Can a m4/3 mirrorless system be a professional system? A personal view.


N.B. As ever this is a personal view and is in no way intended as anything other than that. Plus for some alternative views see the links here. And if you want to see another post on the subject from me - click here.

m4/3 has been around for a while now. Initially praised for its small size there are now some options around that could be seen as having a professional capability. But do they, or is that just wishful thinking?

From Panasonic we have the GH3 and from Olympus the recently announced E-M1. Both feature state of the art technology, weather sealing and have access to an impressive range of lenses plus via adapters literally 1000's of legacy and alternative lenses. Both also feature lightning fast AF, HD video capture, have optional battery grips and wi-fi connectivity. So, is the notion of professional m4/3 a reality or just enthusiast posturing?

Well any camera is a professional camera if it's used by a professional to make money with. But the notion that a photographer who needs his cameras to make a living using m4/3 exclusively would have seemed faintly ridiculous only a short time ago. And the exclusive part is important. All sorts of photographers use different systems for different things and many full-time photographers may well have some sort of mirrorless gear as an option. But if a system is to have that pro. designation then it has to be able to fulfill all the needs of a working photographer and be something more than a plaything to have a bit of fun with when the pressure to deliver is off. 

And indeed there are photographers who have gone that route. Giving up Nikon and Canon DSLR's they have decided that a smaller and lighter system is capable of allowing them to fulfil their working needs without compromising their ability to do a satisfactory job for their clients. And certainly there are many fields, travel photography being one of them, that are well-suited by m4/3. But it's certainly not everybody who feels this way. The massed ranks of press and sports photographers that we see on our TV screens at some newsworthy event are still resolutely attached to their D4's and 1ds's etc. and show little sign of giving up what many see as 'dinosaurs' these days. But these cameras are obviously not regarded as on the verge of obsolescence by the people who still use those well-established brands to earn a living.

Many would cite reliability, professional network, build quality, repair, servicing and hire availability and a well-earned long-term reputation for quality results that can be relied on as reasons for sticking with these tried and trusted options. And those are no small things, nor the blind allegiance of blinkered fanboys. Nikon and Canon cameras and lenses have been doing the most demanding of photographic jobs for a long time now and their reputation is well earned. And those who champion the smaller and lighter alternatives and are quick to criticise Nikon and Canon users for being old-fashioned and using gear that will soon be overtaken by what they are using, need to ask themselves this question. If they suddenly get offered that photographic job of their dreams, shooting the Vogue fashion spread, covering the Formula 1 race or photographing the next Lady Gaga album cover, do they stick with their Olympus, Fuji or NEX or do they rush out to their local store and grab themselves the very thing that they have been criticising, a Nikon or Canon DSLR? And as someone who is currently 100% mirrorless and a working professional I can't really say to you that under the same circumstances I would stick with what I'm using at the moment.



And that's really the crux of the matter. When 'push comes to shove' and you really have to deliver, what system do you go with? Is m4/3 a system that you would trust your livelihood to? Well for my part the answer to that question is no. And yes I've used m4/3 a lot for my stock photography shooting. But that isn't a pressure situation. If I don't get the shots I want with the camera I have with me, I can usually return on another day. And if my camera breaks on me then I've got another one available. And yes I've used m4/3 at weddings, one of the ultimate 'have to get the shot' situations, but only as an additional camera to DSLR's. I've written many posts about my desire to go with m4/3 exclusively, because I really do appreciate the light weight and small size, but I never did get rid of every else and I'm pretty sure now that I never will.
And the reason for that is quite simple. The 4/3 sensor. Now this is in many ways the reason that the system is so attractive. It allows the small footprint and those beautiful high quality lenses like the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 and the Panasonic 25mm f/1.4. And of course I have 1000's of images shot with m4/3 sitting on stock photography websites. But and it's a big but, I've had to do some serious post-processing work to get the quality I need. For what I shoot image sharpness and the ability to produce large file sizes are great advantages. And while I have been able to produce that using m4/3 it comes with a price. I have to use base ISO and raw files only, I often shoot multi-images and stitch them together in software to get a large enough file size and I have to use the very best lens options that I can. Any notion of using anything other than base ISO with m4/3 cameras has always been out of the question for me. Yes these days you can get a decent image at higher ISO's. Well at least it's better than it was. But when I'm producing images that have to be capable of the most demanding of reproduction needs then m4/3 at anything other than the lowest ISO setting just doesn't do it for me.

Harsh? Well maybe, but as a professional photographer I want the best quality I can get all things being equal. And yes DSLR systems are generally heavier, though the Nikon 3300 announced a few days ago, which is lighter than the Olympus E-M1 will turn some heads. With what I assume is the D7100 sensor and no AA filter the files that camera produces will, unless Nikon have seriously screwed up, be superior to anything m4/3 can produce in almost every way. And that's the real issue here. It's all very well to have the mirrorless advantages, but we don't sell pictures of our cameras to pay the mortgage, we sell pictures taken with our cameras and ultimately that's how we will be judged and it's that rather than how 'sexy' our camera looks that will decide whether we successful.

Now for certain jobs previously the province of the DSLR, m4/3 actually does things better. The video on the GH3 for example is professional grade. The electronic shutter and burst rate are also very impressive and combined with the ultra-fast AF make this a very useful camera for fast-moving and sports shooting. But how many professional sports photographers will you see using one? That's right, not many, if any at all. So why is that? Well mostly it's a question of stick with what you know. Nikon and Canon DSLR's are proven, they have been doing the job for years and the likes of Panasonic, Olympus and Sony have to prove themselves. And the only way they can do that is for photographers to use them, test them out, find them suitable for the job and spread the word. And I certainly see that happening in the enthusiast world, but I see only occasional evidence of that happening in the professional world. Sure I see lots of posts about how this pro and that has started using m4/3 high-end cameras, but the truth is my local pro dealer doesn't even stock them.

So all of this maybe sounds like some male orientated, 'big-boy' camera loving, Ken Rockwell type Nikanon fanboy propaganda, but regular readers will know that isn't true of me. In fact I'd probably use a m4/3 camera in preference to most DSLR's anyday. But as professionals we are all different and my relatively relaxed daily working regime is nothing like that of a press photographer, a sports photographer, a busy wedding or social photographer, a fashion catwalk photographer, a studio based still-life photographer etc. etc. I have the time to test, see the advantages of the smaller faster cameras and explore what mirrorless offers me. But as I've indicated if a seriously well paid job came along, then I don't doubt I'd probably be off to the aforementioned pro dealer and walk out with a D800 or D4.

And ultimately it doesn't matter. I don't really care whether a camera has a mirror or not. And I certainly don't care whether it's got wi-fi or some ridiculous tech. geek app. that probably doesn't work properly anyway. And having wasted a lot of time yesterday trying to trigger my A7r from my newly acquired iPad (and watching the progress wheel on the screen of my Sony just keep going round and round as the devices failed to acknowledge each other) made me think that the Luddies were onto something!! 


For professionals it's an ongoing bottom line situation. And the bottom line is what do we know, what do we trust, what can we rely on, what has done the job for us for years and what works for us? And like it or not many professional photographers just don't think m4/3 cameras are serious professional tools. Now they may be wrong, misguided, prejudiced, resistant to change and too embroiled in some macho outdated ideas of what constitutes a professional camera, but it's their money, their livelihood and their choice. And we have no right to criticise others for making their choices, just as they have no right to criticise us.

For me, it's the sensor that has always stopped me from going m4/3 exclusively. Yes, I can work round it and get pretty good results, but if I don't have to work round it, as with my Sony A7 and A7r, then so much the better. For a professional time is an asset. For example, if I could go without sleep for the next 6 months then I might be able to make a dent in editing, captioning and keywording and uploading the pictures I shot last summer, but I can't. And though I can do nothing about the images I've shot already, if the images I produce from now on are quicker and easier to get where they can earn me money then that's a serious advantage. And it has to be said, m4/3 slows me down. I have to post-process more to get what I want, eliminate the luminance noise that is present at all ISO's and use sophisticated (and time-consuming) sharpening and interpolation to get what I need. And having to do that makes all the advantages and pleasure of using the cameras in the field short-lived.


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