Mine’s bigger than yours.
In the past year, the world has witnessed a steady stream of full-frame mirrorless camera releases. We’ve got a full suite of Sony Alpha full-frame mirrorless cameras (with more, including the A7R IV on the way), and newcomers including the Nikon Z, Canon R, and Panasonic S series. I can imagine someone interested in purchasing a serious camera for the first time would naturally gravitate towards these full frame models, if for no other reason than these cameras are getting the lions share of marketing attention. A bigger sensor must be better, right?
I have been shooting with Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras since the Olympus E-M5. Having previously used DSLRs and mirrorless bridge cameras with positively terrible electronic viewfinders, the E-M5, with its 120 FPS refresh rate EVF, convinced me that the EVF had a place in the future of photography. Having a clear, WYSIWYG view of the world as your camera sees it was simply too useful, and also too much fun to be written off as a passing fad. Olympus managed to pack a whole lot of professional tech into a tiny, nearly pocketable camera body that all of the sudden made a DSLR look like a brick. Other manufacturers like Fuji and Sony took notice, and began to develop small bodied mirrorless cameras. Since then, Olympus and Panasonic have been steadily improving the MFT system. Lately, however, the system has become increasingly overshadowed by smartphones in the low-end market, APS-C models in the mid tier, and full-frame cameras in the high end market.
As a full frame DSLR owner (Nikon D850), I can see why someone would naturally gravitate to a full frame camera. The “full” in full frame sounds like it means business, like full-fat milk versus skim milk. Are those other camera sensors less “full” and therefore missing something?
While the “micro” in Micro Four Thirds was useful marketing language in the beginning – pointing out the compactness of the system during a time when the world was tired of lugging around large DSLRs – it now makes the camera seem inferior. With “large” MFT cameras like the G9 and E-M1x being released, people are wondering, are they even smaller, and are they also worse performing than their full-frame counterparts?
Yup, They’re Still Smaller
During the early days of the MFT format, manufacturers touted the compactness of the system. Full frame aficionados will tell you that the system is no longer smaller than DSLR/FF mirrorless peers with huge camera bodies like the E-M1X and big ‘ol lenses like the Olympus M.Zuiko 300 F/4, or Olympus’s F1.2 primes being introduced.
The fact is, your system as a whole (i.e., a multi-lens kit) is still likely to be considerably smaller with MFT – especially on the telephoto end of the spectrum. Yes, you can still opt for smaller full frame and APS-C lenses. For example, you can get some of Fuji’s beautiful F/2 Primes, but once you start going outside of that, the lenses get dimensionally large and heavy in comparison- for example, Olympus’ 60mm macro weighs only 185 grams. Fuji’s 80mm macro weighs 750 grams. Don’t get me wrong, the Fuji is an absolute show stopper of a lens, but if you are a hiker/traveler like I am, you may need to think twice about bringing it with bag already full of heavy lenses. (Edited 9/6).
Below is a picture of a Sony 100-400 full frame lens next to my Panasonic 50-200, two lenses that offer the exact same field of view with their respective camera bodies. No, these lenses are not of the same optical construction, nor should they be expected to behave in the exact same way, but under certain conditions they can render similar results. Both beautifully rendering, world-class optics.
There is a massive difference in the way these two setups handle despite the E-M1X body being so much bigger. This is because the overall size of the kit is predominately dictated by the lens size. Bigger lenses means you need a bigger bag and bigger muscles (I’m particularly lacking in this department) which means you are going to either leave more lenses at home, or pay for it out on the trail while hauling a lot of weight on your back. In my opinion, the small body of the Sony also creates an imbalance when paired with larger lenses, unless one uses a battery grip.
Having a lightweight kit is useful in more ways than just reducing arm fatigue. The Panasonic feels incredibly nimble on the E-M1X, and its small size lends itself to shooting all kinds of odd angles, and even one handed on occasion without much trouble. The Sony, on the other hand, demands being supported at all times with two hands. When I’m out shooting with my D850, I almost always bring along the tripod. Not so with my MFT gear.
MFT cameras are, for the most part, still faster than their full frame counterparts with options like pre-burst and 20+ FPS electronic burst shooting on the Olympus. Aside from Sony (particularly the A9), full frame mirrorless cameras have generally lower burst shooting rates, the focusing can be less responsive, and the cameras are not yet designed to excel in action photography. Of course, this will all likely change soon, as the full frame bodies are further developed and new models released. For right now, however, they remain an excellent option for action shooting (particularly the speed demons: E-M1X, E-M1 II, and G9).
At this point, the MFT lens lineup is fairly mature, with over 70 lenses to choose from. There are a huge variety of micro-four thirds lenses available to suit every budget and shooting style. The lenses are, by and large, generally a better value than their full frame counterparts, with professional quality optics available at half or even a third of the price of comparable full-frame lenses. The relatively low cost of entry for professional quality MFT lenses means that the enthusiast photographer can easily experiment with different types of lenses without breaking their bank account.
Most of the available lenses for the format are, by any measure, excellent optics. Even smaller and cheaper lenses like the Olympus 30mm macro are capable of providing exceptional sharpness and rendering. Once you move up to the Olympus Pro or Panasonic Leica lenses, there are fewer tangible differences compared to pro glass on any other format.
One of the biggest advantages touted by a larger sensor format is the ability to more readily defocus the background as compared to smaller sensor formats. This is not because the lenses used on each format are inherently different (e.g., a 35mm lens is a 35mm lens regardless of format), it’s that the focal length of a lens required to achieve a specific field of view must be shorter to compensate for the crop factor on a camera with a smaller sensor, and thus the depth of field for a shorter lens is larger. For example, because of the 1:2 crop factor, a 10mm lens is required to achieve the same field of view as a 20mm lens on a full frame camera, and thus, with all else being equal, the optical characteristics of the 10mm lens will always render an image with more depth of field (unless, of course, the maximum aperture of the MFT lens is over 2x that of the full-frame lens).
The ability to more easily isolate your subject from the background can be an important photographic tool, but it’s only one small piece of the photographic process. I would argue that specific lens selection, and conscious positioning of foreground, subject, and background elements is often of much more importance than the camera’s ability to defocus the background using aperture control. For instance, photographing an animal at a downward angle with the background a few feet behind the subject is probably always going to look like a poorly executed shot with a busy background (regardless of camera format) as compared to creating some background separation by taking the photo at eye level with the subject. When the background is too close to the subject, there are other interesting tricks like using very close foliage to your advantage and using the defocused leaves to frame the subject.
This is not to say that shallow depth of field effects cannot be achieved with a MFT sensor. The best way to achieve these effects are by using the longest lenses possible set to maximum aperture. Lenses like the Olympus 300 F/4 Pro, or Panasonic Lumix Leica 200 F/2.8, although smaller fast primes like the Olympus 45 1.2 and Panasonic 42.5mm Nocticron can also quite easily render blurry backgrounds. Many MFT lenses focus very closely, which in some cases makes it easier to render an out of focus background than a full-frame lens.
While having shallow depth of field is useful, the opposite is also true in certain situations. For example, in the full-frame world, often times we must stop the lens down to ensure the subject is rendered in full focus because the depth of field is so shallow. On a full-frame camera, stopping down means you are losing light, and one must compensate by decreasing the shutter speed or raising the ISO. The same philosophy applies to macro shooting where lenses are almost always shot with the aperture stopped down, and in this scenario MFT has its advantages. In other cases, like environmental shots, intentionally showing the background in full focus makes for more compelling photos.
At the end of the day, a camera kit should not be judged solely by its ability to isolate backgrounds, but alas, we have an internet that is obsessed with bokeh and the misinformed believe that shallow depth of field effects can only be achieved with a large format camera.
They Have Amazing Image Stabilization
Olympus and Panasonic are several steps ahead of the competition when it comes to sensor stabilization. The best MFT cameras offer around 6.5-7 stops of compensation which is especially useful for low light photography and capturing video without a tripod or gimbal. I appreciate that when using an MFT camera, any image blur that results in my shot is most likely a result of subject motion and not camera shake, taking one variable out of the equation in getting a good shot. Leaving a chunky gimbal at home when shooting video is a huge benefit. The image stabilization in these cameras is still class leading and has to be seen to be appreciated.
The Image Quality is Superb
One of the best Micro Four Thirds sensors for the past couple years has been the 20.1 MP Sony chip used in camera bodies like the E-M1X and the Panasonic G9. This sensor has plenty of dynamic range and does a pretty good job in low light. Those wanting for detail will not be disappointed with MFT. Where the sensor falls short in low light, the camera makes up for it in some ways with excellent OIS.
Above: Scrub jay with close up 1:1 image
This is not to say a full-frame camera does not have its advantages. There are times when a full frame camera is probably the best tool for the job. I bring my D850 along with me when I know lighting conditions will be poor and image noise could be an issue, and sometimes, quite frankly, for no other reason then I just like using it. I also know that, overall, the files out of the D850 are going to have more resolution, dynamic range, and less noise. I bring it along when I want the maximum possible resolution, flexibility, and quality in the final output. More often than not though, it’s overkill.
Here are two shots below, can you tell which one was taken with the full frame camera? If you chose correctly, you are better than me at spotting the differences, because I often have to look to see what camera I used for a given shoot. That’s the thing – it’s often impossible for the average user to tell what sensor format you are using. I believe that speaks to the exceptionally high quality of MFT sensors and lenses. (Answer: the top is MFT camera and bottom a Full Frame camera)
This wasn’t meant to be a post about why MFT is the “best” system. If you are the kind of person that only shoots with one or two specialty fast prime lenses (e.g., the Olympus F/1.2s or a Nocticron) and bigger bodies like the GH5 or a E-M1x, you might never see a size advantage compared to a full frame camera. If you are someone who seeks the ultimate eye popping, pixel peeping, high dynamic range experience, and spends hours looking at your photos at 1:1, it may not be the best option (though most of these cameras do have a trick up their sleeve: pixel shift). If you don’t now what any of those terms mean, a full-frame camera is probably not necessary!
This is a post about why MFT is a nice option in the photographer’s toolkit, and still has clear benefits in certain areas. MFT suits a number of use cases well:
- Someone trying to minimize the overall weight of their system to avoid excessive airline baggage fees
- Someone who hikes with their gear and doesn’t want to be weighted down
- Someone who wants to avoid using a gimbal or tripod when shooting video
- Someone who wants a quick and nimble wildlife camera that shoots at an extremely high frame rate of up to 20 FPS, but doesn’t cost $6,000+ lenses
- Someone who just likes the feel and operation of Olympus and Panasonic cameras
The MFT system works well in my particular use case, and my intent was to share that experience to those who may be interested in seeing how it could work for them in a world currently bombarded by large-format camera offerings. As they say, your mileage may vary. (Edited 9/6)
So why even bother posting this blog article if I’m content with the system? A quick YouTube search will render hundreds of videos with titles like: “Why I dropped system X for system Y” or “This camera vs. that camera”. These types of clickbait titles play into human psyche and the desire to search for what will provide the biggest bang for the buck with the least amount of time invested doing independent research. For a lot of people, these videos are some of the only information they ever see when making a purchase decision. Rarely do you see videos about what areas different sensor formats excel in independently of one another. This is because many camera reviewers spend most of their time drooling over spec sheets or attending corporate sponsored press conferences. One must ask themselves, does constantly comparing minute differences in gear with fierce obsession really ever get us anywhere?
I could go on for days about the pros and cons of each system, but at the end of the day, I believe it is more about what using the tool that speaks to you and inspires your photographic process. I happen to shoot with both systems because they each offer unique benefits. The truth is that every single major camera manufacturer out there today is producing unbelievable optics and camera bodies. I know that any system is completely capable of getting the job done for me. The real question is which do I enjoy the most using and fits my needs. I acknowledge that may not be the case for certain types of photographers whose clients demand massive resolution files, or sports photographers where getting the shot equals getting paid (although I would argue that even these photographers could put MFT cameras like the E-M1X to good use).
That being said, the constant comparing and contrasting is getting quite old and boring. I know it’s too much to ask that the internet community accept that choice is good, and that different cameras excel in different areas, and that choosing a different camera is like choosing different toast for your sandwich. I also know it’s too much to ask for them to stop predicting the death of this or that camera manufacturer or sensor format. I find no fault in anyone who chooses to shoot any specific sensor format, and nor should anyone else. This would be about as dumb as arguing with a painter over their choice of brush or a blacksmith’s chosen hammer.
I hope that brands like Panasonic and Olympus push forward with the micro-four thirds format, because the photography world would be pretty boring without them. Both manufacturers make exceedingly enjoyable and highly capable cameras. If you enjoy the camera you are using, you’re more likely to get out and shoot. If you get out and shoot, you are more likely to advance your skill set and create great images. It’s as simple as that.