The Case Against Micro Four-Thirds

In two previous posts (“The Case Against Full Frame” and “The Case Against APS-C”) I opined on why the leading professional and amateur sensor sizes are doomed to the scrapheap of history. Where does that leave the upstart Micro Four-Thirds?
By all accounts, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is a watershed mark in the development of Micro Four-Thirds. Early adopters to the platform have held up the tiny retro camera as a talisman, vindication for their choosing the format. It is now exiting puberty (Micro Four-Thirds, not their owners) and now has the most extensive collection of mirrorless bodies and lenses in the market.

The “Pros” of the system grow daily; new bodies, new lenses, and new accessories bring new users into the fold. You can now go from a jacket pocket–Olympus E-PM2 with the funky body cap lens (15mm f/8) to a camera backpack filling DSLR pretender–Panasonic GH3 with the 12-35mm and 35-100mm f/2.8 lenses–all within the system. There are some holes (i.e., tilt-shift lenses for architecture) but it’s pretty safe to say that the needs of many photographers can be met with Micro Four-Thirds.

And the “Cons” are shrinking every day. Image Quality has taken a leap forward with the Sony sensor that Olympus is now using (Disclosure: I stopped using my Panasonic GF2/GH2 as a regular stills shooter in 2011 because I found the RAW files to be brittle in post. I’ve played with the OM-D but not extensively enough to form a considered opinion. I do hear that the OM-D E-M5 is much improved in this regard). Low light performance has improved as well, aided no doubt by the very good fast primes available (Voightlander Nokton 25mm f/0.95, the new Olympus 17mm f/1.8, Panasonic 20 mm f/1.7, Panasonic/Leica 25mm f/1.4, Olympus 45mm f/1.8, et. al.) and very good Image Stabilization on Olympus bodies and select Panasonic lenses. 

The last bugbear for the platform is Continuous Auto Focus. As much as single shot AF has improved, Continuous AF for sports, action, and rambunctious children and pets is still behind DSLRs. Blame the technology here–on-sensor Contrast Detect AF is just not as good as the old-as-Methuselah and still improving Phase Detect AF used on DSLRs. Will Contrast Detect AF ever be as good as Phase Detect AF? I’d say yes. Contrast Detect AF is still relatively new technology and getting it to work at all is what programmers like to call a “non-trivial task”. Yes Canon EOS-M, I’m looking at you. But every major camera maker is working on it, so I’d say that it’s just a matter of time before this algorithmic challenge is conquered. Heck, they’ve figured out Face Detect pretty well and can now distinguish one person from another and the near eye from the far eye in a portrait; CDAF will get there.

So with all of this progress, what’s the case against Micro Four-Thirds? It’s too big. 

“What the f-stop!?” I can hear you saying. Hear me out. There are two fundamental patterns that I believe will define the future of Micro Four-Thirds. First, while DSLRs seem to be on the same diet plan as SUVs and pickup trucks, growing bigger with every iteration as they are stuffed with more cupholders, expectations of camera size are being driven from the bottom end. The typical bottom end camera is, on average, zero inches high by zero inches wide by zero inches deep. And they weigh zero ounces since they are built into every smart phone. People want small. They’ve been suffering DSLRs for quite some time now, hauling around their kit zooms in the free bag that came with the camera. They don’t say it, but they’d ditch that free bag the first chance that they get. Which brings me to my second point...

Second, the size of a system must be judged with zooms not primes. While primes can be nice and small, they’re used mostly by people that read about cameras on the Internet, and that’s not really the general public. Personally, I love primes. Or more precisely, I put up with the inconvenience of primes because of their unique size/quality combination. But go to your local tourist trap and you’ll likely see ninety-nine zooms for every prime. 5x zooms are popular, but 10x zooms are even more coveted, IQ and speed be damned.

Now think about Micro Four-Thirds in relation to these two points. Yes, even with a 5x zoom they are considerably smaller than a comparable DSLR. But many will still need their own cheap bag. And 10x zooms make the cheap bag a necessity, dangling uncomfortably over the shoulder alongside the host of other gadgetry that many consider necessary for a modern, fulfilled life. As small as Micro Four-Thirds can get with a 10x zoom, it’s not small enough for the unwashed masses stepping up from smart phones. 

What they want (and yes, I know that I’m pretending to speak for a lot of people that I’ve never met, but isn’t that what blogs are about?) is everything; small enough to fit in a pocket or toss into a bag that they are already using, a convenient 10x zoom, image quality good enough for the occasional 8”x10”, and fast enough to capture little Johnny as he runs across the dim family room. Micro Four-Thirds is achingly close, but not quite there. It will continue to find it’s niche among those who value its combination of traits, but world domination is not likely. Alas.

(Read more: “The Case Against Full Frame”, “The Case Against APS-C” and "The Case Against 1" Sensors")


  1. Sales figures and market trends do not concur with your opinion in this regard. Mirrorless cameras are definitely the future, and Micro 4/3 leads the way in this important market segment. The image quality is there (with thee advent of the O-MD, camera phone's are not for serious work - and never will be. The compact market is dead, and so too will be the DSLR market.

    1. I'm certainly seeing more mirrorless cameras out in the wild, but for every Olympus or Panasonic on NEX I see a dozen or more DSLRs, mostly from Canon and Nikon. Some of what I'm seeing are two and three and four year old DSLRs with kit lenses of course, but I still personally recommend more DSLRs to family and friends when they tell me that they have moving subject such as pets or kids/youth sports. As good as the OM-D is, I fairly confident that a Nikon D5200 or Canon 60D or Pentax K30 will offer equal if not better IQ while offering significantly faster continuous focus at a fraction of the OM-D's cost. There's a size penalty for an APS-C DSLR for sure, but for many cost is a more important decision driver at the moment.

      Micro Four-Thirds is having more success overseas, and I wouldn't be surprised if the consumer DSLR goes the way of the Dodo bird when Panasonic or Olympus figure out continuous focus. If Panlympus play their cards right, it may enjoy a period of time as THE platform of choice. My argument is more about how long the period of time may last–my guess is that Micro Four-Thirds' days in the sun will be shorter than many expect.

      All this opinionating has no impact on actual photography, so enjoy the camera(s) that you have.

    2. Thom Hogan rights about DSLR vs Mirrorless markets on his site. It starts about halfway down.


  2. An easily overlooked advantage of m4/3 is the weight savings. DSLR cameras and lenses are heavy, especially if you have a bag full lenses. I can't tell how many times I've heard DSLR users say they switched to m4/3 because they were tired of carrying around all that weight.

    That said, I think APS-C will continue to be popular -- especially since they share lenses with FF.

    1" sensor cameras will probably take over the enthusiast pocket camera segment, but their lenses probably aren't big enough to capture the kind of resolution pros expect.

    Much like now, I think we have a very fragmented future ahead of us.

    1. Good point, Edgar. I think photographers go through this cycle where they get really excited about photography and buy a bunch of lenses for every possible situation and then buy a huge backpack to haul the all around just in case they need that one lens for that one shot. Over time they realize that they can get by with much less; and that's when M43 starts to pique their interest.

      Thanks for reading and writing!

  3. I love my m4/3 camera but have not had any success in persuading anybody to purchase one.

    The reason is more a brand name thing. Panasonic and Olympus are not as well known to average consumers. For them to take a risk to buy a camera which is more expensive than entry level DSLR from Canon or Nikon, somebody more creditable and probably more sexy than me (a 55-year-old male) has to do the promotion. This has nothing to do with the performance or size. It is pure marketing issue.

    1. True Dragon. A long time ago (the 90s) there was a saying in IT circles, "You'll never get fired for choosing Microsoft products." and I think the same applies for Nikon and Canon. Olympus and Panasonic are outliers, but it's hard for some people to pass up a bargain, so I'll often show people deep discounts on last year's models. I've managed to persuade one person that way.

      Thanks for reading and writing in!

  4. It's an interim step. The laws of physics create some strict limitations on just how small these cameras (and especially their lenses) can get. Removing the mirrors was a great step forward. I do find it quite frustrating that my 10X zoom on my Sony Cybershot can collapse all the way into the camera body, but my 3X zoom on my Olympus Pen E-PL1 cannot really collapse to any pocketable level. And that's just the kit lens.

    I think the future is in smart phone cameras, and doing away with mirrors is a big step in that direction. I can envision a day when the pro photographers at sporting events are all using phones instead of gigantic DSLRs with even more gigantic lenses.