The Small Sensor Argument

I have been following the discussions and feedback on the Olympus OM-D E-M1X everywhere as much as I can over the past week and I must admit I have not seen that much negativity on a single newly launched camera. I also fully acknowledge that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion and free to vocalize their thoughts. I can totally understand the uneasiness expressed on the larger and weightier than usual body of the E-M1X, or how the pricing may not suit the general market. It is true that Olympus created the E-M1X for specific target group of photographers and that the camera may not appeal to the larger crowd. However, what I cannot agree and I feel I must say something here about is regarding the “small sensor size” as a universal excuse to condemn E-M1X and all other Micro Four Thirds system cameras.

If you are a commercial photographer shooting mainly for advertising agencies requiring as much resolution to maximize print size (billboards, large real life posters, etc) then medium format or larger system is the solution. If you shoot mostly black cats in dark alleys, or theater productions that are lit only by so few candles in a large hall, then go for the full frame 35mm cameras with emphasis on extreme low light performance. If you earn your living from landscape photography dealing with extreme high contrast conditions, or doing primarily astrophotography, then getting larger sensor camera makes sense. However, if you are doing any of the above for just 2% or less of your overall photography practice, are you sure full frame is the best solution for your use?

I am not denying the advantages of having larger sensor providing more latitude and headroom when it comes to dynamic range and high ISO noise control. At the same time, having used Olympus OM-D over the years for both my commercial shoots as well as personal photography use, I rarely find myself in a situation where the E-M1, E-M1 Mark II and the M.Zuiko lenses were not adequate to deliver satisfactory results for both myself and my clients. Yes, I have shot in extremely dark condition where even at F1.8 wide open aperture I needed my ISO to be about 6400 or higher to achieve fast enough shutter speed, and the images still came out usable and clients did not even complain about “noise”. The ISO6400 image was then printed large (almost 5 feet in height) and still looked good. Here is the thing – that small sensor is not as incapable as you think it is. 

I chose to shoot my subjects in good light, as much as I can. If the light is not good, your image will be bad, it is as simple as that. Either you work around and use the available light to your advantage, or you create your own light with fill in flash or any other means (LED, reflectors, studio strobes, etc). There should not be an excuse that the light is poor and the camera struggles. As a working photographer, you have to be prepared for all scenarios and even in challenging circumstances, you can find a way to get good results. Camera choice is not the only alternative, and most of the time, may not even be the best solution. Even if you can shoot clean ISO100,000 image, if the lighting is poor, your image will look flat, dimensionless and dull. Colors will not pop.

Using smaller sensor, I have more depth of field. That means, I do not have to stop down my aperture so much and still get more zone in focus. If I use F8 on Micro Four Thirds, I may need to use F16 on full frame, and that will create a whole lot of issues, eg less light, under-powered flash and softness due to diffraction.

Olympus has come a long way, and I have not found a situation when dynamic range wasn’t enough. This image was about 3 stops or more underexposed, and I managed to recover the details with no issues. The overblown sky at the top was intentional, because if the sky looked “perfectly balanced” the image would have looked too fake. 

This was an ISO6400 image. Seriously, I do not see any issues with quality degradation, or “noise”. Of course “full frame” cameras will be better. There will always be a camera doing something better out there, but the main question is, am I happy with this shot? Is there any reason for me not to be happy?

Here is a shot of a Malaysian athelete jumping for joy after he did a successful lift. On the following day, I found a similar shot by a local journalist in the newspaper, and his shot was blurred due to motion. I nailed the shot while using a “small sensor” camera. Yes, this was also ISO6400, at F2.8 on the 40-150mm F2.8 PRO. 
I have shared on numerous blog articles on how I handled low light shooting with Micro Four Thirds system. I shall highlight the key tips and tricks here. 
Shooting discipline is important. I always make sure my shots were properly exposed. I can never get 100% accurate exposure all the time, but I can sure make every effort I can to get as close as possible to the ideal exposure for each shot. The RAW files from Micro Four Thirds cameras still have plenty of headroom for recovery and adjustments. Unless you severely under or over exposed your shots (you should not, if you did, that was your fault as a photographer) I do not see much of an issue. I admit there could be unique situations where the light can be extreme but there are numerous techniques to solves such issues – bracketing, HDR blending in post, etc. For 99% of ordinary shoots, get the exposure right and the images from even the “small sensor” cameras will shine. 

Use F1.8 (or brighter, if you have them) lenses. F1.8 lenses from Olympus (or Panasonic) are not expensive, they are compact, bright and they deliver sharp images. Shooting at F1.8 wide open, you can gather more light even in dark environment, allowing you to get away with lower ISO numbers. I have just recently added 25mm F1.2 PRO lens into my arsenal, for this sole purpose. If you shoot at F2.8 and you need ISO6400, I can use F1.2 and confidently get the same exposure at ISO1600 or less. As a bonus, these lenses perform incredibly well in low light. The new Olympus OM-D E-M1X takes advantage of the wide aperture opening and optimize AF in super dark conditions. With F1.2 PRO lens, efficient AF down to -6EV can be achieved, and I have personally verified this to be true!

Shoot everything in RAW, and learn some post-processing basics. If you aren’t too familiar with how to clean up high ISO images, start with Olympus Workspace, and tinker with the “noise filter” setting. The default “standard” setting does a great job at suppressing high ISO noise and at the same time maintaining good amount of useful detail in the shot.

The biggest complain about using a small sensor camera, is the inability to produce shallow depth of field effect. I never had this issue and I have successfully created enough blur in my background to separate my subjects effectively even when using Olympus OM-D System. How much blur do you really need? Seriously?

While the E-M1X was designed for sports photography, this particular shot was taken with the OM-D E-M10 Mark III. No Phase Detect AF, and I did not even use C-AF. I relied on S-AF and I managed to nail some good shots. Yes, the E-M1 Mark II and especially the new E-M1X can guarantee much higher hit rate, but that is no excuse for the photographer to complain about his equipment. Use what you have and find ways to make it work! The camera is good enough and the photographer should be confident enough to use it. 

People often complain that the Olympus OM-D AF is still not good enough. Sometimes, I wonder how I got all these shots if the camera was so bad. 

I have been producing images with Micro Four Thirds and I have never once felt inferior or inadequately equipped to deliver high quality images. Here is something that many photographers I observed lack: being confident with what you have. A lot of photographers are never happy with their gear, no matter what they use. They always wish it was something else, or it was better at certain aspects. Lens not sharp enough, or camera not fast enough, or dynamic range not good enough, or color not the same as what they think could be better. All these thoughts on wanting the gear to be something it is not will not do your photography good. 
Be confident and know that your gear is good enough. You do not need the best camera to produce the best photographs. Having the best camera will not make you the best photographer. Heck, it won’t improve your photography a single bit. 
As long as the camera is not holding back your potential, or creating limitations while shooting then all is good. Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that gear is not important. I have always mentioned that selecting the gear to suit the job is crucial. You do not use a huge Canon 1DX Mark II to shoot a cup of coffee in a cafe, a simple I-Phone can do a splendid job in the hands of a capable photographer. Likewise, I am not expecting that same I-Phone to shoot close up shots of a tennis player hitting a running forehand. The right tool for the job. 
Why am I staying with Micro Four Thirds?
When I left Olympus Malaysia which was about almost 2 years before I joined the Olympus Visionary, at that stretch of time I could have chosen any other formats or systems for my own photography. Yet I stayed on with Olympus OM-D. 

The reason? Because the 1) the system just works for me and 2) I know the system inside out. 
The system just worked, again and again. It did not fail on me. Yes, the sensor is small, everyone is aware of that but I kept getting images that I was constantly happy with. Is that not the most important thing? If it was already doing so well, why would I want to look elsewhere? Just because some site claimed that oh that other “full frame” camera can shoot 50MP with clean ISO100,000, then I asked myself, do I need 50MP for what I do? Do I even go beyond ISO6,400? No and no and a better image sensor is not everything I looked for in a camera. I am perfectly happy with the effective Image Stabilization, reliable autofocus that consistently nailed crucial moments, and fully optimized small sized lenses that work well with the camera. If you have used Olympus lenses, you will know that these lenses are so special!
A lot of people underestimated the knowledge and experience in using a particular system. It is like what the famous Bruce Lee said, he was not not afraid of someone who can do 1000 different kicks, but he will be wary of a person who has practiced one particular kick for a 1000 times. Knowing how to optimize, work around the weaknesses of a system and at the same time maximize the camera’s potential is important. I always frown at my friends who change cameras as often as they change their underwear. How well did you know the camera before you gave up on it? Were you realizing it’s full potential? There will always be things that you were not happy with, there is no perfect camera. Sit with the camera for a while longer and who knows, it may just work for you. 

In one of my night street photowalks, I was shooting along two friends. Knowing that the streets we were going to were darker than usual, the two friends have their own techniques to shoot in such challenging environment. One of them was using an A-PSC camera and an F2.8 constant zoom lens, he decided to do everything in high ISO, requiring as high as ISO6400 in some scenes. The other friend was using a full frame DSLR, and decided to shoot with lower ISO but on a sturdy tripod instead. Me? I went on with the E-M1 Mark II and a 12-100mm F4 PRO lens, and challenged myself to shoot everything at ISO200. Yes, even in super dark night streets, I did everything with ISO200 and I got away with enough images to create an article, which was published on Ming Thein’s site here (click). 

Obviously using high ISO (say, 6400), no matter how capable your camera is, will never beat the OM-D at it’s base ISO200 in terms of image quality. To solve that issue, lowering down the ISO numbers, typically requires additional support, such as a tripod. The sturdier the tripod, the heavier it will be. Carrying and setting up the tripod for a walk is not exactly convenient. Movement is limited and “run and gun” is not a viable thing to do. Yet, the “small sensor” camera that I was using, the E-M1 Mark II, can just take photos, pointing at any scene, so effortlessly. The scene required shutter speed as slow as 4 seconds? No problem, the 5-Axis Image Stabilization can take care of that. 

Trashing Micro Four Thirds system just because of the smaller sensor size is quite a sad thing to witness. While I have always pushed Olympus to produce better cameras (and yes I do want an updated image sensor, hopefully in whatever that comes after the E-M1X), I am in no way unhappy with my current setup. In fact, Olympus OM-D gave me that sense of confidence, as it has not failed to deliver excellent results from any shoots. As a package – camera reliability, AF performance, shooting user experience/handling, useful imaging features, lens quality and choice and image quality, the Olympus OM-D system to me is quite a well-rounded and versatile solution.

I strongly believe Micro Four Thirds is not going anywhere, and yes, Olympus should be making MORE cameras and constantly drive to improve the camera’s capabilities.

You may have your own experience which varies from mine, and I am interested to hear from you.

Important note: Please keep the discussion in the comments section constructive. Any trolling or use of excessive negative language will not be tolerated. 

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