Micro Four Thirds, really?

Yes, really.

I’ve been shooting in the micro four thirds format for more than a decade. Revolutionary when it first came out in 2008, the format has lost some of its luster, as today “full frame” offers a more obvious differentiation from the best cell phone cameras (which can be pretty good). But that story is well-known, and I won’t rehash it here.

Compared to cell phone cameras M43 offers a better and larger sensor along with a wide choice of excellent interchangeable lenses with superb optical quality. But compared to APS-C and full frame, M43 sensors are significantly smaller, and consumers tend to be enraptured of large megapixel capabilities. Also, true to its name, Micro Four Thirds sensors use a 4:3 aspect ratio, while DSLRs usually use the 3:2 aspect ratio of traditional 35mm film cameras. (The 4:3 aspect ratio offers a wider and to me more satisfying vertical format )

Comparison of M43, APS-C, and Full Frame sensor sizes. From Jason Polak, “Micro Four Thirds vs APS-C As Someone Who Uses Both.”

In his article “Micro Four Thirds vs APS-C As Someone Who Uses Both” Jason Polak observes that “Micro four thirds cameras are also very pixel-dense, with the most common resolution being 20MP. Even though that’s lower than the usual 24 megapixel sensor of APS-C cameras, it’s a greater density of pixels because they’re all crammed into a smaller sensor. As a result, it’s easier to put more pixels on small or distant subjects with micro four thirds, like in wildlife and macro photography.”

My default M43 file size is 4608 x 3456 pixels (my camera is old and the sensor is 16 rather than 20MP). That’s 11.52 x 15.36 inches at high-quality 300dpi: more than enough for book work or most printing. And upsampling these days works pretty well, as I pointed out in a post about Adobe Super Resolution (which I very rarely need). So while the sensor is smaller than other formats, it’s big enough. And there is a benefit of reasonably sized files, which are faster and less cumbersome to work with than monster sized files and don’t fill up your hard drive as fast.

But the main advantage for me is the small camera and especially the small lens sizes that the format enables. I do a fair bit of travel and landscape photography, and it’s wonderful to have small, lightweight gear that can produce excellent images. For an upcoming trip to Portugal I have a very strict baggage allowance, and I will be carrying my baggage around a lot as I travel around the country. For this reason I decided not to take my wide angle prime and macro lenses but instead purchased a used 12-45mm pro lens. As a pro lens it is weather sealed (as is my camera), which seems almost essential since the period I will be in Portugal sees rain half the month in some locales.

So I will take the 12-45mm pro and my”plastic fantastic” 40-150mm zoom to cover most of my photography. The 12-150 range these M43 lenses cover is the equivalent of 24-300mm in “full frame” 35mm photography. I’m also taking a 45mm”portrait” lens (90mm equivalent) because it is exceptionally light and faster than the zooms, which allows separating the subject from the background with nice bokeh. These lenses, together with my camera and accessories like batteries and charger, weigh in at a little over three pounds: more than light enough to qualify as a “personal item” on my flight, leaving room for a book and other stuff, and then the rest of what I’m taking will fit in my carry-on bag. (I bought a luggage scale to make sure I’m within the limits.)

Not counting the kit 14-42mm lens that came with the camera, which the 12-45 pro lens replaces, I now have five lenses in my arsenal, which pretty much cover my needs (for birding it would be helpful to have a longer telephoto). Following are a few comments about them and a couple of sample images from each.

My M43 lenses
My M43 lenses. Back row l-R.: Rokinon 12mm 1:2.0 (with lens hood); Olympus 12-45mm 1:4 Pro (with lens hood); M.Zuiko 40-150mm 1:4-5.6. Front row, L-R: Olympus 30mm 1:35 macro; Olympus 45mm 1:1.8 (with lens hood) . Photo taken with 14-42mm kit lens.

Rokinon 12mm 1:2.0

I’m very fond of this wide-angle lens, which is quite sharp and fast. I’m sorry to have to leave it behind on my upcoming trip, but for an M43 lens it’s slightly bulky, and the pro zoom offers the same 12mm length at near-prime quality. It does require manual aperture setting, and the lens does not provide f-stop information to the camera electronically (so that info is not provided in the image captions).

To give a sense of the comparative cost of the lenses, I will show their prices new at B&H Photo, where this one is currently offered at the special price of $280 (regularly $399). Such a deal!

Silver Lake, Sierra Nevada
Silver Lake, Sierra Nevada. Rokinon 12mm 1:2.0: 1/320, ISO 250.
Redwood Grove, Blake Garden, UC Berkeley
Redwood Grove, Blake Garden, UC Berkeley. Rokinon 12mm 1:2.0: 1/100, ISO 640.

Olympus 12-45mm 1:4 Pro

This is my new lens. It’s not superfast at 4.0, but it is very sharp even wide open (maybe a little sharper at 5.6) and rarely needs to be stopped down. In the first picture below I was frustrated by very windy conditions and I spun the dial up to a very fast shutter speed (probably more than needed), but this shows how the image holds up at the high ISO of 1600. This lens is $700 at B&H, but I bought one in excellent condition for about $425 from Used Photo Pro (the used division of Roberts Camera).

Citrus Burst Rose
Citrus Burst Rose. Olympus 12-45mm F4.0 Pro: 45.0mm, f/4.5, 1/4000, ISO 1600.
Sunset Gardens at Cornerstone, Sonoma, California
Sunset Gardens at Cornerstone, Sonoma, California. Olympus 12-45mm F4.0 Pro: 42.00mm f/5.6, 1/640, ISO 200.

M. Zuiko 40-150mm 1:4-5.6

This lens is an amazing performer and an amazing deal. Though the build is plastic rather than mostly metal like the pro lenses, I’ve had mine for about a decade and have never had a bit of trouble with it. It’s actually the lens I use the most. And they practically give it away — just $130 (reg. $200) at B&H. The first image below shows it at its widest length of 40mm and the second image at its longest length of 150mm.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence
Ponte Vecchio, Florence. Olympus 40-150mm 1:4.0-5.6: 40.0mm, f/8.0, 1/250, ISO 200.
Swallowtail Butterfly on Red Valerian Flowers
Swallowtail Butterfly on Red Valerian Flowers, Olympus 40-150mm 1:4.0-5.6: 150.0mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO 200.

Olympus 30mm 1:35 macro

Macro lenses are a little harder to shoot with than other lenses. The following shots were taken hand held. With a tripod you could get a little closer. It’s a nice lens but not one I use often. The 12-45 pro zoom is excellent at close focus, so I won’t need this on my trip. It’s $350 at B&H

Epilobium canum (California Fuchsia)
Epilobium canum (California Fuchsia). Olympus 30mm 1:3.5 Macro: 30.0mm, f/3.5, 1/160, ISO 200.
Pear Blossoms
Pear Blossoms. Olympus 30mm 1:3.5 Macro: f/8.0, 1/200, ISO 200.

Olympus 45mm 1:1.8

If you look at the picture of the five lenses above, you will see how tiny this one is, even with its lens hood on. It weighs just 116 grams (about a quarter of a pound). According to DP Review, it’s “optically superb” and quite fast at 1.8. It’s my favorite lens for photographing flowers in the garden. Thanks to its small size and low weight it makes the cut for the Portugal trip. You can pick this up new for $400 at B&H.

Rudbeckia hirta (Black-Eyed Susan)
Rudbeckia hirta (Black-Eyed Susan). Olympus 45mm 1:1.8: f/1.8, 1/400, ISO 200.
Loropetalum chinense (seen at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden). Olympus 45mm 1:1.8: f/2.0, 1/800, ISO 200.

So there you have it: five lens, including two zooms covering the 33mm range of 24-300mm, two primes (a wide-angle and a portrait), and a macro. All of this gear is small and lightweight and not prohibitively expensive. If I want to I can easily carry it all when I go for a hike. And that’s why I shoot in Micro Four Thirds.