Why we think Micro Four Thirds (MFT) is one of the best systems for watch photography.
The Micro Four Thirds system
Micro Four Thirds system (MFT or M4/3) (マイクロフォーサーズシステム, Maikuro Fō Sāzu Shisutemu) is a standard released by Olympus and Panasonic in 2008. The system is intended for the design and development of mirrorless interchangeable lens digital cameras, camcorders and lenses. Initially, a huge number of makers signed the memorandum to produce MFT cameras. Brands as diverse as Blackmagic, DJI, JVC, Kodak, Olympus, Panasonic, Sharp, and Xiaomi made camera bodies and MFT lenses are produced by Cosina Voigtländer, DJI, Kowa, Kodak, Mitakon, Olympus, Panasonic, Samyang, Sharp, Sigma, SLR Magic, Tamron, Tokina, Veydra, and Xiaomi, amongst others. Many have dropped off this list, and of the body manufacturers, only Olympus and Panasonic remain.
However, recently Olympus has decided to exit the camera market, leaving one vendor committed to the MFT format: Panasonic. Does this mean Micro Four Third (MFT) is dead? We don’t think so. The buyer Japan Industrial Partners, who also bought VAIO from Sony, plans to streamline the business and will continue to develop products using Olympus brands. Although phones are catching up quickly, they are not there yet and they lack the variety of lenses. Full-frame systems have better dynamic range, better low light performance and – depending on the lens – a “3D look” but MFT has some characteristics that are advantageous for watch photography. We will explain why we think so in this article.
The key difference between the MFT format to the standard full frame is that the sensor size is much smaller, about half that of full frame, giving it a crop factor of 2.
This allows lenses which are smaller and a shorter flange distance to be used in the system, allowing for it to be more compact and lightweight than full frame systems. We have delved quite a bit into the medium format cameras, which have sensors which are larger than full frame, but even though the medium format systems offer much higher image resolution and fidelity, especially when printed large, the advantage is less on web and even magazine or brochure print sizes.
The advantages of a MFT system for watch photography
The primary reason why we think an MFT system is a great choice for watch photography, is its extended depth of field without sacrificing on light capture. Setting aperture to f4 on an MFT system will have a depth of field which is roughly equals to f8 on a full-frame system. Using f8 om a MFT system allows you to photograph your watch in an interesting position instead of the standard watch photos where the entire dial or movement is in the same focal plane. Often one shot suffices to get a good image of a watch dial or movement in a nice position. This is a huge advantage when you don’t have much time, for example at a trade show or collectors event.
However, there is more reason: size and weight is also important when you have to go out for a shoot. It is not just the camera that makes the big differences, but the lenses that you have to carry. This photos shows the difference in size between a Nikon Z7 with 35mm 1.8 S lens and the Olympus PEN-F with 17mm 1.7 lens. Both lenses produce roughly the same field of view on the respective bodies.
If you want to travel light, pack an MFT camera, three lenses (wide angle, standaard/macro and tele), flash, and some batteries and you’re done. You can walk all day without a sore back. The same cannot be said for even the smallest medium format (MF) system – the Hasselblad X1D or the Fujifilm GFX 50R. And needless to say, the need for assistants in large professional shoots with full sized MF cameras like the Phase One XF is easily understood once one handles the system.
Something that cannot be under-estimated is how much lighter and smaller the lenses are. Neither of us have tele-lenses for the MFT system to show you but when you compare a 300mm MFT lens with an 600mm full-frame lens, both having the same field of view, thesis and weight difference is huge.
You may think that the number of megapixels of an MFT system is insufficient. Indeed, in some situations it is. But 20 MP suffices for most types of photography, especially for watch photos shared on the web and even for print. We have printed images for a glossy magazines, full page bleed with no problems. But for those rare situations where 20MP is not enough, Olympus and Panasonic offers a high resolution mode that enables you to shoot a 80MP image. Perfect for an A1 print or for crops. It does this by using a multi-shot composite mode, capturing up to 8 shots of the still image while shifting half a pixel between frames. Combined, it gives the image a boost of resolution. This technique is not uncommon, even medium format cameras like the Hasselblad H system which offer Multi-shot models, like the H6D-400 offering 400MP images from the base 100MP sensor.
The newest OM-D E- M1 Mark III and E-M1X (what’s in a name) allow you to do this in-camera for a jpeg image up to 50MP, and to shoot handheld in High Resolution mode.
Note: we could not get the High Resolution Mode to work with external flash; although Olympus literature states that it would work with a shutter speed slower than 1/50s, it did not. LED lighting panels could come to the rescue. The advanced In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) system is helpful when there is less light and you want to keep ISO as low as possible, and allows hand holding up to 5 stops slower than normal.
For a more in-depth discussion on the multi-shot modes, and a comparison between the Panasonic G9 and the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, click here.
What you give up
It should not surprise you that these advantages come at a price. The rendering of tones, dynamic range, and noise handling are not quite at the same level as full-frame cameras. However, most of us won’t be able to tell the difference and most certainly not when seeing a web image.
An MFT system produces nice, rich results between the native ISO level (160- 200) and 1600. At ISO 3200 photos show noise clearly and colors fade. By 6400 the images are only useable when you make them much smaller in size (which reduces noise visibility). We very rarely go higher than 1600 and almost never higher than ISO 3200. Most watch photographs executed with flash is done at base ISO of 160.
The lack of dynamic range is another attention area, but primarily in contrasty scenery and landscape photography. Filters can help you out in this area. Postprocessing software helps as well. Again, most people won’t be able to notice it. In street photography it is far less of an issue, especially for this who like huge contrast and perhaps some noise in their photos.
Last but not least, battery life is limited and getting an SD-card in and out of the single SD card slot may be a challenge.
The MFT landscape
Olympus offers two lines of MFT cameras: Pen and OM-D. The PEN line-up consists of rangefinder-style cameras. The OM-D are DSLR-style cameras.
The PEN-F is (still) at the top of the Pen line-up. It has a 20 MP sensor, an OLED viewfinder with 2.36M dots, and Olympus’ excellent five axis image stabilisation. Olympus claims this allows a 5EV slower shutter speed. The camera has a solid build and looks gorgeous, at least to those who like the rangefinder style. The articulating screen is very useful. It allows you to shoot at a lower level, higher level, and also to close it completely to save battery life. Like most cameras you can set store your preferred settings to a “custom mode” (C1-C4) and assign functions to several buttons to switch quick between manual focus and autofocus, metering modes (spot, center-weighted, electro-selective pattern (ESP)), raw vs jpeg, continuous focus vs single focus. The front dial allows to quickly switch to monochrome and to use b/w filters. The OM-D line is more action and wildlife photography oriented. Especially the E-M1 line consists of professional cameras with impressive speed, IBIS , weather sealing and durability. Nevertheless, the PEN-F allows you to shoot action too.
Although Panasonic has entered the full frame market and joined the L-mount initiative, they say they remain committed to MFT. This might be true because Panasonic has a strong position in the MFT-based video-market.
Panasonic offers a similar MFT line-up of rangefinder-style bodies (GF and GX) and DSLR-style bodies (G and GH). Panasonic G is primarily for the still photography market and the GH cameras are often used for videography. Photographic performance matches and in some areas surpass Olympus as well.
Generally speaking, the choice between the two brands is a matter of personal preference. One of us (Peter Nievaart) likes the jpeg quality and the looks of the Olympus while the other (Peter Chong) prefers the look and feel of the Panasonics. See also this article where he explains why the Panasonic G9 is the MFT camera of the Chief Editor’s choice.
About MFT lenses
What are the “best” lenses for the Micro Four Third format? For macro work there are essentially three options. They all work great, so it is a matter of focal length and brand preference:
- Panasonic Lumix G 30mm f2.8 ASPH macro
- Panasonic Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm f2.8 ASP
- Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 60mm f2.8 macro
The answer which other lenses are “the best” depends on who one asks. The shorter lenses for macro does not pose as much an issue for watch shoots as there is no danger of getting too close to the subject and scaring it away, like one might do with an insect. It also has the advantage of being easier to do self wrist shots, with its shorter working distance there is less need for difficult poses of the wrist as one reaches round with a longer lens.
Candaux 1740 First 8. Patek Philippe 5711/1A. Compared to the 120mm MF lens’ longer working distance.
Generally, Leica lenses and Olympus PRO lenses perform very well. However, size is also a factor. The Olympus 12mm 2.0, 17mm 1.7, 25mm 1.8, 45mm 1.8 and 60mm macro balance beautifully with the PEN-series. The PRO series, being relatively larger and heavier work well with the OM-D series. The 17mm lens is a great focal length for travel. These portraits were shot during day trips:
Although Panasonic and Olympus share the MFT-mount and are generally interchangeable, there are a couple of things to be aware of. This includes the following:
- Curiously, Olympus and Panasonic solutions to image stabilization are different. Olympus chose the in-body stabilisation (IBIS) system route, which has the advantage of being usable on any lenses. And Panasonic initially chose the lens optical stabilisation method, which is more accurate. The lastest Panasonic cameras like the G9 is also equipped with IBIS. However, the systems do not cross operate. When one mounts an Olympus lens on a Panasonic body, and vice versa, one will lose the stabilisation.
- The aperture ring present on some Panasonic-Leica lenses only works on a Panasonic body.
- The L-Fn customisable button of some Olympus lenses, only work in default-mode (AF Stop) on Panasonic bodies.
- Panasonic uses stronger UV filters in its cameras than Olympus. Therefore some Panasonic lenses can produce purple flare when used on Olympus cameras. This fringing can be corrected in software.
- Automatic Focus stacking tool on Olympus cameras only work with Olympus lenses.
See this link for more information: https://www.apotelyt.com/photo-lens/mft-compatibility).
MFT setup for watch photography
For watch photography you need:
- A camera
- One or two lenses, of which one lens is a macro lens. Good MFT macro lens options are:
- the Panasonic Lumix 30mm
- Leica Macro-Elmarit 45mm 2.8
- Olympus 60mm macro.
- Non-macro lenses include the Panasonic Leica 25mm 1.4 and the Olympus 25mm 1.2 Pro lens. These can be used for wrist shots and environmental portraits.
- Note: you can also use non-MFT lenses with adapter. For example, we have used the Nikon 85mm PC-E lens with a Nikon-F to M43 adapter.
- A polariser filter (optional) to reduce reflections and intensify colours. Black or Silver paper can be used to prevent or create reflections.
- A tripod is optional, but if you work with high resolution photography and focus stacking it becomes mandatory. We don’t always use a tripod with MFT to get more flexibility in shooting angles.
- Additional light (optional but strongly recommended), preferably flash. Set flash to manual and indirect. You can also use multiple flashes for creative effects. Since watches have different characteristics, experiment before you shoot!
- A mini studio (optional but recommended) for better light (reflection) control.
- An exposure trigger can be used but is not necessary if you can set an exposure delay.
This is Peter Nievaart’s set-up. Peter Chong’s setup is shown in this article.
MFT setup for travel photography
This is Peter Nievaart’s camera bag for traveling light:
Some trip photographs.
All in all, we believe MFT vendors have found a good balance between megapixels, noise handling, color rendering, and dynamic range. When you publish primarily via the web or show photos on your phone or iPad, a MFT camera is a great option, especially for watch photography.
Peter Chong have used his MFT camera for 10 years now. So when you decide to buy yours, you may also look forward to 10 years of happy shooting ahead of you!
Jérôme Lambert. Daniel Niederer. Juan-Carlos Torres. Jean-Claude Biver. Roger Smith, gentleman watchmaker. Makes almost the entire watch in his workshops in the Isle of Man.