OK, so I CAN shoot in low light with m4/3 - but are the pictures good enough?

Even the most fervent m4/3 fan has to admit that the 4/3 sensor still lags behind most APS-C and 35mm alternatives in terms of high ISO performance. It is however possible to shoot hand-held in low light with fast lenses wide open, which keeps the shutter speeds high and the ISO low. These days with improvements to sensor technology the quality that can be achieved is better than it was when the system first appeared. In those days shooting at anything over ISO 400 could be somewhat disappointing. These days up to ISO 1600 is generally OK, but beyond that things get a little noisy or 'detail-free' depending on whether you shoot jpg. or raw and the amount of noise reduction you use.

I decided to use yesterdays bad weather to shoot indoors with my Panasonic G6, Nikon 28mm and 85mm f/1.8 lenses and my Metabones Speed Booster, which gave both lenses the light gathering capability of an f/1.2 lens. The locations were the house I'm staying in and the Tank Museum at Bovington Camp, Dorset.

The short answer to the question at the top of the post is a qualified yes, and I was surprised at what I was able to come up with. I shot with the lenses mostly wide open and at ISO speeds of 320 to 1600, with the majority at the former. I managed to achieve sharp pictures (most of the time) at a minimum of 1/30th. sec with the 28mm and 1/100th sec with the 85mm. Not a lot of depth of field but then I knew that would be the case beforehand. 

I wanted to see if it was possible to use the m4/3 system to produce hand-held low-light images that would satisfy me in terms of image quality and also satisfy the the people who assess my work at the picture libraries I upload to. In other words, can m4/3 be used in low light for professional use? And yes I think it can, and more to the point as far as I'm concerned, so do my picture libraries who have already accepted all of the above.

The qualified yes is that I have to shoot jpgs. to get the noise levels reasonable. I could use raw but Panasonic have worked on it longer than I have and I found it difficult to get anything as good. The noise reduction applied though is a bit haphazard. Sometimes it seems to see fine detail as noise and sometimes leaves noisy shadow areas untouched. But overall I think its actually very good. I shoot 'for real' in low light hand-held so rarely so I'm not used to assessing this, so I'm very pleased.

However, I would get better results using my Fuji X-E1 wouldn't I? Well so I thought, but here's an interesting comparison. I shot the same thing using my X-E1 and G6. Both with the Nikon 28mm lens. I used a passive adapter on the Fuji and my Speed Booster on the Panasonic. I selected 1/60th. sec. as my shutter speed, since that is the lowest I feel I can safely hand hold the lens, and let the cameras work out the shutter speed. The G6 selected ISO 1600 and the Fuji ISO 4000, though it did produce a slightly brighter image. Due to the differences in metering I guess. Results are below.

The Panasonic G6 shot is the bottom one and clearly superior. Both are from out of camera jpgs. 'Standard' settings for both. To be honest I didn't really expect this. I thought that the Fuji would be at least a stop better than the Panasonic. It appears not.

So yes, the pictures are good. In fact better than I imagined them to be. The Speed Booster obviously helps and of course these are available for the Fuji as well, but this does show how much m4/3 has improved with regard to working in low light. I personally wouldn't go any higher than ISO 1600, but in a 'real-world' situation I wouldn't do that for any camera anyway, since the quality just isn't going to be good enough for me. I'm not a press photographer who needs to get the shot under any circumstances, so that's my limit, before the flash gun and / or the tripod come out. 

Finally I would expect to see some improvement on this from the latest m4/3 sensors, GH3, GX7, E-M1, OMD-E-M5 etc. And yes its a 'software' fix, because the raw files are still pretty noisy, but its a workable solution. It means I would be happy with what I have to shoot in low light conditions with one of my m4/3 cameras and not be worried about noise (or noise reduction) making the images unsellable. And that's a bonus, because I certainly didn't think that before undertaking these tests.

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