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Panasonic's Silence: The Micro Four Thirds Conundrum

Panasonic's Silence: The Micro Four Thirds Conundrum

At the beginning of the summer, Olympus announced the sale of their imaging division, leaving the future of their highly regarded OM-D range and Micro Four Thirds (MFT) more widely in disarray. The other half of the MFT founding partnership — Panasonic — has been strangely quiet on the subject. Their next move is crucial, so what might it be?

Olympus

Olympus' announcement of the sale of its camera division to Japan Industrial Partners came as no surprise to many in the industry, even after vigorous denials from the company itself. This followed year-on-year losses culminating in a $157M loss in 2019 for its imaging division, as well as pulling its business out of South Korea earlier this year. It's clear that even large manufacturers can no longer support their camera divisions making losses, with COVID-19 just highlighting how important the bottom line is. If nothing else, it will refocus efforts across the sector.

Olympus' current market strategy can be pegged all the way back to 2003 in the form of their innovative E-1, the first of the Four Thirds ILCs, which sold alongside their burgeoning compact cameras. It was a successful lineup that — perhaps counterintuitively — continues to this day. Of course, the Four Thirds system evolved into Micro Four Thirds and ultimately, their acclaimed OM-D series. Of course, Olympus' Imaging Division hasn't pulled out of the camera market; it's been sold off. What this means for future Olympus cameras remains to be seen; however, even in a best-case scenario, Olympus will no longer have the same resources to draw upon and likely will not have the same presence in the marketplace.

The Micro Four Thirds Strategy

It's pertinent at this point to remember that camera systems are not standalone products in their design or manufacturing. Businesses operate, to a greater or lesser extent, in a highly integrated market where one manufacturer becomes a supplier to another. Nikon uses Sony sensors, Leica designs for smartphones, Cosina manufacturers lenses and cameras for a range of brands, and Olympus and Panasonic share a common lens mount. In fact, Olympus and Panasonic jointly released the MFT standard in 2008, with the Lumix G1 first to market in November 2008, followed by Olympus' E-P1 in June 2009. MFT cameras and lenses have since been manufactured by a number of different businesses where the wide lens support and small size are valued.

Olympus and Panasonic took divergent paths in their camera development, with Olympus focusing upon stills cameras, eventually finding the right niche with the OM-D line, whereas Panasonic saw value in pushing the video credentials of the platform. The release of MFT started the "bonfire of lens mounts" from 2010 as other manufacturers jumped on the mirrorless bandwagon, each taking different approaches. In hindsight, we can see the joint APS-C/FF strategy as the most successful, but that doesn't mean it is the only one that works. Large sensors end up sporting large lenses, which negates much of the gains made from having small, svelte, mirrorless bodies. Putting a small sensor in a MILC aims to redress that balance, and it's something that Panasonic/Olympus, Nikon (1 System), and Pentax (Q) all tried. Of course, the demise of the latter two is a salutary tale; however, MFT appears to have struck the right balance between system size and image quality. This is something that Fstoppers' Nando Harmsen has touched upon: why aren't Olympus cameras more popular?

Panasonic plowed a video furrow, having seen the success of the Nikon D90 and particularly, Canon's 5D Mark II. Being able to capture video is only half the story; having a camera body that is a video-focused is also important. However, MFT leveraged the abilities of the small sensor to offer benefits missing in FF. The first is obvious: camera size. The sensor is smaller, and since a MILC has no mirror box or pentaprism, the overall camera is much smaller. This significantly improves manageability. Secondly, the depth of field. While stills photographers will often differentiate their creative work with shallow depth of field (as indeed videographers will), the video will often want front-to-back focus, and a small sensor can facilitate this. This then leads, thirdly, to crop factor (or zoom ratio). Smaller sensors have narrower fields of view for the same focal length, invaluable in a range of shooting scenarios. Finally, smaller sensors can also be designed to read out data more rapidly and so enable faster shooting speeds. High frame rates or super slow motion leverage this.

Panasonic's Future Strategy

In the wake of the sale of Olympus' Imaging Division, Panasonic has been strangely quiet on the topic. What are their intentions for MFT as a platform, and will they develop it going forward? To understand what might happen, we need to understand Panasonic's approach to date. In particular, it is worth remembering that they have a long history with Four Thirds, releasing their first DSLR (DMC-L1) in 2006, which shared components with Olympus' models. Barely two years later, the MFT standard was released, and Panasonic was first to market. It's possible that video wasn't uppermost in Panasonic's mind upon release of the G1, as it suffered from slow autofocus and poor battery life. However, barely six months, later the flagship GH-1 was launched, touting strong video capabilities. Panasonic's intent was clear, and it has developed this with each iteration. It's worth speculating who was driving the partnership between Panasonic and Olympus. MFT offered significant advantages for video, and Panasonic has had a clear and consistent development path.

As I note above, small sensors are only a part of the story, something demonstrated by moviemakers shooting shallow depth of field, immersive scenes. In short, FF adds as much to the mix as MFT, and Panasonic wasn't able to compete in this sector. Their release of a FF camera should therefore come as no surprise; however, it was the announcement of the L-Mount Alliance that came from left field against the backdrop of the inevitable: Nikon and Canon going mirrorless. The L-Mount (or T-mount) was introduced by Leica in 2014 and in terms of specifications is highly competitive. That it brought together Panasonic and Sigma is more unusual, perhaps because they don't naturally compete with one another. Like its earlier MFT collaboration with Olympus, this gave Panasonic a lower cost of entry into FF with the potential for other vendors to manufacture supporting lenses.

Following a similar strategy to MFT, it released a stills camera first in the form of the S1 and S1R, following these up with the video-centric S1H. Perhaps the most interesting release to date is the S5, a FF MILC that's the same size as their MFT GH5. Looking back at the benefits MFT brings to the party, size is no longer an issue. In fact, the depth of field and crop factor also cease to be issues when you are looking for complementary systems. That only leaves shooting speed.

In a recently published interview, Dave Etchells asked Panasonic's Director of Imaging about the future of MFT. His responses are interesting for what they don't say. MFT is described as a "precious asset," and they are taking a view of how the GH line should develop for the reasons outlined above, which means balancing the offerings of FF and MFT. Mr. Yosuke Yamane specifically notes that Panasonic is now:

...considering the future development of the [MFT] category.

With the support of Olympus for MFT now in doubt and Panasonic seeking to capitalize on an MFT/FF strategy, could the future actually be dropping support for the MFT mount? Could MFT sensors appear in Panasonic's L-mount cameras? Could Panasonic take a similar approach to Nikon, allowing their FF models to shoot in MFT crop mode? While it's unlikely you could cross-mount MFT lenses on L-mount bodies (their flange distances are 19.25 and 19 mm respectively), Panasonic could easily adapt their existing MFT lineup.

With Panasonic remaining tight-lipped, what does the future hold for MFT? Is future development dead?

Body image courtesy of Rama via Wikimedia. Used under Creative Commons.

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39 Comments

Deleted Account's picture

What silence from Panasonic? What a idiot header. Panasonic’s Director of Imaging Business Unit gave a interview a few days ago and was talking about the future of Panasonic MFT; https://www.cined.com/panasonic-lumix-s5-interview-with-panasonics-direc...

T. S. Low's picture

And the Panasonic rep made absolutely no commitment to MFT, but make a repeated sales pitch for the L-mount and S-series. Perhaps read the article about Panasonic's deafening silence.

Olivier M. Mischon's picture

MFT is dead. MFT is designed to reuse old sensor designs. It means it's inherently 5 generations behind. Tiny lenses on old chips and crappy DSP and pictures to prove it. Hipster love MFT and that means it's just bad. Olympus did the right thing. They exit a dead market. Nicasony just missed the only buyer.

John Xantoro's picture

I prefer Canikony.

Teemu Paukamainen's picture

LOL. :D

THIS is the kind of garbage I was talking about in another post recently. Some people are so clueless (and biased to even think straight).

Billy Paul's picture

You clearly fail to understand the benefit of higher ISO performance when you live in the dark under a bridge.

Teemu Paukamainen's picture

Sounds about right. Maybe I'll need to try that for a while so I'd be qualified to comment. :)

Oh wait... There are no qualification requirements in internet debates! That's good. Maybe I'll go and bash something in a forum I have no understanding of. Like knitting.

Deleted Account's picture

Thanks for my portion of internet BS for today.

Sridhar Chilimuri's picture

Tony Northup made some predictions. I would go back check them. I fear for the MFT. Olympus gave a similar interview and lied. I think Panasonic will switch to L Mount.

JAMES MALLORY's picture

Panasonic Cameras Released since January 2020

L-mount: 1
MFT: 1

The S5 doesn't offer really anything new tech and feature wise, just repackaged features from the S1/S1H into a smaller package and at a lower price.

The G100 at least has a new audio system on board and again it is just taking existing tech / features and putting it in a smaller package and lower price. It would have been nice if it had mechanical IBIS.

I'd love an S5 but I can't afford to start a third collection of lenses....if someone came out with an L to Nikon F Autofocusing adapter like this Viltrox unit for MFT...

http://viltrox.com/en/index.php?m=index&a=show&cid=151&id=290

...I would jump on an S5 for Christmas / Birthday once the price is discounted and use my Nikon Glass.

But realistically I am probably looking at another MFT body or possibly a Nikon Z5 if I can get it at a good price with the F to Z AF adapter.

Sridhar Chilimuri's picture

The L mount range still has no lens beyond 200 mm. Not useful for wildlife so far.

Elliot Nahm's picture

Don’t forget about the Sigma 100-400 for E, and L-mount. Granted that it wouldn’t be a first choice for wildlife but, the lens lineup is filling out.

chris bryant's picture

My EOS M5 is smaller than the OMD EM1. The M5 has a larger sensor, better dynamic range, better noise. MFT is gone. It’s all going to be FF and APSC.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if Olympus pulled the metaphorical rabbit from the hat and released a small FF camera that takes everyone by surprise.

That last bit is very wishful thinking.

Deleted Account's picture

M5 has worse dynamic range. Look for yourself at DXOMark. EOS M has a very, very limited lens range. And with EOS R the systems ain't going to get much attention from Canon the years to come. Good luck and fun with your M5 and EOS M, but it's in almost every way a inferior camera and system compared to a E-M1 Mark II or III and MFT.

Edit; the Canon APS-C sensor is in every way worse than the Olympus MFT sensor; https://www.dxomark.com/Cameras/Compare/Side-by-side/Canon-EOS-M5-versus...
No better noise or dynamic range.

chris bryant's picture

I can use all my EF lenses on my M5. The Canon EF adapter is excellent, I also use the Viltrox speedbooster which is flawless.

According to DXO the difference between the M5 and the EM1 marque 1 is +0.3 and +0.4 for the marque 2. That is negligible and depends on what you shoot and how you process. I always found the EM1 files go ‘manky’ quicker with less in the highlights. Granted, it isn’t by much. I much prefer the colour output if the M5.

Just have been looking at a couple of RAW files taken at ISO6400 from each camera, the M5 is visibly better. There isn’t much in it and does depend on one’s preference in the ‘grain’ pattern.

Good luck with your MTF kit when it all comes to a dead end.

Deleted Account's picture

Thank you. Most definitely will.
Will be buying the E-M1 Mark II with f/1.2 prime this week.

EOS-M will be long under the ground when MFT ends.

chris bryant's picture

I bought the EOS M5 to supplement my Leica M and to use my EF ‘L’ series lenses (that have be dust gathering), so I am not dependent on the survival of the EOS M series.

One of us is going to say “I told you so” and I have a hat ready to eat. I hope your Olympus kit has a long life and I am pissed that Olympus has pulled the plug so to speak. I hope you are making the right decision buying the marque 2 and don’t find yourself, in a few years, with gear you can’t sell for reasonable price.

Deleted Account's picture

I'm not dependent to any system. For me it's just tools, not an investment.
Olympus imaging will just continue under new ownership.

This conversation begun with your claiming BS like better dynamic range and lower noise. That's both not the case. You can lookup the data at DXOMark.

chris bryant's picture

DXOMark scores are not definitive and absolute. There is no need to Troll, I was being polite and friendly. Don’t bother replying, I am not going to read it.

Deleted Account's picture

You starter trolling about your camera better then camera x. Which is completely besides the facts.

chris bryant's picture

OK, I see what you mean. But I was not trolling Olympus nor the OMD EM1 marque 1 (which I had for a year or so). I still maintain that the M5 files are better than the EM1 marque 1. The M5 has (slightly) better DR, noise, DOF and colour (subjective I know). The EM1 feels really solid in the hand. Have you owned the M5?

As for DXOMark scores. On their website it rates the M5 (which I own) at 12.4, the EOS 5DS R (which I also own) also at 12.4, the Leica M TYP 240 (that’s my main camera) at 13.3

This is complete rubbish.

The 5DSR files are horrid, horrid, horrid when you try to raise the shadows EVEN a little they have a strong ugly colour cast. The M5 files are much, much better in the shadows than the 5DS R. The Leica is about the same as the M5 in the shadows but brutally clips the highlights so you have to be careful to expose.

Só DXOMark are completely wrong here.

I wasn’t trolling, I was expressing an opinion based on experience. I have a high regards for Olympus kit, I wish they decided to stay in the game.

Jerry Suppan's picture

Except that it won't be Olympus to do that any longer, rather, JIP, their purchaser.

chris bryant's picture

JIP has bought the MFT unit in effect. That isn’t going to last long. Look at JIPs portfolio and how they have managed previous companies. Olympus’s câmera division was a dead weight that they needed to off-load.

My wishful thinking is basically Olympus starting again with a small FF camera system. It won’t happen, I know that, that’s what wishful thinking means.

Deleted Account's picture

Do you use a crystal ball or tarot cards to tell the future?

Elliot Nahm's picture

I’ve always thought that Canon could stamp out MFT with their EF-M mount. But, it doesn’t look like Canon has much intent to make that system worthwhile. We’ll just have to see if the rumored M50 ii and whatnot come true.

JAMES MALLORY's picture

What happens to photography as a hobby when your minimum buy in for a full-frame or APS-C camera is north of $2,000.00? Say what you want about the technical capabilities (still much more than most people need) of MFT but when you can buy in for $500-$600 for a GX85 with two lenses covering 24-300 (with a small gap between 64-90) with both OS and IBIS. You can even add a "nifty fifty" and a flash and still be south of $1000.00. What is that replaced with?

Canon M System - maybe but you are giving up a lot of features and the EOS-M lens lineup doesn't leave a lot of room for growth

Sony APS-C: You need to go into the high end to reach feature parity with the GX85 and while better than Canon EOS-M, the APS-C lineup isn't extensive.

Fuji APS-C: Fuji, a great lens lineup, but you need a high end body to match features.

Nikon APS-C Z: Right now this seems more as a camera to keep Nikon shooters from moving to another system.

The youtube posse could be pushing MFT as a perfect entry point to the world of "system photography" but nope, the gear heads have taken over and nothing less than APS-C (maybe not even that) and $2,000.00+ worth of kit is your only real way in and anything less is a dead end. Ironically helping to kill the hobby they claim to champion.

chris bryant's picture

The price of FF kit is going to reduce in cost quite a bit in the next few years. We will be seeing prices that will be comparable with what Fujifilm can offer. Canon and Sony have the financial muscle to put a lot of pressure on Fujifilm and Pentax (who prolly will be the next casualty).

I think the Canon EOS-M line will come to a halt (if it hasn’t already).

I think your points are pretty solid. The paradigm is shifting and in a couple of years the landscape will be different. Do people want to carry around a couple of lenses?and a camera when they already have one? Why buy new MFT when there are plenty of capable cameras, that will suit even enthusiasts, on the second-hand market?

Shift happens.

My main camera is a Leica M so I am dispassionate as to the fate of other camera companies in comparison to those who have a vested emotional interest. I do hope Olympus sticks around.

JAMES MALLORY's picture

I am not emotionally tied to a brand...I am concerned with photography and how do we grow it. If we get to a point where you can buy in with a full frame kit. Say a nicely spec'ed body (IBIS, 4K, 20-30Mpix), a kit zoom, a "nifty fifty" and a flash for $1000.00. Great, I am all for it. But what do you do in the meantime? How many potential new photographers do we scare away with the blind insistence of youtube influencers that nothing less than full frame will do?

chris bryant's picture

I am emotionally tied to a brand, without doubt. If Leica went belly up I think I would weep.

You may remember the EOS 300D, a revolutionary camera in the fact that it was the first sub-1000 dollar camera. That is only a few short years away before we see the first sub-1000 dollar FF cam.

What you say about the meantime, I tend to concur with you. It seems FF is where it is all happening and all going. In the meantime? I don’t know. I think that is a hard place to be. How can ‘we’ grow the photography interest without potential new comers deserting to the perfidious smartphone. Tough call on that.

And who influences the influencers?

Armand Di Meo's picture

Panasonic has not really been silent (as indicated above) and we can only take them at their word, at least for now. The problem is that market conditions are constantly changing, On the plus side, Micro 4/3 has been around for 12 years now amidst constant predictions of its demise. On the other hand, manufacturers are faced with a dwindling market. Consequently, they may decide it makes economic sense to produce only one system. That system is most likely to be full frame, since this is where the biggest profit is. This is a worst case scenario but it could come to pass. On the other hand, if the full frame cameras have a Micro 4/3 mode that will not render my Micro 4/3 lenses obsolete, I will not be too disappointed. My best advice to Micro 4/3 fans is to buy a new camera body and a couple of lenses every few years. Manufacturers will continue to make Micro 4/3 cameras if people buy them. Even if manufacturers pull the plug on Micro 4/3 next year, which is highly unlikely, my cameras will probably last at least another five years. After that, there will probably be enough equipment on the used market to support the system for another five years. Who know, by then, even full frame may be obsolete.

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