Micro Four Thirds in a full frame mirrorless world

Written by Gary on August 25th, 2018

2018 will be remembered as the year the big guns finally got serious about full frame mirrorless cameras and their attempt to pull back some of the enormous influence Sony has propagated in this area over the past few years.

This week, Nikon finally unveiled their new Nikon Z system which will take them into the future thanks to their new lens mount – but it will be a tough time for the multitude of existing Nikon dSLR users who will have to decide when to give up their legacy lens system and when to make their move into native Nikon S lenses which will perform much better on this new system of the future.

We can expect Canon to follow suit later this year or perhaps early next year.

And of course we already have Fujifilm and Hasselblad medium format mirrorless systems.

Many Canikon fan boys are likely to suggest this may be the end of Micro Four Thirds, but I am very comfortable this will not be the case, and let me tell you why.

NB. These links below mainly take you to my wiki pages for more information, they do not take you to online camera retailers.

1. Micro Four Thirds allows smaller and lighter lenses

This is particularly true when it comes to telephotos.

Size and weight make a BIG difference to your photography gear.

Heavy lenses mean you either carry less lenses when you hike, travel or fly, or risk back injury, fatigue or having to put your gear in check in luggage with likely loss.

Very few photographers can do their best work or feel inspired if they arrive at their destination fatigued from carrying a big load, or indeed just hand holding a heavy telephoto for an hour.

This means photographers will enjoy their work and travels more if their kit is light and small, and this will translate into better imagery with more creativity – as well as mean you are more likely to bring your gear with you.

2. The difference in image quality is NOT important for 99% of use.

Yes, full frame cameras will probably always offer slightly better high ISO quality, more shallow depth of field options, a greater color depth, more dynamic range and better highlight roll off when you pixel peep.

99% of photographers create imagery primarily for display on computers and for the internet rather than bothering with creating exhibition grade large prints (in which case medium format might be even better than full frame).

There are far more issues that change how your imagery is viewed (difference between monitors, prints, post-processing, colour management, etc) which will affect your images more than the sensor differences in ISO noise and color depth and sensor size is probably not critical even when it comes to large prints – as Apple has shown with their iPhone road size bill boards.

Pixel count too becomes largely redundant as most computer images are no greater than 8mp, furthermore, when shooting moving subjects such as sports, birds, etc, the subject movement even with fast shutter speeds results in image detail levels of perhaps only 10mp even if you have an 80 mp sensor. So all those 45mp images with massive file sizes taking up all that computer hard disk space and backup drives, while slowing down your post-processing are, for many cases, a waste of time and money.

Let’s look at a few scenarios:

Travel and street photography

  • most of the time you want everything in focus – the old full frame film street photographers generally used f/8 on their lenses to achieve adequate depth of field (and also lens sharpness is optimised at this aperture on their lenses)
  • you want to avoid changing lenses as this risks dust on the sensor, and opportunities for dropping your gear or having it stolen.
  • in the Micro Four Thirds world, you can choose an Olympus OM-D E-M1 II camera mated with an Olympus micro ZD 12-100mm f/4 OIS lens to give you class leading, weathersealed, highest optical image quality for an 8x zoom lens covering 24-200mm in full frame terms which will be much more compact and lighter than any full frame version. The image stabilisation at the wide angle even allows shutter speeds of many seconds hand held which is incredible and means you can gain low light or blurred water imagery without a tripod which is impossible with any other current system. This also provides one of the best image stabilisation if not THE best for video work. Will full frame kits achieve this level of image stabilisation – possibly, but they do have larger sensors to move and larger, heavier lens elements to contend with which will generally give MFTs the advantage.
  • Another example is the very compact 3x zoom f/1.7-2.8 lens travel camera – the new Panasonic LX100II which uses a MFTs sized sensor to achieve high image quality in a very small camera.
  • not only does MFT have the size and weight advantage here, but by being able to use f/4 for the depth of field required, they can use an ISO 2 stops less which removes nearly every advantage of full frame sensors.

Wildlife and sports photography:

  • if you need the BEST image quality, shallowest DOF then the dSLR with a $10,000 4kg super telephoto is the way to go
  • BUT for most of us, Micro Four Thirds offer twice the telephoto reach for the same size lens as for full frame cameras, and this means half the weight, size and often cost and more fun.
  • At the end of the day viewers do NOT CARE if an image is taken with a MFT sensor or a full frame sensor, in this genre, content is king and being there with a kit capoable of getting the shot by a photographer with skill and creativity will trump sensor size every time.
  • Take a look at this wonderful image which is being used to promote the current Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year for 2018 and not only appearing on the website promo material but also featured on illuminated bill boards in Adelaide – it was taken with the ground breaking but now very old 16mp Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera with the awesome, versatile Olympus micro ZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens – no-one cares it was not taken with a full frame camera!

Australian National Geographic finalist

Portrait photography:

There are a few key elements that most photographers want from their camera gear for their portraiture:

  • precise depth of field to allow just enough to be adequately sharp from ear to tip of nose while blurring the background and foreground areas – in full frame terms this usually means an aperture of f/2.0-f/2.8 (wider apertures give too shallow a DOF for portraits but may be of use for full length body shots or for “creative” art imagery of faces where perhaps only the eyes are in focus)
    • in MFTs, the Olympus micro ZD 45mm f/1.2 provides this perfect level of depth of field wide open
    • perhaps the biggest issue for MFT for professionals is that you cannot achieve this level of DOF control with MFT zoom lenses while full frame users can use their 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses for this, but for the rest of us, we can avoid these heavy expensive lenses and use smaller prime lenses to achieve in shallower DOF.
    • the future though is for AI to post-process images automatically to provide even shallower DOF which will make the need for full frame more redundant – this is what the smart phone companies have started to do.
    • in studio work where backgrounds are controlled, professionals will often resort to f/8 on a full frame to ensure the highest image quality and in this regard, even the Olympus 12-100mm f/4 will suffice.
  • fast, accurate AF of the CLOSEST eye
    • this is one of the reasons mirrorless is FAR better than dSLRs
    • Sony leads in this technology which was initially introduced by Olympus – unfortunately the new Nikon Z cameras do not have this yet, and NO dSLR has this technology – some have face recognition such as the Nikon D850 but its not the same!
    • When I browse 500px and similar galleries I am constantly amazed how many otherwise good portraits are ruined because the dSLRs / photographer has failed to achieve sharp focus on the closest eye which detracts from the image significantly!

You don’t have to believe me – just check out Sean Archer’s work – he is perhaps THE BEST KNOWN PORTRAIT photographer on the net over the past several years and nearly all his works were created using Olympus OM-D gear. Someone convinced him to go full frame dSLR for a while but he soon gave that up and went back to his Olympus gear because it achieves the above better.

Sean Archer

Selfie or vlogger photography:

  • if you want to do a selfie, a small, light camera and lens makes this far more comfortable so MFTs is always going to have an advantage over full frame cameras
  • more importantly, the rear LCD screen needs to swivel so you can see what you are shooting – the new Nikon Z cameras do not have this.
  • the Panasonic GH-5 is still one of the most favored cameras for doing vlogging.

Conclusion:

There is no doubt the new full frame mirrorless cameras will seduce many photographers – much as a status symbol more than for any other reason – although pros will prefer to be able to use their f/2.8 full frame holy trinity zoom lenses and they need the Canon and Nikon pro backup services which are not there to any close extent by Olympus or Panasonic.

In my mind, Micro Four Thirds has a sufficient base to not only survive but I believe will only get stronger, especially when those who migrate to full frame mirrorless systems realise that they probably don’t really need to carry all that gear around and can achieve most of their imagery with a smaller, lighter, and less expensive kit.

That said, there are a few areas where full frame currently does have advantages but these will reduce and perhaps disappear for all practical purposes as sensor technologies continue to improve and AI post-processing addresses DOF and image noise issues.

The big question is whether Olympus should join the fray and create a full frame mirrorless system as well.

I personally would like this as for the few times I want to use full frame, I could use the same ergonomics and user interface as I am used to with the Olympus OM-D cameras.

Having multiple interfaces by using different brands does adversely impact your photography, and I really dislike having to get my Sony a7II full frame mirrorless out to shoot – so it rarely comes out – and it may go the same way as my Canon 1D Mark III dSLR – sit in the closet as a remnant of a past age.

 

 

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