Revisiting Micro Four Thirds for Photojournalism

Revisiting Micro Four Thirds for Photojournalism

When I first wrote about using mirrorless cameras for journalism in 2014, the Sony Alpha series had just been launched a few months before in 2013. Panasonic was just hitting its stride with the GH series of cameras and Fuji had just really started kicking off its X-Series cameras. Things have certainly changed.

In 2014, mirrorless really meant Micro Four Thirds, the dominant mirrorless system at the time from Olympus and Panasonic. Though the sensor size was roughly half the size of a full-frame sensor, these small wonders punched well above their weight. DSLRs were dominant in journalism, but I made the case for Micro Four Thirds cameras as ideal journalism tools.

In what is perhaps a sign of the times, in 2014, of the 38 photos that won the World Press Photo contest, only two were Micro Four Thirds cameras, and both of them were Olympus models. In 2020, none of them were Micro Four Thirds format cameras, though many were APS-C or full frame mirrorless models.

I have prognosticated on the death of Micro Four Thirds a few times. That doesn’t mean I want it to die; I love my Olympus cameras. But the future hasn’t seemed quite as rosy for the system as it did in 2014.

But recent life events have forced me to shoot a lot more journalism with my Micro Four Thirds cameras and lenses, and with it, I’ve rediscovered what spurred me to write what I wrote seven years ago. Micro Four Thirds cameras are really pretty awesome for journalists, even if rumors are to be believed and the system is in the twilight of its existence.

Lightweight Cameras and Lenses

A back injury forced me to rethink some camera gear in the past, and I briefly returned to Micro Four Thirds during the healing process, but then as I got better, I slowly worked back up into full frame cameras, shooting with my Nikon D750 and then Canon EOS R more and more. While I love the image quality of both and there is no doubt about them being the superior tools from a pure image quality standpoint, when it came to journalism, being forced back into Micro Four Thirds was a revelation.

A part of that revelation had to do with what I was covering. With the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, the country was plunged into protests and civil unrest, with demonstrators marching across every small town in this country. That meant to document it involved a lot of walking, for a lot of hours. While there were some times I opted to go the 24-105mm one-lens route with an EOS R, I shied away from more than that for the number of footsteps and time involved. It’s a lot to carry full frame gear.

Andrew Yang, a candidate for Mayor of New York, speaks at the AAPI Rally Against Hate on Sunday, March 21, 2021. In response to the killings earlier in the week of several Asian women in Georgia, hundreds gathered for the rally in New York's Columbus Park. Photo by Wasim Ahmad.

Then I dusted off the Micro Four Thirds system for the last few protests and it’s been a revelation. Aside from being able to carry myriad small lenses that give me more options and plenty of reach beyond a 24-105, I forgot how good the video quality was on the Panasonic models, even a mid-range one like the Lumix G85. And unlike DSLRs, focusing directly off the sensor means no fiddling with micro-adjustments and all of that nonsense.

Beyond all of this, the lightweight and small size of the cameras and in-built stabilization in most models make it easy to stick them on top of a monopod and hold it over a crowd to get easy scene-setting images such as this:

Alice Tsui, a teacher in New York, shares stories of discrimination that she has faced with a packed Columbus Park on Sunday, March 21, 2021 at the AAPI Rally Against Hate. To get this shot, I held my Olympus over my head on a monopod and just poked it over the top of the fence for a picture.

It’s a trick that I would hesitate to do with a heavy full frame camera and lens, at least my EOS R anyway.

Oh, and I could walk around all day with the gear without straining my back or drawing the same attention that all the journalists lugging a pair of D5s with telephoto lenses did. A win-win for Micro Four Thirds on this metric.

Awful Repair Process, Questionable Build Quality

In 2014, I had never had the “pleasure” of experiencing a repair process from Panasonic or Olympus. Unfortunately, in 2016, one of the dials of my GH3 broke (not an uncommon thing amongst my other fellow photographers who shoot Panasonic) and this tweet sums up how that went:

It’s enough to make me just throw out the camera next time, and it is certainly why I haven’t invested in any high-end Micro Four Thirds bodies since the GH3. Service from the big two (Canon and Nikon) is leagues better than this. With the recent sale of Olympus’ imaging division, I can’t imagine this situation getting any better when it comes to repairing Micro Four Thirds cameras.

The Final Word

At the start of covering the Black Lives Matter movement last year, I often ran into another photographer, Susan Kozody Silkowitz, who was pretty much the only person I ever saw committing acts of photojournalism with Micro Four Thirds cameras. It seemed a bit odd at first, but after walking many miles at many protests, the choice made much more sense, and it caused me to rethink what I shoot journalism with. It seems that my fellow writers are also in agreement.

Micro Four Thirds will never be able to compete with full-frame when it comes to ISO performance. Continuous autofocus will always be middling, at best, especially on Panasonic models, which doggedly refuse to employ phase detection autofocus. And Panasonic seems hell-bent on making the ugliest camera bodies out there, functional though they may be.

But conversely, Micro Four Thirds systems will always have an incredible selection of lenses because most brands can be adapted to the smaller sensors. Native lenses have always been pretty reasonably priced compared to the full frame counterparts. And focusing and image quality are good enough to get 95% of what journalists need to do.

Even now in 2021, Micro Four Thirds is worth a long look from photojournalists.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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I enjoyed using MFT cameras, particularly for the bonus of extra reach. I think what puts them most at risk, however, is the form factor gap between MFT systems and cameras with bigger sensors closing, and quickly. The Sony a7C isn't far off most MFT cameras and with their new focus on lightweight lenses, like the three primes they just announced, MFT is losing ground. Nevertheless, they're definitely underrated by most. Olympus has some of the best in-camera tech on the market, for instance.

My Olympus camera just makes me want to pick it up and shoot it all the time. I love that even though it's a lower-level E-M10 II, it's packed with pretty much every feature I could ever want and the controls fall nicely to the hand. That said, MFT sensor design and autofocus tech seems to have plateaued.

Hey, good to know I'm not the only crazy person here. I also think the em10 is actually the best model of olympus when we talk about size/performance ratio. I only miss my nikon menu every now and then :D

Totally agree, I take my Olympus camera with me whenever I got out, just in case of a phot opportunity. It is so light and compact to carry and a total joy to use

When living in NYC 5 years ago I noticed an increasing number of journalists would bring an Olympus M43 camera to City hall press conferences along with pads, pens and an audio recorder. As print news outlets, especially smaller and local newspapers cut or eliminate their full time photographers, news journalists are increasingly expected to take some of their own photos. A pro full frame with a huge 70-200mm F2.8 lens is too heavy for these reporters to carry. Meanwhile a M43 camera is light enough not to be a burden but will take professional print quality images. Also I noticed that for street photography in general many people get self conscious when someone is walking around with a full frame and large lens whereas they pay little attention to someone with a M43 camera and lens.

If you worry about what format camera you are using I doubt you are a professional Photo journalist.
You use what you can afford if you have to use your own gear. You use what the paper/publication supplies if they do so. Or you use what you have, making sure it matches the Big Fast Glass the paper supplies if they work that way.
Having shot sports with a 4x5 and Polaroid film for short deadlines to straight 35mm to digital - you use whatever works for you. Part of that is often "what lenses are available on the rental market" for special needs as well as "what Pro Support lens loaner program" is there.
Few who view the images in publications give a damn about what camera was used.

Hard to butter a muffin with a bread knife. Professional is more a state of mind than a state of being. Lessons over decades of working at the phojournalists game have instilled dictums stated here but, anything which adds to bulk, hinders mobility are detrimental to the task. Document, and keep looking for the next photo. The argument over MFT vs Full Frame seem moot to the degree that even phone grabs are good enough for online posting. Newspapers do not require mega pixel of resolution for pagination. The tug of whose pixels are better and from what sensor they came is not so much hooey as to what the end use requires. If the personal enters here for the sake of discussion or ephemeral satisfaction is considered, My Olympus Pen F is about as akin to my classic Leica’s as any faux rangefinder. I have panned the action through more than one US Open Tennis Gran Slam with a 1” sensor equipped Nikon 1 J5. Neither my agency, nor my chums viewing the screen on my Asus laptop ever balked that my stuff looked pixelated or of too low in resolution. Of course it’s but my opinion, and milage varies.

A great article. a few years ago i was working along side another photographer who shot on a Olympus MFT, she was a retired lady who had got into photojournalism in later life. her work was great and the small light camera allowed her to do what can be a physically demanding job and i think the less intimidating camera gained different responses. while the MFT camera worked for a lot of work, it could not keep up in the more demanding work

The headline "Awful repair process. Questionable build quality" in context of the MFT system feels not adequate due to the author's lack of experience with Olympus pro gear. The authors personal experience with Panasonic quality and repair issues is a matter of fact but should not be expanded to the whole system without giving further proof. Many professional photographers report very sturdy build quality and reliability of Olympus pro gear even under harshest conditions. I am no Pro, but use my Oly gear during hiking and biking in any weather all year without problems. So the intended statement that MFT as a system has quality issues is not fair for me.

This is a fair point, I have only experienced Panasonic repairs and not Olympus. I've had my E-M10 for a few years now and it hasn't broken on me yet, thankfully.

I had to have my Olumpus OM-D M1, Pen-F and 12-40mm repaired, and received excellent service. Each time, entirely down to user carelessness - the Pen and 12-40 took the full brunt of me falling onto them and I dropped the M1 from a height onto concrete. I had the repairs done by Olympus, and had the gear back in perfect condition in under a week, and at very reasonable cost.

Of course, that was while Olympus was still active and while the UK was still in the EU allowing free movement (the repairs were done in Portugal, I think). It might be different now.

As a consideration, the cost of MFT is far less than any of the full frame equivalents on the market. Therefore, if someone were to be concerned with repair issues, having multiple bodies is a must. I can have two Olympus OM-D EM-1 Mark III bodies and two lenses for the cost of one Canon R5 body without a lens. I think it's far more economical to shoot MFT in photojournalism environments than APS-C or full frame. Sure there's a trade off with ISO but Olympus MFT (OM-D EM-1 Mark III and the OM-D EM-1X) have phenomenal stabilization systems that can certainly overcome the low light issues and produce sharper images.

I love the stabilisation, too. But the useability for photojournalism is questionable because you often have to freeze motion of people. On the other hand, with modern denoising techniques you can go up to Iso 6400 with MFT for high shutter speeds. IQ may not be sufficient for a wallpaper, but we are talking about photojournalism.

I love Micro 4/3, I hope it sticks around.

BTW, mft sensor is about 1/4 the size of FF, not half.

Feels like this article was only 50% written. Too short for a complex topic.

My interest is hiking and making photos along the way. Less than two weeks from starting my 7th decade and a week's hiking holibob (where I will cover 40 miles) I don't want to carry heavy kit. So now I use an E-M1 and wonder why I didn't do it earlier (my back, my legs, my shoulder). I do sacrifice some IQ but the system is so small and light. I can carry the camera and three lenses ALL DAY and not feel it after. It is bliss. These days I enjoy hiking and photography more. Everything from feet to horizon sharp at f/8 and the IBIS is just amazing. I just can't go back to the big bulking stuff.