Category Archives: Unconventional Wisdom

Low Light Noise Performance – Can m43 Embarrass Full Frame?

Conventional wisdom states that in low light situations m43 cameras are inferior to their full frame counterparts because more noise is evident at higher ISO settings. This argument is flawed because, for a given amount of light, it assumes both camera types would need to be set with the same shutter, aperture and (hence) ISO.

For a particular ISO, there is not question that noise tends to increase as the sensor size (and hence pixel dimensions) shrink. Some claim that a m43 sensor is about “2 stops” noisier than the full frame equivalent. As such, a m43 sensor at ISO800 would be expected to produce noise roughly on par with a full frame sensor at ISO3200. This is simply physics and can be accepted as true.

That all being said….

Technologies found in many m43 cameras, and the sensor size itself,  enable significantly lower ISO settings than that on a full frame camera in the same situation. In fact, we will see scenarios where ISO can be reduced 2 stops or more to effectively eliminate the “2 stop noise advantage” offered by full frame sensors.

Case 1 – Technology removes the shakes

Irrespective of sensor size, many lenses and some bodies incorporate image stabilization technologies. Not all technologies are equally effective, however. Anyone doing a bit of research will reach the conclusion that Olympus’ IBIS (in body image stabilization) is leaps ahead of the in-lens stabilization technologies found in (many, but not all) larger sensors lenses (in fact, it is also considered more effective than the Sony A7ii IBIS).

How effective is the Olympus’ stabilization? Take a look at the photo below hand-held at 1/6s. The absence of any sign of camera shake is quite incredible. It is even more amazing because it was taken with a 75mm lens (150mm equivalent angle of view on full frame bodies).

Apartment in KrakowApartment in Krakow – m.Zuiko 75mm 1:1.8 – 1/6s @ 1.8 ISO800 HAND HELD

Two things two consider:

  • With a full frame camera and a 150mm lens would anyone expect to get a decently sharp photo at 1/6s? Even with an in-lens stabilizer, I suspect it would be difficult to  achieve the same results at 1/25s – two stops faster. If the full frame lens has no stabilizer, then the golden rule of thumb dictates 1/150s minimum shutter to avoid camera shake which will require an ISO increase of about 4.5 stops
  • Second, I am not aware of many full frame lenses offering f1.8 at 150mm. If you are lucky, f2.8 is the max. In order to compensate, another 1 stop ISO increase is required.

In summary, the IBIS technology in Olympus cameras is key to sharp photos several stops slower than that of full frame counterparts. To compensate, the full frame camera will require several stops higher ISO. Though a lessor argument, m43 offers some telephoto primes with extremely wide apertures that simply do not exist in larger formats. This further allows lower ISO settings. The full frame noise advantage is essentially lost. 

And, the technology is improving – though perhaps lucky, this  Russian photographer’s blog documents sharp handheld photos at 15s using the new OM-D E-M1ii and 12-100mm f4.0 lens (with its own stabilization).

Case 2 – More depth of field can be good

Razor-thin depth of field lovers correctly state that m43 photos have 2 stops increase in depth of field compared to shooting with a full framed camera at the same aperture for identical angle of views. So, an m43 camera with a 25mm lens at f2.0 will have the same depth of field as a full frame camera with a 50mm lens at f4.0 (2 stops smaller).

Irrespective of whether you like razor-thin depth of field or not (I certainly do not), take a look at the photo below. It simply will not work with less depth of field, and could probably benefit from more.

Apartment in KrakowYoshi – m.Zuiko 12-40mm 1:2.8 – 32mm 1/40s @ f8.0 ISO 1600

Even with my m43 body, a relatively small f8.0 aperture was used at 32mm. On a full frame body, f16 would be required to maintain the same depth of field (i.e. two stops slower). To compensate, either the shutter is reduced to 1/10s or the ISO is increased to 6400. Lowering the shutter speed is not an option. Even if the camera was on a tripod to reduce shake, the photo is of a cat and cats move. Therefore, the ISO on a full frame camera would need to be increased 2 stops to provide the same depth of field necessary for this photo. Again, the full frame noise advantage is essentially lost.

In conclusion…

For a given ISO setting m43 sensors tend to have about 2 stops more noise than full frame sensors. However, technologies found in m43 bodies and the 2 stop increase in depth of field resulting from the reduced sensor size create situation where ISO can be lowered for m43 cameras thereby eliminating much, if not all of the full frame noise advantage.

Do these capabilities carry over in all situations? Certainly not – sports photography, or anything requiring fast shutter speeds to freeze action, will put m43 at a disadvantage. If the subject is relatively stationary, or if it requires significant depth of field then m43 can be a very compelling option for low light photography. Of course, do not forget the m43 size and weight advantage when carrying your camera around during dark nights!

Does m43 really embarrass full frame in low light situations? I wouldn’t go that far, but certainly I would give m43 more consideration than it has thus far received for low light photography.

Why Buy: Olympus 40-150mm 1:4-5.6

The bad news is that the Olympus M.Zuiko 40-150mm 1:4-5.6 is a plasticky telephoto zoom with OK, but not spectacular performance.The  5.6 maximum aperture on the long end is quite slow.

The good new is that it can often be bought for a paltry $150US while offering a 80-300 mm full frame angle of view. It is also both extremely small and light.

So, over and above the low price, why should one consider 40-150mm 1:4-5.6?

Reason (1): It is not all that bad

In fact, below 100mm, it is actually decently sharp. The photo below (featured in my freely downloadable book “Pictures of People“) is a pretty good example of what can be done with this lens. It absolutely looks fine in an 8X10 print.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Olympus 40-150mm 1:4.0-5.6 @ 58mm f8.0 1/160s

If you go in and pixel peep, you will surely find it less sharp than better (more expensive) lenses. But, if you saw it printed to 8X10 I seriously doubt you would think it come from something less than $200.

If you need more convincing:

Reason 2: It is unobtrusive, compact and light

At 190g and 8.31cm long it is an ideal travelling companion. You won’t even know it’s there! The importance of this cannot be underestimated when on the road. I feel sorry for people lugging around big monster full frame lenses and mega back packs to tote their gear. I have a small bag, and never go around with more than two lenses.

Reason 3: Finding to your focal lengths without breaking the bank

Though few photographers are truly polyvoant in their ability to make decent pictures with a wide range of focal lengths, I truly believe that most people will actually “gravitate” to a small range. I am a telephoto person and can’t make a decent photo with a wide angle lens to save my life. The question is – how do you find your focal length sweet spot and select the corresponding lenses without breaking the bank? You can start off with two ‘kit’ zooms, such as the m43 14-42mm and this 40-150mm lens and take lots of pictures. Put them in lightroom and rate the ones you like best. Then, using at your highly rated, look at the frequency of focal lenghs used. Once you understand this, you are in a position to buy the top notch, super sharp lens to match your style. If, for example, you find you use the 40-150mm 1:4/5.6 a lot, particularly beyond 100mm then the 40-150mm 2.8 could be a wise choice. If, on the other hand, you find a lot of usage between from wide angle up to 100mm, then perhaps the new Olympus 12-100mm 1:4 pro lens and a fast prime would be the only two lenses you really need. In this context, the inexpensive zooms like the 40-150mm 1:4.0/5.6 are tools to help you define those one or two high quality lenses you really need (verses buying them all).

How much do I use mine?

Right now, to be honest, not much. I used my 40-150mm 1:4/5.6 a lot when I first got it. But, following my own advince in “reason 3” I ended up purchasing an Olympus 45mm 1.8 and 75mm 1.8. I use these two lenses 75% of the time. It still use the 40-150mm, but mostly for those rare occasions when I need to go beyond 100mm. That being said, I don’t plan on selling it as it is still somewhat useful and still very fun to use!

Conclusions

Why buy? I view cheap lenses as discover tools that help you identify the one or two ‘expensive’ lenses that are best for the photographer. In this context, if you getting into photography I highly recommend starting with a lens like this. Being extremely compact while offering a decent magnification range makes it attractive for travel. Plus, it will not break the bank!

That all being said, lenses like the Olympus 75mm 1.8 are in a totally different league. Plus, more expensive lenses tend to be faster. So, once you are aware of your focal lenghs of preference, I would invest in the more expensive counterparts.

On the Chase for ‘Image Quality’

Obsessing about technical “image quality” manifests itself in many ways. The drive to acquire, at great expense and physical weight, sharper lenses and cameras possessing extreme megapixel sensors is a prime example. Also, consider the instinctive desire to get the main subject in perfect focus.

Yet, for photographs selling for many hundreds of thousands of dollars, one might  search to find a pot-pourri of technical imperfections including fuzziness, grain (noise) or perhaps less than stellar “dynamic range”.

For example, with all its imperfections, I absolutely love the photo below.  Someone loved it even more to pay $965,000 for it.

The Near One Million Dollar Photo

Alvin Langdon Coburn. ‘Shadows And Reflections, Venice’ – sold for $965000

In the end, a photograph can be great without being perfect  but a perfect “shot” need not be great.

In my photograph below, I accidentally focussed way behind the women. Yet, to my eyes, it somehow works having the sharp mountains and farm in the background in contrast with the soft and somewhat nicely diffuse “main subjects”.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Near Puno, Peru – Olympus OM-D EM-1, M.Zuiko 25mm 1.8

It is technically imperfect, but I like it almost because of the imperfections.

As far as equipment is concerned, I know my much admired EM-1 cannot possibly match the technical image quality of a full frame 40 MP DSLR. But I don’t care as I believe I will take better pictures with my lighter, more compact camera that just fits me better.

I think I have two points to summarize. First, I believe it is better to make something that “looks right” rather than “is right”. Second, it isn’t necessary to continually seek out new and “better” equipments because, in the end, it won’t make a difference in the value of my photographs.

What are your thoughts on the pursuit of ultimate technical image quality? Feel free to disagree!