Mythbuster: Professionals Use Large Sensors

Could as well write: professionals never use Micro Four Thirds. There’s a lot of misinformation wandering around the business of technology. Fact is, as we all know, Micro Four Thirds, the pioneer of a truly digital imaging system, has grown into a formidable contender. Be it stills or video, only the practiced eye can tell a smaller from a larger sensor. If at all.

When Olympus introduced the first Four Thirds camera in 2003, the legendary Olympus E-1, Olympus was joined by Kodak and Fujifilm and soon after by Panasonic. Kodak soon was history while Fujifilm never introduced a (Micro) Four Thirds model and went APS-C instead.

But in essence all three followed the same path. A fully digital-dedicated design avoided the image degradation of peripherals and the appearance of ghosts and flares. The linearity of light enables smaller image sensors to capture an image more accurately. That’s at least what marketing promises. Regarding sensor sensitivity, resolution and optics the new standard still had way to go. 11 years ago. Today, there is much more to Micro Four Thirds than just much more compact and lighter bodies than larger-sensor solutions.

The market's currently hottest selling Micro Four Thirds camera -- Panasonic GH4, especially a videographer's delight.
The market’s currently hottest selling Micro Four Thirds camera — Panasonic GH4, especially a videographer’s delight.
The standard also evolved into an open source format. Now, with the release of the raved video and still shooter, the Panasonic GH4, the Micro Four Thirds system has fully matured. Resolution matches larger formats and these newer generations of sensors a fourth the size of full-frame sport fast autofocus with elements of both phase and contrast detect.

EVF is not yet perfect, but we’re getting there, and the native lens selection has grown to a impressive offering, including fast and well-built, weather-sealed zoom and prime lenses. Still not satisfied? Then, to be honest, nothing will satisfy you.

Interestingly, the only difference between the original Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds introduced in 2008 was a new flange distance between the lens mount and sensor at 20mm, roughly half the distance of the previous Four Thirds mount. Thanks to live view, the reason behind the move to Micro Four Thirds was that the bulky mirror box system and viewfinder could finally be removed.

Et voilà, that was the birth of the “mirrorless” design that many new cameras now feature as standard. Fujifilm’s X series and Sony’s E mount follow the same concept while Sony’s A mount is a kind of legacy compromise. Thanks to the undeniable popularity of Micro Four Thirds with photographers and videographers alike, a number of third-party lens manufacturers are also releasing high quality lenses, including Schneider-Kreuznach, Leica, Kowa, Mitakon, SLR Magic, Voigtländer Cosina, Tamron, Samyang/Rokinon and Sigma.

There are a few quirks with the format, however, if you’re coming from a larger sensor format. Because of the short flange distance and small sensor, wide angle and macro lenses are few and far between. Thanks to the 2.0x magnification of both Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds sensors relating to the 35mm equivalent, available focal lengths are effectively “doubled.” So, even the widest Micro Four Thirds lenses aren’t as wide as they say.

Takes some getting used to, and while there’s no denying how amazing the image quality is, all other considerations being equal, larger sensors, rightly used, still result in superior image quality because they gather more light while at the same time offering a larger area on the sensor for bigger pixels and better resolution.

Only, is the average human eye capable of spotting the difference? Differences in image quality between systems have become mitigated by advancing technologies over the years. ISO options in Micro Four Thirds are mostly only a stop or two shorter of larger-sensor cameras. The right post-processing is the great equalizer, so in the end apples might very well become oranges.

This still doesn’t make up for the smaller sensor’s extended depth of field over the same aperture on a larger sensor. If you absolutely need the shallowest of depth of fields, then don’t deny the benefits of a larger sensor size. For macro though Micro Four Thirds is a blessing thanks to the deeper depth of field.

Why not. The ultimate rig. A  Micro Four Thirds Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera on lens steroids.
Why not. The ultimate rig. A Micro Four Thirds Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera on lens steroids.

On the flip side, this is an advantage for video because focusing becomes much easier with the larger hyperfocal distance. Blackmagic Design has taken note of this feature, they offer Micro Four Third mounts for their Pocket Cinema Camera and Cinema Camera, as well as their brand-new professionally oriented Studio Camera. Lens possibilities include a huge variety of modern and classic lenses from Panasonic, Leica, Voigtländer Cosina, Contax, Pentax, Canon, Nikon and many more. A litany of adapters are available from Dot Line, Metabones, Novoflex, Voigtländer Cosina, Bower, Vello, Phottix, Pro-Optic, Zeiss, Fotodiox and, of course, Olympus and Panasonic.

While they cost nearly $800, 16×9 Inc. and Chrosziel even make Micro Four Thirds mounts that will allow you to use huge PL mount cinema lenses on tiny Micro Four Thirds cameras. Kind of smashing the cute belief, isn’t it, that small things are for small, nonprofessional people only.

(inspired by Digital Photo Pro)

  • Yet another article that spreads the misinformation about the magnification of lenses due to the smaller sensor size.

    Please note: a smaller sensor does NOT increase the magnification of the lens – it merely changes the field of view. A 200mm lens on 4/3 does NOT have the magnification of a 400mm lens, it has the magnification of a 200mm lens, with a field of view and depth of field of a 400mm lens (at the relative f/stop).

    This is just basic physics.

    Quote: “Still not satisfied? Then, to be honest, nothing will satisfy you.” – well no, not true, our larger sensor bodies actually do satisfy in all the ways that a 4/3 system doesn’t.

    The Fuji X system and Sony E system don’t belong as a comparison (or at least there should be more clarity around the relationship) as these are not 4/3 systems, they are APS-C sized sensors, which are significantly larger than 4/3 sensors.

    As for the thesis of the article in general; please site some well-known professional photographers who have given up their larger systems to shoot their professional assignments with 4/3 systems.

    In addition to my professional gear, I also have a full Fuji X system, which I do enjoy quite a bit; but it doesn’t stand up to my full-frame pro gear.

    Please stop the mis-information and wishful thinking by framing it as ‘busting a myth’. The truth is, pros don’t use micro four thirds for their professional work.

  • JJ Black

    This article is trash.

  • I am not sure about the truism that bigger sensors gather more light. They do in an absolute sense, but that is irrelevant.
    What matters is per pixel resolution, and thanks to some stellar lenses m4/3 has spades of it.
    The remark about WA and UWA is interesting, because that’s a difficulty of the system. I still use a 4/3 9-18 for this reason, but it can probably be circumvented by bigger lenses, as Rokinon is showing.
    It seems that the system has its sweet point at 20 mm, which is the same of distance to flange. 40mm eq. is v. good for reportage purposes, and even for environmental fashion, where use is spreading.

  • I myself mainly shoot the Df. Because of the not too compact size, crisp OVF (EVF’s just not yet there) and an astonishing sensor. Still, was also heavily invested in Micro Four Thirds. So at least it’s authentic first-hand trash you just read and nothing from hearsay.

  • Right, most celeb pros are heavily invested in legacy gear, so why get rid of the whole lot. Speed, ISO, support and system choices, it’s still a no-brainer as you say. But that has less to do with quality than preferences and habit. More and more working photographers at least tinker with the idea of owning a more compact and versatile backup system. And especially in the filming industry, while the Canon 5D Mark II brought a revolution, the preferred choice today seems the above mentioned G4. That’s at least what my film buddies tell me.

  • Wolfgang Lonien

    Dan, “EVF’s just not there” is something I also thought – in the beginning, after looking through an EVF for the first times.

    By now I think they are vastly superior to OVFs – I nail exposure, white balance and the likes with the very first shot, and can simply go away without much ‘chimping’ which I always had to do when using my DSLR. I consider EVFs that good that even with “full frame” (an idiotic term) I would prefer one of the Sony A7 series to anything Canikon, which are just old tech by now (no offense to those who use them intended).

    So my advice would be: go and use these EVFs for a month or so, and after really getting used to what they offer, try to go back to an OVF – you will probably think the same after doing that.

    Advantages of the OVF: no battery drain during operation, and yes, with the speed of light they’re still faster, so you don’t have to anticipate that microsecond or so.

    And yes, I’d still take that Df or D4 sensor for low light – or the one of the Sony A7S.

  • You’re certainly right Wolfgang, many EVF advantages, especially the on-screen information. Oh, and with one Df charge I shoot 1,200 images…

  • S.Yu

    “the only difference between the original Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds introduced in 2008 was a new flange distance between the lens mount and sensor at 20mm”?

    I remember that the old 4/3 was still half frame, while the digital version is practically half of that.

  • No mention of the “magnification”?

  • That’s misinformation. With an effective imaging area of 17.3x13mm, the sensor sizes of Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds are the same dimensions. Add the same mount. That’s why you can use older Four Thirds lenses and even felm-era Olympus OM lenses on Micro Four Thirds bodies through adapters.

  • You certainly raise valid points Bob, yet I’m afraid to enter radical territory that smacks of a personal method of approach over true fact. In fact Micro Four Thirds is a crop, yet to the eye it’s a mere magnification. Never was and never will be a good pixel peeper or physicist for that, so I happily leave that to people with a true grasp for it. In the end we’re talking photography and not semantics. So yes, a different field of view or crops strictly speaking is no magnification. Yet it 99.999% looks the same.

  • S.Yu

    My bad. I was thinking of the old PEN series which was half frame, and preceded Olympus’s m43 PENs.

  • Andy Umbo

    It’s important to consider the end uses of whatever you do. The modern M4/3rds system has everything it needs to compete with 35mm film when reproducing the result in a magazine or newspaper. I was never a 35mm film shooter, not enough quality for me professionally (yeah, even Kodachrome, it doesn’t matter about grain, it’s physical enlargement that counted). BUT, 35mm film was great for magazine and newspaper shooters, where it’s reproduction masked it’s short-comings.

    Ditto for M4/3rd’s. I know many professional newspaper, travel, and magazine photographers that are testing it and switching over to it (especially Olympus) for the reduction in size, volume, and weight; and the results when reproduced in a printed source or on-line, is indistinguishable, in those vehicles, from something with a larger sensor size.

    I’m testing M4/3rd’s as well, not because I care about the weight, but because I hate the 3:2 aspect ratio, and always have (another reason I never shot 35mm film). I like being able to shoot 4:3, and even 1:1, like my old Hasselblad. If my clients allowed me the profit to pay for it, I’d certainly be shooting 120 DSLR based cameras, with their 4:3 aspect ration (but mostly because it has 16 bit color). But my clients might want a large print, as well as advertising uses, so it would make sense. You CAN most certainly see the differences in sensor size when you’re comparing a print to 20 X 24 from M4/3rd’s and a 44mm X 33mm 120 DSLR sized sensor!

  • Rich Owen

    From a former newspaper shooter, you make some good points, Andy. But I disagree a little with your point about advertising usage. I had an image from a Nikon D2H (never shot full frame on DSLR bodies, only APS-C) used for advertising on a billboard at roughly 6 feet x 12 feet. And, as newspaper editors say, it was “good enough.” I was very surprised at the quality of the image when view at a normal distance off a billboard. I know it did not contain the detail of a medium format sensor but it really did not matter.

  • Andy Umbo

    Agree’d, especially since you can count in ‘viewing distance’. I’m amazed at what smaller sensors can do all the time, one reason I’m OK with testing and changing over to M4/3rds…

  • By “Myth” did you mean “Fact” that professionals use larger sensors? If I were to wander into a wedding convention, I could pee in any direction and find a wedding photographer that shoots full-frame. Can you say the same about m4/3? Or how about commercial advertising photographers, I can’t think of one that doesn’t own or rent mf systems, but it’s literally unheard of to use an m4/3 system. So who are these “pros” that you are talking about using m4/3? Kirk Tuck. I can think of only one.

    Mythbuster: Pro’s ditch larger sensors for m4/3.

  • When you talk “pros” you’re likely referring to photography celebs who are brand ambassadors and shoot one brand only. Quite a few names come to mind when thinking “smaller” formats. Yes Kirk Tuck, Trey Ratcliff, fashion photographer Jay McLaughlin. Quite a few of my buddies in the news business use Micro Four Thirds gear. They’re professionals, they make a living from photography. Are they famous? No, and they could easily buy the more powerful gear. No need for them.

  • Some say that the person behind the camera is more important that the camera itself. And I agree.
    I remember my first year on the red carpet at Venice Film Festival, the smiling eyes of other photographers while looking at my tiny Olympus Em5 and MZuiko75mm.
    Nobody knew anything about that camera or lens.
    I went to Rome, late that winter, because one of my photos won the first portrait prize (a candid of Willem DeFoe).
    It was hanging printed 1 meter width, next to other photos taken with bigger sensor cameras.
    Actor Franco Nero told me it was his favourite picture of the exibition.
    And nobody asked me anything about my gear.
    From that moment I was “the photographer with the tiny cameras”, and now there is some kind of respect and friendship in those photographers’ eyes.

  • When I talk pros I mean myself, my co-workers and those they associate with. I mention the Advertising pro’s because they are recognizable yes, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are pro and do not shoot with smaller size formats. I shoot 35-40 weddings a year and we all sit and talk when we’re on breaks, no one person thinks about using m4/3 for a wedding. Don’t get me wrong, we’d love to, the weight of dslrs and lenses is not a joke many shooters over 40 have back problems. But why then do we still shoot with full-frame sensors? Because of performance.

  • Dan, there is another case showing that in digital the sensor technology is all, and size is nothing: the Foveon of the Sigma Quattro. It is an APS-C and at low ISO it’s better than the latest Sony FF sensor.
    In theory you could posit a foveon FF, but what for? Small sensors have their own advantages in DOF, and sharpness across the frame i.e. for classical photography.

    One should really do a campaign for this, until people begin to see the light: its’ the technology, stupid, not the size. And the lenses. m4/3 have some of the best lenses of the industry considering that they must resolve twice as much as a FF to be competitive.

    The third factor that mere camera owners never consider is content.
    A small camera allows to catch more easily significant content i.e in the Street.
    And that is important for a Photog, where for a mere camera owner, size will be more reassuring – but then, for what? Pets and Brats?
    Even for portrait a small camera can put more at ease a subject, and I am sure that in the less formal ones K. Tuck uses a m4/3 one. And I have seen it people using it for street fashion. It’s really a different way of life – a more informal one.

  • Not being snarky here (it’s hard to deliver tone in text).

    Magnification is actual amplification. If the lens amplified the image (in effect, got you ‘closer’ to the subject), then it would be magnification.

    The crop factor is what is known specifically, and scientifically as field of view. It’s not semantics, its physics, and knowing your tools. Half truths are still non-truths.

    Guys who work in camera stores (some who know better, some who don’t) will sell the myth of magnification when what is really happening is field of view. Of course they use this to their advantage because the majority of customers may never use a larger sensor and won’t know any better, but that doesn’t make it any less false. Words matter.

  • Yeah, most billboards are printed at about 48 DPI, so you could do a lot w/ 35mm frames. It takes about 24MP to get the same resolution as a 35mm negative, so we are well within the reach of the sizes needed today with digital.

  • Hate to burst the bubble on this one, but Kirk Tuck uses the Sony A99 (Full Frame) and the Sony A77 (APS-C) on his website for his professional samples, Trey uses the A7R (full Frame) and the A6000 as his backup (APS-C). Jay McLaughlin uses a Canon EOS-1D Mark III – You can check on their websites – the images still have the EXIF data on them.

    They may play with the smaller sensors like many of us, but when clients’ money is on the line, they pull out the pro bodies just like the rest of us.

  • Kirk Tuck

    Since I’ve been mentioned a couple of times in these comments I thought I might as well chime in. I bought my first m43 camera in 2010 and have been shooting them, of and on, ever since. I recently sold every single stitch of Sony equipment, including the full frame a99, a77, Nex7, etc. and bought a complete Panasonic GH4 system with a full complement of lenses. In the last year I’ve shot interior architecture for a national magazine feature article for two different issues. These are folks who used to hire us to do 4×5 inch photography in the film days. They know what good photos look like and they had no qualms whatsoever using the images.

    I’ve recently done executive portraits on location for one of Austin’s largest and most prestigious architectural firms using the GH3 and GH4 cameras with the high speed zooms and the clients were delighted. We recently shot product with the same cameras and lenses for a high tech client here in Austin. Big server racks full of their servers. The images work well on print and the web.

    I have written many times before that people are apt to look in the rear view mirror when making assessments about equipment. They see what pros were using five years ago and extrapolate from there.

    It’s true that pros may be the most conservative of technology adopters. They have a lot tied up in their current inventory. But the ones I meet are quickly moving to mirror less cameras of all kinds and once they start shooting with them they have the conviction of a religious convert.

    For me the big deal is both the WYSIWYG EVF and the fact that it’s easier to design better lenses for smaller geometry sensors. Read some of the white papers from Leica about lens design. Bigger elements are harder to make well.

    I got the Panasonics with the idea that they would be my video cameras but after testing them side by side with my previous cameras I could easily see that they can be used for just about anything I might shoot.

    So, to date, I’ve probably done a couple hundred portraits for various clients, in the studio and on location with the Panasonics. I’ve done several dozen full day corporate advertising shoots with them as well.

    Most cameras are way overkill for the use that 80% of clients will have, which is web advertising. But even in the realm of print you’ll have to go larger than 16×20 inches to start seeing ANY difference in IQ between m43 and FF if you shoot them as most pros do= stabilized, ISO between 100-400, good lenses.

    All the enthusiasm for super high ISOs and 40×60 inch prints are amateur considerations that rarely play out in the commercial realm.

    Do I like these small cameras? Absolutely. I just bought two of the older OMD EM-5s and more lenses for the system. I’m counting on them to help me put my kid through four years of private university education. I’m pretty smart and I wouldn’t bet on technology I didn’t think I could count on.

    I’ve owned full frame Kodaks, Nikons, Canons and Sonys and I can say that the real difference between image quality of professional images and other images is the depth of knowledge and practice and lighting skill that they bring to the table. Not the gear. The gear is interchangeable. We charge for what we know not for what we can buy.

  • One More Thought

    Kirk, thanks as always, for being a voice of reason and experience. I always enjoy reading your blog.

  • Think this closes the debate for good, appreciate your hands-on take Kirk. “Depth of knowledge and practice and lighting skill,” as you say… imagine we could by those. Size would still matter. To some.

  • Owned every focal length from the 7-14mm to the 50-200mm with the TC 1.4x converter, never worried about a sweet spot. Zuiko optics were always excellent. Noise performance was subpar in the early days, then the E-3 suffered banding, never touched the E-5. With the PENs and OM-Ds Olympus opened a whole new chapter. If a photographer can’t make those cameras work, no camera works. Alright, for sports and speciality photography there are better tools. That concerns not even 1% of amateurs, enthusiasts and pros.

  • I use NEX and A7R since some time now and sold my D3 last year.

    Last week a friend brought her D3 to try my Nikkor 135/2 lens – and I tried it on the D3 two. My eyes are very poor and I really could not focus at f/2, no chance. With the EVF with focus peaking and magnification on the NEX and A7R I have no problem at all focusing this fast lens.

    If you have problems with your eyes, try an EVF and you don’t want an OVF any more.

  • kirk tuck

    Dan, I’ve really been loving your site. Great work!

  • JJ Black

    Nothing personal, I just feel there’s A LOT of push around the GH4 that all smacks of marketing to me. Lot’s of people trying to tell you that tiny sensor is fine. I just don’t buy it. Came from medium format, went to film, then experienced a crop frame and M. 4/3rds. Would never intentionally get into a system smaller than full frame.

  • Robert Mark

    While we’re all trying to be painfully accurate, Dan, Micro Four Thirds is not a crop. A crop sensor only shows a portion of the image circle that the lens is capable of making. As we all know, Micro Four Thirds lens image circles perfectly match the sensor size. Which means that Micro Four Thirds is a “full frame” format.

  • Or rather a full size format/sensor?

  • Robert Mark

    For me, the terms “full frame” and “crop sensor” are generally meaningless because they are applied so inconsistently. Replacing “full frame” with “35mm sensor” is much more accurate and descriptive.

    To further numb the mind: Fuji X is a full frame APS-C system. Canon’s APS-C gear is a full frame system when used with EF-S lenses, but cropped when used with EF lenses. Same for Sony E-mount which is simultaneously 35mm full frame and APS-C full frame depending on the lenses used. There’s no end to this madness when using the increasingly meaningless full frame and cropped monikers.

  • T N Args

    Tuck himself has updated you, bob, on the same date of your post; he sold all his Sony gear and uses µ4/3 extensively for professional stills.

  • Renzo Manzonni

    Robert, you’re beating a dead horse.
    There’s only one Full Frame, same as there is only one Medium Frame, for example.
    The relatively recent digital frame sizes like APS-C, 4/3rds, M4/3rds etc areexactly what Dan Theme stated – a croped full frame format. They may show the “full frame” picture but the sensor sizes are cropped from the full-frame sensor sizes.
    It’s semantics, been done and discussed in the past to nausea…

  • Drazen B

    Yup, Dan’s the man…this site simply rocks.

    I basically peruse this and only this site daily, with my first morning coffee in the office before the daily grind has caught on…yeah – thanks Dan for many thoughtful articles you produced so far and down-to-Earth dialogs.

  • You two certainly make my day!

  • Ironymous

    Right. So billboards with APS-C are A-OK, but posters with m4/3 are not. Got it.

  • Ironymous

    There’s nothing more humbling than to rant based on an erroneous assumption. The old PEN series are not even 4/3, so your original statement was wrong no matter how you may try and justify it.

  • Ironymous

    “the old 4/3 was still half frame, while the digital version is practically half of that.”
    The digital 4/3 format is half the size of the old PEN film format? No.

  • S.Yu

    Yes, basically.
    If you want to go down that road then APSC isn’t half of FF.
    And Canon’s APSC isn’t APSC.

  • Huh? I never say that. You could produce a 48DPI billboard w/ a MFT. Personally I wouldn’t, but it could be done.

  • S.Yu

    “I was thinking of the old PEN series which was *half frame*”

    Not very fun arguing with someone who can’t read.

  • Robert, Just was re-reading this article.

    To clarify – and I think this will help make sense – the reason it’s called a ‘crop’ sensor is because lens measurements are still don’t in 35mm equivalents. If you purchase a lens (even if it’s a native DX/APS-C format, or m43), the mm value of the lens is still measured in 35mm (Full Frame) numbers. You an put a FF lens on a APS-C body, but the rear-element will still be the same distance from the element to sensor, which is how focal lengths are determined.

    FF has always been (since digital came about) the naming convention for the approximate of the 35mm frame size.

    hope that’s helpful!

  • I appreciate Zack for what he is, but he’s more of a photography personality and teacher – and he’s great at those things – than a full-time working photographer – it’s also important to note that his choice of cameras (similar to many folks whose careers are more online than off) is based largely on the companies endorsing him. He no longer is endorsing the Fuji’s since his deal with them ended – and you’ll see in his newer tutorials him using different brands, AND FF bodies… :)

  • Ruhayat X

    S.Yu said:
    “I was thinking of the old PEN series which was *half frame*”
    Not very fun arguing with someone who can’t read.
    Except, that’s not what you’d written:

    “I remember that the old 4/3 was still half frame, while the digital version is practically half of that.”

  • S.Yu

    Another guy who can’t read? What do you think “My bad.” means then? I was saying that at the time I mistakenly remembered the old Pen-F from the 70s to be part of 4/3, and I realized immediately my mistake, thus “My bad.”