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Micro Four Thirds: 10th Anniversary. Where to from here on?

In all the excitement about the coming Nikon full-frame mirrorless, let’s not forget who started the whole mirrorless camera revolution in the first place.

It was 10 years ago to the day, on August 5, 2008, that the two major players of the Four Thirds (4/3) System standard, Olympus and Panasonic, presented a new system to the world: The Micro Four Thirds System (mFT, MFT, M43, M4/3) courageously did away with a redundant mirror (because now we could use the sensor, EVF and LCD to view exactly what is coming through the lens), bucked the DSLR standard, and dared to dream of a time when DSLR-level cameras could be built that would be more compact and lightweight than the bulky and heavy DSLRs (because they got rid of the mirror, prism, OVF and reduced the flange distance).

Even though the MFT system captured the imagination of photographers around the world, lured by the promise of smaller and lighter cameras, it took a number of years before that promise was fully realized, after technological advancements in sensor development, EVF, and AF.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

The same year, on October 2008, Panasonic released the first MFT mirrorless camera: the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1. It followed in April 2009 with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 and in September 2009 with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1.

Olympus PEN E-P1 with 14-42mm lens

Not to be left behind, Olympus delivered the beautifully retro-looking PEN E-P1 (and started single-handedly the whole retro craze), followed by the PEN E-P2 in October.

Eight lenses were also released in that time frame and, since both Panasonic and Olympus subscribed to the same MFT standard, their lenses were interchangeable with their mirrorless cameras. Oh, if only the other major camera companies would join the MFT standard, but that was not to be the case.

Samsung (NX mount), Canon (EF-M mount) and Fujifilm (X mount) all used an APS-C sensor and their own proprietary mounts. Nikon settled on a smaller 1-inch sensor with their Nikon 1 mount. Sony has both APS-C sensor (E mount APS-C) and Full-frame sensor (E mount Full-frame) mirrorless, also with their own proprietary mounts.

In the ensuing years, Panasonic continued to introduce DSLR-style mirrorless cameras and lenses while Olympus stayed with their retro-looking PEN series. In 2012, Olympus delivered their first DSLR-style mirrorless: the OM-D E-M5. By then, Panasonic had already advanced a number of model generations and was already at the G5 and video-centric GH3.

Olympus OM-D E-M1

Olympus OM-D E-M1

The year 2013 marked another significant milestone in the mirrorless history, with the introduction of the Olympus OM-D E-M1, probably the first mirrorless to seriously attract the attention of professional DSLR photographers. Of course, enthusiasts and other professional photographers had already started using Panasonic DSLR-style mirrorless cameras before but none of them were seriously thinking of completely ditching their DSLR cameras and lenses and migrate fully to mirrorless..

Panasonic LUMIX DC-GH5

Panasonic LUMIX DC-GH5

Where do we stand today? Olympus delivered the E-M1 Mark II in December 2016, while Panasonic delivered the video-centric Lumix DC-GH5 in March 2017, both flagship mirrorless cameras shattering through the DSLR moat and pretty much matching flagship DSLRs in AF speed, image quality, low light capability and surpassing them in practical features only mirrorless cameras could provide.

2018 is ending and 2019 is starting, so we should be seeing some movement from both Olympus and Panasonic soon. Rumors are that we can expect a “major announcement” (perhaps adding cinematic video capabilities to an upgraded E-1 Mark III) from Olympus in the Dec 2018/Jan 2019 time frame. Panasonic seems to have quietly pared down its extensive model line (with somewhat confusing naming conventions) to the video-centric GH, the stills photography G and the rangefinder-styled GX.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II with optional grip

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II with optional grip

Meanwhile, in 2006, Sony acquired the camera business of Minolta and rebranded it as the Alpha. It took them eight years developing different models before finally deciding that full-frame mirrorless was the way to go and, in 2014, they introduced their first full-frame mirrorless: the α7 (or, simply, a7). That camera came right after the Olympus E-M1 and so got the attention of more professional DSLR photographers thinking of switching from DSLR to mirrorless. Sony continued fast down the path of developing a full-frame mirrorless camera to compete with the Nikon and Canon full-frame flagship DSLRs. In March 2017, we asked whether we were at the end of the DSLR era when Sony introduced the full-frame a9 with features that matched and surpassed those on flagship full-frame DSLRs. Today, Sony rules the mirrorless segment with its a7 IIIa7R III and a9 full-frame mirrorless.

It is interesting to note that these full-frame mirrorless cameras are even smaller and lighter (or as small and as light) as the MFT mirrorless cameras. So, can the MFT mirrorless cameras compete head-on with the Sony full-frame mirrorless and soon-to-be-revealed Nikon and Canon full-frame mirrorless cameras? It’s going to become a crowded playing field (let’s not forget Fujifilm with their wonderful analog-styled APS-C X-series mirrorless cameras) and it will become increasingly difficult to differentiate oneself from the pack. Enthusiast photographers are looking for affordable, compact, light mirrorless cameras while pros are looking for quality, dependable, performing (i.e. going beyond features on paper) mirrorless cameras with all the lenses and accessories they need to do their job. For once a pro finally settles on a mirrorless system, it will usually be for “life.”

Olympus PEN-F

Olympus PEN-F

Yes, today we celebrate 10 years of MFT innovation from Olympus and Panasonic — and we wish them 10 (and many many more) years of continued success. But we believe that MFT is also at a turning point. We fervently hope that Olympus and Panasonic will continue to introduce even more compact and lighter beautiful steal-your-heart retro-looking MFT mirrorless cameras targeted primarily to the enthusiast photographers. Do Olympus and Panasonic need to go full-frame to compete in the professional segment? Only they (and the professional photographers they are targeting) can answer that.

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