Friday, December 28, 2018

Micro 4:3 is Alive and Kicking

Art? One of the first photos I made with my then new Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II body and 40-150 f2.8 Pro Zoom with 1.4X teleconverter. 210mm (420mm FX equivalent), ISO200, 1/500 @ f4 (wide open with this lens and teleconverter). 

The interwebs, especially vbloggers on YouTube, have been full of reports on the death of the Micro 4:3 format. I won’t link to them because I think they’re largely clickbaity, but I wonder, “are they right?”.

Canon and Nikon’s recent announcements of their new 24X36mm* (what Nikon calls “FX”) mirrorless systems seems to has accelerated the pace of announcements from M4:3 doomsayers. Is M4:3 format doomed?

I don’t think so. Micro 4:3 makers are facing very strong head winds in the marketplace. All camera manufacturers are. Apple (and others) have put excellent cameras into their pocketable computers, which, coincidently, also make phone calls. Almost everyone has one with them almost all the time. Thanks to sensor development and better computational processing those cameras make better pictures than the professional level digital cameras of 15 years ago did. They’ve gutted the entry level camera and point and shoot markets.

Micro 4:3 was the first format to make mirrorless cameras practical for most consumers. The “most consumers” part is important; I’m not overlooking Leica, but come on, most consumers are not going to drop $8,000 (US) on a body and thousands more on lenses. Leica products, as good as they are, are niche products.
Who says M4:3 can't do high ISO? Then Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), now Minnesota Attorney General, at a town hall about immigration. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, with 40-150 f2.8 Pro Zoom, 150mm (300mm equivalent on FX), ISO3200, 1/20th of a second, f2.8. Handheld. This is where Olympus' In Body Image Stabilization shines. With my Canon gear I would have had to use at least 1/250 of a second shutter speed (my 300mm lens didn't have image stabilization) and an ISO of about 52,000. 

The M4:3 doomsayers are predicting that consumers will move away from M4:3 to FX format cameras because of the “inherent advantages” of the larger format. There are some advantages to FX format sensors. The only so called advantage I consider absolute is the lower noise / better high ISO performance of FX format sensor cameras. More on that later.

There are many, sometimes overlooked, advantages to M4:3 format cameras.

One of them is that M4:3 is well established. There’s a great ecosystem of M4:3 gear with everything from tiny entry level cameras (that are, within their limits, excellent) to somewhat larger, but very capable, professional cameras.

Women leave Pattani Central Mosque in southern Thailand after Ramadan prayers. E-M5 Mark II, 12mm f2 (24mm equivalent on FX), 1/8th of a second at f8, ISO1600. I wanted to blur the women walking out but I needed a small f-stop to get things in focus front to back. So I was forced to up the ISO to 1600. 

The “native” lens line for M4:3 cameras is unrivalled. There are tiny, inexpensive, “kit” zooms that are have smaller f-stops (slower) and don’t focus as quickly but provide excellent results to large, expensive, and stellar professional level optics like the Olympus 40-150 f2.8 zoom (equal to an 80-300 zoom in FX terms) or the Olympus 300mm f4 (equal to a 600mm in FX terms). There are at least 58 fully functional “native” lenses ranging from 8mm fisheye to 400mm telephoto zooms. These lenses work on any M4:3 body made, whether it’s Olympus, Panasonic, Black Magic, or Xiaomi.

There are also many “non-native” lenses, that don’t have the electrical contacts or autofocus but are excellent lenses if you want to work old school. No other system can touch the variety of lenses available for M4:3 users. And you can get adapters to put almost any lens ever made onto a M4:3 body, whether it’s your old universal screw mount lens, a Nikkor from 1958 or a Canon FL lens from 1966.  

M4:3 has largely stayed true to the original ethos of mirrorless cameras. Namely that camera bodies and lenses can be smaller and lighter, but just as functional, than their DSLR competitors.

This is true whether you’re talking about FX format cameras and lenses or APS format cameras and lenses. It is still true with Nikon and Canon’s recent entries into the mirrorless market with their FX bodies and lenses. Although the bodies are relatively small and light, their lenses have suffered significant bloat.

The new Canon 50mm f1.2 for their mirrorless R mount weighs 2 pounds. The older 50mm f1.2 EOS lens weighs 1.25 pounds. In moving to mirrorless, the Canon lens put on .75 pounds. The M4:3 Olympus 25mm f1.2 (which fills the same spot in the M4:3 universe) weighs less than a pound, 14 ounces. And it is one of the larger M4:3 prime lenses.

Things are just as bad on the Nikon side of the mirrorless FX world. The Nikon Z mount (what Nikon calls their FX mirrorless lineup) 50mm f1.8 weighs 14 ounces, Olympus’ 25mm f1.8 (which fills the same spot in the M4:3 universe) weighs ⅓ as much, just 4.8 ounces.

It is entirely possible that at some point Canon and Nikon will choose to introduce some small and light prime lenses for their mirrorless bodies, but at this point all they’ve brought to market are huge, and expensive, behemoths.
A monk on alms rounds while men watch a World Cup game in Khlong Toie Market in Bangkok. E-M5 Mark II, 12mm f2, 1/40th at f2, ISO400. 

If you’re looking for a kit that is small, lightweight, and capable of providing professional results, you’re looking at M4:3. If you spend all day walking around with your cameras and lenses, every ounce (or gram) counts. After a day out with an E-M1 Mark II and a couple of tiny Olympus primes, you’ll feel a lot better than you would after a day with a Canon 5D Mark IV and L series primes. And even better than you would with Nikon’s gargantuan D850 and fast primes.

Photographers who use FX format gear like to talk about the shallow Depth of Field and “bokeh” they get from their 50mm f1.2 and 85mm f1.4 lenses. When I moved from Canon’s FX format cameras (the 5D series, from the original through the Mark III) and L series prime lenses, the shallow depth of field was one of the things I missed the most. Then I worked with the L series primes. Now I work almost exclusively with Olympus f1.8 prime lenses. I simply can’t get the same shallow DoF with the Olympus lenses.

That’s science. M4:3 cameras have a 2X crop factor. A 25mm lenses on M4:3 is equal to a 50mm lens on FX. Just as you double field of view, you have to double the depth of field. The Olympus 25mm f1.8 has pretty much the same DoF at f1.8 that a 50mm lens on FX has at f3.5.

While I couldn’t get the same shallow DoF, I was getting a lot more photos in focus. I loved the dreamy, out of focus backgrounds I got with my EOS 50mm f1.2 lens, but I tell you what, nailing the focus at f1.2 is a challenge. You think you’re focusing on an eyeball, but the camera is focusing on an eyebrow and BAM! your picture is out focus. I still miss the super shallow of DoF I got when I used Canon gear but I really appreciate the much higher rate of keepers I get with the Olympus gear. (And, as an aside, for photographers who aren’t concerned about ethics, the super shallow DoF effect can be applied “in post” with Photoshop or most other photo editing applications.)

Shallow depth of field is doable, it just takes thought. Top photo, cigars in a Tampa, FL, cigar factory.  E-M5 Mark II, 45mm f1.8 lens (90mm equivalent on FX), 1/40th at f1.8, ISO800. Bottom photo, a Buddhist ordination ceremony in Chiang Mai. E-M5 Mark II, 45mm f1.8 lens, 1/100th at f1.8, ISO800. 

Photographers who use FX format cameras cite better high ISO / lower noise levels as an advantage of the larger format. This is true. ISO3200 images with my Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II are not as clean as ISO3200 images from Canon’s 5D Mark IV or Nikon’s D750 or (especially) the Sony FX mirrorless cameras. This too is science. Higher density sensors tend to be noisier. But I’ve found there are some mitigating factors here and the high ISO / low noise argument is really a battle of pixel peepers who don’t spend much time photographing in the real world but spend a huge amount of time staring at pictures zoomed into 3:1 on computer screens.

What are those mitigating factors?
You don't always need high ISO at night. It's a matter of working the light. Lighting butter lamps during the full moon in Kathmandu. E-M5 Mark II, 12mm f2, 1/40th at f2, ISO400. 

I’m old. I’ve been working as a photojournalist since 1983. I was photographing for years before I started working as photojournalist.

When I started photographing “high ISO” for color was (then called ASA, but I digress) Kodak Ektachrome 160. A truly horrible film. Very grainy and dull colors (grain is to 20th century photographers what noise is to 21st century photographers). But the next highest ASA color film was Kodak Ektachrome, ASA64. Both E160 and E64 could be “pushed” one stop to ASA320 or ASA125 but you paid a price with duller colors and more grain. Kodak also made Kodachrome in ASA25 and ASA64. They were better films, with lovely colors but they weren’t really “pushable.” It was a revolution of sorts when Kodak came out with high speed Kodachrome in the late 80s. It was a whopping ASA200. It was much grainier than K64 and the colors weren’t as nice, but it was ASA200 so it was usable in places where K64 was not. The highest ASA standard B&W film when I started working was Tri-X or Ilford HP5, both ASA400 films, and pushable to ASA1600 (or higher) with darkroom magic.

In other words, I grew up working at low ISO. The native ISO on most digital cameras now is 200. That was a fast film when I started. It still feels a bit like cheating when I increase the ISO above 1600.

While I appreciate the ability to crank the ISO up to 3200 and above, it’s not a panacea. It’s usually a crutch. With some noise reduction in Lightroom, I am able to get very nice images at ISO2000 and I can make ISO3200 usable. A lot of it depends on how you’re going to use the photos. If you’re making prints, you can make really nice prints from high ISO files. If you’re gonna stare at pixels on a computer screen, you’re gonna be disappointed.

Image stabilization helped make this photo of Buddhist monks in Kathmandu. I wanted to blur the monks walking while freezing the monk prostrating himself. E-M5 Mark II, 17mm f1.8 lens (34mm equivalent on FX), 1/10th of a second, at f2.5, ISO200. 

Olympus and Panasonic (makers of the Lumix cameras) have been making M4:3 cameras since 2008. That’s 10 years of design and innovation and one of those innovations, in body image stabilization (IBIS), is a game changer.

The camera senses your movement when you’re making a picture and, via hardware and software in the body, moves the sensor in the opposite direction, allowing you to handhold the camera at shutter speeds you couldn’t imagine handholding at just a few years ago.

It sounds like magic, and in many ways it is. I’ve been able to handhold my E-M1 Mark II with a 12mm lens (24mm equivalent on FX cameras) at two seconds. I could never do that with my 5D Mark III. The slowest I could reliably go was 1/15th to 1/30th of a second. Do the math. That’s roughly five stops. That means if I’m working at ISO100 on my Olympus cameras, I would have to increase the ISO to 3200 on my 5D Mark III to handhold at the same f-stop. As nice as it is to handhold the camera for several seconds, I don’t do it very often. But I do handhold for telephoto photos at 1/15 to 1/30 routinely. With the 5D Mark III, I would need to use 1/250th or higher, and a correspondingly higher ISO to get to that shutter speed.

Canon and Nikon have had image stabilization in their lenses for years, but obviously it only works on lenses that have it. The joy of the Olympus system is that it works with every lens you put on the camera, from a brand new, state of the art, professional grade zoom to a 40 year old Pentax screw mount lens you put on via an adapter.
At a Chinese opera in Bangkok. E-M5 Mark II, 25mm f1.8 lens (50mm equivalent on FX), 1/60th at f1.8, ISO800. 

So yeah, M4:3 sensors are noisier than FX sensors. But if work carefully, you can work at lower ISOs with M4:3. IBIS has been such a success that Canon and Nikon are rushing to jam it into their bodies.

In the interest of full disclosure, IBIS (or lens based stabilization) works best on subjects that aren’t moving or when you’re trying to emphasize movement (i.e. panning). For me, it works great for cityscapes and other static subjects but less well for portraits, where even small movements of eyeballs or hair or fingers can turn into distracting blur. In other words, IBIS is not very effective for sports or other types of action photography. If you are trying to freeze action, you need a high shutter speed and that means higher ISO. For professional sports and action photographers M4:3 is probably not the best choice.

I moved to M4:3 from Canon 5D series bodies and L series lenses in 2014. I made the switch because I was looking for something that was smaller and lighter. When I made the switch, Fuji was still in the first generation of their X-Trans sensor cameras (X-Pro1 and X-T1) and although the image quality was there, the other things we rely on in professional cameras, like autofocus, was lacking. I’ve watched the Fuji line mature and grow and I like what they’re doing with APS sized sensors and their new cameras.

I really like the X-T series bodies. They’re the closest thing yet to working with the film bodies of olde. But as good as they are, they still can’t match the features the Olympus put into the E-M1 Mark II body. The excellent autofocus. The “Pro Capture” mode. The battery life. And, most importantly, the in body image stabilization. I can’t see myself buying a camera body that doesn’t have IBIS. I tried the X-T3 earlier this month. It is an excellent camera. One of the best cameras on the market. But for me, without the IBIS, it was a nonstarter.
The Shia holy day of Ashura in Yangon. Olympus E-P5 (my first Olympus M4:3 body), 25mm f1.8, 1/15th at f4, ISO1600 with fill flash. 

Of the non-M4:3 companies, it feels like only Fuji is making cameras that are optimized around the sensor. They make beautiful files and their lenses are outstanding. The f1.4 and f1.2 lenses are kind of chunky and the fast f2.8 zooms are nearly as big as the Canikon f2.8 zooms, but the f2 series of primes are small and light.    

The Canon and Nikon APS sensor cameras use smaller sensors but they still slap their honkin’ big lenses on them. And I can’t figure out what Sony is doing with their APS sensor cameras. Sometimes they innovate with them. Sometimes they let them languish and lens development is stalled as they build out the FX lens line.

The Sony FX format sensor cameras have great image quality and they’re innovative (excellent autofocus and IBIS) but the pro grade lenses are yuuuuge. They’re bigger and heavier than Canon’s pro grade lenses. The ounces you save on the bodies, you more than make up for with extra pounds in the lenses. That is not why I switched to mirrorless.
In a brick factory in Bhaktapur, Nepal, E-M5 Mark II, 25mm f1.8, 1/5000th at f1.8.

As I survey the mirrorless world and consider my options, M4:3 is still the best choice for me. If I was going to predict the death of a format, I would suggest that APS is under more pressure than M4:3. Canon and Nikon don’t seem to have a commitment to innovating or improving their APS lines. They are in the space solely to protect their legacy lines and they are both trying to push consumers into FX format cameras. Sony is schizophrenic about their APS cameras. Only Fuji seems to have a clear roadmap for APS cameras. I could easily see a world where Olympus and Panasonic have the M4:3 format, Fuji has APS and everyone else is in the FX space. That doesn’t mean Canon or Nikon’s APS cameras will disappear, but the emphasis on new products and innovation will be in the FX format and APS will continue as an after thought.

Buffalo racing in Bali. E-M5 Mark II, 40-150 f2.8 Pro Zoom with 1.4X teleconverter, 210mm (420mm equivalent on FX), 1/1250 of a second, f4.5 at ISO400. 

*Some people call 24X36 “full frame.” I don’t because, to me, “full frame” is a photographic technique, not a format. My pictures are “full frame” not because I use a 24X36 format sensor but because I usually don’t crop after I make the picture. Even Nikon, which is now championing their “full frame” mirrorless, calls their 24X36 format DSLR cameras and lenses FX, and their APS format cameras DX. It’s my blog. I can be a pedant if I want to.