After two years of using Micro Four Thirds Equipment, I am trying to answer the question “Is Micro Four Thirds good enough for me or not?”
About two years ago, I wrote an article about how I added a Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system to my portfolio of photographic tools. So, after two years of experience, I thought it might be worthwhile to re-assess my original thoughts and assumptions. In essence, I am trying to answer the question “Is Micro Four Thirds good enough for me or not?”.
I know that a lot of people are interested in using a smaller and lighter camera system. Therefore I will try to describe my experiences in working with my Olympus OM-D E-M1 as objective as possible. I realize that MFT is more than just Olympus, but for this article I would like to stick with Olympus, because this is what I have first-hand experience with.
Disclaimer: I got the idea for this article when reading Thom Hogan’s Seven Reasons Why I’m Still a Nikon DSLR User. I found a lot of similarities, but also differences when comparing Thom’s findings with my own experiences. In the end, I decided to publish my personal impressions.
Expectations vs. reality
Two years ago, the hype around mirrorless cameras was incredible. Mirrorless (or EVIL – Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) cameras were thought to be the future of photography. And they did increase their market share, but not as much as expected. So, let’s have a look at the Micro Four Thirds advantages and disadvantages.
Size and weight reduction
In this area, my expectations are 100% fulfilled. I am now using a small instead of a large backpack, and its weight is less than half of what it was before. I am now able to pack a second body (an E-M5 converted to Infrared). Even my tripod got smaller and lighter.
For city trips, I am using a small shoulder bag where I can pack my camera, 3 zoom lenses and a small flash. It is barely noticeable compared to my full-frame walk-around kit. If I need to go even lighter, I put the camera plus the 14-150 mm zoom in a waist bag.
Lens availability and quality
In the beginning, only the 12-40 mm PRO zoom lens was available. But Olympus did publish a road map and quickly filled the gaps. From all the mirrorless makers, Olympus probably offers the most complete set of lenses, including the “holy trinity”: the 7-14 mm, the 12-40 mm and the 40-150 mm f/2.8 PRO zoom lenses.
Take these weather sealed PRO zooms, add the available prime lenses (usually f/1.8) plus the fish-eye plus the 300 mm PRO telephoto lens, and you have a remarkably complete lens set. Personally, I would like to see an 8 mm prime lens at f/2 or f/2.8 added to the mix. I would prefer it over the 7-14 mm zoom, because the zoom is actually large and heavy for a MFT lens and does not allow filters. Other than that, there is really nothing to complain about.
Olympus was already known for high quality lenses, and they did not disappoint. The quality of the PRO lenses is as good as any lens from Canon or Nikon. With the primes, you might have to stop down the lens a little bit to get excellent results, but the same is true for wide aperture prime lenses of any brand. My personal favorite is the 75 mm f/1.8 prime lens, it has a gorgeous creamy bokeh.
Note: I really wish Olympus would continue to publish lens road maps. For example, I would have waited for the new 12-100 mm PRO lens instead of buying the 14-150 mm lens.
High ISO capabilities
Knowing the sensor size, I was not expecting any miracles in terms of high ISO capabilities. Previously, I was using a Nikon D700, which is a perfect low-light camera. I had usually set my D700 on Auto-ISO, up to 3.200 ISO, without any issues. And I was not expecting the same from my E-M1.
However, I found that the E-M1 is perfectly capable of shooting at higher ISO ratings. The noise is mostly luminance noise which you can easily remove, with very little chroma noise. If you look at the pictures I took at the Harley Davidson museum, most of them were taken at ISO 3.200. And it was really easy to remove the noise in Lightroom.
Depth of field issues
I have to admit that personally I consider increased depth of field (DOF) as an advantage for my type of photography (landscape, macro, abstract). I do not shoot portraits or weddings, where you usually need a small DOF. Having said that, I have no problem taking pictures with a shallow depth of field with my E-M1. Again, look at the Harley Davidson museum pictures, and form your own opinion. I took the pictures with the 75 mm f/1.8 prime lens, using apertures between 1.8 and 4.
On the other hand, the increased depth of field is a definite advantage for macro photography. If you look at the macro shots in the 2015 Pictures gallery, they are all taken with the 60 mm f/2.8 macro lens. You will agree that with this lens, balancing foreground sharpness and background blur is not difficult.
Autofocus (AF) performance
Okay, here we have a bright side and a dark side. Let me start with the bright side: for mostly static or slowly moving objects, the autofocus system is perfect. It nails the focus precisely, and I would say it is equal to or even better than a DSLR. For macro photography, the touch focus system works very well, and I would like to see that feature in a DSLR.
The dark side is that for fast or erratically moving objects, the AF system does not even come close to a even low end DSLR. The biggest problem is initial focus acquisition. Once the focus system has locked on to the subject, it is capable of tracking it as long as it does not move too erratically. I don’t even want to compare it to my new Nikon D500, which has currently one of the best available AF systems on the market. But even my 8 year old Nikon D300 performs significantly better in that area. And yes, I have tried all the possible combinations of continuous and tracking AF modes. The D300 wins hands-down.
Keep in mind that the E-M1 only uses contrast detection AF in combination with the MFT PRO lenses. Only with the older FT lenses, when using an appropriate adapter, the E-M1 switches to phase detection. From what I have read so far, the new E-M1 Mark II will also use phase detection for the native Pro series lenses, so I would expect a significant improvement of the AF system. But I do remember that the E-M1 was announced to have “DSLR-like performance”,
Electronic viewfinder (EVF)
This was the part I was most curious about how it would fit into my workflow. Now, I have to say that using an EVF is a significant time saver for my type of photography. Here is what I found most valuable:
- Focus Peaking: In fact, I found this feature so useful that most of the time I have my camera set to manual focus (MF). I feel that focusing manually in combination with focus peaking allows me to more precisely balance whether I want to put more emphasis on the foreground or on the background.
- Live Histogram / Live Over- and Underexposure display: This saves you from having to take a picture and look at the “blinkies” on your rear display. There is one thing you have to keep in mind if you shoot RAW. Don’t forget that the over- and underexposure display is based on the preview JPEG. So even if you see the over- or underexposure warning in the display, it does not necessarily mean that the RAW file is over- or underexposed.
- Reviewing pictures in the viewfinder: With my DSLR, I often had the problem that in bright sunlight, I could not clearly see the picture on the rear display of the camera. There are tools to work around that, like the HoodLoupe, but they are really inconvenient to use. With the E-M1, I just review the pictures in my viewfinder and can see them in full contrast.
The slight delay between the reality and the viewfinder display is not an issue if you don’t shoot fast-moving action. For everything else, the additional value of an EVF is something I don’t want to miss in the future.
I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect of my new Olympus Micro Four Thirds system. However, here are some surprising findings I think you should know about:
Continuous feature enhancements
This was the area that surprised me the most. Over the last 2 years, Olympus kept pushing out feature enhancements for the E-M1. Just consider this list of enhancements and bugfix releases:
- September 15, 2014 – Version 2.0: Keystone Compensation, Tethered Shooting, multiple smaller improvements
- November 13, 2014 – Version 2.1: Bugfix release
- November 20, 2014 – Version 2.2: Bugfix release
- February 17, 2015 – Version 3.0: AF tracking during C-AF continuous shooting, some smaller improvements
- June 16, 2015 – Version 3.1: Some smaller improvements
- September 15, 2015 – Version 4.0: Focus bracketing, focus stacking, silent shooting, many smaller improvements
- February 4, 2016 – Version 4.1: Bugfix release
Look at the rate and frequency of improvements. When was the last time you saw Nikon implementing a major new feature in firmware?
The only thing I found really annoying was that with every major firmware update, the settings were reset to their default values. This was even more annoying as Olympus provides no way to save and load settings from a memory card, as most other camera makers do.
Note: I got more features than I expected. The update process needs improvement, though.
Yes, I know. Everyone tells you that battery life is an issue with mirrorless cameras. But I did’t think it would be so bad. With my Nikon D700 and a full battery, I was able to shoot for a whole weekend. A single spare battery was all I needed to be safe. With my Olympus E-M1, I use three to four batteries a day. Okay, the price for the spare batteries is not overwhelming. But you need a lot if you cannot charge them at least once a day.
A connected issue is the battery charger. The original charger supplied by Olympus is something I would recommend to use only if you want to test your patience. The time it takes to charge a single battery is ridiculous. Instead, I am using a Watson Duo LCD Charger which is a lot quicker. In addition, it can charge two batteries at the same time (plus a USB device like your phone). It will also show you the charging level and you can use adapter plates to charge other batteries. That means you can for example charge an Olympus and a Nikon battery at the same time. Extremely convenient. No endorsement, just a satisfied user.
Remote control with your smartphone or tablet
I have to say that controlling the camera remotely works reasonably well. Basically all the options you can set on the rear display of your camera are available on your smartphone or tablet. Even autofocus works, which is extremely convenient if you would like to take pictures from unusual angles or perspectives. To connect the camera with the smart device, all you need to do is scan a barcode on the rear camera display. I find this solution very convenient.
But again, there is a flip side. If you connect the camera and the smartphone via WiFi, it will drain your batteries. And I mean both the camera and the smartphone. Power consumption is much higher as usual. The first time I did try out the remote control feature, the battery of my smartphone was nearly empty after 45 minutes of playing around, and it was about 75% full when I started.
The high power consumption is even noticeable when you don’t control the camera remotely, but just have the devices connected to use the smartphone for GPS data. I would really prefer having a dedicated GPS chip built into the camera instead of the permanent connection between the camera and the smartphone.
In summary, this is a useful feature but the power consumption will not let you use it to its full potential.
Lightroom is slow
In the past, I was working in Lightroom with 36 MP (megapixel) images of my D800E. I know how these huge RAW files can slow down Lightroom, especially when compared to the slim 12 MP images of my D700. With that, I was really looking forward to the 16 MP pictures of the E-M1. But after importing the first few RAW pictures and working on them, I felt something is wrong. Working on 16 MP E-M1 files was not any faster than working on 36 MP D800E files. What is going on here?
The answer is hidden deep in the Develop module. Open the “Lens Corrections” section. You will see a small note at the bottom that says “Built-in Lens Profile applied”. Now click on the “information” icon:
You will see this or a similar information popup window:
What does that mean? For every picture, Lightroom will automatically apply distortion correction and chromatic aberration correction. This is a very CPU intensive calculation and the primary reason for the slow-down when you work with MFT RAW files. Please note that this is not the case in case you shoos JPEGs. In this case, the corrections are applied in your camera.
Why Lightroom treats MFT RAW files differently
Compared to other RAW formats, you cannot disable the automatic correction of MFT RAW files in Lightroom. Adobe has confirmed this in a KB article about lens profile support. This is why you will not find any MFT lens profiles in the Lens Corrections section of Lightroom (and Photoshop).
There is actually a good reason for this decision. Since MFT lenses have been designed for low weight and size, their uncorrected images can demonstrate quite significant distortion. A good example is here: Micro 4/3rds Photography: Geometric distortion correction. If you would like to see how your uncorrected MFT RAW files look like, you can view them on your computer using RawTherapee, an Open Source RAW development tool. Also, OpticalLimits (formerly known as photozone.de) usually shows the uncorrected distortion in their MFT Lens Tests.
Anyway, the conclusion here is that you will probably need more computing power to work with MFT RAW files than you thought you would. For my Nikon RAW files, I usually enable distortion correction only for pictures I plan to publish. This makes a significant difference especially in the Lightroom Develop module.
So – is Micro Four Thirds good enough?
The short answer is: it depends. It really depends on your type of photography and your personal preferences. For me, the decision was to keep both my Nikon and my MFT systems, with each system tuned to the specific needs. I will keep using my Nikon system for any type of wildlife photography, especially for birds in flight. For everything else, I will use my MFT system: macro, landscape and travel photography.
I can see how someone else, with different requirements, will come to a different conclusion. But then, isn’t it actually great that we have all these choices available? No matter what your photographic requirements are today, there are solutions out there. You may just have to look beyond the limitations of a specific system and broaden your approach.
Keep in mind that these are my experiences and conclusions, and they will likely not apply to your situation. In no way I am suggesting you should go out and take action based on what I wrote here. All I wanted was to share my experience, so you can make better decisions.
Outlook and conclusion
As I am writing this article, Olympus has just announced the successor to their flagship model, the OM-D E-M1 Mark II. On the paper, the specifications look impressive. But the same was true for the original E-M1. Just remember the marketing messages back in 2013, when the E-M1 was announced. And we should not forget that DSLRs also continue to improve their performance.
So, at this point I am a bit skeptic about the new E-M1 Mark II. No doubts, it will be a great camera. And it will be another step closer to the ideal mirrorless camera. But perfect? Let’s wait and see. Until then, I will continue to use my two camera systems, depending on my needs. But what is your approach? I would love to hear your thoughts. Is Micro Four Thirds good enough for you?