February 14, 2011
★ Why I’ve Adopted The Micro-Four Thirds Camera System

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Olympus E-PL2 w/ Stock Lens

My eyes have been opened to a technological advancement of photography that has blown me away. The technology is known as Micro Four Thirds Cameras. According to Wikipedia

The Micro Four Thirds system (MFT) is a standard created by Olympus and Panasonic for mirrorless interchangeable lens digital cameras and camcorders[1] design and development, announced on August 5, 2008.[2] .

MFT shares the image sensor size and specification with the established Four Thirds system, designed for DSLRs. Unlike Four Thirds, MFT does not provide space for a mirror and apentaprism, allowing smaller bodies to be designed. The standard supports use of Four Thirds lenses on MFT camera bodies using an adapter.

There were two reviews that sold me on this system over the last two years.

Of course, until last week, it was the Panasonic GF2 I was hoping to pick up but they’re all back ordered. Desperate to pick one of these up before my trip to India, I set my sights on the GF1 and found it was also sold out in most places (Amazon, Buy.com, B&H Photo) and there were 3rd party lesser known sellers that had the model at 10-30% premiums. I wasn’t desperate enough to pay equal to an SLR for this setup so I kept researching.

Olympus E-PL2 verus Canon 5D

One evening, I spent 7 hours researching the micro four thirds system and I bit the bullet but it wasn’t the Panasonic that I went for. It was the Olympus and a Panasonic Point & Shoot as a side dish. Those that follow this blog know I recently sold my Canon S95. It was time to grow out of it but I will sorely miss the compact size. What a fantastic camera but it left more to be desired for me as I continue to improve my photography skills and accelerate into a profession of photography which is a huge passion of mine.

I purchased:

As you can see, I purchased a micro four thirds Olympus camera that comes with a stock lens and I also picked up two additional lens (a fast 20mm lens for portraits and a 45-200mm lens for landscape and motion photography). I also went a bit crazy and bought a Pansonic Lumix DMC-LX5 which I feel is a good solid “upgrade” from my “S95 with the compromise of being slightly larger.

Olympus E-PL2 200mm Lens

Let’s ignore the LX5 for a moment and go back to Micro-Four Thirds system. The fact that the price of this system equals the price you’d pay for a low-end SLR with a stock lens and perhaps a decent zoom lens is quite obvious. For me, this is an evolution of my skills and not necessarily for everyone reading this. If you’re happy with photos taken on an iPhone 4 and want to take better photos, buy a Canon S95 or Canon G12 and you’ll be absolutely happy with the results. Are you a Mom or Dad that wants to take photos of your kids playing soccer and some Macros of Christmas Lights with a few low-light portraits? A Canon T2i with a 50mm fixed lens and a regular stock lens should do great for your needs.

For me, I have used professional point & shoot fixed lens cameras for 5 years and I’m a frequent traveler who carries his camera EVERYWHERE and needs portability that nearly matches the quality of an SLR. I know pros will read this and say that there’s no way the micro-four thirds system can compete with SLRs and I’d agree but this almost pocketable camera is damn close and doesn’t need a dedicated photo bag. In fact, it’s twice as heavy as my S95 but the photos I’m producing are incredible. The S95 is a tiny camera, this 2x increase in weight means nothing.

Larger Sensor – Better Photos

The larger sensor of these types of camera equals much better results. In fact, these sensors are still 40% smaller than a full frame digital SLR’s sensor but nine times larger than regular point & shoot cameras. The result is that I can boost the ISO much higher, take multiple shots per second and make adjustments far faster than any P&S camera in a body size that’s similar to the smallest point & shoot of 2 years ago.

I was pretty amazed at my ability to shoot at 1/4000th of a second with at f/22 while at the park (The S95 was limited to an Aperture of f/8 ) and it’s super simple to adjust the metering and focal point before making a snap.

The larger sensor felt DSLR like but while using the Canon 5D I have on loan from a friend, this is no SLR but, if I was also using the S95, I’d end up using the Olympus because it’s 2-10 times as good on photo quality and sensor limitations in comparison.

Olympus E-PL2 w/ Stock Lens

Interchangeable Lenses – The sky is the limit

I underestimated how much of a difference this would make. The first hour of use with the E-PL2 was with the 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. There is no zoom on this lens but the super large aperture makes for a camera that can take super fast shots without a tripod. Portraits of Elizabeth and her dog were easy even in dark apartment lighting and without the use of a flash.

The next day, I threw on the 14-42mm lens (f/3.5-5.6) and used it to zoom to my liking on some landscapes and street signs. With this lens, I was getting far more flexibility in each shot than I ever got with the S95. I could also manually focus and zoom in via hand as the controls are on the lens. This is a limitation for the S95 and G12 because you have to wait on the software for the zoom feature to work. You adjust a ton of settings, hit the zoom lever and wait and wait and wait until the system catches up. While applying changes to the shot, I can go ahead and zoom in in real time via the lens. This SLR advantage was suddenly possible on a camera that I just pulled out of my pocket.

I finally used the 45-200mm lens that was a purchase I wasn’t too sure about but knew I needed if this camera was going to be my go-to camera instead of my SLR for day to day use and I’m glad I bought this. Photographers know a 200mm lens comes in handy from time to time and that’s the case with this photo. Of course, you wouldn’t expect a handheld pocket camera to provide such a long zoom but this one did with that lens and I used it to photograph some park goers or dogs playing. It was an awkward weight for the small body but performed well. It’s ability to catch any kind of movement in low light will be limited but it has its place.

Olympus E-PL2 200mm Lens

Added Perks – RAW Photo Support, Custom Live Video Controls

I won’t spend too much time on this one but you can shoot in RAW and there is custom support for adjusting aperture and aspect ratio of your video and a nice perk is the ability to shoot photos while recording video which I remember was a feature on an old Kodak camera I had back in the day.

Olympus E-PL2 w/ Stock Lens

A Few downsides of this pocket near SLR quality camera

  • The speed of adjusting my settings, focusing, multi-point metering and FPS of an SLR will never make it to this size camera. It’s just not possible but this comes damn close.
  • The amount of photos per battery charge is right at 300 if you aren’t jacking up the LCD brightness or using the flash. For this, I bought a 2nd battery
  • The lenses are small enough to fit in your pocket but not small enough where your pocket doesn’t look like it’s full of softballs or a soda can. You’re going to watch some sort of sling camera bag to hold the batteries, lenses, external flash, viewfinder and other accessories but the weight will be far less than any SLR available
  • You can’t buy just one lens for this camera and you shouldn’t. Looking to get the sensor benefits of this camera with just the stock lens? It’s possible but why would you? This is a camera made for multiple lenses. It’s made for the pancake lens, telefoto, fish-eye and zoom lenses. Here is a list of current available 4/3 lenses.
  • This is not an alternative to a DSLR. You still won’t achieve SLR quality photos with this and you may make a similar investment in this system as you would an SLR ($700 body, $300-$999 for each lens) but you’ll have a portable camera that goes in your carry on next to a Macbook and set of headphones. It’s a portable powerhouse of a camera but still, serious photographers need SLRs as well even if they don’t fit in your carry on and have to be checked below deck.

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Olympus E-PL2 w/ 20mm pancake lens

I’m absolutely love this camera. In the 3 days I’ve owned it, the photos I’ve produced have far exceeded anything I’ve produced ever in the past. I took 25 thousand photos with my G10 & G11 cameras and I took an additional 15,000 photos on my S95. This weekend, I took 2,000 photos on my 5D, DMC-LX5 and the Olympus E-PL2 combined. After nearly 15 hours of shooting across three days, I’ve decided that the E-PL2 Micro 4/3 camera produces images that come closer than ever to what the 5D can do but in a package that’s 1/5th the size. That’s huge!

There’s a reason why more photographers are going with the micro 4/3 system over bulkier point & shoot cameras and the market is growing more and more. Of course, my investment of $1500 for this new camera system is not to be ignored. I have spent what would be the equivalent of four Canon S95 cameras to make the statement that this is the best pocket camera system ever but recognizing that not everyone can make this sort of investment.

Then again, standing out in the woods on Sunday with a Lumix on my belt, an Olympus on my shoulder and a Canon 5D around my neck, I feel that the best camera for size & weight and price is still this Olympus E-PL2 and the amazing micro-four thirds camera system that it uses.

Thanks for reading!

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Postscript – I’m going to leave you with these concise notes from Wikipedia explaining some key differences between SLR, micro 4/3 and point & shoot cameras

Advantages of Micro Four Thirds over DSLR cameras

  • Smaller and lighter cameras and lenses;
  • Shorter flange-focal distance means that practically all manual lenses can be adapted for use (C-mount lenses have shorter flange-focal distance and are often trickier to adapt)
  • Shorter flange-focal distance allows for cheaper, smaller and lighter normal and wide lenses;
  • Smaller sensor size allows for cheaper, smaller and lighter telephoto lenses;
  • Absence of mirror eliminates “mirror slap” noise and vibration;
  • Electronic viewfinder can provide real-time preview of exposure, white balance and tone;
  • Brighter electronic viewfinder in low light.

Disadvantages of Micro Four Thirds compared to DSLRs

  • The sensor is smaller than APS-C sized sensors, this can lead to a potentially lower image quality than APS-C based DSLR cameras with a similar pixel count;
  • Contrast detect autofocus is generally slower (albeit more accurate) than the phase detect systems used in most DSLRs.
  • Due to the absence of a mirror and prism mechanism, there is no ability to use a through-the-lens optical viewfinder. The electronic viewfinder or a separate optical viewfinder must be used instead;
  • Changing lenses can expose the sensor to dust (a problem with all ‘mirrorless’ interchangeable lens digital camera designs), compared to DSLRs which have both a mirror and a closed shutter protecting the sensor (current MFT cameras include a [2] dust reduction);
  • Larger crop factor (2x multiplier) means deeper depth-of-field for the same equivalent field of view and f/stop. This reduces “bokeh” (fuzzy, out-of-focus backgrounds), which is considered desirable in portrait photography. It can be an advantage when more depth-of-field is required, such as with landscape photography.

Advantages of Micro Four Thirds over compact digital cameras

  • Greatly increased sensor size (5–9 times larger) allowing improved low light performance and greater dynamic range;
  • Interchangeable lenses;
  • Shallower depth of field possible (e.g. for portraits).

Disadvantages of Micro Four Thirds compared to compact digital cameras

  • Physical size (camera and lenses are both larger due to increased sensor size);
  • Extreme zoom lenses available on compacts (such as currently available 30× models) are not available on large sensor cameras due to physical size, cost, and practicality considerations;