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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”