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?

72 thoughts on “DSLR vs. Micro 4/3 Cameras: Which is right for you?”

  1. I tried a last generation gx1 recently as a travel camera and thought it was close enough to an apsc DSLR. The main benefit is the total kit size/weight is smaller. And this article is not complete without asking what you’re going to do with the images. Even printing up to 11×14 is fine. Night shots were fine too though not as noise free as the latest Sony sensors.

    It is definitely slower in focus speed though and the rear screen is useless in sunlight.

  2. I shoot on a Sony a77 and love it, I also have an NEX 5. I have an adapter that allows me to use the a77 lenses on the NEC. This is perfect for family vacations where I don’t want to or can’t carry bulky body’s around (also the wife doesn’t see the NEC as a working vacation threat) I would find it hard to give up either as they both have their uses, I bring the NEC to places that I might not bring any camera like parties and On business trips. It allows you to always have a way of capturing a professional image without all the weight/bulk. Both cameras are mirrorless, there is very little downside to this with a major plus of 12 fps. All in all I would say you need both but the A7r might just change all that.

  3. Thanks very much for the comparison. My main camera is an Olympus OM-D E-M5, and while I agree with much of this, there is some that I do not. It’s actually a great camera for landscape photography, with a number of very good, high-quality wide and ultra-wide-angle lenses available. Autofocus is also blazingly fast in single-shot and hi-speed burst without tracking. And the built-in electronic viewfinder is really nice, works great in daylight, and I like it better than an optical viewfinder, as you are in ‘live view” all the time, and yet there is no hit to the autofocus speed. Regarding noise and high ISO performance: actually as good as the top APS-C DSLRs, and consistently usable up to at least 3200, and even higher in some cases. And it’s REALLY small and light. I can put it in a jacket pocket with a pancake lens on it, and carry three other lenses in the pockets of my shorts or pants. Plus it’s fully weathersealed. And there are a few zoom lenses that go out to a 600mm full-frame equivalent FOV, and they weigh less than a pound – a tiny fraction of the size of their DSLR equivalents. With its wide selection of great, fast prime lenses available (either Olympus, Panasonic, or legacy glass via a small adaptor), shallow depth of field and pleasing bokeh are readily available for those who like to shoot wide open. There’s also the 5-axis image stabilization, which works on all lenses, including old manual focus lenses, like my little Zuiko 50mm f/1.8. The stabilization REALLY works. Handheld wide-angles at 1/3 second with my camera are great. With the new E-M1, reviewers are boasting about sharp one-full-second hand-held times.

    The two things I do long for from time to time are just a touch shallower depth of field on a very large subject (such as a full-body portrait), or better tracking autofocus on a fast-moving bird. With the right lenses, it does well in these respects, but definitely does lose out in the comparison with a full-frame camera. Particularly on autofocus accuracy in tracking a moving subject (although this is also apparently vastly improved with the new E-M1 and its addition of phase-detect autofocus). But if you are primarily a sports-action or birds-in-flight photographer, then this camera is probably not your best choice. And if you want it mainly for video, and secondarily for stills, I’d suggest the Panasonic GH2, which really excels for this, and is being used increasingly by professional videographers. For literally everyone else, though, the Olympus OM-D line is a great option, and I’d say for street shooters, landscape photographers, backpackers, and anyone looking to travel light, it may be the very best option overall.

  4. I bought a Sony NEX 7 last year, it’s an amazing camera and I almost decided to switch over completely from my Nikon dslr system. The only thing that held me back was the poor low light performance of the electronic viewfinder, making night photography near impossible. This new Sony A7 full frame MILC may have solved that issue. I’ll need to check it out.

  5. I’m pretty new to the game and am nowhere near being a professional but from my perspective starting with a canon t3i and now moving to a sony NEX-6, the change was very easy. I’m taking the sony everywhere, it takes equal or better quality photos and when traveling it is easy to take it and all of the lens along with me in a smaller bag. Plus there is the safety aspect of it not looking like a “real” camera which makes carrying it around in questionable areas feel safer which again, allows me to carry it more places. I’m happy I made the change….Just my 2 cents.

  6. I was very disappointed when the camera companies brought out the ‘4/3’ camera rage as a separate range. I was hoping that they’ll produce a flat, small body mirrorless camera that can attache to the original DSLR lenses. Only then will you have the best of both worlds – the full size lens to allow low light capabilities as well as the other advantages of mirrorless cameras.

    Why was this not done? Why a separate range? Any idea if any of the camera companies plan to introduce the above described ‘best of both worlds’ camera?

  7. I would love to switch to mirrorless, but I haven’t yet, for some of the reasons you mentioned. First, I love shooting full frame, so I am waiting for more full frame mirrorless cameras to be developed. Second, I love my current lens lineup, and there are no mirrorless equivalents to some of my lenses (e.g. 135 f/2). Finally, I enjoy shooting action and wildlife from time to time, and I don’t feel mirrorless cameras are well suited to this. Maybe one day, all these problems will be fixed, though!

  8. I currently do not own a DSLR, I shoot photo’s (outdoo, landscape) for a hobby and take lots of photo’s of my kids sports and am looking at getting either the Sony A 77 or A 65. Wanting something with a fast shutter speed to catch the best action shots. Would This be a good choice or should I go with the Nex 7.

  9. Because the four thirds(and subsequently “micro” four thirds) system was designed as an open source system! With a blank sheet of paper. The current crop of Canon/Nikon Dslrs are digital adaptations of 35mm film cameras (from the ‘1960’stechnology )with the mechanical flipping mirror optical view finder path.doing away with it allowed the shorter lens to sensor “back focus”distance creating the “micro”designation. less lens-sensor distance makes an even smaller lens possible.

    A smaller sensor demands a smaller image circle from the lens to cover the sensor. So the lenses can be (much) physically smaller and lighter. A 35mm full frame lens stuck to a m4:3 body defeats the purpose.and makes it hard to handle. Most of the image circle would be wasted.falling off the smaller sensor.

    1. To be exact Brian, it’s even 2.1 crop factor, so I am using a Yashica Tomioka 1.2/55 which gives me a 120mm compared to full frame, keeping the f1.2 as bigges opening, and the minimum focus to 50cm!

      When I use my 6.3/400mm Yashinon, I end up with a 6.3/840mm(!) focussing up to 9 meters. Would cost really big bucks to get anywhere close on full frame cameras, that’s for sure.

      On top of this my Olympus EPL& has stabilisation build in the body, which I can easily set for 400mm. I don’t need anything else.

  10. 1. The photo for this article comparing DSLRs to Micro 4/3 is a photo of a APS-C Sony NEX (not micro 4/3). NEX cameras have a significantly larger sensor (same as many DSLR cameras) and a 1.5x crop factor.

    2. You mentioned that the lenses are smaller for ILC cameras, this is not always the case. Especially with APS-C cameras, like the NEX the lenses are often larger then comparable DSLR lenses.

    3. You mentioned the lack of lens selection, but left out one of the biggest advantages of mirrorless cameras, the ability to use nearly any lens ever made with adapters. See this articles photo for an example. Due to the short flange distance you can adapt almost ANY lens to a mirrorless camera, this opens up a huge world of amazing and cheap legacy lenses. Depending on the lens and adapter, it may be limited to manual focus and manual aperture.

    4. I know this article was written about Micro 4/3 but you really should mention and consider APS-C mirrorless cameras. Most of the comments here are regarding NEX cameras. Low light performance is not an issue with APS-C.

    5. Other advantages of mirrorless were not mentioned. Fast burst FPS (4-10 fps), less moving parts, quieter shutter release, etc. You seemed to be comparing Micro 4/3 to full frame DSLR, it would make more sense to compare mirrorless to entry-mid level DSLRs. Most people who are considering mirrorless cameras are moving from or comparing to non-fullframe DSLRs. Most pro shooters I know would not consider Micro 4/3 for their primary camera, but some may consider APS-C cameras like the NEX7. Many will consider the new Sony A7 and A7r full frame mirrorless cameras; the only (for now) full frame mirrorless ILC cameras available.

  11. Terrible, terrible article, written by someone who doesn’t really know what he is talking about. Articles like this are a dime a dozen. Contrary to what he claims, a smaller sensor does not imply a longer focal length. This is asinine. The effect to which he alludes is what is correctly known as “crop factor”. The effect is entirely the same as taking your large sensor camera and cropping the image after the fact. He similarly is confused when he says that small-sensor cameras have inferior low-light performance in poor light. This also is pure poppycock.

  12. I have used many camera formats in all sorts of environments and really appreciate what the companies involved in m4/3 have done. I disagree with most of the negatives described in this article. While DSLR cameras that cost more $$ than m4/3 cameras will perform better in “focus tracking” situations a serious photographer can easily get a respectable amount of great images from m4/3 cameras in any fast action situation. I shoot soccer and baseball with great success, but I don’t have to blast off 500 shots in a game to get 50 good ones. The m4/3 camera system (including lenses) are exactly what photographers have been crying for for many decades – a light weight camera and lens to replace their heavy and bulky SLR’s.

  13. I’m guessing you have never shot with a m43 camera. Try it you might like (love) it! You say “you don’t feel mirrorless are well suited” without ever using one sounds like you are living on what others say without knowing! Oh well, as long as you are having fun creating!

  14. Jim, if you could recommend ANY of the current crop of Canon APS-C sensor cameras for landscape photography, then you must surely recommend the OMD EM1. Listen boys and girls, the OMD’s sensor beats, that’s right, BEATS the ANY Canon APS-C DSLR in color depth and dynamic range: bit.ly/1aJX3pa.
    Oh, what about noise you ask? Well, it’s just as good even if it’s smaller: bit.ly/19qzOAP

  15. One other point for professional photographers: With a micro 4/3 camera you lose exactly 2 stops of shallow depth of field versus a full frame camera, And one stop versus in a PSC sensor size camera.

    In other words, shooting an F2.8 lens on a micro 4/3 camera is going to give you f 5.6 depth of field. And if you shoot with an F1 .4 lens, we’re going to get F2 .8 depth of field.

  16. I am considering a switch to OM-D E-M1. The main subject will be Kung Fu demonstrations and sparing.

    It would be great, if there is anyone who can share experience on using that camera for such action base photography.


  17. I only started thinking about this more recently. Now that newer computer monitors and tablets are becoming ultra high resolution, pixel level detail will become more apparent, even to casual photographers who rarely print. As a micro four thirds user, I really hope their sensors keep improving, but I think full frame mirrorless is the way of the future.

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