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Micro Four Thirds & Mirrorless - Here To Stay or Gone Tomorrow ?

Declining sales and greener pastures

By Dan Carr | August 05, 2013

I've been wanting to write something along these lines for a while now because these thought have been running through my head over and over again.  The question I have pondered on more than one occasion is whether I should invest more heavily in some sort of mirrorless camera system or whether these types of cameras as simply an elongated fad forced upon us by current technological deficiencies?  I expect this article will strike a nerve with some folks out there, probably those that have already invested, but hear me out before you hit the comment button.


On the one hand you have prominent photographers like Trey Ratcliffe who are opening shelving their full frame Nikon systems and switching to more portable Sony NEX systems. The claim is that the image quality is good enough for his purposes and that the freedom afforded by the weight and bulk savings makes photography life so much simpler as to negate the downsides of a small sensor.  In Trey's case, a man who spends more than half of his life traveling and who's main outlet for images is web, I don't doubt for a minute that it's a good choice for him.  For now.

On the other hand though we have manufacturers lowering the price of their full frame entry cameras and people striving to get the 'full frame look' for both stills and video. Mirrorless camera shipments are down to 57% of what they were last year and whilst DSLR sales overall were also down, it wasn't by nearly so much. 

So what is it that's causing me to have these gloomy thoughts about the future of mirrorless?

1. Sony RX1

Sony launched the RX1 last year and it contains a full frame sensor mated to a fixed 35mm lens.  The whole package is as small as current M 4/3 and mirrorless offerings and the quality blows them all out of the water.  For now this is a $2800 niche camera but as a proof of concept Sony knocked it out of the park.  You CAN fit full frame sensors into a small portable body and this flies directly against the main selling point of M4/3 systems which is size and portability.

2. Sony Rumours

It's long been rumoured that the Sony NEX mount is capable of working with the image circle of a full frame sensor.  Rumours are rife that we will see an NEX camera with a full frame sensor before the year's end.  September 24th is a date that I have seen mentioned several times.  It's likely that all current E-Mount lenses will have to work in some sort of crop mode and that new lenses will be announced to work with the full frame of the sensor.  Now might not be a good time to be buying NEX lenses…..

Sony's E-Mount is quite large compared to others.  Have Sony seen this future coming all along ?

3. Canon's lacklustre involvement in the mirrorless market and the SL1

The EOS-M system is very weak as a system which is a shame because it produces very nice images, I actually own one myself.  There's no denying though that Canon's 'attempt' to join the party has been lacklustre at best. The system has but two lenses and the third, an 11-22mm, is not even going to be sold in the US.  Could it be that Canon sees the writing on the wall for these systems already ?  In fact more fanfare was made when they launched the Canon SL1 which is a regular EF system camera, albeit the smallest 'full sized' DSLR on the market so far.  The SL1 uses the same sensor as the EOS-M, it's not all that much bigger than it and it has access to some 50 pre-existing lenses in the EF range.  As I said, I own an EOS-M myself, had the SL1 been out at the time, I would have jumped on that instead as I already have a closet full of lenses for it.  So far the SL1 is the smallest DSLR and there's nothing stopping Canon from putting a full frame sensor in that body tomorrow if they wanted to. 

4.Public knowledge of mirrorless

Public perception of these smaller systems is that they are inferior to DSLRs so many don't even consider them, even if they only plan to get a DSLR and leave it in P mode with a kit lens for its entire life.  Ironically many people criticized Nikon when their 1-System was launched with such a small sensor (smaller even than M4/3) but what they have done is position those cameras in peoples eyes as "better than a point and shoot" instead of "worse than a DSLR".  The tactic has been a winner for them and that system has some of the best sales figures out there.

The whole reason that we have crop frame sensors in the first place is simply due to the manufacturing cost of the sensor itself and whilst that cost hasn't declined as fast as some people might have thought that it would (mainly due to marketing departments insistence on continual development to more megapixels), it definitely is on the decline.  Camera's like the Canon 6D and Sony A99 are proof of that.  It's inevitable that at some point in time, sensor production cost will have gotten to a point where full frame is viable in any SLR and at that point who is going to continue to use a Micro Four Thirds sized sensor?  Sony have a way out in that they are able to simply re-make their E-Mount lenses to work with full frame and they can continue to use the E-Mount name since it doesn't relate directly to sensor size.  Fuji Film is an unknown at the moment.  Their X-Pro 1 is probably the best mirrorless camera on the market and they have a strong following amongst professional photographers since they tackled the top end of their range before moving on to filling in the lower price points.  You can bet that if there is even a sniff of Sony going full frame (and there's a big whiff), Fuji are working on something as well.  It's been said in a couple of places that Fuji's mount can't handle a full frame sensor but usually these stories concentrate on simple mathematics of measuring the size of the mount's opening.  The fact is though that this assumes all light collected by the on-sensor micro lenses is coming perpendicular to the sensor.  It's certainly possible to collect light in a different manner though and this is a problem that was already solved by Leica back in 2009 with the M8, their first digital camera.  The Leica M-System has a very small mount but now they have successfully been fitting it with a full frame sensor for several years by using offset micro lenses over the photodiode that get progressively more offset as they reach the otter area of the sensor.  I suspect that it's highly likely that Fuji will be working on a similar system and judging by their X-Trans sensor technology, they have a talented team of sensor designers,  For Fuji that could work out well since they have no other camera system, they have no DSLRs in the game and the X-System would be everything for them.  For Sony though, if their NEX lineup ends up with full frame sensors alongside their Alpha lineup with full frame sensors, I can't be the only one that thinks that would be a tad pointless? For Panasonic and Olympus though, with M43/3 sensors, full frame sensors in their competitor's cameras could be the first nail in their coffins.

My main problem with all of this is that I am a lens man.  I put my money in lenses first and cameras second.  Good lenses have the potential to last a whole career and some of the best hold their value incredibly well.  When I buy into a system I want to invest in a set of top quality lenses that are going to last me a very long time.  Right now I simply can't justify doing that with any confidence.  Zeiss have a pair of lovely Touit lenses for Fuji and Sony systems but if Sony go full frame in September that would be money well wasted on those Zeiss lenses because you can guarantee Zeiss will make FF versions and then the value in the originals is all but gone.  In the short term while the full frame alternatives aren't in existence the newly announced Panasonic GX7 or the OM-D E-M5 are wonderful cameras that are highly capable of professional work but I just can't bring myself to invest in a full lens system for a format for which I am not confident has a long term future.  I simply can't justify that financially (your mileage might be different on that point).

I don't expect we'll see M4/3 disappear within the next two years but it's certainly going to be a telling time.  If sales numbers continue to decline as they have done then I think we'll see manufacturers shift their focus back to DSLR. 


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Jose Antunes: | August, 06, 2013

Hi Dan

your main problem, being a lens mans, is probably what in the end gets in people’s mind more often. Especially if you’re a user of long lenses, the mirrorless cameras make no sense, because the best way, still, to hold a camera with the long lens is with your nose working as part of a “tripod” to support the whole system. I’ve tried tens of mirrorless cameras, from Samsung to Panasonic, and I own an early Olympus m4/3. I like it and at the time I felt I could change camps (I also tried multiple lenses) but in the end, because I love to use a 100-400mm from Canon, which I use to everything from flowers to airshows and nature/wildlife, I soon felt there was no way for me to move in that direction. And I do not mean even going full frame, as I am happy with the APS-C format.

In fact, if the industry had managed to convince people of the good things in APS, in the 90’s, we would be all today shooting APS, and not thinking much about other formats. And for practical purposes, APS-C is just fine, although its footprint is not as small as they promised (neither is m4/3 when you want to use longer lenses…). I’ve seen from my experience teaching photography that when people start to get the grasp of it, they want a DSLR, be it APS-C or Full Frame. It’s just a tool offering, in fact, more options, especially for “a lens man”. And when you start to photograph a lot and need to get subjects closer - and who does not want to get them closer? - you want big lenses, and those you can only handhold better with a camera offering you a real optical viewfinder… and your nose’s support. Even those LCD, electronic viewfinders, some of them nicely done, can not match the view you get from a true optical. And try holding a 400mm lens at arm’s lenght. That’s the problem with the M system from Canon. Makes no sense…

To make a long story short, I do think mirrorless have a place - I use mine for some stuff - and for some people will be enough. It’s a tool, so depending on the type of photography you do it might be just enough.  But I mostly see people trying to capture things that ask, usually, for a longer lens. And that leads them to buy DSLRs, which are still, to this day, the more versatile tool. Maybe it’s me just being grumpy, because I come from other time, but I do not see DSLR vanishing. Now, I could not say the same about some mirrorless systems. So some people may be buying themselves into a dead end. Not so with DSLR, especially from the two most preeminent makers, because they’re buying into systems that have evolved naturally and have been around for decades. But hey, this is just my opinion, after some 45 years of being in love with photography. In fact I started to shoot regularly at 13…

halfmac: | August, 14, 2013

I have tried to comment on this article but they have not shown up.

Here are my comments:

jlw518: | August, 15, 2013

One of the things that you seem to miss in your comments is the total size of the system, including lenses. 

I was an SLR user for 25 years before moving to DSLRs.  After lugging around a D200 for a couple of years to increasing neck and wrist pain, I went to a D90…which was a little better, but still a chore to carry.  I bought an M43 originally as a portable high quality camera for when I didn’t want to take the big Nikon gear, and within 9 months had moved over to M43 entirely. 

The turning point for me was when I was out photographing a flower festival with the M43 kit…I had six lenses in a small and very light bag and happily spent four hours wandering around the venue getting great shots (two of which ended up winning prizes in a regional photo contest).  I went home that day energized and very happy.  The year before I had been out with my Nikon kit (only four lenses and the D90), and within an hour of starting to shoot, I was ready to pack it in and toss the entire bag of glass into the lake.  What a difference!

I have since exhibited my work in two galleries and have won prizes in juried shows and have sold work that I have exhibited….and all of it was taken with M43 cameras.

My point is that you can get extraordinarily good output from M43 cameras and lenses at this point, and you do not have to carry around a boat anchor to do it with, either.  M43s hits a sweet spot in terms of image quality and lens size that cannot be done with larger sensored cameras.  No matter what, a 200mm lens on an APSC camera is going to be a whole lot larger and heavier than the same focal length lens on an M43…I get a kick out of taking my 100-300mm (which gives me the equivalent of 600mm due to the 2x crop factor) on hikes and nature walks (it weighs a mere 520 g).  If I had a DSLR, I would be lugging around something two to three times as heavy, and much larger, to get the same range of coverage….that is quite an appealing advantage which is unique to this system.

I understand that you are wedded to your lenses, and as such, you can’t quite see the value in M43s.  You seem to be extrapolating your experience with the somewhat crippled EOS-M to the M43s, and you really shouldn’t do that.  There is a world of difference in how current generation M43s perform than the EOS-M in terms of responsiveness and sophistication, and you are doing yourself and the format a disservice by lumping them all together.

Now, I agree with you that mirrorless has not caught on in the USA the way it has in Japan, for instance.  However, it doesn’t take much brainpower to figure out why…the combination of dreadful distribution/terrible marketing and advertising of the products means that consumers are simply unaware of the product and its benefits.  Combine that with the “bigger is better” mentality that seems to filter through everything in the US, and you have a tough battle to win the hearts and minds of consumers who have imprinted on their brains that the the “DSLR” is the shining bastion of “good” photography.

I don’t see the format dying anytime soon, however.  Where I WOULD get worried would be if and when Canon or Nikon decide that it might not be a bad idea to actually design a non-crippled mirrorless system with full lens support with size sensitive lens design to go along with it.  THAT is what could relegate M43 to a footnote in photographic history.  However, right now Nikon and Canon are still very, very busy milking the DSLR cash cow, and have no incentive to seriously develop alternative technologies that might threaten that paradigm in any way, even if those technologies have the potential to be better in the long run.

So, the moral of the story is:  I am happy with my M43 system, and plan to use it to take excellent quality images for as long as it suits my needs.  If something better comes along, I will certainly look at it, but for now, there really is nothing else out there that does what it does in the size range that it is, and that works for me.


dibe: | August, 16, 2013

Dear Dan,

When I read this I just had to register to reply …

First, you are mixing two concepts that are totally independent of each other: mirror less and sensor size. Obviously you could have a mirror less full-format camera. And you can have a “medium” sensor camera with a mirror (which is what APS-C actually is). So let us first talk about sensor size.

That is not a just a matter of cost. Sensor size directly drives size, weight and (although not significantly) cost of your equipment. Even if full-format sensors would become dirt-cheap not everyone will want to lug around many kilos just to do some decent pictures. And not every one of those wants to get stuck with a fixed lens. So for everyone there will always be just the right balance of sensor size (picture quality) against weight and equipment size. And so there will always be a market for something between full format and compact / mobile phones). And yes, within one technology generation there will also always be a difference in cost according to sensor size too.

Now mirror less. Why do we even have this concept of a flapping mirror with all its mechanical challenges and size requirements for the mirror box? Only because it is (was!) otherwise not possible to “see what you get”. 20 years ago what alternatives did you have? And do you really “see what you get”? No, you don’t see a wrong white balance (not critical if you shoot RAW), you don’t see when you are about to over/under expose. You don’t see which face your camera has locked onto. You can’t display a histogram. Most of the time you don’t even get a 100% view of your frame. If it is dark, you don’t see anything. By nature, only looking “through the sensor” will let you see what your sensor is going to capture. “So what is left? Resolution! Why is that important? To evaluate focus!” Yes, right, you also cannot have a electronically magnified view of your object to better evaluate focus. Not even talking about “focus peaking”. But even then, do you have any doubts whatsoever that eventually technology will give you an EV where you won’t be able to tell the difference? And don’t even get me started on this live view can do this but VF can do that. Can’t take a video through the viewfinder? How odd is that? And there is already technologies that will give you fast phase focus detection on the sensor. So why do you need a mirror?

Mirrors are an old technology that will go away like steam engines. Only a temporary work-around.

So what is M4/3 really? It is a compromise of quality against weight/size, halfway between full-frame and compact with the technology of the future. Sounds pretty good to me!

I will give you that there is a perception problem with the public. But that is a pure marketing problem. Hopefully that will just need some time to resolve.

Best regards,

jeffharris: | August, 18, 2013

An interesting opinion piece, but as a M4/3 user I have a few comments.

For the majority of M4/3 users, we chose it because the hardware is SMALL, light and easy to carry. I have never understood why so-called full-frame DSLRs are so massive and heavy and look forward to seeing Sony’s upcoming NEX FF camera to bring cameras back to a reasonable size… my Nikon FM2 was just right! Rumors point to a late September announcement.

The M4/3 system is hardly marketed at all, unfortunately, but it’s considered as almost as good as a DSLR, not the other way around. Obviously P&S upgraders are a target market, too. There are body styles that attract both. DSLR-style like the Panasonic GH3 and G6 and the Olympus OMD-EM5. Then there are the Panasonic GF6 and Olympus PENs, that are P&S-styled bodies. The PENs can also use a clip-on EVF.

Lens size. This is a huge factor, or should I say small one, that is most often ignored. Native M4/3 lenses are considerably smaller and lighter than DSLR lenses.

While I’m talking about lenses, one nearly hidden feature of the M4/3 system is that because of the short distance between the lens mount flange and the sensor, we have the ability to adapt lenses from nearly any system in existence. Lenses are used with manual focus and manual aperture adjustments. Simple adaptors can be bought for about $20 each from Rainbow Imaging.

For many M4/3 users, who used DSLR and SLR film cameras, we also have older lenses and its easy and inexpensive to buy used lenses. So, that ability is an incredible advantage. Personally, I use, in addition to native M4/3 lenses from Panasonic, Olympus, SLR Magic (yep, dreadful name) and Voigtländer, I also adapted Nikon AI-S & AF-D, Pentax SMC Takumar (M42 screwmount), Olympus OM and Voigtländers (Leica M and L mounts).

So, when Sony does release the FF NEX, I’ll be ready… with a pile lens adaptors for all my FF lenses. But, I’ll still hang onto my M4/3 kit!

Cameras with porro-prism mirrors are the endangered species, not mirrorless cameras.

hazydave: | August, 21, 2013

I don’t think m43 cameras are doomed.

I use both, as well as the occasional P&S. Nearly every time I shoot with the P&S (a Canon HS260) rather than my m43 (Olympus E-PM1), well, it’s better than my previous P&S, but still, kinda wish I had brought the Oly. When I shoot with the Olympus, there are far fewer times I really wish I had brought along one of the Canons (I have both the 60D and the 6D… the E-PM1 actually has slightly larger pixels than the 60D!).

Now, I might feel differently about the system sizes if I had more “EF-S” lenses (only for APS sensors), but I only have one. So when I bring along the Canon, it’s a full camera bag, and unless there’s a good reason, I have most of my lenses. So, we’re talking 20-25lbs of gear, in a fairly large space. The Olympus with two zooms and two primes fits in a bag originally designed to carry one SLR with lens and maybe a flash or something.

Sure, you can get a Canon T3 today for about the price of one of the smaller m43 models, and you can certainly pay 60D/70D prices for some of the better m43 models… though as a OM-1/OM-4 owner going back (still have them, they don’t get used, though I do have an adapter that lets me use the OM-series lenses on the m43), that OM-D speaks to me grin

I think there’s still some refinement needed for the m43 line. I’d be much happier with a very high resolution built-in viewfinder rather than the back panel thing, but at least a viewfinder is an option, and if you look at the E-PM1 and some of the other Olympus models, you’d be mad to not understand these are targeted directly at P&S users. It’s the OM-D and the Panasonic GH series gunning for DSLR buyers.

The other reason is that m43 is Panasonic’s play in interchangeable-lens professional camcorders. They’re still a small fish in still photography, but they’re one of the big three in video. That’s also shaped the Lumix GH series into some pretty good still-for-video cameras.

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