Olympus E-M1 - Do Olympus need to go full-frame - Sony NEX / RX 35mm sized sensor

There is an interesting article over at the PhoBlographer that argues basically the 4/3 sensor is holding Olympus back. This article was linked to at 43Rumors, where there was this response - 'It’s true that Sony will soon announce a mirrorless FF camera. But it will cost 2.5 times the E-M1 and I doubt it will give you the same kind of mature usability and durability. That said the High End market is the most profitable. And maybe that’s one of the few reasons why Olympus could/should make a FF Macro Four Thirds system.' Do read both.

Its a point of view, but there are several aspects of the article that I would take issue with. Firstly, 'Besides the obvious marketing push that a full frame sensor can give a company or camera system, it only seems like a matter of time until Sony wipes the floor with the rest of the industry and releases a full frame mirrorless camera. And with that said, the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera world will experience the same shift that the DSLR world took where everyone always complained about the smaller sensors in Olympus cameras.' Wipes the floor with the rest of the industry?? Well a 35mm sized sensor in a small RX / NEX camera, if and when it happens, would be a remarkable achievement, in terms of getting it done and the image quality it could produce. However I'm unconvinced that camera buyers and photographers in general are actually that bothered. There are certain sections of the photographic internet that salivate every time this size of sensor is mentioned, but its a fact that the APS-C format is by far the most popular format in terms of sales and use. Once Sony and others come up with 35mm mirrorless, will everybody get rid of their current cameras and buy into it? Well of course they won't. Firstly because its initially going to be expensive and Secondly because not everybody is that convinced of its advantages.

In a way the writer of the piece shows why this is the case. 'While a full frame sensor works out really well with still photography, videographers will tell you all about how much of a pain it is to work with. Full frame sensors can deliver a beautiful look, but getting anything in focus and pulling focus is one of the toughest jobs ever. Micro Four Thirds has something closer to a Super 16mm sensor in size, and so many videography folks love it for that reason. Indeed, it is why the GH3 was so popular amongst videographers.' The argument  applies equally to stills photography. The notion that we are all desperate to have limited depth of field is simply untrue. One of the reasons that APS-C, m4/3 and the 1'' sensor of Nikon and Sony are popular, is that we don't have to struggle with having large areas of our pictures out of focus anymore. I've argued again and again that this obsession with 35mm sized sensors is a hobbyist fetish. I've used this size sensor and so do many professional photographers, but I would argue that the reason we do that has more to do with the fact that the bigger sensor offers (generally) better quality rather than any 'advantages' if there are any, of differential focus. And like the writer talks about with regard to video, many of us see the 'advantages' that the smaller sensors give us.

The primary reason for people choosing one camera over another is price, and while the cost of 35mm sensors has come down recently, its still more expensive than other options, particularly when lens prices are considered. It would take a substantial investment to move over to a 35mm sized sensor system, and unless it gets priced competitively, its going to be an expensive option. Plus m4/3 these days offers a lot of "Bang for your buck' in terms of features, quality and general all-round usability, and the Olympus E-M1, though seemingly expensive, offers a great deal in terms of speed and flexibility. 

A Sony interchangeable system based on a 35mm sized sensor would be a great option to have, and if they get it right, will provide a quality, light, small size option, but its not going to render all other formats obsolete overnight. Firstly its going to initially be very expensive and secondly I'm convinced that its only a small minority of the photographic market who actually want it. There are virtues in smaller formats, increased depth-of-field, lighter, smaller and above all cheaper lenses for a start. Plus these days, apart from at extreme high ISO's the image quality is there anyway. Current m4/3 is already at the stage that means its pretty much caught up with the 'full-frame' performance of a few years ago, and its probably going to be the case that current 35mm sized sensor high ISO performance will be matched by smaller sensors a few years down the line. Technology doesn't stand still. Current m4/3 sensor performance is obviously better than it was when the format started. Fuji have demonstrated with the X-Trans sensor and Nikon with a camera like the D7100 that smaller doesn't necessarily mean inferior and research means that this is only going to improve.

I don't think Olympus need to go 'full-frame' at all. For a start this would only be for a very small section of the overall camera market, which its important to realise is not buying as much as it did a few years ago as it is. Olympus and Panasonic for that matter have found themselves a nice niche in the market. And no mirrorless won't 'kill off' DSLR's (or vice versa) but continue to be a useful option for us all. No format will achieve 'world domination' not that we would want that anyway. APS-C and m4/3 will be with us for some to come, I'm convinced of that, if for no other reason than Olympus, in particular, know how to make an attractive, well-designed product, that if the pre-orders at companies like Amazon indicate, a lot of people want to buy.

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