“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.
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.
- 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.
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
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.
[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]