Sales of Micro Four Thirds cameras surge to 3rd place – where to now for Four Thirds?

Written by Gary on December 30th, 2009

Anyone who reads my blog will know that I am a convert to the Micro Four Thirds camera format.

The ranking of the Japanese dSLRs sales (including MFT in this category) shows that I am not the only convert, with MFT cameras surging into 3rd place, well ahead of Pentax, Sony, and Four Thirds dSLR sales.

If you sum the percentages of those in the top 20 you get (approximately):

  • Canon dSLRs 40%
  • Nikon dSLRs 24%
  • Micro Four Thirds cameras 11.5%
  • Pentax 4.3%
  • Sony 4%
  • Olympus E520 1.3%
  • not in ranking 15%

Given how hard it has been to actually buy Panasonic MFT cameras and lenses due to stock issues, and the fact that the surge really only started with the availability of the Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic GH-1 in July 2009 giving only 6 months of sales, the results really surprised me, and would suggest that this popularity of Micro Four Thirds is just the beginning and I would not be surprised to find in 2 years that MFT sales surpass Nikon dSLR sales.

Furthermore the Olympus E-P1 was voted the most popular camera of 2009 in a Japanese survey.

Olympus will need to come up with something special in their Four Thirds line early in 2010 to ensure the future of Four Thirds now that Micro Four Thirds has become so popular.

Why bother buying a cropped sensor dSLR at all when it is going to be bigger than a MFT kit of similar capability and image quality for 90% of non-professional shots such as travel, social, documentary or just sheer fun photography?

A full frame dSLR may offer pro build quality, higher resolution, higher image quality, with significantly better high ISO performance and dynamic range while allowing faster burst rates, better AF for sports, shallower DOF and the availability of tilt-shift lenses.

But the advantages of most entry level cropped sensor dSLRs over a MFT are considerably less as image quality is only marginally better if at all, while the MFT system offers many advantages over dSLRs not just size and weight but are much quieter, much faster at accurate MF,   accurate, relatively fast live view AF (within the limits of the AF system as there is no back focusing errors as with dSLRs), able to use almost any lens ever made, much more discrete which adds up to much more fun to use.

You should be aware that Micro Four Thirds does have some disadvantages though:

  • too small to allow large external flashes (eg. Olympus FL-50R) to be used comfortably
  • no remote TTL flash capability as yet
  • no radio wireless remote TTL capability as yet (you need a Canon or Nikon for this and 3rd party vendors such as PocketWizard)
  • MFT lenses cannot be used on any other camera type such as Four Thirds
  • the compact size of MFT cameras makes use of large telephoto lenses or f/2 zoom lenses more cumbersome, although they can be used
  • burst rate currently limited to 3fps while AF tracking of fast moving subjects not yet up with pro dSLRs
  • MFT lenses tend to need some optical aberration correction in post processing as the priority for compact size means optical performance is often compromised – at least Panasonic MFT cameras have this correction done in camera for you.
  • limited dedicated AF lenses available as yet – but this will change rapidly over the next 2 years.
  • movie mode like all dSLRs does not have a power zoom as do camcorders.
  • not yet fully silent – but hopefully a silent mode will come soon.
  • no real time live view output as yet.
  • dynamic range marginally less than larger sensor dSLRs
  • image noise at high ISO greater than larger sensor dSLRs
  • depth of field shallower than larger sensor dSLRs but if you use a large aperture lens (eg. f/1.4-f/2.0) then DOF is generally shallow enough for most purposes.
  • cannot adjust aperture on lenses without mechanical aperture control until someone comes up with an adapter to do that (eg. for Canon EOS or Nikon G lenses although there are hacks to change aperture).
  • thus there are compromises you must make when choosing a compact, versatile camera kit with high image quality such as MFT, but these are easily offset by having a second dSLR kit such as Olympus Four Thirds, or a full frame dSLR.

The main niche advantage for Four Thirds is in hand holdable weather-proofed telephoto reach which, due to the 2x crop factor, it can do much better than Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, or Micro Four Thirds, but Olympus is yet to fully realise the potential here.

I have mentioned it time and again here, the Olympus ZD 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 Four Thirds lens is rather unique:

  • allows hand holdable image stabilised weather-proofed 100-400mm telephoto reach at f/2.8-3.5 aperture
  • close focus to 1.2m
  • gives high quality images and autofocus capability even when combined with either a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter – the latter giving an incredible 800mm f/7 hand holdable reach.
  • beautiful bokeh for portraiture
  • in short, one of my favorite lenses to carry with me, and much lighter and cheaper than a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS, and better than a Canon 100-400mm f/4L
  • compare this with capabilities of Canon/Nikon here.

Olympus does have some beautiful Four Thirds telephoto lenses such as ZD 150mm f/2.0 (= 300mm f/2.0), ZD 300mm f/2.8 (=600mm f/2.8), and the awesome 90-250mm f/2.8 (= 180-500mm f/2.8). Unfortunately, these are generally large, very expensive, although lighter and less expensive than equivalents in the Canon or Nikon world if they exist.

Olympus needs something to compliment the Micro Four Thirds system but which will also make the most of the weatherproofing and sports AF capabilities of their forth-coming Olympus E-5, but will be affordable to make it worth while for MFT users to give up their heavy, expensive Canon/Nikon dSLRs.

This means the lenses would need to be relatively compact, light, high image quality, weather-proofed and compatible with contrast-detect AF (to enable AF on all MFT cameras) as well as having fast USM AF for the Four Thirds cameras as well as AF range limiters to improve AF performance.

I for one would love to see the following prime lenses added to the Four Thirds arsenal:

  • revamped 50mm f/2.0 macro
  • 100mm f/2.8 macro
  • 200mm f/2.8  but more compact and lighter than the ZD 50-200mm
  • 250mm f/3.5
  • 300mm f/4
  • 400mm f/4 or f/4.5 (yes, a hand holdable lens with 800mm telephoto reach at f/4)

The wide aperture and lighter lenses would easily negate the 1-2 stop high ISO noise disadvantage with full frame dSLRs, and if the E-5 had a nice fast burst rate and great AF for capturing birds in flight, etc, I know which system I would prefer to go walking with and it wouldn’t be a Canon or Nikon!

Who really enjoys carrying around a 7kg+ kit of Canon dSLR + 600mm f/4 IS L lens when they could achieve the same thing in less than 3kg with an Olympus Four Thirds kit at a much more affordable kit and a have lighter, more compact tripod to carry as well?

Not to mention that you are going to get to more photo opportunities with a hand holdable 3kg kit than a big tripod-requiring 7kg kit!

One more thought for Mr Olympus though – perhaps its time to make all new Four Thirds lenses and cameras with the extra lens mount pin couplings so that they will allow faster contrast detect AF and improved compatibility with MFT, but still be backwardly compatible with older cameras and lenses.


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