Advantages Of Micro Four Thirds

Lightweight and compact, these cameras offer an easy-to-carry alternative to DSLR systems
Salisbury Plain Penguins - micro four thirds tips
Salisbury Plain on the northern end of South Georgia Island is said to be home to over half a million king penguins. Without a doubt, there are many more today than when I first visited the island in the mid-’90s.
Panasonic LUMIX GH3, Panasonic LUMIX G X VARIO 35-100mm F/2.8 ASPH; Exposure: 1/40th sec., ƒ/18, ISO 640.

With nearly four decades of traveling the world as a working photographer, you get a different perspective on the pros and cons of large cameras versus small. For older photographers, smaller, lighter camera gear is a huge relief in size and weight. For the younger crowd, with the energy to move mountains, a smaller photographic footprint and higher-quality pictures can be quite appealing.

Both groups have a similar interest in creating memories and sharing those special experiences with others. For many it began with film; for others, with the iPhone. Either way, the world of photography has exploded, with young and old participating in numbers hard to believe. In a single day, over 1.8 billion pictures will be uploaded to photo-sharing sites in some form or another. Many millennials want to increase their photographic quality from what’s possible with a smartphone. Baby boomers are interested in smaller, lighter and easier systems to carry. Many are finding what they need in Micro Four Thirds system cameras.

Good photography is all about being in the moment and having a way to record and share it. To do that, quickly and less painfully, I started testing Micro Four Thirds cameras from Panasonic and Olympus—cameras that were smaller, lighter and more mobile, had wireless capabilities, looked less conspicuous, and didn’t kill my back and neck.

Cheetah, mother with older cub - micro four thirds tips
A pair of cheetah hunting on the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.
Panasonic LUMIX GX8, Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm F/4.0-6.3 ASPH; Exposure: 1/320th sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 400.

To put it all into perspective, the first NIKKOR 600mm ƒ/4 I bought weighed over 12 pounds. My 300mm ƒ/2.8 was 6.5 pounds. These two lenses, several wide-to-midrange optics, two or three camera bodies, all stuffed in a Lowepro Super Trekker, weighed over 60 pounds. Put that on your back and the message becomes clear: Enough already—there has to be something better.

For me, that something has come in the form of Micro Four Thirds cameras. A number of manufacturers are part of the MFT world, the two most notable being Panasonic and Olympus. All MFT players have agreed to support a common lens mount. That means all Olympus lenses will fit Panasonic LUMIX bodies, and all LUMIX lenses will fit Olympus bodies. No more having to adapt or replace your lenses if one company builds a better camera.

Klipspringer, Samburu National Park - micro four thirds tips
Klipspringer, Samburu National Reserve, Kenya.
Panasonic LUMIX GX8, Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm F/4.0-6.3 ASPH; Exposure: 1/1250th sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 320.

Unless you’re Ötzi the Iceman, you’re most certainly aware of the growing interest in mirrorless cameras. Everybody but the big two is taking mirrorless very seriously, including Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic and Sony. What you might not know is that just because it’s mirrorless doesn’t mean the overall system is going to be smaller and lighter. Granted, the body likely will be more svelte, but if the digital sensor is larger than MFT, such as those from Fujifilm and Sony, you’re relegated to much larger lenses, similar to the ones we’ve been shooting with Canon and Nikon DSLRs.

Testing the MFT Waters

If any of this sounds interesting to you, there are a few things to consider. Keep in mind that all MFT cameras have a smaller sensor than a full-frame, 35mm-sized sensor. Because of this, the focal length of all MFT lenses is multiplied 2x to get an equivalent to what we’re accustomed to seeing through traditional 35mm cameras. Therefore, a MFT 12-35mm ƒ/2.8 is equivalent to what we’re used to seeing through a 24-70mm ƒ/2.8. This is most advantageous for telephoto work: The new Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm F4.0-6.3 ASPH gives us an equivalent range of 200-800mm. Yes, I said 800mm. It’s true that the image looks like 800mm due to the much smaller sensor so, to be fair, it’s a cropped image, but how many of you are already cropping like a crazed photographer in your software? You spend all that money on a full-frame camera and then start cropping the bejimminy out of your images once you get them into your computer.

Japanese macaque - micro four thirds tips
A large male Japanese macaque, commonly referred to as a snow monkey, sits in a hot thermal pool in Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park near Nogano, Japan. This image was shot handheld at a slower shutter speed to show the movement in the swirling snow.
Panasonic LUMIX GH3, Panasonic LUMIX G X VARIO 35-100mm F/2.8 ASPH; Exposure: 1/50th sec., ƒ/5, ISO 500.

Between Olympus and Panasonic, the Micro Four Thirds system now has virtually all the same lens equivalents I had with my Nikon gear. Here’s a list of popular Nikon lenses, along with equivalent offerings from Panasonic and Olympus.

A comparison of equivalent lens option for Nikon FX, Panasonic and Olympus.

Nikon (FX) Panasonic LUMIX Olympus
14-24mm ƒ/2.8 7-14mm ƒ/4 7-14mm ƒ/2.8
24-70mm ƒ/2.8 12-35mm ƒ/2.8 12-40mm ƒ/2.8
70-200mm ƒ/2.8 35-100mm ƒ/2.8 75mm ƒ/1.8
80-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 100-400mm ƒ/4-6.3 40-150mm ƒ/4-5.6 (w/1.4x TC)
600mm ƒ/4 100-400mm ƒ/4-6.3 300mm ƒ/4
105mm ƒ/4 Macro 45mm ƒ/2.8 Macro 60mm ƒ/2.8 Macro
24mm ƒ/1.4 12mm ƒ/1.4 12mm ƒ/2
85mm ƒ/1.4 42.5mm ƒ/1.2 45mm ƒ/1.8
35mm ƒ/1.4 15mm ƒ/1.7 17mm ƒ/1.8
50mm ƒ/1.4 25mm ƒ/1.4 25mm ƒ/1.8

As you can see, lens options aren’t an issue. Because of the cooperative nature of the MFT world, we have several companies to choose from for just the right optics. Wouldn’t that have been nice in the ’90s, when we were switching between Nikon and Canon? Okay, maybe you weren’t born yet in the ’90s.

MFT Limitations

Low Light. Without a doubt, no MFT body can compete with Canon, Nikon or Sony when it comes to low-light photography. In a nutshell, smaller sensors equal more noise in dark situations. I’ve found the MFT cameras are about 1.5 to 2 stops less sensitive to low light than my full-frame Nikons. Even so, I regularly shoot my Panasonic LUMIX cameras at ISO 1600, sometimes going as high as ISO 3200.

AF Speed and Accuracy. Until recently, MFT cameras didn’t have AF speed and accuracy comparable to the top-of-the-line DSLRs. However, with cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M1, as well as the LUMIX GH4 and GX8, the differences are closing fast. My Nikon D4 can still collect more perfectly focused frames on a fast-moving subject coming straight at the camera, but the best MFT cameras aren’t far behind.

MFT Benefits

Innovative Technologies. As we all see on a daily basis, technology is galloping forward at breakneck speeds, and MFT cameras have frequently offered these technologies first. Things like in-camera image stabilization, touch-screen LCDs, 4K video, 4K photo mode, post-focus, focus stacking, panorama mode, silent shutter, wireless uploads and many other great new tools are all available in MFT cameras.

Pintail ducks - micro four thirds tips
Pintail ducks on a shallow pond, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico.
Panasonic LUMIX GX8, Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm F/4.0-6.3 ASPH; Exposure: 1/2000th sec., ƒ/9, ISO 320.

In-Camera Image Stabilization. Konica Minolta pioneered the idea of in-camera IS with technology they called Anti-Shake (AS), and Olympus perfected the feature with their EVOLT E-510. In-camera IS systems move the image sensor within the camera body to compensate for movement by the photographer, effectively cancelling that movement to produce a sharper image. Though not exclusive to MFT systems, both Olympus and Panasonic have this fabulous technology.

Touch-Screen LCD and Custom Function Buttons. Panasonic’s LUMIX cameras have the easiest-to-use interface and ergonomics of any camera I’ve shot. That ease of use is mainly due to their superb touch-screen LCD on the back of the camera. Moving the AF point, with my thumb, while the camera is held to my eye is the quickest way to change the AF sensor position I’ve experienced. Quick and easy AF control is key to well-composed images. However, as wonderful as the touch screen is, it’s not a replacement for buttons and dials. Both the LUMIX and Olympus systems have a profusion of Custom Function buttons that can be set to just about anything you might want.

4K Video. Most all of us are familiar with a 1080 HD television picture, which is the most common format TVs are using today. If you’re like me, watching 1080 HDTV is almost like looking through a window. Now imagine that same picture with four times more resolution. That’s 4K video. It’s the future, and these cameras can capture at that resolution.

4K Photo Mode. Even the top professional Nikon and Canon DSLRs can only shoot at 12 or 14 frames per second, respectively. I never would have imagined writing the word “only” when it comes to these high frame rates, but Panasonic’s new 4K Photo Mode gives us the ability to shoot at 30 frames per second in a video file, with the ability to subsequently pull 8-megapixel stills as individual frames from that video. Yes, I’m talking about a still camera that can shoot 8-megapixel JPEGs at 30 frames per second.

Post-Focus. Imagine shooting a photograph and being able to select the spot you want to be focused after the frame has been captured. Lytro pioneered this technology, but Panasonic has brought the concept to the masses—with a twist. Once again, using the LUMIX camera’s 4K video capture, you can shoot 4K video and select the critical focus later by way of software, or choose the individual image on the camera’s LCD and save that image as an 8-megapixel JPEG.

Focus Stacking. Olympus has a terrific new technology that’s producing incredible macro photos by allowing the photographer to pick a starting focus point and an ending focus point, with the camera creating a series of images between the two points. When finished shooting, the camera automatically combines the frames into a final image with enhanced depth of field and perfect focus from front to back.

Panoramic Mode. Almost everybody has experienced the enjoyment of shooting a panoramic image with our mobile phones. It’s now possible to do the same with Panasonic LUMIX cameras. No more shooting lots of individual frames and having to wait to see the results by way of combing them in the computer. The camera now does all the stitching of images for you. I’ve actually printed panoramic images from the LUMIX GX8 that are 40 inches wide.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind. Finally, one seriously underrated benefit of MFT cameras is the ability for the photographer to fly under the radar. If you’re a serious shooter, you’ve most likely experienced some anxious moment, like an authority figure questioning you at a park overlook or a gate guard stopping you from bringing a large lens and camera to a concert, ball field or any other number of venues that restrict professional or serious photographers.

Last year, I shot the Colorado Avalanche with the pocketable, fixed-lens LUMIX LX100 in 4K Photo Mode. The Pepsi Center in Denver doesn’t allow professional cameras inside, but the LX100 doesn’t fall into the category of a “professional-looking” camera. With no fanfare, shakedown or nasty looks from the gatekeeper, I walked right past and came out the other side with some fabulous images of a super-exciting hockey game.

As fellow MFT photographic colleague Giulio Sciorio likes to say, “Small camera, big picture.” Combine that with light and mobile, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional DSLR, all while attracting little or no attention, and I like to say, “It’s a dream come true.”

Vervet monkey - micro four thirds tips
Vervet monkey on the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.
Panasonic LUMIX GX8, Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm F/4.0-6.3 ASPH; Exposure: 1/400th sec., ƒ/5, ISO 640.

8 Comments

    Great article, Daniel. As digital photography took hold, I was reluctant to bite and actually took an extended break from photography. For an avid hiker and back packer, full frame equipment was just too heavy, let alone expensive and ever changing. MFT was (and is) the perfect fit for me for most of the reasons you state. IQ, I believe is as good, probably better than medium format film. My nature photography is going full bore once again thanks to Lumix MFT.

    Well, you forgot to multiply the aperture by 2x as well as the focal length, so your list of “equivalent” lenses aren’t actually equivalent. Also, even the best m4/3 continuous AF isn’t very close at all to even budget DSLR focusing, which is very relevant for wildlife photography. There’s also the inevitable EVF lag and poor battery life to consider. Having moved from m4/3 to Nikon APS-C, no m4/3 combination comes close to the performance of the D500 paired with the 300mm PF and teleconverter, and it likely weighs significantly less than it’s closest competition in the m4/3 world. There’s very good reason why the overwhelming majority of pros still shoot DSLR, especially for sports and wildlife. Far too many compromises and too few advantages to m4/3.

    Dear Anthony,
    The aperture does not need to be multiplied by 2x in terms of light admission. It needs to, in terms of depth of field only.
    Which is obviously bad in you are looking for a lot of bokeh but is generally very good in you are a macro or landscape photographer.
    And in terms of size and weight, well, little has to be said. I am afraid that you are plain wrong there.
    You are right in the focusing section, though.

    Anthony, you are certainly welcome to use whatever camera gear you are comfortable with but it looks like you are saying Dan Cox, an experienced professional photographer, is wrong. Please continue to shoot with your Nikon, but give Dan the credit that he deserves for sharing the informative info about MFT. Also, please take another look at the lens chart.

    He collected all known informations about MFT. Kudos for that. But nothing more. I’m sure Panasonic will honor the effort.
    But let’s take a look from a different perspective.
    Most photographers are like army soldiers. You know: “This is my gun. Without my gun gun I’m nothing……” They can use one weapon system day, night and even blind. And as a part of an army, unstoppabele and very succesful. And sometimes a bit…narrow minded. 🙂
    A real pro photographer let’s say like a Navy Seal. He knows all weapon systems and he can be a stand alone army, picking the weapon for the saje of the task. Efficient with everything.
    My point: access to one system only, comes with compromises and one, often very small factor can be more important for one than the other. That tiny thing can push the decision toward DSLR, MTF or something else.
    Regards.

    A great article, though it does miss a few important points. Specifically, the reasons for Canon and Nikon’s failure in the department, and some of the reasons that Panasonic and Olympus have been able to create a platform that works so well across so many fronts by comparison, especially when it comes to Canon.

    Canon got Comfortable.

    For the longest time, if someone saw a Canon DSLR in your hands, even one of the budget-tier units? They knew you meant business. And Canon knew it. In a word, So they stopped trying. After all, why innovate if there’s no one to innovate against? And don’t say Nikon, Nikon couldn’t even manage to give users aperture control in live-view. So while Canon was refusing to embrace things like 1080/60p recording, or 4k, or really anything useful, to the point that even their expensive handicams couldn’t even do those things, Panasonic slipped in, said “Boom, 4k video AND a burst buffer of just under 40 shots in raw.”

    But what about those disadvantages? Does the GH4 perform less well in low light? Actually, no. Compared to most of Canon’s models, it actually outperforms them in amazing ways, both in the dynamic range in raw files(Which professionals should be shooting in anyway, and on the GH4, I’ve brought back shots you would think were unsalvagable and made them look amazing, whereas on my previous Canon model, that just didn’t happen beyond a single stop without creating some truly hideous noise. Does it take in less light? Sure. There’re ways to fix this(A focal reducer not only solves this but also allows you to use those L lenses you crave, bringing back all that bokeh too), but here’s the thing. Olympus and Panasonic both, with the help of MOSFET architecture, are able to reduce the number of parallel power transfer leads per pixel, which reduces induction at high amplification. What does all that mean? It means that when you bump the ISO, your noise gradient(The difference between adjacent pixels) as a MUCH smoother variance, as you won’t get rogue noise until you hit MUCH higher ISO ratings, an effect caused by signal induction between the electrical leads and the signal output line. This has the added benefit of reducing on-sensor heat, which can allow you to remain functionally shooting for longer periods of time without affecting noise over time. But surely having the sensor on that whole time is going to affect battery life?

    Not so fast.

    Because of the MOSFET architecture, the sensor takes a lot less power to operate as well, even on higher amplification settings(Higher ISO), but the big kicker is in the screen, and in the image processor. Panasonic squeezed every ounce of power they could out of a low-consumption processor in the GH4, and threw in an OLED screen(Two, technically, as the viewfinder is a “live view” as well) to boot, so I actually get significantly better battery life with my GH4 than I ever did with my old Canon.

    But what about that focus problem? Why are Canon and Nikon cameras faster?

    Well, that’s all down to what type of focus they’re using. Apples to apples, Canon and Nikon cameras are actually incredibly slow, specifically, if you’re looking at Contrast Detection Autofocus, which is what MFT sensor cameras are using. So how are Canon and Nikon’s offerings faster? Because they also use a Phase Detect Autofocus system. Now, don’t get me wrong, cross-type phase detect autofocus is actually pretty cool, but it has… problems. Specifically, it relies on an additional mirror in the mirror system(which is why your Canon has Two mirrors, not One), and the phase detection sensor has to be, to the micron, EXACTLY the same distance away from the rear of your lens as your image sensor. Oh, and did I mention that that rear mirror is on lightweight aluminum and plastic framing that has a bad tendency to shift slightly when bumped, shaken, or otherwise? And that it typically falls out of calibration after six months of typical use, and must be recalibrated using an allen key, or microadjustments, assuming your camera has the ability to handle microadjustments in the software? Oh, and it also 100% does not work when shooting video, or when shooting stills in live view, as the mirrors are up and the phase detection sensor cannot engage. So that selling point sort of… fails…

    Speaking in terms of the GH4, the focus options are stellar, the object detection is actually rock solid(see my previous point about squeezing all that power out of the processor(A Venus Engine IX, which is a quad core processor capable of handling 1080p video shot at 200Mb/s. Canon’s high end professional units could only ever handle 24mb/s, and couldn’t do 1080p at 60fps, requiring instead that the footage be interlaced.). By comparison, the DIGIC processor family is… stunted, and remains at least 15 years in the past in terms of raw processing power, in-camera noise reduction and sharpening, and handling of options and of firmware size. Adding to that is the fact that the DIGIC family of processors uses an incredibly small internal BUS to connect between components, limiting speeds at which SD cards will operate, as well as limiting the camera’s use over its USB connection(It’s still USB1.1 on many models), and you have a clear demonstration of inferiority as products go.

    Panasonic converted me with this camera, and I am pleased to see where they go in the future. The GH5 has already wowed me with its options and capabilities, and the GH4 continues to thrill me with its own strengths(Did I mention the audio clarity? Because Canon and Nikon’s onboard audio processing is awful, while the Panasonic STILL blows me away)

    Nice overview, though the author sells short the MFT gear that’s available. He leaves out the excellent M.Zuiko 40-150/2.8 Pro lens. The 40-150 variable aperture lens that he mentions is a nice lens for the money, but nowhere near their top quality.

    I moved from Pentax dSLRs (already one of the smallest/most compact APS-C systems out there) to Olympus and my overall kit size dropped significantly with essentially no hit to IQ. The author gets it exactly correct when he says it’s the imaging sensor size that determines system size. A Sony mirrorless camera can be about the same size as an Olympus, but the lenses for the Sony have to be bigger, and that is what you wind up carrying with you.

    Anyway, nice to see at least one article about MFT here. I’ve noticed a lack of MFT coverage in the magazine in general.

    A Panasonic G85 & the 100-400mm lens gives me 800mm equivalent reach with up to 5 stops of IS and it weighs all of 1.5 kg. As a BIF shooter I don’t need a tripod and with 4K Preburst mode I’m getting scenes the eye can’t discern.
    If you want to compare the detail performance of this 16 mp sensor with the 20 mp EM1-2 and the XT2’s 24 mp look at this camera’s review in Cameralabs. You may be surprised.

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