This post is re-published from our sister site, Fotozones.com. If you are interested in mirrorless cameras or photography in general please go and check it out.

Those of you familiar with my own story will know that I have come to m43 from Nikon FX where I used a couple of Nikon D700’s and a whole lot of glass from both Nikon and Sigma. Last year I made the decision to move away from the big heavy DSLR’s and their equally big heavy lenses for a number of reasons, which I will get to later in the article. For now I would like to give you a brief overview of the m43 system, what it is and what it isn’t.

System Evolution

The m43 system is based around a slightly smaller image sensor than you find in the APS-C systems from most other manufacturers, such as Canon, Nikon and Sony. Those APS-C sensors are called “cropped” sensors because they cover a smaller area than the lens image circle is designed for and this came about purely because at the time they didn’t have the technology to build an electronic imaging sensor that could adequately capture light all the way across the full 35mm frame used for film cameras. It took quite a while before digital imaging sensors were able to cover that frame size. Canon was the first to market with their EOS 1Ds and then later with the 5D. Nikon caught up in 2008 with the D3, so a lot of effort went into making that film legacy work for the companies who followed this path of development.

Olympus, Kodak and Panasonic followed a different path of development. They made an entirely new system from the ground up and called it four thirds. Initially this smaller sensor was built around the same principles as a DSLR, using a mirror to reflect light from the lens up into a prism based view finder, but that has now evolved into the micro four thirds system where the mirror box and the prism has been done away with in favour of electronic view finders. The sensor stays the same size, but because the flange to sensor distance has been considerably shortened it has allowed the lenses for the system to become a lot smaller than before.

Some people call the m43 sensor a crop sensor but this is actually not correct. The m43 is a full frame sensor based on the lenses and image circles that are designed for it. Many people think of “full-frame” as being a 35mm frame and this makes me cringe because the term “full frame” really refers to the relationship between the lens and the sensor. If the image circle of a lens just covers the full frame of the sensor it was actually designed for then you can call it a “full frame” sensor. If the sensor is much smaller than the image circle received from the lens then the sensor can be called a “cropped sensor”, which is what the APS-C sensors are.

The m43 sensor is not cropped. It’s smaller than an APS-C sensor but its definitely not cropped. All the lenses are designed for the m43 frame size and that is a major advantage with the system. When you buy into it you’re not buying into any film system legacy and their workarounds. You’re buying into a digital system that was created from scratch.

The other thing to consider is that the aspect ratio of the m43 system is 4:3 as opposed to 3:2 found in DSLR’s. This can be a bit odd at first, but if you think about lens projection circles, the 4:3 system is making much better use of the lens projection than the 35mm system is. On the 35mm system they’re cropping off a significant chunk of the top and bottom of that circle, which may be neither here nor there photographically, but is a point worth noting when you consider the advanced thinking behind the m43 system making the best use of the lens projection circle.

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The Road To Micro Four Thirds (well, if I’m honest it’s the road to Deadvlei in Namibia)

System Advantages

Because the sensor in m43 is smaller than that of a 35mm camera, the resulting field of view for any lens you have for m43 at the same focal length is smaller by a factor of 2x. This has a huge significance for telephoto usage because you can get so much more out of a short telephoto than you would if you were shooting a 35mm camera with the same focal length. Another upside is that the effective aperture of your lens stays the same, so if you were using a 300mm f/2.8 on your m43 body, you would need a 600mm f/2.8 on your “full frame” DSLR to get the same frame view. I don’t know of any 600mm f/2.8 lenses.

Another major advantage with m43 that I discovered is that the lenses are so much smaller than those that were designed for most 35mm based systems. When you have to travel by air for photographic purposes you’ll get to appreciate this advantage very quickly. I’ve written more than enough about that so I won’t go into it again here, but now that I am quite well kitted out for m43 my future air travel stresses are totally erased. I can fit both my OM-D bodies and 6 lenses into my ThinkTank Retrospective 5 messenger style bag, which is just a little bit bigger than the bag you get for most 70-200/2.8 lenses. I will probably get a bigger bag for when I go on safaris, but it certainly won’t be anywhere near the gargantuan proportions of the bags I have used in the past.

Being small doesn’t mean that you are skipping out on image quality. The top end lenses that you can get for m43 are of the same quality, if not higher, than most lenses for any other system. Last year I got the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 ED which is the best lens I have ever owned. Period. And I’ve had Leicas and Angenieux glass before. I also recently got the new 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens with the E-M1 and it is definitely better than my Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 was. I couldn’t use the Nikon lens wide open, it got soft there, whereas the Oly lens is sharp everywhere. That’s a big claim to make because the Nikon 24-70mm is a very good lens.

You will read online about the increased depth of field that you’ll get from using a smaller sensor and how this means that you don’t get the same subject separation from m43 that you’ll get from 35mm DSLRs. Well, having used both of these systems I can agree to a point, but I actually view the increased depth of field as being an advantage, not a disadvantage. I can still get very short depth of field when I need it on m43 with a fast lens, but not so short that trying to find a part of the image that is in focus is all but impossible. Using f/1.4 lenses on FX at full wide aperture remains a focusing exercise I’d sooner forget, while shooting fast lenses on the OM-D series has not let me down at all.

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You can see the EXIF here and the depth of field. This is two stops from wide open.

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Very decent performance from this macro lens

The real beauty of the smaller sensor is that the very fast lenses are still small, plus they are much cheaper than their DSLR equivalents. Taking the Olympus 75/1.8 as an example, this is a lens that gives you an equivalent 150mm field of view when compared to 35mm full frame systems and it costs $900. The closest Nikon lens I know of to this is the 200/2 and that costs just over $5800, nearly 6 times the price. Yes, the Nikkor is sublime, but ask anyone who’s used the 75/1.8 and you’ll hear the same thing. It too is sublime. Size wise I know which of them I’d prefer carrying around on a shoot all day.

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Fancy carrying a couple of big DSLR’s up here?

When I was shooting with Nikon I reached the point where I never wanted to take my camera anywhere with me for personal photography. The main reasons for this were because of the size and weight of it, but also because as soon as I got busy using it the world around me changed. When you take out gear that size people will immediately notice you. Sometimes this can be a good thing, like if you want to create an impression of being a serious photographer, but in my case it created tension I could do without.

Not everybody likes to be photographed, so when they saw me coming with the big D700 and lenses their body language and entire demeanour changed. This affected the images I took. They were never candid. The other tension came about with me being worried about being liberated of my kit by thugs sizing me up for a quick mugging. It happens. Another thing I experienced a lot of when I used the D700 was the average photography enthusiast coming up to me to strike up a conversation about the camera and whatever lens I was using. This happened on nearly every shoot I ever did. There’s always some random person who wants to have a long chat about camera gear, which being the amiable person I am usually meant a sizeable chunk of time out of my shooting time. It was worse if I was on a job because then you have no option but to ask the person to please stop bothering you.

With the OM-D people don’t bat an eyelid. Most of the time they don’t even know I am taking their photo because with the rear LCD tilted up like a waist level finder I don’t give off the impression of taking a photo. That’s a huge advantage for street photography. Also, the only time I get asked about my camera is when people think I am still using a film camera.

An advantage that doesn’t get talked about very often at the places I visit online is the m43 autofocus system. This is extremely quick. I’ve used no fewer than 5 m43 bodies and the AF on each subsequent model has improved significantly on its predecessor. The E-M1 is like Greased Lightning no matter what lens I put on it. Compared to the Fuji X-trans system that I checked out briefly at Orms in Cape Town last year it’s like Formula 1 versus Formula VW, with the VW speed going to the Fujis.

System Options

There are a LOT of lenses for the m43 system. I think we’re currently sitting on around 45 lenses made by at least 4 different companies for this system and that excludes the lenses that were made for the original four thirds DSLR system. Those guys are usable on the m43 bodies with an MMF adapter and you retain all the features, but auto-focus tracking on the E-M5 is not great. I have read that it is much better on the E-M1 as that body has both contrast detect and phase detect AF sensors.

Olympus have made an exceptional range of fast primes for the m43 system. At the wide end you have the 12mm f/2.0, then there is also the 17mm f/1.8 and the 45mm f/1.8. Voigtlander have three ultra fast lenses for the system, namely the 17.5mm, 25mm and 42.5mm all of which have a maximum aperture of f/0.95. Cameraquest sells these manual focus lenses for around $1200 apiece. Yup, that’s $1200 for lenses with an f/0.95 aperture. Steve Huff has done some reviews of these guys on his site, so if fast glass is your thing you should go and check out his site.

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was impressed with the sharpness of this 45-175mm Panasonic lens

If you’re very serious about photography and you want the best m43 kit available, this is my recommended (and in parts desired system):

Bodies
OM-D E-M1 bodies for stills
Panasonic GH2/3 bodies for video

Wide Angle Zooms
Olympus 7-14mm f/4*
Olympus 9-18mm f/4-5.6
Panasonic 7-14mm f/4

* This is a four thirds lens, but it is what they call a Super High Grade Pro lens, so it’s up there with the likes of the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, just a stop slower. The Panasonic lens is also supposedly very good and when I was trying to decide if I should get that one or the Olympus 9-18mm I ended up getting the Olympus, mainly because it is so much smaller and lighter. Quite a few people on review sites think that its better than the Panasonic, even though it doesn’t go quite as wide. Having used it extensively in Namibia last year I can say that it’s a fantastic little lens, well worth the money.

General Purpose Zooms
Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO*
Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8

* This is a stunning lens! I’ve only had it for a short while and as I said earlier on in this article, I think it is better than the Nikon 24-70/2.8. You must have this one. I have not used the Panasonic but people who I know that do use it rate it very highly too.

Telephoto Zooms
Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8
Olympus 35-100mm f/2.0

The Panasonic is very highly rated by those who use it. The Olympus I have listed here is again a four thirds lens but having seen some of the images shot with this thing, you will have a hard time keeping your jaw off the floor when you see what it can do. Not cheap, but while we wait for Olympus to bring out their m43 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO it is definitely a lens you want to invest in.

Super Telephoto Zooms
Olympus 90-250mm f/2.8

Another four thirds lens, but one that is considered the King of all the zooms by Olympus users. I can’t think of a more useful range than this to use on a safari.

Prime Lenses
If the prime lenses are more your thing, you can’t really go wrong with any of the Olympus fast primes. I’d avoid the 17mm f/2.8 which while it is nice and slim, doesn’t have much in the way of any redeeming characteristics.

The must-have’s in the Olympus prime range are the 45mm f/1.8, the 75mm f/1.8, the 17mm f/1.8 and the relatively new 60mm f/2.8 macro. This macro lens has been getting rave reviews from all over the place. Many are saying that it is as good, if not better than the Cosina Voigtlander 125mm f/2.5. That’s a legendary lens, but the sources of this information are very good.

Just this morning, as I sat down to write this piece, news came out of the CES trade show in Las Vegas of a new collaboration between Panasonic and Leica that will bring a 42.5mm f/1.2 Nocticron lens to the market. This will be the fastest AF m43 lens. As yet the price is unknown, but if the other Pana/Leica lenses are anything to go by it will not be cheap. I own and use thePana/Leica 45mm f/2.8 Macro-Elmarit which I find very good.

Bargains

Get the Olympus OM-D E-M5 now while it’s being run out cheaply. You can get it at less than $1000 for the body only, but I see that amazon.com are selling the body with the 12-50mm weather sealed lens for only $1074 which is a steal for this kit. Clickhere for this deal.

There are over 200 user reviews on Amazon of the E-M5 and of those more than 155 of them gave it a 5 star rating. Nobody gave it less than 3 stars. I gave it 5.

I’d also suggest getting the HLD-6 grip for the E-M5 because it’s a 2-part grip that adds a lot of feel to the camera. You can remove the portrait orientation grip part that holds the extra battery if you still want to keep it small but with improved handling.

The E-M5 is a great camera to get into m43 with and if you find you enjoy using it you can upgrade to the more professional E-M1 at a later stage. I’m currently using both and I don’t think I will sell the E-M5.

If any readers are thinking about getting into the m43 system and need some advice, please feel free to drop me an email or PM right here on Fotozones. Also, if you’re in the USA I’d be most grateful if you used links on here to make your purchase fromAmazon.com. If you use my links it doesn’t cost you anything extra, but I get a little commission from them which helps me to keep the site going.

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Sundowners in Damaraland