Micro Four Thirds Ecosystem
Now you might be thinking, “a camera system that isn’t Canon, Nikon, or Sony? Those exist?” Of course they do, and Micro Four Thirds is one of the most slept on camera systems on the market. Not as many people have heard much about this ecosystem and even fewer use it. (There are dozens of us! Dozens!) As someone who has used these cameras for a few years now and has no plans on stopping any time soon, the Micro Four Thirds camera system packs more than enough punch to give its better known competitors a solid run for their money.
In a nutshell, Micro Four Thirds, M4/3 for short, is a mirrorless camera system created by two camera companies, Olympus and Panasonic. The system’s main selling points are the small sizes of its camera bodies and lenses, its value for money, and the sheer amount of useful features you get, like in-body stabilization and 4K video. If you are in the market for your first camera, or even if you already have one of those heavy DSLRs and want a more convenient secondary camera (or replacement), you’ve come to the right place.
Features (Pros and Cons)
Alright, before we get into the recommendations, let’s blitz through the qualities of this camera system, just to let you know what to expect.
Lightweight and compact
Diverse lens ecosystem
In Body Stabilization (IBIS) and all the other features and gimmicks that Olympus and Panasonic shove into their cameras
Because all these cameras are mirrorless, you can carry them with you wherever you go without hassle. Many of the lenses are also compact while still providing great image quality.
Speaking of lenses, there are a TON of different lens options for this system from a bunch of different brands, and you can swap lenses between brands seamlessly without sacrificing lens capabilities, like autofocus. (Example: Olympus EM-10 with a Panasonic 20mm f/1.7).
And that doesn’t even include all the lenses you can use seamlessly with adapters, from recent Canon L series lenses to some 50 year old lens from the Soviet Era. To top it all off, the system’s 5-Axis In-Body Stabilization allows all of these lenses (yes including that vintage lens) to be stabilized for both photo and video.
If that wasn’t enough, both Olympus and Panasonic like to cram their cameras with a bunch of gimmicks, some of which can be incredibly useful and help compensate for some of their cons. Here’s a list of just some of them: USB Charging, Silent Shutter (that’s actually silent), Hi-Res Shot, and 4K Photo Burst Mode.
The sensors are TINY
All the problems that stem from the first problem
The sensor that this system uses is unfortunately the source of most of its downsides. In exchange for making the camera as small as possible, the M4/3 sensor is smaller than most (crop factor 2x). Because of this, most M4/3 cameras have lower resolutions compared to its competitors. Also, smaller sensors also produce deeper depth of field, producing less bokeh for portraits.
In addition, M4/3 cameras tend to suffer a lot in low light conditions. In optimal lighting, these cameras tend to have lightning-fast autofocus, faster than DSLRs even. However, when it gets a little darker, these cameras will struggle quite a bit, making things like concert photography possible, but very challenging. Noise performance in low light conditions also tends to be pretty bad on M4/3 cameras, making things like astrophotography possible, but, again, a little challenging.
Lastly, the battery life sucks. USB Charging helps, but I would also recommend buying two extra batteries if you want to shoot all day, cause you’re gonna need them.
As mentioned previously, the two main brands are Olympus and Panasonic. Panasonic tends to be a bit better at video, with only their newest cameras having IBIS and most sporting 4K video recording. If you ever wanted a way to get into 4K video (or just video in general) without selling an arm and a leg and a bit of your soul, Panasonic is your best bet.
On the other hand, Olympus tends to be a bit better at stills. They have IBIS on pretty much all their cameras and the image processor they use is better in my opinion. Also, their cameras have a film camera aesthetic, so if you wanted become that hipster, chic photog you were always meant to be, Olympus has your back.
NOTE: I did not cover every single camera because there are just too many. If you want my opinion on a particular camera, feel free to leave a comment or ask me directly, and I’ll be happy to answer!
These cameras are aimed towards beginners looking to get their first cameras or enthusiasts who want a lighter, spare camera they can use casually. These are the cheapest cameras I’m recommending, but they are still extremely capable, providing accessibility and room for growth to new users and ample creative flexibility for veterans.
Olympus EM-10 Mark II/Mark III ($500/$700)
Small form factor (think the size of like 3 iPhones stacked together)
Hi-Res Shot (40 MP)
This line of cameras holds a special place in my heart because I started taking photography seriously on the EM10 Mark I, and I’ve travelled all over the world with it. I might be biased, but I feel like this is one of the best cameras on the market for beginners. These two versions are pretty similar, with the Mark III getting some improvements like more autofocus points and 4K video (that’s not as good as Panasonic’s, but still good). I personally don’t think the improvements are worth an additional $200, but you should look into it and decide for yourself.
Panasonic G7 ($500)
16MP 4K Video
4K Photo Mode (8MP 30fps)
Mic Input and Fully Articulating Touchscreen
Larger form factor (a little smaller than a Canon Rebel)
If you ever wanted to take your first step into videography, you can’t go wrong with the G7. It offers 4K video recording with so many tools to support it. And at only $500, it’s basically a steal. In addition, it does not pull punches in the photo department either, so you’ll be getting quite a lot from this one. This is the only camera I’m recommending without IBIS, so be warned that non-Panasonic lenses can still be used, but won’t be stabilized.
These cameras are aimed at people looking to upgrade from their DSLR or another mirrorless camera and pros/enthusiasts who want a B-Cam, but feel like the previous tier just isn’t enough for them.
Panasonic G85 ($800)
16MP and 4K Video
4K Photo Mode (8MP 30fps)
Mic Input and Fully Articulating Touchscreen
Larger form factor (basically the same size as the G7)
Think of this one as the G7, but better. Unlike the last upgrade I talked about, I think this could be worth the extra $300 for the right person. The 5-Axis IBIS acts like an internal gimbal for smooth movements, making it a game changer when combined with amazing video features. And the weather sealing and upgraded viewfinder doesn’t hurt either.
Panasonic GX85 ($600)
16MP, 4K Video, 4K Photo Mode
Smaller Form Factor (again, think the size of like 3 iPhones stacked together)
The GX85 takes most of the G85 and crams it into a much smaller package. It does sacrifice a few things, like the fully articulating screen and weather sealing. It would also be harder to use this camera for serious video production because of the missing mic input, but it’s still more than enough for casual videos or quality B-Roll. Also, I personally got one of these slightly used for around $300, so don’t be afraid of buying used gear if you can shave a few hundred dollars off the price tag!
So from here, we are going to get a steep price increase as we venture into professional-level cameras. It’s probably out of budget for most college students *raises hand*, but I want to list them out anyway to show the potential of the system and how you can grow with it.
Panasonic GH5 ($1800)
20MP and 10-bit 4K Video (60 fps)
5 axis IBIS, Fully Articulating Touchscreens, Weather Sealing,
4K Photo (8MP 60fps) and 6K Photo (18MP 30fps)
Microphone and Headphone ports
Dual Card Slots
V-Log Video Profile and Anamorphic Mode
The GH5 is basically a significant upgrade from the G85. By adding internal 10-bit 4K video recording and the V-Log video profile, this camera falls just one step short of being a freaking cinema camera, making it a popular choice for lower-budget film productions.
Olympus EM-1 Mark II/Panasonic G9 ($1700/$1500)
20MP and 4K Video
5 axis IBIS, Fully Articulating Touchscreens, Mic Inputs, Weather Sealing
Hi Res Shot (80MP)
These two cameras are top of the line for M4/3. I tried to find some distinction between the two, but in the grand scheme of things, I think the differences are numerous, negligible, and depend entirely on personal preference. A couple of the key features they share are 60 fps stills burst rates with their electronic shutters and Hi-Res Shot mode that can create 80MP images by stitching sensor shifted images.
As you can see, there are a lot of lenses available just within Panasonic and Olympus. Therefore, I’m going to save my recommendations for what I consider MUST HAVES for any M4/3 users. These are all lenses I have and use constantly, and they are all extremely cheap, especially for the quality they provide. As a bonus, I’m going to list out some similar (usually more expensive) alternatives, in case you want to check those out. Remember, M4/3 has a 2x crop factor, so multiply the focal lengths! And Olympus and Panasonic can swap lenses between cameras!
Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 (40mm equivalent) ($270)
Standard pancake lens
Very versatile and compact, making it great for travel!
Alternatives: Olympus 17mm f1.8, Sigma 19mm f2.8, Panasonic 25mm f1.7, Panasonic 12-35 f2.8
Olympus 45mm f/1.8 (90mm equivalent) ($300)
An amazing portrait lens that’s super sharp and renders amazing bokeh!
I bought mine used for less than $200, and that’s a pretty common price, making this lens even more of a bargain!
Alternatives: Panasonic 42.5 f/1.7, Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f1.2, Voigtlander 42.5 f/0.95
Olympus 40-150 f/4-5.6 (80-300m equivalent) ($150)
A telephoto kit lens that is surprisingly quite good
Extremely light for a telephoto lens and very versatile
DIRT CHEAP, you can easily find this lens for less than $80
Alternatives: Olympus 40-150 f2.8 PRO, Panasonic 35-100 f2.8
Fujian 35mm f1.7 + C-mount Adapter (70mm equivalent) ($35)
Oh, you thought I couldn’t get any cheaper?
No autofocus, and build quality is actual garbage (but it’s only THIRTY FIVE DOLLARS)
A fun lens to play around with, can get d r e a m y results
A good video about it → https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AWkiZjHmmM
Other old lenses to look out for: Helios-44, Jupiter line, Zenit
The small form factor of both M4/3’s cameras and lenses make them extremely convenient and a joy to use. In addition, with its incredible value for money, Micro Four Thirds is camera system that can go toe-to-toe with its competitors while also being able to work alongside them. For beginners, this can provide a less daunting entry into the photography world while allowing lots of room for growth within each camera and, perhaps, throughout the entire ecosystem if they choose to. For DSLR users, it can make investing into an entirely new ecosystem much easier, allowing them the freedom to have the best of both worlds. Regardless of where you are in your photography journey, I highly suggest checking out Micro Four Thirds and seeing if it has a camera that’s right for you.