Thursday, November 12, 2009

Micro Fourthirds, a compelling alternative?

A member from a forum that I frequent had this question to ask today (user name will not be revealed for reasons of anonymity):

Wondering should I part with my e3 and 12-60mm to jump over to m43. Haven't really been using my e3 much and the weight and size actually made me taking it out less....

Any comments on any of the m43 cameras ?? IQ from the limited amount of lens??? anyone please?


Image by Jay Town

For your info, the Olympus E-3 is the flagship of the Olympus Fourthirds system. You can dunk this camera into a river or use this camera in a blizzard or desert storm, and it will persevere as well as a Canon 1D series or Nikon D3 at roughly a quarter of their price. For more info, please read my other article: Olympus cameras - tougher than you may think.

Now back to the main issue.

The Micro 43rds concept basically involves the removal of the mirror box in a traditional SLR system to produce high quality images befitting of the traditional Fourthirds system in a more slim and compact chassis.

For a more complete description of the M43rds concept, please visit the Fourthirds website here.

To date, there have been several variants of the M43 system ranging from the GH-1, G-1 and GF-1 by Panasonic to the EP-1 and EP-2 by Olympus. Its been something like a Nikon vs. Canon tournament, though the big two have been warring for quite some time now.

The Panasonic GF-1 vs. the Olympus EP-1

There have been gazillions of EP-1 vs. GF-1 articles out there, and I am not keen to go into all of the details, but if you're keen, there's one article which I've found here at The Online Photographer which you can have a look at.

To illustrate the size difference, the 43rds 7-14 f4 lens is on the right, while the one for M43 is on the left.

Perhaps the new M43 bodies like the GF-1 and EP-1 will yield a greater difference, but here are the lenses mounted on a 43rds Olympus E-3 body on the right, and a Panasonic GH-1 on the left. I guess for the sake of ''cuteness'' and size, a regular 43rds lens should not be mounted on a M43 body. Its like marrying Beauty and the Beast, if you know what I mean.

M43 offers other advantages, such as:
  • It allows us to mount an almost infinite range of lenses, and to quote some examples from my friend Gary Ayton: Leica M, Leica R, Olympus Pen, Olympus OM, Canon FD, Nikon F, Minolta, Pentax K, Hasselblad, Pentax 6×7, and even Canon EOS (although at present only at wide open aperture as EOS lenses do not have aperture rings). 
Of course, using these lenses will mean that we have to be accustomed to good old manual focus technology, and the field of view will be influenced by the 2 times crop factor of the Fourthirds sensor size. This means a traditional 50mm lens will have a 100mm field of view on a M43rds or 43rds body.
  • The micro43rds bodies also give true video capabilities akin to a camcorder or a compact digital camera with even better depth of field control. Indeed, there have been several compelling commercial advertisements done solely with EP-1 available on youtube nowadays. Of course, todays modern DSLRs such as the Canon 5Dmk2, Nikon D90 and even the Nikon D3s offer movie capabilities, but unfortunately no auto focus capabilities as of yet.
Besides the "pocketable" size advantage, I reckon Micro 43 technology hasn't matured yet to a point where it is as compelling as current 43rds technology. [Thom Hogan from Nikon has said : Screw 43rds, and concentrate on designing M43 bodies with full frame sensors]. Nonetheless, here are the show-stoppers for me:
  • The lenses (and current M43 bodies to some extent) are good, small and light, but they're almost as expensive as current 43 lenses, eg. Panasonic 20/1.7, 14-140, 7-14, or M zuiko 9-18, 14-150. I don't think you'll ever see Olympus' f2 zooms (such as the 14-35 or 35-100) in M43 format because they'll be bulky and pricey. Fast primes will be the name of the game now. M43 lenses also cannot be mounted on 43 bodies because of the reduction in size of the lens mount.

A beautiful ZD 14-35 SWD lens mounted on an E-3 which may not be designed for a M43rds body that soon!
  • Wanna use bounce flash? Mount an FL-50R on top of your M43 body, and bingo - you will have a very unbalanced and unwieldy kit. You can only mount an external flash OR an EVF at one time, not both.
  • The fact that in-camera auto distortion correction is applied for M43 lenses means that you will lose some resolution on the edges, not my cup of tea. You can view for m43 lens reviews.
  • Very hard to hold longer focal length lenses with M43 bodies because of the lack of grip, eg. 200mm and above despite the availability of IS. Until the long focal length lenses are released, I don't really see it as being popular with birders and sport photographers, unless they have large f2.8 / f2 apertures.
  • Incompetent AF technology (for Olympus), eg. not responsive enough compared to Panasonic's
  • Panasonic colours not as nice as Olympus ones (a quite a subjective but important issue in my case)
  • Limited battery life (300-400 shots max) because of the constant use of the camera's LCD /  EVF
  • Limited continuous shooting speeds (though in the future, the absence of mechanical parts would enable us to pick out frames from a video, such as the Casio FX-1 which can literally stop time). David Pogue from the New York Times loves this camera by the way.
M43 bodies definitely have their own appeal, based on the type of photographer you are. For intensive applications such as sporting, birding and wedding photography, perhaps not, but for everyday travel photos and in some cases photojournalism (if you're Alex Majoli from Magnum photos, that is), it may be a compelling alternative. There are some very nice photos from the EP-1 from Olympus Visionaries Jay Dickman and John Isaac, which obviously goes to show that it is the person behind the camera that makes the biggest difference.

Another good friend of mine, David Chua has sucessfully incorporated the EP-1 and EP-2 in his artistic projects. But being a traditional Nikon and film user, he has several gripes about the system, notably:

...micro 43rds is definitely the right route they have taken but in order to stay ahead, Olympus must realize it's no longer about image quality or art filters which they have achieved, BUT AF speed and large aperture prime lenses!

OK, art filters are quite a novel way of projecting the M43 (and also 43rds) system, but aside from black and white, pinhole, and maybe pop art and cross process, I reckon we've enough choices for now. Indeed a simple search on Flickr will reveal that the art filters, however novel they are do come very limited in terms of their actual use. Whether they will continue be a serious photographic tool still remains to be seen.

I guess the advent of technology has made us men become wimps. Complaining about heavy cameras makes sense when you're 40 plus, but when you're 20, it should be a non issue, unless you're a couch potato. Otherwise, the very very exclusive Ken Rockwell-endorsed Leica M9 rangefinder is just for you. I'm not saying we need to be body builders, but if I (and some Canon / Nikon / Sony full frame users) need to, I don't mind carrying carrying 2 E-3 + HLD-4 bodies, FL50Rs and several SHG lenses for an important assignment.

This old geezer is not a wimp. Hopefully I've made my point here.

So to my dear friend: stop complaining, take your E-3 out and start shooting. You may accuse me of being a traditional digital SLR enthusiast, but your best camera may well be the one you have at hand, not necessarily the one you would like to have in the future.


*Note about the Leica M9, as tested by Ken Rockwell:

Does the M9 obliterate the D700 and the 5D Mark II? Yes.

Is the Leica easier to carry? Yes.

Is the Leica far easier to operate, without all the menu crap? YES!

There is no comparison. See the image results for yourself!


david chua said...

Ken Rockwell has yet another article after his M9 post saying "The Contax G2 is a far better performing camera than the LEICA M9." The point is, no matter what camera you use, it must be something you will use. If a E3 ends up sitting around due to whatever the reason and a E-P1 ends up achieving more shots, sell the E3. Vice-versa. Just in 2-3 months, Olympus will have a 28-300mm equivalent which is damn small for the micro43rds. Fast primes? buy panasonic lenses for now. Whichever camera, make sure it's the images that speak! Buy/Keep the camera you will use!

robin said...

Hey brandon,
I guess the first reason why i bought my E-410 was because, it was the worlds smallest and lightest DSLR. I really treasure mobility, and being able to bring my camera everywhere I go to.
If micro 4/3 was released before I jumped into more serious photography adventures, I would have given it a serious thought.

Nonetheless, having been using E-520 for more than a year now, i dare say there are vast advantages of a DSLR in comparison to compacts. I guess it all boils down to the shooting needs and main purposes of photography the photographer is pursuing.


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