Thursday, November 21, 2013

I Think That I Will Be Abandoning Micro 4/3 For Photography

Something hit me earlier today: a van. And while I was lying on the ground waiting for the EMTs to arrive, I thought about Micro 4/3 and my usage of the system.

Both Olympus and Panasonic talk about how their systems offer excellent image quality while also reducing the size of the lenses, and this is true, but only to an extent. To understand why, we have to analyze the way the various companies use the measure of focal length.

Focal length is really a rather useless measure. What's more important is the field of view, and this is measured in degrees. It is in this measure that lenses of various systems can be directly compared. For example, a 25mm Micro 4/3 lens has a crop factor of 2. This means that to determine the field of view in comparison to Full-Format, we need to multiply the focal length by 2. So a 25mm Micro 4/3 lens has the same field of view as a 50mm Full-Format lens.

It's important to remember that using Full-Format as the baseline is entirely arbitrary. That's why Medium-Format is larger than Full-Format. Back in the day, Full-Format was just called 35mm, or sometimes small format. There were as many "formats" of film as there were photographers, since you could mess around with your setup as much as you pleased.

So with 35mm set as the "default," we developed crop factor. The reason why crop factor is called crop factor, though, is because that's what it is technically doing. When you put a FF lens on an APS-C camera, the sensor is only seeing the center part of the image circle. It is taking a crop of the image circle. You could achieve the same effect by using a FF camera and simply cutting off the edges to "zoom" the lens.

So it is with Micro 4/3. A 25mm Micro 4/3 lens has the same field of view as a 50mm FF lens and is noticeably smaller than a 50mm FF lens. It is not much smaller than a FF 25mm lens, though! And from that wider image, you simply do your own crop factor by cutting away the edges of the picture until you produce the same field of view as the Micro 4/3 lens.

This is not a perfect comparison. There is still a size penalty, but it is not as large as Olympus and Panasonic would like you to believe. For example, the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 is 64x69mm and weighs 305g. Its 150mm focal length on FF is somewhat matched by the Canon 135mm f/2, which is much larger at 83x112mm and weighs a stonking 750g.

But take Canon's 85mm f/1.8. It is 75x72mm and weighs 425g. That's much more comparable, and from that, you can take a center crop to achieve a 150mm field of view. Again, there is still a size penalty, but not nearly as large.

Does this comparison hold true for zoom lenses? This is harder because the zooms of the Micro 4/3 system are mostly of medium to low quality, while the 4/3 Zuiko zooms are hard to directly compare to Canon and Nikon. The two stars of the show right now are the Olympus 12-40mm and the Panasonic 35-100mm, so we'll use them.

Canon has a 17-40mm f/4 that about fits the bill. The lens is a stop slower, but a FF sensor will be three stops better than a Micro 4/3 sensor, and the bokeh of a f/2.8 Micro 4/3 lens is actually the bokeh of an f/5.6 FF lens. So not only will that FF lens be better in low light, it will have shallower depth of field. The Canon lens is also $160 cheaper than the Olympus.

But, again, the size penalty exists. The Olympus is a featherweight at 70x84mm and only 382g. The Canon 83.5x96.8mm and 500g. For me, the size penalty is not enough to sacrifice what FF can give me, all while giving it to me at a lower cost. And considering the colossal failure that was 4/3, it's obvious that many people feel this way.

The Panasonic 35-100mm has sister products in the form of the Canon 24-105mm f/4 and the Sigma 24-105mm f/4.  The Panny is 67.4x100mm and weighs 360g. The Canon is 83.5x107mm and weighs 670g. The Sigma is 88.6x109.4mm and weighs a porky 885g. There is a lot of extra weight in those FF lenses, but not much extra size.

Is there a better comparison among the Zuiko lenses? Yes. Olympus has a 14-35mm f/2.0. That lens is two stops faster, giving it similar low-light performance to Canon's f/4, and has precisely the same depth of field. This monster is 86x123mm and weighs a Brobdingnagian 900g. It also costs $2,300. As you can imagine, not too many of these were sold.

And since I love throwing this lens in the mix, the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 blows them all out of the fucking water.

Micro 4/3 should be giving us a size and price benefit. That is the value proposition. Smaller sensor, less glass, lower price. Neither Panasonic nor Olympus want that. They want to earn the money that Canon earns. Well too bad. The world has changed. Sony realized that, and that is why they've ditched their APS-C systems.

I am well aware that simply comparing numbers isn't the best way to reach a conclusion. One 50mm lens can have the same numbers while being vastly superior to another 50mm lens. This could be called the "Leica Argument." First, anyone who thinks Leica's lenses are priced based on how much they cost to make is an idiot. You are paying a lot for the Leica badge. Second, I'm comparing well-regarded lenses to other well-regarded lenses. And while the Canon isn't quite as sharp, it doesn't have distortion bad enough that it releases Cenobites like all Micro 4/3 lenses.

So, yes, I will likely be leaving Micro 4/3 behind for photographic purposes, especially with the dynamite new Full-Frame gear from Sony. But I will absolutely not be abandoning the system. Video companies have grown to love Micro 4/3 and for good reason. Blackmagic and SLRMagic (no relation) both have put the full force of their development behind the mount, and while the GH3 is dead, the upcoming GH4 may have what it takes to compete.

This is no mean compliment, either. Video is exploding and becoming very important to a large part of the market. The "average" consumer will never move beyond their phones, but there are millions of people around the world who care immensely about video. And seeing as how Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji, and Olympus are only vaguely aware that these things called "moving pictures" exist, the possibility that Micro 4/3 will become the default format for video is a real possibility.

For that reason, I will not only not be abandoning Micro 4/3 entirely, I will likely invest even more in it, just not with anything from the two progenitors of the system, Panasonic and Olympus. This is sad for me, because the new E-M1 from Olympus really is an A-grade product. I held it and I loved it. But a system is built on its glass and its price, and Panasonic and Olympus just cannot get their shit together.

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