Recently I made a decision to buy into the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system. Here are the reasons and why I will *not* immediately sell my DSLR.

First the background story on how I started looking into Micro Four Thirds cameras. In April 2014, I attended a casual workshop in Styria, with a focus on macro and landscape photography.

As usual, you cannot be 100% sure which subjects will appear in front of your lens. So you just bring along everything that might be useful. In my case this was a Nikon D700, 3 zoom lenses (wide, normal and tele), a macro lens, the fisheye for fun, a flash and a tripod. Together with some accessories, this is a fully loaded backpack. Estimated total weight is 13 to 14 kg. This is fine for a while, but if you move around a lot, the weight becomes a burden.

At some point in the afternoon we were hiking up a hill to find a group of ibex. I was so exhausted that even with a beautiful scenery in front of me, I did not want to put down the backpack and unpack my gear because of the hassle. So on a photo workshop I lost my motivation to take pictures. Somehow ironic, don’t you think? This was the point when I decided to adopt something lighter as as my default carry-around system.

Why Micro Four Thirds?

There is a lot of buzz around mirrorless cameras out there, and how they will replace DSLRs in the future. If you look closer at some of the offerings like the Sony A7 series, the camera itself is indeed smaller. But the lenses you need for a full frame sensor have no weight advantage over what Nikon or Canon offer. I realize there are adapters allowing you to use your existing Nikon and other lenses on a Sony, but what is the point here? For me, that is even less convenient and desirable. A significant weight advantage can only be achieved if the sensor is smaller than full frame. If this is the case, lenses can be designed specifically for the smaller image circle.

At this point, I was looking at cameras with either an APS-C (DX) size sensor or a Micro Four Thirds sensor. Also, the system should offer a set of lenses designed specifically for that sensor size. My requirement for a DSLR-style mirrorless camera with lots of manual controls quickly narrowed my selection to two cameras: The Fuji X-T1 and the Olympus OM-D E-M1. The reasons why I have chosen the Olympus over the Fuji are:

  • A much broader set of available excellent lenses, including fast primes.
  • There is more than one company supporting the Micro Four Thirds standard, resulting in more available options and accessories.
  • Sensor / in-body image stabilization: the lenses are even lighter as they do not need to have stabilization technology built in.

Disclaimer: What also did influence my decision a lot were Dallas Dahm’s (former owner of Nikongear.com and now Fotozones.com) articles about his transition from Nikon to the Olympus Micro Four Thirds system. You can find them in the Photolosophy category, starting with Moving from Nikon to Olympus in November 2013.

The purchase experience

You might think ‘What does he mean?’, so let me explain. As a good Nikon user, I register my bodies, lenses and accessories with Nikon Europe. I cannot remember the total number of online registrations, and I do not even want to know the total value of all those purchases. But really, there was no advantage for me registering my equipment with Nikon, other than cheaper sensor cleaning. The only feedback I got from Nikon in 10 years was one (!) email. It pointed out that a firmware update is available for one of my bodies. That was weeks after it was announced on the Internet.

So, in comparison, here is my Olympus experience. I did register my E-M1 with My Olympus and the first thing I receive is not only a very nicely written ‘Welcome and thank you for the purchase’ email, but also on top:

  • 6 months warranty extension to a total of 30 months
  • A dedicated hotline number for E-M1 users, where you can talk to real people
  • Free pick-up of the camera in case of a repair
  • A confirmation that every repair would take a maximum of 3 business days

Wow. That was nice, unexpected and it did exceed my expectations. Only at this point I did realize that interaction with their customers has never really been Nikon’s strength. Since I am already comparing Nikon and Olympus, one other thing I specifically like about Olympus is the fact that they publish road maps at least for their lenses. This allows me to plan and make decisions based on facts instead of rumors. I am already looking forward to the 40-150mm and the 7-14mm Pro zoom lenses.

Weight comparison

Here is a weight comparison between my D700 and my OM-D E-M1. Both are equipped with a battery grip and lenses of equivalent focal range. Please note that I said ‘equivalent focal range’, and not ‘equivalent performance’. I do realize the depth-of-field (DOF) impact of the smaller sensor, but for the type of photography I plan to use the camera for (macro, landscape, travel) I consider this as an advantage.

 NikonOlympus
Camera:D700: 1.090 gOM-D E-M1: 497 g
Lens:AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G: 1.030 g12-40mm f/2.8 PRO: 382 g
Battery grip:MB-D10: 500 g HLD-7: 286 g
Total:2.620 g1.165 g

This is a 55% weight reduction. Try to hold or carry the above combination for longer, and you will quickly notice the difference.

Features

The OM-D E-M1 offers features that are currently not available on my Nikon DSLR cameras:

  • I can fully control my E-M1 from my smartphone or my tablet using WiFi.  This includes live view, focus, aperture and shutter release. No cable required.
  • The electronic viewfinder (EVF) offers a real-time histogram and shows over- and underexposed areas. Focus peaking is something you will appreciate quickly.
  • The camera buttons and dials are fully configurable. By fully, I mean fully. This can be overwhelming at first and needs time to think through.

To provide a fair comparison, here is what my D700 offers today what is not available on the E-M1:

  • Continuous focus tracking performance
    This is still the domain of the DLSRs with their sophisticated and mature phase detection autofocus systems. While the mirrorless cameras get closer and closer, for any wildlife photography involving unpredictable animal movement I would use my D700.
  • Low light ISO performance
    Sure, bigger sensors have a clear advantage here. But not as much as you would perhaps think. I was happily using my D700 up to 4000 ISO, and I use my E-M1 up to 2000 ISO. In my experience, noise usually does not show up in prints or images downsized for the web, at least not the way you see it at 100% magnification.
  • Depth-of-field
    Yes, another advantage of full frame sensors. But with exception of wildlife, I am typically not using my lenses wide open. Having said that, the Olympus primes nicely demonstrate that you can isolate subjects even with a Micro Four Thirds camera.

There is no either / or

A lot of comments on the Internet seem to be based on the assumption that as a photographer, you have to commit to a single system. You have to stick to it and defend your choice like in a religious war. Otherwise I cannot explain the emotional comments from people who try to defend ‘their’ system, even if their logic does not make sense. I believe that you need to look at your equipment as a tool for a certain purpose. As a result, you should make your choice based on your requirements.

For me, that means that for now my Nikon and my Olympus systems will coexist peacefully. The purpose of the shoot will determine which system I am going to use. Please note that on purpose I did not compare image quality of the D700 and the E-M1 – my take on this is that with pretty much any high-end camera you can buy today you should be able to produce fantastic images. As a smart photographer said: Most of the cameras you can buy today are better than most of today’s photographers… and I do not exclude myself here.

Conclusion

The E-M1 will be my primary camera from here onward, unless there are specific reasons for using a DSLR, as stated above. I can now conveniently carry around my basic Micro Four Thirds kit in a waist bag. And even my tripod got lighter. Honestly, at this point, it it highly unlikely that I will further invest in my existing Nikon system. This might change if the mystic D400 appears.

As a side note, I believe that Nikon (and Canon as well, btw) have no idea on how to react to the currently declining camera market. Thom Hogan did a nice analysis in his article What’s the Plan. One of the reasons I was disappointed with Nikon was that they never introduced a replacement for D300(s). A wildlife photography camera with a high frame rate, in a body that does not weigh a ton. But perhaps we are lucky this autumn.


Update on October 20, 2016

Two years after I have published this article, I am trying to answer the question “Is Micro Four Thirds good enough for me or not?“. You might be interested to hear whether the expectations have been met and also learn about the surprising findings.