Full Frame vs. Micro 4/3's Format

In this article I want to talk about the controversial debate about Full Frame versus Micro Four Thirds format. You can read a lot about this across the Internet. The relatively small Four Thirds sensor format experienced a big hype not only since Olympus published it's best seller OM-D E-M5 in early 2012. More and more people seem to swap from their big and chunky DSLR gear towards the much more compact Micro Four Thirds system dominated by Olympus and Panasonic.

I want to discuss the current digital camera market situation and how it has changed over the past 12 months. Furthermore, I want to summarize the major differences of the two formats and why we may want both of them.

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Please note that this article is based solely on my personal experience and opinion. There is a lot more to say about this topic and I am not an expert in this field. I just want to share some thoughts about my recent observations in the digital camera space.

New Full Framers From Canikon

With the recently introduced new Full Frame camera bodies like the Canon EOS 6D and Nikon's D600 the Full Frame camera landscape changed quite a lot and made this sensor format much more affordable for photography enthusiasts and amateurs. With body street prices of about $2,000 and under Canikon want to push their Full Frame ranges and make it more attractive for the non professional consumers. A while ago Full Frame sensors we're out of reach for most amateurs. Now the price gap between semi-professional APSC and Full Frame cameras is much less significant and will likely boost sales of the latter.

Future of Full Frame Cameras?

The future will tell if this new trend towards larger sensor sizes will hold on and if prices for Full Frame camera bodies will drop further. Some day they might even reach a level that attracts photography beginners. However, that being said, we don't know how the development in DSLR technology might progress. Maybe the time for the current DSLR concept with a mirror and pentaprism is coming to an end and smaller mirrorless systems will prevail. Sony has shown with it's new DSC-RX1 how compact and yet powerful a Full Frame mirrorless camera can be.

Micro Four Thirds Gets Mature

At the same time of this recently rising Full Frame development the Four Thirds or in particular the Micro Four Thirds standard has made big leaps forward. Olympus and Panasonic as the main drivers of this lens mount issued a bunch of new zoom and fast prime lenses like the Olympus M.Zuikos 12mm, 17mm, 45mm and 75mm. Panasonic came up with a beautiful portrait prime lens in cooperation with Leica, the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4 ASPH and two fast zooms like the 12-35mm and 35-100mm, each with a constant aperture of f/2.8.

Also the third party lens manufacturer Voigtlander issued two very interesting and super fast manual focus lenses, the Noctons 17.5mm and 25mm, both f/0.95 and the quite new Korean producer SLR Magic surprised with a super fast Hyperprime 12mm f/1.6 lens. You can find a more comprehensive but not complete list of most Micro Four Thirds lenses here for your reference. Manufacturers like Samyang and SLR Magic are not listed there.

The times where people moaned about lack of Bokeh and shallow depth of field with the Micro Four Thirds system finally came to an end. With very fast apertures as mentioned above a separation of subjects from the background is now easily possible. The manufacturers seem to have recognise that there is a demand for fast high quality prime lenses. The Micro Four Thirds standard is now getting very mature and ready for almost any type of photography. The system has to be taken quite serious nowadays, even though professional photographers may still rely on the big two manufacturers Canon and Nikon as they established a professional service network (CPS and NPS respectively) which is essential for a professional work. However, I am sure that some pros own e.g. an Olympus OM-D E-M5 with some good glass either just for fun or for even more serious applications. The difference in quality gets smaller every year.

Do We Still Need Full Frame Format?

There are debates in forums across the Internet where people discuss whether we still need Full Frame cameras for the sake of image quality since the gap between small versus larger formats gets closer over time. People say that Full Frame cameras like the Canon 5D or 1D series are too chunky and heavy to carry around. Good and fast lenses for these cameras add even more to the weight problem. There are more and more people reporting that they left all Full Frame gear behind them and switched completely to Micro Four Thirds like the Olympus OM-D E-M5. They claim to get nearly the same image quality out of a much more travel-friendly setup. Furthermore, Micro Four Thirds cameras with good glass are much more affordable than any current Full Frame kit.

Now, is Full Frame at least for most amateurs and enthusiast obsolete? I my opinion this question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. There is definitely truth about the comparable image quality and certainly the smaller size and weight of new mirrorless cameras makes them very attractive for anyone who doesn't want to carry kilos of gear around.

Format Comparison In Details

High ISO Performance

Lets go into more details about what makes the Full Frame format still attractive and not only to professionals. There is the low light quality argument. While smaller sensor formats like Micro Four Thirds are getting closer in quality within normal ISO ranges, say up to ISO 1600, there is still a significant quality advantage beyond that point. Some might draw this line at ISO 1600 and some at 3200 but the main point remains the same that a larger sensor has better low light quality capabilities. Even my relatively old Canon 5D Mark II performs noticeably better at high ISO 3200 compared to the very new Olympus E-PL5 at the same ISO speed. The images out of the Canon are much cleaner in low light conditions beyond the ISO 1600 mark which is due to the massive sensor size of the 5D. You can check out this comparison in more technical depth at DxOMark test charts here. This means in practical terms even with a fast prime lens like my Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 I might end up with more grainy images in low light situations when using my Olympus Micro Four Thirds E-PL5 camera. I would in such a situation definitely be better off with a larger sensor size like on my Canon 5D Mark II. If you make this comparison with the newest Canon Full Frame body the 6D then this quality advantage is even more obvious.

Having said that, you have to admit that low light photography is not the whole world of photography. If you stay below the ISO 1600 mark the quality difference is very subtle when I compare my own files out of the two cameras. In fact, my Olympus E-Pl5 has according to DxOMark even a slightly better dynamic range than the Canon 5D Mark II.

Depth Of Field Control

The next battle ground is the capability of producing shallow depth of field. This comes down to a very simple formula that a bigger sensor at the same focal length and the same aperture (e.g. comparing a 50mm f/1.4 lens on two sensor formats) produces a shallower depth of field if the image frame stays exactly the same . For the 50mm example this would mean to achieve exactly the same image frame on Full Frame and Micro Four Thirds (e.g. a head and shoulder portrait) You would need to get much closer with the Full Frame camera towards your subject compared to the crop 2 Micro Four Thirds camera. The Full Frame image would have in this case a much thinner depth of field.

Again, not every photographer's holy grail is a maximum shallow depth of field. In fact the above described example for a typical head and shoulders portrait with 50mm at f/1.4 on a Full Frame body and approximately 1.5 meters distance between sensor and model would result in a depth of field of just 7cm (calculated with the DOF Master tool here). For the same image frame on my E-Pl5 body I would need to double the distance to my model to 3 meters and at the same aperture of f/1.4 the depth of field would then result in less impressive 30cm. Or if you want to achieve the same 7cm depth of field on the E-Pl5 you would need a maximum aperture of smaller than f/1.0 which is not even available.

That all doesn't necessarily mean Micro Four Thirds cameras are not capable to produce shallow depth of field and nice Bokeh background blur. Some of the new available Micro Four Thirds prime lenses are actually very suitable to shoot wide open and they give you enough depth of field control such as the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4 ASPH mentioned above. Also the price hit Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 45mm f/1.8 is a perfect background blurring tool if you keep the aperture wide open.

Weight And Size

Well, here we have a clear winner. I recently came across this quite interesting website that compares camera body sizes next to each other. Check out the Canon 5D Mark II versus the Olympus E-PL5 in direct comparison. The Canon is a massive brick against the tiny Olympus, not to mention the obvious weight difference (Canon EOS 5D Mark II [938 g] weights 189% (613 grams) more than Olympus PEN E-PL5 [325 g] *inc. batteries and memory card). If you also take lenses into account the imbalance gets even more extreme since Full Frame lenses with a fast aperture are a lot larger and heavier than the equivalent ones for the Micro Four Thirds system.

Final Conclusion

As an owner of both systems, Full Frame and Micro Four Thirds, I wouldn't want to miss any of them. Both have their place where they can shine and to me they actually complement each other. I do most of the time people photography and I love the effect of shallow depth of field paired with a nice creamy Bokeh blur. This is just my personal preference and may not apply to everyone. In fact in some photographic genres depth of field is meant to be very deep such as landscape or macro photography. Here actually a smaller sensor format has an advantage. With the smaller format You don't have to stop down your lens to e.g. f/16 like on a Full Frame body to get enough depth offield for a landscape shot.

To me a Micro Four Thirds camera is a compromise between depth of field control, ISO performance and size and weight. If you are happy to accept this compromise an Olympus OM-D for instance is a great camera. You should combine it with fast lenses though to obtain a good depth of field control. Also on the high ISO side the compromise can be acceptable for most users. Everything above ISO 3200 is in my opinion only relevant for extreme users. There are certainly situations where higher ISO speeds make sense. E.g. if you are shooting in very dark places and need a fast shutter speed to freeze movements. Last but not least the size and weight argument compensates a lot for the slightly downgraded image quality and less depth of field control. Especially when you travel every gram counts. I carried my 5D last year through Europe but at some point I left it most of the time in the hotel and took only my much lighter Fujifilm X100 with me. At that time I didn't own the Olympus E-PL5 yet.

I tried to cover most of the pros and cons of both systems and it seems obvious that both make sense to various types of users. Personally I take my 5D with me if I need the better DOF control and not so much for the better ISO speed as I rarely go beyond ISO 1600. The Olympus is my unobtrusive street and travel camera. With a fast prime lens attached I feel almost not limited compared to the Canon.

As a final word I want to mention that there might be hundreds of different opinions about this topic and everyone's preferences in photographic terms are different. This is only my personal view of how I see sensor formats and where they stand in the camera landscape. Please feel free to add a comment or correct me if I am wrong in some of my presented facts above. Thanks for reading

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Posted in Photograph Post Date 08/24/2017