From DSLR to Micro Four-thirds (Part 1)

by Tom Nguyen in ,


I recently made a switch to go from an all-Canon DSLR setup for my photography to an all-micro 4/3rds mirrorless setup (primarily Olympus, though I have a few Panasonic lenses made for the system as well).  Funny enough, I had started with Olympus and their classic 4/3rds system when I first got serious about photography.  So it's kind of like a homecoming back to Oly.

When I was using Olympus, I used the their then-flagship E3 as my main body, and the much smaller E-420 as my backup.  Somewhere along the way, it seemed that Olympus was abandoning their classic 4/3rds standard to focus more on the then-new micro 4/3rds system, which promised same image quality in a smaller package.  But the bodies were smaller, and they didn't seem to market it to professionals at the time.  Moreover, their upgrade to their flagship DSLR, the E-3, received what I (and many others) felt was a very modest upgrade at best.  I felt it was a slap in the face, and I sold all my Olympus gear to help fund a replacement.

In fact, so bitter was I about the Olympus breakup that I even mocked them bit about an old Pentax lens adapted to 4/3rds in my video entry for DigitalRevTV that got me a Top Ten placement and some prizes, hehe:  

I was looking to Canon or Nikon next.  I ended up with Canon (obviously from the video above), but only because I had a great deal come to me at the right time.  I'm sure I would've been just as happy with Nikon.  Did I get better images with my Canon?  It depends.  In good light, my Olympus would have done just as well image-quality wise (especially with the sweet 50mm f/2.0 macro--my first lens that made me money).  With flash photography, no difference.  At night my 7D could focus on anything instantly (too bad, other than video, that was the only thing I liked out of it).  My 5D's high-ISO images were better than anything I had owned, if I needed it.  If I wanted the shallow depth of field, the Canons gave it to me a little bit easier.  I also had more leeway for RAW adjustments when shooting with my Canons.  So all in all, I thought that I had made a good choice in my evolution as a photographer.

Fast forward to early 2012.  I was very happy with my gear, getting shots that I wanted, and was making money with it.  In March of last year, I went on a family trip to Vietnam--my first time ever.  Being as it was a big deal to me, I Iugged my 5D, 7D, 24-70mm f/2.8,  70-200mm f/2.8, and 50mm f/1.4 lenses.  There was no way I was going to miss a shot during this monumental trip.  At the time I didn't care that it would take up a lot of luggage space and weight for the trip; in fact, I kind of mocked those who complained about weight and size of the camera.  I was always of the mindset that, "If you can't handle walking around with this in your backpack all day, then you're in the wrong hobby." Or simply go lift weights.

Boy, was that trip a revelation.  

Did I get some great shots with my gear?  Absolutely.  For sure some of my favorite photos I've ever taken.  But I found out that most of my photos there were of the street/documentary variety.  And I loved doing that type of photography.  Not more than my photos of naked models, but damn close.  At least more than what I had been doing with my typical hired portrait jobs.  And let me tell you, if you're into street photography, then Vietnam was one of the places to be in the world for it.  I tell people that you could point your camera in any direction in Vietnam, and chances are you'll have an awesome photo.  But this meant having my camera with me at all times, and when you have a big DSLR out on the street pointing at strangers, then sometimes you won't be met with smiley faces.

Even my grandma didn't like my Canon 5D pointed at her.

Even my grandma didn't like my Canon 5D pointed at her.

A second reason I was starting to not feel like carrying my DSLR everywhere is related to what I just said.  Not only did it make me less conspicuous, but I didn't want to be known as that guy with the DSLR with him all the time.  You know the type: at parties or hangouts, there is oftentimes that guy who is "the photographer" (wannabe) with his DSLR strapped around his neck and shoving his camera in everyone's faces while they're trying to enjoy themselves.  That's what I started to feel like, and let me tell you, it's a disgusting feeling.  The sad thing is that I don't think they realize how much of a dork they look like to others when they carry their big camera around them everywhere on casual occasions.  Not my style.

Guess the dumbass in this photo.  Hint: he's the one with the Canon 7D around his neck.

Guess the dumbass in this photo.  Hint: he's the one with the Canon 7D around his neck.

Finally, on one of my trips to the zoo in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), I was walking around with my 7D + 70-200mm lens around my neck for hours.  I didn't really notice it at the time, but by the time I got back to the hotel, I had to admit: my neck really felt it.  It felt like a muscle burn similar to when you're working out in the gym, and the lactic acid is all built up after a strenuous set.  It actually ended up being slightly sore the next day or so.

I'm smiling here, but my neck was killing me and I didn't want to look weak in front of girls and kids huhu.

I'm smiling here, but my neck was killing me and I didn't want to look weak in front of girls and kids huhu.

So last year's trip in Vietnam was what got me seriously interested in street photography, and also made me realize that perhaps I didn't want to carry around big stuff anymore.  Not that I was going to ditch my DSLRs on the spot; I still had gigs and shooting model portfolios for the agency that frequently hired me.  So I decided to dip my toes into mirrorless cameras.  I decided on micro 4/3rds for the wide selection of great glass and tiny size.  My first try was with the Olympus E-PM1, which was pretty pocketable with a pancake lens.  I was in love!  I could venture the streets and not look like a tourist while taking conspicuous and casual snaps.  And when I didn't want to be seen with a camera, I could just slip it into a jacket pocket or my cargo shorts pocket!  And the image quality was good enough for a smaller sensor system; it certainly didn't seem any worse to my eyes than when I first had my Olympus E-3.  It's even better with great glass.  But little did I know how much better the next generation of Olympus's would be...!

The new little upstart to the family...with the 14-42mm kit lens.

The new little upstart to the family...with the 14-42mm kit lens.

To be continued in Part 2....