Moving to Micro Four-Thirds

Micro four-thirds cameras aren’t exactly new, but in the three years since their release, they’ve grown incredibly popular. A couple of months ago, I passed the confidence threshold myself and ditched all of my Nikon camera gear in favor of “M43″.

The M43 system, to me, is the prosumer system for the next decade. It essentially eliminates the need for two other genres of camera: the standard APS-C DSLR system (e.g. Nikon D90, Canon 60D) and the compact point-and-shoot. By eliminating the camera’s mirror, micro four-thirds offers near the quality of the former and near the tininess of the latter. If you’re buying a camera today, the three smart choices, in my opinion are:

  • A full-frame camera. If you want the very best photos and size/cost is not an issue, a full-frame camera like the Canon 5D (or 1D) will give you the greatest resolution, the best low-light performance, and the most granular control. The cost of entry for a full-frame camera is at least $2500, however, and the ongoing cost is a gigantic piece of lead around your neck.
  • A micro four-thirds camera. If you want a camera capable of taking professional quality shots that is small and light enough to take on vacations and day trips without noticing the extra weight and bulk, this is your best choice. Fitted with a pancake lens, these cameras are just small enough to fit in your pants pockets, if you wear loose pants, and often times, you don’t even notice you’re carrying one.
  • A smartphone camera. Smartphone cameras today are in many ways better than point-and-shoots of only a few years ago. There are many occasions when you just can’t carry more hardware on you, and in times like these, your phone is more than capable of getting you what you need.

With the above three options all widely available now, the need for the point-and-shoot and the APS-C stopgaps just isn’t there anymore. With a point-and-shoot, you get bad low-light performance and no lens flexibility, and with an APS-C system, you get unnecessary bulk.

If you’re looking to move to micro four-thirds, here are some considerations to keep in mind:

Bodies

Whereas Nikon and Canon rule the full sized camera world, the giants are nowhere to be found in M43. The M43 system demands that camera bodies and lenses are interchangeable, even across brands, and Nikon and Canon aren’t used to working this way. In fact, Nikon has just announced a new camera that will compete with M43 cameras, but disappointingly, it will only work with Nikon lenses.

When you are stressing out about what body and what lenses to buy (e.g. Olympus, Panasonic Lumix) just remember that every body works with every lens. You can buy an Olympus body and a Lumix lens if you want. There is no “lock-in” and that’s a key advantage. Right now, Olympus and Panasonic are the only players in the market, but this could expand in the future.

To get my feet wet in M43, I forewent all of the new models and bought a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 on eBay. I got the body, a Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens, and a Lumix 45-200mm zoom lens for $781 on eBay; all in mint condition. The GF1 appears to be a instant classic in the M43 world, with a lot of people claiming it’s still the most fun-to-shoot M43 camera in the world.

If I was buying a new camera today, it would be the Olympus E-PL3 or E-P3. Both have better low-light performance than the GF1 and both have on-body image stabilization (Panasonic puts their stabilization technology in their lenses instead).

Lenses

As is the case in the SLR and DSLR worlds, prime lenses will always provide sharper images than zoom lenses. You’re going to want at least one prime in your bag, and I whole-heartedly recommend the aforementioned Panasonic Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. It’s only about an inch deep and weighs 3.5 ounces. The key to this lens isn’t just its compactness but it’s maximum aperture. Although it still can’t touch my beloved (and now departed) Nikon 50mm f/1.4 in low light conditions, it will allow you to shoot bright photos in dim conditions without using the flash.

As far as zoom lenses go, there are a lot of them to choose from, but I went with a Lumix 45-200mm in order to match my previous Nikon 18-200mm VR as closely as possible. In my testing, I would say this lens produces almost the same quality images as the Nikon and it weighs a few ounces shy of a pound. The Nikon is about 50% heavier.

I can’t stress enough how much lighter a M43 camera and lens feels when compared to its DSLR counterparts. When people obsess about the weights of different cell phone models, it strikes me as hollow because they are all trivially light, but when you’re talking about M43 vs. DSLR, you’re talking about pounds of weight off of your neck.

Viewfinders

Some of the bigger M43 cameras have built-in electronic viewfinders, but the ultra-compact cameras all require you to snap one on if you want one. I haven’t needed one yet, but it’s nice to know they are available if you need them.

Interfaces

As with all cameras, try to pick a model that has the right balance of physical knobs and electronic controls for your taste. The GF1 is skewed more towards physical knobs, which I love, but some may prefer things like touch-screens and soft buttons. If you can’t physically try out a camera’s interface before you buy it, try reading what others think instead. I was originally going to buy a Panasonic Lumix GF3 until I read enough reports from people complaining about how hard it is to hold.

New or used?

If you aren’t sure you’ll love the jump to M43, buying used is a good option. A little searching and patience on eBay might get you a nice model to get your feet wet while you wait for the next great innovation. For me, the innovation I’m waiting for is better high ISO performance. While my setup is good in low light, it still can’t match a Nikon D80 (or better) with that 50mm Nikon f/1.4 on it. My feeling is that within a year or so, that won’t be true anymore, and since I’m only $300 or so into this GF1 body, I won’t feel bad replacing it when the time is right.

If you’re going to buy new, as I mentioned earlier, I would probably go with the Olympus E-PL3 or E-P3.

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15 Responses:

  1. Luciano says:

    Awesome choice! I have a GF1 myself, I had a hard time trying to choose between that and the Olympus PL1. Currently there is a firmware hack on the internet that allows manual movie modes (the factory default is automatic only) and many quality improvements.

  2. Mark says:

    Good writeup. I did the same thing myself: sold the DSLR kit on eBay and picked up an E-P2 on clearance when the E-P3 was released. I’m using it with the 14/2.5 from Panasonic, although it was a toss-up between that one and the 20/1.7. It would be nice to see a built-in viewfinder, but I’m finding that using the LCD can pretty freeing in terms of composition. One thing that I’ve found is that shooting video with these m4/3rds cameras is a whole lot less cumbersome than on a DSLR.

  3. Scott G. Lewis says:

    Have you thought of the new Sony NEX line? The lenses are a bit bigger, although the pancake is still pretty svelte. The body itself is no bigger than the EP-3 and it has a full(er) APS-C sensor.

  4. Mike, Very interesting post. I was wondering if you have actually used the camera much and compared the picture quality to your old D-SLR? I considered making a similar move from an aging Canon APS-C camera a few years ago and the reviews of most 4/3 cameras seemed to indicate a noticeable loss of picture quality, speed and flexibility to shoot in all conditions. Like here for example http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/PanasonicGF1/page33.asp
    Wondering about your experiences in the field with the new camera. Thanks.
    -Aaron

  5. Tracy says:

    Very nice review. I recently had a small “accident” with my D90, and decided to buy an M43 instead of paying to have the D90 fixed (at least right away). I chose the Olympus E-PL2. I chose Olympus over Panasonic because of the built in image stabilization. I chose the E-PL2 over the E-PL3 because of price. (I had to justify the cost to my husband. *grin*). However, since then I have purchased the viewfinder (I live in sunny AZ) and the Panny 20mm. Now, how can I convince him I need a longer zoom? I love this camera! I haven’t missed my D90 or my Canon S90 P&S yet, and everyone who sees it wants one of their own.

  6. Mike D. says:

    Scott: Yeah, I thought about the Sony. I like it. I just really like the idea of interchangeable lenses across brands though. I think if there’s anything that would make me switch systems at this point, it would be a huge advance in low-light capabilities. I really do miss the f/1.4 quite a bit.

    Aaron: I think the only time I notice a sacrifice in quality is in very low-light situations. There is just no beating that f/1.4 lens. It pains me that I don’t have quite that capability anymore, but the fact that I’m actually willing and able to take a real camera with me on more occasions now makes up for it.

  7. Mike D. says:

    Here’s a sample shot I took while driving a boat. Hand held, 200mm zoom, and the boat was rocking all over the place. I still can’t believe how sharp it turned out.

  8. I disagree with your conclusions about APS-C sensor DSLRs. Starting at around $600 new, you can get a compact APS-C DSLR with a built in optical viewfinder that will almost certainly have faster autofocus and better low light performance than ANY M43 camera, as well as a much larger selection of lenses. Yes, they are bigger, but they aren’t that much heavier if you choose something like the Canon Rebel or Nikon D40/D60/D3000/D3100 series.

    The only thing you give up by choosing an APS-C sensor DSLR over a full frame model is low light performance and the nice big viewfinder. Otherwise, the performance is the same and the cost is a fraction of a full frame model.

  9. Mike D. says:

    Aaron: I agree that the APS-C DSLRs still perform marginally better than M43. My conclusion was just that those gains aren’t worth the extra size and weight to me. An Olympus E-PL3 weighs 265 grams and is 37mm thick. A Canon Rebel is 570 grams and 80mm thick. So basically, one is more than twice the size and weight of the other… which to me, is a big deal.

    With the full-frame comparison, I’ll take your word on the differences there. I do agree there are APS-C cameras (like the Nikon D5100, for instance) which perform excellently in low-light. So much so that the difference between it and a full-framer may not be worth the price.

  10. I opted for a Micro Four-Thirds (GF2) over a DSLR for the portability.

    Mike, there is a f/1.4 MFT lens: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/768816-REG/Panasonic_H_X025_Leica_DG_Summilux_25.html

  11. Mike D. says:

    Daniel: That looks like a really nice lens. Expensive at $599 and quite a bit larger than the f/1.7 pancake, but lookin’ good. I might set up an eBay alert for one :)

  12. Steve says:

    I recently switched from a DSLR camera to a Micro Four Thirds camera. At first I wanted to buy the Panasonic GF1, but it was so hard to get. In the end I bought Panasonic GF3 with the 14mm pancake lens. The camera is small but capable.

    I wrote a short story about it here. http://steverandytantra.com/thoughts/my-photography-style

    And a photo I took with it. http://steverandytantra.com/photos/an-airplane-window

  13. Chris says:

    hi Mike, Totally agree. Have been thinking of doing the same. Fed up of carrying huge bulky camera and lenses around. Just need to speak to the bank manager now.

  14. [...] to Micro 4/3rds cameras — which I believe to be a better alternative to most DSLRS — here.Like this entry? You can follow me on Twitter here, subscribe via email here, or get the RSS feed [...]

  15. Humaira says:

    Hi Mike,
    I was looking at purchasing my first ever DSLR as a hobbie, until your last article on DSLRs linked me to this article.
    My budget is around $800. Are you able to give me some advice on which camera you think would be best for this price range. I really want something that will be great quality at night with no flash.

    Your help would be much appreciated.

    Thanks,
    Humaira

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