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


  1. I am in the same boat (have D600 w/ 24-70, 70-300vr, 50 1.8, 85 1.8), want portability without compromising on quality. I have a Nex 5n for casual use (school performances with enough light), creativity (with adapters for legacy lenses).
    Nikon 24-70, 70-300 comes out for birthdays, vacations, zoo trips etc. I like the auto focus of 24-70 w D600 (I feel its the fastest I ever used in any setup).
    Since you have had experience with this setup, I want your opinion
    - how does EM-5 replace D600 in terms of usage,handling (understand FF difference).
    - how does EM-5 focus in low light.
    - Do you not miss the CLS system of Nikon ( I don't use flash but curious)
    - what do you miss from D600?

    1. Hi macman. Thanks for sharing your setup. The 5n is a nice camera that also attracts my attention, if only it had the lenses I want.

      I agree the AF of the 24-70 with D600 is probably the best I've tried on Nikon. I think the D600 with 24-70 focuses better than the EM5 even with an MSC lens, because of the D600's continuous AF. With the EM5, it will acquire focus quickly and will even automatically focus on the near eye (if you want) but you have to minimize the gap between focus lock and shutter release. I *think* an EM1 will be just as good as a D600 but I haven't tried one so I can't say for sure. One thing I do appreciate with the EM5 (vs. the D600) is the touch-to-focus and ability to focus anywhere (not limited to a small AF area). The EM5's focus is also more reliable, though I do get misfocus occasionally (when the camera chooses the wrong target, like the background instead of the subject).

      About your questions:
      1. The EM5's handling is far less intuitive but it's more customizable than the D600 and has a touchscreen, so it's kind of a wash in terms of handling (or maybe I would give the EM5 a slight edge). I like the D600 because it's very logical and consistent to me. With most things you press a button and spin a dial. The EM5 is kind of all over the place. On some things you hold the button, on other things the button is like a toggle, etc. But once you get used to the EM5, you appreciate the ability to tweak a lot of the settings.
      2. The EM5's low light focus depends on the lens you use. If you use an MSC lens, the low light focus is pretty good even without AF assist. I would say about the same as the D600 (except with poor continuous AF). On some lenses, like the 20 1.7, it might hunt.
      3. I will be reviewing the Oly flash system, but actually it's pretty good. Many of their cameras, even low-end ones, have a built-in commander capability and you can control 3 groups plus the built-in flash, not just 2 groups plus built-in flash. With the touch screen, it's even easier to control than Nikon's system. The flash exposure is less predictable than Nikon's but in terms of capability they are pretty similar so far though I haven't tried a multi-flash setup yet.
      4. DOF and image quality. It's like the difference between an APS-C camera and a full frame.

      I hope this helps!

      Best regards,

    2. On #4 I should actually say it's like the difference between a previous generation APS-C camera (e.g. D7000) and a full frame.

    3. Thanks Mic. I am thinking of unloading all the gear and get Alpha 7 or OMD-EM5?
      The IBIS is tempting.

    4. Hi macman. Here are some things you may want to consider:
      - Re A7, does it have the lenses you need? Are you ok with the A7's colors (esp. red)?
      - Re EM5, is the sensor good enough for your needs? IBIS is nice but do you need to use a higher shutter speed to freeze your subjects' actions anyway? Do you want continuous AF? What about wi-fi?
      - Sony a6000 is coming out soon.

      Anyway, those are just some things you might want to think about. Decisions, decisions...! :)

      Best regards,

    5. Very valid points... Impressed by the colors of a7 + 55 1.8; A6000 is tempting too..

  2. Hi Mic,

    I am quite surprised to see you leave full-frame DSLR camp, at least much earlier than I expected. But I think you make the right move for the kind of photography you do. After all we are not pros, being able to get the shots in our minds is far more important than getting the technically perfect pictures. I am seriously considering shoot with Fuji X100s/Sony RX1 (thanks to your great review) with D600+85mm 1.8 in the future. Or maybe I will switch to m43 as well. But for now I will continue lugging D600, 24-70 and 70-200 around.

    Best regards,

    1. Hi Xiaoli. I think it's not so much leaving full frame as deciding to prioritize a more compact setup. So for example, I'm still open to let's say the A7 or RX1. Both are full frame but compact. At the same time I'm not interested in large lenses whether for compact cameras or otherwise. I hope that makes sense. :)

      Best regards,

    2. Mic, do you still have the Sony RX1?


    3. Hi Xiaoli. No I sold the RX1 to get the EM5 to be able to capture moving subjects spontaneously. As great as the RX1 is, one thing it cannot do is capture moving subjects except through anticipation (prefocusing and zone focusing).

      I've tried the Sony A7 in a store and it is much faster than the RX1, plus it has eye detection. I don't know for sure if it's fast enough for moving subjects but I am interested in it, except for the cost and the lack of a faster compact lens (the 35 2.8 is super sharp but in terms of DOF it's not that much different from the X100S or Olympus 17 1.8 or Panasonic 20 1.7).

      There is also a rumored successor to the RX1, and I'm hoping that it will have at least the same autofocus as the A7, or better yet, a hybrid AF like the a6000. That would be perfect! I would absolutely buy that if/when I can afford it (which will likely mean waiting several years for the price to drop).

      Best regards,

  3. Hi Mic,
    +1 on your quote "I'm not a pro, and don't have any plans of going pro". It's exactly why I sold my D300 in Dec 2012 in favor of a NEX-6.

    What did I get:
    -a small package with basically the same sensor, a 24-75 eq. kitlens, a 50mm 2.8 eq. standard lens, great image quality for display and printing in limited resolution (e.g. family books by Blurb and others).
    -a happy wife who's using the stunning "green auto" mode

    What did I lose:
    -the versatility of a DSLR (admittedly, it's their strong point)
    -and a whole lot of back and neck pain. I love the NEX6's viewfinder that's on the left edge of the camera rather than central. (You will too, unless you're left-eyed and have a big nose.)

    What do I miss:
    -flash compatibility. Still figuring this one out...
    -latitude in Raw development. Aparently, Nikon NEFs were easier to process. I got more pleasing results (to my eye). Sony's ARWs seem more tricky, but I'm constantly improving.

    I switched, never regretted and never looked back.


    1. Hi Roel. Thanks for sharing your experience with the NEX6 and I'm glad it worked out for you. The a6000 is one of the cameras I'm also interested in.

      Best regards,

  4. "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." Classic line. -ELW

    1. Thanks Eric. I'm trying to come up with 999 other lines so I can put together a book. :)

      Best regards,

  5. I'm not a pro but just wanna chime in as I had the panny 20/1.7 for 2 years and loved it. Though, I thought it performed better on my old panny GF2 than on my EM5.. For some reason, I always had a disappointed feeling when I compare shots using it w my em5 and the previous shots taken w my old GF2..i do miss the really small profile though..alas, I sold it.
    Deliberating whether to opt for newer lenses 15/1.7(still not available as yet in my area), 42.5/1.2(too expensive), 25/1.8 oly, 20/1.7 ver.2 .. I decided to go for the older well raved 25/1.4. Best decision ever!
    The clarity and speed you thought oly17/1.8 is nowhere near as bright and quick as the 1.4.. IMHO. The difference is really immense. It's not all metal though like the 42.5/1.2(details details). On a side note, 17/1.8 is very nicely made. That said, I hate it immensely. I used it to shoot for a friend's evening party paired w my em5.. It performed really worse than the 20/1.7.. The colors were nicer though (for those good shots) as it had more punch but at the End of the night, I had tons of almost-there-but-holy-crap-that's-really-badly-shot shots..the way 20/1.7 and 17/1.8 performs, I'd say the 20mm may be slower but it nails the focus better than the 17mm..both slows down in dimly lit environs however.. I just don't see the brilliance in the 17.. and Seeing as their not putting out new lenses in the same league as the 25/1.4 (according to the lens roll out for 2015), this one's a must! Focus is faster, less missed focus even in dimmer places...I do wish it was splash proof and as small as the 20/1.7 though.

    1. Hi ddaktiv! Thanks for sharing your experience with the 20 1.7, 17 1.8 and 25 1.4. I haven't tried the 20 1.7 on a Panasonic body but my understanding is that it focuses faster and it doesn't suffer from banding (unlike on the EM5). So that could be why you found it performed better on the GF2.

      As for the 20 1.7 and 17 1.8, I've used both with the EM5, and at least for me, the 17 1.8 focused much faster than the 20 1.7. Ultimately though I also preferred the 20 1.7 for the shallower dof. However, between the 20 1.7 and 25 1.8, I prefer the 25 1.8 - focus is as fast as the 17 1.8, it's sharp, and the bokeh is not bad. I couldn't say anything about the 25 1.4 because I haven't tried it but I'm glad that it is performing very well for you!

      Best regards,


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