3% in 2010 as Sony rose from 6% to 11.9%. (Information courtesy of Wikipedia)

Based on current figures for 2012-13 from the Japanese-based BCN Ranking, Olympus and Panasonic together control close to 70-75 percent of the Compact System Camera (CSC) market. While Nikon’s 1 system produces Japan’s most popular CSC camera, the top twenty bestsellers are fleshed out by more Olympus and Panasonic camera models than any other brand and that includes Sony, Fujifilm, Pentax, Ricoh, Samsung, Nikon themselves and Canon. Year after year, the sales numbers just get more encouraging. Olympus’ domination of the mirrorless market began to take root right after the E-P3 was launched.

While the E-PL1 was almost evergreen, performance was still lacking but the E-P3 revealed the company’s stronger direction towards resolving their longstanding issues. However it took the OM-D E-M5 to finally drive home the message. This was followed by the impressive E-PM2, E-PL5 and finally the E-P5, all of which bode well for Olympus. And the cornerstone of their new-found success can be attributed to the use of Sony sensors.

Olympus’ progress for Micro FourThirds – and mirrorless in general – is complimented by Panasonic’s remarkable rise in popularity with their G-series. Having somewhat fallen short of expectations with FourThirds, Panasonic’s joint venture with Olympus finally bore fruit. Today the GH3 is an iconic reminder of the company’s prowess in video performance. This is complimented by its full-video AG-AF100 but of course other G-series models like the GX, GF and the G ranges are equally as compelling.

It’s not just purely about size and weight although these two attributes are major enough in themselves. Once it is proven that image quality is competitive all the way to stratospheric ISO settings, the market inertia began to turn towards mirrorless market very decisively. There were other innovations coming onboard that helped drive home the message. They include weatherproofing, solid magnesium-alloy bodies, remote (or wireless) flash control, very fast autofocusing and continuous firing rates, hugely impressive video capabilities, vastly improved dynamic range and of course the broad availability of very bright and fast lenses that weigh almost as light as a pigeon’s plume itself. All these come together to roost.

With the exception of Sony, no other company but Olympus and Panasonic were doing as much for the mirrorless camera market in taking the fight directly to the APS-C DSLR segment. In these three, we find every compelling reason that it’s a matter of time before the once-prolific APS-C DSLR market finally topples over.

The future is here. The future is mirrorless.

see a history of Micro Four Thirds part II - mirrorless cameras for next instalment of this historical account.

photo/kl/mft_history1.txt · Last modified: 2014/06/29 12:28 by gary1