Why I Use Micro Four Thirds Cameras for Professional Photography

Featured in Photo Professional Magazine

Not long ago I talked in some detail here on the blog about the reasons why more professional photographers are turning towards mirrorless camera systems. And specifically why I use micro four thirds cameras. It is true to say that the gap between today’s high-end mirrorless offerings and a good traditional DSLR has narrowed considerably in the last year or two. I expect to see some real changes in the mirrorless world in the coming years. I’m often laughed at for saying that – but let’s see what happens!

Why I Use u43 Mirrorless Cameras for my Professional Photography Work

With respect to my own needs, I’m very much focused on the physical side of managing my kit bag. I’m a portrait photographer who also shoots animal portraits, wildlife, fashion show photography and occasionally sport. Here are the key reasons why my Micro 4/3 equipment works for what I do:

Light weight – I can carry a full complement of Olympus Micro 4/3 equipment in one medium sized camera bag. I can’t do that with my DSLR getup, and I certainly can’t carry it very far given the status of my joints

Weather sealing – most of my work is outdoors, and here in the UK we get lots of rain – the EM1 and EM5 are extremely well sealed against the elements (providing you use a similarly specified lens)

Lens choices – a fantastic array of professional grade zooms and primes are available from both Panasonic and Olympus. These lenses are sharp, small, and compact, and cover the traditional focal lengths I’ve become used to for both portraiture and wildlife photography. Unlike some of my DSLR lenses, my Micro 4/3 lenses are very sharp wide open, so I don’t need to stop down a bit in order to get the best from them

Discreet – my Micro 4/3 cameras are small and won’t cause a distraction, enabling me to work without drawing attention to myself – this is helpful when engaged in candid photography, street photography, and portraiture involving animals and children who might be shy and timid. I’ve had my collar felt in the past when members of the public, security personnel, or police have believed that I must be up to no good thanks to the size of my camera. But now that I have a mini system nobody looks twice at me – oh what bliss

Performance – very fast autofocus, fast frame rates, and a high level of customisation – just like a good DSLR (and better, in some areas). I need speed because I engage in environmental portraiture whereby my subjects are often moving (I very rarely work in the controlled confines of a studio) and I also photograph animals and pets

IQ – it’s a given that professionals need very good image quality. The latest incarnations of the u4/3 sensors are fantastic and I can happily shoot at 3200 ISO knowing that the files will be full of detail. You can of course shoot at higher ISO levels using a good full frame camera and a fast lens. But this can be at the expense of depth of field and safe hand holding shutter speeds

Some low light advantages – with my full frame DSLRs I won’t have the benefit of cutting-edge in-body stabilisation (nor do I have stabilisation on many of the lenses) and I often have to stop down a little to either get the best from the DSLR lens, or else to give me sufficient depth of field. All of this adds up to high ISO values in low light situations. Comparatively speaking, in a low light portrait situation I might end up at 8,000 ISO on a DSLR, and 1600 ISO on my OMDs – so I feel I’m better off in some instances with my little u43 bodies. The end result is that my Olympus files are likely to be a bit cleaner, and my arms won’t feel like they’re going to drop off. The EM1 also holds accurate colour right through the full range of sensitivities, unlike any of my DSLRs

Depth of field benefits (mostly) – a micro 4/3 sensor will afford about two stops of additional depth of field when compared to a full frame sensor. In real world commercial photography this can be quite helpful – the reality is that many professional photographers are not going to be creating all of their captures at the widest possible aperture. Ultra thin depth of field is grossly inappropriate in most situations and in professional terms will generally only be used for creative effect and certain fashion projects.

The Micro 4/3 photographer can shoot wide open more often than the full frame photographer, without sacrificing depth (or sharpness), but at the same time benefiting from the light gathering capabilities of a fast aperture setting. We can still get very thin depth of field on our micro 4/3 cameras, simply by manipulating the depth of field equation as we see fit. I’ve always been a tele zoom kind of gal, and on my Canon full frame bodies I would normally shoot at about f4 or f5 .6, which would give me a nice amount of separation and just enough depth to make sure the important bits of my subject were in focus. On my Micro 4/3 bodies I can easily mimic this by shooting my zoom lenses that F2 .8. And if I want really thin depth of field I have very fast primes at my disposal. If you look through my portrait Gallery (on the top menu bar) and the portrait related blog posts, you’ll be very hard pressed to guess which photos were captured with my full frame setup and those taken with my the Micro 4/3 bodies

Stabilization – Olympus IBIS is so effective that I can create sharp photographs at extremely slow shutter speeds, fantastic for static subjects – this can help me to capture better shots than I might have managed with my DSLRs. This can be really useful when shooting the still parts of a wedding ceremony, or bridal portraits in low winter light

Kudos from subjects – each month I receive plenty of scare stories from other photographers about the likelihood of clients refusing to take us seriously if we have a small wee camera in our hands. My conclusion is that many photographers are irrationally ruled by insecurity, and are somewhat losing sight of the fact that our subjects choose us according to our work and reputation. In my experience, I actually get a bit more respect thanks to my small cameras – this is because my subjects will relate quite well to the equipment I use and may have held the long-standing belief that professional photos can only come out of big professional cameras. In other words, the notion that the kit is what matters. Seeing the same standard of imagery come out of an innocuous little camera body does rather reinforce the role of the photographer and his or her knowledge and experience – and that is always a good thing in my book

Anyway, I was recently contacted by Photo Professional magazine, who are profiling established photographers who have turned to small systems. Before anyone accuses me of being bribed by any camera manufacturer, I’m not. I’ve been an Olympus (and Panasonic) user for a long time and at my own cost. I’m happy to talk about the equipment I use, particularly if it helps to inform other photographers who engage in similar work and who are growing tired of bearing the weight of heavy equipment. I’ve chosen my system because it’s well-suited to what I do, and anything I say is based on real-world, week in week out, working experience – not data charts or urban myths gleaned on forums. If there’s something I don’t like, I’ll talk about that as well.

The Bottom Line – Use What Suits YOU

My message will always be the same – choose your equipment based on your needs, not mine or anybody else’s. The image quality of any recent half decent camera will be very good for most purposes so don’t waste your time dwelling on the minutiae of different sensors. Instead, look at the actual performance attributes you require – without ticking those boxes your chosen camera could prove to be completely unsuited to the kind of photography you undertake. There’s not much point dwelling on the “best” sensor if the camera in question suffers from slow autofocus in the conditions you shoot in, or has a limited supply of suitable lenses, or offers little in the way of body or lens stabilization for those who shoot in low light.

There is still some resistance in the photography world when it comes to adopting a smaller sensor format. Given that I have contact with dozens of fellow professionals each week, I would say that this mindset falls mostly to amateur circles. Note I refer to the photography world, not clients. As for those photographers who feel “we owe our clients the best”, I completely agree with that – but if you’re talking spending on cameras, don’t think we’re scrimping by downsizing – the EM1 is a fairly costly piece of equipment and the pro level lenses are pretty close in price to their DSLR counterparts. When it comes to photography, your investment will be in your lenses rather than your bodies and downscaling isn’t going to be a cheaper option.

One crucial thing is often overlooked by the photographers who poo-poo compact systems – by far our biggest investment will be in our own training and personal development, over many years – that is how our clients get the best photographer, and the best value. I can’t imagine walking into my dentist’s surgery and asking her what size drill bit she uses – all I care about is the fact she gets the job done as efficiently and painlessly as possible. Ditto the local garage or plumber …. I don’t care how big their tool box is, but I do care about their reputation and experience.

If you enjoy pet and animal photography, we have a separate site purely for our furry subjects. The guys over at Photo Professional Magazine were interested in learning about how I use my mirrorless camera equipment within my pet and animal portraiture.

Photo Professional Magazine Issue 90, February 2014

Photo Professional Magazine Issue 90, February 2014

interviewsLindsay Dobson