m4/3 mythbuster

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

I don’t know who said that first, but boy oh boy, were they ever right. The internet is rife with comments which prove that old axiom to be true. Take the m4/3 format, for instance. There are many misconceptions floating about regarding the m4/3 system, most of which stem from the size of the m4/3 sensor. Let’s tackle some of these misconceptions…

MISCONCEPTION – “Pros use cameras with full frame sensors, so anything smaller sucks and is to be mocked and denigrated.”

TRUTH – Firstly, pros use all kinds of cameras. Some are full frame, some are not. For instance, famed National Geographic contributor Bob Krist has been using Nikon APS-C cameras for many years now. Jay Dickman, another Nat Geo contributor, is an Olympus shooter. Mr. Dickman has been working with the E-M5 the last few months. The list goes on and on – Thom Hogan, Michael Reichmann, Damian McGillicuddy, and many others use m4/3, either exclusively, or as a suppliment to their larger cameras.

Therefore the logical assumption would be that the image quality of smaller sensors most certainly does not suck. We’re talking about cameras used by talented photographers with decades of experience – cameras they use to create their art and earn their living. It should go without saying that these types of photographers are going to be drawn towards decidedly non-sucky cameras.

Fortunately, we don’t need to make any assumptions about image quality. We can instead use our eyes to judge image quality. In the last two years I’ve shot with two of the best APS-C cameras available during this time, the Nikon D7000 and the Sony NEX-5n. I’ve also shot extensively with the best m4/3 camera, the Olympus E-M5. I’ve never once been disappointed in the image quality of any of those cameras, even under extrememly difficult conditions. I’d also mention that the difference in quality between the m4/3 camera and the APS-C cameras is so small as to be irrelevant – there is no practical advantage in choosing APS-C over m4/3 at the moment.

Sure, if I was going to photograph a wedding, or some other low-light indoor event, I’d reach for a full frame camera. The same would be true if I intended to print very large – bigger than 20 inches on the longest side, for instance. Different tools for different jobs. For many jobs however, these smaller sensor cameras are far more than good enough. In fact, they can be effective even when printing large, as it’s possible in certain situations to stitch together several images using Photoshop.

MISCONCEPTION: “You can’t achieve shallow depth of field with a m4/3 camera.”

TRUTH: It’s true that a smaller sensor will give greater depth of field – basically, f/2.8 on a m4/3 camera will give you the same depth of field as f/5.6 on a full frame camera. However, the difference can be mitigated somewhat by using faster and/or longer lenses, and the m4/3 system now contains many such lenses, with more on the way. Here’s the thing though – after many months of shooting with the E-M5, I’ve found the additional depth of field to be a benefit rather than a detriment, more often than not. This is especially true in low light situations, where I can use a larger aperture to maintain a decent shutter speed, while still achieving adequate depth of field.

MISCONCEPTION: “A better(bigger) sensor always means better image quality.”

TRUTH: Not necessarily. Many things factor into the quality one can achieve with various cameras, not the least of which is the lenses one places in front of their sensors. I’d rather have a great lens in front of a decent sensor, than a great sensor fronted by a mediocre lens. Lenses are one of the great strengths of the m4/3 system, and unfortunately the greatest weakness of Sony’s NEX system at this point in time. I’d be an exclusive NEX shooter, if NEX had a lens lineup similar to m4/3. Lenses, not sensors, are the heart and soul of any system.

MISCONCEPTION: “Okay, so lenses and other factors can make an impact regarding image quality, but a big sensor will always outperform a smaller sensor. Therefore, no matter how good m4/3 gets, it’s performance will always trail that of larger sensor cameras.”

TRUTH: All things being equal, this is true. The question is whether or not this matters. Sensor performance will continue to improve. Noise control, dynamic range, color accuracy, etc – all will get better and better over time. Engineers have yet to max out the capabilities of current sensor design. There are also new designs on the horizon which will provide even greater leaps in performance. Smaller sensors will get closer and closer to the capabilities of larger sensors, until the differences become all but irrelevant. This is already starting to happen further up the food chain, as the 36MP Nikon D800 is beginning to make medium format cameras look increasingly overpriced and unnecessary. Small sensors will continue to improve, until they’re able to handle almost every photographic challenge placed before them. The size, weight and price advantage of small sensor cameras, combined with their outstanding image quality will far outweigh any image quality advantage big sensors might still possess. Big sensor cameras with super-high resolution will be available, but they’ll be niche products owned by a few, used for special situations. That’s just how technology progresses. Or, as Steve Martin once said, “Let’s get small.”

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