The Mirrorless Interchangeable lens sector of the camera market is without doubt the most dynamic, the most innovative and the most changeable. 2014 saw a lot of new products (Thanks to Photokina) but will 2015 be just as interesting or is this a year for consolidation?
The big players here are Sony, Fuji and the m4/3 dynamic duo, Panasonic and Olympus, They each deserve their own article, and today it's the turn of m4/3. So this is my take on what the state of play is at the moment and what might (or might not happen)
MICRO FOUR THIRDS
I like m4/3. It's a great system. a great format and still seems to be in touch with the original mirrorless concept of a small footprint, very classy, stylish camera / lens range full of innovation and photographer friendly features, that has one eye on the past (particularly Olympus) but takes full advantage of current tech. developments. In a recent post I wrote about it being a 'mature' system and though I've been without any of the cameras and lenses for periods in the recent past, I seem to keep getting getting drawn back to it. I've owned and used a LOT of m4/3 gear and I have huge stocks of images shot with it over the past 6 years or so.
In terms of a range of options from small, light cameras not much bigger than a smartphone to 'pro' spec, hybrid stills / video workhorses, m4/3 is the oldest and arguably most comprehensive mirrorless system and is one I have a lot of time for. From being the source of DSLR owners insults, this is a format that can now do anything from shoot a feature length movie to satisfying the most demanding of a picture editor needs. The small sensor makes m4/3 primarily good light / daylight cameras, but for the landscape / outdoors / travel / location photographer, it's hard to think of a more useful and versatile interchangeable lens system.
Olympus and Panasonic have taken slightly different paths in recent times, but when we take both companies products into consideration, we have a range of options even the long established Nikon and Canon have difficulty matching. Lightning fast AF, 4K video and some pretty incredible small lenses are all innovations that have taken m4/3 from a position of attempting to prove itself to DSLR owners to one of providing options that DSLR owners and users now covet. The question is now, not can it compete? but more can everything else compete with it? Here's my take on where we are and what we might expect.
Again, some fairly non-specific, 'we're looking at everything', 'possibilities'. Corporate speak attempting to cover all bases. But then we should all be used to this nonsense by now. And in terms of what Olympus actually offer, they probably don't need to do this. Because, despite taking 'creative accounting' to new levels, they are now in a strong position. This is a long-established brand, with one of the best design pedigrees of any camera manufacturer. Just look at images of the silver E-M1 + grip + 12-40mm to see a retro inspired masterpiece. My OM-D E-M10 is small, sexy and produces great images and Olympus seem to able to come up with these aesthetically pleasing miniature marvels again and again. Their camera aren't cheap and their policy of making us pay extra for lens hoods is (and always has been) seriously cheapskate, but this is a good looking, versatile range of camera bodies and lenses. Some like the 75mm f/1.8 are combinations of art, design and optical excellence and the in-body IS of the cameras has led to some amazingly small and light lenses that are a pleasure to look at and use.
But even taking all this as read, the question that dominates the future of m4/3 is can we / will we get a sensor larger than 16MP that gives us the quality we are used to and that performs decently at high ISO's. Those of us who use m4/3 really don't expect A7s miracles here, but I suspect many of us would like more MP's and still have the ability to shoot some relatively noise free images at ISO 1600 and 3200 occasionally. APS-C sensors have proved themselves capable of handling 24MP with few problems and while the latest 16MP m4/3 sensors have shown themselves capable of matching their APS-C competitors at that size, can they do it again with an extra 8MP? Because 24MP is becoming the norm for the expectations many have for an all-round high performance camera. Sony have 24MP on their APS-C sensors, Samsung have 28MP and while in many (most) cases 16MP does the job, eventually people will expect / want more.
There are also some features that need adding to Olympus cameras to bring them in line with what Panasonic are offering. Electronic shutters, OLED viewfinders and better video, including 4K being the obvious ones. And while the E-M1 wins hands down for style, the GH4 is still ahead in terms of options / features. The forthcoming 7-14mm F2.8 and 300mm F4 'Pro' lenses will add to the top end offer from Olympus and further enhance their lens range. There's a new OMD-EM5 update and it will be interesting to see what that has that the E-M1 doesn't. Olympus do get better at what they present us with and hopefully that will continue. And they do of course make some very pretty cameras.
WHAT THEY COULD DO
Electronic shutters, 4K video, OLED EVF's and screens. Better battery life.
WHAT THEY WILL PROBABLY DO
Hopefully, most of the above.
The two most innovative manufacturers in the camera world are Sony and Panasonic. And for the latter company the GH4 is a pretty amazing camera. Who would have thought that a Panasonic m4/3 stills camera would be regarded as the best stills / video hybrid out there? Sure the Sony A7s is better for low light, but for everything else the Panasonic is a terrific camera. Then we have the interesting LX100, which I'm convinced Leica put some serious input into and it's that association with the German company that gives Panasonic a special place in the camera market. I remember using the Leica Branded 4/3 quartet of lenses for Panasonic's first foray into system cameras and they were (and still are) great lenses. And that Leica branding of many of Panasonic's (and m4/3's) best lenses does pretty much guarantee superb quality.
This combination of technological innovation and superb optics has stood Panasonic in good stead. And with the GX7 and LX100 they seem to have finally realised that style and good looks can go a long way to getting cameras noticed as well. Much as I loved what my original G1 could do, it just looked so cheap. And up to the GH4 Panasonic seem to have decided that the functional look is the way to go. And much as I like what they offer, I have found the majority of their cameras not aesthetically pleasing nor, it has to be said, that nice to hold in the hand. But they do a job, there is no denying that.
As with Olympus I believe at some time the issue of more MP's has to be addressed. No matter how many people argue on the photographic internet that you don't 'need' any more and indeed I'm personally perfectly happy with 16MP, there is no doubt that the more MP's a camera has, the more attention it will get. There are people who think pixel size is more important and again I'm one of those, but I suspect that we are very much in the minority. For most buyers more = better and I don't think that is particularly controversial. And indeed I do think it's possible. The 20MP 1" sensor in the FZ1000 shows that for the majority of daylight use more MP's has little negative impact. And while Panasonic, quite rightly in my view, promote their range of cameras as outdoor / travel / location work horses, there is no doubt that a reasonable performance at high(er) ISO's is still expected. And whether it's possible to keep that much improved low light performance with a more densely packed sensor remains to be seen.
There is also the issue of whether more MP's will impact the 4K video performance. The GH4 handles 4K in camera no problem, but would more MP's make that a problem? Anyway, I think that whatever Panasonic do, they have some time yet before they have to make any decision about upping the pixel count. They have come some distance in the six years since the G1 and have established themselves as a camera and lens maker of distinction. I see 2015 as a year of consolidation but then we may well see the odd surprise or two.
WHAT THEY COULD DO
Develop a 24MP sensor by themselves or with Sony and produce some the of best travel / outdoors hybrid cameras around that will prove irresistible to many.
WHAT THEY WILL PROBABLY DO
Stick with what they know, release a few more similar cameras and keep doing what they doing.