Full-frame Mirrorless Is The Camera World’s Next Battleground

And Micro Four Thirds might be the next casualty of war.

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And Micro Four Thirds might be the next casualty of war.

Photokina 2018 is one of the world’s largest trade fairs for photography and imaging, held at the Koelnmesse Trade Fair and Exhibition Centre in Cologne, Germany. This year the clear trend was that camera makers are going mirrorless in a big way. 

Nikon and Canon had sets of their first full-frame mirrorless cameras for visitors to test. Lens maker Zeiss announced an entry into the camera business with a fixed-lens full-frame camera. And Panasonic pulled a stunner, announcing a collaboration with Leica and Sigma. The Panasonic SR1 full-frame mirrorless camera will use Leica’s L-mount under the new L-mount alliance. 

Once dominated by Sony, the full- frame mirrorless category is becoming a major battleground for the camera world. According to GFK, global sales for digital cameras dropped about 11% compared to the same period last year, with the only growth sector being fully equipped models. Within this group, premium models with 4K video capability and integrated Wi-Fi saw a jump of 90%, indicating that the market is looking towards premium devices. 

Canon and Nikon have both dabbled in mirrorless cameras. But their previous offerings were targeted more at the casual photographer than the serious enthusiast. Their latest cameras are as much a show of engineering force as they are an admission that the market cannot be denied. Both companies came up with impressive cameras, but neither was able to leapfrog Sony’s outright. 

The real story here is Panasonic moving to full-frame. Panasonic producing full-frame cameras with Leica means Olympus is the only camera maker left on the Micro Four Thirds format. That will prove to be quite a challenge, as it seems the smaller format sensor has run its course for dedicated cameras. 

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Over the years, market conditions have led to camera prices dropping. A medium format camera can now be had for under S$7,000 (Fujifilm’s GFX 50R), S$1,000 cheaper than flagship full-frame Nikon and Canon cameras. As a result, APS-C cameras have dropped in price too, eating into the cost advantage that Micro Four Thirds used to enjoy. 

New materials and manufacturing processes mean the weight advantage Micro Four Thirds cameras used to enjoy isn’t as large as before. And that’s not accounting for the excellent APS-C sized mirrorless offerings from Sony and Fujifilm either. Fujifilm’s latest camera, the X-T3 can be had for S$2,299 and weighs only 489g. That’s S$150 cheaper and 9g lighter than the OM-D E-M1 Mark II. 

While there are photographers who benefit from the reach of Micro Four Thirds (a smaller sensor means smaller lenses for corresponding focal lengths), one could argue that this same group would benefit as much from the greater light gathering capabilities of larger APS-C and full- frame sensors. More light means you can use a higher shutter speed, which is more important when working at longer focal lengths, as every bit of shake is magnified. 

With image stabilization also becoming a standard in most cameras, it appears that many of the early competitive advantages of Micro Four Thirds cameras have been nullified. The rise of the mobile phone as a competent photo and video taking device means that our phones are now what we turn to when we want a compact imaging device. 

Casual users will pull their phone out of their pockets when they want to get a picture, while more serious photographers will reach for larger sensor APS-C or Full-frame cameras. The one area where Micro Four Thirds is picking up is with drones. Given the pressing concerns of balancing size and weight against flight time and maneuverability, Micro Four Thirds seems to be the best option for maximizing image quality. 

For Micro Four Thirds camera makers, it seems the options are to evolve or be left behind. Panasonic seems to be doing so. Will Olympus be the next to follow? 

PICTURES Marcus Wong