In Defense of the Micro Four Thirds Camera

In Defense of the Micro Four Thirds Camera

2560 1583 Eric Charles Jones

“And though she be but little, she is fierce.” –William Shakespeare

Full disclosure; I’m a camera freak, jumping from brand to brand, going from digital to film, experimenting with different formats. I have no shame. This is what happens when you are a lover of cameras and photography and not loyal to any brand or format.  

A camera is a tool used to capture light in a box. Sure, some are more elegant, some do it more efficiently, but the best camera for each photographer is the one that serves their needs for the given situation. It’s that simple. 

So, with Panasonic and OM Digital Solutions (formerly Olympus) set to launch their new flagship cameras based on the micro four third sensor shortly [in fact, Olympus today announced the new OM-1], let’s examine the system’s strengths, limitations and yes, the hate.

A brief history of micro four thirds

The micro four thirds (MFT) system is the standard based on the four third system originally developed by Kodak and Olympus. It was the first format specifically designed for digital single lens reflex (SLR) cameras. Olympus engineer Katsuhiro Takada selected the sensor size as the best compromise that allowed for optically excellent images from a smaller camera body. 

Later, Panasonic joined Olympus to further develop the MFT system. The sensor size remained the same. The only difference was that the MFT system was without a mirror. They were the first mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses. The first MFT camera released was the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G in 2008. Olympus followed in 2009 with the PEN E-P1.

(The MFT sensor is 4x’s smaller than the 35mm “full frame” sensor)CC https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

This smaller sensor creates a 2x crop factor when compared to a full frame sensor (The same dimensions of the 35mm film). Without getting too technical, just remember your field of view and depth of field are doubled. 

For example, if we use a 50mm lens with a 1.8 depth of field on a full frame camera. This same lens when placed on a MFT camera becomes the equivalent of a 100mm lens. I would have to physically back up from my subject (increase my working distance) to get the original 50mm field of view. I’m still letting in the same amount of light with the 1.8 aperture opening, but my depth of field (out of focus area) is equivalent to a 3.6 on a full frame camera.

The MFT system has its inherent limitations, which we’ll discuss first, and then follow that with its benefits. 

Limitations of MFT

  • Low light ability isn’t as good as larger sensors – A larger sensor camera does a better job in low light conditions. The greater number and the larger size of the photosensors allow for more light gathering. Current MFT sensors start showing noticeable digital noise around 6400 ISO.
  • Depth of field is wider – If you crave bokeh, a system with a larger sensor achieves this easier and is a better option. However, you can create sufficient subject and background separation if you understand all the variables in producing depth of field in photography even with a MFT camera. 
  • Less dynamic range – There might be slightly more image detail with full frame cameras, but honestly the casual picture taker may not be able to see the difference. You would have to truly pixel peep to spot any discrepancies.

Benefits

  • Size and portability – Despite the small size of the current generation of mirrorless full frame camera bodies, their lenses (yes, there are a few exceptions.) are still considerably larger than on MFT systems, especially telephoto lenses. Full frame lenses have to be larger to cover the larger surface area of the sensor. 
  • In body image stabilization – Tack sharp hand-held shots are capable with shutter speeds of a few seconds, making tripods less needed. The smaller sensor is just easier to stabilize.
  • Depth of field is wider – Depth of field was mentioned as a limitation before but depending on your genre of photography a wider depth of field may be more desirable. A photographer shooting adventure, architecture, environmental portraits, landscapes, macro, nature and street photography may not require a system that produces a very shallow depth of field.
  • Smaller Files – For the majority of the current crop of MFT hybrid cameras the megapixel limit is around 20. There continues to be heated debate about how many megapixels are truly needed to produce quality clean images especially if images are printed. Bear in mind, as file size increases the more storage space required, and the greater computer processing power needed to work with the files in your imaging software.

Hate through the centuries  

Throwing shade on the little guy is nothing new in photography. When the 35mm film format was first gaining popularity in the early 20th century for still photography, it was considered unprofessional and the medium of only the amateur by many accustomed to using the larger film formats of the era.

In the late 19th century, Alfred Stiegliz, one of the pioneers of modern photography, wrote The Hand Camera – Its Present Importance in the 1897 edition of The American Annual of Photography.  In the article, Steigliz confessed to his past prejudice against the newly developed smaller hand-held cameras, and how he considered them not serious tools for true photographers or professionals. 

By Alfred Stieglitz – National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., online collection, Public Domain

In the 21st century, the same attitude over size influences beliefs about whether the MFT system is suitable for professional work. 

However, as the system has matured, there have been a number of photographers who have embraced the system and are producing compelling professional work. Below are a few:

  • Matt Harspool, Australian based adventure, travel and underwater photographer 
  • Magic Owen, UK based fashion photographer
  • Lisa Michele Burns, Australian based travel and landscape photographer
  • Jimmy Cheng, UK based portrait and wedding photographer
  • Jay Dickman, USA based National Geographic travel and nature photographer 

The future

So, what does the future hold for the MFT system? With more than fifty lens manufacturers producing lenses for the system and the number of hybrid shooters it will continue to survive in some form for the foreseeable future. However, its growth has much to do with Panasonic’s and OM Digital Solutions commitment to research, development and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with the sensor. Although capable, the current sensors in the most recent Olympus OMD EM-1 MK III and the newly released Panasonic GH5 II are four years old. A Promising sign is the development of a 21.46 megapixel stacked CMOS designed sensor that may soon find its way in future releases of micro four third cameras.

The Panasonic GH6 and the OM Digital Solutions flagship cameras are scheduled for release early this year. They will have to come strong with features and performance to silence, if only briefly the bigger is better critics.

So, is the system right for you? Only you can decide. Your subjects, shooting style and personal needs will dictate what’s best. I am cautiously optimistic about its future. I want the system to survive, not out of some great sense of loyalty. As stated earlier, I have none. I want to see it survive because it is a viable system and in the hands of a competent photographer who understands its strengths and limitations outstanding work can be produced. 

More importantly, competition drives innovation. The more manufactures we have producing cameras with their unique approach of capturing light in a box, the better it is for us photographers to tell our own singular stories.

Find your own MFT system at B&H Photo

Browse eBay for MFT cameras


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Eric Charles Jones

Eric was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio where he developed a fascination for photography early in life exploring his father’s dark room. He is drawn to images that tell a story or capture the beauty in the mundane. These days Eric is living in Japan searching for his place of personal Zen and for that elusive decisive moment. Instagram here - https://www.instagram.com/ericjones360/

All stories by:Eric Charles Jones
25 comments
  • Thanks for your article about Micro 4/3. I am an avid user of the system and believe that its drawbacks are far outweighed by its benefits. As you noted, 35mm film was initially thought to be to be too small for “serious” photographers. The Micro 4/3 sensor is the ideal size for the type of photography I do. Anything else is either too small or too large. The system has now been around for 14 years and with new cameras such as the OM-1, I believe it has a promising future. New technologies will continue to push the boundaries of what the system can do.

  • I think mirrorless cameras are great, especially for those who want to make stills and videos with the same camera, and for those who want to adapt vintage lenses to a modern digital platform. Personally, I use a Fuji APS-C system to adapt my vintage lenses and it really suits my needs and type of shooting.

    However, while it was mentioned outside the Limitations vs. Benefits portion of the article, I think crop sensors in general fall a bit short when someone wants to adapt a wide lens to the system. M4/3, with its 2x crop factor turns essentially any wide lens into a normal focal length lens (24mm becomes 48mm and 28mm becomes 56mm). For people who love shooting wide, your only options are native M4/3 lenses that offer ultrawide focal lengths that translate into a field of view roughly equivalent to 18-30mm. Very few adapted lenses will give you the wide look you may want on M4/3.

    Additionally, as also briefly mentioned, the 2x crop of M4/3 does allow for a longer reach with nominally shorter and smaller lenses. This can be very handy for shooting at long telephoto distances, like shooting sports, wildlife, or telephoto landscapes without having to haul around gigantic heavy lenses. Your 135mm portrait lens becomes a 270mm telephoto lens and your 70-210mm zoom lens becomes a 140-420mm lens on M4/3. That’s a lot of reach in a small package and can be seen as a distinct benefit of the M4/3 crop sensor.

    • Thanks Lee,

      As someone who likes to shoot 28mm film for street. I can never use my vintage 28 lenses. That’s one of the downsides of the system, especially if you are coming from the 35mm film format.

      • I think Lee makes the most valid point strongly – the appeal for wildlife photographers in particular. I think this is the market that Olympus are now pitching for – have you tried this and, if so, how did you get on?

  • Great review.
    Like it.
    Despite I dont shoot digital anymore, but film.
    The best digital camera I have own is : FUJIFILM

  • Nice Article. I tried Micro 4/3 a few years ago. The camera size and lens size lured me in. At first, I loved it. I had a Panasonic GX85 and an assortment of lenses. The entire kit fit inside a tiny bag. At first, I felt liberated by Micro 4/3, but eventually ran into a felt the limitations of the Micro 4/3 system. First of all, the nicer lenses were still very expensive and somewhat large. I didn’t feel comfortable spending close to $1k on a lens for a camera body that had only marginal performance. Also, the more professional Micro 4/3 lenses are fairly large compared to the consumer grade lenses. This makes the camera as clunky to carry as a normal cropped sensor mirrorless and eliminates the main selling point of Micro 4/3. I loved the sharpness, contrast, and price of my Panasonic 20mm, but it’s super slow autofocus made it useless for candid shots. I also liked my Panasonic 35-100 (the cheap plastic one), but the GX85 body was terrible for shooting action at telephoto range. The second problem I had with Micro 4/3 was the sensor limitations that you mentioned in the article. In bright light, the camera produced great photos, but shots that required higher than ISO 800 started to show a lot of noise. In the end, I switched to a Ricoh GR3 as my portable alternative and kept my heavy full frame kit. I love the Ricoh GR3, it has great image quality, and I love my full frame gear. I wanted to love Micro 4/3 but the compromises felt all wrong.

    • I moved from a GX85 to a EM5 III, (after testing a G9). I had many of the same issues you mentioned with the GX85, the EM5 III addressed them for me. I liked it so much, i got a second for backup as i like to travel (both slightly used around $700). It’s worked well for me to shoot surfing with a rented 100-400mm and docu/street/family with tiny f/1.8 primes. I’m very happy OMD released the OM-1 but will likely not upgrade anytime soon, given my current cameras have been great.

    • Thanks Dave

      I was feeling the same as you about the system and almost walked away but in 2016 the Olympus OMD EM-1 MkII came out . I picked up a few of the Pro lenses and it made me stay. I hear great things about the Ricoh GR3 from my friends who shoot street.

      Take care

  • I wonder if the issue is the word “micro” in a time of capable smartphones. Before cellphones it made sense to have a compact camera and a serious or big one; or just one portable camera with good quality. However there are already capable “micro” cameras in smartphones, maybe most people just is using the smartphone camera and trying, if anything, to get the biggest one for special occasions. Personally I had liked to try the Panasonic LX100 or their GM5, this despite liking much Olympus colors. they make sense to me because they take advantage of a smaller sensor to be physically smaller; but then again there are the cameras with one inch sensors. The system is quite capable, and many artists create fascinating photographs with m43, I simply think most people, me included, take the “micro” almost as advertisement for small and portable.

    • Thanks Francis,

      I often say using the word “micro” was the worst market move made when they introduced the system. You hear “micro” 4/3 vs. the term “full frame” and you feel you are missing something with the M4/3 system

  • Thecreator Anunnaki February 16, 2022 at 5:57 am

    Da utilizzatore di sistema MFT noto che in questo articolo ci parecchie inesattezze

  • Thecreator Anunnaki February 16, 2022 at 9:53 am

    I notice that there are some inaccuracies in this article. The myth that a 35mm FF at f2.8 has more bokeh
    of a 35mm f2.8 MFT is just a myth. If you crop a 35mm FF and compare it with a 35mm MFT with the same aperture and same shutter and ISO you will have the same blur. Too bad I can’t post pictures because I’d show it. The fact that MFT sensors suffer from low light is not a problem because if the machine has dual native ISO like many MFT machines have, the problem is irrelevant. If we talk about dynamic range there too … I speak as a videomaker, if I see the Cinema5D laboratory tests I notice that many FFs have the same if not less dynamic range than a BMPCC4K that has a 4/3 sensor …
    So I would encourage you to study a little more with tests and physics in hand before writing such articles.

    • I thank you for your comments.

      I would also encourage you to carefully reread the article.

      Never was it said that FF cameras have ‘more’ bokeh, only that it was easier to create. Bokeh is still the result of several factors. An example was given of the 2x crop factor and ‘equivalencies’ that demonstrated how the same 50mm lens would render differently in terms of field of view and depth of field on a FF camera and a M4/3 camera. ( This is without cropping the final image).

      Using the same lens and settings with cameras with different formats i.e.size of the film plane or sensor plane and the physics of light hitting these various sized surfaces will produce various fields of view and depth of fields.

      I’m a photographer not a videographer. So, our specific equipment, needs and requirements may differ. Truthfully, I have never used a M4/3 video-centric camera like the Black Magic PCC4K nor is it my interest. This is not the scope nor the focus of this article or this site.

      With that said, let’s see what the new flagship hybrid cameras from OM Systems and Panasonic have to offer both photographers and videographers when they are fully reviewed and tested.

      All the best to you.

      • Dynamic range is dependent on the sensor more than the format. Every interchangeable lens camera has had really decent dynamic range since about 2012 although Canon tend to have the least dynamic range of all the manufacturers. The M4/3 sensors have been better than Canon in terms of DR but worse than Nikon… the reality is it doesn’t matter because all of them are good. Something not often mentioned is that the lenses on M4/3s have generally performed better on all sorts of measuress than their APS-C and FF counterparts (I’m talking about color fringing, chromatic abberation and distortion, etc) but this is largely a moot point now since every manufacturer employs in-body corrections when used with 1st party lenses. I like M4/3 mostly due to the lenses, ease of achieving a greater depth of field, and the lovely/versatile aspect ratio.

  • Paul Hoppe Photography February 16, 2022 at 1:18 pm

    I used M43 for years after ditching my heavy Canon DSLR gear. But at some point the image quality just was not there in terms of dynamic range and noise compared to even APS-C. Besides M43 cameras became ever bigger and essentially quite similar to Fuji’s APS-C bodies. Granted their lenses are bigger but as a prime lens user this really is not a big issue.

    So the size advantage is not really compelling anymore except for people who need long telephoto lenses or the excellent weather sealing. I also came to dislike the 4:3 aspect ratio … 3:2 seems more pleasant to me. That being said I have font memory of my first Olympus E-P1 compared to my huge EOS 20D and I had a lot fun with the Panasonic GM1 and a small pancake prime.

    • Thanks Paul,

      Valid points. Everything is relative. I’m still using big medium format film cameras like the Pentax 67. What is your digital camera of choice now?

    • Funny about the 4:3 ratio. When 35mm came along the 3:2 ratio was a knock against it being that medium format and above were 4:3 and even more square like 4:5. Apart from the efficiency of light gathering of the more square format, I too like 3:2 when shooting landscape, but in vertical, not at all. Way too tall of an image. And I shoot a lot of verticals.

      As a side note, as the author of this article mentioned, at least one of the photographers (Jay Dickman) has published spreads or front covers for National Geographic. Any suggestion by the group-think masses that MFT is not ‘professional’ is utterly nonsensical.

      Nice article on the subject.

  • I own a Panasonic G9. It is a very well built body, very ergonomic with a great menu system and easy on body controls. I use it mainly for shooting Wildlife with telephotos for the long reach. Image quality is very good but where it falls short for this use is in subject tracking. My Nikon D500 is the better camera for wildlife with a weight tradeoff. The lens lineups from Panasonic and Olympus are very good especially the Olympus Pro lenses. I use the system often and especially enjoy the compact size and reduced weight. In the right hands a micro four thirds camera like any modern camera can produce stellar imagery. For creating a portfolio and enjoying photography the system is great and Imhopemit is here to stay. Images made with M43 by me can be viewed on my blog. Cheers, Louis

  • Rob Moses Photography February 23, 2022 at 11:49 am

    Great article. I’ve only recently started getting in the micro four thirds pretty recently as I’ve been shooting full frame for about 15 years. I bought a Olympus kit for a trip and have fell in love with the portability of the system. I think I’d have a hard time give up my Sony gear, but for now I’m going to keep going down this road because the size of the lenses is just too attractive to me and I actually really love the 4:3 image size. I think it’s perfect for social media. I found I was also cropping for Instagram, but now I just post the photos the size they are. . .

    Anyhow, great article and I agree with everything you said. 🙂

  • Affordability to get into the system is another factor.

    With Minolta/Sony, Nikon and Canon changing mounts, buying an older secondhand camera leaves a big gulf to catch up with at a later date.

    But lenses for a decade old M4/3 is still compatible with the new GH6 and OM1.

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Eric Charles Jones

Eric was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio where he developed a fascination for photography early in life exploring his father’s dark room. He is drawn to images that tell a story or capture the beauty in the mundane. These days Eric is living in Japan searching for his place of personal Zen and for that elusive decisive moment. Instagram here - https://www.instagram.com/ericjones360/

All stories by:Eric Charles Jones