Modern camera with a vintage lens isolated on white

DSLR vs. Micro 4/3 Cameras: Which is right for you?

Modern camera with a vintage lens isolated on whiteMicro 4/3 cameras have become an extremely popular topic of discussion because they are not only smaller and lighter than most DSLRs on the market, but they also have DSLR-like features that have made several photographers scratch their heads and say, “I wonder….”

Personally, I put an Olympus EM-1 (high-end micro four-thirds camera) in my Amazon shopping cart and had it on pre-order but eventually got “camera shy” and cancelled the order.  In this post I want to walk you through some of the benefits and drawbacks to micro four-thirds cameras so you can make the decision of what camera system is right for you.

But before we get into the merits of choosing micro four thirds or sticking with a DSLR, I want to recommend you check out Derrick Story’s new site TheNimblePhotographer.com.  He has put together a really nice site with lots of tips for traveling light with photo gear.  Definitely worth checking out.

Okay, let’s get to work…

A few of the nice benefits to these Micro Four Thirds cameras are:

  • Smaller camera body because no mirror is used in the body which adds significantly to the bulk of the camera.
  • Lighter and smaller lenses because they do not need to reproduce as large of an image onto the sensor.
  • Price, sort of.  Micro 4/3 cameras are in an awkward stage where an industry standard price has not been settled.  Panasonic seems to be competing at low price points, but Olympus is charging mid-range DSLR prices for their Micro 4/3 cameras.
  • Cutting edge technology.  For example, the Olympus OMD allows you to continuously see a photo appear brighter and brighter as you leave the exposure open during a long exposure at night.  Then you simply stop the exposure when the preview looks good.  That’s amazing!
  • Extreme portability
  • DSLR-like features (such as manual settings, hot shoe, and more)
  • Significantly longer focal lengths.  A 100mm lens on a micro 4/3 camera is like a 200mm lens on a full-frame DSLR.  This is terrific for wildlife and sports photographers (at least it would be if the autofocus were improved on micro 4/3 cameras…)

Now you are toying with the idea of giving up your DSLR and switching to the lighter and smaller Micro Four Thirds camera, aren’t you? There might be a lot of positive trade-offs, but first you need to decide what type of photographer you are. Once you have determined that, we can go through the shortcomings of the Micro 4/3 cameras. For some photographers, there are simply too many downsides to justify making the switch.

Some things to be aware of before you swap out your DSLR for a Micro Four Thirds camera:

  • No optical viewfinder, or no viewfinder at all.  For me, no viewfinder is a deal breaker.  Fortunately, the electronic viewfinders are getting better and better to the point that it beats optical viewfinders in some respects.
  • Fewer lenses – The lineup for micro 4/3 camera lenses is improving constantly, but it still is nowhere near the DSLR lens lineup.  If there were a good super telephoto lens available, I’d be more likely to buy a micro 4/3.
  • Slower auto-focus – If you are shooting any type of action, you will likely be disappointed with micro 4/3.  Some of the newer cameras are improving dramatically, but it still isn’t up to where DSLRs are.
  • Inferior low-light performance – Because of the small sensor size these cameras have, they don’t support low light situations quite as well as most DSLRs.  That isn’t to say they are terrible in low light, but that in general they aren’t as good.  I certainly wouldn’t recommend micro 4/3 for night photographers, but shooting indoors or in low light situations you’ll do just fine.

Above, I asked you to consider what type of photographer you are. Think about that again now. If you are doing any type of sports action photography, wedding Photography, wildlife Photography, or landscape photography (plus any closely related subcategories of those), I would strongly suggest that you hang on to your DSLR for those shoots until these kinks are fully worked out.

If you are a more casual photographer (or if you have difficulty holding heavy things), then the Micro Four Thirds camera is probably worth serious consideration given all the pros.  Also, Micro 4/3 also makes an EXCELLENT camera for even professional travel, street, or event photographers.

However, there is nothing (short of money, of course!) that would stop any photographer who owns a DSLR from getting one of these nifty Micro Four Thirds cameras and using it as a second camera. There is certainly a place for these cameras in the industry. It could be extremely handy when you’re going somewhere and need to pack light but still need a nice camera. In time, we can bet on seeing the technology in these Micro Four Thirds cameras start to show up in future DSLRs.

So if there are so many benefits to micro 4/3, why haven’t I committed?

A few reasons, really.  Although I like the micro 4/3 sensor size and think it has some really nice benefits for shooting wildlife, sports, and other long lens photography, the system does not have good long lenses available yet.  Also, I think most photographers have bought in on what the camera manufacturers want us to believe–that full frame cameras are “better.”  For this reason alone, I think the bulk of the photography crowd will be gravitating to mirrorless full frame cameras like the Sony A7r.

There are some serious limitations to the Sony full frame mirrorless bodies that were announced only a few weeks ago.  One of the major limitations is that it has no wide angle lens available AT ALL.  As a landscape photographer, that is a deal breaker.  But regardless of what I think of the drawbacks to full-frame cameras, I think that is where the industry is headed.  And if photographers flock toward Sony, the money will as well.  And where the money is–there too will be innovation.

I expect to be shooting a mirrorless camera as my primary body within the next year, but the time isn’t yet until a few kinks are worked out in the next iteration, and the lens lineups fill out a bit.

What about you?  Would you consider switching or picking up a mirrorless body over the next year?

  • Dave Haynie

    I have no current interest in dumping my FF Canon system. But I have got into the micro four-thirds system, specifically Olympus, in a big way. And that led me to getting rid of all of my Canon APS gear.

    In a short time, I have lenses from 8mm to 300mm (16mm-600mm in FF terms) that take up about half the size and weight of my Canon system. I also have f/2.8 or better from 28mm-300mm in FF terms, which, along with the crazy good IBIS in OM-Ds these days, is functionally better in low light than I had expected. No, it won’t rival my 6D with f/1.4 50mm lensin the dark… but that’s true of most APS and FF cameras, too.

    • patrick

      Treu the focus on birds in flight isn’t yet on the same track as mirror camera’s Though with the omd em-1 and em-2mark2 its getting there.

      Though i do see some killer Concert fotography comming by,
      Specialy with the F0.95 lenses or even the F1.8 primes
      This in combination with the great Axis Stabilisation wich gives you 2 stops they are a real joy to work with.

      They are also low weight
      Canon 6d =755g
      omd -em1 497g

    • Graig Smith

      I just got a Pentax k3 to replace my aging k20d. The noise improvements with the newer APS-C sensors are just phenomenal. I can’t believe how much better it is. I thought I would have to switch to full frame to get this kind of improvement.

      Given how much i have noticed noise levels improving on just APS-C, I’m not totally sure that sensor size matters as much as people think it does. Also there are reviews out there that don’t show much of a difference in noise from APS-C vs full frame vs 4/3rds.

  • http://irbuzz.blogspot.sg/2008/03/featured-ir-photographer-showcase-haja.html haja

    Most people are going to full frame that is 35mm. which is larger sensor. It is very expensive so I settle for APS-C . I loved Zeiss lense because they give sharp and clarity. So I settle for Sony Nex with APS-C sensor and a expensive Carl Zeiss lens. My first Nex broke down and it is expensive to repair so I bought another higher Nex model.

  • Chris Waddell

    I do wish that when people like you who write an article about new technology or about anything else where time is relevant, that you should PUT A BLOOD DATE at the top of your article.

    Questions such as… “What about you? Would you consider switching or picking up a mirrorless body over the next year?”
    They are meaningless questions, because we do not know when NEXT YEAR is, because we don’t know when you wrote the article.

    PLEASE PUT THE DATE ON!

  • http://brcgcoins.com Brian

    Ahhhhh, your picture is a Sony NEX 5n, which is actually a APS-C sensor.

  • Paul Cote

    I am exploring and use a variety of cameras. I would perhaps like a micro 4/3 camera if it had a viewfinder and tiltable screen. I don’t see them as being significantly smaller than an APS C DSLR because Micro 4/3 sensor is about the same size as an APS C so I am confused about that point of sellability. This means the lenses for the micro 4/3 are not that much smaller than the lenses for the APS C DSLRs. I do have a Pentax Q and it has a tiny sensor so consequently tiny lenses. I also have a Pentax SLR and a variety of compacts. I like the pocketable compacts for carriability. Even the tiny Pentax Q is a pain to have to carry lenses about. I think it depends on what you are using it for.

  • alain smithee

    My issue with many newer camera is the lack of an eye-level viewfinder.

    I find it difficult to both hold the camera steady with the slow shutter speeds that I use for existing light photographs without an eye-level viewfinder and to see many the image on an LCD screen in strong light.

    If someone can come up with a solution to these problems, then I’m willing to switch camera types.

  • Andy Umbo

    Advantages to M4/3rds?

    You can focus anywhere on the screen, not where the focus sensor tells you to; in fact, for a guy like me that does people and annual report, you can use the face focus feature and it will focus on a face where ever that face is, even in the far corners, far away from where a conventional focus point would be in a conventional DSLR. Since DSLR’s have stopped using easily focusable screens years ago, unless you get a KatzEye put in or something, you cannot just go manual with precision. This alone is worth the change…

    Multi-aspect ratio. Again, something worth changing for. Most of us long term advertising and commercial pros spent our entire life shooting either 4X5 format, or square. For 90% of what I do, the 3:2 ratio is unusable (or at least a waste)! I love the fact that M4/3rd’s allows you to shoot in 1:1, 3:2, 4:3 and 16:9. The only thing that would be better, is if a FF camera did this (BTW, the Sony’s do NOT offer all these aspect ratios). We are bombarded by the tyranny of the 3:2, 35mm film aspect ration, only because the affordable pro/am cameras (which most pros have to buy anyway), are based on these bodies. The hyper-pro 120 DSLR based digital equipment is all 4:3 (i.e. 4X5), but who can afford $50,000 USD?

    Despite what someone on here said, the M 4/3rd’s camera system has an excellent (and affordable) line of lenses (especially primes), between Olympus and Panasonic. I switched to digital from film with Nikon APS-C cameras, and Nikon has never made reasonably priced f/2.8 modern “G” series primes for the APS-C format. They either make hyper-expensive f/1.4 lenses, or their new series, of just really expensive f/1.8 lenses. Canon at least has made nice, reasonably priced f/2.8 primes that one can use on APS-C, (but neither system has prime APS-C wide angle lenses. Pentax has gone down this road, so plus one for them. I want to disabuse anyone from thinking that “pros” all use f/1.4 lenses, or need them. Maybe sports shooters, but most commercial and ad shooters need to get a certain amount of things in focus on the image based on client needs, and this is rarely, and I mean rarely, at f/1.4, in fact, you are usually down to around f/5.6! That’s why for decades, far back from digital, most “pros” never owned hyper-fast lenses, and just rented them “on need”. In a 40 year career, I probably rented fast lenses 5 times.

  • Dave Welfare

    Excellent overview. I found it very useful. I have prosumer level DSLR gear and have been struggling lately with the idea getting more into bird photography. I’ll never be able to justify quality long fast DSLR lenses and am intrigued by the 2x crop. Then when I started to read more about MFT, I started seeing other benefits like size and weight. Anyway, great points above to consider. I think I will start to transition over soon.