Small is Beautiful – by Jack Kurtz

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A woman received blessings from a Hindu priest at the Ganesh Festival in Nakhon Nayok.
A woman received blessings from a Hindu priest at the Ganesh Festival in Nakhon Nayok. E-P5, with the 12mm f2 lens, 1/60th at f11.

I photographed the annual Ganesh Festival at Shri Utthayan Ganesha Temple in Nakhon Nayok over the weekend. I ended up using my Micro 4:3 gear for almost the whole thing.

Back in the day, when photographers used film, I used to carry Canon FD and Leica M cameras and lenses. Most of the telephoto work was done with the Canons, while I used Leicas for wide angle or street photography. Being a newspaper photographer, I needed the flexibility of the SLR, with lenses from 20mm to 400mm, motordrives, flash and professional support and I used SLRs for most of my work. But the Leicas were smaller, lighter and more fun. They also challenged me in ways that the Canons did not because they didn’t have light meters (until the M6 came along) and they were “finicky” to load and unload. (The motors for the Canon New F1 had an automatic rewind function – hit the last frame and the camera would rewind the film into the cassette. At the time I thought that was very cool.)

Years ago cameras were things of beauty. The Leica M in particular was a wonder to hold and use, but even the Canon New F1 and other Canon film bodies (not to slight peeps who used Nikons but I’ve been a lifelong Canon photographer). Cameras and lenses were much smaller than they are now. Ergonomically, controls and dials fell into place naturally. Some manufacturers went down different paths (Olympus OM line I’m looking at you) but they made sense in their own way.

Things changed with autofocus and other electronics. Now manufacturers had to find ways to build micro-computers in their cameras. Cameras got a lot bigger and heavier. Lenses exploded in size.

GaneshFestival
E-P5, 12mm f2 lens, 1/80th, f3.5

Digital bodies, especially professional ones, are huge and outrageously heavy. A Canon New F1, their top of the line film body in the early 1980s, was a large camera for its time but it is positively petite compared to the EOS 1DX, Canon’s current top of the line camera

For years I’ve been looking for a smaller option to my Canon bodies. For a long time I used Canon G series “point and shoots” alongside my dSLRs. They were okay. Image quality was okay (actually pretty good considering the small sensor) but they were slow. Autofocus was slow, shot to shot time was slow and shutter lag was bad. Press the shutter button to make a photo and the camera would fire pretty much when it wanted to, not when you wanted it to. Decisive moment photography was a challenge.

Then I discovered Micro 4:3 cameras.

For a long time, Olympus has been a sort of an also ran in camera circles. Their products are excellent. Their lenses every bit as good as anything from Canon or Nikon. Their camera bodies are very good but their camera designers march to their own beat and while they were always cult favorites, they were never really able to generate much traction against the CanNik juggernaut. (Pentax and Minolta, two other storied brands had the same problem and eventually disappeared.)

With digital, Canon and Nikon have built a certain amount of backward compatibility into their digital SLR lines but Olympus threw out the rule books and started from scratch.

GaneshFestival
Taking Ganesh to the river, E-P5, 12mm f2 lens, 1/80th at f5.

While Canon and Nikon pursued the holy grail of full frame, Olympus and Panasonic went the other way and collaborated on a smaller sensor. They came up with 4:3, a sensor that is 18mm (wide) by 13.5mm (tall). A full frame sensor, in comparison, is 36mm wide and 24mm tall or roughly twice as big. The 4:3 line didn’t sell very well and eventually Olympus and Panasonic modified it and came up with Micro 4:3 (M4:3). The sensor is the same size, but by redesigning the cameras and going away from traditional SLR design they came up with much smaller cameras (and lenses).

My first M4:3 was a Panasonic GF1. It was a great little camera. It was nowhere near a replacement for my Canons but it was small, had good quality and was fun to use. Noise was a problem over ISO800, autofocus was slow (but reliable) and it was, in general, a slow camera. But it became my go to small camera pushing my Canon G cameras out of the bag. It was generation 1 of M4:3 and with any new technology generational improvements are huge.

M4:3 sensors have gotten much better with every generation. My current M4:3 camera, the E-P5 is a huge improvement over the GF1. ISO1600 is no problem and ISO3200 is usable with some noise reduction in Lightroom. It’s got almost as much dynamic range as my full frame cameras and it’s really fast. Not 5D Mark III or 1DX fast, but considerably faster than my 5D Mark II.

Is M4:3 as good as full frame? In absolute terms, probably not. There are inherent advantages to large sensors, like broader dynamic range and lower noise (digital grain). Depth of field control is also more precise with full frame bodies. But the differences, instead of being deal breakers, are more like the differences between medium format and full frame. In other words, it’s all a part of a choice you make and not a corner you’re forced into.

M4:3 has been my go to carry around camera for a couple of years. Something I would take with me when I was out and not intending to photograph but wanted to be ready just in case. Now I’m using my M4:3 for more and more of my work.

I photographed a recent Chinese opera with it and I covered Ganesh with the M4:3 almost exclusively. (I used my 5D Mark III for a couple of photos because I needed a 200mm lens and the longest lens I have for M4:3 is 90mm.)

I used to tell people that I could use the GF1 and early M4:3 for about 60% of my work but that when I hit the wall with it, it was a hard stop and I had to use my Canons. Using M4:3 meant using full frame and M4:3 side by side. Now I can use M4:3 for about 90% of my work and when I hit the wall, it’s a low wall easily gotten over or around. More and more I leave my Canons at home and go out with just the M4:3.

Just as I used to carry Canons and Leicas and other photographers had 35mm, medium format and large format (or view cameras) I think we’re now entering a time when photographers will have multiple digital formats.

M4:3 (or other mirrorless camera) for work on the street and carrying around. Full frame when they need that bokeh, high ISO or lighting (both Canon and Nikon offer a lot more options for flash and supplemental light) and medium format when they need a huge number of megapixels.

Statues of Ganesh. E-P5 25mm lens, f1.8 at 1/640th.
Statues of Ganesh. E-P5 25mm lens, f1.8 at 1/640th.

One thought on “Small is Beautiful – by Jack Kurtz

    […] few weeks ago, I wrote about using Micro 4:3 cameras and how we were moving past the one size fits all era of digital cameras, into a time of different […]

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