Should I Go Micro 4/3

Get out and about with Micro 4/3 cameras

This is a common question about which I receive quite a regular flow of emails. I have also noticed recently that this question is starting to show up in search engine queries directed to the Light Weight Photographer blog so I thought I would answer this for anyone arriving here with the same question.

YES (in my opinion)

I suspect the reason why people are asking this is that they don’t trust a tiny camera to produces images as good as the camera they are already using. The truth is I don’t know if it will be as good as good as your current camera because everyone has different expectations and priorities. Does my GX1 produces images as good as my 5D? With both cameras in my hands the answer is no, the 5D will produce superior image size and quality. BUT only you will know if you are happy enough to make the switch and also what you might expect of a Micro 4/3 camera.

So allow me to assist you with the decision making process by asking you some questions. Spend some time considering these and most importantly writing down the answers so that you can refer back to them in the future:

  1. Why are you unhappy with your current camera? Make sure you produce a list of all the factors.
  2. What do you think the Micro 4/3 camera will bring you that your current camera doesn’t? Rank these in order with the most important points first.
  3. What is stopping you making the switch to Micro 4/3 today? Again you need to list all the concerns or unanswered questions that you have.
  4. What expectations do you have of a camera (any camera, not just micro 4/3)? Again list these in order of priority to you. Don’t be influenced by others, what is most important to you?

To help you with question 4 above let me provide some suggestions that you might like to consider. Size of the camera, size of the lenses, ability to fit in a pocket, quality of the image (sharpness, contrast, clarity), image resolution, cost of the camera, cost of the lenses, range of lenses available, availability of third party lenses, availability of accessories e.g. lens adapter, noise characteristics, low light performance, ease of use, features in the camera e.g. in camera HDR, panoramic stitching, styling & design.

Interestingly when most people consider question 4 they tend to place in camera features and styling much lower down the scale of importance than some of the other points such as price and image quality. Camera manufacturers sell to us however based on camera features and this can cloud our judgement and decision making. Get clear on what is important to you and why.

Now go back to the concerns and unanswered questions in point 3 and research these. You need to take care not to just accept other peoples options for example what someone might think is a sharp image another person might think is soft. The best way to resolve this would be to find sample images and evaluate them yourself.

When you have answered these 4 questions look at the purchase you are considering and honestly answer, do I think this camera give me what I want and expect?

If you decide it will, do 2 things:

  1. Sleep on it for a week to see if you change your mind. At the end of the week review your answers again to ensure you still agree with them.
  2. Go and handle your chosen camera in a camera shop or if all the camera shops have closed in your area consider hiring one. Use the menu system. Take sample pictures. Do you feel comfortable using this camera?

Micro 4/3 doesn’t suit everyone and some of its quirks might drive you crazy. For me it’s almost the perfect system but then again I also know how I would improve it.

GX1 Depth of Field

Shot on a Panasonic GX1 with Olympus 9-18mm lens set to 10mm. I used f/9.0 for this image and whilst its sharp it would have been better at f/7.1. I didn’t have my depth of field scale with me and couldn’t take any chances. Click the image to see a larger version.

I am growing tired of seeing the same advice trotted out time and time again about Landscape Photography. The advice that has me so wound up is that “if you want to get a full depth of field you need to use a very small aperture”. This advice has almost been carved in tablets of stone for all to see. Does it work; yes it does BUT IT ISN’T THE BEST ADVICE.

To me, this advice is almost the lazy way to photograph landscapes. The advice you should be getting is to shoot your landscape with the best aperture (the one that gives you the highest quality image) whilst still giving you the required depth of field. To understand why and why this is so important for Micro 4/3 and compact camera photographers you need to understand a few basics about lenses and depth of field.

Firstly most consumer lenses are designed to achieve their sharpest images and resolve the most detail when the aperture is closed down about 2 stops from wide open. For many lenses this means you will get the best results at around f/8 to f/12. Either side of this range you will find the image just isn’t as sharp and if you stop down the lens to around f/22 you might find all sorts of distortions can kick in. Buy the best lenses you can and you might see some improvement on this.

Now the thing with Micro 4/3 cameras is they seem to hit their best performance when stopped down just a little bit and the best way to understand this is by testing your own lenses. I haven’t done extensive testing but with my 14-45mm lens, I tend to shoot landscapes at between f/5.6 and f/7.1 for the 14mm end of the zoom range. I have found that if I stop down to f/8 or beyond then it’s not quite as sharp.

So you know the aperture range where your lens performs best, how do you ensure there is sufficient depth of field? The answer is by selecting the correct point of focus first and then selecting the correct aperture in this range. This is probably best explained with an example.

Suppose you find a nice landscape scene and there is a lovely rock that you want to place in the foreground. You compose the shot with your camera mounted on your tripod at just below eye height and the rock is about 5 feet from where you are stood. The distance from your camera to the rock is probably going to be about 7 feet. If I consult my depth of field chart (it’s actually an app on my phone) I find that focussing on the rock with my lens set to 14mm (on the GX1) the widest aperture that allows me to achieve infinite depth of field is f/6.3 – yes you read that right. The nearest point to me that is in focus is actually only 3.4 feet away.

Taking a more extreme example lets lower our tripod and move in close to the rock so that it looms large in our viewfinder. Unfortunately the 14mm lens isn’t wide enough so we move the Olympus 9-18mm set to 10mm. This is the equivalent of a 20mm lens on a full frame camera. Having moved in close we find our point of focus on the rock is just 4 feet from the camera. Looking at my depth of field app I find that I can achieve infinite depth of field at just f/5.6 and the closest point in focus is just 1.9 feet from the camera. At this aperture my lens is going to be performing at its sharpest and resolve the maximum amount of detail. The images produced will be substantially better than if I had used a small aperture such as f/16. Just for fun I thought I would check the aperture I needed with my 5D and its f/11.

Do you think you think you have been selecting the best aperture for your work?

Great Black and White Images from Micro 4/3 Cameras

If you are a new visitor to this blog then you might have the impression that I am a black and white photographer – not so. What I find however is that I am producing more and more black and white work recently. The reason being is that I think the black and white images shot on my GX1 look great; better than those shot on my Canon 5D or even those shot with true black and white film (which by the way I still use). I have thought a lot about why this is and I believe it is linked to the sensors used in the Micro 4/3 range of cameras.

All cameras produce a pattern of noise in the images they produce. Colour noise looks ugly and is best removed but the luminance noise can be used to your advantage in black and white pictures. Usually you don’t notice this noise but under strong processing it starts to become more visible especially if you are looking on a screen with the image viewed at 100%. With my Canon 5D the noise pattern is very regular, quite light and to be honest looks ugly when enhanced. With the micro 4/3 cameras however this luminance noise is a little stronger and the pattern more appealing. When the images are converted to black and white the noise appears almost like the grain structure in film. The benefit of having this fine structure in your images is not to make it feel like film but to enhance areas of detail so images appear more detailed than perhaps they are. When output to paper the prints definitely have an extra snap to them.

Here then is my workflow for making the most of the micro 4/3 characteristics when producing black and white images:

  1. Shoot in RAW. This gives you the control over how much noise is removed. If you shoot using the in-camera black and white mode you will end up with JPGs which will have had varying degrees of noise reduction applied before you start to work on them. You don’t want this.
  2. Because you are shooting in RAW you will need to convert the image to a TIFF file. I use Lightroom to do this and I apply sufficient Colour Noise reduction to remove all the visible colour noise. With Luminance noise however I set the reduction to 0 so that nothing is removed. I also avoid converting the image to B&W until later in the workflow for reasons I will come to.
  3. Once I have my colour TIFF image I examine it to see if I want to perform any selective luminance noise reduction. I will usually leave all the noise in areas of texture such as grass and rocks but remove noise from areas of clear blue sky. Personally I like to leave some luminance noise in white clouds as it helps me emphasise the clouds later.
  4. I use two tools for noise reduction; Nik Define and Topaz DeNoise. The Nik product is quite subtle and has some great selection tools to control where the noise reduction is applied. The Topaz product is noise reduction on steroids. It can be extremely aggressive but it’s also brilliant. If I want to remove strong noise from the image, this is the tool.
  5. Once I have my “clean” colour image I will convert it to Black and White using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. I do have other black and white converters but what I like about the Nik tool is that I have a “Structure” and “Fine Structure” slider. The effect of using these is that it enhances the Luminance noise so it becomes much more visible and starts to take on the appearance of grain. I should also warn you to take care with this step as once you have enhanced the noise there is no easy way back. Running noise reduction on the finished image won’t have much if any effect.

Now what I can’t show you here is the effect of this workflow on the finished print so you will have to take my word or try it for yourself. This really does enhance the print giving it that something extra, improving the perception of detail and sharpness. You can get some idea of how the screen image will look as a print by viewing your image at 50% resolution from about 12 inches away (a general rule of thumb).

If you have a micro 4/3 camera I hope this has inspired you to give my method a go and I am as always happy to answer any questions.

Landscape Photography with a Micro 4/3 Camera

View from the summit of High Street
Landscape photography with a Micro 4/3 camera. Not just possible but a good alternative.

One of the things I love to do is question conventional wisdom and push boundaries. One assumption that I believe needs to be challenged at the moment is that a Micro 4/3 camera for Landscape Photography is not a good choice.

I think this assumption has an historical background. Look at the great Landscapers of the past and you will find they shot in the main with Large Format cameras which gave them two advantages:

  1. The size of the negative/transparency is large so they can be used to create large prints with good quality.
  2. The camera movements allowed the image to be rendered with a full depth of field so that the nearest and furthest points were pin-sharp.

As photography has progressed, the large format camera remains the medium of choice for “serious Landscape Photographers” although many have moved to use slightly smaller/lighter cameras which allow the attachment of a digital back.

Whilst the original advantages of using Large Format still exist, I would question if they offer quite the advantage over a Micro 4/3 camera that people immediately assume. More importantly I think the downsides to using a large format camera probably outweigh any advantage (certainly for myself). Now to be clear, I am not saying all large format photographers should switch to micro 4/3, just that if you want to shoot Landscapes doesn’t rule out the Micro 4/3 cameras.

To deal with the issue of the negative/transparency size versus the size of the tiny micro 4/3 sensor first let me say one thing, the end result is everything. If I can print my image at the size I want and achieve the quality I want, why do I need lots of potential in reserve. For me this means being able to print an image where the longest side is 30” (although most of the time I print on A3+ paper). If I can produce my image at these sizes and see loads of detail in the print (not on screen) when I view the print then the camera is achieving the results I want. This is the case with images I shoot from the 16Mpixel Panasonic GX1. When I look very closely at my prints with a magnifying loupe and compare them to the screen, I can see the printer is the limitation not what the camera can capture.

Think about this. Do you really need to reproduce your images larger than 30”?

Next to the subject of using Camera movement to achieve huge depth of field. The Micro 4/3 camera doesn’t have this and currently doesn’t have any tilt and shift lenses that could achieve the same effect. The sensor in the Micro 4/3 is however small and this allows a much larger depth of field to be achieved without needing to stop the lens down to an excessively small aperture. Most of the images I shoot with my 14-45mm lens use f/5.6, f/6.3 or f/7.1. With the lens set to 14mm I usually achieve sufficient depth of field to render everything sharp. Sometimes if I am shooting a close subject I might go as high as f11 but I like to use the larger apertures. This allows me to avoid the effects of diffraction (caused by having a small aperture) softening the image. A large aperture also translates into faster shutter speeds so getting a sharp image with no camera shake is easy and makes a tripod unnecessary in many situations.

So, if I can achieve large, detailed prints where the entire image is sharp from front to back do I really need to move to a larger camera?

Now consider the other benefits of Micro 4/3. It costs less to buy a complete kit; I can’t believe how affordable some of the great lenses are. You can carry it around easily so are able to visit quite remote locations. It’s less tiring so you are fresher when trying to create your work. You can work much quicker and therefore respond easily when the lighting is changing rapidly. You are more manoeuvrable so explore many more compositions and angles. It’s much easier to learn how to use. It’s much easier to achieve good results with a Micro 4/3 camera for the average user.

I think the message is clear, Micro 4/3 cameras can be a serious tool for the Landscape Photographer.

Which Micro 4/3 Lens for Landscapes

This Blea Watern tarn below High Street in the English Lake District. Captured using an Olympus 9-18mm lens on a GX1 body with a 0.6 ND graduated filter. Post processing in Lightroom and Nik SilverEfex Pro.

Something I find really valuable is the Statistics module of my blog. Not only does this show me how my readership is growing but also how people have found my blog. One of the most interesting aspects of this is the section on search terms used as often these are people looking for answers to questions about Light Weight Photography. The title of this blog is one such question I have seen appear a few times.

Firstly I will qualify my answer by saying I have not done extensive testing with all lenses and neither will I present lots of evidence to support my findings. I also won’t try to find the absolute best lens for sharpness or resolution. What I will present will be some practical thinking from the perspective of a Landscape Photographer using a Micro 4/3 camera that I think people might find valuable. Life’s too short to look at details that won’t show up in the final print. I would rather be taking pictures.

The majority of Landscape images are created using wide angle and ultra wide angle lenses. It’s true that there are exceptions but I think 80% of shots are probably taken with a 28mm or wider lens (in full frame 35mm terms). In the Micro 4/3 world this translates into using a lens that’s 14mm or wider.

For my own work I tend to use a 14-45mm Panasonic lens a lot especially when walking (possibly more so than I would have thought before I checked my archives). I think this is down to the way I use the smaller camera (GX1) as I tend to get down lower and move in closer to my subject than I do when I have a DSLR mounted on a tripod. This helps me make the most of the wide angle, emphasising the foreground and I often find 14mm is wide enough.

This is a good lens in terms of contrast levels, sharpness and ability to resolve detail in subjects, even at distance. It therefore meets my criteria for a good quality lens that can be used for Landscapes. If you buy a reasonable example of this lens on the second hand market it will be a good investment. I know there are later examples of this lens when it was changed to a 14-42mm and also a Powerzoom variant but I have yet to see RAW files shot with these that measure up to the 14-45mm.

The problem with the 14-45mm is that it’s not really wide enough for some subjects and most Landscape photographers want something that is at least 20mm (in 35mm full frame terms). The options for wider lenses are however quite limited with only two current choices:

  1. Panasonic 7-14mm (equivalent to 14mm – 28mm) for which you can expect to pay around £700
  2. Olympus 9-18mm (equivalent to 18-36mm) costing around £400

The lens I went for was the Olympus 9-18mm but not because of the cheaper price. It was because it is not possible to attach screw in filters to the front of the Panasonic lens as the glass element extends beyond the end of the lens.

Do I think I have compromised by buying the cheaper lens? Not at all.

The Olympus is perfect, light and very small. It has a neat trick of collapsing down when not in use. This is also a brilliant lens for capturing sharp, detailed images with minimal distortion. It lacks the image stabiliser but that’s not really a problem for the sort of use it will be put to.

So if I had to recommend one lens to use when shooting landscapes with a micro 4/3 camera, it would be the Olympus 9-18mm.

Are we being lead in the wrong direction

Shot on a GX1 with Olympus 9-18 lens as part of my Cloud Structures project

I don’t ordinarily like to pass comment over what’s happening in the photography industry but I actually think things are getting a little “interesting” at the moment. In recent months the idea of Lightweight Photography has really grabbed people’s imagination and camera manufacturers have responded with a glut of new offers. We have seen multiple camera releases from the likes of Sony and Fuji and even Canon has joined in on the game with the new M series compact. Innovation is rife with most manufacturers trying to squeeze more megapixels into the sensors and even larger sensors into the cameras. Just the other day Sony launched the first full frame compact camera which is indeed a great achievement.

Is there a downside? YES – Have you seen the price of these things? I suspect companies are trying to recover their entire R&D bill with the first model they release and that smacks of short term profiteering to me. The pace of change has accelerated and the lifespan of cameras is getting shorter. With it the risk for the camera manufacturers has increased and I don’t think they like that so they pass the risk and cost on to us the consumer. I think this will result in lots of new gimmicks being released regularly as well as an increase in prices as manufacturers ask us to buy more often and pay more for our cameras whilst trying to recover R&D costs more quickly.

My suspicion (and I think we are seeing some of this) is that we will be told (brainwashed if you like) that all the existing cameras/sensors are no good and we need to upgrade to the latest, newest fastest, highest quality camera. I don’t know about you but I have limited funds to spend on replacing my equipment and I like to get good value from it. I do hope some of the manufacturers read this and realise we the consumer are passionate about photography. They can just keep thinking about making money for shareholders; they need to give something back to the enthusiast also.

To prove the point, I have recently been answering some questions for one of our readers who was considering buying a new GX1. I found myself playing down the quality of the images from the GX1 as it didn’t quite measure up to the quality from the 5D MkII which is a full frame, 21Mpixels DSLR with L series lenses. I then printed the image above and realised I was being drawn in by the marketing machine.

The image was shot on a GX1 with an Olympus 9-18mm lens. I printed it at A3+ and even pressing my nose right up to the print it looks good. No, I will rephrase that, it looks amazing; even in the areas that I thought were a little suspect on the screen (at 100%). I now know I could print this image much larger if I wanted to and still get a fantastic print. Why then would I need to upgrade my camera to an “even better” model?

What I have come to realise is the old advice of investing in the highest quality lenses in preference to buying a better camera is now true again. At the start of the digital revolution this wasn’t the case as cameras and sensors needed to catch up with film. Now we can produce super quality huge prints from tiny cameras the old adage has kicked in again. I for one would like to see the manufacturers put as much development into their lenses so that we can have tiny lenses that resolve huge amounts of detail, have fast constant apertures and are super sharp for a reasonable price. Unfortunately I can’t see this happening any time soon as that’s not where the money is to be made. As always I am interested in any other thoughts on this subject.

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Making Mirrorless Work

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