Some of my friends are a little puzzled by my decision to drop my Nikon Full-Frame (FF) system for a Micro Four-Thirds (M4/3) system. Many professional and amateur photographers view the M4/3 system as inferior because of its smaller sensor (1/4th the surface area of a “full-frame” sensor). But the quality difference is relative and mostly relevant for pixel-peepers and some pros as I’ve already discussed here: On The Pursuit of Ultimate Image Quality.
I also discussed how 16-24 megapixels is more than enough for most people: Megapixels vs. Print Sizes.
Bottom line is that real photography is not about pixel-peeping, it’s about art and storytelling, as I discussed here: Technical Quality vs. Art and Storytelling. And the reality is that the latest generation of M4/3 cameras are better than my FF Nikon D700, which just a few years ago was considered THE DSLR to beat. So to me the current M4/3 cameras are more than good enough and actually can do a few tricks that DSLRs simply can’t.
The camera doesn’t make the picture, the photographer does. A good photographer with a crappy camera will make more interesting pictures than a crappy photographer with $10,000 worth of gear. A better camera will not make you a better photographer, it will just lighten your wallet and stress your back and shoulders.
Over the last few years I rarely used my Nikon D700, it would stay at home most of the time while I carried my Lumix LX5 everywhere I went. While I occasionally took my D700 and a lens or two on some hiking trips, my Nikon kit was so bulky and heavy that I never took the whole thing along with me. I travelled to the Maldives, Fiji, Canada and India and left my Nikon at home in favour of the LX5. Carrying all that load also took the fun out of photography and in the end I’m not a working photographer, I’m a hobbyist and if I don’t enjoy photography then what’s the point of having such expensive and heavy gear? Despite it’s limitations, I enjoyed the LX5 a lot more than I enjoyed the D700.
There are other factors beyond the sensor size that affect image quality, most importantly the lenses. While the likes of Nikon, Sony and Canon make excellent pro lenses, they are very expensive and very large and heavy. On the other hand Panasonic and Olympus have a large range of superb yet very small M4/3 lenses that will not break the bank or your back. While full-frame cameras can produce shallower depth-of-field (DOF), it is hard to make a full-frame lens that is sharp in the corners when wide-open. Conversely, most M4/3 lenses are super sharp wide-open, so the two stop DOF advantage often disappears. Same for high ISO noise: full-frame is better by a stop or two, but having to stop down will often mean that this advantage disappears and when you throw-in the MFT’s superb 5-axis in-body image stabilisation that gains you 5 f-stops, the MFT can often be used at much lower ISO.
While it is true that it is harder to get shallow DOF with M4/3 cameras, it is still quite feasible especially with affordable fast lenses that are usable wide-open. Many people also seem to forget that more often than not, having deeper DOF is an advantage! And if you like wildlife photography, you can get a small hand-holdable 600mm f4 equivalent lens, something that costs and weight nearly as much as a car in the FF DSLR world.
I plan to stick mostly with primes and my complete kit will fit in a small shoulder bag and weigh less than 5lbs. Now that’s a kit I can carry around and enjoy shooting with. The small loss of image quality will be completely irrelevant to me and I will actually produce more and better images. My old bones will be thankful, as will my wallet.