Honey, I shrunk the camera (and the lenses too)

I’m about to do something I thought I’d never do – I’m going to purchase a Micro Four Thirds(m4/3) camera. Before I continue, a quick tutorial for the uninitiated. The size of the image sensor – in the simplest terms, the device in your camera that actually captures the image – can vary from camera to camera. Most SLR-type or mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras have one of three different sized sensors – full frame(a sensor equal in size to a single frame of 35mm film, approximately 36mm x 24mm), APS-C(a sensor equivalent in size to a frame of APS film, or about 24mm x 16mm) or 4/3(approximately 17mm x 13mm). There are other sizes as well, but these three are the most common. Generally speaking, the larger the sensor, the lower the noise level it produces, along with higher dynamic range. In other words, bigger is usually better, in terms of image quality.

So why the change on my part? Several reasons, actually…

First and foremost, with the release of the Olympus OM-D E-M5, the Micro Four Thirds system seems to have finally come of age. I say “seems” because I’ve not yet personally tested the camera, but all the reviews and images from the camera I’ve seen are extremely positive. I’ve had the opportunity to put some of the camera’s RAW files through my normal workflow using Lightroom 4.1, and was pleased with the results. I’ll reserve final judgement till I can shoot with the camera myself, but as of now I’m quite encouraged by what I’ve seen. The EM-5 appears to come very close to matching the best APS-C cameras I’ve used, such as the Nikon D7000 and Sony NEX-5n, at least in terms of image quality – close enough that any differences are essentially irrelevant.

Going out in the field this spring with a Sony NEX-5n and three small manual focus primes really opened up my eyes. My normal kit for the past year – a Nikon D7000, 10-24mm zoom, 50-135mm manual focus zoom, and 180mm macro – was not an unmanageable burden in terms of size and weight, but I certainly knew it was on my back. The Sony kit on the other hand was virtually unnoticeable. I was considerably less fatigued after a day of shooting, and all my gear fit in a tiny Domke shoulder bag a third of the size of my normal pack. You can’t make an image if you don’t have a camera with you, and I haven’t hesitated to take the Sony with me almost everywhere I go, because it’s so small, light and unobtrusive. Because of this, I’ve managed to capture images I would have never captured with a larger DSLR. There’s a term used by the military – “quick strike capability.” The NEX-5n has given me quick strike capability. I can quickly and easily take it anywhere, at any time, without lugging around a huge amount weight and create high quality images. So why not stick with the Sony? In a word, lenses. Or rather, lack thereof. The NEX system simply doesn’t have enough high quality native options at the moment to be considered as my main camera system. This is also a problem with the larger DSLRs, as you’ll see below…

The subject of lenses leads to an interesting discussion, and plays into another factor in my decision to make the switch to the m4/3 system – what’s the future of APS-C DSLRs like the D7000? More specifically, what’s the future of the format as a system. For some time now I’ve felt as if Nikon and others were ignoring the needs of users with APS-C DSLRs, because of the lack of top level lens support. For example, Nikon has been making APS-C cameras(known as DX) for over a decade, but mostly have yet to deliver the kinds of lenses that would interest an enthusiast – to name a few, a fast 70-200mm equivalent zoom(50-135mm f/2.0), 18mm, 24mm, and 36mm equivalent wide angle primes(12mm, 16mm, 24mm), and a long macro(135mm micro Nikkor). For over a year, I’ve struggled to put together a lens kit that satisfied my needs, because of the gaping holes in Nikon’s DX lens lineup. I could have filled some of those holes – somewhat awkwardly – with Nikon’s full frame lenses… but such lenses are larger, heavier, and more expensive. Using most full frame lenses on a DX camera makes the use of such cameras somewhat pointless, since the main selling point of DX cameras is their smaller size and lighter weight.

On the other hand, in about three years the m4/3 system has been fleshed out with a broad and deep selection of quality lenses – both primes and zooms – with more exciting options to be introduced before the end of the year. Here’s a sampling of what’s available – fast primes, from wide angle to moderate telephoto, a couple of very good wide angle zooms, a fast mid-range zoom, quality inexpensive telephoto zooms, a fish-eye lens, and a solid mid-range macro option. In terms of 35mm equivalent, there are lenses ranging in focal length from 14mm to 600mm. In the near future we’ll see a longer macro option, and a fast telephoto zoom, plus I would imagine a few more surprises before the year is over. Just about every option one could ask for exists, or will very shortly, in the m4/3 universe.

As to the future of APS-C – interestingly, according to Nikon Rumors, Nikon is supposedly readying a 24MP weather-sealed full framer for sometime this summer. Current specs have this new full frame camera coming in at a slightly lighter weight than the D7000. Price? In the neighborhood of $1600. Only $400 more than the D7000, and essentially the same price as the Nikon prosumer APS-C sensor camera, the D300s. It’s beginning to look as if this pattern of “neglect” I spoke of has been part of a larger strategy by Nikon to subtly push many advanced APS-C users to full frame, where the lenses are more expensive and the profit margins presumably higher. That’s just my admittedly somewhat uneducated guess, but that’s been my gut reaction, as someone who’s followed Nikon’s product releases closely for several years.

If true, this rumor would mean that APS-C sensor DSLRs such as the Nikon D3200, D5100, D7000, the various Canon Rebels and others would be squeezed from above and below. Mounting an obvious assault from below are mirrorless cameras, which are getting better all the time. My Sony NEX-5n offers essentially the same image quality as my Nikon D7000. Nikon’s own mirrorless entries offer super-fast and accurate autofocus, with excellent tracking capabilities that are a match for many mid-level DSLRs. The aforementioned Olympus OM-D EM-5 offers a robust, weather sealed body with traditional styling and plenty of external controls. How long before someone puts all these features and capabilities together in a single body? Not too long, I’m guessing. The EM-5 is already close, falling down significantly only when it comes to focus tracking, according to most reviews. From above, the APS-C cameras would be pressured by cheaper full framers from Nikon and presumably Canon, who would almost certainly have to respond with an inexpensive entry level full frame camera of their own.

With the APS-C DSLRs gradually losing their performance edge over mirrorless, and potentially losing much of their price/size advantage over full frame, the outlook is grim in my opinion. I don’t expect APS-C DSLRs to disappear anytime soon, but I do expect the format to receive less attention in terms of R&D from Nikon, Canon, etc. I also expect we’ll see even fewer lens introductions for these cameras than we’ve seen in the last 2 or 3 years.

No one can predict the future – if I could, I’d be on a beach in Belize right now after cashing in my winning lotto ticket, instead of sitting in front of a computer – but it seems as if the camera landscape is poised to change significantly in the next 12-18 months. Part of my decision to change is an attempt to stay ahead of the curve.

One last point, a final update regarding my troubled D7000 and my communications with Nikon USA Customer Support. As mentioned, I did finally receive a reply from Nikon after someone intervened on my behalf, but it was not what I’d call a satisfactory response. Judging by the reply I received, it seemed as if the support person either had not read, or had not fully comprehended my original message. It was also clear that for this person, English was a second language. I don’t want to beat the dead horse of American companies – and to my understanding, Nikon USA is considered an American company, owned by but separate from Nikon Japan – outsourcing customer service overseas. I’ll just say this – when one is trying to communicate with another person regarding somewhat nuanced technical issues, it does not inspire great confidence to learn that the person you’re communicating with is not fluent in the language you speak. Nonetheless, I thanked the person for their response, and politely clarified my original position, to eliminate any confusion. As with my first attempt at contacting Nikon, my letter was ignored. No response whatsoever. Now in fairness to Nikon, they have no legal obligation to repair my camera free of charge or replace it, since the camera was six weeks out of warranty when I first brought it in for repairs. I have had other products from other manufacturers suffer catastrophic failures shortly after the warranty expired, and on occasion the manufacturer treated the product as if it was still under warranty. Considering the number of problems I encountered with the D7000, and their unusual nature, I hoped Nikon might take a similar step. They did not. Fair enough. That is their legal right, and I’m not really upset by their unwillingness to take action. What has upset me is the way my attempts to contact them have been ignored. Had Thom Hogan not forwarded my email to Nikon USA, I feel fairly certain that I would have never received a response of any kind. From my perspective, this is totally unacceptable. Nikon could have satisfied me with a simple response to my initial inquiry – “We’re sorry for the troubles you’ve encountered with your D7000, but since your camera is out of warranty, we can’t help you. We’ll be happy, for a fee, to exam your camera and restore it to factory spec. Thank you for choosing Nikon.” Seems simple enough, right? All it takes is a tiny bit of effort to maintain good customer relations. Instead, Nikon chose silence. Has this played a role in my decision to switch systems? I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t, but it’s more more of a last straw kind of thing, than a main reason for my decision. I’m not going to cut off my nose to spite my face – if I didn’t think the E-M5 was up to the challenge, I’d bite the bullet and stick with Nikon. I simply feel at this point, Olympus and it’s m4/3 partner Panasonic, along with third party manufacturers, provide a more complete camera system than Nikon’s DX system… especially now that the gap in performance has been narrowed considerably. Any advantages Nikon has in sensor quality will be offset by the excellent quality and choices of m4/3 lenses, and the high portability of the system. I’m looking forward to learning this new system, and exploring new creative possibilities.

Now if the darn E-M5 would just show up in stock somewhere. It’s always something. But then, that’s life in a nutshell. Gotta roll with the punches, or so I’m told.


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