Which Way Micro Four Thirds?

The Micro Four Thirds standard seems to be spreading its wings now. Since the introduction of Olympus’s snappily named OM-D E-M1 last October, new product announcements have been coming thick and fast. The smallest M43, the GM1 with its baby 12-32mm kit zoom. Olympus announces a 7-14 f2.8 and 300mm f4. Panasonic gives us a 42.5mm f1.2 which appears to be the sharpest lens ever made for MFT. Olympus reveals a 25mm f1.8, a 9mm fisheye and a 14-42mm zoom smaller even than Panasonic’s 12-32. There’s a possibility of a 150mm f2.8 from Panasonic. Panasonic follow the E-M1 with the GH4.

Where is it all leading? The new big beast bodies and lenses are distinctively professional in demeanour. Strongly built, large (for M43) and expensive. The minnows are small and reasonably priced. With the E-M1 and the GH4, both M43 players are trying to address the professional market. The biggest weakness of M43 cameras has been follow focus up to now. If you are a pro who needs to cover sport as part of your brief, the two new top of the line cameras are reaching out to you. At the time of writing, the E-M1 appears to be an improvement but not a game changer. The highly processor intensive approach which the GH4 takes looks like a battering ram solution, relying on storing samples of lens imaging characteristics at every aperture and focal length and comparing it with the lens output at any moment, inferring from that whether to rack focus back or forward. It sounds improbable that doing all that number crunching could lead to faster focusing but then consider this. If you put Olympus into Google search, it returns 62,100,000 results in just over a quarter of a second. That’s across an internet connection. The GH4 solution doesn’t sound elegant but it is certainly doable. Could it be that it is the answer to the follow focus problem? It seems unlikely but I’ll be fascinated to find out.

If it is, will M43 become a truly professional system? No, I don’t think so, not quite yet. It fulfils the requirements of many professionals already, the ones who work in a restricted area like wedding photography or studio, where the camera requirements can be predicted. But in a field like my own, in the media, I could be one week in a war zone and another covering sport, another studio and another photographing skyscrapers for a property page.

What is needed now to flesh out the system are some good teleconverters, a 1.4x to bring a 150mm f2.8 up to a 210 f4. A good 2x converter. Some tilt and shift lenses. A camera body with twin SD slots. A repair and service facility for professionals with a fast turnaround. Essentially, all the things that Nikon and Canon have for their full frame DSLRs.

But I have to keep real here. Single lens reflex systems have been around for over 50 years. They have had time to mature and find their role and, after all, the modern DSLR is not essentially different from its film cousin, it is a modern take on it. The MFT camera is a different animal, a child of the digital age. And it is a child. The MFT system was announced in 2008, just six years ago.

What is remarkable is not that it is missing some elements of a truly professional system but that it has so many already.

11 thoughts on “Which Way Micro Four Thirds?

  1. Malachi

    You have a wonderful blog, David. It is rare to come across someone with the blend of expertise and wit who just writes and speaks so well. Could I point to a problem in your videos? Your edits often drop to complete silence for a gap of a second. You can get round this by putting a fade at the start and end of each clip and running an atmosphere or ambience band underneath. You either need two tracks for this or, on Audacity, you can leave a bit of space at the ends of each clip and then make them overlap. Maybe I’m stating the obvious to you but I do think this would be a big improvement, especially for anyone listening on headphones.
    All the best …

    1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

      Thanks Malachi.

      No, you’re not stating the obvious, I’d never even thought about it. Audio is yet another thing to learn and there’s a lot to learn. I’d appreciate your advice, actually.

      My modus operandi is to write the script and then record it in as dry sound conditions as I can arrange but I lack space for anything dedicated. That seems to mean that if I record something in two separate sessions, they will sound acoustically different from one another, air pressure changes, I don’t know. But the ear seems far more sensitive to small changes than they eye is.

      Therefore, I record the script on Audacity in one take, reading it from my computer screen and giving me one long track. I then chop it up into maybe 70 to 100 sections via ‘Export Multi’ and copy them to the timeline of my video. I can’t import as one long sequence since I find that both video clips and audio have to be shifted about to match one another. That, of course, is what leaves the patches of silence. It would be difficult for me to leave space at the beginning and end of each clip because I only know what space I would need as I go along and trimming/ fading would add a lot of extra time to the editing process. I assemble the video/audio in Premiere Elements and it really does cut my editing time down if I can just shuffle the audio around in little chunks at will.

      So you’re suggesting I could add an ambiance track? Sounds a great idea but where would I get such a track? Could I just record a track by not speaking into the mic and putting that underneath it all? If I could do that, I could reuse the same track over and over, could I? If you have the time, I’d certainly appreciate any guidance. Audio is a minefield….

      1. Malachi

        Yes, I would record an ambience track which could be very soft low volume sound, in the space in which I recorded the script. When we do packages for radio we always take an extra ten seconds of background to cover the edits. Sometimes we record a whole track of background, say restaurant sound, or bird song in the garden, if that would be appropriate. I have seen Audio people in the BBC just leave the mic open in an empty studio to get ‘atmos’ which is just that hiss you hear, probably more in the electronics than in the air. The thing that is really disconcerting for the ear is an abrupt stop into silence. Can you add fades to the beginning and end of the clips? That would help and might even be enough.
        You can also reduce your background noise by recording at low level, with the mic held close to the mouth. If the level is low enough that will save you other problems like mic popping on your Ps, handling noises, breath sounds.
        I will stay in touch with your work. You’ve already sold me a panasonic gm1! I tend to get the sound all sorted first and then pinch the pictures to fit that, but that’s probably because I worked in radio. And recently I have been using NCH WavePad and MixPad, though there are lots of programmes you can use.
        All the best.

  2. Bob Fairbairn

    As I have become more “professional” in my goals in photography I have migrated to tools that work well for me. One area where I am still in need is long lenses and focus on moving subjects. I used to use Canon “big-whites” and we are not there yet on M43. I know I am just putting and exclamation point on your post with this note but the more of us that shout in the dark the more the manufacturers will respond.

    I follow another photographer in England who uses M43; Lindsay Dobson. Her thoughts as a working photographer seem to mirror yours and many others with respect to M43.

    It will be interesting to see where you go with the GH4 or whatever is next in your world. I think you will find shooting more video will be “interesting” and very challenging, it is a different world all together.


    1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

      Yes, I find video very interesting but time consuming. Even my reviews take a frightening amount of work, what with writing the scripts, doing the stills, making the movie parts,recording the scripts and then assembling the lot. And then all the new technical stuff to learn….

      I’m going to be interested to see how well the GH4 continuous focusing will function. Olympus’s try with PDAF doesn’t seem to have made much of a mark, at least I haven’t heard anyone saying it is the answer. The GH4’s solution of storing out of focus profiles for each lens at each focal length to tell the lens which way to rack really is throwing technology at the problem. I wonder how much of an improvement it will be? It would be great if it was ‘the answer’.

      I sound a bit disparaging talking about throwing technology at the problem but electrons don’t add weight like cogs do, so if it works, great. I’d want to try it on something really testing like a football match, though, with lots of random positioning and movement of focus distance. All the testers I see seem to try it on something like someone riding a horse towards the camera. It’ll be the professionals who decide when the system is good enough and when they do I think MFT might make quite a mark.

      The specialist lenses I mentioned in my piece are not necessary for editorial photographers and the professional service I mentioned could be bypassed with such light equipment by always carrying at least 3 cameras. After all, by professional standards MFT isn’t expensive. When I was a day to day working pro, I had something like £20,000 worth of gear in the boot of my car. It would be hard to spend that now. So who know, maybe a new professional standard is budding. If so, what will Canon and Nikon do, though?

  3. Roy Norris

    Oddly enough, when you stated in your post above,
    “The biggest weakness of M43 cameras has been follow focus up to now.”
    I assumed you were referring to, “The ability of the M43 camera to continuously focus automatically when tracking a moving subject” like the Professional Sports Pro you mentioned.
    In the interest of brevity, you used 2 words ” Follow Focus” instead of 15 words.
    I knew what you meant and I’m just a simple lad originating from Somerset.{:))

    1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

      Thanks Roy. I thought it was plain enough but I live and learn. Me, I’m a simple lad from Kent so, like you, I tend to interpret things from what people mean rather than a literal interpretation of what they say from some technician’s glossary. But it takes all sorts. Never mind all that, d’yer fancy a pint? 🙂

  4. Marcus Wolschon

    Why do you use the name “follow focus” for a focus speed issue?
    A follow focus is a mechanical device for a first camera assistant to manually focus. It has nothing to do with autofocus.

    Your camera list ommits the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera.

    1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

      I am a stills photographer writing about Micro Four Thirds cameras. I don’t _omit_ the Blackmagic, it isn’t relevant to what I write about. I know nothing about video, as I am at pains to point out in my books and video. My video experience is confined to pointing my cameras in the direction of a band I like and pressing the button. Watch my music videos for proof of that! You will note that although I mention – and will probably buy – a Panasonic GH4, I did not mention its 4k video. There’s a clue to my interests there.

      As for follow focus, I mean the ability of the camera to follow focus a moving subject, ie keep it in focus automatically. It’s called AFC on the camera itself, I think. I think most stills people will know what I mean and I confess I have never heard the term as you are using it, having never picked up or used a movie camera in my life. See my homepage for my background.

      I am sure there are people who specialize in writing about movie and they would be much more in tune with your interests than I am, but I will try to remember not to use follow focus if it will upset people.

  5. Roy Norris

    Hi David,

    It is remarkable as you say.
    Most of us are not professionals requiring a fast turnaround. Most of us don’t need a follow focus the majority of time in our photographic pursuits, although it would be nice and something less than six years will surely provide that. We are the customers that provide camera makers the majority of their profit.
    I also think that one day it will be (for Nikon and Canon) read (Olympus and Panasonic) especially if the former two don’t buck their ideas up.

    1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

      Even back in the days when I was a press man and Nikon were unchallenged in that market, we professionals were only a tiny percent of Nikon’s business and unimportant to their overall profits. They only pandered to us because amateurs and enthusiasts thought that if hard headed pros like us used Nikon gear, it must be good. We were walking marketing for Nikon equipment and that was our importance to Nikon and later, Canon. This was explained to me by a top Nikon marketing exec at an industry do.

      The only reason MFT needs professionals to take it up is for those marketing reasons. I personally don’t care whether MFT becomes the choice or professionals or not but I would like to see the system flourish and if that would help, so be it.

      I think Canon and Nikon have a big problem with mirrorless cameras. Nikon and Canon owners tend to be brand loyalists. If Canon or Nikon produce a mirrorless camera as good as the top of the line Panasonic and Olympus MFTs, their customer base is likely to buy that instead of one of their DSLRs. For Olympus and Panasonic it represents a new market and thus new money.

      For Canon and Nikon these are ‘interesting times’, as the Chinese put it.


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