The Micro Four Thirds format has become increasingly more popular with video shooters over the past year or two (thanks to innovative MFT cameras like the Lumix GH4), but the majority of photographers still prefer to shoot with full frame bodies. That said, throughout this article I’m going to explain some techniques for achieving better results with your MFT camera, so you reap the benefits of shooting this format without making any sacrifices.
I also want to point out that although this site is primarily focused on video production, I am going to start including some articles here and there related to stills photography as well since many of you are doubling as both stills and video shooters. This is the first of these articles.
Why MFT Cameras Are More Popular With Video Shooters
Before I jump into things, I want to preface this article by pointing out a few main reasons why Micro Four Thirds Cameras are becoming so popular with video shooters, to put things in context.
MFT cameras have a very short flange distance, meaning that they can be easily adapted to work with nearly any lens available. This is excellent for video shooters because it is often preferable to use vintage glass, PL lenses, or other specialized lensing options that are often not adaptable to other mounts. Many MFT cameras also have a tremendous amount of video functionality built right in… The GH4 for example offers focus peaking, zebras, audio monitoring, slow motion recording, 4K in camera, and many other amazing features that aren’t available on any full frame camera.
With all this said though, none of these benefits would necessarily sway a stills photographer one way or the other when choosing a camera format for themselves. So what is the big variable that largely prevents stills photographers from adapting the format? The sensor size.
Although some video shooters like the full frame look, traditionally the gold standard for a video frame size is Super 35mm motion picture film – which is actually very close to the APS-C sensor size. As you can see in the diagram below, MFT sensors are not that far off in size from APS-C, which makes any issues with cropping less relevant than if you were to compare it to a full frame camera for instance.
So ultimately, the big issue for many stills photographers is sensor size. In order to achieve the dreamy aesthetic that full frame bodies can provide, MFT cameras must be used with very fast and very wide lenses to compensate for the crop factor. So for instance to achieve the look that a 35mm F4 lens would give you on a full frame camera, you would need to shoot with a 17.5mm lens on your MFT camera, set to F2 or below. These aren’t exact numbers, but rather ballpark figures that reflect the differences between the variance in sensor size. Full frame cameras also offer fantastic low light performance and the ability to achieve a very shallow depth of field even on slower lenses, but even still I truly believe that these issues can be easily overcome when shooting on a Micro Four Thirds Camera. Here are a couple of recent images shot with my Lumix GH4:
So what can you do to improve the quality of your MFT photos? Aside from all of the usual photography advice that would be applicable no matter what format you’re shooting on, I suggest following these 3 basic guidelines:
1. Use Fast Glass
Probably the biggest concern with shooting on MFT cameras (as we’ve already touched on), is that they don’t traditionally provide as shallow of a depth of field as a full frame camera will. Even so, I can assure you that MFT cameras are capable of a very shallow depth of field – all you need is the right glass. There are loads of extremely fast lenses out there that can be adapted to MFT cameras, some of which will even open up to F0.95 which is certainly way more than you need to achieve a shallow DOF. Personally speaking, when I shoot on any of my fast lenses (even on a MFT camera), I usually don’t use them completely wide open because the depth of field is just too shallow. So even though you may never get the same razor thin DOF that you would on a full frame camera, in a real world shooting environment it won’t matter… And by investing in fast lenses, you immediately take care of the number one concern with shooting on MFT cameras, which is depth of field. The other big advantage to fast lenses is that they will allow more light to hit the sensor when shooting at night, allowing you to keep the ISO setting to a minimum.
2. Never Shoot Above ISO 800
Most full frame cameras have exceptional high ISO performance – in fact that’s what they’re known for. Some full frame DSLRs can easily shoot at up to 12,800 ISO with pretty great results, while MFT cameras on the other hand tend to fall apart after ISO 800 or so. This has never been an issue at all for me though, because even when shooting full frame I prefer not to shoot at high ISOs. At extremely high ISOs, even if the images aren’t noisy, the overall quality, color depth and texture of the image is not nearly as strong as it is when shooting at a more reasonable ISO setting. So regardless of the camera that you’re shooting on, generally keeping your ISO to a minimum (or better yet setting your camera to it’s base ISO), is the way to go. MFT cameras don’t give you any other option since most images taken at high ISOs are pretty unusable for professional work, but if you have fast lenses and a good understanding of lighting, you’ll be alright!
3. Avoid mid-range lenses
A little while back I posted an article focused on achieving a full frame look when shooting on your crop sensor camera, and one of the main points I made there was that you should aim to shoot with wide or long lenses – not mid range. This is simply based on my own personal opinion and experience, but I find that 9 times out of 10 I end up using images from my MFT shoots that were shot on very wide lenses (like my Tokina 11 – 16mm F2.8), or longer lenses like my Nikkor 50mm F1.4. You might be thinking that a 50mm is considered a normal focal length lens, not a telephoto – but remember that on a MFT camera a 50mm is more like a 100mm equivalent. So by primarily shooting with really wide lenses or longer lenses, you are effectively giving yourself a look that is more similar to shooting on a full frame camera. It’s not that you always need to emulate the full frame look in order to shoot a nice image, but there situations where it is ideal and by sticking with this basic principle you are cutting out the focal range that doesn’t traditionally look as great on the MFT format.
Why MFT Is Great
Shooting on a Micro Four Thirds camera should never feel like compromise. There are some huge benefits to shooting on MFT cameras such as their size, functionality, lower cost, availability of lens options, and much more. So once you get past the idea that you need to shoot on a full frame camera to capture great still photos, you will quickly start to see all of the benefits of this small and efficient format. There are many situations where I would be unable to shoot with a full frame camera because it would draw too much attention, or require me to bring a bunch of large lenses that I couldn’t carry with me, and in many of those same circumstances, a MFT camera would be a life saver. There are also situations though where full frame would be a better choice, undoubtably, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only choice. As they say – “The best camera is the one you have with you”, and you’re a lot more likely to have a MFT camera on you at any given time than a big full frame camera!
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Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!