It’s less than a week until the newest Micro Four Thirds camera ships, and when Flat Focus reviewed the Yi M1 announcement, we covered all the basics of the camera itself. I’d like to take some time here to explain why I think this camera demonstrates something very important thing about the Micro Four Thirds system.
When people discuss the Micro Four Thirds (abbreviated as M43 from here in) system, they quite often the talk turns to the size advantages. The ability to carry a camera, and several lenses, in a very small bag is a big win for a lot of photographers, and it makes sense that this is one of the headline features of the system.
This size, however, comes with a price. The reason M43 cameras can use small lenses is because of the smaller sensor. Unfortunately, this sensor is at a disadvantage to APS-C and full frame sensors, as far as shooting at high ISOs and in low light – that’s just the nature of capturing light, physics, etc.
The M43 system has many other advantages, and disadvantages, to larger systems. Often, we focus on the ones that are most immediate to us as photographers: Price, lens selection, autofocus details, adapted lenses, etc. What people don’t talk about as much though, is one of the most important, and profound advantages that the M43 system has: A standard that multiple camera manufacturers can use.
Obviously, up until now, the Micro Four Thirds field has been dominated by the two companies who created it: Olympus and Panasonic. BlackMagic make M43 bodies (although no lenses), and Kodak popped in their head briefly, but overall, Olympus and Panasonic rule this format.
Now though, after releasing a very popular 4K action cam, Yi Technology have entered the M43 arena, and their first camera looks to be quite interesting. The M1 is a modern (almost everything is done by touchscreen), cheap take on the mirrorless camera, aimed at hip millenials, and people who want a cheap M43 with high image quality. This is quite a different group than who Olympus and Panasonic target with their offerings — the same prosumer enthusiasts that most mirrorless and DSLRs are aimed at.
So why is this important? Two reasons, and both involve computing.
Reason 1: Remember The 90s
As much as I hate to do it, I’m going to take you back to the dark days of the 1990s. While articles on Buzzfeed act like the only things that mattered during the first half of the 90s decade were Saved By The Bell and grunge bands, this was also the time that Linux was unleashed upon the world. Please don’t stop reading because I mentioned Linux, I swear this won’t be boring.
Linux, famously, is an open source operating system, meaning that anybody can use it or change it as much as they want. It wasn’t the first open source software by far, but at a time where Apple was fairly unpopular, and Microsoft was widely hated, Linux got a ton of attention quickly.
Tech nerds wrote enthusiastically about how Linux would change the world, and how Microsoft couldn’t beat an open source product. Companies like Red Hat were formed to capitalize on the interest in free software. Linux seemed to be the perfect alternative to operating systems everyone was locked into.
Was its main advantage beautiful design? No. User friendliness and accessibility? Oh hell no. The reason everyone expected huge things for Linux was that it was open. The idea was that Linux put the power back in the hands of people. You could choose from a number of Linux variants – whichever one suited you best. And the more people, and companies, used it, the bigger it would become. The future was clear, many said: Being open is an unbeatable advantage.
However, for years, Linux didn’t take off at all. People made fun of the very idea of using it on your desktop computer (I was one of them), it was insanely hard to get working on a laptop (I tried), and a lot of businesses had contracts with big enterprise software companies, and couldn’t switch to cheaper, Linux-based solutions. For ages, it looked like Linux was.. maybe not a complete failure per se, but something that had been overhyped (along with almost everything related to the Internet.)
But then, something interesting happened: Slowly, but surely, people did start switching to Linux for more and more things. Companies finally had their enterprise software contracts expire, and they realized that running web servers on Linux was a vastly better solution to the crummy commercial options available at the time. Email systems were much easier to run with free software, as well as tons of other things. Desktop Linux never really gained the traction that people had hoped, but just in the last few years, it’s started to ramp up again, because the software finally became as usable and polished as Windows and Mac.
So, my point is just that, it turned out that the people evangelizing were right all along – Linux really did have a massive advantage by being open, it just took a whole lot longer than the overhyped headlines predicted.
Now, in the same way, the whole idea of the Micro Four Thirds open format is that the user is able to use the lenses on a variety of cameras, and isn’t locked in to one body manufacturer. Having lots of options means lots of lenses to choose from. It also means more freedom though: if one company starts to slack, and doesn’t make any decent cameras for a while, someone else will probably come along and do it, and it will be very easy for an M43 user to switch over. Nobody needs to be locked into an ecosystem run by a single company, who might just decide to stop making innovative cameras, or decide to never lower prices (not that I’m saying this has ever happened before lol).
So this is my first thesis: That the Yi M1 is sort of a harbinger. A big company has entered the M43 world, and they’re making what looks to be a really solid camera, with potentially wide appeal. This isn’t some random Chinese company – they’re the fourth largest cell phone manufacturer in the world, and their 4K Action Cam has been already received extremely well, and often declared to be a “GoPro killer”.
So Yi’s entry may well be the start of what could be the rise of the Micro Four Thirds system. To me, this could be one of the first moments that we look back on in the future and say “Ahh yes, we take the M43 ecosystem for granted now as being 20 times bigger than anything else, but the first sign was really when Yi entered the market.”
(Note to nerds: I know open source software is not a perfect parallel to an open camera mount system, but that’s not the point I’m making here. And also a lot of popular open source software other than Linux had a big impact, but i’m trying to keep this readable for non-nerds.)
Reason 2: Remember the iPhone
As I mentioned, the second reason for the possible impending dominance of M43 also involves computing. In fact, it is computing.
The term “computational photography” has been getting used more and more lately, especially in relation to the new iPhone 7, which produces artificial bokeh by calculating where the foreground and background of a picture are, and then applying a blur. Right now, even in the best-case-scenario shots that people are posting, the results range on a scale of “that kinda looks fake” to “lol why did they upload that?”, but that’s immaterial, because Apple are going to keep working on that feature, and it’ll get much better.
Computational photography is not a new thing that Apple invented. Apart from the fake bokeh feature, computational photography is also used extensively in smartphone camera apps, whether they be the built-in ones, or 3rd party add-ons.
On some level, all digital cameras use computation to create images, but in a much more clear sense, companies like Pentax and Olympus use it to do sensor-shift photography, which can, in the right conditions, create much clearer photos, with less noise, and most amazingly, a much higher resolution photo than the sensor should allow.
But what does this have to do with the M43 system? My second thesis is that the inherent disadvantages of the smaller M43 sensor may wind up being completely irrelevant, once a lot more options are out there for improving photos drastically through computational photography.
Right now, the three biggest knocks on M43 compared to APS-C and full frame, as far as image quality go, are:
- You need faster lenses to create large amounts of bokeh
- Low-light photos are noisier
- The images don’t provide as much detail, due to lower megapixel sensors.
To address number (1): As we’ve seen with the iPhone 7, it’s entirely possible to create shallower depth of field by computation alone. Even though it looks pretty fake right now, eventually it’ll look good, and could occasionally be quite a boon to photographers using smaller sensors. (I say occasionally because I think overusing shallow depth of field is one of the biggest amateur mistakes these days – but that’s a topic for a future essay!)
As far as (2) goes, image noise is also another problem that is perfectly suited for computational photography. I actually think this is the kind of thing that might wind up being much easier to fix convincingly in software than creating bokeh.
When it comes to (3), Olympus has already solved this in the world of M43 with their high-res mode, which is.. ding ding ding – computational photography of course. Granted, it only works when the camera is on a tripod right now, but the just-announced E-M1 Mark II is widely rumoured to eventually allow for handheld shots in the high-res mode (probably via a firmware update sometime after release), which, if implemented well, would be a huge game-changer.
I want to summarize a bit before wrapping this up. My point is not that the Yi M1 is a huge game-changer or will be a big hit (I have no opinion on that. It’s a very cool-looking camera, but it may flop, or may be a hit.)
My point is that I think we could be approaching a tipping point for the Micro Four Thirds system. This tipping point could take M43’s open format from an “oh yeah that’s kind of handy” feature to a huge advantage, delivering tons of value and utility to users. And this, combined with the huge ongoing boom of computational photography, could create a situation where M43 becomes an incredibly popular format.