The Future of Mirrorless is Full-Frame. BUT…

Now that the two major camera manufacturers (Canon and Nikon) have officially thrown their hats into the full-frame mirrorless arena and are battling Sony for supremacy, is there still a place for Olympus Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras? We believe so, but only if they play their cards right. This is what Olympus has to do to survive and have a bright future.

There’s a lot of ink spilled over this issue, of whether full-frame is the future, and whether APS-C and Micro Four Thirds (MFT) mirrorless cameras will be able to compete. Photographers switching from DSLRs to mirrorless understandably want to know so they can standardize on a brand and its mirrorless system. And it’s an answer that camera manufacturers also want to know so they can focus ever decreasing financial and human resources on winning decisions. Of course, some manufacturers are edging their bets by using one mount for both full-frame and APS-C. Let’s take an unemotional look at this landscape and see how Olympus can carve out a space for itself.

To be able to discuss any issue intelligently, it’s important to put it in the right context. After all, it was not long ago that we were still arguing over whether DSLRs or mirrorless technology would prevail. Of course, with both Canon and Nikon having unequivocally jumped into the mirrorless arena and having publicly staked their claim to eventually dominate it, that argument is already receding in our rearview mirror. Nobody is reasonably arguing that mirrorless technology hasn’t already won this battle. The question everyone is now therefore asking is which sensor format will prevail going forward.

Let’s take a quick look at how we got here and where we stand now. MFT started this whole mirrorless revolution, quickly followed by APS-C. Full-frame lagged behind because, well, it was deemed technically unfeasible. They said that it would be too big, too difficult to make, too expensive, and not pro quality. Sony proved everyone wrong with its A7 full-frame mirrorless camera. The A7 was not only full-frame but it was the same size or even smaller than APS-C and MFT mirrorless cameras. Canon and Nikon kept forging ahead with DSLRs and paying only lip service to mirrorless with half-baked offerings. Then Sony did something revolutionary: It equipped its A9 (Apr 19, 2017) and A7 III (Feb 27, 2018) mirrorless cameras with Eye AF that was sticky — that locked onto a subjet’s eye and tenaciously stayed with it. That was even far better than the Tracking AF that Nikon and Canon had in their DSLRs. That’s when we started to see, first a tickling, then a crowd, of photographers switching from their big and heavy and cumbersome DSLRs to the Sony full-frame mirrorless system.

When press agencies start to standardize on a camera and system, you know that brand has arrived:
Associated Press Switches to Sony Alpha Mirrorless
PA Media Group Makes Sony Alpha Mirrorless Their Preferred Equuipment

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Canon and Nikon engineers are able to build great mirrorless cameras. Their engineers were simply not allowed to do so, not allowed to cannibalize sales from their existing DSLRs. In the eyes of top management, it’s only a matter of dollars and cents — or Yen. But, once the numbers started showing that they were losing customers to Sony, that’s when top management gave their full attention and the go-ahead to go mirrorless. So, here we are now, waiting for both Canon and Nikon to reveal their respective flagship full-frame mirrorless camera that will slay the Sony A1 flagship.

Truth be told, we should not even be having this discussion on sensor format. In fact, the three sensor formats seem to be coexisting very well with one another. Then, two significant events happened that brought this question to the fore. First, Panasonic joined in an alliance with Leica to use Leica’s mount (renamed the L-mount) and make full-frame mirrorless cameras — and seemingly abandoning its MFT cameras. Second, and the biggest event of course, is when Olympus announced that it is exiting — and selling off — its imaging division to a financial company. With the two major players in MFT seemingly out of the game (or playing a minor role in MFT development), the future of the MFT sensor got suddenly murky, and remains so.

Why Full-Frame
I believe that “The Future of Mirrorless is… Full-Frame.” Here’s why:

  1. Size. Technology improvements mean that everything else is shrinking so that a full-frame camera body can now be as small and light as an APS-C and MFT body, negating one of the major advantages of a smaller sensor.
  2. Bokeh. Though you may think that you do not care one bit about bokeh, you do when you see it at work. It is much more difficult to get smooth and beautiful bokeh using a smaller sensor format.
  3. Lenses. Innovation in lens technology means that full-frame lenses are getting smaller and lighter, and will eventually negate the one last big advantage of a smaller sensor format.
  4. Reviews. When reviewers compare full-frame, APS-C and MFT cameras, their unconscious bias will always ensure that the full-frame cameras tend to come out on top.

Aren’t full-frame mirrorless cameras bigger and heavier that APS-C and Micro Four Thirds (MFT) mirrorless cameras? Yes, as a general rule, but we have seen full-frame mirrorless cameras that are smaller and lighter than many APS-C and even MFT mirrorless cameras, go figure! While some full-frame and APS-C mirrorless camera manufacturers keep giving out excuses as to why they can’t put IBIS (In-Body Image Stabilization) in their cameras, Sony seems to have no problem doing so in their full-frame mirrorless cameras that are as compact and even smaller than their full-frame, APS-C and MFT competitors. So size and weight advantage as far as the camera body is concerned does not necessarily go to the smaller sensors.

Comparing camera sizes for the different sensor formats (images courtesy of camerasize.com)

Comparing camera sizes for the different sensor formats (images courtesy of camerasize.com)

Portrait photographers care a lot about bokeh, and that is one main reason why they prefer full-frame. It’s not that you cannot get beautiful bokeh using the other sensor formats, but you have to think harder and play around. If you don’t shoot a lot of portraits, you may correctly argue that you don’t care about bokeh. In which case, you may not care about full-frame sensors and that is why there is a “BUT” in our article title.

Whichever sensor format you shoot with, the lenses (and their size and weight) are usually not a problem until you get to the very long telephoto lenses. That is when sensor size makes a big difference in the size and weight of the lens. But shooting very long telephoto lenses is a niche market. So unless you shoot with a very long telephoto lens, you would not see much difference shooting with a camera of any of the three sensor formats. Besides, innovation in lens technology means that lens design will allow long telephoto lenses for the full-frame sensor to become smaller and lighter. And please don’t throw around “the laws of Physics” arguments why this will never happen; we’ve heard these “can’t-be-technically-done” arguments before.

When reviewers compare flagship cameras from the three sensor formats, the one using the full-frame sensor will tend to come out on top. Camera manufacturers will therefore want to compete in the full-frame market.

While we firmly believe that the battle that is going to be fought and won will be in the professional full-frame category, Olympus has an incredible opportunity to be the camera for everyone else. Smaller, lighter, cheaper — everyone getting into photography would naturally select an Olynpus MFT mirrorless camera. Keep the cameras retro, beautiful, weather-sealed, with one of the best IBIS in the industry. Down the years, an Olympus user may eventually decide to migrate to a full-frame camera, but then they might decide not to: Having invested into the OM system, most may decide MFT is way more than good enough for them, and they have the incredibly beautiful and high quality images and videos to prove it. In fact, if Olympus continues to perfect the MFT sensor, then MFT would be exceptionally good. Most beginners will choose based on price, and so Olympus has an ideal market all to itself. Right now, Olympus has to rebuild photographers’ confidence that they are here to stay for a long long time to come.

This is what Olympus has to do to survive in this cut-throat market:

  1. Rebuild customers’ confidence in its long-term viability
  2. Continue to develop MFT sensor and technology (remember: small sensor, but need to capture great low-noise low-light photos)
  3. Improve Eye AF and AF tracking to Sony’s level
  4. Reduce size to take advantage of the smaller MFT sensor (provide optional grip for those preferring a larger body)
  5. Focus on entry-level and enthusiast market
  6. Make their cameras and lenses affordable
  7. Introduce beautiful retro rangefinder-style street cameras (and I am not talking about “girlie” cameras, just elegantly beautiful cameras)
  8. Continue to provide value-added practical benefits and uncompromising quality

Olympus should not try to compete with the full-frame cameras because it will always lose based on price and sensor size. For the same price, photographers will always prefer the bigger full-frame sensor. But, if I can get a whole camera and lens kit (with the lens depending on my type of photography: portrait, nature, macro, landscape, wildlife, low-light) for the same price as a full-frame camera body only, the choice suddenly becomes easy and clear to the majority of hobby photographers, leaving the full-frame models only for the pro photographers.

Yes, we believe that the future of mirrorless is full-frame, BUT… play your cards right, Olympus, and you could own the beginner, serious and enthusiast market segments. We will gladly be proven wrong because (as we started this article, so we end it with) our bias is a small, compact, light camera that takes great pictures indoors — what every dad, mom and everyone who gets a camera want their (affordable) camera to be able to do. Imagine all Olympus cameras from now on to be weather-proof, tough, with industry-leading IBIS, fast and precie Eye AF and Tracking AF, with a new high ISO low noise MFT sensor, enough dynamic range to satisfy most landscape photographers, natural-looking skin tones, all these great practical features for night photography, focus stacking, etc. in an even more compact and lightweight body… at an unbeatable price. Am I dreaming in technicolor? The technology is available now. Take a page from Apple’s playbook: cram it all into your cameras and provide a user-friendly interface (which means, redesign the menu). You have a huge market all to yourself.

I salute all those photographers who have stood tall as to why they love the Olympus mirrorless cameras, and why they would keep shooting with them. A camera is a tool, and if that tool answers your needs, then you use it. Most of all, if that camera gives you joy everytime you pick it up and shoot with it, then, as our tagline says, “Enjoy (Your) Photography.”

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