Panasonic continues on with micro four thirds. Why? And for how long? Note that all predictions based on "data-free" research are suspect....
Right off the bat I should mention that I don't research Japanese business websites or magazines and I'm not privy at all to the private conversations of camera makers. This is all just off hand prediction larded with some wishful thinking --- but I would be sad if the m4:3 format got abandoned altogether. It's got a lot on the plus side of the ledger, not least of which is the portability and the deep selection of lenses that work on it.
Reading across the web and especially over at Bythom.com the consensus seems to be that Olympus might survive in some form but it won't be anything that we've been accustomed to. The worst case scenario is that the venerable camera company is spun off and a new generation of Japanese vulture capitalists pick through the carcass and sell off the parts (patents?) that will generate the best return. Thom Hogan suspects that the new owners will preserve some sort of down market camera presence mostly for the Japanese home market and geographically adjacent markets but that the products will be mostly one step up from point and shoot models, at least in terms of functionality and appeal.
Many Olympus owners and users, myself included, are seeing this announcement of Olympus's divestment of the camera division as an apocalyptic moment.
While I am disappointed that I won't continue to have as wide a range of choices I am taking much consolation in the fact that, for now, Panasonic will continue to be widely available and, if press chatter from the company recently is believable, very committed to continue innovating and producing cameras and lenses in the m4:3 space alongside their full frame, S1 line of cameras and lenses.
I've been a user of the smaller sensor, m4:3 cameras since their introduction and have owned a wide selection of both Panasonic and Olympus cameras and lenses. But in recent years, especially since Panasonic got their color science figured out in the G9 and later cameras, I've consistently voted with my dollars in the Panasonic camp; at least when it comes to bodies. Here's why:
I find the larger body size of cameras like the GH5 and the G9 to be easier to handle and operate while being better balanced for use with longer lenses. I suspect that this is one of the biggest difference in the selection process between the two companies offerings. Olympus muddied the waters with the EM-1X but that came so late in the game it wasn't a tipping point consideration for most of us who already invested one way or the other. The feeling of a camera in one's hands is one of the most subjective appraisals in selecting a camera model but perhaps one of the most important.
While I owned pre- m4:3 Olympus 4:3 cameras as well as just about every generation their mirrorless cameras I have to say that I've never experienced worse menus. Reviewers and all but the most rabid fans have begged Olympus for nearly a decade to fix their menus but to no avail. Yes, yes, I know that once you've sat down with a slide rule, the Rosetta Stone and a hieroglyphic translator you might, for a fleeting moment, gain enough insight to quickly set up a SCP (super control panel?) selection of settings which might prevent having to make too many more journeys into the writhing and labyrinth, deeper menus to find a special setting.... But life is too short and as I grow older I find my tolerance for having to continually decipher information from a poorly assembled series of illogical menus frustrating. "Over my shoulder I do hear times winged chariot drawing near...."
While the Panasonic menus are not perfect they do offer a straightforward and understandable journey.
To be clear, I was able to effectively use my Olympus cameras in spite of their menus. Once you have your finger on the shutter release it doesn't matter as much...
The other avenue that pushed me to prefer spending money on the Lumix/Panasonic cameras over the Olympus cameras is Panasonic's dogged and effective pursuit of all things video. The GH4, GH5, GH5S and now the G9 have all been exemplary video cameras for me. In fact, my recent re-purchase of the G9 was specifically to serve as a quick to shoot and highly reliable video camera solution after I donated the FZ2500 I'd been using for the same purpose to the theater.
My belief is that this concentration on video is what will provide a bit more longevity in the format for Panasonic. Unlike photographers videographers aren't always pursuing ever increasing sensor resolution or super thin depth of field. Their priorities are about keeping the images in focus and having enough depth of field to cover whole scenes instead of individual subjects. The m4:3 cameras represent a great entry point for new filmmakers but the Panasonic cameras also deliver a level of video quality and control that can be used well by much more advanced users. System buyers should be able to use their cameras well beyond their neophyte years and still get sellable, credible results. And, with 4K video any resolution beyond 8 megapixels on the sensor is irrelevant.
Panasonic has also taken pains in their cameras targeted to semi-pro video users to provide not only a good image but also good sound and the ability to plug in both headphones and microphones. When I used the Olympus EM-5ii cameras for a restaurant video we selected them for two reasons: 1. the really nice 1080p files (color, low noise, great tonality) and, 2. for their incredible image stabilization, even when using older, legacy, manual focus lenses. But we were less impressed that we had to buy and add a battery grip to each body in order to add a headphone jack.
When I recommend hybrid cameras to younger artists who want both a good video and photo solution the G9 is always my first choice. It's a great blend of beautiful color and great video capability in an affordable package.
But....while I may not miss the Olympus bodies I will definitely miss their lenses. It's funny; when I went to Iceland in Fall of 2018 I took along two G9 bodies (shooting just photographs) and a collection of lenses but my "go-to" lens was (by a massive margin) the Olympus 12-100mm Pro series lens. Just phenomenal. Even better than the Leica badged Panasonic Leica 12-60mm f2.8-4 I have now.
In the same time period, when I used the G9s to successfully shoot stage shows at Zach Theatre my "perfect" lens for that application was (again, by a massive margin) the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 lens. And the images from that combination still stand up well to all the full format cameras and lenses I've pressed into the same applications...
While I'm reticent to spend too much money in the middle of what might be a year long adventure without income I do have a strong desire to try the Olympus 25mm f1.2 Pro lens because I can only imagine how great it might be. That one and the 45mm Pro. I'll be looking for them before the market dries up.
So, for now I count all of us in the m4:3 camp as lucky. While my friends who are Olympus camera users will no doubt be miffed by the turn of events they will also be consoled by the fact that Panasonic has finally gotten to the point where their cameras are close to the Oly cameras for color science and, in the latest generation, the image stabilization is 95-98% as good. Far better than the I.S. in larger format systems.
Yes, it's true that it might be hard to find replacement Olympus bodies in the future but being able to keep the lenses you own and not have your investment be orphaned is comforting.
I think there are a number of reasons still to have m4:3 cameras and lenses even in this age of full frame market dominance. They create files that have a different look and feel to them that works in many applications. They are great travel cameras. There are great video cameras in the system and the reach-for-the-size-and-weight ratio is unmatched at the telephoto end.
Were Olympus the sole maker of their camera mount and lens mount last week's new would have been traumatic for users. But with an open standard and a strong competitor in the system it's best to look on the bright side and continue to enjoy what we have.
Just a thought as I played around with a G9 over coffee this morning. I see some fun lens shopping in my very near future. Now scrounging through the couch pillows for lost change.....
Added: I forgot to talk about why Panasonic might want to persevere with the m4:3rds cameras even after having launched the full frame S system. Here goes:
Panasonic has had quite a few successes in the m4:3rds space. Their stated rationale for continuing on with the format was to be able to offer photographers a choice of tools, depending on their use. I think they see the bigger, heavier, full frame cameras as working tools for more traditional photographers for whom heavy cameras are just a small part of the overall equipment package for assignment work.
If one is already transporting light stands, lights, modifiers, props, assistants and wardrobe then the added weight of a larger camera system is really not felt. Most working professionals and serious, serious hobbyists are more inclined to say that "ultimate image quality" is their most important consideration.
While I have the bigger cameras because I want to provide commercial clients with great results I also know that for most of what we do for clients all the major formats (all the way down to 1 inch sensor cameras) will provide high quality photographs, when used correctly. The larger formats and higher resolutions provide me with an iron clad argument, to picky clients, that I have fulfilled and exceeded the unwritten standards of the industry, from a technical point of view, even if their projects are not all as demanding as they might think. Still, the larger camera sensors take away points of hesitation and friction.
But Panasonic stated in an interview with editors at DPReview.com that they are intent on keeping the micro four thirds camera line specifically for all the times when portability and handling take precedent over that last 5% or so of image quality. One might have the big cameras for the kind of day-to-day advertising work we do while also maintaining the smaller, lighter system to press into service on all those budget jobs that require one to: a) work without assistants. Which means carrying everything myself. b) work on multiple, remote locations which requires packing down cameras and lenses to fit on even the smallest regional jets without having to check the valuable gear. Which means a complete system in a small backpack that fits under the seat in front of me! c) For location work like the projects I did in the Everglades and in the California wildfire areas back in 2018 which required high mobility and the ability to carry all the needed in a backpack while walking for miles in oppressive heat and humidity.
I think the real value of these smaller, high image quality systems is in being able to make wonderful and fully competitive images in most conditions, where making prints of up to 13 by 19 inches shows no real advantage for full frame, while being portable enough to take almost anywhere.
When I selected cameras for the trip to Iceland I wanted tools that were sturdy, reliable, weather resistant and which would give me a wide range of focal lengths in a small package. My entire kit with two bodies and four lenses, plus extra batteries fit into one smaller photo backpack and was manageable even in driving rain and snow. All the while a lens like the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 gave me a hand holdable full frame equivalent of 24-200mm which also delivered great (in lens) image stabilization. This meant no lens changes needed for almost everything I shot. My working method was to use the 12-100mm one one body and the Panasonic 8-18mm lens on a second body. Since both bodies were identical everything was interchangeable. Which is exactly what you want in a back-up body.
Finally, I think Panasonic will continue on for the foreseeable future with m4:3 because they've established a great reputation and good marketplace for smaller cameras that offer incredibly good 4K video which, in some vital respects, out performs the larger and more expensive cameras. They were first to market with workable and high quality 60fps 4K while the smaller sensors add two valuable performance benefits: Much better heat handling in video (longer run times, less noise, longer life) and also better image stabilization performance than is currently available in even the best FF cameras when performing video.
An afterthought: Panasonic stayed in the market along with a good competitor who produced great products. They split the market for small sensor/mirrorless cameras while sharing an open lens mount standard between them. With Olympus exiting the area they now inherit potentially the entire other half of the m4:3 market. They will have gone from a marketplace that was tough and so competitive that it was hard for either entity to make a big (or any) profit to a point where they will have no direct competitor in their market niche. And enviable position to find oneself in and one that's ripe for maximization.
If Panasonic's marketers were savvy then the minute the transaction with Olympus and NewCo goes through they should reiterate their key value propositions, re-state their m4:3 features and benefits and start a full court press on the advantages of the smaller, highly capable and decidedly less expensive system. They have a fan base. They should spend some time and $$$ exploiting it and locking it in.
Just a thought.