ABSENT A sign, it is difficult to know the right direction sometimes. There is so much going on in the digital photography space these days. I have written about smart phone cameras and computational photography. Digital sensor and processor technology just keeps getting better in all sizes, shapes and designs. And, as technology moves forward, larger sensors are becoming a reality. When I was in Vermont in October 2021, my friend Rich Ennis was shooting a Fujifilm “medium format” (MF) sensor that is housed in a modestly sized, DSLR-like body. I wouldn’t have known it was MF if he hadn’t told me. For reference, “full-frame” in digital refers to 35mm equivalent. “Medium Format,” in film, meant various different sizes and was meant to differentiate from 35mm on the smaller side and the large “view cameras” – as large as 8×10 inches – on the large side, but appears to have only one size in digital sensors. Confused yet? With my 42mp Sony “full-frame” (35mm equivalent) sensor, I have been wowed by image quality and the ability to make significant crops. Even so, as I write this blog post, my basic conclusion is that in the end, the “right stuff,” is going to involve a compromise between image quality and convenience.
the “right stuff,” is going to involve a compromise between image quality and convenience
ON THE convenience side, I got spoiled by my ultra-small, P&S sized Sony Rx100. With its 24-200mm (35mm equivalent), Zeiss designed zoom lens, and very diminutive size, and “pro” features, like raw capture, full manual, aperture and shutter speed priority settings and such, it is a pretty impressive little shooter. But as much as I love its size and convenience for travel and carry, I do have misgivings. Its 1-inch sensor is small (though still measurably larger than a smartphone sensor), and with 20 megapixels crowded onto a 1-inch sensor, there are some serious limitations. I used it in some night shooting recently in London, and while the images were pleasing overall, there was noticeable noise in most of them, that would be non-existent, or very much reduced on my Sony “full frame” sensor. And of course, I do miss the ability to change out a lens for certain situations. It is definitely a tradeoff. I have gotten my long-trip travel baggage down to one carry-on size bag, and whatever “personal” size bag I need to carry my camera and lenses. With the RX100, that means anything from a messenger bag to my pocket. With the A7rii, two fairly large lenses (though they have certainly gotten smaller than my former DSLR and f2.8 lens duo) and other accessories, that means at best, a small photo-backpack, and a check-size bag in order to bring accessories, including a full-sized tripod. And it’s not just the airplane thing, but in Europe and other parts of the world, schlepping the bags on ferries, trains, and walking. To me, it is a pretty big deal.
AT THE same time, as I shoot, process and consider my photography, I am always thinking about image quality and shooting versatility. As much as I love the convenience if the RX100, I am always finding a few instances where I miss my more traditional gear. Having used SLR/DSLR style cameras for most of my life, I am comfortable with the feel of that body style, the controls, and lenses, and the viewfinder (the RX100 has a viewfinder and if it didn’t, that would have been a deal-breaker for me). And as convenient and impressive as its abilities are, my Samsung S21 Smartphone is still not going to do it for me. It just doesn’t “feel” like a camera in my hands. Moreover, the smartphone sensor is really just too small for anything more than a snapshot (in spite of those who would – and have – challenge/ed me on that point). When you start to do anything to “work” the smartphone image in post-processing, it starts to break down rather quickly. The “size matters” phrase is certainly applicable here. As a general rule, the larger the sensor, the more you have to work with and arguably, the better the image quality (of course there are variables, like lens resolving power and the number of pixels on the sensor). So, thinking about sensor size is a serious issue for me. As you can see from the opening illustration, there is a very real difference between a typical smartphone sensor, and even my Sony RX100 (1-inch) sensor. And if that is significant, it is also the case that each larger iteration should be increasingly better.
WHILE I certainly like the convenience of true “pocket” carry, I don’t really need a camera that small. Something between that and the noticeably large and inconvenient 35mm-size gear works admirably. Something that would still fit my long trip travel baggage model. And in 2022, I think I have found that solution. A family member let me use her Olympus OMD E-M10 micro 4/3 (MFT) camera. I began by playing with it locally – just with the original “kit” lens (28-80mm in 35mm equivalent). The MFT sensor (white rectangle above) is larger than the RX100 1-inch sensor (blue rectangle). So, theoretically, it should give me more image quality headroom, and somewhat better noise performance in the shadows. And on paper, and according to test results, it does. I went out to shoot a sunrise with my Sony A7rii and took the OMD along just to “play” a little bit. That experience convinced me that I like the shooting experience of this little camera. I rarely shoot in jpg format, but I include a couple out-of-camera jpgs here, to demonstrate that it handles jpgs admirably – for those who would prefer to shoot in that format. They are impressive, with good contrast and great color (set at “natural” with a slightly warm white balance). Be that as it may, I am decidedly not a jpg shooter. My own bias is: why would anyone go to the expense of acquiring a camera like this and not shoot in its native, raw format? Of course there are some really good photographers who disagree with me.
I HAVE now traveled with the OMD and two lenses on two occasions as my sole setup. The first was a weeklong Caribbean Cruise in January. Having had some success there, I again took only the OMD on an extended trip to Portugal in May, with 2 zooms, and a wide-angle prime as my only gear. In addition to daily carry, I did some night shooting and came home with a pretty good idea of its performance in low light conditions. I did get(and expected) more noise than my Sony “full-frame” produces, but again, everything involves compromise. And the noise was easily tamed with a small adjustment of the noise reduction feature in the details module of ACR/Lightroom for the most part. In a couple instances, I applied an additional round of NIK Define noise reduction utility. I am pleased with the results.
I BEGAN writing this shortly after first acquiring the MFT camera. As I have gained experience, I have come back to the draft numerous times. The post has gotten long (even by my standards, LOL). So I have decided to split it into 2 posts. This first one will compare and justify the acquisition and the second will contain my empirical observations after substantial use. By now, though, the “flirtation” has become a more serious relationship, with the near certainty of becoming my long term travel solution. For justification: with a sensor at least one-third larger than my Sony100rx‘s, the camera body is only a tiny bit larger than the rx100. And, unlike the almost too small, RX100, it handles like a small SLR/DSLR. The viewfinder is bright and easy to see through, and the tilting rear screen works for waist-level type shooting on a tripod. It fits my hands nicely. It is feather-light. The controls are logical to me (I much prefer the way Olympus handles the control for moving the spot AF point around to my Sony setup). With the “pancake” style 14-40mm lens attached, the Olympus body is only slightly deeper than the RX100. The body measures just 1/2-inch wider and is essentially the same from base to top – except that the pentaprism-shaped, EVF (viewfinder) adds nearly 1 inch in height just in that small “bump” on top. Adding the 40-150mm gets me to where (actually better) I was in focal length with the rx100 (35mm equivalent 80-300). And as the photo below illustrates, at very little size cost (3-3/4″ and featherweight). I don’t gain any resolution (in fact, a small loss in quantity of megapixels) but I do get a larger sensor size, which think gets me more “bang for the buck” from those larger pixels.
OLYMPUS offers a nice selection of lenses in this mount (which means interchangeability across the entire Olympus M4/3 lineup), including several zooms, and a few primes. And Olympus has always been known for its quality (m. zuiko) glass. While acquiring (and carrying) additional lenses may seem go against my premise of compact travel gear, it does give room for diversity, if desired at some point. I might, for example, acquire their 45mm (90mm equivalent @35mm) f1.8 lens as an additional tool for closeups where I may wish to create nice blurry backgrounds. Who knows? But the ability is there. All micro 4/3 cameras (even other brands) and lenses share compatibility with mounts. So you can not only choose from Olympus’ own selection (they offer “pro” spec 1.8 and 4.0 aperture lenses, as well as the consumer grade lenses I have mentioned here), but also from other manufacturers (primarily, Panasonic).
RETURNING to my original premise: travel size, quality, versatility and compromise, the MFT format allows for designs of much smaller lenses throughout the line. I have fitted my “rig” out with the pancake-style 14-42EZ (35mm equivalent = 28-84mm), Olympus’ equally economical 40-150 (35mm equivalent = 80-300mm), and more recently, a Rokinon MF 7.5mm (35mm-equivalent =15mm) for travel. The 40-150mm has been referred to by enthusiasts at “The Fantastic Plastic” lens. New, these two lenses together sell for $500 on sites like B&H. Though they are “consumer” lenses (more on that later), that is pretty reasonable. I “upgraded” the borrowed body to the mark II (which has better IS – good for handheld shooting), a slightly better viewfinder, and electronic shutter release capability. If you are willing to take a calculated risk (I have done a lot of this – mostly successfully) you can find them used. I paid less than half the “new” price for my lens lineup, and just over $200 for the new body. In an industry where it is easy to spend thousands of dollars on the latest and greatest, I think that may be one of the best features. I carried this “kit” (camera, 2 lenses, my small travel tripod, and PZ filters) on my Caribbean Cruise in January (the comparative image above, sans the hat 🙂 ). Both lenses appear to be sharp and contrasty. They both render (in combination with the camera) a nice warm, saturated image in Olympus’ .orf raw format. I do see some (expected) distortion at the shorter focal length with the 14-42mm lens, but certainly nothing that cannot be corrected in post-processing. The longer zoom lens is 3-3/4 inches long and weighs significantly less than 1 lb. I have read lots of good user reviews about the sharpness of this inexpensive lens. The other two are – for lack of a better description – comparatively tiny. For travel, this seems like pretty much the ideal combination. While it is not going to go into a shirt pocket, the whole combo will easily fit into the fanny pack size bag I often use when walking around on travel (along with the other two lenses). With the small lens attached, the camera might possibly fit a cargo-style pant pocket (though I am not sure I would recommend this style of carry). For all-in-one users, Olympus also offers a 14-150mm lens. For me, the usage will mostly be with the small lens (probably 80-90% of my shooting), so the combo works perfectly.
THE LENSES discussed above are all “consumer” grade f3.5 or f4 – f5.6 lenses. For the kind of travel/”street” shooting I am doing, mostly during daylight hours, with the capability of bumping the ISO up, and the Olympus in-body image stabilization, I find these lenses provide just what I need, 99% of the time. There are -as I have mentioned – numerous pro-style lenses with wide apertures available in the micro 4/3 format. But there is that compromise again. They are bigger, heavier, and certainly a magnitude more expensive. In my own case, it seems like it makes more sense to invest in pro glass for my “full frame” camera. OM Systems (formerly Olympus) has somewhat recently announced a pair of F4 “pro” lenses that would give a range similar to what I have for my Sony a7rii. While there is apparently a market for these, to me they would be overkill for my purposes – as well as bigger and heavier; somewhat defeating my purposes. The single reason for me to use the MFT format is size. I cannot think of another reason why I wouldn’t always carry my Sony system. But as noted above, that is reason enough. I don’t currently see myself going “all in” with this system. The OMD-E10 (version 1) and the EM10 mark II fit my criteria. Why? Like every other manufacturer, each new iteration gets bigger and heavier (another spin on “going the wrong way, in my opinion). The mark II is negligibly larger and includes just a couple improved features that I considered worth upgrading for. Otherwise, the more sophisticated (and larger and more expensive OM options just don’t do it for me). I know there are working pros who will disagree with that and make a good living and some incredible imagery with their m4/3 equipment. And the more I use it the more I “get” that. If m4/3 is the only equipment you are going to own and shoot, you would look at this very differently, and there are lots of great options to choose from in the Olympus family, including the impressive new offering by OM Solutions: the OM-1.
LAST YEAR, I opted to “up” my image quality, upgrading my “full frame” Sony A7 to the Sony a7rii 42mp “full frame” sensor, with no AA filter (and it is worth noting here, that it is my understanding that the Olympus 4/3 cameras do not have AA filters on them). I have been very impressed so far. I have no intention of replacing it as my primary, serious camera (though, ironically, I probably make many less images with it than I do my other “more convenient” gear). But having said that, I made a lot of images in both Vermont in October, 2021 and recently in Maine in April, 2022. In spite of my feelings about size, and enthusiasm for the 4/3 gear – for my serious landscape shooting, the larger Sony system is a “keeper.” I have since invested in more powerful computer processing equipment to keep up with not only the new technology and software, but the larger image files. The micro 4/3 move goes (sort of) the opposite direction, with the lowest pixel count (my Sony RX100 is 20, and the OMD is only 16 megapixels) I have had in a few years. But, while still smaller than the 35mm equivalent, “full frame” of my Sony, the 4/3 sensor is significantly larger than the RX100’s 1-inch sensor. And 16 megapixels on a 4/3 sensor should still yield a better-quality image than 20 megapixels on a 1-inch sensor. Size (pixel size and sensor size) does matter – and all other things equal, it should trump numbers. I look forward to additional travel experience with this camera. I know there is a very large and enthusiastic following with the 4/3 imaging group.
My raw images are always blah looking straight out of the camera. It is the nature of the beast. But it also gives you the best platform from which to render the best possible images
WHICH BRINGS me to another point. Since investing in some OM gear, I have joined a couple Facebook Boards dedicated to various Olympus – OM topics. I haven’t ever done likewise on similar Sony or Nikon boards which I am sure exist (at least not since back in the AOL days) 🙂 I am surprised at the amount of angst that is often expressed about post-processing software, image downloading software and editing, and even in-camera software. My own workflow has always been pretty simple. For me, the camera is a capture tool only. I Download my images to my chosen storage/organization media, cull, label, append metadata (copyright) and back up (I add the extra step of converting my raw images to .dng format – a personal preference). I do all this before I do any image editing or processing. I use Photoshop, but Lighroom, OnONE, Capture One, or any of the other programs would work just fine. The point is, I don’t think much about what is happening to the captured digital image until I begin to work on it in post-processing. My organization scheme is also quite simple. I store files by date and year, and use a naming scheme that generally gives me enough information to remember the scene. Any other stuff gets done in my archives (like keywords, categories, etc.). One common thread to all my camera gear is raw format (and it’s raw; not RAW). While I know there is a debate, for any of us who plan to process our photographs for best case presentation, I don’t understand it. I get that certain shooters (e.g., sports, reporting, etc.) have the need for speed (and perhaps size) reason to shoot in jpeg. I also get that some people are just going to take their in-camera results and present them (perhaps most often on media like Instagram or Facebook). And I know some like dual capture (raw + jpeg), to have the jpeg for quick downloading, web use, etc. But I really don’t understand why you would have the capacity to capture raw images and then throw them away at any stage during the process. All my images are first saved as raw files. All the talk I read on these sites about how this or that software renders colors better, etc., during the image ingestion process is perplexing to me. My raw images are always blah looking straight out of the camera. It is the nature of the beast. But it also gives you the best platform from which to render the best possible images. See my blog on “Why You Should Shoot Raw . . . “
THE PROOF is in the results, of course. In the next post, I will document some results and experiences, as well as comment on the overall Olympus system, now that I have accumulated some experience with two of the bodies. You might read my post on “Evaluating Your Gear,” and think “this guy is all over the place” (and you might be right 🙂 ). But the two posts are really not inconsistent. The conclusion I came to is that some of us may have more than one “outfit,” depending on our purpose. And note, my emphasis both here and there on what I will use (hence the less expensive, smaller “consumer” lenses). My own expectation is that the addition of the 4/3 “kit” will enhance both my images and my fun. And that latter piece is perhaps the most important of all.