Micro Four-Thirds is DEAD

A popular Youtube photography vlogger called Tony Northrup has published a video with the above provocative title, and it’s got the photography community in a bit of tizz, and as someone who’s just spent (a lot of) money on a m4/3’s system it’s quite an alarming statement. So is it true, have I just wasted all that money on a dead system?

First of all, here’s the video :- 

And here is a summary of the statements Mr. Northrup makes in the video to support his assertions. Against  each of them I’ve recored my thoughts on whether I believe he’s right or wrong, although of course these are fairly meaningless as Mr. Northrup is an experienced professional industry analyst, and, well, I’m not, so these are just my thoughts on the matter, no more, no less.

Factor 1: The compact camera market (“bridge cameras” in 2008-2012) that MFT was designed to address continues to be replaced by smartphones. Nowadays, people aren’t interested in small cameras, because their smartphone is “good enough.” For many, there’s no need for something between a smartphone and FF.

There are huge negative implications about m4/3 in this statement that I can’t imagine anyone would agree with if they gave it even a moments thought.

  • The only market for m4/3 cameras is for those who would have previously bought compact / bridge cameras?
  • All m4/3 cameras are “small”?
  • Smartphones may often be “good enough” but the clear implication here is that m4/3 are no better?
  • There’s no market for anything in-between a 150g phone and a multi-kg FF camera + monster lens? Really?

There clearly is a space (a large one) between a phone and FF (full-frame) camera + lens arrangement that can often weigh many kilos and require specialist gear to carry around and use (backpack / tripod / monopod).

I suggest smartphones have replaced compact cameras simply because they’re equivalent in regards to ease of use. A compact is a camera small enough to fit in your pocket, has a screen on one side and a lens on the other. A smartphone is a camera small enough to fit in your pocket, has a screen on one side and a lens on the other, but can also do shed-loads of stuff a compact camera can’t, and is, by virtue of being a phone, likely to be in your pocket to begin with.

A m4/3 is not a compact camera, it has interchangeable lenses and a viewfinder, and the camera bodies can be as big as “proper” cameras. I suspect Mr Northrup suffers from a condition I see every day on photography forums, which is the belief that FF is normal / correct / good and that everything else is therefore ab-normal / wrong / bad. FF cameras are, in his mind, the only kind of “proper” camera, and everything else therefore isn’t.

However, FF is just one of many sensor formats, along with 1″, m4/3 and APS-C, which are smaller, and MF (medium format) and LF (large format), which are larger. As such FF occupies no special place or deserves any special treatment, and I suspect for the majority of people buying cameras nowadays is a meaningless term anyway as it gets its name from film cameras that no-one under a certain (middle) age these days even remembers existed.

The key differentiator between phones and “proper” cameras is not sensor size, it’s the fact that currently phones don’t have the option to change lens. If and when smartphones ever do challenge interchangeable lens cameras (ILC’s), then all ILC’s will be at risk, including FF, as I’ve no doubt Samsung and Apple etc. will care not one jot for Mr. Northrup’s belief that FF cameras should be considered a protected species.

Factor 2: Full-frame sensors will continue to get cheaper. The sensor is a smaller % of the camera’s cost. As evidence, an MFT GH5 and E-M1 II are $1,700, more than the FF 6D, GH5, or D610. I’m not suggesting those cameras match the MFT cameras for features – they don’t – I’m just saying that the cost of the sensor previously was the biggest factor in the cost of the camera, and it no longer is. Panasonic can put the tech we love into an FF camera and it won’t be much bigger or cost much more.

Again, there’s a subliminal message in this statement, “FF sensors” are getting cheaper? Only FF? I suspect ALL sensors are getting cheaper. They may represent a smaller % of the camera’s cost, but cheaper sensors across the board benefits all formats, not just FF.

Also, if, as he contends, smartphones are nibbling at the next size up, m4/3, then surely FF getting cheaper is going to nibble at the next size down, which is APS-C, not m4/3, and indeed MF sensors, which are presumably also getting cheaper, are going to nibble at the next size down as well, which is FF. Yet he ignores these scenarios, in Mr Northrup’s world only FF matters.

Perhaps his belief is that m4/3 is in the unique position of being squeezed at both ends? However, I would contend that all formats are being equally squeezed in the same way, all formats are at risk from those below getting better and those above getting cheaper, m4/3, like FF, is also not special in this regard.

And if Panasonic (or whoever) can put a FF sensor in a body not much bigger or more expensive than their current m4/3 bodies, what about Fuji who sell a MF camera in a body no bigger or expensive than FF, but which has even better image quality and even better low-light performance (the supposed key advantages of FF). If there’s nothing now to stop us ditching our small m4/3 sensors and trading up to FF, what’s to stop us ditching our small FF sensors and trading up to MF?

If ditching FF for MF is not viable due to cost / size / weight, why is ditching m4/3 for FF viable despite the cost / size / weight?

If ditching FF for MF is not viable due to lack of lenses (which is true), why is ditching m4/3 for FF viable despite m4/3 having a full range of lenses (which is true).

Factor 3: The marketing myth of “smaller sensor, smaller lenses” is largely dead. People understand the value of equivalence in 2018. The Panasonic 10-25 f/1.7 is evidence of this, as is Fuji’s 33mm f/1.0. The number of videographers, including ourselves, that put the Sigma 18-35 f/1.8 + a speedbooster on a GH5 support the idea that we *want* to use Panasonic bodies, but we *need* FF results.

Here Mr Northrup wheels out his favourite expression, “equivalence”, to prove FF is better, and even ends this argument with the statement people *need* FF results. I’d argue both are wrong.

Let’s start with equivalence, and specifically how it affects aperture. Mr Northrup explains that on m4/3 you need to multiply the aperture by 2 (the “crop factor”) to get an equivalent aperture on FF, but whilst this is true for depth of field (DOF), it isn’t for exposure. If an image requires, for example, f/2.8, ISO200, 1/100th to get a correct exposure on FF, it requires f/2.8, ISO200, 1/100th on m4/3. DOF will be different, but exposure is the same. And it’s important to understand that DOF will be “different”, not “better”, depending on what kind of image you’re trying to capture.

The assumption is that everyone wants shallow DOF, and whilst that may be true for some forms of photography, such as portrait and weddings, for quite a lot of others it isn’t. Landscape photographers, architecture photographers, macro, sports and / or anyone shooting with long telephoto lenses (where DOF is affected by focal length compression) would arguably prefer more DOF, not less, and m4/3 gives them more for the same aperture compared to FF, so the difference here is a positive advantage.

Mr Northrup goes on to explain that you also need to multiply the ISO by the crop-factor to get equivalence, and again this is true as far as ISO affects noise, but not for exposure. A shot that requires ISO200 on FF also requires ISO200 on m4/3, all other settings being the same. Mr Northrup contends that ISO has to be multiplied by the crop-factor twice (2 squared) to get noise equivalence, so a shot at f/2.8 ISO200 on m4/3 is equivalent, in terms of DOF and noise, to a shot taken at f/5.6 ISO800 on FF (5.6 = 2.8 * 2, 800 = 200 * 4). Although this is true, it can be mis-leading, because it implies noise is affected twice as much as DOF, but that’s not the case. It’s just that doubling the aperture changes it by 2 stops, whereas to change ISO by 2 stops requires quadrupling it. f2.8 -> f/5.6 = 2 stops, ISO200 -> ISO800 = 2 stops.

One factor that Mr Northrup fails to mention, or if he does, skips over, is that when comparing sensor size the comparisons only work on the basis of “all other things being equal”, and they almost never are.

For example, some sensors perform better than others, many modern m4/3 sensors are much better at handling noise than they used to be. In general this is borne out by a sensor’s native, or base, ISO. On FF this is usually ISO100, on m4/3’s it’s usually ISO200, a 1 stop difference in noise, not 2 stops.

Also, many FF sensors have a higher pixel count. The Olympus EM1 Mk2 has a 20Mp sensor, the highest in m4/3. Nikon’s flagship (non sports) DSLR is the D850, which has 45Mp. The sensor might be 4 times the surface area, but it also has more than twice as many pixels, which means each pixel is less than twice the size, which means there’s less than 1 stop difference in noise between these 2 sensors, despite the FF being much bigger. That’s one reason why Nikon’s most expensive (sports) DSLR, the D5, is only 20Mp (so each pixel genuinely is 4 times the size of a m4/3 pixel). When comparing sensor size you also have to compare mega-pixels, the more Mp there are, the smaller each of them is, and the more noise they each generate.

Back to lenses, in this video Mr Northrup whips out a Nikon 600mm f/4 and compares it to the Olympus 300mm f/4, claiming they’re in no way equivalent because the Olympus is really an f/8 lens. He says if it was an actual f/4 it’d be as big as the Nikon (and he does this with several other lenses throughout the video). Indeed Mr Northrup has produced a number of videos explaining equivalence in which he gleefully “re-labels” non-FF lenses according to their supposed FF equivalent aperture. He accuses camera manufacturers of pulling the wool over consumers eyes, as if printing the actual, real, aperture on the lens is some kind of con?

Mr Northrup achieves this mental gymnastics by claiming if we’re going to express the focal length of a lens in FF terms we have to express aperture in FF terms as well, and if we’re doubling the focal length, as is the case with m4/3, we have to double the aperture, and the Olympus 300mm f/4 therefore becomes a 600mm f/8.

But what is focal length, and what is aperture, and why do we compare them in the first place?

We compare focal length because we’re actually comparing “angle of view”. The Nikon 600mm f/4 has an angle of view of 4.1 degrees. The Olympus 300mm f/4 has an angle of view of 4.1 degrees. They’re directly equivalent in terms of the size and framing of the image they produce.

Aperture is a ratio, it’s the length of the lens divided by diameter. The Nikon 600mm f/4 is 600 / 150 = 4. The Olympus is 300 / 75 = 4. They are both true f/4 lenses.

There are however some much more important differences between the Nikon 600mm f/4 and the Olympus 300mm f/4. The Nikon 600mm f/4 is twice the size, 3 times the weight and £9,000 more expensive. NINE THOUSAND £’s!!

In the real world you might never use that Nikon 600mm f/4 @ f/4. There’s an online tool you can use to calculate DOF for any given camera / lens combination :- http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html . That 600mm lens @ f/4, at 10 metres, gives a DOF of just 3cm. Unless you’re shooting portraits with that monster (clue: you’re not!) you’re going to be stopping it down, and as soon as you do that you’ve mostly wasted that NINE THOUSAND ££’s and the energy you consumed lugging it’s enormous weight around!

To subscribe to Mr Northrup’s view you’d have to believe that DOF is the be all and end all of image composition, and that the DOF produced by FF cameras is the one and only “real” DOF. Neither is true, image composition and DOF are entirely subjective. You, as the photographer, decide how much or how little of the image should be in focus, and you select an aperture to give you that, and if you have to select an aperture on m4/3 that’s twice the value you’d select on FF so what, you use the tools you have to produce the effect you want, does it really matter that a different tool would require different settings?

I suspect the only time the answer to that is “Yes” is if a shallower DOF than can be achieved with the m4/3 set-up is necessary, and no-one’s arguing with that, but how often is this really the case, how often must you have a shallower DOF than any m4/3 combination can achieve, and how important is that need compared to the extra size, weight and cost you would incur?

Furthermore, without wishing to labour this point too much, it’s also important to compare like for like. All camera manufacturers produce cheap stuff and expensive stuff, great products and not so great. You can’t just take an expensive m4/3 lens and say, “heh, thanks to equivalence I could’ve taken that shot with this cheap FF lens because it has the same equivalent aperture and focal length”. When comparing lenses across formats you should make sure you only compare like for like, primes with primes, zooms with zooms, constant aperture with constant aperture, weather-sealed with weather-sealed etc. 

For example, I have the Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 PRO lens, at it’s widest and longest it’d take an image with a FF equivalence of f/5.6 – 300mm. Nikon produce a 70-300mm f4.5 – 5.6 zoom that could take that image, and it’s smaller, lighter and half the price of my Olympus lens. But it’s not comparable, because that Nikon isn’t constant aperture. To get a constant aperture you’d need to look at the Nikon 70-200 f/4 or the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8, both of which are heavier and more expensive. Indeed, of those the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 is the only truly comparable lens, and it’s £1,500 more expensive and well over half a kilo heavier. In fact, that Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 is, on its own, heavier and more expensive than all the m4/3 lenses I use put together!

Factor 4: The marketing myth of the “bigger sensors = better results” won’t die, despite my personal efforts at educating buyers. We teach that you can achieve the same results with small sensors if you have the right lenses, and I wish that Fuji and Panasonic would put 100% of their effort into making faster lenses for their existing mounts. Both companies, however, separately decided that they needed to divide their R&D budget and make larger mounts, and we can’t undo that.

This point is interesting because he specifically ignores the fact that Olympus are putting efforts into making faster lenses for m4/3. Fuji aren’t even m4/3, their X series are APS-C, so why even mention them? Could it be that Mr Northrup has an agenda?

Factor 5: The interchangeable lens camera (ILC) market overall is shrinking, meaning R&D budgets will also need to shrink. The mirrorless ILC market is also becoming more competitive because of Canon & Nikon. More people are dividing a smaller pie. Everyone can survive, but they’re each going to have to eat less, and that means making sacrifices. Every dollar Panasonic puts into product development is a dollar they’re not putting into their FF platform, and it *will fail* in the fight against the bigger budgets (and head start) of Canon, Nikon, and especially Sony (the #1 player).

This may be true (almost certainly is) but again he assumes FF, unlike m4/3, will be immune to these pressures, and again he mentions Panasonic but ignores the other big player in the m4/3 market, Olympus. Whatever pressures any format comes under, from smaller sensors getting better to bigger sensors getting cheaper, applies to all sensor sizes, not just m4/3, FF is not special.

In summary

Throughout all of these “factors” Mr Northrup ignores the bigger picture, which is that most DSLR / ILC camera buyers are not professional photographers, and chasing the ultimate in image quality is not the be all and end all, and that people buy cameras for what features they bring to the table, and that cost / size / weight are significant factors in these decisions. Perhaps Mr Northrup has the budget, and the muscles, to ignore these concerns, but I suspect *most* camera buyers don’t.

As I’ve contended several times now, FF has no special place in the market, it’s as much at risk as anything else, but I suspect Mr Northrup, having publicly nailed his flag to the FF mast long ago, can’t afford FF to fail, so is using (abusing) his position (1 million subscribers to his Youtube channel) to engineer the downfall of a competing format out of self-interest. I suspect however that almost everyone who’s buying a camera today, tomorrow, or the next day, has neither heard of Mr Northrup nor knows what FF means, and will buy the camera that meets their needs at a price they can afford. I did, and the Olympus EM1 Mk2 was that camera!

UPDATE

Just one final thought, 28 days before Tony Northrup posted this video he and his wife Chelsea posted a video discussing travel cameras. Chelsea opted for the heavy and expensive Nikon D850 + 24-70 f/2.8 FF camera and lens, Tony’s travel camera of choice was … Olympus EM10 m4/3, because it’s smaller and lighter! You couldn’t make it up! 😀

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