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.