Reasons to Jump to Micro Four Thirds: We Review the System and the OM-1

The tired arguments against the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) standard are obsolete and rarely voiced now. Furthermore, the release of the OM-1 a year ago has seen a massive migration to the system, and for good reason. Many consider giving their creativity a boost by swapping to an MFT camera.

To begin, a disclaimer. As I mentioned in a previous article, I was recently appointed an OM Ambassador. I don’t get paid for that, and I have not been asked to write this article. All it means for me is that I am publicly declaring that I think the system is superb. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have agreed to sign up for it nor continued to use the cameras. I am not paid, so what have I got in return? I can network with some astounding photographers from around the world that use the system, and, from a personal business perspective, it’s an endorsement of my photography by a respected company.

Secondly, I am not saying you must change your camera system. If you are happy with what you use, then great. Nevertheless, I want to discuss that the huge leaps forward in sensor and processor technology have meant that lots of photographers are seeing benefits of Micro Four Thirds that outweigh any perceived disadvantage.

That is reflected in the success of the new and rapidly growing OM Digital Solutions Corporation and the unprecedented sales of their flagship, the OM-1. The orders of that camera, at first, took the corporation by surprise. Demand outstripped supply, although that has evened out now, with production keeping up with the continued high sales. Even more surprising were the sales of the system’s flagship lenses. For example, production has been increased for the M.Zuiko Digital ED 150-400mm F4.5 TC1.25X IS PRO, so they can address the long waiting list.

Responding to continuing strong demand for our flagship lenses, we are currently adding further capacity to our production facilities. We are setting up a new system to meet the current demand from August onward and expect to catch up with outstanding orders well before the end of 2023. This increase is part of continued investment in the OM SYSTEM brand and will greatly speed the take up of our products by high-end photographers. We ask for continued understanding from those customers with outstanding orders while we undertake this work.

OM Digital Systems

What Nearly Tempted Me Away From Micro Four Thirds

Although I have been tempted to leave a couple of times in the past, I am now glad I didn’t. Thinking back to the late 2000s when I bought a Four Thirds Olympus Evolt E-510, I did sometimes doubt my choice. That was mainly because I was reading disparaging magazine reviews that were, I realized later, more than influenced by their advertisers than adhering to the truth. However, the criticisms in those less-positive reviews didn’t cohere with my experiences with that camera, nor those pointed at the E-5 that I owned after it. Furthermore, if I look at the photos I took with those cameras, they more than hold their own today.

There were some major advantages to owning an Olympus back then that I take for granted today. The E-510 was the first of the Olympus cameras that included image stabilization, something in which the OM System still leads the way. Also, I never once had to clean dust from the sensor. The OM System’s “Supersonic Wave Filter” is still widely acknowledged as outshining the rest.

Admittedly, the resolution back then wasn’t as high as some of its competitors, but 10 megapixels was more than enough to print a 20” x 30” print at photo quality. That was far bigger than I ever needed. Plus, if it were necessary, there was fractals-based software that would enlarge it. Those smaller images also meant smaller file sizes and all the advantages those bring in handling speed and storage.

Now, with the 20-megapixel OM-1, I can happily create a photo-quality 30” x 40” print before considering using any of the excellent AI-based image enlargement tools that are now widely available or switching to the camera’s 80 MP high definition setting.

There was another camera I considered in the past when those doubts haunted me. First, it was the professional Canon EOS 1D Mark III, which had similar resolution and slightly larger APS-H sensor. However, I am glad I didn’t, as that camera had a raft of technical issues. I was tempted again by the EOS 5D Mark III, but I found the ergonomics were wrong for my large hands. Combined with its weight, it was so uncomfortable to use, especially when coupled with bulky full frame lenses. Moreover, the lack of an articulated Live View screen was the final issue that steered me away from that camera. So, I stayed with Olympus instead, buying into the Micro Four Thirds system. Considering where the technology sits now, I am very glad I did.

The Quality of the Cameras and Lenses

The M.Zuiko lenses’ outstanding image quality is widely known, so I will not dwell on it here. What is underappreciated is the robustness of the system’s build. A friend of mine dropped their borrowed Olympus camera at the top of some stone stairs in a castle here in England. It bounced down to the bottom. There was just one tiny mark on the camera.

Another time, I was standing in the middle of a fast-flowing river and my camera and tripod fell over, bounced off a rock, and landed in the water. I picked it up, dried it off, and carried on shooting.

Leaving the Tripod Behind

As a land and seascape photographer, I often use a tripod for the sole reason that it slows me down and allows me to concentrate on precise compositions. But the reality is that much of the time I don’t have to. The seven to eight stops of image stabilization are so good that I have handheld the camera for two seconds. This means I can use the OM-1’s inbuilt ND filters and handhold the camera for long exposures to show movement in water or for creating abstract shots of moving birds.  

Shooting in low light with faster shutter speeds is also far more attainable now because of the clean, high-ISO images the camera produces that have a far higher dynamic range than older cameras. This is thanks to the new stacked sensor in the camera. For me, this is useful for shooting weddings and indoor events when I don’t like using a flash.

Computational Photography and High Performance

There are other computational photography features too. With Live Time, you can watch the image gradually develop on the live view screen, and see the histogram gradually move to the right; it’s fabulous for night-time photography. In that way, you can judge when to stop the exposure before highlights are blown or decide that there are sufficient light trails. Live Comp (composite) is slightly different as it will take an image and then only add new light to the shot. Again, this is great for light trails, light painting, and capturing images of lightning. It includes a timer so you can leave the function running for six hours.

Fortunately, you can also run the camera off an external power bank for those really long exposures. However, the new batteries that power the camera are incredibly efficient. The last wedding I photographed was from 10 am until 8 pm, and I only changed the battery once.

There’s also the incredible AI-driven subject detection feature of the camera. For me, bird detection is the one I use the most, and it finds and tracks even distant birds that are tiny in the frame. It also works when birds are partially obscured by a twig or two.

Coupled with the fantastic black-out-free shooting at a frame rate of 50 raw frames per second (fps) with continuous autofocus with a compatible PRO lens and 120 raw fps with single autofocus, it also has the unique ability to buffer images when you half-press the shutter button. This means that you never miss the action because of your slow reactions. This Pro Capture feature means the camera will record up to 70 frames before you have fully pressed the button.

The IP 53 weather-sealing is also a must for me. I regularly shoot on a windswept beach and am buffeted by sand and sprayed with seawater. After extreme conditions, I’ve even rinsed the salt and sand off the camera body under the shower.

The camera also has a built-in intervalometer, a high-resolution mode that composites eight images to create an 80-megapixel image, and in-camera HDR that combines up to seven bracketed exposures into one image. It has numerous video options up to 4K 60p too.

The OM-1 isn’t the only MFT camera out there, but I have used it to illustrate this article because I know it best. OMDS makes other cameras too, including the pocketable OM-5. Panasonic produces the Lumix G Series that a lot of videographers have adopted. The system is widely used in security cameras and other commercial applications.

What I Like and What Could Be Improved About Micro Four Thirds

Essential for me is that the ergonomic design is superb. Micro Four Thirds cameras are lighter than direct competitors, so I can easily carry them when hiking without worries. Plus, my long fingers can easily find all the buttons I want without having to carry out the painful contortions I attempt when trying to play my guitar.

The lenses are so much smaller than those you’ll find on full frame cameras. Consequently, I can catch a plane and have all my gear in the cabin luggage and not pay for excess baggage. I can also walk around all day without hurting my neck or back, as I have done using a heavier system.

The innovativeness inherited from Olympus has given it a boost. Being unshackled from the restrictions placed on it by the medical arm of Olympus, OMDS’s camera and lens sales are booming, mainly from people migrating to the system from other brands. That’s happening not without good reasons: the system’s lightness and unique features set it apart from other models, as well as the build and image quality.

The OM-1 is very much a camera that is made for being used outdoors, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it and other MFT cameras in a studio. I do! I also use them for weddings and events, as the smaller system makes it ideal for capturing candid photos at events. I keep dabbling with the idea of shooting some personal videos; again, it has the performance to do that.

I really like the improved high-ISO performance, the image stabilization, and the exceptionally fast autofocus.

If there is one thing I don’t like, that is the tired argument from some who promote other brands that Micro Four Thirds lenses have more depth of field is a disadvantage. It is a redundant argument. Why? You just need to learn to shoot differently. If you want a completely blurred background, it’s still perfectly possible. You just need to learn how to use the camera.

Those who argue that are either unfamiliar with the system, technically unskilled, or want to promote a different system. Furthermore, for most photos, we want to include some background to add context anyway, and for landscapes, more depth of field is often what we are after.

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