Photography, especially for enthusiasts like me, is a very expensive hobby. As it is, it is not possible for me to acquire the best lenses or camera bodies even for my primary system, i.e., Nikon, and I want to talk about why I need or have a second camera system. In an ideal world, I would love to own the D810, D750 and and D4s along with all the F1.4 and F2.8 primes and zooms along with F4.0 long telephoto lenses. Yes ,yes even that 800 5.6 and be done with it. So with all this equipment, I cant ever imagine a need for anything else for still photography.
Now assuming that I do get lucky and acquire all this gear, ideally I should be walking and travelling around the world taking the best possible photos that I am capable of. But I know this will not happen, because I really doubt if me or most other of photographers will use all this high end pro equipment for anything other than a dedicated photo or a paid assignment, due to the sheer effort of hauling and handling these pro DSLR cameras and matching pro zooms or primes the whole day.
For example, when I am on a holiday which is mostly a trip to relax and where photography is more about capturing the moment and scenes that unfold in front of my eyes or that lovely sunset or that magnificent church/building or its interiors, I do not want to be carrying a large DSLR with appropriate lenses and other accessories. Its just to big to haul around and worry about. Yes, this was precisely what people did when there were no other choices available, but today with a plethora of choices, I can’t see many doing this anymore.
For years, I had a Nikon D50, purchased in 2005 and had quality lenses that took far better pictures than I was capable of . It was my only camera till I upgraded to a D800E in 2012. The D800E is a pro camera with pro level size and weight and performance compared to a D50. Now I can think of at least a dozen instances when I did not take my D50 as I didn’t want to haul around a DSLR and a camera bag as I just wanted to enjoy the sights and scenes without worrying and being reminded of a heavy DSLR around my neck all the time, or maybe I was just plain lazy. Most of my holidays involve a lot of walking and this load around my neck not only tires me a lot quicker, but I am also always aware of it being there all the time. So I just can’t imagine myself walking around say the streets of Kochi or Rome or anywhere else with a D800E plus a 24-120 F4.0 even though I know the IQ will be as good as it can get.
The next big question is do I really need this kind of IQ for my casual street walks and city tours or hikes. No, at least I don’t. Most of these photographs are for sharing with friends/relatives and printing just a handful of carefully picked ones. So I can’t imagine using any of Nikon DSLRs for anything like this.
This is where my Micro 4/3 system comes in the picture. With a sensor size of about 1/4 of that of a FF 35mm sensor this sensor is not going to win a lot of IQ awards compared to other larger sensor systems. Forget a FF sensor, this sensor has a tough time competing even against the likes of APSC sensor systems like Sony NEX or Fuji X system or Nikon DX. Here is a nice pictorial view of the different sensor sizes from www.dpreview.com
So what was my rationale behind choosing an m43 system over other competing systems? Well there are many. Size and IQ being the most important ones. Actually there are even smaller sensor systems like Pentax Q and Nikon 1. Even these are excellent systems that can easily outclass a point or shoot or an Iphone camera.
I did have a long and and hard look at all these systems before I ended up with an m43 system. For me, it provided a perfect balance of portability, lens eco-system, AF performance and IQ.
Lets look at some of the reasons in more detail
This was my most important choice for my second system. The 4/3 format had always been around for many years. But it did not take advantage of the small image circle of the 4/3 format and the cameras and lenses, albeit very good ones, were no smaller than Nikon and Canon APSC DSLRs. The true potential of the system was realized only when Panasonic and Olympus started making cameras and lenses for the m4/3 format, which had the same 4/3 sensor size but lost the mirror box of the traditional DSLR. The cameras and lenses were now way smaller and really fulfilled the promise that the 4/3 format made. To give you an example of just how small these cameras are, I use a Panasonic GX-1 + 14 F2.5 pancake lens that can easily slip this into my jeans or shorts pocket without me noticing that it is there. This is my most used combo which gives me a nice 28mm focal length in a seriously small package. Now I hardly have an excuse to not carry a camera with me any more. I have even added another pancake lens, the 20 F1.7 which gives me a high quality 40mm equivalent focal length. With these 2 lenses I can cover over 75% of all my shooting needs when I am travelling or on a holiday.
Lens Eco system
As I write this blog entry, I can easily say that the m43 system has the most comprehensive lens ecosystem compared to any other mirror-less system. It covers the most used and important focal lengths from 14mm to 600mm. There are a number of high quality zooms and primes from the main 2 OEM manufacturers along with an exceptional 3rd party lens support. There is a lens here for almost all shooters, from landscape, architecture, portraiture, street, travel, low light, micro/macro, telephoto applications and even a 3D lens for those who want it. No other system offers such a huge lens offering and their top of the line lenses are of exceptional quality, that are as good as any other lens across any system.
The m43 system has some of the fastest focusing cameras and lenses compared to any other system. The m43 system employs a contrast detect AF system that uses the image sensor for AF that keeps telling the camera to keep changing focus, until the contrast from one pixel to the next is the highest possible. This may seem time consuming but is implemented fairly quickly in most new m43 cameras. This also eliminates the age old problem of front and back focusing that is so common with phase detect systems in traditional DSLRs that splits the incoming light from the subject into two and keeps focusing until the two images come together on the focus sensor. Technically, a well implemented and trouble free phase detect system can be faster and better at focus tracking than a contrast detect system but is also prone to a lot more focusing errors like the early Canon 1D MkIII and the D800 AF issues.
I have already said that a sensor that is approximately 1/4 the size of a FF sensor cannot defy laws of physics and have better IQ than a larger sensor. In fact, it has a tough time competing against even the likes of Fuji and Nikon DX in Dynamic Range and high ISO capabilities. Canon APSC is a different matter altogether and I can surely and safely say that m43 IQ betters or at least equals it. With a high end m43 lens like the Panasonic 42.5 F1.2 or the Panasonic 25 F1.4 or the Olympus 75 F1.8, it is pretty tough to fault m43 IQ. I usually avoid going beyond ISO 800 on m43 which is plenty for most of my shooting as I can really shoot at low shutter speeds due to the inbuilt Image Stabilization of my GX-7. Here is an image shot at 1/4 ISO 200 at 7mm which is equivalent to 14mm on FF.
Specific concerns with m43
So by the looks of it, m43 should be a godsend for all those who want to go light and avoid carrying those big bulky DSLRs. Yes and no. The size advantage cannot be faulted but you have to live with or overcome its peculiarities and shortcomings to suit your purpose.
The biggest issue IMHO is Depth of Field (DoF) control. Most here perceive this as a disadvantage, but some swear by the great DoF abilities of m43. So let me explain, an F2.8 lens on m43 has DoF of an F4.0 lens. So all you bokeh and shallow DoF junkies will be a little disappointed with m43. This is due to the small sensor size of a m43 camera. So unless you buy a very fast lens in m43 you do give up on shallow DoF that is so easily achieved by large sensor systems. But its not that its impossible to get shallow DoF with m43 with slower lenses.
But as an argument against fast FF lenses, they usually are never critically sharp wide open or near about. They usually need some stopping down to achieve optimum sharpness, whereas m43 lenses are usually sharpest at wide open and near about apertures. But then diffraction limits are also reached a lot earlier than FF lenses.
The other big concern is high ISO performance. I don’t usually go beyond ISO 800 on my m43 cameras whereas ISO 3200 is a breeze on my D800E.
The bodies are small so correspondingly the batteries are small too and for a full day of not so heavy shooting I can easily go through 2 batteries which in case of Nikon is 1 at most.
Its tough to find service centers and Panasonic has hardly any support here in India. So forget service, its tough to even source their equipment at reasonable costs here. Same is the case with Fuji and others.
For wild life and action photography, the super-fast contrast detect AF is grossly inadequate for anything that moves or for something you want to track.
If there is a shortcoming in the m43 lens ecosystem, it is the lack of quality long lenses, as the two currently available long consumer zoom lenses are pretty average at best.
But there is a hope with Olympus releasing a 40-150 F2.8 with pro build, IQ and weather resistance, the soon to be released Olympus 300 F4.0 and the newly announced Panasonic 100-400 being co-developed with Leica. For wild life shooters like me the native 2x crop of m43 is really useful and 300 F4.0 lens will provide an equivalent FL of 600mm at F4.0. I am pretty excited with the new Panasonic announcement for the 100-400, which will give me an equivalent reach of 200-800mm in a compact hand hold-able package.
In a Nutshell
My Nikon system is now relegated for photography trips when IQ is paramount, wildlife and where shallow DoF is desired. For everything else my m43 system is my system of choice.
Now my usual m43 take-anywhere kit consists of either a Panasonic 7-14 F4.0 or an Olympus 9-18 F4.0-5.6 depending on whether I am going to shoot indoors or outdoors with filters, a Panasonic 20 F1.7 and an Olympus 45 F1.8 on a GX-7 and a GX-1 body. I also usually carry a Gorillapod SLR zoom with a small Giottos ball-head along with 52mm screw-in CPL/ND filters and 67mm square Graduated filters.
I just can’t see one replacing the other as of now, but somehow I see that the future of photography is headed the mirror-less way and I would love to hear your comments on this 🙂