Back to the future – Olympus does not think Micro Four Thirds is nearing death – far from it! The E-M1X?

Written by Gary on December 3rd, 2018

Okay, we have all seen the reckless click bait headlines that full frame mirrorless will take over almost all the camera world and Micro Four Thirds is dead.

Well, I am sure Micro Four Thirds will be with us for many years yet – I just can’t see full frame filling in the marketplaces where the small, light, less expensive Micro Four Thirds cameras excel whether that be beginners, travel, backpacking, social, or most other areas for that matter – especially as any gaps in perceived advantages of full frame will dramatically diminish as technology continues to improve – the law of diminishing returns – and particularly so in a world where most people are happy with the image quality from their iPhone.

It seems Olympus is certainly not buying into this idea as news is leaking that they are about to develop a new type of Micro Four Thirds camera and not just any camera, but one to vigorously attack the pro sports world.

The camera has been called the Olympus OM-D E-M1X presumably as it will be competing against the Canon 1DX pro sports dSLR and rumours have it that it will be announced in Jan 2019!

Most existing Micro Four Thirds users probably will hate the concept of the E-M1X as it is going to be MUCH bigger than what they would like with a built in vertical grip and battery compartment, but this camera is not aimed at them but a whole world of disenchanted pro sports photographers who just may be ready to jump ship and save their bank and their backs by adopting a much smaller, lighter and less expensive system, and one which may even give them better results than their old technology dSLRs.

The following is just MY perception of how things might be if in fact the rumours are true and Olympus do create such a camera. The following is in no way linked to any other evidence than I have presented and as I have no communications with Olympus nor do they give me any inducements or similar, they are just my thoughts on how I think the future will unfold.

Note that I own an E-M1 II and a Sony full frame mirrorless and a Canon 1D Mark III pro sports dSLR as well as pro lenses, but I am not a professional sports photographer but a close observer of this scene for the last 15 years or so.

The rumours suggest that Olympus will release two other cameras in 2019 – perhaps a Pen II and either an updated E-M5 or E-M1.

Why Back to the Future?

Olympus has been here before and would have learnt some lessons from their past attempt at the pro sports market.

Yes, they created some of the most wonderful lenses ever made for the old Four Thirds dSLR system such as:

Don’t forget you need to double these focal lengths to get full frame equivalent telephoto field of view!

But, 12 years ago, digital camera technology was no where near what it is today, and their Four Thirds dSLR cameras, let down by poor quality sensors just didn’t let them get any foothold in the pro market. Even though they were the first to introduce technologies we all take for granted in our modern cameras such as sensor dust removal and in camera sensor based image stabilisation that works on any lens (sorry Canon users, you still don’t have this), the massive following that Canon and Nikon has would prove impossible to break into without better image quality from the sensors.

Olympus and Panasonic turned their fortunes around by making the bold decision to abandon the Four Thirds dSLR system and develop a mirrorless system – the Micro Four Thirds system – and the timing was perfect – electronic viewfinder technology had dramatically improved, but more importantly, the sensor technology also dramatically improved, and then we saw with the OM-D series, all these critical components along with weather-sealing, the fastest and most accurate AF systems in the world, and eye detection autofocus coming together to provide a brilliant camera, the E-M5 and with it, a seamless experience when resorting to video modes – unlike the clunky dSLR options.

And, now it seems, Olympus is ready for another splash into the pro sports market, but this time they have a several massive positives which may give them a reasonable chance:

  • the 2016 model OM-D E-M1 II has already demonstrated significant advantages over the sports dSLRs
    • smaller, lighter, and less expensive camera and lenses for the same telephoto reach
    • faster burst rates (18fps with C-AF in electronic shutter mode, 60fps with fixed focus!)
    • wider image area coverage of AF points for better ability to track across the frame
    • individual lenses do not require microcalibration to ensure accurate AF
    • very effective IBIS for panning with any lens (Canon and Nikon relies on lenses with OIS built in – the Canon 400mm f/5.6 has no OIS, nor do the shorter primes such as 135mm f/2 or 200mm f/2.8)
    • much better image stabiliser for hand held video work
    • can use the viewfinder for video work without having to resort to a clunky Live View mode and the rear screen
    • in-camera user adjustable focus range limiter for improving AF speed and avoiding AF locking on backgrounds and foregrounds – no other camera has this feature, even in 2018!
    • much better manual focus aids, including in-camera user configured preset manual focus
    • pro-capture mode which saves photos immediately PRIOR to shutter release to help avoid missing that critical shot
    • smaller RAW file sizes as 12bit instead of 14 bit RAW files – when shooting at 18fps, file size makes a bit of difference
  • the image quality from the E-M1 II is already sufficient for most pro sports purposes as 20mp is all one needs for sports (for the most part moving subjects won’t allow better resolution which is why the pro dSLRs are also of average resolution), and another generation of sensors can be expected to give perhaps another stop of high ISO performance
  • Olympus and Panasonic have already created two of the sharpest lenses ever made – the Olympus 300mm f/4 and Panasonic f/2.8 and both work in 6EV + Dual IS with their respective camera brand cameras, and we can expect more to come.
  • the 2017 model Sony a9 has already demonstrated even greater advantages with:
    • zero EVF blackout
    • superb EVF with flourine coating to keep it cleaner
    • even better AF tracking and better EyeAF tracking
    • even more and wider coverage of AF points
    • higher rated shutter mechanism to 500,000 shots
  • the move of Canon and Nikon to finally migrate to full frame mirrorless signalling that mirrorless is THEIR technology of the future, and that dSLRs will gradually fall out of favour, will unsettle many pro photographers worried about substantial lens investments, particularly as we know that the best AF experience is with native mirrorless lenses rather than legacy lenses on mirrorless cameras.
  • it is likely it will take Canon and Nikon at least 5 years to build up a pro lens and camera catalogue for their mirrorless systems

So here we have an opportunity for Olympus to add an alternative pro sports system in 2019 which will be lighter, smaller and less expensive and with many advantages over their old pro dSLR cameras.

What should an Olympus OM-D E-M1X feature set look like?

I would expect it to be similar to the E-M1 II but with:

  • vertical grip and battery holder built in for more robust build, better weather-sealing than when resorting to an add on grip, and better ergonomics when handling super telephoto pro sports lenses
  • the features of the Sony a9 mentioned above – rumours suggest a new 3M dot 120Hz larger EVF
  • hopefully a global sensor to eradicate the mild residual rolling shutter, and also allow flash sync at any shutter speed
  • even greater burst capacity
  • improved start up time (one fault with the E-M1 II has been that it is a little sluggish to start up) – rumours suggest the engine is twice as fast as the E-M1 II
  • further improved high ISO noise and dynamic range (no, we don’t need more megapixels!) – rumours suggest a new 20mp BSI CMOS sensor so this sounds like a great start!
  • improved AF cluster / region options
  • dual fast UHS-II SD card readers (the E-M1 II’s 2nd card reader is only UHS-I)
  • USB 3.1 with USB charging
  • higher 4K video rates at least to 60p to allow for some slo mo, and hopefully 120p for 1080HD
  • it is also rumoured to allow hand held HiRes 80mp mode at 1/60th sec shutter for those doing landscapes – but hopefully it will also allow pixel shift low noise image mode as well
  • IS is apparently going to be further improved to 6+ EV

If they can get such a machine to market for under $US2500 then they might just be on a winner, but it will still be a hard sell convincing all those die hard Canon and Nikon pros.

It looks like it will compete with the basic specs of the Fuji XT-3 ($US1499 but the XT-3 is missing a LOT of features of the EM1X) and the Canon 1DX ($US5999).

Olympus will need to work on their global pro support systems, but in reality, the pros could probably afford to buy two of each component for the same price as their dSLR gear so they could build in their own redundancy.

Olympus will also need to produce just a few more lenses:

  • will they re-visit their Four Thirds lenses which are too big, heavy and expensive for most Micro Four Thirds users but perhaps not for the pro sports mob, so we might again see a 300mm f/2.8 and 90-250mm f/2.8 but this time with OIS added and the many advantages of Micro Four Thirds technologies such as Eye AF, Dual IS, etc.
  • I personally would like to see a 65 or 70mm f/1.2 pro lens and a 100mm f/1.4 pro lens with a nice big lens hood to keep the rain out as well as the flood lights which would be useful for lower light indoor sports as well as portraits, etc.
  • the pros would probably be wanting a 400mm f/4 or perhaps a 200-500mm f/4-5.6 zoom

Once this outfit has been developed, one could say the Micro Four Thirds system is complete with very little further R&D costs required (except for iterative further improvements to new cameras), and thus Olympus and Panasonic would be financially and resource free to consider embarking R&D of full frame systems as well as maintaining their superb Micro Four Thirds system.

Many argue that one cannot compare a Micro Four Thirds 300mm f/4 lens with a full frame 600mm f/4 lens just because you get the same field of view, and yes, they are correct because you get more shallow DOF with the full frame lens – but usually you don’t want that – most birders prefer to shoot at f/8 with that lens and if you are shooting at f/8, you may as well shoot with the Olympus 300mm  f/4 at 1/3rd of the weight and a quarter of the price!

Some argue that Panasonic will not be able to afford R&D of the full frame system and Micro Four Thirds but as I see it, the R&D for Micro Four Thirds is largely done and dusted and any further R&D could be symbiotic. The argument that Olympus could not afford to maintain Micro Four Thirds in an increasingly competitive environment also fails for the same reason, and if Olympus truly had these concerns, they would not be embarking on the pro sports marketplace.

It is true that Panasonic and Olympus do not have the advantages of economies of scale of Sony, Canon and Nikon, but at least they are not like Canon who will need to maintain 5 different camera systems:

  • Canon EF dSLRs – this will gradually decline over the next 10 years as the future will probably be Canon R
  • Canon EF-S dSLRs – not sure there is much future with this system given the generally low end lens selection and it is not mirrorless
  • Canon EOS R full frame mirrorless – this is in its infancy
  • Canon EOS M APS-C mirrorless – noting that the EOS R lenses will not be compatible, and their lens line up is still very immature, so why would people buy into this system now that EOS R is here when the lenses are not compatible?
  • Canon high end video – this is now in a very competitive market

Where do I see the future taking us?

There are several systems which I think will flourish over the next 10 years, in order of sensor size:

  • Fujifilm medium format mirrorless – Fuji are dramatically bringing down the price for this format and increasingly pros and well healed enthusiasts will be attracted
  • full frame mirrorless – Sony, Nikon Z and Canon R (I’m not quite sure how Panasonic and Leica will fare but they will probably retain niche markets – a question remains on whether or not Olympus will join them)
  • Fujifilm APS-C mirrorless – Fuji have an impressive system already and one could argue that if money was no object, and sports or wildlife were not a priority, then the Fuji AP-C system mated with the medium format system would be cool kits – but BOTH are very expensive!
  • Micro Four Thirds mirrorless – this is the one for the masses who don’t want to carry heavy, super expensive gear – the perfect travel and people photography kit and perhaps now, a viable pro sport kit.

Meanwhile, the pro sports dSLRs will still dominate the sports industry until Canon and Nikon develop a better mirrorless alternative – and I am guessing this will take 5-10 years.


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