11.03.2018

Is it true? Is the micro four thirds format dying out? Will it be extinct in no time? And what about DSLRs?

I've been reading a lot of stuff on the web and it seems as though the Camerati have decided that from now until the end of time there will only be full frame mirrorless and that no company will spend even a thin dime to do R&D on anything "less." The predictions have all smaller sensor sized cameras disintegrating into dust, being cast out of moving cars like cigarette butts, and being abandoned by users and dealers quicker than egg salad gone bad. They may be right but are they "right" to think so?

I have several full frame Nikon cameras floating around and I also have an ample number of smaller sensor cameras rattling around in the cupboards in the form of Panasonic GH5s, G9s and GH5Ss. I also have a good sampling of lenses and I'm hungry for more (so be sure to sell them for next to nothing if you are planning to abandon the system --- especially if you are getting ready to dispose of your Leica/Panasonic 50-200mm lens....).

While I may not have a test lab filled with really cool camera test gear I have, over the course of the last 30+ years, shot well over a million frames and I've looked at most of them before tossing the majority in the trash. I've learned a thing or two about the process of photography and the process of making technically good images and I don't think the difference in digital formats is the same thing as the difference between the older film formats that we seem nostalgically tied to as usable analogies for digital.

I've shot over 3,500 images with a Panasonic G9 this week and there are very few I would reject for technical issues. I certainly understand that, with perfect technique, the images I could get from my Nikon D800e might have more useable resolution, overall, and (subject dependent) slightly more useable dynamic range we're really not talking about shocking and massive differences but more in the range of: at 20 by 30 inches and larger I may be getting 5 to 10 % more detail from a print. When viewed on a phone, an iPad, a laptop or even a 27 inch Retina screen I don't think there's enough difference to justify the extra nuisance of bigger, heavier, slower and less stabilized cameras. And when it comes to 4K video my GH5S just mops the floor with even the latest and greatest camera system competitors.

Many will argue that the all important bokeh (and what most people mean when they state this has nothing to do with the traditional, Japanese meaning of bokeh but is meant as short hand for: very limited depth of field as a result of using a wider aperture, on a longer lens, on a bigger format sensor) is not as good on a smaller camera and they might be right. But a faster lens fixes that pretty quickly and a lens that covers a smaller format can be designed to be sharper and better corrected than lenses that have to cover a larger sensors. I would offer as a rejoinder that being able to achieve a deeper depth of focus at a faster shutter speed or lower ISO is perhaps a more important set of parameters for everything from landscape photography to street photography, and even corporate photography, where getting strategic focus zones sharp is more valuable to more users than the obverse. After seeing lots of examples from iPhones and advanced Android phones I would also say that we're at the start of a generation of computational photographers whose cameras or post production programs will offer them a post-shot choice of how much and where they would like the focus to drop off in front and behind a subject.

It's like all those people who tease me for liking to compose in the camera in the square format who wax on and on about how much easier it would be for me to just shooting in a 3:2 or 4:3 format and then crop in post. They'll soon be lecturing us on how much easier (and more realistic it is to do your depth of field control after the fact ---- so you can more effectively fine-tune the results. And yes, they will also use the argument that you don't need to shoot black and white modes in camera because the post production control is so compelling....

If we remove the implied, organic advantage of the bigger format; more control over putting more stuff out of focus, and are instead provided that control by the camera makers or by Adobe, then all of a sudden the need to carry a bigger format camera vanishes.

I've also read lots of puffy writing about how the "real promise" of m4:3 was that we'd all have access to lenses that were so tiny we'd need to handle them with tweezers and so light that they actually float when unattached to cameras. The writers of these screeds huff and puff about how big the (specialty) lenses for the smaller system have become but it's so much bullshit. Yes, the bigger, professional zooms are bigger and heavier. But I've become better acquainted with two lenses for the m4:3 systems that lay bare those exaggerations in the service of choice justification. They are the Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 and the Leica/Panasonic 15mm f1.7. Both are very small and very lightweight while being extremely sharp and capable, even wide open. If the 42.5mm f1.7 is too much for you to handle then you have medical issues and not camera choice issues....

Just as 35mm photographers re-oriented an entire generation of photographers away from Speed Graphics 4X5 inch cameras, and Rolleiflex medium format cameras, the m4:3 cameras have the potential to re-orient our generations of photographers to leave behind the legacy assumptions about what's necessary to create good work and what is just a safety blanket of justifications based on knowledge that had more to do with film grain and less to do with digital sensors.

The "Aha!" moments for me were my use of the Panasonic G9 and then the GH5S. The GH5S is a wonderful (counterintuitive) portrait camera while the G9 may be the best all-arounder I've yet used. The G9 is fast, facile and the 20 megapixel sensor is easily capable of great results in all the lighting conditions that make any sense to work in. If you need killer low light performance you can certainly drop cash to get faster and faster lenses but do you really always work in Stygian darkness? I heard so much about the limited hours of daylight in Iceland but I've been able to effectively photograph all day long with the smaller frame cameras. If you shoot landscapes you'll want a tripod and if you have a tripod and a still subject you should be able to do miraculous work in any format. Especially as computational features continue to abound, like the high resolution modes on Olympus and Panasonic cameras.

But most consumers are as dumb as a barrel of hammers and if the smaller formats do die off it will be a result of millions and millions of people making choices based on bad information and a mismatch between their budgets and their use profiles because in so many situations the smaller format provides a better platform for the majority of users.

I predict that DSLRs will die a much quicker death as people come to understand the benefits of features like live view, the constant feedback of good EVFs and, yes, the smaller size and potentially smaller lenses. Who would want to start out buying a Nikon D850 if they could start with a Z7 instead? Only people irrationally wedded to the past or people with so many legacy lenses that they feel their only recourse is to eventually be buried with them like Vikings with their ships and weapons....

In three years no new traditional DSLR cameras will be introduced into the market. Canon, Nikon and everyone else will make the transformation away from pentaprism cameras at a rate that will make the advanced amateur embrace of digital (from film) look glacially slow. And that adaptation happened so fast it caught just about every camera maker flat footed.

Whether or not the smaller formats are well represented depends more on people understanding the advantages of the smaller size and of computational features than anything having to do with actual photography. Bigger is not always better. Sometimes just right is just right.

I can't imagine going backwards. I can imagine jumping up to medium format (maybe) but some of that is down to my own nostalgia, having spent well over a decade and a half shooting with Hasselblad and Rolleiflex cameras in the last century. It made sense then for any number of reasons but now, not so much.

I recommend anyone who thinks they MUST have a full frame camera borrow an m4:3 camera (a current one; let's not compare a Nikon D850 with an original 2010 Olympus Ep1...) and actually shoot the kind of stuff that's currently filling up your hard drive, and see what you actually see with your own eyes and not via the poison keyboard from the review site or video channel of a writer/vlogger whose income mostly depends on convincing you to constantly shop and strive for (an elusive and irrational) perfectionism.

All cameras will die off as single use tools once the phone cameras are fully charged up with computational craziness. Consider this, the processor in the latest iPhone is capable of 5 TRILLION operations per second. It has a six core main processor and an embedded 4 core GPU. With the right software in the camera camera it will add so much flexibility to that camera that it's only a matter of mastery before it's capable of handling most people's photography work better than traditional tools; or at least easier. And it's just going to get better and better.

When you can program in the look you want and the processors can execute it perfectly what exactly is the reason to argue about the need for traditional cameras? I've given up looking for traditional metrics in camera evaluation. The GH5 for instance runs rings around the A7xx Sonys for video performance and never, ever overheats. Why? Smaller processors have less energy running through them and they generate less heat. The Olympus EM1-2 kicks everyone else's butts when it comes to image stabilization. Why? A smaller mass 9the sensor) to move and more computational performance applied to image processing. And on and on.

What will die off? First the traditional DSLRs then the full frame mirrorless and finally, at the end of the old school camera extinction event, the m4:3 and one inch sensor cameras. If you hate using your phone for photos and videos you might want to start planning your retirement from the field. Me? I'm putting more resources into my Panasonic stuff and I'm also in line to get an Apple XR iPhone. Might want to use it for stuff. The people on my workshop/tour who've been shooting with their phones are getting astonishingly good stuff. The stuff from us "advanced camera users" looks pretty good too, but only after we sit around at night and do our post processing.

The future is relentless. Bet on that.

I may have given the impression that we spent all our time near Reykjavik but that's not so. ...


So far we've been to the Blue Lagoon, the glaciers near Vik, and Skogafoss, to Kirkjubaejarkaustur, the lava cliffs near Akureyri, in and around Akranes and Borgarnes, to the "Golden Circle" with the Geysers and waterfalls, we went inland to race around looking for the Northern Lights (for hours and hours), the geothermal baths at Laugarvtn Fontana, the Strokkar geyser, and one of my favorites, the Pingvellir National Park, standing between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. We also hit the Skogafoss waterfalls, the Myrdalsjokull glacier, and the rock formations and black sand beaches of Reynisdrangar, near Vik.

I've eaten lovely Plaice, Cod, Rainbow Trout, Arctic char and Salmon. All pretty much perfectly prepared. I also snuck in one magnificent burger at the Geiri Smart Restaurant adjacent to the Canopy Hilton Hotel, where we are staying.

I spent yesterday and today walking around the city and just relaxing. Now I start the odious regime of packing for tomorrow's way too early flights home.

We have one more event. We're doing a farewell dinner at the restaurant in the hotel. The same place we had our welcome dinner and that was superb. I'll say one thing about this particular tour, every meal that's been included on our itinerary has been absolutely first class.

I'm steeling myself for our return as we're traveling through two airports acknowledged to be among the worst of the major airports for international travel: KEF and JFK. By tomorrow night I'll be back at the center of the universe, Austin, Texas.

I can hardly wait to see Studio Dog and the rest of the crew. I can only afford gifts for one family member so I guess I'll be out looking for species appropriate souvenirs for the dog...... (kidding, just kidding --- maybe...).

If you go to Iceland I can advise you to bring along a camera. There's a lot of stuff to photograph...

Prices? Not nearly as bad as everyone says. About on par with Austin or San Francisco. Your mileage will vary depending on your tastes...