A Guide to m4/3

m4/3 is now four years old. In those four years, we've gotten 20 camera bodies from two companies and 32 lenses from five companies (even more lenses than that if you count a few minor iterations of the same lens). One common complaint I hear these days from people thinking about buying into the m4/3 system for the first time is that they're a bit confused with all the options. Let's see if I can clear the air a bit.


Talking About my Generations

The m4/3 bodies have gone through what I'd call three generations at this point. Loosely put, I'd categorize things this way:

Generation 1:

  • Olympus E-P1, E-P2, E-PL1
  • Panasonic G1, GH1, G10, GF1

Generation 2+:

  • Olympus E-P3, E-PL2, E-PL3, E-PM1
  • Panasonic G2, GH2, GF2, GF3, G3

Generation (3):

  • Olympus E-M5 OM-D, E-PM2, E-PL5
  • Panasonic G5, GF5, GX1, GH3

Generation (3+):

  • Olympus E-P5, E-PL6
  • Panasonic G6, GF6

Some of you will quibble about this categorization, but I believe it to be basically correct.  

This is one of the confusion points for newcomers, so let's make sure that everyone understands something: Olympus and Panasonic are still unloading excess generation 2 inventory on the market, meaning you'll find probably 11 or more camera choices as you shop (especially on the Internet). 

One clear indicator: 12mp is an "older generation", while 16mp+ is a "newer generation". 

Is it a bad thing to buy a generation behind? Not at all. From the very beginning, the m4/3 cameras were quite capable. I started shooting with an E-P1 in 2009 (see below) and have some very solid images taken with that camera in extreme conditions. But it's the age old story with consumer electronics: the status quo moves constantly. Over time we've gotten more pixels, better dynamic range, better handling of low light, better JPEG rendering (especially Panasonic), and more features. 

INT Kenya Mara 2009 EP1 6

Olympus E-P1, kit lens, out of camera JPEG very slightly processed

Every now and then we see blow-out prices on a handful of "retiring" m4/3 cameras. By blow-out, I mean as little as US$199 for a body. Such prices are another thing that confuses newcomers. Should they buy these older low-cost bodies or the much more expensive latest-and-greatest? If you really think you might make m4/3 your long-term system, the answer doesn't matter. Even if you buy a low cost body to start, the lenses in m4/3 are the real draw, in my opinion. You'll be starting down the path of getting into the system, and doing so inexpensively if you buy an older body that is being discontinued. You'll then be able to get a better handle on what else you want from your m4/3 system body and choose from the current options better in the future. 

As far as the truly current models go (OM-D, E-P5, E-PL5/6, G6, GF6, GX1, GH3), they're all quite good, just in different ways. So we need to talk about a second distinguishing trait.


Body Shop

At the moment we have three basic body styles to choose from:

  • Simplified compact (low on external controls, requires using the LCD for composition, but typically almost as small as compact camera bodies). The GF3, GF5, GF6, E-PM1, and E-PM2 all fall into this category. 
  • Rangefinder compact (more sophisticated user control, typically offers an optional EVF for composition, designed a bit like a small rangefinder film body but with no actual viewfinder). The E-P1, E-P2, E-P3, E-P5, E-PL1, E-PL2, E-PL3, E-PL5/6, GF1, GF2, and G1x all fall into this category.
  • Compact DLSR (built-in EVF instead of optical viewfinder, DSLR like controls and handling, more built-in features). The GH2, GH3, G3, G5, G6, and OM-D fall into this category (as did the G1, GH1, G10, and G2).

With the simplified compact you'd always be shooting at arms length (LCD used for composition), and you'd have to dip into menus or the touchscreen LCD to change most options while shooting. 

With the rangefinder compact you'd usually be shooting at arms length, but you could put an optional EVF on and use the camera at your eye, at the slight disadvantage of adding something that sticks up off the camera and adds expense. At least you have the option of two types of shooting, though not as conveniently as the compact DSLRs. Most cameras in this range have more user controls (dials, buttons, and the like) that are available to quickly re-configure settings without dipping into the menus. 

The compact DLSRs are just that: you typically shoot them just like a DSLR, and they have plenty of direct controls so you don't have to menu dip. You can also shoot them at arm's length (ala Live View on a DSLR) if you want, and most have tilting or positionable LCDs, too. 

As we go up in sophistication (simplified compact -> rangefinder compact -> compact DSLR) we also go up in price. Surprisingly, we don't tend to go up in image quality. For example, the E-PM2 (simplified compact), E-PL5 (rangefinder compact), and OM-D EM-5 (compact DSLR) are remarkably close in image quality because they all use the same base image sensor.


Who's On First?

Which brings us to the Olympus versus Panasonic choice. Once you figure out which generation and which type, you're then faced with choosing between two manufacturers. Simple answer? For a majority of folk, it probably doesn't make a difference. 

But there are differences that you should note and be aware of. 

  • Panasonic. Uses image stabilization in lenses only; Olympus lenses on Panasonic bodies will not be stabilized. Panasonic is about a half generation ahead of Olympus in terms of iterating their bodies. Panasonic, at least at the top end, has paid a lot more attention to complex and subtle video issues than Olympus. In some parts of the world—the US being one of them—Panasonic doesn't have a very strong dealer presence, and often times new gear is harder to get in a timely fashion. 
  • Olympus. Uses sensor-based stabilization; Panasonic lenses on Olympus bodies can be stabilized at the lens or the sensor. Olympus is now using sensors from other vendors than Panasonic (Sony sensor in the third generation), and there seems to be a small benefit in doing so (for stills). While Olympus cameras do video, overall video quality can be a bit lower than the equivalent Panasonic model, though this has narrowed with each generation. Olympus has a better dealer presence in the US than Panasonic, but not excessively so. 

I personally don't find any of the Olympus/Panasonic differences to be big enough to sway my choice more than my overall reaction to handling and using the camera while taking photographs. The Olympus menu system can look like a cluttered mess to newcomers, though it allows a high degree of customization of how the body works, for example. I happen to like customization and will tolerate complexity to get it, but not everyone has that same reaction. 


Looking through the Lens

Lenses are m4/3's strong point. We've not only got more lenses for the m4/3 system than any other mirrorless system, we have some exceptionally good choices. There really isn't a poor choice in the bunch (though there are some lenses that are just "good").  

One thing that's especially welcome is that we have a full range of primes and we have a full range of zooms, not just a couple of zooms with a prime or two. 

In the prime world, we have the equivalents of 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 40mm, 50mm, 60mm, 90mm, and 150mm. Four of those primes are exceptional (12mm, 45mm, and 75mm Olympus, 25mm Panasonic), but all are good. If you like primes, m4/3 has you covered, though the prices add up fast. These primes are all reasonably compact, too. I can fit two m4/3 bodies and all of the primes into a very small camera bag. 

Another place where m4/3 excels is in the "quality" zoom realm. We have 14-28mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm equivalents, which are all at pro DSLR levels. But even in the lower priced and specified zooms we have a lot of really good lenses and a wide variety of choice (that'll take you from 18mm to 600mm equivalent!). 

Thom's B&H Wish List of the Best m4/3 Lenses


Advice

My final advice is simple enough:

  1. Choose a body style (simplified, rangefinder, DSLR)
  2. Decide whether you want everything stabilized (choose Olympus) or you're less worried about having everything stabilized (choose either Olympus or Panasonic)
  3. Decide whether you want to buy at the leading edge (current generation, latest-introduced bodies) or are willing to trade off a bit of performance and features for a lower price (earlier generation, or at least bodies introduced more than nine months ago). 

From those three things you've essentially narrowed your choices to one, two, and sometimes three bodies. You're on your own from there (though read my reviews); just add lenses and you're done.  


Thom's Favorites

As of the date at the bottom of this article, my clear favorite m4/3 body is the Olympus E-M5 OM-D. It's a deeply-featured camera body in traditional DSLR style, has an excellent 16mp sensor at its heart, yet is quite small and light. Indeed, a bit too small. Most OM-D users are using one or more parts of the optional vertical grip, or the RRS optional grip to beef up the hand-holding a bit. All three of the current Panasonic models have much going for them, to, and I tend to travel with an OM-D as my primary body, and a GX1 or GF6 as my secondary body.

If you're into video, you have two very interesting and high-quality choices: the Panasonic GH3, or the brand new Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera. 

In terms of lenses, my usual travel choices are the Olympus 12mm, 45mm, and 75mm primes, plus a quartet of Panasonic zooms (7-14mm, 12-35mm, 14-42mm X, and 100-300mm). Rarely do I need to supplement this kit, though I will if I know I'm going to encounter the need for something these lenses can't handle well, like macro.  

See also Thom's m4/3 Bag.

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