So why all the contradictory posts about m4/3?

 

There has been some confusion (welcome to my world!) about my seemingly contradictory posts about my use and possible selling (or not) of my m4/3 system and whether or not it is (or not) a 'professional system. And while I'm keen to insist that the camera doesn't matter, some obviously feel that it does. And in order not to either discourage people considering buying into m4/3 or somehow implicitly criticise current owners of that system I thought that I would explain what's going on with me and m4/3 and why I seem to have, if not a love/hate relationship with the format, then at least an ambivalent one.

Most of this is down to what I do with my images. How I sell them, market them and above all present them to that marketplace. For what I shoot, Landscape, Travel, Location, Architecture etc. it is a good idea for me to present images that are at the upper end of the image quality spectrum. Because that's what is expected. There really isn't a huge market (if there's one at all) for low resolution, noisy images of that kind in this marketplace. While a more 'free form' approach may work for lifestyle and news catergories, the whole 'Scenic' market is still pretty conservative and is looking in the main for a low ISO, sharp, clean file capable of being printed to A3 minimum. And when I upload images to the libraries who market my work, that is the expectation also. And my images WILL get 'pixel-peeped' at 100% to see if they are technically acceptable for that.

So liking the advantages of m4/3 as I do and have done for years, I've had to work hard to get the files to an acceptable standard. I've found ways round the results from the smaller sensor. Less dynamic range, more luminance noise, poor results from anything other than base ISO etc. And while the system has improved somewhat (though not as much as some would claim) I still have to process very carefully in order to compete with larger sensor size formats. Add in the fact that I find some of the smaller m4/3 cameras a pain to use and up to recently neither Olympus or Panasonic have not felt inclined to design their cameras for anything higher than enthusiast use and I have experienced some frustrations. There are also some other serious small alternatives to DSLR's around these days as well. The Fuji X system and the Sony NEX/Alpha ranges are options with larger sensors, including these days 35mm/Full-Frame. And slowly but surely with the release of more lenses for the other systems that m4/3 advantage is also becoming less important. 

So from time to time I do become somewhat disenchanted with the whole m4/3 thing and the extra work it creates for me. My reaction is that I'll just go and use a larger sensor format and save myself all the hassle. But then I go out with my GH3, 7-14mm and 14-140mm lenses and realise just what I've got. A huge focal length range, top quality lenses and no bulk or weight of any significance to haul around. I did mention in a previous post that I was out with this outfit the other day and was wishing that I had brought another camera with me. Why? Well though you may not be aware of it from the pictures I published, I was struggling with the light. Some of the pictures I wanted to take required either lower shutter speeds, narrower apertures or higher ISO's. And my results from m4/3 at higher than base ISO have always disappointed me in terms of the criteria outlined above. And so on that day I was wishing I had brought one of my Fuji's with me as they are easily usable within the ISO 400-800 range.

So having said all that, there is the 'What if' question that I've been asking myself for all the years I've been using m4/3. What if I can use these cameras at higher ISO's? What if I can keep that base ISO sharpness and eye catching rendering at increased gain settings without creating noise levels that are unacceptable to me and the people who buy my pictures? What if I can actually get results that look better (for my purposes) than the alternatives. To date I haven't been able to achieve that, but as of a few days ago a chance resetting of my Adobe Camera Raw GH3 preset gave me the idea that I might possibly have found a way to get the results I've been hoping for. Plus the fact that this was quick and easy to achieve.

In a post yesterday I outlined some settings in Photoshops Camera Raw that I was very pleased with and I spent a lot of time yesterday editing lots of m4/3 files I have from the summer using these settings. Including a few that I shot inside a museum at ISO settings up to 1600. And I must say that I was very encouraged by what I saw. So in order to go through these and explain what's happening I'm publishing those screen grabs again below. 



Now you may well ask, why didn't I use these before? Well as you can see they are pretty radical. That's a lot of initial sharpening on a raw file when you consider that reproduction sharpening is best added when a file has completed editing. Plus that's an awful lot of luminance noise reduction as well. If I apply these settings to my Fuji X files for example I get an awful lot of featureless 'mush!' But for my GH3 files and those from other m4/3 cameras I applied them to they do work. Not as a final finished version, but as something I can work on in Photoshop. With the highlight and shadow controls set as above I can already achieve very good dynamic range, but I've been struggling with this sharpness / luminance noise equation for years.

I've also discovered that these settings allow a more successful upsizing, something that I do on a regular basis. Now this is helped by the fact that stock library files don't have to be sharpened to what might be required for reproduction. Because each file is available in a number of different sizes, all of which require different levels of sharpening, the libraries like a conservative approach to that. So after all of this I'm getting consistently better looking files. Smoother and cleaner yet still retaining the sharpness that m4/3 has always provided. And the bonus here is that it works for higher ISO files as well. Now I'm not greedy here, and I'm not expecting my m4/3 files to suddenly look like my Fuji X equivalents at ISO 3200. And of course they won't. All I've ever wanted is to be able to use ISO 250, 320 or 400 and at a push 500 or 640, whenever I need it, without feeling that I'm compromising the image quality in any way. And I think I can now do that. 

Some may think that m4/3 achieves decent high ISO quality already and for some purposes it may well do. But for what I shoot I have more demanding requirements. Nothing less than that one of my m4/3 files can be compared to an images shot on a high-end DSLR or mirrorless camera with larger sensors and not suffer by that comparison. Now I'm obviously fussier than most, and in many ways with the competition out there, I have to be and I've always applied the most rigorous professional standards to the results from any camera I've used. And certainly in terms of m4/3 I've often had to accept that I wasn't going to get them, but on balance I still chose that system anyway because of it's other advantages. However, maybe now I don't have to feel that I'm making a compromise. And maybe I'll be re-avaluating  how and when I use m4/3. Certainly my current outfit has a stay of execution from it's ebay fate as I see just how this works for me.

Certainly my misapplied settings have had a serependitious effect and I have no idea how the settings got so skewed. However they work and they work well so I'll just be grateful for that fortunate accident.

Finally here are some comparisons of the difference.




 



   
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