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

In Gear by Jim Harmer71 Comments

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?


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.

Comments

  1. I own a canon 5dm2 and the new panasonic g7. I took both cameras with. E to the zoo and was shocked at the detail in the mft camera over the canon 5d2. I am amazed also at the cost of lenses for the mft lenses and size co. Pared to the canon lenses.. Of course i shol for usex lenses over new ones but for me its the size the weight of the gear to do photography with.. I may end up selling my 5d2 just so i can get a 35-100 f2.8 lens which is equivelent to the 70-200 f2.8 lens.
    I now own the 14-42/45-200/100-300. I now have every possible coverage except fot the wide angle which i am looki g into seriously 7-14 lens.. So far i bought the pan g7 and 14-42 new for 500.00 and the 2 other lenses for 540.00 also 2 batteries more and the 32 gig card for60.00. So i have only 1100.00 i vested into this new system and co. Bined weight of everything is less than 5 lbs.. So is the new technology of the g7 mft out weighi g the ffs?

  2. Hi….I own a canon 7d mark 11 but due to the weight, I’m looking for a travel camera. I love my good pics and don’t want to buy something I might hate.

    I’m confused over the micro 4/3 or full frame.

    I’m looking at either Panasonic Gx8 or Sony A7r11 or if I should be considering Olympus – comments please?

  3. Selecting your camera system is all about comprises. There are some areas where full frame cameras are superior to Micro 4/3s, but due to some clever engineering and innovation, Olympus and Panasonic have narrowed the gap to the point where I think Micro 4/3s is a better choice for most people.

    I switched from an extensive Canon APS-C collection to Micro 4/3 when the very first Olympus EP-1 was released. For me it was all about the size and weight. I do a lot of mountain biking photography, and with M4/3 I can carry a comprehensive kit that is still light enough for me to actually enjoy my ride. Same goes for hiking or any other activity where hauling a bunch of weight detracts. Additionally street photography is much easier with M4/3 cameras because they are small and inconspicuous and people tend to act more natural when they don’t have a giant lens & camera pointed at them.

    The EP-1 had a lot of limitations compared to DSLR cameras. Autofocus was horrendously slow, and low light image quality was lacking. Despite those limitations I still preferred my little camera because I was able to take it with me without detracting from the activity itself.

    Fortunately, in the years since that first camera (and since this article was written) M4/3 cameras have come a long way to the point that they are superior to DSLR cameras in many respects.

    Size/cost – This is the obvious advantage, but what you may not have considered is how the smaller size factors into the price. With M4/3 you can get fast, sharp, professional grade zoom lenses at about half the cost of their full frame/DSLR equivalents. The smaller sensor scales everything down, including the prices.

    Image Quality – No, most of the images you get with M4/3 will not be as detailed as those from a contemporary full frame camera, but does it matter? Are you making poster size prints all the time? Most people make very few prints and primarily share their photos on social media, and on a screen you will not be able to tell the difference between and image taken with a m4/3 camera and a full frame camera. But you can still make large prints from M4/3 and they will look great. Additionally the latest Olympus cameras have a high res mode that uses pixel shift to create incredibly detailed 40-48mp images that are more detailed than the images produced by most full frame cameras. It’s true that this feature in its current state has some limitations, like requiring the use a tripod and shooting still subjects, but it really works for landscapes and still life, and future iterations (the EM1 mk2) will remove the tripod requirement.

    Autofocus – Not as fast as most DSLRs, particularly for moving subjects, but it’s not far behind. It’s also more accurate because the AF is done on the sensor instead of with a separate AF mechanism which requires calibration. Future M4/3 will close the gap even more, like the EM1 mk2 which will have fast contrast detect autofocus on the sensor which will probably as good or better than the best DSLR cameras.

    Lens selection – At this point I doubt anyone will find the M4/3 system lacking. Olympus and Panasonic have both released pro grade super telephoto lenses that filled the telephoto gap mentioned in the article. Additionally you have some lenses that have no equivalents in any other system, like the Olympus 8mm f1.8 fisheye, which is the fastest fisheye lens you can buy. Olympus is also renowned for the optical performance of its lenses. Even their cheap lenses are tack sharp. Furthermore, due to the shorter mount to film plan distance and smaller sensor and the number of adapters you can get, you have a selection of literally thousands of lenses from other systems and older manual focus lenses you can play with.

    Tech – Olympus and Panasonic have both been more innovative than their competitors who mostly focus on megapixels, Panasonic with video features and Olympus with features for stills. Olympus has the best image stabilization in the business. In some cases this completely compensates for inferior low light performance because it allows you to use up to fives stops slower shutter speeds. Olympus’s Live Time and Live Composition modes for long exposures allow you to monitor the exposure in real time and this feature is amazing and genuinely useful. You can also use your phone as a remote and actually see the photo you are taking on your phone’s screen. Amazing stuff that their competition will eventually try to copy.

    Video – I’m more of a stills guy, but there’s no way I can talk about the M4/3s system without mentioning video and the great work Panasonic has done here. The GH series camera are hands down one of the best options for video production, and they’ve been utilized by professional videographers for years for some legit productions.

    I’ll concede that for a lot of pros full frame is the obvious choice. It is superior when it comes to out-and-out image quality and depth of field control. But pros haul around huge camera cases and even have assistants to do a lot of the heavy lifting. That said, many pros still choose M4/3s and find the benefits of the smaller size & weight allow them to be more mobile and that is worth the other compromises. But for the average hobbyist shooter, I believe M4/3s is a better option because it’s smaller, lighter, and cheaper and provides similar levels of flexibility, creative potential, and image quality compared to the best full frame/DSLR systems. Fundamentally, I think if you have a M4/3 system you are more likely to have your camera with you all the time, and you’ll be able to capture more moments than with a heavier system that you may not have wanted to schlep up the trail or to the pub.

  4. I have both a Nikon dslr APS-C system and a Panasonic micro 4/3 system.

    They both have advantages and disadvantages but give me a nice flexible choice of equipment. I haven`t bothered with FF systems as I am happy with what I`ve got!

    I prefer my panasonic system for travelling/family/holidays and videos.

    The Nikon system is better for more serious composition/stills and flash work (nothing beats Nikon`s creative lighting system!)

    I have recently added a Panasonic FZ330 bridge camera which boasts a superb Leica 25-600mm f/2.8 zoom lens and 4K video.

    I intend to continue using both systems.

  5. Everything is very open with a very clear clarification of
    the issues. It was definitely informative. Your website is extremely helpful.
    Many thanks for sharing!

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