Friday, March 14, 2014

Exploring Micro Four Thirds

In my last post about the BlackRapid SnapR 35, some of you noted that I was using an Olympus E-M5.  Yes indeed I did get one.  Actually I recently got one other camera as well, a point-and-shoot.  That's the topic of this post.


Before I discuss Micro Four Thirds, I hope you'll excuse me if I first mention the Sony RX1.  No camera I've ever had has changed my point of view as much as the RX1.  Actually, it was not so much the RX1 itself (which is an awesome camera) but more precisely, it was the experience of having a compact and discreet, yet serious photographic tool with me all the time.  This experience caused me to re-examine my priorities.

My top priority had been image quality and shallow depth of field, and therefore my preferred tool was a full frame DSLR.  Without a doubt, if image quality is a priority, you can't get any better than a full frame (barring medium format).  However, such a camera comes at a cost in terms of subject expression and photographic opportunities.  For example, I used to have a Nikon D3 but because it was so large and imposing, it didn't feel right to use it in many casual circumstances.  Using it while taking photos of my kids at a playground was like eating at a fast food restaurant while dressed in a tuxedo.  I much preferred the D600 because of its compact size and more casual appearance, which made me feel more comfortable bringing it almost everywhere. For the same reason, I sold the 70-200 2.8 VR that I once had -- it was impractically large and heavy.

But as small as the D600 is, it is far from invisible, especially when paired with anything but a small lens.  When I take it out to shoot, it is clear to everyone that I'm making a deliberate effort to take a photo.  For some subjects of course it won't make a difference.  But I like to take photos of people, and when I shoot with the D600, people are aware of it, and their expressions change. 

The RX1 on the other hand, was totally different.  Although it actually has almost the same image quality as that of a D600, it looks like a compact and is very discreet.  As a result, I was able to bring it with me all the time and execute my vision more frequently, thus producing a far greater number of keepers.  The RX1's size and appearance made all the difference.

An intimate shot made possible by the RX1's inconspicuousness


However, the RX1 cannot take telephoto shots. You can crop the image (as I did in the shot above), though that reduces the image quality (noise, color depth, tonal depth, etc.), defeating the purpose of having a large sensor.  I therefore looked for a compact camera that had good telephoto capabilities while still being somewhat pocketable.  With these criteria, I was limited to point-and-shoot cameras. 

I used to dismiss point-and-shoot cameras, thinking that their image quality could not be good enough for "serious" shots. But there are photographers who do use point-and-shoot cameras for real work.  For example, Magnum photographer Alex Majoli has used point and shoot cameras for award-winning photos.  One of my favorite photographers, Ming Thein, also uses point and shoot cameras for some of his work.  Not only is it indeed possible to use a point and shoot as a serious tool, but it offers some advantages over a DSLR, such as its inconspicuous appearance.

In my case, I narrowed the choices to a Canon G16 (28-140 f/1.8-2.8) or an Olympus Stylus 1 (28-300 2.8).  Eventually, I chose the Stylus 1 so I could use the extra reach for additional compression.  I will be posting a review on the Stylus 1.

One of my favorite shots. It was shot with a point-and-shoot, the LX5.


As for low light shots, or shots where I want a shallow depth of field at closer distances, I had the RX1.  Although I really liked the size and image quality of the RX1 (tonality, colors, sharpness, shallow depth of field, bokeh, high ISO performance, etc.), its autofocus is only about as fast as a normal point-and-shoot, which makes it difficult to take spontaneous shots of moving subjects.  I was willing to give up some of its image quality in order to get faster autofocus. 

I considered the Fuji X100S and the Olympus E-M5 (paired with the Olympus 17 1.8 or the Panasonic 20 1.7).  In terms of depth of field, I figured there should not be much difference between these two.  The Fuji X100S is similar to a full frame 35 f/3 in terms of depth of field, while the Olympus 17 1.8 is like a 34 f/3.6 and the Panasonic 20 1.7 is like a 40 f/3.4.  

The X100S looked really cool and tempting because of all the great things I heard about it, but I was put off by the price.  Perhaps after about 2 product cycles, by then the price will drop to around $500, and I could try it out. 

As for the E-M5, it offered a compelling package.  I hadn't paid attention to Micro Four Thirds all this time, so what was different?  Back in the days of Four Thirds (not Micro Four Thirds), I was not impressed with the Four Thirds premise.  In return for a smaller sensor, the system was supposed to offer smaller cameras, smaller lenses, and lower cost.  But the bodies and lenses didn't seem that much smaller compared to an APS-C camera.  They didn't cost significantly lower either (IMO) than their APS-C counterparts.  At the same time, their image quality always fell behind their APS-C counterparts.  Because of this, I didn't pay heed to Four Thirds. 


When Micro Four Thirds came along, I was not impressed either.  The lenses they first had were all variable aperture.  I got the impression that MFT was their attempt to provide a lower-cost system for casual users.  But slowly, fast primes began to show up.  As for bodies, the image quality improved and moved much closer to the quality of an APS-C camera.  The promise first offered by Four Thirds was being fulfilled: bodies and lenses that were smaller, lighter, cheaper while offering comparable image quality.

So, going back to my dilemma, I decided to try the E-M5, not just for the price but also for versatility (because of interchangeable lenses), its reportedly fast and accurate autofocus (with automatic focus on the near eye), its image stabilization, and tilting touchscreen.


With the E-M5, I tried both the Olympus 17 1.8 and the Panasonic 20 1.7.  Both had very smooth bokeh though I was surprised that the 20 1.7's depth of field was noticeably shallower than that of the 17 1.8.

As for AF speed, the 17 1.8's autofocus was indeed very fast.  It seemed just as fast as a DSLR -- practically instantaneous (albeit without a good continuous autofocus).  It was also reasonably sharp. 

As for the 20 1.7, I loved the extremely compact form factor.  No other lens in its class in any format has a combination of fast aperture in a compact size.  It was also phenomenally sharp.  The autofocus was significantly slower than that of the 17 1.8 but it was much faster than the RX1.  That is, except in low light.  In low light, the 20 1.7 had a couple of issues: first, the autofocus slowed down significantly.  The 20 1.7 has a tendency to hunt in low light, sometimes without ever successfully focusing.  Second, when the 20 1.7 is used with Olympus' 16mp Micro Four Thirds sensor (the one used in the E-M5), there is banding at high ISOs.  This is supposedly not an issue with Panasonic bodies, though I never had one to confirm.

After thinking about it a while, I decided to keep the 20 1.7 instead of the 17 1.8, mainly because of the shallower depth of field.  Then Olympus announced the 25 1.8.  The 25 1.8 is an MSC lens, which means it autofocuses as fast as the 17 1.8 and other MSC lenses.  I was concerned about the focal length being too long for my preference (I had a Sigma 50 1.4 and liked the bokeh but got bored with the focal length).  It was also not that cheap.  But I decided to take the leap anyway.


Olympus E-M5 with 45 1.8 vs. Nikon D600 with 85 1.8G
Meanwhile, I still had my D600 but had already sold the Sigma 35 1.4 (because it was too large for my preferred kind of photography).  That left me with just the Nikon 85 1.8G for portraits.  Mind you, the Nikon 85 1.8G is my favorite lens, because it does its job so well - autofocus is very accurate and the images look very sharp.  But unfortunately, I haven't been taking nearly as many portraits as I want.  My family is just too busy.  So as much as I liked the D600 with the 85 1.8G, it just didn't make financial sense for me to keep it for occasional portraits. At the same time, Olympus dropped the price for the 45 1.8, down to $300.  So after some hand-wringing, I decided to let go of my D600 and 85 1.8G, and get a 45 1.8.  Yes I'll be taking a big hit on the resale value of the D600.  I'm comforting myself with the thought that at least I can invest the sale proceeds in an index fund and have it grow over time, rather than have a camera with declining value. :)  Mind you, this is just my personal situation -- if I had more disposable income, I would keep the D600 (and the RX1).

Will I miss the full frame image quality?  Yes and no.  For sure, I personally don't think the EM5's image quality can compare to that of a D600, for low light, depth of field, exposure latitude, or other factors.  On the other hand, it helps to keep things in perspective: I'm not a pro, and don't have any plans of going pro.  I view my shots at laptop screen sizes and don't print often.  For my purposes, the D600 was very nice but not necessary.


In summary, my priorities have changed from having the best possible image quality to capturing my vision.  In my case, I like capturing candid moments.  For the kinds of shots I like to take, I found that it is more useful to have an inconspicuous camera that I can bring with me everywhere.  I therefore chose two cameras to fill that need: an Olympus Stylus 1, and for low light or shallow DOF, an Olympus E-M5 with an Olympus 25 1.8.  For portraits, I love my D600 but I don't shoot portraits often enough to justify its cost, so I got an Olympus 45 1.8.

At this point, with only a couple of lenses, I'm not yet heavily committed to the Micro Four Thirds format.  I am open to change, though I will be paying attention primarily to more compact systems.  I will be posting my thoughts on it after a few more months with it.

Meanwhile, here are the posts you'll be seeing from me:

  • Olympus Stylus 1
  • Olympus E-M5 - second opinion
  • Brief comparison of Panasonic 20 1.7 and Olympus 17 1.8
  • Olympus 25 1.8
  • Olympus 45 1.8
  • Nikon vs. Olympus Wireless TTL; Review of Olympus FL-36R
  • Follow-Up on Micro Four Thirds (after more experience with it)

RELATED POSTS:  Second Opinion on Micro Four Thirds