Why Micro Four Thirds is the ideal system to migrate from high end point and shoot cameras

Written by Gary on February 21st, 2010

This little post is inspired by a forum thread started by a photographer who mainly shoots using the excellent Panasonic LX3 but is finding the image quality, although excellent for prints to 11″x14″ is not adequate for exhibition work at, let’s say 20″ x 30″.

The Panasonic LX-3 is a brilliant little “point and shoot” digital because, not only is it super small, quiet and discrete, it has a great 24-60mm f/2.0-2.8 Leica lens which will shoot in native 16:9 aspect ratio and when you check out his photos, you will see that he has a fantastic eye for photography and that the discrete nature of this camera has enabled him to create these images which just would not be possible with a larger intrusive dSLR.

The problem with the LX-3 is the same as for all point and shoot digital cameras – it has a tiny sensor
and tiny sensors mean severe diffraction limitation of optical resolution, less dynamic range, more noise at high ISO, and very deep depth of field (the latter is actually great for landscapes, street photography and hand-held self-portraits but very limiting for other styles of photography). This means quality of images deteriorates rapidly as you enlarge them past 11″x 14″.

His need for improved image quality could be achieved without question by buying a dSLR or even a medium format digital, but the size, noise and intrusiveness of a dSLR would change the way he takes photos and this would be a pity, because as you can see, he takes great photos in this style, and of course, the larger size of these cameras may mean he doesn’t even take them with him and so he would miss opportunities for spontaneous photography which is such an important feature in his work.

A Micro Four Thirds (M43) camera has a sensor more than 5x larger than that on a LX-3 which should equate to some 2.5 stops of improved sensor noise and dynamic range, while not being anywhere near as diffraction limited in its resolution.

A M43 camera will be only a little more louder, and bigger than the LX-3 but no where near as loud or as big as a dSLR.

Autofocus speed has not been an issue with his style and thus the AF speed of a M43 will be adequate given he is not shooting action/sports with narrow depth of field.

The image quality of a M43 will be similar to if not better than a cropped sensor dSLR such as a Canon 550D or 7D – see here, so this combined with his above needs means a cropped sensor dSLR would not make any sense for his style of photography compared to a M43 kit – if he really wants to go the dSLR route – he may as well go the latest full frame or medium format route – but then he will have to change his style.

Having decided upon the M43 route, the next difficulty is which kit to get as there is not one perfect M43 camera – the Panasonic cameras have marginally better AF, AVCHD video, optical image stabilisation which works in video as well and with the GH-1, the best sensor with native 16:9 aspect ratio and, in my opinion, the best design with its hand grip and built-in EVF, while the Olympus cameras have in-built image stabilisation, better jpeg quality, better flash control and some nice art filters to assist with your creative process, while not having the exposure compensation being accidently adjusted via a front dial as on the Panasonic models – my biggest gripe with them.

Given he is on a budget, perhaps his best option for his style is an Olympus E-PL1 with Olympus M.ZD 9-18mm lens, Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens and perhaps an Olympus 14-42mm collapsible lens.

The E-PL1 is the cheapest avenue to M43 and adds ability to add the excellent EVF later if he feels he needs it, provides a built-in flash and allows him to extend as a photographer by allowing remote TTL flash, and the image stabilisation combined with the 20mm f/1.7 lens will allow low light work even better than on his LX-3 although of course, it will be at 40mm effective focal length instead of 24mm, but I think he will still manage, while the 9-18mm extends his preference for wide angle work by giving him 18-36mm range, perfectly complimenting the 20mm f/1.7 lens.

The main downside of the E-PL1 is that Olympus has made it harder to change aperture, ISO and shutter speed as it has given priority to a dummies mode feature – nevertheless for most of his work, he will be using a set aperture and ISO so this may not be as big an issue as it could be – if this was an issue, he could go for the Olympus E-P2 and pay for the EVF upfront.

He could then further extend his video capabilities by getting the forthcoming Panasonic GH-2 with 14-140mm HD lens as this camera, if rumours are correct, will have the features of the GH-1 but add some awesome features:

  • improved HD video modes to match the Canon 7D but with full, silent AF with the HD lens
  • global silent shutter for silent still shooting, no jello/rolling shutter effect in video shooting, and perhaps a fast burst rate for still shooting – see here
  • dual exposure sensor to give sensitivity as for the full frame Canon 5D Mark II – see here
  • built-in GPS with automatic local time updates to provide accurate location and time data to EXIF data – see here

The old mantra – the best camera is the one you take with you applies more than ever – the future for most non-professional work is Micro Four Thirds style cameras.


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