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Some (New) Thoughts on My Camera System, m4:3, and the Future

Last week I came as close to leaving the Canon EOS system for the first time since I started as a photographer over six years ago. It was a bit of a shock to me and I wrestled with the idea, because Canon is safe and familiar and their gear have been my beloved tools for so long. But I also realized that I’ve been somewhat blind to the other options out there, with a narrow mindset best summed us as: “If it’s not Canon/Nikon, it’s not a real system.”

This was sparked by a combination of events, but most notably the new releases by several manufacturers, including Canon. Thankfully, in this connected internet age I was able to reach out to several reliable sources for additional information and input, which helped me make a decision. For now, I’m staying with Canon – but it’s more a decision to wait a while longer than one to remain dedicated to the EOS system. The details are after the break. Fair warning, this is a long, gear-oriented post.

This was a difficult decision to even face, regardless of the fact that, for the moment, nothing is changing. To leap into a new system presents several challenges: I’d have to sell my complete kit and invest in an entirely new one, learn its intricacies and quirks, and to some extend redefine how I use my tools. I also have to accept the leap into the unknown – I’m taking a risk. Of course, everything is a risk. Staying with Canon is a risk, too. So it all comes down to risk management, one of those painfull business-esq terms.

Let’s start with the negative factors that are contributing to my interest in changing systems:

  • The increasing expense of the Canon EOS system. One of Canon’s real perks, when I was first investing in the EOS system, was the smattering of excellent, relatively low-cost lenses throughout its lineup. The 50mm f/1.8 Mk I, the 85mm f/1.8, and the 70-200L f/4 IS are all excellent examples of truly superb lenses available for very reasonable prices. But looking at Canon’s newest releases, this appears to be going away. The new 24mm f/2.8 IS USM that was just announced is by no means a spectacular lens, and it’s going for $850. The new 24-70L II is $2200. And the rumored 100-400L IS II is (rumored) to run around $3000. To say nothing of the new II versions of the super-telephotos released this past year, all of which are exorbitantly expensive. Canon’s pricing model isn’t only going up, in many cases it seems to be doubling, which places lens upgrades beyond my economic reach. Forget some of the “dream lenses” I’d love to own someday, at this rate I’m genuinely concerned about my ability to purchase everyday workhorse lenses.

 

{The Canon 400L II - yours, if you've got $11k}

  • The sheer size of the EOS system hit home recently, as I’ve been adjusting my insurance coverage and going around documenting everything for my files. I bought a storage cabinet/drawer unit from Ikea. The top section (the largest) is just for my gear. It’s full. In the past two years I’ve had to upgrade bags several times to accommodate a larger selection of lenses that are, themselves, larger. Hauling a full kit + lighting gear to shoots by myself is taxing. Even just going into the field with a wide-angle, standard, and telephoto is difficult with any of the bags I own – and dropping another $200 on (another) new bag isn’t appealing. Yet I don’t have anything I feel I can cut from my kit, leaving me with the feeling that it has become somewhat unwieldy.
  • I have no real need for additional camera performance increases. The 7D is an amazing camera and fully meets all of my needs. At ISOs below 400, the files are clean and lovely. And honestly, I rarely shoot above ISO 400, and even when I do it’s almost always for my personal work, and not for clients. I use lights, so ISO 12,500 is irrelevant for me. Even my trusty 400D continues to impress me with it’s images. But I know that someday, it will finally die. An upgrade is inevitable. But I neither need – nor want – more megapixels. Nor do I feel the need for more AF points/faster FPS/ets. I just want a dependable camera that produces great files and fits my style. I do not want to get sucked into buying a 5D Mk III or 1D series in the future, simply because that’s the only remaining option in the EOS system course.

 

That may paint a bleak picture. There are a lot of troubling aspects to what I just wrote – at least to me. But what troubles me most is the realization that, overall, I’m starting to take issue with certain aspects of Canon. I’m starting to doubt my ability to remain with them, which causes me to doubt me desire to do so.

{The camera that caught my attention}

But there’s a flip side. There’s new technology hitting the markets, technology adapted into systems that canon (and Nikon) have shown little or no interest in actively competing with. I’m speaking primarily of the micro four-thirds (m4:3) system here, which up until recently I’ve discounted as being some sort of fad, or toy system. But that’s been changing as I’ve learned more about it, especially as I’ve been reading Kirk Tuck’s blog and his experiences with m4:3. Then came the recent release notice for the Olympus OM-D EM-5, which incorporates several technologies that make the current Canon DSLRs look dated. Here’s the pros:

  • The OM-D touts an advanced, 5-axis in-camera IS system. All IS systems are becoming more advanced, so there isn’t much of an edge there. But having it in-camera is huge. That means that every single lens you own is effectively an IS lens. Whereas Canon charges (a lot) extra for IS in a lens, in m4:3 it has become a standard. I personally depend on IS a great deal – I won’t bother with a non-IS telephoto because I know I can’t hold it steady enough to achieve optimal performance.
  • Auto-focus has traditionally been a sore spot for mirror-less cameras, but Moore’s Law is fixing that. Olympus claims the OM-D has the “world’s fastest AF system.” It’s marketing, so I take it with a grain of salt. But regardless, one of the perks of the m4:3’s AF is that focus takes into account all the variables – including the lens. No more AF micro-adjustment. No more front/back focusing lenses. Even wide open, good optics should be properly focused and sharp – and reports from the field are backing this up.
  • On a similar note, many of the m4:3 lenses (primarily Olympus and Panasonic) are gaining a real reputation for excellence. Especially some of the fast primes, which are reported to be outstanding performers. And while the lens range is currently small, compared to the EOS range, there’s no doubt that they will continue to grow.
  • Although I was initially apprehensive about the size of the m4:3 cameras, I’m coming around to them. Having big hands, even my 400D can feel cramped at times. the OM-D alone would be slightly smaller. But Olympus a fairly extensive grip available for it (of course them do) that adds both size and controls for both landscape and portrait orientation shooting. While I’ve always felt that EOS grips make the cameras too big and bulky, for the OM-D I think it would be the perfect addition. And with or without the grip, the combined camera and lens is much smaller. And I’m convinced that this would encourage me to carry a camera with me more often. In all honesty, there are times when I just don’t feel like dealing with the 400D and a lens – especially my standard 24-70mm, which is a big honking thing. And there are some places – like NYC, for example – where I’m just not comfortable carrying a big DLSR and expensive lens. But something like the OM-D, maybe without the grip, and a small zoom or prime – I think I’d be much more comfortable carrying it around, and when I traveled (both to gigs and on trips) my overall gear load would be smaller and more manageable.
  • As I use a manual lighting setup, my lights would continue to work with a m4:3 system, save for my 580EX, which would have to be replaced.
  • Finally, I’ll just admit it – I love the physical look of the OM-D. It reminds me very much of Canon’s old A-1 film camera, which I have always loved. There’s something classic and retro, but very functional, to it.

From this list – and a look at the OM-D’s spec sheet – you can probably see why I’m interested. And it was very, very tempting to start selling off my gear now, so that come it’s release in April, I could order up a big box of Olympus gear and start shooting. But there are also some nagging issues that held me back:

  • m4:3 uses a sensor that is 40% smaller than an APS-C. I’m okay with its 12mp size, but I want the best files I can get, and this leaves me a little nervous, at least until I see samples. It also introduces a 2x crop factor; this is less of an issue, since there’s a wide enough range of lenses that I can easily cover my popular focal lengths, from about 14mm all the way to 600mm. That’s right, on the long end, a 300mm lens becomes an effective 600mm (with IS!), which would be simply amazing for wildlife shooting.
  • The zoom lens selection is a little unimpressive right now. Although there are a number of fast primes, there are no fast zooms, and nothing at all to replace my 70-200L f/4 IS, neither in that focal range or constant speed (to say nothing of any constant f/2.8 lenses). This is likewise a concern; for portraits I can easily shoot with primes, but for commercial gigs and especially weddings, I depend on fast zooms. Will they eventually appear? I imagine so. But they’re not here yet.
  • The OM-D’s ISOs are listed in full stop increments. Maybe this is minor, but I’ve come to depend on the 7D’s third-stop increments (part of the reason I hacked the 400D was to gain this feature). I’d hate the loss of fine control.
  • And finally – and this is the concern that I like the least – what about perception? I show up to a gig, clients expect to see a big ol’ Canon and white lens hanging from my shoulder. While the OM-D could be every bit the equivalent to the 7D in terms of final output, to those ignorant and/or uninformed about out tools, they might look at it and think that I’m trying to do the job with a consumer-grade “point & shoot.” Yes, I can always explain it to them. But it may very well add a roadblock to my business, albeit a minor one.

The ability to reach out to other photographers online has never been greater. The best part is, that most professionals – and especially those who run their own blogs – are very happy to provide help and advice when they can. I reached out to professional photographer Kirk Tuck, via email, for his take on my situation. I also ran the idea past my buddy Mike, who is as much of a gear-head as I am, but also very practical.

They both gave me variations on the same response – wait. The technology is definitely heading towards mirror-less cameras all around and the in-camera tech will continue to increase. As such, the lens offerings will also increase. We may even see Canon themselves jump into the ring (finally). But for the moment, the m4:3 system is still evolving – it may well evolve to replace the APS-C system, but that’s still a ways away.

So I’m going to keep an eye on things and bide my time. When the OM-D is released in April, I’m going to find a store with a floor model and spend some time playing with it myself. I’ll either love it or I’ll hate it. But even if I hate it, I’ll be keeping a finger on the pulse of the the m4:3 system, as I do believe that there’s a paradigm shift coming soon. The conspiracy theorist in me even thinks that perhaps Canon’s new pricing model is designed to drive the EOS series out of range of the soccer moms, hobbyists, and semi-pros, to make room for a mirror-less system, as a sort of replacement to the Rebel line. Who knows?

On the other hand, if I try the OM-D and fall in love with it, I probably will switch systems, so long as the limitations are balanced by the benefits. Either way, there are interesting things coming.

Brent Pennington

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1 Comment to Some (New) Thoughts on My Camera System, m4:3, and the Future

  1. February 16, 2012 at 13:53

    Interesting thoughts. The 2x crop factor does sound very interesing for about $7000 you can have the camera with 300 2.8 which is the same as a 600. Canon’s 600 f/4 is 9200 and their f/4 with IS II is 13000. I hope you get one or at least find some place that plans to rent them. I’d love to hear your experience shooting with one.

    I like your conspiracy theory regarding Canon’s pricing. Even if they did come up with a m4:3 system none of our current Canon gear would work with it, except the flash, maybe.
    So since you’re going to keep your Canon gear you wanna a backup 7D? :)


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