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Looking for limits: Micro Four Thirds and Digital Medium Format (Fujifilm GFX)

Hello internet, it's been a while.

Let me get straight to the point; I have some gear experiences to share. My interest in gear pulled me in two very different directions recently and I learned some valuable lessons along the way that I want to write about here. Let's start with getting reacquainted with Micro Four Thirds (M43). My first interchangeable digital camera was an Olympus E-P3, a 12 megapixel M43 camera from 2009. Digital photography equipment has come a long way since then and so have I. In the fall of 2023 I was reintroduced to Micro Four Thirds through a random meeting with a stranger who was using an OM system OM-1. We got talking about the merits of the M43 system and he made some compelling points.

M43 at its best; small prime and handheld slow shutter | OM-1, Leica 15mm F1.7

The size of the lenses is a clear advantage of the the system. If you want to cover the Full Frame equivalent of 20mm or 24mm on the wide end all the way to 400mm at the tele end, you really don't need that big of a bag. And the lenses are light as well. This is especially true for the long end. Below is a comparison of a full frame setup and M43 next to it, covering the FF equivalent of 100-400mm. If you want to have a lightweight setup, M43 makes for a rather interesting proposition.

Full Frame vs M43 covering FF equivalent 100-400mm

This allows you to bring a wider range of focal lengths on more occasions. I took the photo below on a random walk around Munich. I was always fascinated by the tile work on top of this church near the university, but now, because of the small M43 lenses, I had the kit with me that had enough reach to see some of the details. I will go into image quality later but I can already provide a spoiler; there are clear limitations to what the M43 sensor can resolve. I don't think anyone is surprised by that. But even if we park the image quality disadvantage for a while, having such a wide focal range available is great, but actually also has downsides, for me.

Not your typical urban lens choice | Panasonic GX9, Leica 50-200 F2.8-4

This next point is clearly a very personal one, and not everyone will agree. I find having so many focal range options restrictive rather than liberating, there are two clear reasons for this. The first is that I prefer to focus on only a few focal lengths because I find that shooting with a limited set allows me to train my eyes to look for scenes that fit those focal lengths. Having a much broader range available reduces my focus. I get lost in being able to shoot a scene in so many different ways. Less is more, for me. And in similar fashion, when it is easy to bring many lenses because they are so small and lightweight, I suffer from lens choice paralysis. I really hate swapping lenses when I am out shooting. But it is so easy to pack a half dozen lenses with M43 and then you end up contemplating whether the other lens in your bag might be a better choice. And so you swap lenses, again, and again. With bigger lenses, I find it rather hard to pick the one(s) I take before I go out, but when I am out and about and taking photos I hardly ever think about the lenses I left at home. I simply shoot with what I have. But again, this is likely my peculiar preference.

Mallorcan mountain range. | OM-5, Leica 50-200 F2.8-4

Let's discuss the evolution of M43 lenses for a moment. A lot has changed since I moved away from M43. Back in those days, the system already had some nice options like the Olympus 75mm F1.8, which I loved. But it also had a lot of slow and medium quality lenses. Right now, in 2024, the lens options are fantastic. Leica/Panasonic and Olympus, now OM System, have brought many high quality lenses to the market in recent years. The Olympus 45mm F1.2 for instance is a real beauty. It is sharp and the falloff is as smooth as can be on a sensor of this size. I also really enjoyed the beforementioned Leica 50-200 F2.8-4. Leica also offers an absolute tiny gem of a lens which is the 15mm F1.7. This FF 30mm equivalent lens is what M43 should be all about. Another lens I liked for what it produced but doesn't really represent what M43 needs to be in my opinion, is the Leica 10-25mm F1.7. It is not very heavy, but it is rather big. This is the result of physics, there is not much that can be done about that, but it does highlight the limitations of M43. Fast and small primes and telephoto zooms are what it does really well. For everything else, there are much better alternatives out there. And that makes for a difficult value proposition for M43, if you want only one system.

Freezing time, just a little bit. | OM-1, Leica 15mm F1.7

But what about low light capability and noise? Have things changed? Sensors have developed a lot since my M43 days but I remember clearly what a difference switching to a full frame setup was when shooting in dim light conditions back when I was shooting M43, about fifteen years ago. Back then, there were much better full frame lens options available with large apertures and you could easily win three to four ISO stops compared to M43 with full frame, based on the sensor alone. I have to say things have changed a lot in favor of M43. The sensor in the OM System OM-1 is excellent, period. There is still a megapixel limit to M43 as there are only so many pixels you can cram onto such a small surface before noise gets the upper hand. Remember this point when I discuss my other gear experience with digital Medium Format, in part two of this post.

Louder than words. | OM-1, OM System 20mm F1.4

The sensor in the OM-1 has 20 megapixels which is perfectly fine for many people. You can easily print in A3 and there is a lot of detail in the files. Panasonic released the G9 mark 2 last year which even has 25 megapixels. But, in the world of smaller sensors like M43, more megapixels isn't always better. Direct comparisons between these two sensors makes the limits of how far you can go with regard to megapixels very clear. Even though the Panasonic sensor is quite a bit newer, it has significantly more noise than the OM-1 at higher ISO. My personal experience with the OM-1 was that is was really good when there was enough light, but I was a bit disappointed when looking at the files at ISO 1600 and above. Digital noise becomes visible and it isn't pretty. In that sense, the Achilles' heel of the system is still a reality, despite all the progress. But then again, life is all about trade-offs. And when you want a light and small system, the downsides of the smaller sensor is a tradeoff that makes sense.

Christmas spirit. | OM-1, Olympus 45mm F1.2

Don't come too close....

The other thing that has changed since my M43 days a long time ago, is the emergence of AI. Solutions like Topaz DeNoise AI, but also OM System's own software now offer the option to get rid of the digital noise by 'filling up' pixels with the help of AI. The results are astonishing. These AI tools help deal with the physical limitations of the smaller sensor. For me, this isn't an option, though. I want to capture a scene with the light that is there, in the moment. Using AI tools introduces elements in the photo that were not present in the light when I took the photo. This is of course personal preference, and for many people these tools are a great addition to their photography toolkit.

Good enough for grey London. | OM-1, Leica 15mm F1.7

M43 does have a trick up its sleave though to capture light in the moment; its sensor stabilization is phenomenal. This is of course super helpful to keep ISO low. It is impressive just how slow you can set your shutter speed and still get a sharp image. When there is a lot of movement in the scene that you want to 'freeze', this is not really an option but for many situations it is great. You can also get really creative with handheld slow shutter speeds. OM System have taken this even further with a feature that is called 'Live ND'. This means you can get the same outcome like you would with a regular ND filter, but you don't need the physical ND filter. In many situations, you can even leave your tripod at home. I embraced and enjoyed this feature and I realize that my enthusiasm for Live ND in comparison to the AI tools is a bit arbitrary. OM System is focusing a lot on computational features to enhance the other unique characteristics of M43.

Round and round. | OM-1, OM System 20mm F1.4

M43 has a lot going for it in 2024. The lens selection is great, and of high quality. Furthermore, OM System in particular, is embracing the M43 sensor for what it is and the camera line-up is now finally refreshed. There is one aspect about the cameras that is part of the reason why M43 isn't for me. I think M43 needs to be about small cameras with small(er) lenses. The current pro M43 cameras however are not small at all, nor light. The OM System OM-1 is as big as most Full Frame cameras. The new Panasonic G9 Mark 2 is actually pretty much the same body as the Full Frame S5 Mark 2. At the same time, many Full Frame primes and zooms with equivalent aperture are becoming smaller. This creates a dilemma for M43. The only area where it is without rival is in the telephoto range. For me, this is not enough, and after a fun period of getting to know the system, I decided it is not for me.

A different level of clarity. | Fujifilm GFX 50s ii, Fujifilm 55mm F1.7

This is already becoming a long post and I will divide it up in two parts. I will give you a taste of the system that did win my heart; digital Medium Format with the Fujifilm GFX system. I will go in much more detail in the second part of this post, but I will highlight some of the characteristics that have won me over. I think my experience with film medium format through my Mamiya 6 rangefinder has sparkled my interest in digital medium format. There is something about light being captured on such a large surface. I know this is a somewhat ridiculous argument, because Full Frame, or even APSC is more than enough in 90% of the cases. But the itch to see for myself what digital medium format is all about was clearly there. Especially with the Fujifilm GFX digital medium format being around for quite a while which means that it is starting to become affordable to me.

Barcelona blues. | Fujifilm GFX 50s ii, Fujifilm 55mm F1.7

I was able to acquire a Fujifilm GFX 50s ii for a decent price and this started a journey of discovery. I need to state that I am clearly still in the honeymoon phase which is why I will leave some time before I write part two of this post to allow for a more balanced perspective. At this point in time, I am absolutely smitten with it. I've just come back from a trip to Iceland and while you can point any camera at any random thing in Iceland and it will still look good, the GFX system was amazing. Iceland's ridiculous beauty is not helping my objective assessment of the system, but ..... WOW! There is something about the GFX files. It comes with clear drawbacks as well. The lenses are big, the camera is quite chunky, and the system is quite slow. But at this point, I am willing to accept these tradeoffs. The Fujifilm GFX 50s ii reminds me of my 1st gen Leica SL. I think it is about the same size. And if I compare the L-to-M adapter and the Leica 50mm Noctilux F1 that I used on that camera with the GF 55mm F1.7, the package is quite comparable.

More to come in part 2.....

Let there be light. | Fujifilm GFX 50s ii, Fujifilm 55mm F1.7 (Kase Black Mist filter)


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