Plugged In: Major image quality with micro technology

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Micro Four-Thirds compact camera systems pioneered by Panasonic and Olympus are the most mature and comprehensive mirrorless camera systems on the market, with a wide range of excellent lenses and camera bodies whose image quality punches well above its weight class.

Micro Four-Thirds is actually a set of general design specifications open to any interested company. Several companies make M 4/3 lenses and camera bodies that are fully interchangeable. That openness and competition results in a wide selection of reasonably affordable, interoperable products.

Announced in 2008, with the first products marketed in 2009, M 4/3 cameras were the first compact-system cameras. By eliminating the moving mirror and reducing by half the distance between lens and sensor, M 4/3 cameras became much more compact without sacrificing image quality.

Even though it seems that moving-mirror, dSLR cameras have been around forever, they’re actually a relatively recent phenomenon, with the first affordable consumer versions appearing in 2006 or so. As so often happens, fashions are coming full circle, with bulky dSLR cameras being gradually eclipsed in turn by smaller, compact-system cameras in which eyelevel electronic viewfinders replace moving-mirror direct optical viewfinders.

That’s become feasible for two reasons. Electronic viewfinders, which take their image and exposure data directly from the sensor in real time, have become much better, now rivaling optical viewfinders. At the same time, image files produced by slightly smaller M 4/3 sensors are as good, or better, than those from many larger APS-C cameras. Even though M 4/3 cameras are more compact and portable than nearly all APS-C dSLR cameras, you’ll not notice significantly better image quality unless you take the leap from M 4/3 systems to much more expensive full-frame cameras.

When first designing earlier Four-Thirds and then M 4/3 cameras, Olympus and Panasonic bet the farm that the image quality of smaller sensors would continually improve until it became fully competitive with larger sensors, and it did. That’s especially true if you first preprocess M 4/3 files using DXO’s Optics Pro 9 software before importing the preprocessed files into an Adobe product for final work.

One nice touch by both Panasonic and Olympus is the use by each company of their best sensors in all current models. As a result, sensor quality is just as high in the least-expensive consumer models as in the top-end professional systems. With top-end models, you’re mostly paying for better construction quality and more features.

I’ve found that M 4/3 lenses tend to be more reliably sharp than those made for larger APS-C cameras. There are several reasons. The smaller glass elements used in M 4/3 lenses are easier to produce and assemble without defects. Quality control by M 4/3 lens makers, like Olympus, Panasonic and Sigma, tends to be better than average.

There are a few differences between M 4/3 cameras made by Olympus and Panasonic, the dominant makers of M 4/3 gear. Broadly, Panasonic cameras, especially the newest GH4 model, are optimized for professional-quality video and good still photography. Olympus cameras produce good quality video but are optimized for still photographs, producing especially nice out-of-camera JPEG files, even at high ISO sensitivities.

Olympus cameras include an in-body, image-stabilization system that stabilizes any lens that can be physically mounted. The five-axis version found in the E-M5, E-M1 and E-P5 models is particularly effective. The less-expensive E-M10 and E-PL5 consumer cameras use a somewhat less effective but still good three-axis, in-body stabilization system.

Except for the modestly useful stabilization hardware built into Panasonic’s 2013 GX7 model, Panasonic cameras do not include any in-body image stabilization. As a result, most Panasonic cameras do not stabilize lenses that lack image-stabilization hardware built directly into each separate lens. That means Panasonic cameras cannot stabilize older lenses, nor most of Panasonic’s excellent prime lenses, nor any Olympus lenses.

That’s a deal breaker for me regarding Panasonic’s otherwise excellent M 4/3 cameras. From my perspective, image stabilization is one of the most important and useful photographic advances in the past 25 to 30 years. I’d like to effectively use the many optically excellent M 4/3 lenses that do not include built-in image stabilization.

However, if you do decide that Panasonic’s M 4/3 cameras are for you, whether as a filmmaker or as a still photographer, then there are many high-quality Panasonic-branded lenses that include effective image stabilization.

Illustration 1 — Front view, from left, of Canon T41, Panasonic GH4,  Panasonic G6, Panasonic GX7, Panasonic GM1 and Olympus E-P5.

Illustration 1 — Front view, from left, of Canon T41, Panasonic GH4, Panasonic G6, Panasonic GX7, Panasonic GM1 and Olympus E-P5.

Today’s Illustration 1 shows the relative size of most current Panasonic M 4/3 cameras, with a Canon T4i/T5i dSLR on the left and an Olympus E-P5 on the right, both for consistent size comparison. From the left are the Canon T4i, Panasonic’s GH4, Panasonic G6, Panasonic GX7, Panasonic GM-1 and Olympus E-P5.

Each Panasonic model fits a different niche. The prograde, SLR-styled GH4 is the first affordable

Illustration 2 — Front view, from left, of Canon T41, Olympus E-M1, Olympus  E-M5, Olympus E-M10, Olympus E-PL5 and  Olympus E-P5.

Illustration 2 — Front view, from left, of Canon T41, Olympus E-M1, Olympus E-M5, Olympus E-M10, Olympus E-PL5 and Olympus E-P5.

camera to include 4K video, and it appeals to serious filmmakers. The G6 is a less-expensive, consumer-grade camera that likewise includes an EVF. It’s built with a rounded, largely plastic body. The G6 is a good introductory camera for students. The rangefinder-styled GX7, conceptually similar to Olympus’ E-P5, is often used by professionals as a backup and general walk-around camera, while the tiny GM-1 is appreciated for its good image quality in a pocketable package. With comparable lenses, each of these models can produce similarly good image quality.

Illustration 2 shows Olympus’ comparable models. The first three to the right of the Canon T4i are Olympus’ SLR-styled OM-D models with built-in eyelevel electronic viewfinders.

The E-M1 is a serious but affordable prograde camera favored by many nationally prominent photographers. The E-M1 is sturdily built of metal and weather sealed, with a state-of-the-art electronic viewfinder. The E-M1 is a bit larger than its sibling, the somewhat older E-M5, a similarly well-constructed and weather-sealed camera that was Olympus’ professional offering prior to the E-M1. I have an E-M5 and see no reason to get the larger, more expensive E-M1. There’s no real difference in usability or image quality between the two.

Next on the right is the newly introduced E-M10, a consumer-grade OM-D model that’s not weather sealed and fitted with a three-axis stabilization system. The E-M10 includes many of the E-M1’s electronic tricks and would be an excellent camera for the average serious photographer. As you can see, it’s a bit smaller than the E-M5.

The last two Olympus cameras are the rangefinder-styled Pen cameras that do not include built-in electronic eyelevel viewfinders. On the right is the Pen E-P5, Olympus’ best non-EVF camera. It’s very well built but not weather sealed, unfathomable at this price point. Image quality is comparable to the E-M1 and E-M5 in a smaller package. Second from the right is the E-PL5, a “lite” version of the E-P5. Both of these Pen cameras are well constructed mostly of metal and both can use any of Olympus’ optional eyelevel EVF finders, if you prefer.

It’s likely that Olympus will introduce some slightly upgraded models at the beginning of September. When that happens, the older E-M5, E-P5 and E-PL5 models will further drop in price and become real bargains.

Mature optical product lines like those made for M 4/3 cameras change far less frequently than camera models. We’ll take a look at some of the best affordable M 4/3 lenses next week.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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