We are witnessing a new war being waged in digital photography, and we’re all winning. On top of the leapfrogging going on in the higher end system lines, we are seeing more and more movement toward the world of smaller, mirror-less, interchangeable lens system cameras. You may call them EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens, assuming they have an electronic viewfinder), or MILC (Mirror-less Interchangeable Lens Compacts) but however we cleverly abbreviate them, the question remains, who are these cameras for?
(*authors note: I’ve been seeing quite a few conversations spring up based on my article here. Firstly, thank you to those who are here and reading my personal take and I have learned quite a bit when I hear others respond which is exactly what I’d hoped to gain by asking the question in the first place. I hope that those who are dismissing this as “whining” or that I’m somehow bashing the GH1 or any other micro 4/3 camera have actually read through it. To the contrary, I believe that along side a larger bodied EVF included dSLR style camera, the system NEEDS to also continue to push the small form factor in the PENs and GF series as well as smaller, faster lenses, as I see it as one of, if not the most unique capability of the format. I’m not saying one or the other, but both. My frustration with 3 separate lines being now offered by Panny in the G10, G2 and GH1 seem a bit gratuitous where perhaps only two would be plenty sufficient and I feel has potentially pulled energy and resources away from developing the smaller GF line(or perhaps an entry level GF style cam). This isn’t to say that there are not other benefits to an overall smaller system even with a bigger camera, just that I feel you gotta get your bread and butter before you start going after the big guys plate. Thanks again and I hope you enjoy the read. – Tyson)
This article is merely my take on what I see as potential directions for these systems. As the market grows, the products need to keep up. It is fairly long, so I feel no ill will toward those who choose to skip over it 🙂 . For those familiar with my micro 4/3 ramblings, you probably know I really like the capabilities of my GF1 as a high quality compact system camera. You may also be aware that I am partial to the micro 4/3 system because of its small form factor and compatibility with 3rd party lenses via adapters. One gripe I have had, and continue to vent, is the lack of proprietary options to truly realize the system’s size benefits, along with the cost for some of the lenses being offered by Panasonic and Olympus. Does it make sense to try and compete directly with systems that offer a better range of affordable lenses, better sensor performance and offer similar size, or, would it make more sense to compete in and essentially define this new, mirror-less arena? Are they different enough to be separate, or are we seeing the whole of the future of digital interchangeable lens cameras unfold before our eyes? Big fish, small pond, small fish, big pond or are we all just floating around in the ocean? I guess I see it currently as different tools for different applications, so why try to compete for the piece of pie, when you can set up your own baked goods shop across the street?
Digital photography is at the point that we can realistically assume quality and price are coming into a balance as far as the consumer is concerned. What $600-$800 gets you now a days would have cost three times as much a few years ago or more, if it were even available. This is the beauty of technology. (Remember when a 42″ plasma tv cost $4000+?) This advancement combined with competition for photographers money, as they’re wondering where to best spend their hard earned cash, brings me to my conundrum. Who are these new mirror-less cameras for?
It is well documented that, when talking about current technology available to us today, the larger the sensor, and subsequent size of the pixels, the better the light gathering capabilities and general image quality or ability by the sensor to record, render and reproduce light into an image file. The technology, on a pixel by pixel level is fairly translatable, so really, the more room you have for your pixels, the better. This said, smaller sensor sizes have their potential benefits as well. Cost to manufacture, smaller lenses needed to properly cover the sensor, the ability to decrease the size of the camera, crop factor, etc.
The next major component to a camera system is its available lens collection. If you buy into an interchangeable lens system, you are at least somewhat interested in different lenses I’d assume. I know I am.
I am going to continue the article under my assumption that there are different categories we’re seeing developed (ie: P&S, compact, compact mirror-less interchangeable lens, digital SLR, etc). I want to break down this new mirror-less subset into what I see as the demographics that are drawn to these cameras. I’ve found that there are 3 main groups that have been addressed with these new cameras through my conversations and observations.
First, and quite possibly the group most coveted by camera companies, the point and shoot convert. (There are many, many more compact point and shoot cameras sold than there are dSLR or system cameras remember.) Those of us who’s digital photography has been more a documentation of event and life in general who are looking to get into a more “advanced” system as our photographic desire and interest grow.
Second, the hobbyists and more serious recreational shooters looking to buy into a compact system as their primary system. Probably wanting to see a full line of lenses, dedicated flashes and components that they would in any other system. Perhaps seeing the mirror-less segment as cool newer technology and appreciate the potential it provides. We may be interested in utilizing our “old” lenses by way of adapters for a bit of fun, but it isn’t a primary factor in our decision.
Third, shooters that don’t see a compact mirror-less system as their primary camera, but more a system to be utilized as a second system, or alternative to high end compacts providing good balance between image quality and size. I’d also group shooters attracted to the mirror-less system for its compatibility with legacy or third party lenses as a fundamental draw into this group as well. Basically shooters who are looking to a quality alternative to a high end compact fixed lens or point and shoot that may already have a different system they use as their “primary” camera.
Of course there will be a bleeding of these lines as many of us may be able to fit into more than one group, but for arguments sake… Now, which of these groups will provide the largest possible growth, and which of these demographics can be marketed to most effectively? People, interested photo-geeks especially, are usually pretty informed, or at least willing to research, read up on and play with the choices they are interested in. (I certainly consider myself a photo-geek) If I were in any way involved in the micro 4/3 campaign, I would be looking at a few key developments in this new photographic landscape and doing my best to play to my system’s strengths. Sticking to the most literal and direct competitors to the micro 4/3 system (not to take anything away from high end compacts or the new Ricoh interchangeable sensor/lens cameras) I want to address the challenges that Samsung and more recently Sony have provided.
I will admit, I have not personally shot with the Samsung NX10 or either the new Sony NEX3 or NEX5 and can only base my assumptions on the reviews, articles and videos I’ve seen on line through various sources. Both of these systems use an APS-C sized sensor which provide them with one major advantage, and one major disadvantage in my eyes. The advantage being sensor size. More real estate on your sensor gives you a bit more room to play with resolution, noise management, microlens engineering, etc. The disadvantage to this is you have to produce, or make a compatible mount for larger lenses to utilize the sensor (they might be able to engineer a digital “crop” to use smaller lenses akin to Nikon’s DX crop mode on FX cameras…but, that isn’t even smoke as of yet, and probably wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense). This is potentially bulkier, and more expensive to produce these larger lenses for the companies looking to go with an APS-C sensor.
Samsung swung for the fences and somewhat pompously claimed they were going to dominate this new class of cameras. I think it was an interesting first try, but there is nothing about the NX10 that I see pulling me, or my money away from what else is out there. It has done decently to compete in most facets, but as far as I have heard, or can tell, doesn’t beat anyone anywhere on any particular point. The camera is fairly large, the AF is slow and the IQ doesn’t provide enough of a gap to really make a case against a dSLR, or comparable micro 4/3 camera. I think Samsung’s fate will rest on it’s next step coupled with its lens line from here on out.
Sony’s new cameras look like they have the potential to really provide a challenge to the micro 4/3 system. Panasonic and Olympus have one major advantage with the smaller sensor and subsequent flange design, being that there are very few lenses in any 35mm format that are not compatible through an adapter, with the micro 4/3 system. Up until the Sony cameras, I would have said that size was an inherent benefit to the micro 4/3 system, but because there are so few dedicated pancake style lenses for the micro 4/3 cameras, even that is now in serious jeopardy. Soon, you’ll be able to get the Sony NEX3 or 5 with the 16mm lens, which is smaller and lighter in most every dimension than the GF1 or EPL1 with the 20mm pancake. Wow. On top of that, from what I’ve seen, it appears that the high ISO performance on the APS-C sized Sony is going to trump the micro 4/3 lot. That is trouble, but to be expected because of the APS-C sensor. I’ve even heard that the Sony cams will soon have lens mount converters. If that translates to any converters other than for the Alpha mount lenses, that’s an uh oh for Panolympus.
Now, the one place that I think Sony really dropped the ball, is that they are directing these cameras almost exclusively to the P&S converts with very limiting functionality for anyone desiring a more advanced photographic experience. That tells me where most of the attention is being paid in this new mirror-less format, at least by Sony. Hmmmmm. Now, if I were looking to compete with this from Panasonic and Olympus’ standpoint, obviously I don’t think you can just give away the entry level, novice, P&S convert group of course, but I would attack the shortcomings of the NEX cameras. There are a lot of dollars to compete for in that new comers category, but newcomers become more advanced hobbyists, and may very well crave more control over a new system camera. What I would be doing in unison with the entry level though, is making the smallest, most robust, most advanced camera with capabilities to appeal to more advanced shooters who may be looking to the system for a bit of fun and functionality.
The EPL1 is a good way to address the former, with it’s automated modes and high quality jpegs straight out of the camera which can provide a P&S convert an easy to understand experience, all the while giving them a little bit of room to grow into the more advanced operations of the camera. Panasonic’s “intelligent auto” should also be applauded here. There are already plenty of “kit” lenses to attract the novice into the micro 4/3 system as well. In my opinion, the GF1 and EP2 are pretty good at addressing the latter, with relatively good operational functionality for even advanced shooters. Where then do they try to push into newer territory? I feel it needs to be done in two places, and whether it is the micro 4/3 camp, or Sony (or maybe even Samsung) that achieve this, will provide some room for users to grow, while attracting the more advanced shooters. These are:
First: Overall size, including lenses. First off, advanced cameras with access to a variety of proprietary lenses already exist, they’re called dSLRs. The cameras that do not yet exist are where I direct my suggestion here. My biggest gripe about the micro 4/3 system has been its lack of fast, dedicated, pancake prime lenses. With the collapsible 14-42 by Olympus, they’ve done a good job at keeping a slow, kit zoom as small as I’ve seen one, but that is not a lens that will attract many advanced shooters. It’s a good way to hook system folks, and by all means it is a good all’rounder, but to gain a really rabid following, they will need to appeal to a more unique shooting experience. So far, the 20mm f/1.7 pancake is the only lens I’ve seen that truly offers quality and lack of size providing a different camera than what is out there (the 17/2.8 to an extent too, but it really is eclipsed by the 20/1.7). I can buy a Rebel T2i, D5000 or K-x type entry level kit for relatively the same price as any of the most competitively priced micro 4/3 cameras and I gain a larger sensor with it’s performance, and many, many more dedicated AF compatible (and affordable) lens options. This is why I see the “entry level” system shooters as not being the best to cater to, at least entirely. The G1, G2, G10 and GH1 are all very cool cameras in their own right, don’t get me wrong, but for me, if I were looking to invest in a system, I would probably forgo one of these for an entry level dSLR for the reasons stated above as I’m not really gaining anything. Size? Not really. IQ? No. High ISO performance? Nope. TTL Optical Viewfinder? Huh-uh. Full HD video? Not any more. You see what I’m saying.
Second: Appealing to advanced, or advancing shooters. At some point, many of the point and shooters that are buying into an interchangeable lens system are going to outgrow the more basic, automated system cameras like the NEX cameras and to a lesser extent the EPL-1 for instance. If they’ve bought into one of these new systems as their primary system, whether or not they will crave a more advanced camera may be determined by whether or not that camera is available to them (new bells and whistles along with the ability to provide a more advanced shooting experience with more control). Do these camera companies stand to benefit from educated photographers craving more control, or are the novice photographers going to continue to be fine with a glorified point and shoot? I would certainly give these new P&S shooters something to aspire and grow into. No matter what our personal photographic history, we all started somewhere and have continued, and will continue to learn as long as we are interested. Having already invested in a particular system, these shooters can then graduate to a more advanced camera assuming it is available. Right now, it isn’t with the new Sony system, but I’m guessing it will be soon.
Getting back to the styling really quickly, I see the Samsung approach similar to Panasonic’s in that they want to provide an integrated EVF to emulate a dSLR type experience in a relatively larger body. It seems to have been doing well enough, but I think now it is time to realize that if people want a dSLR type camera, they will start to look to a system mirror-less or not, that has the most benefits and I don’t think either Samsung or Panasonic can provide them with that currently. Again, from this angle, you’re competing against the big fish, Canon and Nikon, which is difficult as the entry level cameras from these two are getting more affordable, and offering more and more with each release. I know that Panasonic has also developed the GF line, and if it weren’t for that, I think they’d be in trouble. As for Samsung, I guess time will tell. I see Sony and Olympus having taken a different approach making the camera as small as reasonably possible. This, to me anyway, is a better (and certainly more gutsy) approach as it is defining a new category in form and function. Will it pay off? I hope so personally because this is what I would like from my compact camera. Size, or lack of it, combined with reasonable image quality.
Play to your strengths.
Playing to this concept of size, what the micro 4/3 system CAN provide that the other systems currently cannot, is physically smaller lenses, especially in prime lenses as well as small camera bodies. Personally, I want a quality camera that I can fit in my pocket, not another bulky camera that offers the same, slow lenses that I had with my first Rebel camera with an arguably weaker sensor (and overall system) than what I could purchase in an entry level camera from Nikon or Canon. I see it as a step backward from where I stand. I have already invested in a system myself though, so my primary photographic needs are being met there. By this argument, I don’t fall into the first two categories that we discussed at the beginning. I like the micro 4/3 system because it provides me something I cannot get in my other system. It is different, and has the potential to continue to be different and that is what I like about it. Am I part of the vast minority here? Maybe, but I do think that I am part of a group, that if addressed by way of a quality compact system, will continue to grow and see it as a necessary parallel to the entry level. Don’t neglect one or the other.
I am not a fan boy. I am a fan of cool technology. Whether that technology comes from Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Panasonic, Sony, Pentax, Leica, Hasselblad, Samsung, Pinhole cameras or any other type of photographic technology, I like to see cool photographic tools, especially tools that are realistically made available to me in a compelling package.
The micro 4/3 system was groundbreaking at its inception, but its initial shine has been somewhat dulled as other systems have been advancing around them. Panasonic and Olympus got my money because I found it to offer me the best bang for my buck, and showed some gravitas by literally creating a compelling new category. To that I say well done, but now comes the part where your weaknesses will be exposed, and strengths tested. From a consumer’s standpoint, this competition is good as we all win. Of course, if we’ve invested substantially in a system, we would like to see the coolest new cameras and lenses come out for the one we have right?
My plea to both Panasonic and Olympus:
Panasonic: Now offering 3 different “small” dSLR style body lines that are barely smaller than a Rebel? Really? This is ludicrous in my mind. Certainly one or two will do. Please continue to advance the GF platform, perhaps integrating an EVF while keeping the body dimensions as close to the GF1 as possible (or please develop a decent accessory EVF). Offering 14bit RAW files and adding in body stabilization would further push this onto a more seriously considered platform by more serious shooters, and wouldn’t in any way displace the newer converts.
Olympus: Please oh please have someone redesign your menus and interface. Also, step it up to at least the 460k dot LCD screen if not a 920k screen like the Sonys are doing. I wouldn’t think that addressing the AF speed would be a bad thing either. Also, please feel free to look at my suggestions to Panasonic above.
To both (my rant): For the love of all that is holy, get some new, fast, reasonably affordable, small lenses to market to compliment the kit lenses you’ve already released. I’ve been reading rumors and speculation for over a year about certain lenses that haven’t yet made it anywhere near a consumer (12/14mm pancakes, 8mm fisheye, and the 100-300 comes to mind, etc). With digital camera years resembling those of our canine friends, it has been a while. Also, if every current camera company can produce a cheap (sub $150), fast (f/1.8 or faster) standard prime lens, surely a lens requiring far less glass and metal can be produced for less than twice that ($300) right? We’re not asking for the world, but when the only options are $900+ for anything other than the kit zooms or the 17/2.8 or 20/1.7, then I think it will be a tough sell to the novice. Pricing like this would dictate a niche, higher end demographic as opposed to an entry level wouldn’t it? If so, then please start to look at lenses that will truly appeal to those types of shooters. My guess is an expensive, slow tele zoom isn’t quite what the doctor ordered. Also, nurture any relationships you can with third party lens manufacturers. The time for proprietary control over a mount is over and I think that in one year’s time, the digital photographic landscape is going to look much different than it does today. You have a unique opportunity here with the design of the flange and mount. Exploit that! I understand a new platform poses certain logistical and manufacturing hurdles. But, if they’re not cleared soon, you may not have much of a market left now that it seems everyone is going to start getting into the mirror-less game offering cameras and sensors that challenge, and look like they will offer equally as good or better performance than what the micro 4/3 system is currently capable of, pound for pound. You ‘redefined’ photography with this new format, but now many others are shooting for it. Use the capabilities and uniqueness available to the format, or I fear the micro 4/3 system may struggle. Okay, end rant.
Technology is moving at such a quick pace, and if the micro 4/3 camp doesn’t start to address it’s system’s shortcomings (and quickly) and start to play to its strengths, I think it may die on the vine. It wasn’t quite so crucial until the announcement of the G2/G10 was immediately followed up by Sony announcing the NEX3/5. Further exposing Panasonic’s hand and their seeming obliviousness to what is needed in this arena (admittedly by my opinion and estimation). I’m not saying there isn’t a market for a dSLR sized camera utilizing the other benefits to the micro 4/3 system, but to have 3 different (near identical) lines to me is just poor judgment. I would have offered a direct competitor (in form factor and size) to the EPL-1 as opposed to the G10 trying to do…what exactly that the G2 should be offering, I really don’t know? Drop the price of the G2 line as the “entry level” and use the GH1 as your higher end. Is there really enough of a market to have three remarkably similar cameras all within a few hundred dollars of each other? Just silly. I feel that Oly has done better at realizing the benefits to the system, but have yet to truly hit one out of the park. The styling on the EP1/2 are beautiful, but the function leaves quite a bit to be desired. Fine tune the interface, try to update the AF system, and include an LCD with decent resolution and you’re there, camera wise anyway. Lenses really should start to show up soon, otherwise I feel it may be a bit too late. For every potential user on the fence, the Sony and Samsung cameras provide pretty compelling alternatives, but they’re not without their own limitations system wise which is where the micro 4/3 bunch can, and in my opinion should, take advantage.
This is a crucial moment for micro 4/3 and I, along with many others I feel, will be watching Olympus and Panasonic’s next moves very closely. Let’s see what this system is capable of offering not only to the novice, but those truly looking for a high end, fun to use interchangeable lens compact. Will I continue to buy into the micro 4/3 system, or will my GF1 eventually be retired as a sensor attachable to lenses I have already purchased for other systems via adapters? As is, I’m a little worried but I do have faith in a partnership that developed such a compelling idea initially.
Looking forward to the next step,