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. So does that mean that a 4/3 camera can’t replicate the shallow depth of field look that I love so much for portraiture? I am looking to upgrade from a point and shoot and I don’t think I want to deal with a large DSLR–but I’m mostly interested in people pictures with flattering skin tones and the out-of-focus background look. Would a 4/3 camera be a mistake?

  2. It doesn’t mean that, it means that you will need to select the right parameters in your camera considering the crop factor.

    I do a lot of portrait using Olympus’ 45mm 1.8 and you get quite shallow DOF. There is a 75mm f1.8 that would do even better.

    I travel a lot for business and I always bring my PL5 with me, along with the Pany 20mm lens… I couldn’t do the same with a DSRL.

    These days, I’ve seen adds of an Oly PM2 with 2 zooms for $349… add the 45mm for $377 and you will be a happy camper, IMO.

  3. If we were to take equivalent images (same exposure time, same FoV, same DoF) we would have to use smaller aperture on a full frame camera and bump up the ISO. The amount of light captured would be exactly the same as with M43 camera. Granted, there are situations where we don’t care that much about depth of field or exposure time equivalence, such as landscape photos. In this case, even if light hits sensors with the same intensity on both cameras, full frame has more pixels to work with and this resolution can be traded off for noise. But there’s nothing inherently “better” about full frame although there are certainly cases where its use is more appropriate.

  4. Kevin, it depends. Mirrorless full frame cameras will probably displace current high-end DSLRs over time. As long as the cost of FF camera and lenses (or its size and weight) is prohibitive for a casual photographer (or travel/street photographer), there will be a market also for smaller systems. Since sensor technology keeps improving, we might soon reach a point of diminishing returns with larger systems. We are actually quite close already. So, I can imagine that multiple mirrorless systems can coexist. It just depends what tradeoffs are you willing to accept for your particular style of photography.

  5. I’ve got a ful frame canon 1dsmkII; 24-70 f2.8 L andthe70-200f2.8 L(series I)
    16 mpx.

    I just bought a lumix Gh-3 and the pan/leica25 mmf1.4:
    Composition,Subject expression, catching a fleeting moment of time, Exposure, Contrast,(“photo style”color/b&W),noise/grain.All these and more combine to make a meaningful “photograph” instead of a sloppy meaningless snapshot.

    Yet people continue to discuss “sensor size” and pixel peep.We all want to feel “justified” in making the “right” choices( NO?).

    I missed 100%of the photographs Ii could have made by leaving my beast of a full frame rig at home.

    Technically: the smaller m4/3 sensor gives more depth of field for a given lens/aperture/subject distance.
    Sometimes that can be a good thing (like when the light is low and i want both brides AND grooms eyes in focus. OTHERWISE its close enough it’s not a make or break issue. Therefore “Slightly larger Depth of field”= Non-issue.

    Jan 2014: the pro glass is here now: Lumix offers a12-35mm f2.8 zoom and a 35-100 f2.8 ( 35mm equivalent 24-70 2.8 & 70-200 f2.8). There is a new pan/leica 42.5mm f 1.2(85mm equivalent f.o.v.), a 75mm f1.8(150mm equivalent f.ov.)So fast portrait primes are now available.

    “Super high” framerate on theGH-3 is 20 frames/second;I haven’t had chance to shoot any wake boarding yet it’s -3 outside; but I can’t wait to grab 20 frames of my subject. catching air.

    Digital DSLRs are built on 50+years of mechanical technology.(mirror flipping). Of course they ARE most capable in “10/ tenths”( high speed sports at night “) use.

    Why argue anymore: but mirrorless is fast approaching that last :”10 /tenths” capability and for the remaining 9/tenths uses it is already there.

    Saw a recent post where a commercial photographer shot a symphony promo piece with a Fuji X100S ( because the leaf shutter allowed a 1/640 sync speed) and the final product was reproduced as an 80 footx18 foot hanging building banner.

    Fight it all you want: IMHO The future is here ; its lighter; smaller; faster and “mirrorless”.

  6. Hi I already typed all this before reading the other answers, so just as my five cents:

    Concerning the skin tones: i think there is no real difference between m43/aps-c/full frame: it depends more of eg the dynamic range of the sensor and the processing engine etc. You can also tweak this in post processing. I find the Olympus JPEG rendering quite nice (i own an om-d emd-5) In terms of the shallow depth of field: it is true that this is less easily obtained on a m43 sensor than on a FF. This is because of the 2x crop factor. On a m43 camera a 50mm lens with f2 aperture opening will give you the same depth of field as 100mm lens f4 on a full frame. This means that you can get some extra shallow depth of field on the full frame by opening the aperture a little bit more. The creaminess of the unsharp parts (bokeh) is also function of the number of aperture blades and how round the opening is. I’d suggest you have a look at some portraits on flickr taken with certain lenses on flickr to judge if there is enough shallow DOF for you. For me, m43 is good enough in terms of shallow DOF when you use fast prime lenses like the Oly 45mm or 75mm f1.8. Since I’m on a budget i use my old minolta 50mm 1.7 manual focus (with an adaptor) and i have to close it down to about f3.5 just to be able to be sure to get the shot in focus enough. Also, if you are used to compact point and shoot camera’s: you will notice already a huge difference in terms of the seperation you can get by using m43. You also mention the size of the camera: apart from the benefit i’d be able to re-use my old manual focus minolta lenses, the size issue was for me a huge reason to go for m43: I am not that confident to put a large camera with equally large lense in someones face just to get a real shallow DOF portrait. This is also why I never really considered aps-c because the camera’s are still too big and still not Full Frame. The advent of the Sony A7 is a real gamechanger in this respect though!

  7. I am the photographer who made the image for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to which you refer. The right tool for the right job is more important to me than ‘what is the better camera.’ Using a hammer instead of a wrench doesn’t mean a wrench is a poor tool, it simply means it was not the best tool for the job at hand. The X100S is a remarkable tool and I chose it for that specific job due to its leaf shutter and hi sync speed capabilities.

    When I am photographing action as with dance or live theatre I use my DSLR simply because the X100S is not fast enough from a focusing standpoint.

    The observations about DSLRs being dead may be a great media headline, but for my work it remains a vital tool in my arsenal of choices. It’s much the same as only using a softbox as my only light modifier.

  8. Huruvida APC är bättre än M43 är en teoretisk fråga. Praktiska resultat från bilder visar liten skillnad förutsatt att man jämför likvärdig optik o inställningar.
    Min huvudbry är kostnad för likvärdig utrustning, fördel APC på många sätt, fördel bättre linser o flera för M43 systemet exempel. Med Sony A6000 finns en enda 24 ff 35 lins dvs Zeiss. För M43 20mm/1.7 panncake och så finns massor med pengar kvar. Olympus Om Em5 (tror jag den heter) med bildstabilisering (5 ax) mot A6000. Olympus lockar, Apc också!

  9. Some of this is good info, but some of this does not add up to me. Have nikon, sony apc-s cameras and great primes for them. The picture quality is not any better in many forefronts.
    Same with a canon camera I had with expensive primes. Photography is an art like an pallette of colors to an artist.
    Not really one better than the other. The 4/3 format makes it expensive for wide angle lenses BUT their out there and their very good. I base my experience on the olympus line have had from e-300, e-510, e-p1, om-d m-5. The zuiko lenses are so much higher quality kit lenses and updates right off the internet attached to the camera for panasonic also. Clearly leave some of the old brands in the old fashioned dust. So I would be careful to do the old faithful if the sensor is smaller it is not as good with the end result. Many reviewers had trouble saying the smaller sensor pictures were any less quality than the apc-s big units. Many said the color was way more accurate with the micro 4/3 in olympus land. There is a great comparison to a full frame camera side by side and the color is better and the way more detail in the 4/3 picures as well.
    The smaller body all day is worth its weight in energy to take that extra gold picture!

  10. Spot on! I’ve bought an Olympus at a bargain price – I don’t regret it, but just a quick look at Nikon DSLR lens choices will bring my mood down. Whatever I’ve spared on the body, I’ll have to pay it as premium on m4/3 lenses, and the choice is much more limited.
    M4/3 is not inherently better. DSLR are not obsolete yet. DSLR are more than just a body design (mirror), they are a whole philosophy of changes conservatively (and the term and identity needs some rethiking). M4/3 are a refreshing, and that was highly needed. They’re about making the best of what you have, not having the best of what is made 🙂
    Okay, enough.

  11. There is no one size fits all. I have a Nikon FF system and just added a m4/3. I use the Nikon for commercial and portrait and the m4/3 to take hiking and when I need something light. I love being able to isolate a subject with FF so I won’t give that up, but otherwise the quality of the 4/3 is terrific and I am well pleased. Focus speed isn’t an issue, it focuses almost as fast as my DSLR. Only real problem is it is almost too small, doesn’t want to fit my largish hands very well. For landscapes I would not worry at all using it over my Nikon.

  12. Clive Sinclair

    I have a new mirrorless camera that fits my Canon EF lenses. I find I am using it more and more instead of my 60D.

    It isn’t perfect and I would not have paid the launch price for it. But the EOS-M (with it’s flaws), is becoming an all time favourite.

  13. I’m one of those that ditched my FF Canon DSLR (5D) in favor of a Panasonic m43 camera — specifically, the DMC-GX7. I really sweated the decision but now that I’ve done it, I’m happy. My Canon kit was getting to bloody heavy to haul all over creation. I love my little Panny and enjoy great results. Sure, my 5D was quieter in low light, but the GX7 is no slouch, either. And my kit is 5kg lighter — fabulous for extensive travel that I do.

    I shoot landscapes, still lifes, that sort of thing. The Panny 7-14mm m43 lens is terrific!

  14. Hi,

    You said that micro 4/3 are not as good as a dslr in low light because the sensor is smaler, but the last aps-c sensors released have 24 megapixels and micro 4/3 have 16 megapixels. If you divide the área of each one by the number of megapixels it gives you the same size for each pixel.

    1. @Rui – Just giving each photosite the same amount of area from which to gather light does NOT mean the two sensors perform the same in low light.

  15. loled at saying lens are limited on fourthird.

    i noticed that ‘photographer’ keeps asking for more and more lens, and yet when i check they all use popular lens only. come on.

  16. I had my Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 for about a year. It is a Micro Forur Third camera. My only complains are the range of lenses. 300 mm seams to be max. With the modern digiatl technology it is not a big deal anymore. For an amateur photographer, this size is very good. My friends still wants those heavy cameras from Canon and Nikon. My Panasonic has enough of features for all kind of environments. More about learn to use them all.
    Should I want to have a 1000mm lens which I had when cameras were analog. Of course.

  17. Roman Endevore

    I have Canon 6D with 35 mm Sigma 1.4, and E-M10 zuiko 17mm 1.7. I can say that after I got Olympus system in my camera bag, Thats the camera I used for 95% of the time. I dont do anything professonaly, photography is my hobby. But this camera surprise me a lot. After using a few mirrorless cameras such as Sony nex 5r and fuji x100s, I can say that Olympus is number one for me. I was shooting on the moving bus from NY to Boston with a total darkness and was able to do great handheld shoot with 1/4 sec and ISO 2000. That was a time when I realise AXIS system is fantastic. So you can just drop down your ISO and exposure at night time and believe me, AXIS will take care of the rest. Not surprised Sony got it from Olympus and put it on their New A7II.

  18. 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.

    1. 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

    2. 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.

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