My love affair with Micro 4/3

Riding on my latest post about Olympus’ announcement of the OM-D E-M1X, I felt compelled to write this now so as to kill any misconceptions readers may have regarding my attitude towards Micro 4/3.

To put it clearly, I have nothing against Micro 4/3, which I see as a very mature system following its inception 10 years ago. Moreover, for several years I was a Micro 4/3 user, I was passionate about the system and to some extent I still am. To the point that every now and then I think about buying a Micro 4/3 camera just for fun, notwithstanding the fact that 6 years ago I decided to sell all may Micro 4/3 gear and switch to Fuji.

On the other hand, the announcement of the OM-D E-M1X as a sport / action camera made me want to revisit some photos I took back in 2013 with my Olympus OM-D E-M5. This was when Nitro Circus visited my home town Macau and put up a really good show.

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All above shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5 with M.Zuiko Digital ED 75mm f/1.8 lens. Full resolution and EXIF data available in thumbnails below.

It was over 6 years ago but I still recall how I carried a small and light package in my backpack and was able to shoot happily with satisfying results. I call it satisfying because I’m obviously not a pro and probably these photos would not survive a pixel-level scrutinizing by any expert from this trade.

But still, as an amateur photographer, I was quite proud of the results especially because I was not carrying any monster DSLR with a white coloured long lens. I had everything in my backpack and not suffering with the load.

So what gear was I using?

I had an Olympus OM-D E-M5 (the first OM-D camera from Olympus) and the HLD-6 battery grip attached to it, but only half – never felt the need to use the vertical grip. In fact Olympus really got it right by creating this grip as a modular system. Handling was perfect.

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My Olympus OM-D E-M5. I took this photo for an ad when I decided to sell everything. 

In my backpack I carried the lenses I used the most and these were basically all my native Micro 4/3 lenses except for the kit zooms. I could do this because, as you already know, Micro 4/3 lenses are small since they don’t need to project a very large image circle, just enough to cover the relatively small sensor of the camera.

Therefore, the lenses are small and light and from this point of view it was always a pleasure and very practical. I didn’t need to think what lens to take out with me, I used to just put them all in the backpack. Some lenses, like the Lumix pancakes, were so small that could fit in a jacket pocket. The Lumix 14mm was like the size of a regular lens cap!

Clockwise from top left: (1) Olympus 75mm f/1.8; (2) Olympus 45mm f/1.8; (3) Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95; (4) Lumix 14mm f/2.5 ASPH; (5) Lumix 20mm f/1.7 ASPH

Most of the photos in Nitro Circus I shot with the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 due to my distance from the action. The 75mm was an amazing lens and with the 2x crop factor it was effectively a 150mm telephoto in 35mm standards. Together with its f/1.8 maximum aperture, it was quite a combination!

Focus was fast and precise, although continuous focus in such low light was always a challenge. I missed many shots because of this, but still was able to bring home a handful of keepers. The 9 fps burst mode surely helped.

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All shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5 and several native Micro 4/3 lenses. 

Now, the reason why I’m sharing these photos: the OM-D E-M5 that I was using was launched by Olympus back in 2012, i.e. 7 years ago. In those days this camera was already ahead of time. It had a 16 megapixel sensor, focusing speed was super fast (Olympus claimed to be the fastest in the market), it had 5-axis in-body stabilization which was a first and superb, and the camera also came equipped with a built-in EVF which proved to be very good at 1.44 million pixels.

It all came in a small, solid and high quality body that weighed only 425 grams. But, most importantly, in the hands of an amateur like me, this camera was so powerful that I was able to capture the photos you saw above.

In the meantime, Olympus expanded the OM-D series and added the flagship E-M1 and an entry level E-M10. All these cameras had evolved and been updated, and now they are available as Mk II or even Mk III models.

I’ve never used any of the recent OM-D cameras, but if the first E-M5 was already so good, I can only imagine the latest ones are superb cameras you can use in every imaginable shooting situation.

So who the heck needs a Micro 4/3 camera body on steroids like the recently launched OM-D E-M1X?

Micro 4/3 is meant to be a small system. An over sized camera body like the OM-D E-M1X is actually a contradiction to fundamental concept behind this system.

Love at first sight

The reason I’m somehow emotional about all this is because I had a love affair with Micro 4/3 in the past and I’m still passionate about this system. Our relationship goes back a long way. It all started when Olympus launched the EP-1 ten years ago in 2009.

It was love at first sight.

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Love at first sight: Olympus EP-1, my first Micro 4/3 camera.

I immediately fell in love with the EP-1’s small size and retro looks. But most importantly,  it looked like a proper camera and felt like a proper camera, not an electronic gizmo.

I remember going to my local camera store to check it. I was still skeptical before I got to see it and experience it myself. As soon as I got to touch the camera and have it in my hands, I immediately knew I had to buy it.

What made up my mind was the fact it actually had a focal plane shutter, so every time I pressed the shutter button I could feel the slight vibration in the camera body and hear the click-clack sound of the mechanism. I’m old school and my passion for photography goes back to the film days, so I do need this mechanical connection to feel that I’m holding a proper camera, not an electronic device.

Timing was pretty perfect as well. In 2010 my son was born and every time you go out with a baby you have to carry loads of stuff… So on top of the milk bottles, the diapers, the wet towels and all that, I was not into carrying a monster DSLR with me… The full-frame Canon 5D was my main camera back then, but under this scenario it stayed home most of the time.

Micro 4/3 was the answer to this dilemma and the clear way forward for me.

Building up the system

In 2009 it was still the very beginning of Micro 4/3 and there were not so many lenses for this system. Initially I was happy just shooting with the kit M. Zuiko 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 lens, but as the system matured I started researching as well and gear acquisition syndrome hit me hard…

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With the M. Zuiko 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 lens and in-camera black and white filter. 

Native lenses were coming out slow, but what everybody quickly realized was that this system allowed the use of non-native lenses through adaptors.

These adaptors were really cheap and all of a sudden everybody was just experimenting with all type of lenses and happy that old lenses previously kept in the shelf, all of a sudden were given a new opportunity and found a new life.

While some people would attach Canon FD or even EOS lenses, I preferred not to go that way because the lenses were too big for the EP-1 camera body and the combination looked weird. I decided to go for Leica M-mount lenses, which were small and the correct size to suit the body.

So one day I decided to take the ferry to Hong Kong to check a Voigtlander M-mount lens… And eventually I ended up coming back to Macau with three Voigtalander lenses!

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Voigtlander Ultra Wide Heliar 12mm f/5.6 
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Voigtlander Color-Skopar 25mm f/4.0
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Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.4

These lenses were average, but they were not very expensive so I was quite happy with the results. Their respective focal lengths gave me good coverage to play with. Considering the 2x crop factor, it meant I had a 24mm, a 50mm and a 70mm. Very good indeed.

Plus, the Voigtlander lenses made the EP-1 look extremely cool. People in the streets would stare at the camera and some would even ask me if it was a film camera. It looked really stylish!

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Beautiful colours but noticeable light fall-off: both photos above taken with the Voigtlander 12mm.
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With the Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4.

To complement the classic look, I bought an Olympus brown leather strap which was very soft and comfortable, and also a leatherette sticker I found online from a japanese supplier which was custom made for the EP-1. It covered the mid section of the body to give it a continuous leather finishing. It was perfect!

Black leatherette, soft leather strap and classic Voigtlander lenses. Stylish looks, small package and good image quality. What else can you ask for?

If you look at the photo on the left above, you can actually feel how light the camera is. That was coupled with the Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4. I could hang it just like that around my neck for a full day without any problems. This was pretty perfect and I went everywhere with the camera. Small and light, very good image quality.

The ongoing improvements

Both Olympus and Panasonic were pushing the system, so over the years there were more updates and the system matured. The EP-1 had its shortcomings, it had a very sluggish autofocus and no electronic viewfinder. The lack of a viewfinder made manual focusing very difficult, so shooting with my Voigtlanders was not necessarily the most intuitive experience.

Very soon Olympus launched updates and improved specs with the EP-2 and finally the EP-3. So over the years I’ve been selling and buying to get the latest model… I was that passionate about it.

The EP-2 allowed for the use of an external viewfinder, whereas the EP-3 offered super quick and accurate autofocus. It was pretty perfect. The VF-2 external viewfinder was the best in the market, in fact so good that Leica rebranded it to be used as EVF for their M and TL cameras.

At this stage, I progressively stopped using the Voigtlander since there were already several native Micro 4/3 lenses available in the market. The Voigtlanders were fun to use, but frankly in terms of image quality they were not the best. Plus their apertures were quite limited, as opposed to the prime lenses launched by both Olympus and Panasonic. And there was no autofocus.

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Everyday lens: the Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 ASPH pancake
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Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f/1.8

The Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 ASPH lens ended up becoming my everyday lens. I liked the focal length and also the fact it was a pancake lens. It was short and light, making it very portable.

In the backpack – or jacket pocket! – I would have the Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f/1.8. This lens was pretty amazing, the body was made out of plastic so it was very light. But the image quality was superb, and the f/1.8 aperture allowed for some creamy bokeh.

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With the Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 ASPH

This was my perfect lightweight system: the EP-3, the Lumix 20mm f/2 for everyday scenarios and the 45mm f/1.8 for portraits or any time I had to get closer. It was my winning team and I used it diligently for many years, but then…

Then Olympus launched the OM-D E-M5

And initially I was a bit disappointed with the design. That faux-pentaprism looked very weird to me and I had immediately decided I would keep my EP-3 and not upgrade to the E-M5.

But whatever made me change my mind, I’m not even sure today… Probably the built-in viewfinder (as opposed to the VF-2 attached to the EP-3 which was useful but cumbersome) or the 5-axis stabilization which guaranteed smooth video footage. Anyway, I ended up selling my E-P3 and bought myself the E-M5.

The E-M5 was perfect, super fast in terms of AF and pretty much everything. If there is a word I can use to describe this camera, I’d say is FAST. Not just because of the AF or 9 fps. The camera was not only small, light and nimble. It had a perfect grip. So everything combined it was a fast action camera. Obviously, image quality was very good as well.

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With the E-M5 and Olympus 75mm f/1.8. 

The E-M5 was my last Micro 4/3 camera. I was very satisfied with its performance, however to some extent I was feeling the limitations of the Micro 4/3 sensor. Low light constraints is the most obvious and the problem raised by most photographers when they talk about Micro 4/3. This was not my main problem though.

I somehow felt the photos lacked some depth and character. I guess the dynamic range was one of my problems, and in daylight sometimes I felt the photos came out a bit flat.

This eventually triggered my will to find a better camera system (though better is subjective) and ultimately I was lured by the qualities of the Fuji X system. Their  special APS-C size X-Trans sensor with its non-Bayern pixel arrangement and lack of AA filter made me jump ship. Moreover, their camera bodies looked great and were very classic and old school with its dedicated shutter speed dial and aperture ring in the lens.

Thus I sold my E-M5 together with all my Micro 4/3 lenses and bought myself a Fuji X-E2 and three Fujinon lenses.

And so ended my love affair with Micro 4/3.

But still…

Still from time to time I think about getting a Micro 4/3 camera just for fun. The reason I haven’t done it (yet…) is because I’m very happy with the Fuji X system and I don’t see myself selling my Fuji gear. So, if I decide to buy a Micro 4/3 camera, it means I’ll be feeding one more camera system – and frankly I don’t want to go down that route.

But sometimes you just can’t help it. The Olympus Pen-F is beautiful and for me it embodies perfectly the essence of Micro 4/3. It’s got that classic Olympus Pen look that started back in the film days and was so successfully applied in the original E-P1.

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Olympus Pen-F. What a beauty

But the Pen-F take things to the next level with all those retro dials. Plus, it has a built-in EVF. No more cumbersome external VF-2 add on.

This is called gear acquisition syndrome and I admit I’ve been a long time sufferer of this disease. So… Don’t be surprised if sometime in the future you read something here about my Olympus Pen-F.

 

For full resolution and EXIF data please click thumbnails below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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