Can Lumix MFT Cameras Compete with Traditional DSLR’s?

Posted May. 16th, 2016 by Daniel J. Cox

Can Lumix MFT Cameras Compete with Traditional DSLR’s?

Susan Brown Matsumoto recently emailed me wanting to know more about the capabilities of the Micro Four Thirds cameras compared to her Nikon D700 and D800 bodies. I’m regularly getting the same question from lots of our readers, so I decided to put her question in a Blog post so others can learn from the question as well.

Here’s Susan’s Question

One of my South County Photo Club members travels with you and she just purchased the Panasonic mirrorless camera you were talking about on your website. I have a Nikon D700 and D810 which I love but sometimes the weight gets to me. I know need a longer lens then my 70-200 with 1.4 teleconverter but thinking of getting even a heavier lens made me think maybe I should go with a Sony A7II which a few of my friends have or the one you purchased. I have an Olympus OEM D purchased 3 years ago but I never felt the quality was up to par compared to my Nikon cameras. Plus for action do mirrorless cameras really work as well as the DSLRs? Just wondering with all my Nikon lenses what would be the best route. Thank you!

Susan,

Let me just start off with saying that your Nikon’s have the ability to produce some of the finest images of virtually any camera being made today. So you have a high bar to reach. However, the first thought that comes to my mind in answering your question is, what do you do with your pictures? Using myself as an example, I’m currently working with some of the world’s highest quality publications, Nature’s Best for example, and the MFT Lumix cameras I’m shooting are doing just fine quality

Summer issue of Nature's Best magazine showcasing my work with Lumix MFT cameras.

Summer issue of Nature’s Best magazine showcasing my work with Lumix MFT cameras.

wise. Next month Outdoor Photographer is also running a story about my work with Panasonic’s Micro Four Thirds cameras. Getting somebody to pay for the photos they use is the highest bar a photographer can set for themselves, especially when competing with thousands of other photographers vying for the same publication space. So that’s a proof of concept, so to speak, as evidence of the MFT quality being able to make the cut in the world of publishing.

Second page of the Natue's Best article on my work with Micro Four Thirds cameras.

Second page of the Nature’s Best article on my work with Micro Four Thirds cameras.

The other publication arena I’m involved with and you may be as well, is large format fine art prints. Next month Outdoor Photographer is running one of my fine art images showing a framed piece printed to 24×36 inches titled Raven’s Spirit. That image was shot with the Lumix GH4 and the Olympus 40-150mm lens. So once again, MFT is producing high enough quality to conquer another of two different markets I regularly sell to.

Raven Spirit fine Art print hanging in our home in Bozeman, Montana

Raven’s Spirit fine art print hanging in our home in Bozeman, Montana.

The next part of the equation you need to understand is that just because a camera is mirrorless doesn’t mean it’s going to be smaller, an advantage you mention you’re looking for. Yes, Sony’s camera body will be a bit smaller, but since it’s a full frame body, the lenses will have similar bulk and weight as your current Nikon lenses. This is the huge misconception people have about the Sony system. Sony is in fact working to reinvent the wheel. What they’re doing is already super successful by Nikon and Canon. Along with similar size and weight you’ll be paying prices every bit as much as Canon and Nikon and for some of the the new Sony lenses, you’ll be paying even more.

This is a comparison slide taken from a presentation I do about the Micro For Thirds system.

This is a comparison slide taken from a presentation I do about the Micro Four Thirds system. All lenses are macros with similar focal length. The Nikon on the left is 105mm, Sony is a 90mm, and the Leica/Lumix on the right is also 90mm.

So…we get back to the question, what do you do with your pictures? If you print up to 24×36 inches (most people don’t), then MFT has you covered. If you sell your work for publication or hope to, MFT has you covered. If you share your photos with friends on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other social media service or maybe you produce prints as gifts for family members, MFT has you more than covered.

To be completely honest, which I pride myself in being, I would be fooling you to say there aren’t a few downsides to MFT compared to the larger Nikons and Sony cameras. One is lowlight capabilities. MFT cameras just can’t shoot in as dark of light

Tahitian fire dancer performing on the island of Bora Bora, Tahiti Lumix GX8 with Olympus 12mm F/2.0 lens ISO 1600

Tahitian fire dancer performing on the island of Bora Bora, Tahiti. Lumix GX8 with Olympus 12mm F/2.0 lens, ISO 1600

as the newest Nikons, Sony’s and Canons. That said, the two Nikon’s you have are fairly old and the newest Lumix bodies do come close in the low light abilities of the D700 and D800 cameras. For most people the Lumix and Olympus MFT cameras do a

Tahitian fire dancer performing on the island of Bora Bora, Tahiti Lumix GX8 with Olympus 12mm F/2.0 lens ISO 3200

Tahitian fire dancer performing on the island of Bora Bora, Tahiti. Lumix GX8 with Olympus 12mm F/2.0 lens, ISO 3200

better than adequate job up to 1600 ISO, and I’ve shot acceptable images as high as 2000 ISO with my Lumix GH4 and GX8 bodies. Part of the low light answer for MFT is using proper software to remove noise issues. My software of choice for removing noise/grain is DXO Optics Pro which does a fabulous job.

The OM-D EM-1 you mention is a fine camera but I can tell you that it’s one of the most difficult cameras to operate I’ve ever used. And yes, I do have one. I need to shoot all the options to know what I’m talking about. Your disappointment with MFT might be as much about the camera’s experience as the quality of the images you were seeing. Just something to think about.

A pair of cheetahs running to catch a young impala in Samburu National Reserve. Kenay

A pair of cheetahs running to catch a young impala in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. Lumix GH4 with Olympus 40-1500m F/2.8

Finally, there is the question of MFT AF capabilities. There’s no question that MFT cannot keep up with my Nikon D4 when it comes to the most challenging AF situations, but it comes very close. As far as keeping up wth the Nikon D700 or D800, there is no issue. Again, the two Nikons we’re comparing to the Lumix GH4 or GX8 are considerably older Nikon bodies. The Lumix GH4 and GX8 are light years ahead of both Nikons in terms of ease of use, industry leading technology like 4K Video, wireless transfer of photos, touchscreen technology, and many other incredible features.

Hope this helps. Feel free to reach back out if you have additional questions. If you decide to move in the Lumix direction please make sure you see this Blog post, Birds in Flight for the best menu settings for either the GH4, GX8, or G7 cameras to get the most efficient use of your new camera.

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There are 14 comments on this post…
  1. ToxicTabascoOn May. 19th, 2018

    Thank you for the great information on M4/3. I know this was done 2 years ago, and much has happened in micro 4:3 land. To answer the question of this article. I would say the Panasonic Lumix G9, has breached the barrier between DSLR and M4:3. The specs and reviews are all favorable and speak for themselves. I had the opportunity to get my hands on one a month ago, and the G9 has been on my mind ever since. All the disadvantages of mirrorless are overcome with the G9: Battery life, viewfinder, super fast AF, burst rate, Dynamic Range, noise in low light, resolution, and 4K video. What the G9 is, is a direct competitor to the DSLRs of journalism, action, sports, and wildlife shooters. With the added bonus of light weight & compact, customization buttons, and a bunch of other photo and video features never seen on a DSLR. But the G9 does have a few downers: it can’t do better than a DSLR shooting night sky landscapes or galaxy milky way time lapse. And that hair trigger is much too sensitive for my taste.

    Nevertheless, along with ground breaking stabilization and EVF with a plethora of customization features, the bar has been raised for DSLR and other mirrorless.
    I myself got into micro 4:3 several years ago with the Lumix LX100 for it’s video ability, and it proved to be a camera that could do just about everything photo that my Nikon DSLRs did. And last year I sold off some DSLRs and their lenses to lighten the load. But as good as the LX100 is, the dust spots have became a huge problem for daylight video at f/8. Thus, I got a Lumix GX85 and a few lenses. And the only time I use a DSLR is for the Night Sky Landscape shots. But I have been experimenting with the GX85 under the stars, and it will do night sky landscape panoramas with the F/1.7 lenses at 1600 ISO. But because I need to use NR time lapse is out of the question when shooting the milky way landscapes. But on a full moon night landscape, the micro 4:3 can do a great job for photo and time lapse with f/2.8 to f/3.5 at 400 or 800 ISO. So, this little camera is making its way into DSLR only territory. And I’m hopeful, that someday, the micro 4:3 sensor will be able to shoot without using the NR feature for night sky landscapes. Till then, I’m forced to keep at least one DSLR. Once I shoot Micro 4:3, it’s impossible to go back to using the DSLRs.

    With Nikon announcing the effort and release of a Mirrorless in 2019, I suspect it will be the end of the DSLR era. I’ve seen the same trend with SLR cameras back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It seems DSLR is limited by that mirror. And mirrorless opens up a whole bunch of features that the DSLR can’t do (or refuse to do). Namely in camera stabilization, and using the EVF while shooting video. Thus, I’m selling off more of my Nikon lenses this year before they become obsolete. Currently, a lot of people still like the DSLR and think it’s here to stay. But like in 2002, the DSLR was coming to an end, and not many film shooters would except that. I suspect those same people still have their old film SLR lenses, and use it on DSLRs, refusing to buy the newer faster optically stabilized lenses. This also brings up the concept of “Invest in good expensive lenses, vs 3rd party lenses” But that’s another argument for another topic. Anyway, if you have read through this post. Thank you for taking the time to hear out my opinions on DSLR vs Micro 4:3. I hope other people see the light and invest in their future, or future proof their gear.

  2. ScottOn Oct. 18th, 2016

    Dan,

    You think you’d be willing to part with the “Olympus 40-1500m F/2.8” you shot those cheetas and impala with? 🙂

    Scott

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Oct. 19th, 2016

      HI Scott, no plans to sell the 40-150m at this point. Might give it some thought once the new Leica 50-200mm F/2.8-F/4 is released but until then will keep the Olympus lens.

  3. Glenn AsakawaOn Jun. 2nd, 2016

    Hi Dan. I concur completely with your assessment of MFT and comparisons to using larger DSLR. You provide balanced opinions that I have found to be absolutely true from my own experience. I appreciate your eloquent reviews and thoughts on the subject. And I agree that mirrorless cameras will be the norm for all pros in the next few years.

    I currently work in higher ed as a PR/marketing photographer but have over 30 years of experience as a newspaper photojournalist using Nikon pro gear. Last year, I bought my first mirrorless camera–the Panasonic FZ1000. It changed my whole view of mirrorless cameras and revolutionized how I cover my campus. The speed of focus, color rendering, and burst modes were every bit as good as the Nikon D7200 that I had been using. And that was with a bridge camera. Even with a one-inch sensor, the portability and convenience of having a 25mm-400mm zoom in one package lightened my load immensely and kept my energy levels up for long days of shooting. I was totally sold when I was able to capture a bear falling out of a tree on our campus. I was back where the public was but had the camera zoomed to 400mm and got the great moment on high burst. (http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/12/us/colorado-bear-tranquilized/) But the FZ1000 was the “entry drug” into the world of the Panasonic MFT and the great fun I’ve been having since switching.

    I since have purchased a GX8, LX100, G7. I also have purchased all the pro-line of lenses as well as the 100-300 and a few primes. I remember reading reviews of the FZ1000 as being “large”. Coming from Nikon DSLR, I thought the FZ was small and light. Until I got my first MFT—-which was so much smaller than the FZ. I didn’t think I’d ever go back to interchangeable lenses after being spoiled by the FZ1000, but the variety, quality, tiny size and low cost totally sold me. The image quality is fantastic and certainly great for my own work at the university. I know National Geographic shooters who use MFT cameras and bodies. One Nat Geo photographer who I know told me that a full frame 4:3 aspect ratio works great for full bleed double truck photos in the magazine. (When I asked if he sets the aspect to 3:2 like old film cameras–he said he keeps it at 4:3 to take full advantage of the sensor size). I also ran into a Reuters staff photographer who was using a mirrorless system at one of the Republican Presidential debates. He was one of the few of the traveling press that had them and he swore by them. He said that Reuters doesn’t shoot sports anymore so that sealed his commitment to mirrorless. (It was MFT, but another brand–with just as small a form factor.) The lower cost, size and weight of these cameras work well for my field where budgets are tight and being discreet in classrooms or performances is a must. Being able to turn off the shutter sound and use the electronic shutter solely makes my job so much easier in very delicate situations. And being able to transfer photos immediately to my mobile device is great for live situations such as graduations and other events where the immediacy of posting to social media is critical to engage your audience.

    Finally, the smaller form factor just makes shooting a lot of fun and less intimidating for subject and photographer. I can shoot one handed and hold my camera in positions I would never even try with a Nikon body and a 17-55 zoom. I agree that low light is still a shortcoming. But if you look at my Instagram feed, there are many low light shots that I’ve taken with my Lumix cameras that hold up well. Photos from the Malecon in Cuba that are lighted just by streetlights (no flash used at all) come in great. Of course, it helps to use the 15mm 1.7 Leica prime. I think having cameras that are less imposing also contribute to more amicable subjects and ease of interaction. The only other big shortcoming is battery life. Thankfully, the batteries are small enough that it’s easy to tote a couple along on any shoot. Sorry for the long-winded reply. I can vouch for these cameras completely. And thanks for your thoughtful observations!

  4. Bill TylerOn May. 24th, 2016

    For what it’s worth, I’ve got a full-frame Canon system with lenses from 16-35 up to 500mm, and unless I have a very specialized need, I’ll pull out the m43 gear every time. The two places I’ll definitely use the Canons are for very low light or extreme macro. (The Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens goes from 1:1 up to 5x magnification without extension tubes, and has no real competition in the greater than 1:1 magnification arena, but do you actually use that magnification in your photography?)

  5. Hal MendelsonOn May. 20th, 2016

    You make a very important point when you mention how difficult the Olympus cameras menu system is. Before I had heart surgery, I had become too weak to lug around my DSLR and heavy lenses. Luckily for me I discovered m43. I bought a Lumix GF1 and was once again able to enjoy my passion for photography. I have been doing photography since I was 13 years old in 1956 and the GF1 is one of my favorite cameras. I have owned both Olympus and Panasonic cameras. I am now using the GX8. I was very frustrated when I had the OMD E-M5. The menu was a was so layered that I could just not enjoy photography. You are certainly also correct that one has to take into account the weight of the lenses. I have recovered from my heart surgery and am much stronger but I am not in the least tempted to leave m43.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn May. 21st, 2016

      Great to hear you’re ups and shooting again Hal. So many folks are finding the benefits of Micro Four Thirds with their small size, great image quality and relatively inexpensive cost.

  6. Mike SOn May. 20th, 2016

    I’ve been using Olympus and Panasonic gear side by side with my Nikon kit (D3s, D750’s + ED lenses) over the last year and the m43 format has grown on me. I’ve been following your journey with this format. As with all things, there are compromises however the positives outshine the negative. By a wide margin.

    I watched your YouTube video published on 9 May 2016.
    “Unfortunately Olympus has had some issues with their Micro Four Thirds gear holding up to even minimal use. This video shows me repairing an Olympus 1.4X teleconverter in the field in South Africa. This is the second one that the screws have fallen out of and I wanted to alert others to the problem.”

    I tend to use cameras and lenses in robust and sometimes kinetic environments. Since the late ‘seventies’ I’ve used both Canon and Nikon and there have been body and lens failures (some due to the environment and some due to robust use), questionable quality control out of the box (some issue solved by the OEM and others solved by selling the offending piece of kit… ) and some disappointing service response (or lack off) from both Canon and Nikon. There has also been some excellent loan gear available so credit where credit is due.
    I don’t expect an OM-D E-M5 MKII or a GH4 to be as heavily built as a D4/1Dx however general field reliability (outside of my input… ) is of interest to me.

    So, the question really is; is your statement concerning the 1.4X teleconverter because you’re understandably irritated with two failures or is the Olympus gear failing in general?

    I can empathise with frustration at the screws falling out, especially on assignment/planned trip. Have you contacted Olympus USA for a response and if so, was it encouraging?

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn May. 20th, 2016

      Do a search on DPReview for info on the many folks who are disappointed with Olympus long term reliability. The first unit I lost the screws in was sent in for repair and all went well. No word from management either way. Just returned.

    • Mike SOn May. 21st, 2016

      Thanks for replying Dan.

      From what I understand from your words then is that your issue has been the 1.4X TC and not the bodies and lenses in your case. Having seen your video I’ve checked the screws on my 1.4X TC. I suspect it is a manufacturing issue, perhaps to do with material selection or simply a torque setting. That’s no consolation for two field failures though.

      While I read the DPReview technical tests, I don’t put much store in the forums there. There’s simply too much noise and love for the technology.
      I accept that as the cameras and lenses get more complicated, there is the risk for field issues. The old Nikon FM was solid however there have been various focus and battery issues for subsequent bodies such as the F90, F100, F4 not to mention the D600, D750 and D800. Canon doesn’t do any better either, the squeaky shutter curtain on the A1 (FD) and the T90 was prone to water affecting it. The EOS100, EOS5, EOS3 and the digital 7D MKII have had focus issues. Rob Galbraith created a storm of biblical proportions about the EOS 1D IV focus issues and the IDX suffered some mirror box issues early on.
      Both companies remained silent for a long time with some outright denial. It’s often a cultural issue.

      I haven’t experienced any failures with the Panasonic m43 system however I know a couple of associates who have body issues and a lens issue. It was dealt with expediently although there was some minor hoop jumping for one.

      I’ve noted the various camera lug failures for Olympus and they had some issues with some 12-40/2.8’s a while back but that seems to have been resolved. I know of an associate who had EVF burn on an E-M1 body and a damaged lens. Both issues were rectified surprisingly efficiently. No sarcasm intended, I was surprised at the pain free service he received…
      In the round they don’t seem any worse than the others. That sounds like a backhanded compliment to Olympus/Panasonic…

      I’m following your journey with the smaller system precisely because you can measure its overall performance against the yardstick that is Nikon. Not just the image quality, the intriguing new technology that’s proving really useful but for the general field reliability (or areas for improvement) when travelling to distant and/or expensive locations.

  7. Dean SwartzOn May. 16th, 2016

    Dan strikes again! Because of your decades of experience shooting Nikon Pro gear, you are among a very, very limited number of photographers who can comment with authority on the image quality of MFT vs traditional 35mm camera gear. (Of course, not having that expertise has not stopped others on the Internet making comments about camera gear that, unfortunately, is of limited value. Too bad there’s not a “validity” meter that can be used by consumers to weigh the relative value of reviews of camera gear.) But, we must remember that photo gear is just a tool. It still requires knowledge, skill, and artistic talent to capture great images. I suspect (no, I know) you can get great shots with ANYTHING. If you were using a Nikon D3300 and a “kit” lens, you could still capture better images than 95% of the people out there reviewing gear. The equation hasn’t changed: Great gear + poor technique = crappy image. However, you and I probably agree that the new MFT bodies and lenses make it easier for good photographers to capture awesome images while spending a lot less on equipment and carrying lighter camera bags!

    Your latest post is very encouraging and confirms my experience that MFT, while still lagging behind Nikon/Canon is some areas, is fantastic gear. And, progress being made by Olympus and Panasonic in “getting it right” has been happening very rapidly. The advances in MFT cameras and lenses over the past three years is staggering! At this rate, I suspect those minor advantages 35mm cameras have in continuous autofocus tracking and low light situations will disappear very soon, perhaps with the GH5 and OMD E-M1 II later this year.

    Thank you for keeping us informed as those changes continue to occur.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn May. 16th, 2016

      You nailed it Dean. I do predict most DSLR advantages other than possibly low light are going to disaster with the next pro models of MFT cameras. The only real advantage we still don’t have is low light capabilities. But that I predict will eventually change as well. WE all know that technology does nothing but get better, faster and cheaper. Yes, the full frame cameras will also progress but there comes a point when one has enough to do what we need to do. That’s 95% there with MFT cameras now. And at the rate Olympus and Panasonic are bringing us the newest tools such as Touchscreen LCD’s, Focus Stacking, 4K Video, 4K Photo Mode, wireless photo transfer, Post Focus, in camera IS, Dual IS and on and on and on…. the time of needing the big, burly Nikons, Canons and even Sony is going fast. Thanks for your insight.

  8. Mike GOn May. 16th, 2016

    When traveling and hiking I shoot a pair of Olympus EM10 cameras (same sensor as the EM1) with a variety of Panasonic and Olympus lenses. Together the two cameras and the lenses (typically I have 2-3 zooms plus a couple of primes with me) I use weigh less than my Nikon D600 and one lens. This has let me be set up with either a wide angle (Olympus 9-18) and telephoto (Panasonic 35-100 f2.8), or two telephotos (Panasonic 35-100 f2.8 and 100-300 (looking forward getting to the Leica!)). The two telephotos worked really well when I was on safari in Sri Lanka.
    I agree that the Olympus cameras are frustrating to setup, but I’ve produced great images once I managed to wade through the very complex menu structure. The only notable time I struggled to get decent shots was with birds in flight, although I don’t do a lot of that style of shooting so it will in part be my lack of technique. I’m interested in the Panasonic Lumix cameras and will likely rent a couple at some stage to try them out.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn May. 16th, 2016

      Mike, I believe you will really like the Lumix bodies. Be sure to read my Blog on Birds in Flight that details the setting I use not just for birds but all my shooting situations. Birds in flight is just another description of all fast moving photographic opportunities noe of us want to miss. you can read the here http://naturalexposures.com/birds-in-flight-settings-for-panasonic-lumix-cameras/ Thanks for adding your voice.

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