Why Isn’t Micro Four Thirds the Perfect Format?

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Micro Four Thirds had a lot to offer when it launched, as it promised low cost, smaller lenses, and good image quality. So why hasn’t it become the essential format?

The new mirrorless era was ushered in with the release of the Panasonic Lumix G1 in November 2008; the future was there for all to see and see they did. As an increasingly frantic buying public bought more and more cameras, manufacturers scrambled to release new systems. The intention was to give budding new photographers a taste at low cost and then entice them to buy more expensive lenses, accessories and cameras. So why wasn’t the Micro Four Thirds system the natural successor to the photographic crown?

Micro Four Thirds (MFT) has had a relatively long and iterative evolution since the birth of its spiritual father – the E-1 – in 2003. In fact, you could probably say that the original OM-1 was the grand- spiritual father, as this truly iconic system ushered in an era of contemporary looks married to revolutionary design that dramatically reduced size and weight. The camera proved revolutionary, catapulting Olympus into the “big five” of Japanese camera brands.

It’s ironic then that OM was the cause of the demise of Olympus’ digital SLR and its subsequent rebirth as the E-1. The OM-707 was OM’s first – and last – attempt at autofocus that was not only a mediocre effort, but probably the worst of the autofocus systems released by manufacturers in the 1980s. changed Olympus’ strategic direction and instead focused on the profitable consumer bridge camera market. OM never went digital and by the early 2000s it was clear that a DSLR was needed to complete its lineup.

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Olympus was not afraid to innovate and developed the E-1 from scratch to meet the perceived needs of the digital camera market. Similarly, OM scaled down the SLR to slimmer proportions, so the E-1 gave new meaning to a handheld DSLR. While Nikon and Canon were limited by existing film cameras and lenses – that is, each opted for APS-C (and APS-H) or full frame – Olympus had a canvas. pristine and, together with Kodak, established the Four Thirds format, notably expanding the consortium to include Panasonic and Leica.

Sensors were relatively expensive components in the early 2000s, so the 17.3mm by 13mm design offered significant advantages. It was cheaper, and because it was smaller, the camera and lenses were also smaller and proportionally cheaper. The 2.0x crop factor brought range and depth of field benefits and the sensor also brought the potential for faster read times. The E-1 was designed from the ground up for the professional news and sports segment and comes with a competitive Kodak 5 megapixel sensor, dust and weather sealing and the industry’s first dust removal system. sensor (Supersonic Wave Filter), but the frame rate and AF didn’t match Canon and Nikon’s offerings.

Olympus succeeded with the E-3 in 2007 thanks to significant technical improvements, including fast AF and in-body image stabilization (IBIS), but the horse had already bolted by this point (even with the release of the E-5 in 2010). What’s interesting about this product timeline is that MFT arrived in 2008, Olympus’ first model was the diminutive Pen E-P1 in 2009, but that wasn’t until the release of the ‘OM-D E-M5 in 20212 a real top-line MFT model has arrived.

Milk him for all he’s worth

The MILC (mirrorless interchangeable lens camera) conundrum is perhaps best summarized in the table below which shows CIPA camera shipments (units and value) by product type; in three short years, MILCs were large enough to have their own report, but the size of this one pales in comparison to built-in cameras and DSLRs. In fact, these two groups were each six times larger!

MILC Expeditions

In 2013, DSLRs became the most valuable group, but were overtaken by MILCs in 2019. In fact, what’s remarkable about MILCs is that they’re the only category growing. The BCN Awards, which track Japanese sales, show that from 2010 Olympus, Sony and Panasonic took equal shares of what was a very small pie, with Canon only breaking into the top three in 2015. By 2021, Olympus (now OM Digital Solutions) had dropped to just over 10%.

So the question remains: where did it go wrong for Olympus and why isn’t MFT – the original mirrorless format – the format of choice?

Part of the answer is in the original E-1. While Olympus didn’t have the baggage of an existing film system to hold it back, the inertia that photographers have from switching systems, coupled with the sluggish AF and slow frame rate (it has achieved three frames per second, whereas the Nikon D2Hs was capable of eight frames per second), meant that it just wasn’t good enough. While the E-3 and E-5 solved these problems, the arrival of Canon’s 1-DS and 5D, followed by Nikon’s D3, D800 and D300 proved too difficult to compete with.

But it didn’t stop there. The DSLR juggernaut had grown in size, becoming the most valuable segment in 2013. The development of the E-3 and E-5 suggests that Olympus was unconvinced by the technical specifications of the new MFT format; the fact that Panasonic was the first out of the gate and that Olympus’ model was the competent but far from inspiring Pen E-P1 shows that it was testing the waters.

It wasn’t until 2012 and the OM-D E-M5 that Olympus’ first serious camera arrived, even if it was a blinder! However, at this point, all other manufacturers were already in full swing with the arrival of the following new mounts: Sony (2010, APS-C), Samsung NX (2010, APS-C), Nikon CX (2011, CX ), Pentax Q and K (2011, 1/2.3 inch and APS-C), Canon EOS-M (2012, APS-C), Fujifilm X (2012, APS-C) and Leica L (2014, FF) . The full-frame Sony Alpha 7 then arrived in 2013.

This veritable cornucopia of mounts shows that – at least initially – no one thought of putting a large sensor in a mirrorless camera, as these were models intended to complement a DSLR. Even with APS-C the most popular choice, Fujifilm remained the only vendor to genuinely believe it could replace full frame.

Digital OM OM-1
Digital OM

However, it was actually two unrelated events that made Olympus’ promising start stutter. The first of them was beyond his control: the smartphone.

For a time, consumers seemed to have limitless resources to spend on cameras, peaking at 120 million units in 2010. But the rise of the smartphone has put a camera in (almost) everyone’s pocket and camera sales fell off a cliff, at a time when manufacturers were funding the expansion of new mirrorless systems.

The second was entirely of his own making: the infamous accounting scandal. With more than $1.5 billion in investment losses, bribes and kickbacks identified, it has been hit with approximately $650 million in fines in the United States and the three-quarters of the company’s value was wiped out.

MILC usurps the DSLR crown

The replacement of digital SLRs by hybrids was never won in advance, however, the elegance of the design gives three significant technical advantages. Removing the mirror box/pentaprism first makes it easier and cheaper to manufacture. Second, it also makes the cameras smaller and lighter. Finally, the mount can be closer to the sensor, which opens up possibilities for other mount mounts and more efficient, esoteric designs.

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This is, of course, as true for MFT as it is for full-frame models. The problem with smaller sensors has always been noise, although this problem has lessened somewhat as sensor design has improved. Olympus would argue that MFT offers the right balance of size/weight, range, depth of field and sensor speed, making it particularly suitable for news/sports, street and home. It’s the same argument Fujifilm uses for the X-series, but it’s able to balance that claim with the availability of its medium-format GFX.

Full-frame success may have less to do with the core benefits and more to do with the marketing and manufacturers behind them. Sony, Nikon and Canon have undoubtedly sold the story of the full-frame dream, but they also have the capacity and ability to build a system to support it, which Olympus has never been able to do.

The question for camera makers is: does the future really lie in the direction of the smartphone? Olympus (and Panasonic) have always been willing to introduce computational functionality into their cameras and have a wealth of experience working with and manipulating images from small sensors.

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As smartphone sensors get larger and processing becomes more complex, is there a possibility to coalesce around an MFT future? In short, can the two companies capitalize on making camera-like smartphones and, conversely, can they also be leaders in making the camera more smartphone-like?

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