Pundits have long predicted the imminent death of the micro four thirds camera system. Indeed, the system has languished for several years with a dearth of new bodies being released. Panasonic G9, the photo flagship from Panasonic was released almost 4 years ago, the pro-model E-M1X was released 2,5 years and the E-M1 mark III 1,5 years ago, but sharing essentially the same sensor as the E-M1 mark II, launched almost 5 years ago. Yet I would argue, now is the best time ever to buy a micro four thirds camera.
With the sale of Olympus camera division, many think now is indeed the worst time ever to buy a micro four thirds camera. Certainly, the mirrorless section has received stiff competition in the past few years. You have full frame mirrorless bodies from Sony, Canon and Nikon. How could it possibly be the best time to buy a micro four thirds camera?
The answer is that the m4/3 market has a large number of excellent bodies on sale at the moment. At the same time, the m4/3 lens market has developed very favorably over the years. So a great camera + lens combo can be had for cheap.
If you, like me, own a somewhat recent m4/3 body like the Olympus E-M1 mark II, then you may feel like there’s not much reason to upgrade. Sure, the G9 has excellent video and the E-M1X and E-M1 Mark III have the hand held high res, and Live ND, and AI autofocus or better phase detection or starlight AI. But deep down they are very familiar cameras with some niche feature improvements on the previous generation. There is a feel in the m4/3 community, that something more needs to be released to make people update.
Probably the two most awaited upgrades for m4/3 cameras are
- an autofocus system on par with Sony’s
- a sensor with at least one stop, preferably two stop better high ISO noise.
Both are reasonable wishes, and will undoubtedly be released at some point by OMDS and/or Panasonic, with slight chance of the Panasonic GH6 meeting at least the better sensor requirement already this year.
But let me ask you a question:
If an upgrade with a better sensor or better autofocus was released, how much do you think it would cost? Versus what you can buy right now? If it was released, are you sure you would be willing to pay for it?
But let’s put this question aside for a minute and talk about the autofocus capabilities of the m4/3 mirrorless cameras. We will get back to it later in the article. Let’s first talk about what seems to be the ultimate holy grail for any camera system: the capability for birds in flight photography.
In some forums, the difference in keepers while shooting birds in flight between the E-M1X and the Sony A9 is equivalent to a death sentence for the whole system. Of course, people who prefer Panasonic or shoot Olympus bodies other than the E-M1X are not even at the level of the E-M1X with the autofocus capabilities. Let’s tackle this discrepancy head on.
Is m4/3 obsolete if you shoot Birds-in-Flight (BIF)?
Mirrorless Comparison has a nice article about the BIF rates of mirrorless cameras so you can see where the autofocus capabilities of various m4/3 cameras stands at the moment and how much you would have to pay for better performance.
There are now Nikon and Canon bodies at around 1500€ that will yield the autofocus success rates better than the best Olympus or Panasonic can offer. You can see that e.g. the Nikon Z6 and the 300mm F4 VR is a cost effective and light combination. But it only gets you half the reach of an Olympus 300mm F4. You can get the same weight, reach and stop larger aperture with the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 PRO.
When you go constant aperture and/or beyond 300mm is where it starts to get heavy or expensive (or both) with the full frame mirrorless options. The Sony 200-600mm/5.6-6.3 weights almost double that of Olympus 100-400mm/5.0-6,3, which still gives you 200mm more reach. The Sony 600mm F4 costs over five times more than the Olympus 300mm F4. You may be able to crop away some difference in focal length, but you can’t crop away all of the weight difference.
Ultimately you have to make a decision about which features you value in a system. And you need to select the right FF mirrorless. The Sony A7 III is still more expensive than the E-M1X, slower, less waterproof and with not much better bird in flight score.
First and foremost, it’s good that we now have options
Certainly, now is easier than ever for a mirrorless camera user to find a system fitting his / her specific needs. So sell your m4/3 gear if you are so inclined. Life is too short to shoot with a camera you do not love.
Life is too short to shoot with a camera you do not love.
I will write another article about why m4/3 is still relevant today, but if you are invested in the system, the cameras fit your hands perfectly (like they do mine) or see the benefits in a lightweight and fast system, then you may ask yourself: is it worth upgrading or buying a camera body now, vs. waiting for the improvements sure to come?
To answer this question, I will present three different micro four thirds bodies: the Olympus E-M1X and the E-M5 Mark III and the Panasonic G9 and make a case for why they are a bargain at the current price points. Let’s start with the cheapest body: the E-M5 Mark III.
Olympus E-M5 Mark III – the lightweight generalist a bargain at less than 1000€
The E-M5 Mark III is essentially the E-M1 mark II in a more consumer oriented body. This means fast continuous shooting (10 fps with C-AF), excellent DCI 4K at 24 fps and a dual phase/contrast detect autofocus sufficient for everything but the most demanding bird in flight scenarios.
At 414g the E-M5 mark III is lightweight. In fact, 160g lighter than the E-M1 mark II. Part of the weight is explained by the smaller battery. The body also uses a lot of polycarbonate to keep the weight down, but is still as rugged and durable as the other Olympus bodies.
I loved my original E-M5 because it was so small that with the Panasonic 14mm 2.5 pancake, I could fit it in my jacket pocket. I used it for hikes and ski expeditions without any worry about the durability or weight. The E-M5 mark III brings that back, in a vastly more capable (and even lighter!) package.
If you first and foremost value ergonomy and the feel of the camera, then the E-M1 mark II is still a valid option and does still beat E-M5 mark III in some regards, like speed of C-AF continuous shooting (18 fps) or dual SD-card slots. But for many (most?), the E-M5 mark III could be a lightweight and capable camera for both street and outdoors photography AND blogging.
There is now a campaign from Olympus where you get the Olympus 25mm f1.8 and the extra grip for the E-M5 Mark III for free. Without the grip, the E-M5 Mark III is a more street oriented small body, and with the added grip it gets a bit better ergonomy for all day shooting and carrying. At less than 1000€, this is a bargain.
Who is it for?
Vloggers, general photography, street photography, hikes and wildlife photography where equipment weight matters.
Who should skip it?
If you have large hands, or want the ultimate speed and capability or require a premium feel.
Panasonic G9 – the Vlog / photography workhorse
Those who own and operate the Panasonic G9 tend to love it. Some say it is the best camera ever. If you have large hands, you may like it even more than the E-M1 mark II (which is perfect for my small hands). With the firmware upgrades it has received over the years, it is a lean mean video machine, second to almost none, and an extremely capable photographic tool at the same time.
The body is now going at around the 1000€ mark, a veritable bargain. A package with the G9 and the excellent Panasonic Leica 12-60mm/2.8-4 can be had for around 1700€, also an excellent price. This is a pro level body at a consumer level price.
Who is it for?
Serious video producers, vloggers, those who want a pro level photographic tool with best in class video.
Who should skip it?
People with smaller hands may find it unwieldy (try before you buy), those who want the best autofocus possible
E-M1X for the ultimate ruggedness and wildlife photography
Ok, let’s get back to the question I posed earlier.
If an upgrade with a better sensor or better autofocus was released, how much do you think it would cost? Versus what you can buy right now? If it was released now, are you sure you would be willing to pay for it?
Let’s discuss the E-M1X, the Olympus pro body with AI-based bird focus system, integrated battery grip and dual processors. It was released in 2019 at somewhere around 3000€. Now it is selling for 1900€ with two extra-batteries (worth 140€ by themselves).
If you are not a pro, would you now pay over 3000€ for E-M1X mark II if it meant your Bird-In-Flight keeper rate went from e.g. 66% (the E-M1 mark II) to 95% (the Sony A9)?
Would not by same standards, an absolute pro quality camera body that gives you an improvement from 66% to 74% be worth the 1899€ asking price of the E-M1X?
This is an outdoors blog. Of course we have not discussed the other unique features E-M1X has for the outdoors/hiking/wildlife niche, if you can stomach the added weight of the vertical grip. Namely, the field sensor system.
The E-M1X will record the GPS location, barometer (altitude), compass orientation and the temperature at the moment you take the photograph. You will be able to track your adventure directly in your photographs’ EXIF data.
The two batteries in E-M1X are rated for 440 photos each, for a total of 880 photos. But reports from real word usage tell us that it is entirely possible get to 2000 shots with the two batteries. That is easily a week’s trip of photos, if you keep your shooting purposeful.
Of course, with 18 fps continuous shooting and dual UHS-II cards, you can also rack up 2000 frames quite quick if you are so inclined.
I think you get my point about the E-M1X though. It is a seriously capable, absolute pro level body at less than 2000€.
Who is it for?
Wildlife and bird photographers, adventureres, those who demand the ultimate speed, those who demand the ultimate durability.
Who is it not for?
Those who want the ultimate portability (see E-M5 III above). Those who want the ultimate autofocus capabilities (see the double the price Sony A9)