Full Frame vs. Micro Four Thirds: Do You Really Need the Extra Megapixels?

In the endless search for perfect image quality, many of us feel it's a given that we need more megapixels from our camera sensors. So when you make large printouts from a full-frame camera and a Micro Four Thirds camera, do the results tell the same story?

In this comparison video from Marc Newton, he walks around Southend-on-Sea in England and takes some documentary images to be used in an exhibition. First he takes some shots with a full-frame Canon 5D Mark IV, and then he takes some shots with a Micro Four Thirds Olympus OMD EM-1. If you're not sure what a Micro Four Thirds camera is, it's a smaller, mirrorless camera that first came about in 2008 and has a crop factor of 2x in relation to full-frame sensors (APS-C format cameras generally have a crop-factor of 1.5x).

He takes the shots he likes to his regular printer and gets two printouts from the full-frame Canon and two printouts from the Micro Four Thirds Olympus, each at 100 centimeters on its longest edge. Both Newton and the printer then survey the prints and try to establish if there's a difference in quality across the four prints.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Firstly, do extra megapixels in a sensor really matter that much in terms of image quality? And secondly, if the Micro Four Thirds Olympus can produce large prints equal to that of a full-frame sensor at half the price, is there really any need to spend more than $2,000 on a body?

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72 Comments

Pixel count is the least of the reasons to shoot full frame.

Miserable light and shallow DOF. The first is hardly the common state of most photographers and the second is the current fashion of newbies that think it looks “pro”. Neither real excuses for the extra expense and bulk of FF but a convenient comfort.

There's a wide gap between miserable light and optimal light. I wouldn't call normal interior light, "miserable" but a FF sensor will capture it at a lower ISO than any smaller sensor. Of course not everyone will notice or care about the difference but then, FF cameras aren't for everyone.
There's also a wide gap between the ultra-thin, trendy DOF and a somewhat shallow DOF that helps call attention to your subject. Of course you can achieve that with smaller sensors but in some situations it's more difficult than others and, then, a FF sensor helps.
There are other reasons to use a FF camera but I'm not trying to convince you of the extra expense or bulk as that's specific to each individual. For me and my needs, it's not only worth it but, I have no interest in any camera with a smaller sensor. For you, that's not the case. It sounds like we both have what we want and need.

Jacques Cornell's picture

"a FF sensor will capture it at a lower ISO than any smaller sensor"
Unless, of course, the subject is static, in which case Panasonic's and Olympus' image stabilization will enable much lower ISO settings by making it possible to shoot hand-held at longer shutter speeds.

I was assuming the same conditions, including shutter speed. Of course we could add all kinds of unequal conditions and environments but that would be disingenuous.
There are lots of reasons to choose smaller systems (I should have written that earlier) so don't think I'm saying FF is best. Not at all! Every format, manufacturer and model has strengths and relative weaknesses. The best camera is the one with qualities to match an individual's needs. :-)

Jacques Cornell's picture

I make no such assumptions, because the universe doesn't care what I assume. There's nothing disingenuous about considering whether the subject is moving or not. If it's not, IS can tip the scale towards the smaller format. If it is, advantage goes to the larger format, but ONLY if you can accept shallower DoF.
Choosing a camera isn't some armchair checklist theoretical activity. Done well, it involves matching a camera's set of capabilities against the buyer's intended uses and anticipated real-world shooting conditions.

Image stabilization isn't exclusive to small format cameras.

Jacques Cornell's picture

No, it isn't, but can you point me to a camera other than MFT that does 6.5 stops of stabilization?
Oh, and in case you're a lot younger than me, 35mm film was referred to as "small format". That's why there's also "medium format" and "large format".

No, I can't, but as I've written before, every format/manufacturer/model has relative strengths and weaknesses. Each individual picks and chooses the compromises they're willing to make and I'm not willing to use an MFT camera. Ever. For any reason! That's not to say there's anything wrong with them. They obviously fit your needs well.
I can't imagine I'm younger than you, much less "a lot", but I'm referring to relative sensor sizes among current digital cameras. Honestly, the various nomenclature for everything makes me tired. :-)

Jacques Cornell's picture

You're welcome to your choices, but that doesn't change the accuracy of the points I made. With better IS, MFT cameras can shoot static subjects handheld at lower ISO settings than "FF" cameras. And, if the ISO is more than two stops lower, they can even deliver less noise.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Spoken like a man who doesn't have the facts on his side. Keep slapping your head. Maybe the pieces will fall into place.

What is wrong with you? Let it go.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Says the man who contributed the insightful and erudite "smh". Maybe you should have let it go 3 posts back. I stand by my presentation of facts.

Sometimes I regret my mother teaching me to not ignore people as well as to be polite. You're testing both lessons and I fail enough on my own.

I don't care about your camera, how wonderful it may or may not be or how little noise it may or may not produce. I do care about photography, which I enjoy with my camera, regardless of how pathetic it may or may not be or how much noise it may or may not produce. I also try to care about people. Can we just move on and enjoy polite discourse without it turning into a contest?

Jacques Cornell's picture

Now that you're no longer contesting the facts, making overly generalized claims, or ridiculing my posts, sure.

You just can't stop. I'll not respond to any future comments. My mother, rest her soul, will just have to get over it.

Jacob Jexmark's picture

Much lower? My FF cameras does 5-5.5 stops of IS compared to 6.5 for the latest Olympus (only when coupled with an Olympus lens with OIS) . On top of that my ISO 800 is as clean as your base ISO of 200.

"enable much lower ISO settings" is just a fantasy compared to my FF system.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Well, that would put MFT only 1 or 1/2 stops behind your 35mm-format system in terms of noise on these kinds of shots. But, a lot of FF systems still aren't anywhere near PanOly's IS. Most of them have no IBIS at all, and lens-only IS is typically only 3-4 stops. In these cases, the MFT kit would actually deliver less noise.
What kit do you have, BTW?

Hi Sam, I agree but the DOF needed to isolate a subject varies and is generally not as narrow as the enthusiasts claim. Note that in film and commercial images a decent DOF is used to look natural with enough OOF to direct the eye.
I have found that the deeper DOF and larger apertures that I can use indoors allows me to get multiple people in focus more easily. Then again, event photography often is flash based and then I can use lower power and shoot all night easily.
In the end I do like and use smaller format cameras for a lot of advantages but when I need 50MP I haul out my tripod and 5DsR. It is the right tool for somethings but I wish I didn't have to lug it around.

Now let's debate which tripod(s) are best! ;-)

Spy Black's picture

M4/3s work well in good light or controlled light. They make good studio cameras with nice features like built-in focus stacking, handy for some product shots.

Mark James's picture

I have sold large prints from all of my M4/3's gear all the way back to the GF1's 12mp sensor. I've taken the 12mp sensor up to 48" wide and the 16mp sensor up to 60" wide and they have looked great. It might take a little more finesse to work with the files, but they are very usable. That said, the files can be more challenging, and you have less cropping opportunities. And then there is low light. Everything comes with trade offs, but I love the smaller size of the system, and I have used M4/3's to shoot magic shows and other events, that are fast and dark, so it is possible.

Low light is obviously the biggest issue, so perhaps it’s very dependent on the genre of photography you do most. I’d imagine weddings inside chapels etc might be challenging. But for outside work in good light, then MFT, could well be more than sufficient

Mark James's picture

I never had any complaints, only referrals and call backs. I really pushed the limits, but as long as people were calling with work, I figured they must be happy. As long as you can consistently match your portfolio IQ, most people don't care what gear you use, because they get what they expect.

I didn’t watch the video. Just read the blurb here. Pixel count by itself is the last reason to go FF. You go for FF when you want lower noise levels, wider dynamic range, and different color tonality response. Pixel count is good when you are printing posters or need cropping power.

You make a good point, as the shots taken in this comparison test were during the day with good light. Perhaps a similar test done in fading light or with less natural light may have produced different results. However, that being said, both the photographer and the printer here couldn’t tell the difference in colours and DR in the printed shots.....

I'm with Boris on this one. Most ppl have just one system for all opportunities. Most ppl shoot a lil bit of everything. Try the same trick with a landscape and the test result will be much different - from colors, thru DR, ending with the amount of visible details, especially on big prints. Not to mention incorrectly exposed pictures and pulling in PP.

Many images don’t require as much DR as one thinks. Moreover, the best43 cameras today rival APS-C and many FF
sensors. I have used even 1inch sensors at low ISOs that have noise levels at the same level as comparable FFsensors.
I use a FF and it does a great job but I have shot even architectural images along side and have made clients happy.
The sneering comes from inexperience and the worship of specs. With a little experience you learn that specs won’t get the shot or tell the truth.

Architectural, huh? How's that PC lens working for you? Just kidding! ;-)

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