Full Frame vs Micro Four Thirds and Camera Size Snobbery

Sorry about the title, but there’s just no other way of putting it.

As some of you will know last week I set out some of the reasons why I have turned to a compact mirrorless system for the vast bulk of my professional work, and why I feel that “for what I do” there is rarely any advantage to carrying around my heavy full frame equipment. I have to confess when I posted the article I did so with some trepidation, because I know how heated some of these debates can become. After all we’re just talking about cameras and each and every one of us is free to choose whatever we want. What might be ideal for one person might be utterly wrong for the next person, it really is that simple. In the past, I’ve had plenty of blunt e-mails in response to some of my blog posts, including:

  • what point are you trying to make?

  • why do you think anyone is interested in what you use?

  • I don’t care what you shoot with, so get over yourself

  • just noticed you’re female – why don’t you bake some cakes instead

Yikes. Still, I can answer those points quite simply. I am routinely asked why I have adopted my OMD system, and why I don’t normally use my full frame equipment (which still gets used by my assistant, and trainees). I can’t always get into long individual e-mail replies, so very often I will answer popular questions here on my Blog. Nowhere do I tell anybody else what to use, in fact I’m very careful to point out that equipment choices are hugely variable and often personal. The primary reason I turned to a small system is because I have some occupational injuries now and I cannot realistically carry heavy stuff around, in fact I could not do my job well at all if it were not for the existence of a system which meets my performance criteria. And performance is key, I don’t just photograph stationary people, in fact much of my work is dynamic and I also photograph a lot of animals and pets, or events, so a very fast system is crucial. I have all of that of course built into my DSLRs, but at the expense of weight, bulk, and an inability to move about discreetly. My experience in the last year has shown that, for what I do, I have not been compromised by adopting a small camera system, despite the fact that I require quite a lot from my equipment given the variety of work I sometimes undertake.

Professional photographers are often asked to write about how and why they do things, and I’ve always been happy to do that, although there are sometimes consequences. Early in 2012 I was brutally attacked by members of a prolific photography forum and for a time I stopped talking about my choices, and how I work. Everyone is welcome to have an opinion, and everyone is welcome to disagree with the next person. But often this spills over into personal jibes, arguments and slander (I remain grateful to the contributors who petitioned the moderators to have the thread in question removed, as it was so damaging). But after a while, I realised that I didn’t want to spend all of my time worrying about the repercussions of having a voice. If the articles are not useful or of interest then the reader can simply move on until they find something somewhere else which is a better fit for their own tastes or needs. This is after all my own Blog, which I pay for and run, and so it’s understandable I would want to talk regularly about the things my readers are interested in.

Anyway, I’ve been reading a long and interesting debate about my post on the same well-known photography forum, and as always I enjoy seeing opinions being shared and discussed - I found the discussion well-behaved and informative. Clearly there are many contributors over there who have considerable technical knowledge which they share freely for the benefit of others, making the forum a very useful resource. But it was also clear from the discussion that much of what I have written can be misconstrued, misinterpreted, or even re-invented. Firstly, my equipment choices are taken in response to the kind of photography I do and the way I use my equipment is dependent upon any given assignment. I’m running out of ways to say that. Unlike most amateurs or hobbyists I don’t have the luxury of simply shooting in any way I wish, I can’t do that on somebody else’s time and budget. Taking some of the comments I have picked up on in the last 12 hours, I can answer them as follows:

she’s against shallow depth of field – I think anyone making this comment may not fully understand that depth of field is determined by a number of factors, most notably focal length of the lens used (due to the magnifying effect of telephoto lenses), distance to the subject, aperture, distance from the subject to the background, and sensor format. All of these can be juggled to give the required depth of critical focus, and I can manipulate my Micro 4/3 system in this way. If I am shooting my 5D MkIII with a telephoto lens (like the EF70-200L), which invariably I did for years in portraiture, at my usual aperture of f4 or f5.6 using FX format, my depth of field will be quite slim, even when I’m several feet away. But it will be enough to get the subject’s eyes in focus, their mouth, and their nose as well. Most subjects in the situations I find them in will move to a degree, even a slight fidget can greatly affect whether or not they are sharp. And if your subject is more than a few feet from a relatively uniform background, your chances of isolating them will improve still further. So it is obvious that I would very rarely have any requirement to shoot my full frame equipment wide open unless I were photographing a controlled subject for a specific creative effect. This would be infrequent given the work I do, which is not dissimilar to the work undertaken by many photographers of my genre

she’s an Olympus fan girl – yes, apparently I am also a Fuji fangirl (having spoken on forums about a couple of my Fuji cameras and how and when I use them, and the shocking fact that I even use my X100 on the odd professional outing). I must be a Canon fan girl as well, dishing out top of the line Canon equipment for my assistant and trainees to use. My reliance now on the OMD is down to my physical limitations and (my) small body size, and the fact that I am able to gain the IQ and performance I need for my work via my Olympus and Panasonic equipment

she’s an idiot and she’s wrong (for suggesting there can be downsides to FX kit) – although this comment appears to have disappeared from the forum, I may well be a complete idiot. I think anyone these days who shares information about how they do things is indeed setting themselves up for a roasting. That’s why many professional photographers choose to keep quiet. As with many camera systems, there are in fact some obvious downsides at times to full frame equipment – most notably size and weight (and cost), and the occasions when the ISO advantage is negated by the necessity to stop down for certain subjects in certain situations, and also a lack of effective in camera stabilisation which can be a downside when the camera is paired with a non-stabilised telephoto lens. Plus FF lenses often need to be stopped down a little before they’re at their best. A large camera and lens might also prevent you from working discreetly or quietly, and a full frame sensor tends to attract more dust than a mirrorless one

she hasn’t mentioned the new Sony camera – that’s because I don’t own it and I haven’t used it. Plus it’s unlikely to suit me for a number of practical and performance reasons – but it will be very interesting to see what comes to the market in the future. My blog is not a generic review site, the equipment I talk about is going to be the equipment I use, because it’s what I know best. My advice is this – listen to commentators who are actually using the equipment you are interested in, and preferably using it in a way which is relevant to you

Aside from existing as a photographer I also help to educate new photographers and this is another thing which prompted me to write my article. A student will often arrive in my office with the following ideas in his or her head:

  • I must own a full frame camera because full frame cameras are always best and I’m not a real photographer unless I use one

  • I must shoot at the widest available aperture at all times so that I always have minimal depth of field

  • I will not look professional if I carry a small camera

  • the only way to get shallow depth of field is by using a very wide aperture on an FX camera

  • I don’t need to learn about lighting because a full frame camera and fast lens will take care of that

  • I don’t need to learn about metering either, because modern cameras will understand what I’m trying to do

  • customers probably won’t notice if the focus is a bit off, especially if I can make the pictures look arty

Naturally there will be some circumstances where we might be forced to choose a very wide aperture, such as if photographing a wedding ceremony in a dark church – in that situation we would need to apply some thought as to where we’ll place the focus point and our own position relative to our subjects. Other times we might choose minimal isolation by choice (and I can easily do that with my Micro 4/3 equipment by using a long focal length, wide aperture, getting closer to my subject, and moving them forward a bit from the background). But for most applications I will not be shooting wide open on FX equipment (by that I mean apertures at f1.4 to f2.8, particularly when teamed with a telephoto lens). What I’m trying to say is that “being in the habit of shooting wide open with a full frame camera” is not a magic bullet which should be adopted slavishly in all (or even most) circumstances, it requires understanding and consideration. If you were to look through my portrait portfolio (or even my pet and animal portraiture) it would be clear that the depth of field I achieve is indeed quite shallow, yet my subjects are sufficiently focused and sharp. It is possible to achieve both by understanding your equipment and by working carefully within your environment. If you’re shooting on someone else’s time, and money, this is important. For a one-time event like a wedding, it becomes crucial.

Remember that how I shoot has no bearing on how you might shoot, or anyone else. I think everyone should shoot however they wish providing they understand the rationale behind their equipment choices and their settings, and the relationship between all of that and the subject. My article sought to challenge what have become blanket assumptions, often with no thought to the consequences or whether those choices are even appropriate. I’m not telling anyone what to do, I’m simply suggesting that there needs to be a thought process behind one’s choices if we intend to create competent or saleable photographs (and I acknowledge that not everyone wants that).

Full Frame vs Micro Four Thirds Examples

Points are sometimes best illustrated with pictures, these are taken with the EM5. Here I’m deliberately using the lenses I’ve always used for portraiture. In FF terms that would be my Canon 70-200 f2.8L (usually at f4 or f5.6) and the u43 version is the Panasonic 35-100 f2.8. Shooting the Pana lens at f2.8 is like using the Canon lens at f5.6, so I’m in my normal comfort zone. I also have the Olympus 45mm f1.8, which gives me the 90mm ‘equivalent’ focal length I’m also accustomed to. But I wouldn’t be shooting a lens like that at f1.8 on a FF camera for the reasons already outlined.

In the first photo the background is barely distinct, there’s a lot of separation – this is mostly to do with the distance between the subject and the background. Even stopping down a bit wouldn’t have much effect, the background would still appear blurred.

In the fourth picture had to be binned because you can clearly see that one of her eyes is completely gone – I shot this at f2.8 using the Pana 35-100 and I should have stopped down a little, particularly as I was close to the model. It’s often perfectly fine to have the furthest eye OOF, but not in a beauty shot like this, which needed to be sharp in its entirety.

Finally, in the snap-shot of the bird, shot at f1.8 using the Olympus 75mm f1.8 prime (added in 2015), only the front of its face is in focus. The effect is just too funky.

Hopefully these pictures have illustrated the points made in my article, and the relationship between the various elements which govern depth of field.

For a number of reasons I find it difficult to see why many camera users will insist that micro four thirds equipment cannot give them the shallow depth of field they want – often these photographers don’t understand the depth of field equation, nor are they necessarily clear as to what they will be shooting and which settings would be appropriate. Would I have chosen a shallower depth of field for any of these photographs? No, absolutely not, the pictures would have been useless – I am pretty much at the limit of having enough of my subject in focus. But your tastes, subject matter and needs may differ so treat these photographs merely as examples of how I do things – and actually how I have to do things, given the requirements of the photograph.

I wouldn’t have got very far in my career if I hadn’t sought out a great variety of opinions and perspectives. After all, that’s how we learn and ultimately that’s how we will evolve our own personal style and our own way of doing things. But I do try to be careful about who I listen to. The opinions I value are normally those of experienced photographers who are using the equipment under discussion – they may or may not be professionals but they do have some credentials which will give them some validity. Very often the people who attack me (and others) both on forums and via e-mail do so anonymously. They cannot be traced, they offer no portfolio of their own on which to base their own assertions. But more importantly, a competent confident photographer will not care what other people use nor will they care much about how other photographers do things. I cannot understand why a simple preference for something, or a different way of doing things should be so threatening or inflammatory. The Internet is full of opinions and perspectives, and those very opinions make the world an interesting place.

If you want to see a side by side comparison of my full frame system vs my OMD system in the field then this post on my animal photography website might interest you: Full Frame vs Micro Four Thirds Field Tests Wildlife Photography