Most photographers know about the micro four-thirds (MTF) system, but just as many are unfamiliar with the actual benefits of this smaller-sized camera sensor.
Since first entering the photography scene, the micro four-thirds format has created a lot of buzz, with most photographers come across them either loving them or hating them.
Regardless of which camp you fall into, the only real way to know how well, or how badly, these cameras will perform for you is to try one for yourself.
No camera is perfect, but I’d be willing to wager that you won’t find much that you don’t like after you take one out for a day.
But what does ‘Micro Four Thirds’ mean exactly and what might this mean for you?
Micro four-thirds is a camera system that Olympus and Panasonic developed. ‘micro’ refers to the mirrorless feature of the camera. Kodak and Olympus initially created the four-thirds system in the DSLR form.
Micro four-thirds is a camera system that Olympus and Panasonic developed. ‘Micro’ refers to the mirrorless feature of the camera. Kodak and Olympus initially created the four-thirds system in the DSLR form.
The goal of Kodak and Olympus was to create a high-performance camera that was more compact than the 35mm film SLR lens variants.
Telephoto lenses received the biggest benefit, as a 300mm telephoto lens for a four-thirds lens offered the equivalent field of view to a 600mm lens used on a 35mm SLR.
With the new ‘micro’ four-thirds, there is no need for a mirror box, so the body and flange distance of the camera is considerably downsized compared to the mirrored alternative, allowing for the smaller form factor.
The new four-thirds variants also offer the same performance benefits for telephoto lenses as the original Kodak and Olympus four-thirds did back in the day.
As for what this might mean for you, let’s take a closer look at the system.
Micro Four Thirds and the Main Types of Camera Sensors
Here are four common types of sensor (9 types in total):
Medium Format – Medium format sensors vary in size and refer to cameras using sensors much larger than 35mm, namely Hasselblad, Pentax, and more recently Fujifilm.
Full Frame (35mm) – Full-frame sensors are by far the most popular for professionals because of their strong association as being the standard size, which is a carryover from the film era.
Full frame sensors are the most popular for professionals because of their strong association as being the standard size, which is a carryover from the film era. Popular and powerful full-frame cameras include:
- The Canon 5D Mark IV
- Nikon D850
- Sony A9
APS-C – This sensor is smaller and most often features on the more-consumer-oriented DSLR and mirrorless cameras on the lower end of the price scale.
This sensor is smaller and most often features on the more-consumer-oriented DSLR and mirrorless cameras on the lower end of the price scale. Well-known APS-C models include:
- Fujifilm XT3
- Sony A6400
- Nikon D500
Micro Four Thirds refers to a mirrorless camera sensor system released by Panasonic and Olympus (Eastman Kodak and Olympus developed the four-thirds sensor for the DSLRs).
This refers to a mirrorless camera sensor system released by Panasonic and Olympus (Eastman Kodak and Olympus developed the four-thirds sensor for the DSLRs). Popular micro four-thirds cameras include:
- Olympus OM-D EM-10 Mark III
- Panasonic Lumix DC-G9
- Olympus E-PL5
Although generally much lighter and smaller than their full-frame counterparts, the real advantage is not so much tied up with the camera’s size, but most importantly, the size of the lenses.
For example, a 300mm M43 lens is capable of a similar performance to an ultra-telephoto lens.
For this reason, the micro four-thirds system is a compelling and very convenient choice for carrying around, especially for bird and wildlife photography.
M43 is only available on Panasonic and Olympus (also Black Magic Video) cameras, but many photographers are starting to notice the power and versatility these compact performers can provide.
While performance in a compact form is the main reason for this popularity, there are many other reasons why you might want to use the micro four-thirds system.
The Features and Benefits of Micro Four Thirds Camera Sensors
Micro four-thirds have proven themselves to be extremely versatile cameras for all types of photography – from woodland adventures to dynamic street scenes. Here are more reasons you will fall in love with the format:
- Light Weight – M43 cameras provide photographers who are always on the move a compelling alternative to bulky and heavy DSLR systems. Most of the weight advantage is due to the lightweight nature of micro four-thirds lenses.
- Compact – Being easy to hold makes for a nimbler photographer who can pounce on a golden opportunity at a moment’s notice.
- Portable – smaller cameras and smaller lenses mean you can either travel with less weight or increase your versatility in the field with more gear and accessories.
Capturing the perfect scene requires that you are there at the moment. The best way to do that for many wildlife photographers is to make the switch to micro four-thirds.
As you may know, there is a telecentric optical path on a micro four-thirds camera sensor which dramatically enhances the off-center resolution and corners of an image.
Light travels through the lens and onto the sensor in a straight path. Because there is little to no distortion of the light rays, a micro four-thirds camera can capture sharper, clearer images.
Meanwhile, the 2x crop factor means using a smaller lens for a longer focal length. This smaller sensor allows for better IBIS and superior video capabilities.
More About Crop Factor
Crop factor refers to the difference between a traditional 35mm frame size and the size of your camera’s digital sensor. The ratio is used to calculate the focal lengths when it is fitted to cameras with different sensor sizes.
Before digital cameras brought varying sensor sizes into the mix, any lens on any camera would capture the same proportion of the projected image.
However, modern digital cameras with a smaller sensor size mean that the camera can only capture a narrower field of view, and the final image appears to be zoomed in.
The crop factor was invented to allow photographers to determine the field of view they could expect when varying the sensor sizes with different lenses.
For micro four-thirds, a crop factor of 2 means that a 35mm frame is 4 times larger than your sensor size.
For more examples to help make crop factor a little clearer: a full-frame camera will have a 35 mm sensor, which gives it a crop factor of 1x, and APS-C has a crop factor of 1.5x.
Fortunately, manufacturers make it a little easier for you by listing the crop factor in the manual.
If you then multiply the crop factor by a lens’s focal length, you arrive at an equivalent focal length. This is the length you need to create the same field of view as a full-frame camera (35 mm).
Now we know what all the numbers mean, we can arrive at a 600 mm equivalent focal length when using a 300 mm lens on a micro four-thirds camera (2 x 300mm).
You would need a 600m lens on a full-frame camera to achieve the same field of view.
However, a smaller sensor size means it is more sensitive to noise at the higher ISO’s and has a greater depth of field when compared to larger sensors.
There are situations where the considerable depth of field can create advantages or become a disadvantage, depending on photography.
In portrait photography, shallow depth of field is preferred to separate the subject from the background. In contrast, a deeper DOF will get the subject in better focus for macro or telephoto photography.
Here are just a ‘few more features and benefits of micro four thirds:
- Telephoto Lenses – The perfect companion for wildlife photography. You get a larger depth-of-field (DOF), but in return, you have a setup that is easy to hold. Don’t forget, a larger DOF may also be advantageous in helping you capture more detail with greater depth and focus.
- In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) – Use lower ISOs for sharper images during handheld sessions at low shutter speeds. Olympus has managed to achieve an amazing 7.5 stops of handheld stability.
- Weather Proof – Cutting edge weather sealing ensures you can take to the outdoors without having to worry too much about the elements.
- Customization – Micro four-thirds allows for a lot of button customization. This enables you to set up the camera to your exact liking, allowing for faster shooting.
- Speed booster – Shorten your focal length and get an additional stop of light. Pretty cool!
- Compact Design – Micro four-thirds offers immense power despite being such a small and light system.
- Lens Size – Pro lenses are half that of their full-frame counterparts, with their Premium and Standard lenses being still smaller.
The Pro models are resistant to water, snow, and dust while also handling high and low temperatures.
Not having to worry so much about the weather opens lots of opportunities for adventurous photographers out in the field who have been waiting all day for that once-in-a-lifetime image. There’s no more running for shelter as soon as heavy clouds gather overhead.
The Panasonic GH5 is an excellent example of a sturdy M43 camera built to go anywhere and capture captivating images in any environment.
Constructed from sturdy magnesium alloy, this robust, versatile camera will shrug off rain and dust and features weather sealing around every joint, dial, and button.
Lens Compatibility and More on the Way
Any camera lens from any manufacturer can be used with this system by using an appropriate adapter.
The need for adapters has considerably lessened, but they are still handy for photographers who wish to use their current glass collection on a new model micro four-thirds.
During the early days of micro four-thirds, many photographers were nervous about throwing in their support for the format due to the few lenses available.
Times are a little different now, and the range of lenses available for M43 has grown considerably. It’s an open format so that any lens manufacturer can jump on board.
Sigma, Samyang, Voigtlander, Leica, and quite a few others have shown that they are prepared to support micro four-thirds with a range of lenses.
The available range now is astonishing, with everything from wide-angle to telephoto all readily available from most stockists.
More Reasons to Get on Board with Micro Four Thirds
Functionality – Micro four-thirds has an incredible lineup of functions, including Intelligent Subject Detection AF, GPS, Tripod & Handheld Hi-Res (OMD EM1X), Live ND (OMD EM1X), Pro Capture Mode, and 4K Video.
Price – M43 cameras and lenses can be bought quite cheaply, but It is possible to spend a lot, especially for the Pro lenses. That said, the Zuiko 7-14mm f2.8 is half the size, weight, and price of the full-frame equivalent Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8.
The premium lenses offer the best value, in my opinion. They are very reasonably priced while offering superb performance in a small package.
Why Micro Four Thirds Stands Out
Just as micro four-thirds have been bandied around over the past decade, you must also know about the introduction of full-frame mirrorless cameras.
The new kid on the block is the full-frame mirrorless camera, and the format has set the photography field abuzz with speculation and excitement.
Sure, a mirrorless full-frame may be a step closer to the power of a DSLR while avoiding the technical challenges inherent in that design, but they still lack certain features where micro four-thirds have them soundly trumped.
Now, that’s not to say the micro four-thirds system is definitively ‘better’ than any other system but rather to explain the contrasts and benefits of choosing this system over a DSLR or mirrorless system with larger sensors.
After all, you can’t look past the fact that manufacturers like Sony now offer superb edge, facial, and eye detection.
There are going to be times when your trusty micro four-thirds shortcomings will become glaringly apparent.
For instance, in extremely low-light conditions, most micro four-thirds won’t be able to provide the superior performance you’ve come to expect.
However, the micro four-thirds cutting-edge stabilization can often compensate just enough for you to get the job done when using a low ISO setting combined with an extremely slow shutter speed.
What’s more, the smaller camera sensor on micro four-thirds means that the camera can have a much more compact body.
There are still larger models available, and choosing a system is often practical and simple ergonomics. That is to say, it’s a matter of preference for the photographer!
It’s true, the micro four-thirds system cannot keep up with the tracking focus on higher-end DSLR cameras, but you could argue the very same for full-frame mirrorless cameras.
However, the positives most certainly make up for whatever disadvantages you might associate with the system. (This, of course, is subjective.)
If you happen to pick up a recent model, you should find even more features.
For example, Olympus has added face and eye detection autofocus to current models, while Panasonic has tweaked the micro four-thirds system to improve continuous focus tracking.
As if that’s not enough, micro four-thirds photography is much more conducive to many modern devices.
For example, the Olympus and Panasonic iPhone/iPad apps, which allow remote control of the camera and easy transfer of your photographs, seem to be ahead of other companies regardings usability and implementation.
Micro Four Thirds is a Great Alternative
Micro four-thirds offer a very distinct alternative to the standard larger sensor cameras.
While nothing is ever perfect with photography equipment, Micro four-thirds is undoubtedly the most attractive compromise between camera size, image quality, and price.
The small form factor of the m43 system lends itself perfectly to travel photography. You can take a small bag with your camera and a few compact lenses to get awesome shots of your vacation.
What’s more, you can choose between various types of cameras to suit your specific requirements, and most of the above benefits should apply to every model.
Either way, most photographers might know about this system, but certainly, nothing will help them realize the benefits of micro four-thirds more than through the first-hand experience of the equipment.